Abundance, and simply because it doesn’t really stop giving. There are 8 different plant parts you can use throughout its gradual metamorphosis, and as the seasons pass, you will almost always find something to harvest.
Petioles from new growth in spring
Stems, when young and tender
Foraging garlic mustard can offer us similar health benefits to those we know from some closely related species, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana),watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) and hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale).
When we go foraging garlic mustard we are helping to keep in check a plant that is counted in certain parts of North America, where it has no natural predators, as a virulent invasive weed, proving so far impossible to .
Botanical and sensual description to help I/D when foraging garlic mustard
Garlic Mustard is an annual or biennial herbaceous plant.
Remember that in practice, the terms ‘annual’ or ‘biennial’ are often ambiguous, and are frequently used as purely descriptive categories for the nurseries and gardens to explain cultivation.
Annual’s – are mostly used to describe plants that complete their life-cycle in less than 12 months. However, these plants can sometimes grow longer than 12 months. Some of the plants grown in the UK are treated as annuals, i.e. chili peppers,especially when they originate in sub-tropical climates.
Biennial’s – Taking more than one whole growing season to complete life cycle. can often be found over-wintering as a basal rosette. However, many seeds germinate in July and August, and can be in flower by the next summer.
Garlic mustard produces overwintering rosettes of simple, kidney-shaped leaves, found on long petioles. These typically grow to approximately 10-15 cm across and can be a darker green colour during the winter. The leaves are net-veined with wavy and crenated margins.
Its’s leaves give off a recognisable pungent garlic / cabbage aromas when crushed. This is due to the presence of volatile sulphurous compounds, which as I mentioned in the watercress article are proving to be more than efficient at arresting the growth of some common cancers.
A large number of the Brassica family plants are identifiable from smell alone. Given that this family are all edible, then you can proceed to experiment when you know you have a brassica. Other recognisable Brassica family patterns in the flowers, and the leaves will soon become apparent when you begin to use this easy-to-learn system for identifying plants.
As the seasonal weather patterns change here in the UK, due to human’s increasingly stark effects on the climate, flowering times may become somewhat erratic. Currently, we see full blooms of garlic mustard during April and into May. Flowering stems have a number of branches.
Leaves are alternately spaced on the stems, and gradually become more refined in size and shape, with a much smaller leaf stalk. They are soft apart from in winter, when they are somewhat more coarse – a necessity I suppose, given the lack of available sunshine coupled with the lower temperatures. Something worth noting for quite a few hardy herbaceous species.
The broccoli-type floret heads soon expand to reveal the pretty white flowers. These get to 10 mm across. Both are a beautiful wayside nibble. More moments to enjoy ambulating consumption!
Long, thin seed pods eventually form, that will split in two, revealing lines of brown seeds. These seeds are a mini cigar-shape, rather than round as found in many other family relatives such as mustard. Pods are held at angles on the flowering stem. The seeds are pungent when crushed.
During the early summer the seeds mature, pods wither, and eventually split to reveal their treasure. As many as 8000 seeds per plant are produced, which reportedly converts to a staggering potential seed bank of 100,000 seeds per square metre!
Germination en masse is the inevitable result of this tactic, by a plant from the superb brassica family, for these plants are well-known for their indifference to soil, and without need for mycorrhizae. In the plant kingdom you can forage for a multitude of these plants on poor soils by the sea and estuary, together with the Chenopodiaceae family of beets, goosefoots, oraches and samphires. On these types of soil, mycorrhizae won’t be found, or for that matter, any soil humus. In this harsh environment, both these two plant families are reliable exponents of mass germination, and can sometimes offer a plentiful source of micro greens.
Habitats to look in when out foraging garlic mustard
This plant can be found in a number of settings. Unsurprisingly for a plant that has the word ‘hedge’ in a couple of common names, its favourite habitat are hedgerows.
You can also find it at woodland edges, shady grass banks, on waste-ground, at the base of walls and fences in urban settings, and as a common weed of cultivation.
Cultures from around the world have long used this plant, primarily the European people, because the plant is native to the NorthWestern region. Its abundance wherever happy to grow means the leaves or other things are always available to add to the pot.
You may have already seen numerous recipes online for pesto, soups and salads based on this ubiquitous plant. I like a pesto, but prefer the leaves of this plant as lightly cooked greens dressed with olive oil / butter and lemon juice.
At some points of the year I inevitably throw them in to a well seasoned and spiced gram flour batter, along with a dozen or so different plant leaves, to make a wild leaf pakora. Look out for mass germination carpets of microgreens during late summer/early autumn, or in spring.
From mid to late spring, the flowering spears appearing everywhere are fantastic, being juicy, sweet, crunchy and peppery. I think they’re perfect raw, on the hoof, or in salads. These are my favourite food.
But the best medicinal part the plant are the tap roots. This then is my cream of the Garlic mustard crop. The root has no garlic flavour though. What you get is a poky blast of horseradish-like, sinus cleansing, microbe-killing heat! Brilliant, that’s any germs or beginnings of infection killed too!
It takes just minutes to collect and only 15 mins or so to wash, scrub and chop the roots, before making something I reckon you will regularly want on your dinner table. Alliaria creme sauce.
The recipe for this simple condiment is going up soon on the foraged food page.
Reclaim your health autonomy by foraging plants for your respiratory system
The respiratory system is our interface and connection with all of life, via the gases that permeate our atmosphere before permeating our blood. Through the mechanisms of the lungs we receive oxygen in the form of O2, and release carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of ongoing cellular respiration.
However, due to the open nature of the lungs we will also encounter a continual bombardment of foreign matter and harmful, disease-spreading, pathogenic organisms.
The respiratory system represents the following tissues, muscles and organs.
The nose and mouth – The beginning of the airways.Oxygen is brought in to the nose and down to the trachea. When carbon dioxide (CO) is expelled, it comes back through the trachea to the nose.
The pharynx – Part of the digestive system as well as the respiratory system, because it carries food and air.
The larynx – Otherwise known as the voice box. It sits at the beginning of the trachea and essentially is a short tube that contains a pair of vocal chords.
The trachea – Essentially a smooth muscle and pipe-shaped airway, it is protected by the sternum and spine. Divides into left and right bronchus tubes.
The lungs – They connect to and begin at the trachea. Acupuncturists view the tongue as an extension of our lung.
The bronchi – These increasingly small air tubes carry the CO2 / oxygen to and from the lungs from the trachea.
The diaphragm – This muscle contracts when breathing in, and expands when exhaling CO2.
The pulmonary system has its own circulatory system. Deoxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the lungs where it becomes oxygenated. It then flows back to the heart and is pumped around the body and brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell.
During a normal day, we breathe nearly 25,000 times, and take in large amounts of air. The inhaled air contains mostly oxygen and nitrogen. But air also has things in it that can hurt our lungs. There are two major causes of problems with the respiratory system – pollution and smoking. Obviously there are diseases and other issues also.
Many illnesses of the lungs are as a result of infection. These can be in the throat, or in the airways down towards and inside the lung itself. The inner surfaces of tissues in the respiratory system are coated with a film of mucus to aid peristalsis higher up the airway, as well as facilitating the ejection of foreign particles which can come to lodge themselves in the lungs.
Some disorders of the respiratory system, with suggestions of herbs we can forage to treat it.
“Be careful about reading health books – you may die of a misprint!” – Mark Twain (1835-1910)
To facilitate treatment of the respiratory system, herbalists usefully distinguish between the lower and upper halves. The upper consists of the structural conducting organs: nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx, whilst the lower half consists of the conducting air-ways of the trachea, including the bronchus tubes, respiratory bronchioles and alveoli.
Pulmonary tonic herbs are plant remedies with a wide range of actions on the system, strengthening and restoring tissues and membranes. They include mullein, plantains, elecampagne, and coltsfoot andare typically recommended by herbalists for treating symptoms of respiratory disease and to strengthen tissues and function. Coltsfoot has been called the best remedy for children.
Coughs can be treated in a number of ways with various herbs exerting different effects.
Anti-tussives inhibit the cough reflex. Aside from the well known and controversial opium poppy(containing the effective anti-tussive opiate alkaloid -codeine), these herbs include coltsfoot – the plant named in honour for its all round abilities to alleviate coughing; wild lettuce – which specifically sedates and dampens down the cough reflex in a similar way to the opiate codeine (an ingredient in many cough remedies); and wild cherry bark (Prunus avium) which is believed to work due to the presence of saponins.
Expectorants are a wide range of plants used to facilitate and accelerate the expulsion of mucous or sputum from the bronchial tubes. These may be relaxing or stimulating.
