Monday, June 25, 2012


Herbal medicines work with the body's intrinsic healing mechanisms and one of them is sweating (diaphoresis) which cools the body and helps to remove metabolic wastes. Plants that promote sweating  (diaphoretics) are an important part of the herbal treatment of fevers and infection.

Lemon balm
Like other aromatic mints, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a mild and sweet-tasting diaphoretic especially good in tea formulas for colds and flu (see Fresh Plant Medicines). It also has antiviral properties as well as being soothing for a sore throat, calming for an upset stomach, and sleep promoting - just what the doctor ordered for a child with a fever.

Yarrow in early summer

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a stronger diaphoretic and anti-microbial with added diuretic properties. A tea or tincture of the dried flowers is especially helpful for fever with elevated blood pressure, cystitis (bladder infection), or gastrointestinal bleeding. Boneset aerial parts (Eupatorium perfoliatum) are an alternative to yarrow but with a propensity for helping fevers with musculoskeletal aches and pains.

Gravel root (joe pye weed)

Stronger still is a diaphoretic tincture made from the root of joe pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum, E.fistulosum). It's also known as gravel root since it grows in rocky stream beds and is especially good at treating kidney infections and preventing stones. Substitute pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa) when the fever is related to lung infections with stabbing pain upon inhalation.

Pleurisy root (butterfly weed)

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Pleurisy root should not be used when taking digitalis containing heart medicines which can more easily become toxic.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Poison ivy

... let it be! But not so for three of poison ivy's companion plants which can be used to wash off the irritating oils and relieve the itching.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, I. pallida) is a succulent plant that grows in low moist areas beside roads and trails. A handful of the leaves can be rolled between the hands (or made into ice-cubes) and rubbed over exposed skin to decrease the hypersensitivity reaction to poison ivy's barbed oils.

Yellow jewelweed
Spotted touch-me-not

Virginia creeper

If there's no jewelweed near the poison ivy patch, look for leaves of five. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a vine that grows in the same habitat as poison ivy. The leaves have been used similarly to those of jewelweed as a rub for cleaning exposed skin.

1st and 2nd year burdocks

The barbs are long gone once those itchy vesicles appear but you can still calm down a poison ivy rash with a fresh burdock leaf (Arctium lappa, A. minus) draped or taped over the inflamed area. Fortunately for us, these pre-made poultices come in all sizes from your friendly neighborhood burdock patch. But watch out for the P. ivy often lurking nearby!


HERBALIST'S NOTE: Keep a tray of jewelweed ice-cubes over the winter for those spring poison ivy exposures before fresh jewelweed is available.

1) Gather a half dozen jewelweed plants by grasping the stem and pulling directly upwards;
2) Snip off the roots and coursely chop the stems, leaves, and flowers into a pot;
3) Pour boiling water to cover the plant matter and steep for 10-15 minutes;
4) Strain off the plants and pour the orange liquid into ice-cube trays;
5) When frozen, pop out a cube and rub it over exposed skin for removal of oils or over the itchy rash for relief. For oil removal, rinse with cold water after rubbing with a jewelweed ice-cube.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Severe cases of poison ivy with eye, genital, or internal exposure should be evaluated by a health care professional for possible steroid treatment.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


It's fortuitous for learning herbal medicine that plant names often reveal some aspect of their identification or use, witness the worts, balms, and seals. 

Mugwort in early summer
Wort is Germanic for plant so the word preceding it is what counts. We learned in Alteratives in Herbal Formulas that motherwort is a circulatory alterative especially good for menopausal symptoms. Another wort, mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), was once used instead of hops as a bitter for brewing mugs of beer. It's mild nervine effects combined with an ability to stimulate menses (emmenogogue) make mugwort leaf tea or tincture a good choice for overstressed women with irregular periods.

Bee balm (M. fistulosa)

A balm is a plant with a soothing or restorative effect. You might recall from Herbs for Insomnia that lemon balm can be used as a mild nervine sedative with carminative and antispasmodic properties. The aerial parts of another similarly acting mint, bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda didyma, M. fistulosa), make a sweet tea that soothes the digestive tract for excess flatulence and the uterus for premenstrual syndrome.

To seal is to join two things, as does the wax stamp once used to seal letters and envelopes. Solomon's seal (see Joint Relief in the Backyard) is named for having such a seal on the root - a round flat spot with markings inside. The bright yellow root of the endangered Appalachian plant goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) was once used to bind wounds. It's more current usage is as a nutritive hepatic with antibiotic properties for chronic digestive problems, especially when accompanied by bacterial or fungal overgrowth. You can help to repopulate this formerly overharvested herb by planting it in a shady spot in the yard and limiting harvest to a few rhizomes after several years of growth, replanting the top third and leaf stem of each one.  

Each goldenseal has one large and one smaller leaf

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Goldenseal can raise blood pressure and trigger menses so it shouldn't be used with uncontrolled hypertension or during pregnancy.

Monday, June 4, 2012


Herbs that stimulate the liver and gall bladder (hepatics) also help chronic joint pain (arthritis) and skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis) by promoting digestion and absorption of nutrients as well as elimination of waste.

Dried dandelion roots
One mild hepatic right outside your door is dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Dry the leaves for a diuretic tea but clean and chop those taproots for tincturing. Dandelion root tincture tastes sweeter than the leaf and can be used similarly to burdock or licorice to harmonize an herbal tincture formula.  

Curly dock

To step it up a notch, look for yellow dock (Rumex crispus, R.obtusifolius) at unmowed edges of yards, fields, and woods. A tincture of the yellow root of this buckwheat is a cooling hepatic for colitis, diarrhea, or constipation. Dig the taproot after the plant goes to seed in mid-summer. Regional alternative hepatics include yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Milk thistle in early summer
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is the ultimate hepatic, regenerating a damaged liver as well as helping to restore function. Like other thistles, this one will gladly colonize the garden but that's a good thing: It takes several milk thistle plants to provide enough of the oily seeds for tincturing.

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Seeds, barks, and roots that have a high oil or resin content usually require a higher percentage of alcohol for effective extraction


1) Gather milk thistle seeds in late summer or early fall when the flowers go to fluff;
2) Remove the hairs and place the seeds in a mortar and pestle;
3) Coarsely grind them to crack the shells and expose the seed flesh;
4) Spoon the crushed seeds into a jar with a tight fitting lid;
5) Cover the seeds with the highest proof alcohol available in your area, usually 75% grain;
6) Seal the lid and place the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks, swirling daily;
7) Strain off the tincture into another jar and label it with herb, date, method (folk), and alcohol percent and type.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Ground seeds eaten in smoothies or made into capsules are better for people with hepatitis or cirrhosis because the alcohol in this high percentage tincture can be hepatotoxic for those with already compromised livers.