Not long ago, I got a cold. You know the drill, first the creepy feeling all
over, then a little shivery and before you know it you've slid into the slippery pit of the most common illness of all.
I don't get sick very often - injury is my usual bane. So I've never had much of a practical reason to be interested in herbal medicine—using plants and fungi to support health. As a teen, I learned a little about it from my grandmother, who used medicinal herbs for her farming family in Allegheny Mountains, but being a modern American, when I got sick enough, I saw an M.D.
It's worth remembering that even though our health and lives depend on it, medicine is still a very incomplete science. Although western medicine is great at some things, like preventing infection
and setting bones, when it comes down to sickness, there's still much to learn. It doesn't help that health care here is dominated by multinational corporations motivated by profit. And the big money is in exclusive, patent-protected medicines that are sold with huge markups. All too often, lacking a real cure, Big Pharma will either invent or ignore research so that they can create, license and patent a product to sell to the desperate.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, the branded medicine industry evolved from infamous 18th and 19th century patent medicines, also known in the day as “miracle elixirs,” “snake oil,” and “nostrum remedium.” Latin always sounds so impressive, doesn't it? Medicine show barkers also liked references to other exotic cultures—Kickapoo Indian Sagwa Renovator was one of the era's best sellers.
All the mystery illnesses that lack a cure have been fertile ground for a universe of alternatives. Some alternative treatments work, others are well-intended though ineffective. Then there's the pure snake oil.
Although herbal medicine is usually considered an alternative medicine, it's worth understanding that plant- and fungi-based treatments are actually the basis of the modern pharmaceutical industry. Virtually all medications are made of chemicals found first in plants and fungi being used by traditional indigenous healers.
And the use of plants as meds goes way back before humans even existed: biologists have found that many other animals use herbal medications. Here's an example of insect-invented predator repellant that will astound you: some fruit flies eat rotten, fermented fruit only to repel fatal, parasitic wasps. Tipsy flies are quick death to tea-totaling, bodily fluid-sucking wasps. It's a super-effective repellent. Mama fruit flies will even lay eggs in alcoholic fruit, but only when the deadly wasps loom. These kinds of behaviors are being observed throughout the animal kingdom.
So, naturally all human cultures have herbal medicine knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Although our ancestors may have lacked those big double-blind studies, before the scientific method people used experimentation, logic, and observation to learn about plants. These simple practices applied over and over for thousands of years resulted in a body of knowledge that has kept the human race alive until now.
Chinese medicine is a great example. Hillary Thing, one of the Hudson Valley's most prominent herbalists, explained to me that Chinese medicine is a rigorous tradition of medical learning that has been unbroken from antiquity to today. In the west, by contrast, our medical progress has been disrupted a number of times, like by the fall of the Roman Empire and the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, during which it's estimated that 40,000 to 100,000 people, most of whom were actually traditional healers, were executed. And of course, the most recent break has been in the modern age. Nevertheless, much traditional knowledge has endured.
Barbara Fornal, another knowledgeable Hudson Valley herbalist, focuses on plants that are local and wild. Barbara's got a background in biology, many years teaching science, and 25 years developing her practice, which incorporates modern developments as well as ancient traditions from around the world. Barbara points out that, sometimes astoundingly, the plants we need to heal ourselves are growing happily right outside our door. Only knowledge is needed to unlock their healing properties.
In a world where we are conditioned to turn to professionals for every little health problem, both Hillary and Barbara impressed on me that learning and using herbal medicine is the way to gain some power over your own well being. “Independently healthy,” is the way Hillary put it. Many herbalists emphasize teaching just as much as they practice treatment, because knowledge is the best tool of self-empowerment. Herbalists teach about so many things—from herbal first aid and wild plant identification to shamanic healing practices and herbs for serious illnesses like lyme disease and cancer. When you learn from a master and then share the knowledge with others, then you become an integral part of the herbal medicine tradition.
So what did I do about my winter cold? A little honey-ginger tea and a good night's sleep worked wonders—by the next day my faithful immune system was kicking in and the cold was already dissipating. Maybe all those yummy herbs I've been eating just for fun also had some great fringe benefits.
stinging nettle tea
In March, the stinging nettles begin popping up. Nettle tea is a great spring tonic that's a major source of phytonutrients—it's better than a vitamin supplement and will get that slushy winter blood moving!
Wearing gardening gloves (nettles actually sting!), snip the top 6 inches of young nettles. If you leave 12 inches of stem, the tops will grow back and can be recut. Put a handful of leaves in a cup, add boiling water and let steep until pale green. To me, nettle tea is so delicious and rich that I add a shake of salt and drink it like bullion. You can also eat nettles as cooked greens.
Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, a classic source of info.
University of Maryland Medical Center Alternative Medicine Guide: a huge data base of information.