Plants and herbs are arguably the richest and most powerful source of medicine that humans have. And yet modern western society completely fails to educate people on the importance of plants and herbs medicinally.
Think of the natural world as a vast network of life that has been evolving over millions of years such that countless species have formed, each carefully chemically calibrated to have only the properties that allow them to survive, propogate, and outcompete other species. In this picture of the natural world, it is true that many dangerous life forms have been created, but it also means that evolution has likely already created every possible chemical compound to combat or aid any other chemical compound created in that time. Thusl the cure to all diseases should exist in some place in the natural world. And what better place to start than in the chemical library of all plant life?
Despite modern western culture’s aversion to using plants and herbs as medicines, this idea is nothing new. In every indigenous culture still intact in the world today, people use the plants in their environments as primary forms of treatment in disease and ailments. They have a deep knowledge of the healing properties of different types of plants gained through generations of living in close balance with nature. In some countries, traditional medicine systems that are thousands of years old are still in use. For example, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda in India are considered highly developed medical systems that are now being substantiated and enhanced by modern research.
In the western world, plant and herbal medicines have started to become more widely accepted in the past 30 years. One event that completely changed the way herb products were viewed in the U.S. was the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which clearly defined herb products as “dietary supplements” allowing companies to list a product’s benefits on the label. As herbal products have permeated the consumer mainstream in the U.S., the government has also become more supportive of medicinal plants. In 2013, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which researches “unconventional” medicines including medicinal plants, had a budget of almost $128 million. For comparison, the Center did not even exist in 1990.
There are over 800 species of plants growing in the eastern United States that can be documented as having at least some medicinal use. Almost all of these were used by Native Americans in some form to treat ailments or supplement their health. Over 40 percent of perscription drugs in the US have at least one ingredient found in nature. And about 25 percent percent of perscription drugs have at least one ingredient from flowering plants. Nonetheless, under 2 percent of all herbs have been scientifically researched for medical use.
Among some of the wild herbs with medicinal properties growing in Missouri are dandelion, mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, milk thistle, nettle, red clover, wild ginger and plantain.
The information in the section above is taken from James A. Duke and Steven Foster’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.
Plants, Herbs, and Trees
Rosa rugosa also known as the Large-Hip, Rugosa, or Wrinkled Rose is found in the Northern U.S. and Canada and is native to Asia. The Chinese use flower tea to “regulate vital energy,” promote blood circulation, and in treating stomach-aches, liver pains, mastitis, dysentery, leukorhea, rheumatic pains, and finally to “soothe a restless fetus” (Duke and Foster).
How to make the tea: 1) Look for the rose hips. These are the seed pods of the roses that look like small-berry-sized, reddish seed balls, left on the tips of stems. 2) Harvest the rose hips after the first frost. The frost helps sweeten the flavor. They should still be firm and have good color. Leave the dry and shrivelled ones. 3) You can use the whole, fresh rose hips, but the seeds inside have a hairy covering, so it is recommended you remove them prior to eating. To do this, trim off the stem and blossom ends. Hold the hip securely and slice it in half, then remove the inner seeds. You can do all of this trimming with a pair of scissors, if the hips are too small to use a knife on. Now rinse of the hips. 4) You can use fresh or dried rose hips to make the tea. You’ll need about twice as many hips if using fresh. For fresh rose hip tea, steep 4-8 hips in a cup of boiling water for about 10-15 minutes. (Iannotti, Marie. The Spruce. October 2017. https://www.thespruce.com/what-are-rose-hips-and-what-do-they-do-1403046)