Relaxing expectorants are useful for easing spasm and to loosen mucous from the airways. They usually contain some soothing mucilage and are of great benefit when treating dry and irritable coughs. Both Ribwort and rats-tail plantains, as well as coltsfoot, marshmallow, and burdock have all been traditionally used.
Stimulating expectorants such as thyme, mullein, elecampagne and garlic are good for productive coughs. They work by irritating the bronchial tubes, which initiates a reflex to cough. Plants with either of these components help to reduce mucosal viscosity, thereby enabling sputum to be passed more easily up, out, and away, via what doctors sometimes call the muco-ciliatory escalator.
Demulcent herbs typically contain substantial amounts of mucilage. Plants such as comfrey, the plantains, coltsfoot, chickweed, marshmallow,and mullein will all soothe, protect and heal damaged, exposed surfaces of the respiratory system. These plants are often soft to touch, and broad-leaved. They often work through reflex action of the gut nerves, easing irritation in other areas such as the digestive and urinary systems.
Anti-catarrhal herbs reduce the amount of mucous and phlegm produced. The following herbs have been used for centuries with success: Garlic, coltsfoot, yarrow, lungwort, plantains, elder, elecampagne, and mullein.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lungs characterised by wheezing, coughing and chest tightness. One proven and powerful herb useful for asthmatics is Ephedra sinica (Ephedraceae family). This plant is a well-known bronchial dilator, which helps dry up sinuses and decongests the bronchioles, allowing more air into the lungs.
Comfrey, coltsfoot, elecampagne,white horehound, and mullein will be of value, as will regular massaging of the chest and back with essential oils such as lavender or thyme.
Anti-septic and anti-bacterial herbs for the respiratory system
Anti-septic herbs are useful for treating throat infections. Mullein, garlic, thyme, calendula, and coltsfoot are all traditional herbs for infections of the bronchial tubes. It can be beneficial to help the lymphatic system cleanse the blood following infection and so plants such as cleavers or burdock are helpful. Sage is a great anti-septic gargle when inflammation of the tonsils or other throat glands occurs.
Anti-microbial remedies are often combined with any of the above where infection has or is likely to occur. Thyme and garlic are renowned anti-microbials. Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary and many other essential oil containing plants, when taken as steam inhalations, are also effective anti-microbial plants and antiseptics.
Find out more about foraging on one of my foraging walks or courses.
Introducing the 2018 Wild Plant Guide foraging calendar.
Here is the latest yearly foraging calendar from Wild Plant Guide. Once again it features 36 species, with their common and scientific names given.
The calendar is a double A4 size, with plenty of space in the daily boxes to write down your important reminders.
The main photos have snippets of edible information provided, while further knowledge of the individual species, such as medicinal uses, how to identify them and such like, can be gleaned from other pages here on this site, for example in the seasonal wild food guides.
I have been producing these calendars since 2015. Each year I try to include a significant number of new plants, as well as showing different shots of previously displayed species, taken at a different time of year, revealing other aspects and identifying features.
This foraging calendar also has full moon, new moon, equinox and solstice dates as well as the usual bank holidays, so you should never miss a foraging opportunity in 2018!
You can get a calendar from the foraging resources shop, where you can also find a range of other gifts, games and resources. Happy foraging!
Discover the medicinal benefits of roses and why you should still go foraging rose hips
Rosa canina / Rosa rugosa – dog rose/hedgehog rose
If you are of a certain age, then foraging rose hips will possibly be something your grandparents may remember with fondness. During the second world war, mass State sponsored foraging saw tonnes of the high Vitamin C fruit collected by tens of thousands of people, and weighed in for cash reward.
These common hedgerow plants belong in a genus comprising approximately 150 species of mostly deciduous and semi-evergreen shrubs and climbers. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the world, and their cultivation goes back thousands of years.
The generic name Rosa is apparently derived from the Greek roden – meaning red, or the Latin ruber – also meaning ruby or red. Roses are a plant that became synonymous of the ancient Mediterranean region. The roses that grew in this area were reportedly a deep crimson colour, which gave birth to the legend that the flowers sprung from the blood of Adonis.
The roses have been important since ancient times in the preparation and use of cosmetics, medicine, ritual, and perfumery. It is known that the Greeks, Persians, and Romans employed many kinds of rose as medicines; in 77 AD the Roman diarist Pliny recorded more than 30 disorders that responded positively to rose preparations.
Different species of Roses were widely grown in medieval apothecary gardens. Rosa laevigata was mentioned in medical literature as being used by the Chinese around 470 AD.
The commonly planted urban hedging species, Rosa rugosa, has historically been used to a lesser extent, and is reportedly a fairly recent addition to their materia medica. It is believed to have been first documented during the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The plant then reached Europe around the 19th century from its original homeland of China and Japan.
Wild, scrambling roses such as our dog rose (Rosa canina), are one of the quintessential hedgerow staples of British countryside.
Identifying features to look for when foraging rose hips.
The dog-rose is a variable, deciduous shrub native to Europe, West Asia and Africa. It loves to grow in woodlands, copses, and hedges throughout Britain, but not higher than around 550 metres. The gloriously rampant roses are recognisable by their arching, green, thorny stems that can climb high into trees, as well as for their beautifully simple flowers.
The stems bear pinnate leaves which are divided into 5-7 oval-shaped leaflets approximately 6-7 cm long. Beautiful pink-white blooms are borne singularly or in clusters of 2-4 from late spring to mid-summer.
They are around 5-6 cm in diameter. Alas, the splashes of pink and white adorn our hedges for a short time only because the petals are easily blown off by winds.
The flowers give rise to the familiar fruits known as ‘hips’, which duly ripen to their glorious rich scarlet colour during early autumn. This provides a sporadic and welcome visual interlude in the hedgerow alongside the hawthorn berries, from the dominant brown and yellow leaves of late autumnal decay.
In contrast Rosa rugosa (an introduced species, and now a schedule 9 invasive plant), is a vigorous shrub; having very dense, prickly stems and deeply veined leaves. Once again, the leaves are pinnate; although in this instance bearing an average of 9 narrow, oblong leaflets growing to 3-5 cm long.
The flowers of Rosa rugosa are often a magnificent bright pink, being larger than the dog rose at 8-9 cm in diameter, and swiftly giving rise to globular, almost tomato-like red hips,. They are much fatter than the dog rose, but almost the same length. An introduced species; the hedgehog rosecan be found growing at altitudes of up to 400 metres. All roses can be grown in sunny or light shade and thrive in well-drained, slightly acid soil.
If foraging rose hips in towns and cities, then you will probably find that the hedgehog rose is the species most commonly encountered, as this plant is very popular as an amenity planting in parks, cemeteries, gardens, around tower-blocks, and many development complexes.
This plant has hips that are bigger and ready earlier than the dog rose. Either can be used, but resist the temptation to get the hips off the showy roses in your garden. They have substantially less vitamin C in them and are not worth bothering about.
No matter which species used, be careful with the irritant seed hairs within the fruit. These are the basis for itching powder, found in joke shops. They will need to be strained off if boiling the fruit in the traditional way of making rose hip syrup
Parts used Petals (occasionally) and ripe hips (with seeds and irritant hairs removed).
Harvest Fruits when ripe. The dog rose-hip in late September-October, the hedgehog rose-hips in late August-September. Dog rose-hips are better after a frost.
Key constituents Vitamin C (one cup-full of rose hip pulp reportedly has between 40-60 times as much vitamin C as oranges); vitamins A, B, D, and E; flavonoids; tannins; sugars; acids; pectin; carotenoids (lycopene); volatile oil; essential fatty acids; resin; minerals (including magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sulphur, zinc).
Pharmacology and uses The high vitamin C content is useful in preventing and fighting infection, colds, flu and pneumonia. The astringency of rose-hips helps relieve dysentery and diarrhoea. In addition, the various flavonoids and substantial amounts of Vitamin C in rose hips, have potent antioxidant action help protect the body from numerous internal and external stresses.
As previously mentioned in my article on medicinal plant constituents and actions Vitamin C and bio-flavonoid molecules always appear combined together in nature. This is how our bodies experience vitamin C when eating fruits. Rose-hips are rich in this vital chemical complex.
Together, these molecules help to strengthen body tissues as well as helping to build and maintain a healthy vascular system. They also prevent damage to fragile capillaries. As life cannot go on without vitamin C, it almost goes without saying that regularly consuming plants such as roses, as a prophylactic, will be of more benefit the older you are.
During the mid 17th century, Culpeper, prescribed rose hips for ‘consumptive persons’, as well as for ‘tickling rheums’, ‘breaking the stone’ (in the kidneys) and to help digestion. Rose-hips have mild laxative and diuretic properties as well as being of help in the treatment of urinary infections.
