Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Herbs: Wormwood


scientific name: Artemisia absinthium

other common names: Artemisia, absinthe, ajenjo, estafiate

growing areas: Native to Europe; grows in the eastern United States

physical description: Wormwood is a perennial that has grayish-green stems. It can grow to a height of 4 feet, and its leaves, which are in blunt segments, have silvery hairs on both sides and resembleieathers.

traditional uses: Beginning/in the late eighteenth century, wormwood was used to give a popular liqueur called absinthe its bitter flavor. But within that alcoholic mix lurked a great danger. Thujone, a volatile oil within the plant, is believed to have a narcotic effect and is reported to have been responsible for hallucinations, psychosis, and possible brain damage, a syndrome labeled "absinthism." The great painter Vincent van Gogh was reported to have been a habitual user of absinthe, and experts believe the heavy use of yellow in his art may have resulted from thujone-caused brain damage. After much controversy, the drink was banned in France in the early twentieth century.

Herbalists report that wormwood is useful for expelling intestinal worms and stimulating the gastrointestinal tract and uterus. It is also reported to work as an anti-inflammatory. It is a Hispanic folk remedy for diarrhea, arthritis, gout, and late menstrual periods. In one survey of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans it was found to be one of the top ten herbal remedies used in households. In Central America it is used" to treat

Herbs: Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel

scientific name: Hamamelis virginiana

other common names: Agua maravilla, winter bloom, spotted alder

growing areas: Native to the eastern United States

physical description: A perennial shrub that sheds its leaves in the fall, Hamamelis virginiana sends up a number of twisting stems that end in branches containing oval leaves. The plant's seed pods burst open with an audible popping sound and propel two black seeds several yards. The plant produces yellow flowers.

traditional uses: Witch hazel is the extract prepared from the twigs of Hamamelis virginiana through a distillation process. It was used by Native Americans before the colonists arrived, and the settlers soon learned of witch hazel's astringent qualities. The name witch hazel is thought to derive from either the use of the plant's wood to make brooms or else the popping sound made by the seed pods, perhaps thought to be a hint of some occult power. In any case, a decoction of the plant became widely used as an astringent and antiseptic in the United States during the nineteenth century. It was then that controversy erupted following the commercial use of distillation to make extracts of witch hazel. According to author and herbal expert Michael Castleman, some critics contend that distillation removes many of the astringent tannins, leaving water that is of little medicinal value. Castleman has noted that while herbalists recommend that only a decoction of witch hazel be used, the commercially prepared liquid has properties that are reportedly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and anesthetic.
In Puerto Rican communities, a witch hazel compound known as agua maravilla is sometimes reported to be used as a therapy for asthma. The mixture, containing juice of aloe vera, honey, garlic, onion, and other substances, is ingested.

availability and dosage: Witch hazel is readily available in the United States in most pharmacies, supermarkets, and botdnicas. It is also present in hemorrhoid preparations. Agua maravilla is available in botdnicas. Herbalists recommend using up to 2 grams of dried leaves or bark to make a tea to use as a gargle. For an astringent decoction, a similar amount can be used per cup of boiling water. For external topical use, consult the directions on the product.

contraindications: Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid using it internally.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
There is the risk of nausea and vomiting if large amounts are ingested. Skin irritation may also result from topical use.

medical research: None noted.

Herbs: Thyme


scientific name: Thymus vulgaris

other common names: Tomillo, mother of thyme, garden thyme

growing areas: Native to southern Europe; cultivated around the world

physical description: It is an aromatic shrub with woody stems, small leaves, and pink flowers.

traditional uses: Thyme is another example of a plant that has long been used for both cooking and medicinal purposes. Pliny said it was useful as a treatment for headaches and snakebite, possibly because of the way the plant's stem resembles a serpent. In ancient times it was used as a cough remedy, to treat gastrointestinal problems, and to treat intestinal worms. During medieval times, women gave their knights scarves embroidered with sprigs of thyme as a symbol of bravery. Herbalists from that period said thyme induced childbirth. By the eighteenth century, thyme's antiseptic properties were known, and its oil, known as thymol, was extracted and made available. It was used widely as an antiseptic up to World War I, when shortages of thymol developed. It gradually came to be replaced by other antiseptics.
Herbalists use thyme as an antiseptic, expectorant, massage oil, chest rub, and antibiotic. In Costa Rica the herb is used to combat intestinal worms and to treat warts, diarrhea, toothache, whooping cough, scabies, and flatulence. It is also considered a powerful strength-ener of the lungs. Thymol is a key ingredient in Listerine, a popular mouthwash.