Verbascum thapsus L. or Common Mullein is distinguished by its rosette of large, fuzzy, gray-green leaves the first year and then by yellow flowers in the second year. The leaves are large and “very hairy”. Mullein is found growing in poor soils and sandpits and gravel pits. It is naturalized from Europe. Medicinally, it has been used as a flower and leaf tea expectorant to treat chest colds, asthma, bronchitis, coughs, kidney infections, and tuberculosis. In tribal areas of Pakistan, the flowers soaked in olive or mineral oil are used as eararache drops. In Europe, the flowers and leaves are used as cough remedies because the leaves are high in mucilage, which is soothing to inflamed mucous membranes. (Duke and Foster)
How to Make the Tea: Steep 1-2 teaspoons of dried mullein leaves or flowers inside a tea strainer in hot water for 15 minutes. Add honey or spearmint for extra flavoring. Enjoy! (Oijala, Leena. Organic Authority. January 2013. http://www.organicauthority.com/health/mullein-herbal-tea.html)
Asarum canadense L. or Wild Ginger as it’s commonly known is characterized by its heart-shaped leaves. Its flowers are maroon, urn-shaped, and have 3 sepals. Wild ginger is used medicinally by Native American groups as a root tea to treat indigestion, coughs, colds, heart conditions, throught ailments, nervous conditions, “female ailments,” and cramps. WIld ginger’s medicinal properties include relieving gas, promoting sweating, expectorant, and reducing fevers, colds, and sore throats. Powdered dry leaves were used as a snuff for head congestion. It also containes the compound aristolochic acid, which is considered toxic. Wild ginger is therefore reported to both cause and “cure” cancer.
In general, the levels of aristolochic acid in wild ginger should be low enough to safely make a tea from the roots or leaves. Simply steep the roots or leaves in boiling water to make the tea. If you are more interested in the strong aroma and flavor of wild ginger than its medicinal properties, you might wish to make a wild ginger ice cream (see aside for recipe). (Shaw, Hank. Honest food. https://honest-food.net/wild-ginger-edible-toxic/)
Panax quinquefolius L. or American Ginseng is characterized by whitish flowers, 4-5 sharp-toothed, oblong-lance-shaped leaflets, and 2-seeded red berries for its fruits. Its roots are fleshy, and the age of the root is determined by counting the leaf scars left on the rhizome at the top of the root. American ginseng’s root is one of the highest-priced products in American forests for its medicinal properties, and the price of the root is affected by the age. It is found in the woods going from Maine to Georgia and also Oklahoma to Minnesota. The root is becoming increasingly scarce due to price increases in the past 200 years. (Duke and Foster). As early as 1824, Gottfried Duden, a German immigrant living in Missouri, wrote: “Many families could derive a good income merely from gathering the ginseng roots.” (Duden, Gottfried. Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America and a Stay of Several Years Along the Missouri (During the Years 1824, ’25, ’26, 1827))
American ginseng root was used by Cherokee as a tonic, chewed for colic, in a tea for nervous conditions, vertigo, headache. Iroquois used the root tea to induce childbirth, improve appetite, stop vomiting, fainting, and as a tonic. Research suggests it may increase mental efficiency and physical performance and aid in adapting to high or low temperatures and stress. It may also have cancer-preventative powers. (Duke and Foster)
American ginseng can either be consumed in capsules purchased commercially, or the dried root can be chewed or used to make a tea. In order to make the tea, one can follow these steps. 1) Measure 2 to 3 grams of chopped ginseng root per cup of tea. 2) Pour hot water over the ginseng and allow it to steep for 5 minutes. 3) Add any sweeteners or other flavors you like. 4) After consuming your first cup of tea, feel free to refill the cup with hot water 2 to 3 more times. And once the ginseng root is softened, you can eat it! (Daniels, Chris. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/use-dried-ginseng-root-5027.html).