In Ayurvedic medicine, roses have long been considered ‘cooling’ to the body and a tonic for the mind, and Native American Indians are said to use rose-hips to treat muscle cramps. Rose petals were included in the British pharmacopoeia as an astringent until the 1930’s.
The discovery of the nutritive power of rose hips was due to World War II. During this period there was a shortage of citrus fruit in England, and the British government organized the harvesting of as many rose hips as possible in England as a substitute vitamin C. This eventually highlighted the importance of rose-hips as a superior source of the vitamin and began its worldwide popularity.
Preserving rosehips can be done in a few ways. Traditionally, sugar and alcohol have been used. Making a rose hip syrup with sugar can be achieved through boiling and straining the fruit, or, more simply, and perhaps with more eventual Vitamin C content, by a cold infusion, as can be seen below
Alternatively the fruit could be treated like others and made into a fruit leather, which can keep for months. As well as this, I like to make rose hip brandy for those chilly winter evenings round the wood burner. The better the brandy you buy, the better the product will be. Simply steep the hips in brandy with some sugar to sweeten a little. Leave until the new year if you can!
The iron in rose hips make them an excellent supplement for menstruating women, whilst an oil extracted from the rose is of value in reducing scar tissue and stretch marks caused by pregnancy and birthing, due to its tissue regeneration properties.
Rose hips are one of the plants covered in my Autumn set of foragers friend identification cards, available very soon in the foraging resources shop.
Reclaim health autonomy by foraging plants to help the nervous system!
The third in the ‘reclaim health autonomy’ series, revealing how you can easily go out and start foraging plants to help with numerous ailments. This time we look at the nervous system and how foraging for and using wild plants can help many of the disorders and dis-eases of the mind and nerves.
Overview of the central nervous system
The brain, as you may well be aware, consists of billions of brain cells, called neurons. Enclosed within a fatty membrane lies what is known as the ‘blood brain barrier’. This is a layer of tightly packed cells with a role to prevent unwanted substances, such as certain drugs, chemicals, and viruses, from entering the brain.
To feed the brain, all nutrients must cross this selective membrane, as fat-soluble molecules, in order to reach the brain cells. Of all the sugars consumed in our diets, only glucose can cross the blood brain barrier.
In between the brain cells are microscopic gaps known as synapses where messages from one cell can be passed to another. These messages are relayed by the numerous monoamine neurotransmitters. They are either made by the brain/body itself from available stores, or are processed directly from diet (given the sufficient availability of zinc, selenium and magnesium together with many ‘B’-vitamins, all of which are needed by our body to process monoamines).
In effect, monoamines are alwaysrequired from the diet because the brain/body will continually consume available nutrients over a short space of time. Foraging plants with a high nutrient load such as nettles and mallow, can help provide the essential trace elements into the diet.
Ageing reduces the amount of neurotransmitters produced and our bodies ability to respond to them. Estimates from America suggest that 60% of all adults over 40 years of age have some form of neurotransmitter deficiency. The actions (or lack of) by these neurotransmitters are largely responsible for a range of our moods as well as a myriad physiological processes.
Anatomically, the nervous system can be divided into the C.N.S which is comprised of the cerebral hemispheres, cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord; together with the peripheral nervous system (essentially, the cranial nerves and spinal nerves).
Aside from this classification, the nervous system can also be divided functionally into two distinct systems. The somatic, or voluntary nervous system is associated with impulses to body wall and limbs, while the autonomic nervous system is associated with impulses to the smooth muscles of the viscera (a collective term used to describe the organs within our body cavities).
The autonomic nervous system maintains the physiological equilibrium of the body, yet at the same time it is not completely independent of the C.N.S, because factors that affect higher centres may also influence some physiological functions. The effect of fear and anger, and subsequent release of adrenalin on the pulse rate, is an example of that interdependence.
The important neurotransmitters with regards our moods are the endorphins, serotonin and melatonin (made from the amino-acid tryptophan), as well as dopamine, noradrenalin and adrenalin, made from the amino-acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. They are constantly relayed between nerve cells throughout the nervous system.
To reiterate, these monoamines are themselves absolutely vital, but are of no real help to our nervous system and ipso facto our mental and physical health, unless the essential fatty acids required for each and every cellular membrane, together with aforementioned catalysing metabolic co-factors, are present in the body or diet. This can easily be assisted through foraging plants such as those listed in the nervous system disorder section.
Some of the important mono-amine neurotransmitters
Found in many foods and converted in the body to 5-hydroxy-tryptophan (5-HTP), then finally into serotonin (5-Hydroxy-tryptamine or 5-HT). The main plant foods include bananas, lentils, nuts and many seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. However, without magnesium and B vitamins to help metabolise tryptophan, then much of this amino acid may be converted into the B vitamin niacin instead.
Serotonin ‘the happy molecule’
5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is one of themost intensively studied neuro-transmitters. Commonly found in the gastro-intestinal tract where it is reportedly used to regulate intestinal movements. Some reports state that up to 80% of available serotonin is located here, as well as throughout the C.N.S.
Serotonin can also be made in the brain from the precursor amino-acid tryptophan. It is known to be associated with various moods and behaviours including reducing appetite, curbing impulses, enhancing mood and promoting sleep. Low levels of serotonin can be responsible for feelings of depression.
Adrenalin, noradrenalin and dopamine
These mood molecules are well known, especially adrenaline (almost universally known as the ‘fight or flight’ molecule.) They are derived from many foods especially the pulses, seeds and nuts. Basically these substances keep you feeling good.
They are stimulating and motivating and help the body and mind deal with stress. Dopamine is known as one of the pleasure molecules, due to it being released when we do something that makes us happy, whether that comes from food or other stimuli.
This important inhibitory neuro-transmitter acts as a counterbalance to the stimulating molecules above, helping to relax and calm you down after stress. An imbalance can make it difficult to wind down, relax and sleep
This helps regulate the speed at which the brain processes information. Satisfactory levels help keep the brain sharp, improving mental alertness and functions such as memory recall. Deficiencies are believed to lead to Alzheimer’s disease. ACh is found in the peripheral and central nervous system. In the peripheral, it activates muscles, enabling them to contract.
This controls the feeling of fullness or ‘satiety’ after a meal is consumed. As food is passed along the digestive tract through the stomach it reaches the duodenum before the small intestine. It is here that signals are sent to the brain telling it the stomach is full. Or at least they should be. Eating too fast can easily negate the action of this neurotransmitter.
These are the body’s own ‘morphine-like’ substances (endogenous morphines). They can produce feelings of euphoria and well-being, creating high self-esteem as well as a reduction in physical and emotional pain.
They are technically classed as a neuromodulator rather than a neurotransmitter by chemists; that is, endorphins modify actions of neurotransmitters through a number of effects associated with pleasure and pain.
When consumed in foods such as chocolate, and if taken regularly and in large enough quantities, a risk of an addictive relationship with the food in question can begin.
Endorphins are known to increase appetite through activating the pleasure and reward areas of the brain. It is now known that abnormal levels of endorphins in the brain can lead to depression or autism.
For example, an autistic patient may produce so much endorphin that they do not need to react to the world outside, whereas a depressed person may not produce enough endorphin to withstand daily stresses and pressures of ‘normal’ life.
This substance is secreted by the pineal gland and is made from serotonin. It controls our sleep/wake cycle with the amount secreted proportionate to the amount of darkness in a 24 hour period. The cycles we experience every day are known as circadian rhythms (circa=about, dia=day) and every organism on the planet regulates its own metabolism within a cyclical framework.
This is an important substance for the body’s immune system and allergic response. It is made from histadine, an amino acid found in protein rich foods. High and low levels of histamine are associated with mental health problems.
Symptoms of excessive histamine (histadelia) have been linked with abnormal fears, addictions, compulsive behaviour, confusion, depression, schizophrenia, emotional instability, hyper-activity, insomnia, obsessions and suicidal thoughts.
Low levels of histamine (histapenia) have been found in people suffering with anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia and schizophrenia.
Foods containing high levels of histamine include: aubergines, fermented foods such as soya and sauerkraut, chocolate, pumpkin (Curcurbita pepo), spinach, strawberries (Fragaria spp), tea, and tomatoes (Lycoperiscon esculentum).
Foraging plants to help nervous system disorders
These can take on many guises. A number of different plants greatly assist the following different common nervous afflictions. They will typically have anti-spasmodic and relaxant or sedative effects on the central nervous system.
The various factors behind anxiety need addressing. Plants that help are hops, oat straw or grain, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian,lavender,and lime-flowers.
Dietary changes may well be all that’s required for many cases of mild depressions. Cases of clinical depression need professional care and are not recommended for un-assisted self-medication. Lavender, oat straw, ginseng(Panax ginseng), valerian, lemon balm, and St. Johns wortare also beneficial for mild depression. Hops, although a relaxant, is contraindicatedfor depression.