availability and dosage: Thyme is available in many supermarkets and health food stores. It is also available as a liquid extract and can also be purchased as a dried plant in botdnicas. Thyme can be applied directly to the skin to relieve insect bites and help rheumatic pain. Infusions of up to 2 grams of dried herb can be used for tea. An infusion can also be used for a gargle. A dilution of essential oil of thyme can be used on skin for certain conditions.

contraindications: Since it has a history of use as a' uterine stimulant, it should not be used by pregnant women. Fetrow and Avila caution that it should not be used by persons with a history of gastritis and intestinal disorders, nor by those allergic to plants such as grass, nor by those with enterocolitis or cardiac insufficiency.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes. Pure thymol should not be taken internally, since even small amounts can be toxic. Thyme may cause allergic reactions in some persons.

medical research: Thyme has been reported as exhibiting antifungal activity and showing spasmolytic action in animal tests.

Herbs: Sour Cane

Sour Cane

scientific name: Costusspicatus

other common names: Cana agria, canita agria, cana amarga

growing areas: Native to an area from Mexico to Brazil

physical description: A tall perennial plant with thin, fleshy stems. The leaves are egg-shaped and pointed at the tip with brown hairs on the edges.

traditional uses: Sour cane contains a bitter-tasting sap that is obtained from the plant by crushing it. It is used in Central America for a variety of ailments. In Costa Rica it is used for muscle pain and kidney and urinary function, and is sold widely by herb vendors as a fresh item. In the West Indies, the plant decoction is taken to relieve flatulence and rheumatism, and in Trinidad it is used to relieve the urinary burning that accompanies venereal disease, according to Julia Morton. She also noted that some Brazilians drink the plant juice with sugar and water as a hot-weather beverage.

availability and dosage: Available by mail order. No information available on dosage.
contraindications: None noted.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.

medical research: Nonenpted.

Herbs: Sarsaparilla


scientific name: Smilax officinalis

other common names: Cuculmeca, zazaparilla, brown sarsaparilla

growing areas: Native to Central America and Colombia

physical description: Sarsaparilla is a woody vine that can grow to a length of about 15 feet. It has tendrils that help it climb, ovate (egg-shaped) leaves, and green flowers. Its root is narrow and very long and is used for medicinal purposes.

traditional uses: The plant was brought from the New World to Spain, along with China root (Smilax china), with great fanfare in the sixteenth century as a cure for syphilis after it had been used with some success in the Caribbean. It was listed in Nicholas Mo-nardes's book Joyful Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde as a wonderful medicinal plant of that time. However, its usefulness as a cure for venereal disease dropped off, although it continued to be used for that purpose well into the nineteenth century. It became a flavoring agent for root beer but has been replaced by artificial ingredients.

In traditional medicine, sarsaparilla has been used as a so-called blood purifier, as an anti-inflammatory, and as a cleansing agent. It is commonly used to treat psoriasis and eczema. It has steroid components and for that reason is reported to have been used by athletes as a performance-boosting medicine, as well as a possible treatment for impotence. It does not, however, contain testosterone, as some popularly believed. In Costa Rica it is used as a cold remedyf and a tonic for boosting immunity, and in Jamaica it is used as a diuretic. Commission E reported that it is used for rheumatic complaints, for kidney diseases, and as a diuretic and diaphoretic.

availability and dosage: Sarsaparilla is available in powdered form as a tea or tablet and also as a liquid. For psoriasis, some experts recommend taking 1 to 4 grams of dried root or up to 30 milliliters of concentrated sarsaparilla compound as a decoction. A couple of teaspoons of powdered root as a decoction are also recommended as a diuretic.

contraindications: Pregnant or breast-feeding women should not use sarsaparilla. It is also contraindicated if an individual is taking digitalis or bismuth.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
Sarsaparilla is considered by the Food and Drug Administration as safe for use as a flavoring agent. However, Commission E labels it as a medicinal plant whose use is unapproved. The commission cautions that sarsaparilla can lead to gastric upset and temporary kidney impairment. Sarsaparilla may also affect the action of other herbs taken with it, and the commission cautions that it may also interact with digitalis and bismuth. Other experts say it can lead to nausea or kidney damage.

medical research: Medical research into sarsaparilla, given its long history of use as a medicinal plant, is rather modest. One study from the 1940s found that psoriasis patients treated with sarsaparilla showed improvement. However, that study has been criticized because of its design. Sarsaparilla has shown anti-inflammatory activity in rodents. There have been reports of tests in China showing that up to 90 percent of acute cases of syphilis were effectively treated with sarsaparilla.