Asimina triloba also known as the Common Pawpaw and Custard Apple tree has large oblong leaves, dull purple drooping flowers, and elongate juicy, delicious fruits resembling a “mix between a mango and an avocado” (Cohen, Oliver. November, 2017. Said in conversation.). The Pawpaw fruit is in fact the largest fruit native to Missouri. The fruit is used as a laxative. The leaves are used as insecticidals, diuretics, and applied to abscesses. The juice of the unripe fruit as well as powdered seeds were once used as a vermifuge (to destroy parasites). It contains the compound annonacin, which is toxic to neurons and raises the possibility that long-term ingestion of pawpaw fruits can cause nerve degeneration. Acetogenins found in all parts of the plant have antiviral, antimicrobial, and antimalarial properties. Seeds are toxic. (Duke and Foster)
Pawpaw extracts that are sold commercially are used to fight and prevent cancer, as pesticides to kill parasites, lower blood sugar, and treat lice infestations. (Linnaeus, Tomas. October, 2017. https://www.livestrong.com/article/440071-what-are-the-health-benefits-of-pawpaw/)
Ailanthus altissima commonly known as Tree-of-Heaven or Stinktree is an invasive smooth-barked tree with compound leaves similar to those of sumacs. Also, the crushed leaves smell like peanuts. It is considered a “weed tree” in many American cities and quickly established itself across the U.S. after being introduced from China as an ornamental in the late nineteenth century.
Medicinally, two ounces of bark steeped in one quart of water can be given in teaspoonfuls for diarrhea, dysentery, leukorrhea, and/or tapeworm. In Korean traditional medicine, the bark has been used for fever, bleeding, infections, and inflammation. National Cancer Institute researchers have reported several antimalarial compounds, 5 of which are more actually potent than the current standard antimalarial drug, chloroquine. Large doses, however, are potentially poisonous. (Duke and Foster)
Juglans nigra L. or Black Walnut is a deciduous tree with pinnate (alternate and compound) leaves with 12-23 leaflets. The fruits are rounded as can be seen in the picture above. It is also alleopathic, meaning it repels other plants from growing around it by releasing chemicals into the ground from the roots.
Medicinally, Cherokee used the inner bark to treat smallpox, chewed the bark for toothaches, and made a bark tea for sores. Iroquois used the bark poultice for headaches and the inner bark tea as an emetic and laxative. The walnut leaves and hulls have traditionally been used to treat diarrhea. They have also been used as a tonic and antifungal. The seed oil dipped in cotton was applied for toothaches. More recent scientific research shows that leaf extracts have antiviral capabilities against vesicular stomatitis and an inhibitive effect on certain kinds of tumors. (Duke and Foster)
Opuntia humifusa Raf. or Prickly-Pear Cactus is the most common eastern cactus in the U.S. It has jointed pads with tufts of sharp-spined bristles and large, showy yellow flowers. Regarding its medicinal properties, the Pawnee and other native groups poulticed peeled pads on wounds, applied fruit juice to warts, and drank pad tea for lung ailments. In folk medicine, the peeled pads were poulticed for rheumatism, and the juice was used for kidney stones. The edible red fruit pulp was considered to be diuretic. Currently, most of the commercial medicinal products with prickly-pear or its extracts are cosmetic and dietary supplements made for the Korean market. (Duke and Foster)
Prickly-pear cactus has been experimentally shown to reduce blood glucose and cholesterol. For diabetes, one dosing that has been documented is daily oral ingestion of 100-500 grams of broiled stems. (https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-880-prickly%20pear%20cactus.aspx?activeingredientid=880&activeingredientname=prickly%20pear%20cactus)
Dalea purpurea Vent. or Purple Prairie-Clover is a flower in the pea family (Leguminosae) with leaves that are plentiful and densely crowded on the stems and thimblelike flowerheads. It is found in dry prairies and glades. The Chippewa used the leaves and flowers in tea to treat heart problems. The Meskawi used the root to treat measles and pneumonia, and the Pawnee used the root as a general preventative to disease. Several Native American groups chewed the pleasantly-tasting root like a gum. (Duke and Foster)
To use the purple prairie clover for its medicinal properties, simply dry the leaves and steep in hot water to make a tea. Also, feel free to try chewing the root.
Duke, James A. and Foster, Steven. Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America. Peterson, 2014. Print.
Meet the Author:
Olly Cohen is an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a naturalist, adventurer, and frisbee enthusiast.