These can manifest in different ways in numerous locations. They can stem from any one of a number of psychological and physical dysfunctions, from nervous tensions and stress to digestive disorders and dehydration. Lemon balm, ground ivy, lavender, peppermint, thyme, and valeriancan all be of benefit.
These extreme headaches are particularly disabling for many people. Feverfew(Tanacetum parthenium) has proven to be a wonder herb for some people with crippling migraines. Traditionally taken as a prolonged course for a month or so, it will often clear up regular migraine headaches. Feverfew grows wild as a naturalised escape of cultivation and can be seen in numerous settings enjoying free-draining soils.
As we age, sleep disorders can become increasingly frequent. Foraging plants such as Chamomile, hops, passionflower, wild lettuce, valerian,oat straw, St Johns wort, and lavender can all help you get a good night’s sleep. All can be infused. Hops and lavender pillows are effective, as is a little lavender oil sprinkled on bed clothes or massaged into the chest or back. Read more on foraging St Johns wort here.
Thisis an often debilitating nerve pain caused by trauma and through shingles, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. Oats, both the grain as food and the straw as tea, alongside the topically applied infused oil of St Johns wortare both effective at repairing and restoring the proper function of our nerve endings. You can discover more about Oats in my foragers monograph.
Our nervous system can be effectively treated with plants, always dependent on the nature of the stress. Even the simple act of foraging plants can help to alleviate stress. Herbs such as oats, valerian, lavender, chamomile, lime-flowers, and borage are all recommended. Learn all about the lime tree in this article.
The Guelder rose is another stunning member of the beautiful honeysuckle family. Often seen growing as an ornamental, like many of its close relatives, this shrub delightfully adorns our hedges and country lanes up and down the land. You can go foraging for both its medicinal bark in the spring, and the edible berries in autumn.
The first time you clap eyes on this plant may be during their lovely spring time show. The immaculate white flowers penetrate dense green canopies adjourning our lanes around May. Later in the year, the berries will brighten up increasingly dull grey days with splashes of scarlet in amongst yellowing autumn hedgerows.
Favourite habitats of Guelder rose.
Closely related to the elder tree, this shrub is almost entirely absent in Scotland, yet can be found most everywhere in England. It delights in copses of Alnus (alder) and Salix (willow), as well as in a range of hedges, woodland edges, bridleways, and country lanes up to elevations of 400 metres.
Guelder rose is said to be well suited to chalk land. Because cramp bark displays similar growth characteristics to the elder, it has also historically been known as ‘red elder’ and ‘rose elder’.
This deciduous, perennial shrub is native to Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia. It can easily grow up to 4 metres high on many stems. Cramp bark can flourish in full sun or partial shade and will tolerate most soils other than very wet ones. When planting this species, the advice has always been to avoid extremely hot or dry, exposed, and cold areas.
The other well known common name for this plant stems from the province of Holland known as Gueldersland. This is where the shrub was first recorded as being cultivated. The generic name Viburnum is the old Latin name for this shrub and others in the genus of about 150-175 mainly shrubby species. The specific name opulus refers to a type of maple, in allusion to the maple-like leaf shape of this species.
Distinctive features of Guelder rose
This plant’s most noticeable features are the distinctive umbel-like inflorescence and subsequent clusters of scarlet berry fruits. The almost flat-topped, dense corymb is typically around 11 cm wide and snow-white coloured, gracing our hedgerows from May-July ( with our recent warmer springs here in Britain they are increasingly out in the south during May).
The flowers of Guelder rose are conspicuous in the way that they produce large (15-20 mm wide) sterile outer flowers, surrounding much smaller (6 mm wide) fertile flowers which eventually give rise to the fruits. These will then ripen in drooping clusters and are ready from September-October.
The branches have grey twigs, somewhat angular in shape. These carry opposite pairs of buds and leaves, mainly terminating with double buds.
The buds are scaly, and appear thin when viewed from one side, but reasonably broad and becoming tapered when viewed from the other. The twigs carry a similarity in colour and form to the elder, especially the opposite pairs of buds.
Learn more about the patterns of plants, and how they can fast track your foraging, in my article here.
When foraging Guelder rose, you will see the leaves are somewhat akin to a maple. They are often broader than long, usually deeply-divided into 3-5 lobes, and with toothed margins. The leaves are sometimes voraciously eaten to a lacy outline by the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). It is not unusual to find some plants decimated by this insect in certain areas.
Pharmacology and uses: As its name suggests, this plant has long been used to alleviate painful cramps and spasms.
In North America a closely related species, black haw (V.prunifolium), is often used interchangeably, although they have slightly different chemical constituents. Certain indigenous North American Indian tribes such as the Meskwaki and the Penobscot reportedly used cramp bark for muscle swellings and mumps.
The famed ‘cramp bark’ of Guelder rose works by relieving and relaxing tense muscles, whether these are skeletal such as back muscles and limbs, or internal smooth muscles such as the intestines, airways, ovaries or uterus.
Cramp bark can also be taken internally as a decoction or applied topically. It has long been used to treat breathing difficulties in asthma as well as menstrual pains associated with excessive uterine contractions. Some authors have noted it as being useful where miscarriage is threatened. Cramp bark is also helpful in cases of irritable bowel syndrome, colic, and the physical symptoms of nervous tension.
The molecule salicin, upon digestion, converts to salicylic acid. As a known anti-inflammatory, it will heal and support internal smooth muscles.
This plant also has value in treating cardio-vascular hypertension and is known to relieve constipation associated with tension. Read more on the cardio-vascular system here. The anti-spasmodic action is known to be conferred in part by the substance valerianic acid.
In some cases of arthritis, where joint weakness and pain have forced muscles to contract until almost rigid, cramp bark can be usefully employed and can bring often remarkable relief. This is because as the muscles relax, more blood can flow, metabolic waste products such as lactic acid can be removed and some degree of normal function can return.
Cramp bark can therefore be used in acute and chronic cases of muscle pains and cramps. It can also be usefully used before embarking on any physical activity likely to bring pain.
The berries are not used medicinally. Some authors class them as poisonous whilst others mention them as edible. Tasted straight of the tree they are very bitter due to the substance viburtine.
The berries have been known to cause gastroenteritis when consumed raw. But cooking with the addition of sugar can make a nice enough preserve, but personally I prefer other fruit jams to this one.
Using the bark of Guelder rose is safe and effective for long and short term use, although maybe not if the patient is on anti-coagulant medications. This is because the coumarins and salicylates are both known to thin the blood.
The plant has been reported to cause hypotension in large doses or even in average doses if taken by previously hypotensive individuals. Pregnant women ought to refrain from taking the bark of Guelder rose until they have consulted a qualified practitioner.
This summer-flowering medicinal plant grows wild and free throughout many areas of Britain. With a liking of numerous settings it will be easy for foragers to find St John’s wort, and with unique observable characteristics, it is simple to identify. You can find out more about plant identification on my foraging walks and courses.
The scientific name for the genus, Hypericum, is thought to originate from the two Greek words – hyper, meaning above, and eikon, meaning ‘picture’.
The bright yellow flowers, which many centuries ago were felt to be symbolic of the sun, or spirit, were placed above religious pictures, specifically St John, to help ward off evil spirits during the celebrations of the midsummer Christian festival. Church leaders placed their festival onto the ancient summer solstice festivities (since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this has traditionally been celebrated on 24th June, previously falling on or around the 5th July).
The extractable red flower oil was previously meant to symbolize the blood of St. John. The species name perforatum is derived from the Latin word meaning perforated. Visible translucent perforations on both the leaves and the petals are visible with the naked eye.
Botanical description of St John’s wort
St Johns wort is a native British perennial, from a genus containing over 400 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials; deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen shrubs and trees. This plant grows throughout Europe.
St Johns wort is a clump-forming perennial which can grow to a height of up to 90 cm in flower. Re-appearing each year from its crown, it produces numerous red stems that eventually branch towards their upper parts. The stems bear small and hairless leaves, which are opposite and mostly oblong, but always sessile. The leaves typically grow to 3-4 cm long.
If you hold the stems up to the light, close inspection will reveal the leaves have numerous translucent glands, as well as a few dark ones at the edges on the undersides. The lanceolate petals and shorter sepals in the flower are also marked with dark dots.
The presence of the dark oil bearing glands, as well as the slight, opposite ridges on its round stem are crucial identification factors between this and one of more than half a dozen other Hypericum species that populate Britain.
The bright, glossy yellow flowers are similar in size to a buttercup. They have five petals and are borne on a corymb inflorescence. These types of flowering displays are often referred to as umbel-like.
When in full display, the shiny, showy blooms are noticeable for having more than fifty stamens spraying out from the centre of the flower. These are fused in the lower part into three bundles.