Herbs: Sage


scientific name: Salvia officinalis

other common names: Garden sage, salvia, meadow sage, salvia virgen

growing areas: Native to southern Europe; widely cultivated

physical description: Sage is a perennial evergreen shrub that grows about 3 feet high. Its leaves are oval, green, and velvety. Its flowers, which bloom in the summer, run from white to purple.

traditional uses: Like many medicinal herbs, sage is widely used in cooking. But sage also has a long reputation for treating a number of medical conditions, and its genus name, Salvia, derives from the Latin, meaning "to cure." Historians also note that a medieval saying by Italian medical students asserted, "Why should a man die who grows sage in his garden?" According to herb expert Michael Castleman, sage was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a meat preservative, as a memory enhancer, to treat problems such as epilepsy and snakebite, and to promote menstrual flow.
In more modern times, sage has been used as an antiseptic and astringent, a digestive tonic, an antiperspi-rant, and a method for controlling irregular menstruation and menopausal problems. A preparation of sage is used as a gargle for sore throat, mouth ulcers, sore gums, and tonsillitis. In Costa Rica, sage Is used for wounds, arthritis, asthma, and problems with-the prostate gland. It is also a commonly used herb among Mexicans. In Europe it has been used to lower blood sugar in diabetics.

availability and dosage: Dried leaves are available in food stores and in botdnicas for further home preparation. Sage is also available through suppliers as a liquid extract. The dosages vary according to the herbalist. For a gargle, a weak infusion is recommended, using from one to four leaves. For menstruation problems, a tincture of up to 4 milliliters of leaf extract has been recommended by some experts. Fresh sage leaf is also applied directly to stings or bites as a treatment.

contraindications: Use of sage should be avoided by pregnant women because of the herb's reputation for causing abortions. Diabetic patients also have to use sage cautiously because of its ability to lower blood sugar. Fetrow and Avila recommend that it be used carefully by persons already receiving anticonvulsants.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
While it has a long history as a medicinal herb, sage is viewed with caution by some doctors, pharmacists, and herbalists. In their professional handbook on alternative medicines, Fetrow and Avila advise that sage can interact with anticonvulsants, disulfiram, insulin, and other diabetic therapies. Herb expert Michael Castleman cautions that sage oil is toxic and should not be ingested. But he also notes that one toxic chemical contained in sage, thujone, while causing convulsions, is mostly eliminated by the heat of infusion preparation using plant leaves.

medical research: None noted.

Herbs: Rue


scientific name: Ruta graveolens

other common names: Ruda, ruta, garden rue, German rue

growing areas: Native to Europe; widely grown in Latin America

physical description: Rue is a small, erect bush that grows to a height of about 3 feet. The shoots of the plant are pale green and appear covered in oil glands. It produces small yellow flowers, and its fruit contains rutin, the volatile oil that gives it a bitter taste.

traditional uses: In ancient times, rue was considered a major remedy. It is mentioned more than eighty times by Pliny, but its reputation has lessened because it can be toxic. Still, it is reportedly used in a number of cultures as a beverage, and it is used in Costa Rica as an antispasmodic, emmenagogue, abortifacient, emetic, disinfectant, diuretic, and as a? treatment for epilepsy and worms. It is also used to speed labor in childbirth. Rue water is used as an insecticide and flea repellent. As a liniment, it is used on sore muscles.
Hispanics in the United States have reported using rue to treat empacho and mal op. Curanderos use rue as part of their limpias, or ritual spiritual cleansings. It is sometimes worn in amulets.

availability and dosage: It is available through mail order and as a dried herb and liquid extract. Dosages vary.

contraindications: Since rue causes abortions and uterine contractions and can act as an emmenagogue, it should not be used by pregnant women. Breast-feeding women should also not use it.

special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
Despite its wide use, rue is one of the more dangerous plants used medicinally. It is known to be an abortifa-cient and to cause skin irritation. It has also been known to cause severe stomach problems and vomiting and, according to Balick, has been reported in some cases to be ' fatal to the mother when used to cause an abortion. Given the various problems associated with it, rue should be avoided.

medical research: Rue has been shown in animal experiments to act as an anticonvulsant, and extracts of it displayed antibacterial and antituberculosis activity in laboratory experiments, according to Balick and Arvigo. In other experiments, chloroform extracts of the root, stem, and leaf of the plant showed significant antifertility activity in rats.