Plants have been a part of healing traditions for millennia. The Sumerians first noted the medicinal use of thyme and caraway more than five thousand years ago.
Many cultures continue to rely on nature’s bountiful botanicals. Herbal apothecaries are an important part of traditional Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurvedic system. Use of herbs, sometimes called phytotherapy, is also popular in Europe; more than 65% of Germans partake of this practice.
Modern biomedicine has benefited greatly from the practice of herbalism. According to one source, more than 120 mainstream medicines have plant origins. These include aspirin (from willow bark, or Salix purpurea) and cancer-fighting tamoxifen (from Pacific yew, or Taxus brevifolia).
Plant potency can have its pitfalls. Many medicinal herbs have side effects. Ongoing use of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), for example, can cause sensitivity to the sun. Some plants interact with other substances, or are potentially toxic. Garlic and certain vitamin K-rich greens can exaggerate the effects of blood-thinning prescriptions, while kava kava (Piper methysticum rhizome) has been linked to liver failure.
Understanding the health impact of plants can require years of education. In Germany, physicians receive specific training in phytotherapy, and undergo a test of their knowledge before prescribing herbs to patients. Many American states require TCM practitioners (also called acupuncturists) and Naturopathic Doctors (physicians with special training in herbs and supplements, also called N.D.s) to attend accredited schools and pass licensing exams.
It is possible to grow (and use) your own herbs safely without having an advanced degree–though there are some caveats. Longtime gardener Mary Webber (also known as Mimi) cautions, “People shouldn’t try to dose themselves.” Individuals who are taking medications, have known illnesses, or are pregnant should seek the counsel of a knowledgeable healthcare provider. It’s also reasonable to:
– Start slowly. Experiment with one healing plant at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed.
– Do your research. Is the herb you are considering safe? Effective? Much of the information about garden herbs is anecdotal. More work has been done on concentrated herbs (those sold over the counter). For more information, visit www.naturalstandard.com.
– Harvest the correct plant. Remember the Spanish proverb that cautions “More grows in the garden than the gardener knows she has sown.”
– Pick the right parts. Some remedies require roots; others, leaves. Know what you need.
– Prepare the harvested plant correctly. Improper herb drying can yield a moldy, unusable mess.
– Let your medical care provider know that herbs are a part of your wellness routine.
Whether you add heart-easing blooms to your plate, or breath-easing parsley to your mouth, your body will benefit from the greening of your garden. As will your soul.