The flowering period for this plant is usually lengthy, and occurs between June and September, with the seeds ripening from late July to October. The self-fertile flowers are pollinated by bees and flies.
Soils and Habitats
St Johns wort absolutely delights on calcareous (alkaline) soils, as will be seen by the propensity of it when visiting chalk grasslands such as around Winchester and in West Sussex on the South Downs. It’s not a completely fussy plant, so will also be found on mildly acidic ground.
It can do well on waste-ground and some woodland edges, and is often seen happily populating pastures, as well as roadsides and occasional hedges. This is a lowland plant, so will be found at maximum altitudes up to around 480 metres.
St Johns wort can grow in the semi-shade of light woodland, or will be even more happy in full sun. The large tap-root helps it to flower right through the summer, even during periods of drought.
Although the plant can set viable seed, regeneration also occurs through its creeping lateral runners, arising at various points on the rootstock.
Parts used Leaves, flowers.
Harvest In summer (Flowers only for an infused oil).
Pharmacology and usesThe chemical composition of St. John’s wort has been well studied, especially in the last thirty years. Documented pharmacological activities include anti-depressant, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial effects. These provide supporting evidence for several of the traditional uses stated for St John’s wort.
In terms of the recent history of British herbal healthcare, St Johns wort has had a somewhat meteoric rise to prominence. Many of its pharmacological activities remain unclear, although a number of actions have reportedly been attributable to hypericin and the flavonoid constituents.
Evidence from a number of randomised controlled trials during the 1990s, highlighted and confirmed the efficacy of St John’s wort extracts over placebo’s, in the treatment of mild-to-moderately severe depression.
St. Johns wort and extracts of it have been shown to be effective against short-to-medium term mild depression, but not long-term or severe depression. As with a lot of plant medicines, there is a need to further assess the efficacy of St. Johns wort, compared with that of standard anti-depressants.
Although the anti-depressant actions of this plant were only elucidated during the last 40 years or so, this plant had an acknowledged ability throughout history to relieve melancholy, as was noted by Gerard in his Herbal (published 1597). Folk medicine records also show many lay-people knew of its power to cure nervousness and low spirits, so it was also used it as a general tonic.
St John’s wort and mono amine oxidase inhibitors
St Johns wort contains molecules known as MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitors). As their name suggests, the MAOI action is an inhibiting one. These molecules are known to increase the availability of mono-amine neuro-transmitters such as serotonin in the brain (thereby helping to combat feelings of depression). This plant is known to increase deep sleep and can be useful in cases of insomnia.
Interestingly though, the MAOI in this plant are weak and have been shown not to be responsible for the anti-depressant effect of St. Johns wort! However, what scientists do know about hypericin and the flavonoids are that they exert a number of effects on both the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) and Glutamate receptor sites in the brain. These neurotransmitters are directly involved are in feelings of well being and in helping our central nervous system relax.
A number of concerns have been raised by allopathic practitioners over possible dangerous interactions between St John’s wort and certain prescribed medicines (including warfarin, ciclosporin, theophylline, digoxin, HIV protease inhibitors, anti-convulsants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), ‘triptans’ and oral contraceptives).
Medical advice in Britain and America usually states that patients taking the aforementioned medicines should not take, or stop taking St John’s wort! Before embarking on a course of St Johns wort, and especially when on other medication, you need to seek advice from a pharmacist or another healthcare professional with detailed knowledge about these potentially dangerous adverse interactions!
Concentrating on the anti-depressant substances in St Johns wort could detract somewhat from the many other traditional applications for which this plant has been used.
Interestingly, a book by Gabrielle Hatfield and David E Allen, titled ‘Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition – An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland’, which was published almost 10 years ago, suggests that the reputation St. Johns wort has for healing cuts, grazes, and more serious wounds and burns, is likely to be more attributable to all of the Hypericum species found in Britain, rather than the one species under discussion in this monograph.
Moreover, St John’s wort is a name given to more than one Hypericum species, and judging by maps of the British flora, H.perforatum won’t be found in all the areas that records of ‘St Johns wort’ use has been documented.
In their fascinating book, pieced together using information from before mass public travel and transportation, and sourced notably from unconnected areas of the UK and the Isle of Man, the authors report that various Hypericum species have been used, and seemingly with much effect.
St Johns wort oil has long been known of, for its topical pain relieving and soothing action on burns and scalds, ulcers, inflammations, and various forms of muscular pain.
The red-coloured infused oil, extractable from the petals, has been used for these and other related complaints. St Johns wort can be usefully employed to treat conditions such as neuralgia, fibrositis, sciatica, excitability, anxiety, and as a general nerve tonic.
St Johns wort also aids the regeneration of granular tissue during healing of wounds. Indeed, Nicolas Culpeper, described in the 1640’s that it was “a singular wound herb” and that “it closes up the lips of wounds”.
Today, St Johns wort is a well known species and one of our most widely used herbal remedies. Contemporary uses have built on the fragments of traditional folklore collated from these islands. It is one of the staples of any Materia Medica here in Britain, and due to it being so common, one you can easily harvest, process and store each summer.
Foraging nettles (Urtica dioica, Urtica repens): A hedgerow superfood and remarkable medicine
How foraging nettles can provide food drink and a remedy for enlarged prostate
Although nettles are well known and foraging nettles commonplace, many do not know that this common plant has a remedy for a common accompaniment of ageing, an enlarged prostate.
The genus Urtica includes about 50 species of annuals and perennials that are widespread throughout the temperate regions.
The generic name Urtica is the old Latin name given for the plant. Our most common nettle derives its specific name dioica from the fact that this species has male and female flowers on different plants. The other nettle species that grows here – Urtica repens,takes its specific name from the Latin word for creeping.
Urtica dioica is perennial, rising each year from a creeping, underground network of yellow-colouredrhizomes, and can easily attain heights of 180 cm given good growing conditions.
Nettles are often a sign of fertile, if neglected land, and are found usually en masse, on waysides, roadsides, hedges, in fields and woodland edges as well as gardens, parks and waterways, up to 850 metres.
Nettle leaves are simple and cordate, with dentate-serrate margins and pointed leaf tips. The leaves sit in opposite pairs on square stems and typically reach 7-12 cm long. All these features are also commonly used to describe members of the mint family as well, but we know that floral characteristics are often vital for correct identification. Nettles have a different inflorescence compared to mint family plants, which places them in a family of their own.
Nettles also display tiny stipules at the base of the leaf, where it meets the stem. These small, leaf-like growths are not a characteristic of mint plants, so can help you identify between nettles and the similar looking dead nettle tribe of the mint family, even without the flowers.
Nettles were reportedly first introduced to Britain by the Romans and were used by the soldiers as a flogging aid to warm them during long cold nights and as an aid for sore, stiff bones and joints! This practice, known as ‘urtication’, is regaining popularity, especially on the continent in places such as Germany, where a lot of the most recent research into nettles, and other herbal remedies, has been carried out.
Nettles have very fibrous stems that have formerly been processed into cloth, as well as cordage. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures have woven nettle fibre into cloth and bags. German soldiers had uniforms made from nettles in the First World War. The British army are known to have used the green dye extracted from chlorophyll-rich nettle leaves, for making camouflage.
Nettles are also a well known green manure crop for the garden and allotment. The nitrogen rich leaves are added to comfrey for a balanced liquid feed.
Leaves: in spring, choose just the tops. Roots: best in autumn.
Leaves: contain up to 20% minerals (especially iron, calcium, potassium, sillic acid); phenolic acids; flavonoids (including kaempferol, quercetin); histamine; volatile and resinous substance glucoquinone; Vitamin C. Roots: contain lignans; lectins; sterols; polysaccharides, and several phenolic compounds.
Pharmacology and uses Nettle leaves contain high concentrations of iron and minerals and are therefore highly recommended for cases of anaemia and other deficiency conditions.
The tannins present in the leaves exhibit astringency. An extract of nettle leaf has been found to slow the heart of laboratory animals, as well as helping to dilate, and constrict, the blood vessels, alternately under different conditions.
Nettles increase the excretion of uric acid and are mildly diuretic. The leaves are full of protein and make an excellent fasting tea to help flush out toxins from the kidneys and the rest of the elimination systems. With notable concentrations of Iron and Calcium, nettles are a very useful supplement for pregnancy and breast feeding.
The sometimes painful and irritable nature of nettles and the silica stinging hairs can be counteracted through one of the various plants easily found around nettles. I personally find the creeping ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae) far more soothing and relieving than any other plant I’ve tried so far, including the useful plantains (Plantago species) and docks (Rumex species). You can find videos on both plants on my youtube channel.
As an alterative, the leaf can aid the clearance of acne and other skin complaints as well as reportedly helping counteract the overproduction of dandruff. As an astringent it can be a useful wound staunching herb for the nose.
Nettles can significantly help to reduce blood sugar levels in the treatment of ‘type-2’ or ‘late onset’ diabetes mellitus. The presence of glucoquinone reportedly helps to account for the perceived hypoglycaemic action. Other indications for nettle use include the treatment of arthritis and gout. In Germany, there is a tradition for making beer and wines from nettles in the spring, specifically to treat arthritis.
Nettle roots and the prostate
The root contains the most medicinal magic as far as men are concerned. Rich in plant sterols, sugars and other medicinal compounds, the root has repeatedly shown to arrest benign growths of the prostate.
The prostate is special to men. So special in fact, that the majority of males wouldn’t know where to go looking for it. It sits behind so as to surround the urethra, which as we know, carries urine from the bladder through the penis to the outside world.
The prostate gland enlarges as men get older, although usually not starting until after the mid-thirties. It then tends to enlarge in middle to late old age due to excessive growth of the glandular cells it contains. This growth is benign, not malignant, and has often been linked to decreased sexual activity. Gradual enlargement has been recorded in slightly more than 50% of males over 50 years of age in the UK and up to 75% of all men over 75 years of age.
The most common disorder is benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostate enlargement. The other is known as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). This condition is more prevalent in older men but can be present in young men also. Prostatitis can be passed on to your sexual partner and in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
Typical symptoms of prostate enlargement:
Bladder obstruction with need to urinate more frequently and at night
Incomplete emptying of bladder
Pain, burning and difficulty in starting and stopping urine flow
Presence of blood in urine
Sometimes associated kidney damage and bladder infections
Typical symptoms of prostatitis:
Pain between scrotum and rectum
Discharge from penis
Frequent urination with a burning sensation
Aches and pains in back, rectum and between the legs
Prostatitis can develop leading to increasingly difficult urination, as well as premature ejaculation, blood in the urine, and impotency. Be warned! This condition, if left untreated will eventually obstruct the bladder outlet resulting in blood in the urine. Ouch! Prostatitis is believed to be hormonal in nature.
As one of the major health issues for males, allopathic medicine continues to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into research for new drugs to combat cancers and to help arrest BPH. Western drug treatment will usually involve drugs such as Alpha-blockers and 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.
Alpha blockers work by helping to relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder and in the prostate.
5-alpha-reductase inhibitors work by blocking the conversion of testosterone to another substance, dihydrotestosterone (DHT) that is known to have a key role in prostate growth.
Should either of these two prove unsuccessful, then they are usually combined and added to other drugs. Doctors also often employ hormonal therapy, although this carries side effects, including change of libido and mood swings! Yet evidence is already out there which points to the power of nettle root extract to inhibit certain enzymes in the body which ordinarily affect our levels of male sex hormones.
One particular enzyme which affects the levels of testosterone is the sex-hormone-binding-globulin (SHBG). This is an enzyme that the body produces more of with age. SHBG tends to bind more readily with testosterone compared to oestrogen, thereby reducing the amount of ‘free testosterone’ available to find receptor sites and consequently decreasing libido. This may eventually lead to possible enlargement.
What nettle root does, or more specifically, a lignan fraction within it, is to inhibit the binding action of this enzyme, thereby ensuring that more testosterone can bind at its receptor sites. Nettle’s lignans have also been shown to reduce cell proliferation in prostate tissues.
The fat-soluble extract of nettle root is pharmacologically active in fat tissues where androgen hormones such as testosterone are produced. The more water-soluble methanol extracts exhibit the greatest BPH arrest, with resultant high levels of inhibition of prostate growth.
Nettle root also increases urinary flow and urine volume.Nettle root can be as effective in arresting prostate growth as finasteride, a pharmaceutical 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, although nettle root does not demonstrate this particular type of inhibition.
Research is continually being carried out to determine the precise nature of a number of other different active compounds, yet the many successful treatments with nettle root extract are already testament to the demonstrable abilities of this plant.
Undoubtedly a medicinal food, nettles are one of the most nutritious greens we can eat. Lucky are the urban foragers because they have the opportunity to easily gather nettle tops in different spots from March through to late November in most towns. Remember to only take the succulent sweet and tasty tops.
Nettle soup is the classic way of eating this herb, combined with onions or leeks and potatoes and seasoning. Many people like adding blanched leaves to pesto, and a friend of mine makes an interesting nettle chutney. The leaves also work well as a general spinach replacement in many other dishes such as ‘saag aloo’.
Comfrey has traditionally been one of the principle remedies in any materia medica. Comfrey is an elegant plant, common to our inland waterways, and one of more than 25 species of coarsely hairy perennials within the genus.
The common name Comfrey is derived from the Latin ‘conferva’, (to join together) which begins to tell us how the Romans knew of and used the plant. Similarly, its scientific generic name also alludes to this ‘bringing together’ (sympho- from the Greek meaning to unite; phytum from the Latin, meaning plant), whilst the specific name officinale denotes its use as an official apothecary herb of old.
This plant is distinguished by its large, broadly lanceolate leaves (up to 30 cm long and more) which rise each year from a rhizomous rootstock. Its leaves are set on long, relatively thick petioles coming from the crown of the plant.
Comfrey initially grows as basal growth, but can we actually call that often untidy mass of leaves a rosette? Comfrey’s large leaves are coarse and hairy, with curving, and upward-sweeping, netted vein patterns, arising from the mid-vein. On the growing flowering stems the alternately spaced leaves have progressively shorter stalks, becoming sessile towards the top.
The leaves are quite similar to its family relative’s borage, lungwort, and the green-alkanet. Lungwort has white blotches on its leaves so cannot be readily mistaken for comfrey, though both borage and more especially the green alkanet could be. If you snap comfrey’s leaf stalks, the mucilaginous properties are quickly revealed.
Knowing comfrey from foxglove!
One of the most dangerous misidentifications that a forager can make is mistaking comfrey for another well-known, also medicinally potent, yet poisonous and unrelated species – the foxglove. This plant belongs to the figwort family and has an extremely similar looking leaf to comfrey, even on second glance.
I have heard tales of inexperienced foragers picking foxglove leaves, then eating them in fritters, only to wake up a week later in hospital from a coma! This possibility should install some vital diligence in making absolutely sure of identification. To help in this, the reader is advised to become familiar with both plants.
The foxglove leaves will be seen to have minutely-crenate leaf margins, which comfrey does not have. Furthermore, the foxglove leaf veins do not curve out and sweep upwards. Rather, they rise at a more acute angle from the mid-rib.
It is also worth touching and holding the two plants. The two plants, whether it’s the leaves, stems, or petioles, all feel quite different to each other.
During flowering, the plants are much less likely to be confused. Many people will know the foxglove inflorescence. The glorious purple hooded flowers are borne on spikes and look totally different to comfrey’s inflorescence.
Another way of helping to distinguish comfrey and foxglove from afar is to observe and evaluate the habitat you are wandering through. If you are near streams or rivers or on wet ground below 320 metres, it is very likely the plant will be comfrey, for it delights in areas such as these.
Foxgloves can survive in sub-alpine conditions, and elevations of up to 1650 metres. The foxglove abounds by hedges, roadsides, and waysides, and especially by old, crumbling stone walls. They are often found within their classic lowland habitat of woodlands, where it will thrive at the edges, and within any well-lit glade.
The flowering stems of the common comfrey typically grow to about 150 cm high, although larger is not uncommon. Its flowers are borne on numerous cymes on multi-forked stalks. The flowers are usually creamy yellow-white on the wild comfrey, occasionally pink-purple.
Comfrey has distinctive, tubular or bell-shaped flowers, with a crenate finish to the fused petals. The seeds are little nutlets, which appear in groups of four. Comfrey’s root is thick and many-branched, from an often large crown. It has black skin with white flesh.
Comfrey self-propagates from its creeping rhizomes, and gardeners are advised to be careful when placing or removing common comfrey, for it will creep and take over patches of ground due to an ability to grow from any shards of root left in the ground. As a friend and I are all too aware, these quickly re-emerge and grow on.
A suitable comfrey cultivar for the garden can be acquired, which is known as ‘bocking 14′. This variety is clump forming and does not spread to anything like the same extent as our native species.
See what Mrs Grieves has to say about comfrey here.
Pharmacology and uses Comfrey has been referred to as one of the chief plant medicines in the folk repertory of Britain and Ireland. It is an exceptionally effective mucilaginous healing remedy in any materia medica.
Comfrey has been popularly used for cuts, grazes, and lesions (though this is now discouraged), as well as to heal larger wounds, bone fractures, torn cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. The swift wound sealing action is mostly attributed to the allantoin, a recognised cell proliferant, and is partly due to the tannins and general astringency of the plant, enabling it to draw open wounds together.
The mucilage contains the remarkable allantoin. This substance is well known to promote constructive activity of different types of connective tissue such as chondroblasts (cartilage) and osteoblasts (bone) as well as flesh and skin. Allantoin also helps produce neural cells. It promotes keratin dispersal and has been used topically on psoriasis. Allantoin is highly diffusible and its presence means scarring is less likely.
It is because the plant heals cuts so quickly (but from the surface downwards), that comfrey is not recommended for deep cuts anymore. Instead, for these wounds, a number of other common vulnerary plants, such as plantains or yarrow can be more profitably employed. They will both ensure complete healing at the bottom of the wound, working upwards.
Be warned, because there are documented cases of comfrey being applied to baby girls as nappy rash ointments, that have then led to the vagina sealing up, such are its powers. As well as healing and sealing all types of tissue, comfrey also has a reputation for use on bruises and swellings. All parts of the plant yield an oily astringent juice, containing the mucilage, which can be readily applied as a poultice as well as being made into the classic comfrey ointment.
Comfrey ‘plasters’ and ointments for broken bones.
Traditional use for healing damaged limbs was by cleaning, peeling, grating, and then boiling the root. This process obtains a thick paste which is then applied like ‘plaster of paris’. The comfrey plaster acts much in the same way. It helps broken bones by setting the joint, whilst acting somewhat as a poultice, thus enabling the absorption of medicinal components from the outside inwards.
Of the folk records collected, almost half consistently refer to its use on fractures, sprains, and the like. Internal use of the root for the same problems is not documented, so please do not drink comfrey root thinking it will help set your broken bones as successfully. The tannins and resins actively combine with mucilage to help give rise to comfrey’s ‘plaster action’.
Much has been written about the dangers of liver damage resulting from internal use of the root due to it containing liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This group of around 660 alkaloids are found in a large number of plant species, approximately 6,000 worldwide. The PA causing the most concern in certain comfrey species, is echimidine.
Our native wild S.officinale typically has considerably smaller amounts of the toxic alkaloids than the very similar looking comfrey plant most people have in their gardens or allotments, the usually purple-flowering S. x uplandicum. Moreover it does not contain the notably harmful PA alkaloid echimidine in the leaf.
In North America and Canada, you can acquire over-the-counter comfrey remedies from Symphytum officinale, because it doesn’t contain echimidine. British Herbalists may still prescribe common comfrey leaf. In other comfrey species, the root can contain approximately up to 10 times as much PA’s as the leaf.
Suffice it to say here that the dangers of toxic doses from comfrey root, although cumulative in effect, remain very slim due to the minute amounts present per dose when used as medicine. Saying this, comfrey root is now contra-indicated by herbalists for internal use due to the alkaloids. Furthermore, European practitioners do not now recommend topical use on cuts and wounds.
S. x uplandicum is a cross between S.officinale and S.asperum (‘rough comfrey’) and will show typical hybrid vigour in a number of ways. One of these manifestations may well be the greater production of what are essentially predatory-defence chemicals in the bigger, more voracious hybrid plant.
The majority of tests carried out into alkaloid toxicity are based on direct subcutaneous injection of the alkaloids into rats, rather than testing the whole leaf or root. This does not replicate what actually occurs when we consume and digest the plant.
It is also worth reminding here that salicylic acid from meadowsweet could easily be as harsh to the stomach wall as aspirin, were it not for the other components present in the leaf (such as the mucilage and tannins) combining with it and providing healing incomparable to what aspirin can do.
I therefore continue to eat common comfrey occasionally, especially in the spring when it is at its best, as well as using it as a topical medicine, for musclular-skeletal injuries.
Comfrey has also been greatly used in the treatment of respiratory conditions and digestive ailments. A water extract of comfrey showed increases in the release of prostaglandins from the stomach wall. This has been suggested as producing a direct action in protecting the gastric mucosa from damage. Rosmarinic acid is also known for reducing inflammation and provides a major component of this plant’s anti-inflammatory action.
Comfrey as Food.
Comfrey is an exceptionally nourishing medicinal food, as was discovered in the 1970’s, containing as much protein as some legumes! The younger shoots and leaves are best used, and if steamed or blanched, offer a texture of succulent, slightly crunchy and mildly cucumber-tasting leaf stalks alongside the pleasant earthy ‘spinach’ taste of the leaf.
Alternatively, and perhaps more well known is using the leaves in a fritter. Simply make a batter and dip a folded leaf in, then fry. Served when golden brown with a sweetened chilli-enhanced soy sauce or such like, they are quite delicious.
A summary of some important medicinal plant constituents and examples of herbs they are found in.
Medicinal plants are very much the backbone for modern allopathic medicine. The array of important medicinal plant constituents are listed here, in no particular order.
In general, the more atoms a molecule has, the heavier it is. Simple, carbon-based molecules we use every day, include the range of extremely volatile hydro-carbon fuels such as methane, butane, propane (1, 3 and 4 carbon atoms respectively), octane (8 atoms), as well as the multitude of aromatic and volatile components in plant essential oils (generally having 10 or 15 carbon atoms), utilised in cookery and herbal medicine.
Monobasic acids including aliphatic (straight chain) acids
Containing up to 26 carbon atoms per molecule, these include formic acid, acetic acid and a range of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids as well as valeric acid from hops and valerian.
Containing more than one carboxylic group, very widely found in plants. Noted for slight laxative action and include oxalic, succinic and fumaic acids.
These include both a pair of –COOH (acid) groups together with an –OH group (alcohol, or hydroxyl group). This gives them properties of alcohols as well as acids. These include citric, malic, and tartaric acids. The presence of hydroxyl groups provides reactive sites on a molecule.
This acid appears widely in fruit and berries, especially the citrus fruits. It plays a key role in metabolism. It is classed as an alkaline food source because it breaks down to bicarbonates in the stomach. It is a gentle osmotic (water-attracting) laxative and diuretic.
A common plant constituent, and widely found in the dock family. It can also be found in the tea plant, spinach and parsley amongst others. It forms insoluble salts with metals such as calcium and is often found in this form. This substance imparts a distinctive lemony or citrus taste to plant leaves.
One potential problem from over excessive consumption of oxalates is the formation of urinary stones. These are produced by precipitation of excessive oxalates in acid urine. Another consequence is gout, whereby skeletal joints accumulate large amounts of these crystal deposits, bringing regular and extreme discomfort to sufferers.
Un-saturated fatty acids
Certain fatty acids are vital for life. Hence the term essential fatty acid. Our bodies require them to build and repair cell walls, cell membranes, and C.N.S tissues. Inflammation and other chronic diseases have been documented in people exhibiting a deficiency of polyunsaturated acids in the blood.
These fatty acids are universally found in plants. Notable examples include linolenic acid (found mainly in growing green tissues) and arachidonic acid (found mostly in seeds and other reproductive tissues). Certain hormones involved in inflammatory responses, collectively known as prostaglandins (Pg’s), are made from arachidonic acid.
Theseare built from basic units (sugars) and can be classified as to the number of sugars they contain. CHOs are a collective term for molecules comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and are similar to hydrocarbon fuels we use to power our cars.
All sugars are CHOs and they come in all manner of guises, i.e. with differing numbers of carbon atoms. For example, Glucose sugar has six carbon atoms, whereas sucrose, (more commonly known as granulated sugar) is comprised of two glucose molecules joined together, and contains 12 carbon atoms.
The vast number of polysaccharides present in plants including starch and inulin, have much longer chains of glucose molecules, and these take longer to breakdown in the body, hence their value as a long-term energy source.
Hydrocarbon vehicle fuels do not contain oxygen and burn brighter and faster than CHOs. Basically, CHOs do pretty much the same job and are by far the major basic source of fuel for the human body. As with the performance differences between fuels such as petrol or octane, the differences in the long chain sugar molecules that we consume (and there are many different types) will have resultant dramatic performance differences within the body.
All sugars end in the suffix –ose as in glucose and fructose. All enzymes (protein-based, metabolic, catalysing co-factors made from amino-acids) end in the suffix –ase, as in the starch-digesting saliva enzyme amylase. Acid substances are given the suffix –ates, so wherever you see this molecule name ending you know you are dealing with an acid, as in salicylates (salicylic acid) folate (folic acid), pyruvate etc.
Monosaccharides (mono = one, saccharide = sugar)
Also known as simple sugars. Examples are fructose, glucose, galactose, and the wood sugars xylose, ribose, and arabinose. Apiose from celery is another example.
Disaccharides (Di = two)
Molecules containing two sugar units. They include sucrose (glucose and fructose combined), maltose (glucose x 2) and lactose (galactose and glucose), which is found in milk only. They are quickly broken down by the body to mono-saccharides, although several, such as raffinose, are reputed to contribute to the undigested CHO residue we call ‘roughage’.
Polysaccharides (Poly = many)
These are often rather large molecules. Included here are the amyloses that constitute the glucose storage molecules such as starch, glycogen, cellulose, and inulin (a fructose-based storage substance), commonly found in the daisy family.
Plants containing them include the jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosum), elecampagne (Inulahelenium), and dandelion. Other polysaccharides include molecules that contain other components beside sugar units, such as hemi-celluloses, pectins, gums, and mucilages.
Gums and mucilages (G&M’s)
Very common plant constituents, they are chemically similar,
yet traditionally distinguished by their physical properties – a gum being tacky, a mucilage slimy. The actions of G&M’s are more physical than chemical.
They are made from uronic acid and sugar derivatives, and even if broken down on digestion have little pharmacological effect. Mostly these molecules are resistant to digestive juices and many survive to reach the bowel.
Whilst no useful parts of the mucilage’s reach those parts of the body, the proposed overall effects point to the relationship between the origins of these three bodily systems. During embryonic development of the body, due to the bronchial tree and urinary tissues developing as an offshoot of the gut, the tissues of these systems have a common source.
Therefore, agents that affect the lining and wall of the digestive tract will, by nerve-ending reflex action, influence the function of the bronchial and urinary ducts.Mucilages readily produce a slimy coating which soothes and protects any exposed mucosal surface.
For this reason, plants containing mucilage’s are primarily used as wound remedies, helping to soothe pain, irritation, and itching, and as they dry they often bind to any damaged tissue.
The actions shown by mucilages are classed as emollient or demulcent. Mucilaginous remedies are proven as invaluable in treating digestive disorders. They soothe irritation that can be behind a range of symptoms such as flatulence, colic, dyspepsia, spastic bowel, vomiting and diarrhoea as well as many cases of abdominal pain.
This demulcent action continues along the digestive tract lining, which helps explain the use of mucilaginous remedies for gastro-intestinal inflammations, ulcers, lesions, as well as for reducing irritant results of excessive stomach acid or digestive juice secretion.
Immune system stimulating polysaccharides- The fizzy medicinal plant constituents
These are water-soluble, acidic, branch-chained polysaccharides with high molecular weights. Similar molecularly to the sugary sweets that fizz on your tongue, these medicinal plant constituents exhibit significant immuno-stimulating properties.
Medicinal plants showing these actions include the three species of Echinacea commonly used by western herbal medicine; Echinaceapurpurea, E.angustifolia and E.pallida, as well as the chamomiles (Chamomilla recutita and Chamamaelum nobile), and Calendulato name a few.
These are molecules which consist of a sugar joined to a non-carbohydrate compound, often an inorganic molecule. Many chemicals found in plants are bound together with a sugar moiety, forming inactive glycosides. These are able to be broken by enzymatic hydrolysis, as and when the plant requires the chemicals.
Many medications are glycosides, rendering otherwise toxic chemicals safe to use. An example is the saponin glycosides (discussed presently) – the basis of arrow poisons.
Lignan is derived from the phenylpropanoids and partly forms the structural component in woody plants. The phenylpropanoid building blocks are built from a C6H3 unit, similar to the way terpenes are built from isoprene units-C5 H8.
Lignans are completely different to lignins. Lignans are one of the major classes of phyto-oestrogenic substances found in plants. Examples being flax seeds (Linum spp), seasame seeds (Sesamum indicum) brassica vegetables, rye (Secale cereale), apricots (Armeniaca vulgaris), and strawberries (Fragaria spp). Lignans are anti-oxidant also.
This large group of plant constituents are all based on the basic phenolic molecule.
Phenol is a compound with a hydroxyl group (a molecule of one oxygen atom and and hydrogen atom) bound directly to an aromatic ring).
In general the phenols are known to be bactericidal, anti-septic, anthelmintic, and anaesthetic. Simple phenolic acids include salicylic acid, first extracted from willow bark (Salix spp).
These are a large group of polyphenols found widely in the plant world. Tannins have been used by man for millennia to tan animal hides. They have also been employed for centuries in the treatment of wounds and burns.
This practice utilises their inherent properties of precipitating proteins into insoluble complexes, and combining with these complexes to eventually render them resistant to enzymatic degradation.
This astringent action is helpful when applied to living tissues. As acids, they will impart a sour taste, with a resultant puckering of the protein lining of the mouth and tongue. When drinking red wine, it is the tannins that produce this reaction in the mouth. In the tea plant (Camelia sinensis) and other plants with which we make teas, such as peppermint, the tannins are what you see forming on top of the drink.
There are two groups of tannins; hydrolysable and condensed tannins.
Hydrolysable tannins are derivatives of simple phenolic acids. In large quantities they are toxic to the liver, which is why plants that contain them in large amounts are unsuitable for use on wounds. They turn brown on exposure to air and are responsible for the brown colour of many plant tinctures.
Condensed tannins are also known as non-hydrolysable tannins. Plant tissues containing tannins will often have a red colour. When heated in acid they tend to group together and polymerise, forming insoluble substances collectively known as tannin reds. These are often seen to form in tinctures when standing for long periods, especially when stored in the light. (Always keep your herbal medicines in a cool dark place!)
The final breakdown product after heating is a substance called catechol. This shows little toxicity to the liver or other ill effects, so their use is to be favoured.
The rose family of plants contain substantial concentrations of tannins. They are one of the reasons that herbs such as meadowsweet help with acid reflux, and why blackberry leaves can help stop bleeding. Knowing that the rose family plants are rich in tannin, can assist the intuitive herbalist in recognising what they may be useful for.
Cranberry and Bilberry (Vaccinium species) contain both condensed and hydrolysable tannin. Quercus ilex (the holm/holly/evergreen oak) has acorns with the lowest amount of tannin. As well as the tannin-rich acorns, other nuts we eat raw, such as hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts, and walnuts, all contain tannin.
It is worth noting that all tannins share these properties:
Solubility in water and alcohol but not in organic solvents such as oils or hexane gas.
The forming of precipitates with proteins, nitrogenous bases, polysaccharides, certain alkaloids and some glycosides.
Tannins are basically astringent, although only at the point of contact with the gut wall. They are also acclaimed haemostatics, used externally to arrest haemorrhaging and soothe exposed inflammations. They are of great benefit in treating the surfaces lining the orifices, so that herbs containing tannins are often used as eyewashes, mouthwashes, snuff and as treatments for rectal problems.
Internally, tannins are known to prevent additional cellular secretions, because the exposed cell walls of mucus membranes pucker or contract following contact. Due to the narrow boundary between the interior and exterior of the gut wall, anti-inflammatory effects are enhanced; therefore tannins can be specifically used for controlling symptoms of gastritis, enteritis and inflammatory bowel conditions.
These substances are widely distributed in nature. Some plants such as the citrus fruits, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), as well as all white and yellow flowers, have significantly high levels.
Essentially there are four main groups of flavonoids:
Including apigenin from celery, luteolin from horsetail (Equisetum arvense). Also included are the isoflavones (isomers of flavones with steroidal properties) eg: genistein in clovers, gorse (Ulex europaeus) and other legumes.
Among them are quercitol (glycoside= rutin) found in buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), rue (Ruta graveolens) and more than half of all plants ever tested, as well as kaempferol, also in more than 50% of plants tested.
Included here are eriodicytol and methyl-eriodicytol, which together make up ‘citrin’ of citrus fruits. The glycoside is hesperidin. Another well-researched flavonone is liquiritigetol in liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra).
4)Xanthones Include gentisin from gentian (Gentianella spp).
Viewed as a group, the flavonoids have numerous important pharmacological properties.
Many are diuretic; others are documented as anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, and even anti-tumour, although the main action of the flavonoid group is on the vascular system.
This all became known as a result of research carried out on the so-called ‘bio-flavonoids’, also known as ‘Vitamin P’; and especially on hesperidin and rutin.
There are four main categories of bioflavonoids:
–Quercetin (which acts as a backbone or precursor for other flavonoids grouped together as the citrus bioflavonoids – rutin, quercitrin, hesperidin) Quercetin is anti inflammatory, inhibiting the manufacture and release of histamine.
–Green tea polyphenols such as catechin, epicatechin, and epigallocatechin gallate.
Bioflavonoids have been called “nature’s biological response modifiers” because they adapt the body’s reactions to allergens, viruses and carcinogens.
They are also known to exert greater anti-oxidant effects than Vitamins C, E, Selenium and Zinc. Bioflavonoids are known to reduce capillary fragility and permeability, as well as being effective in lowering blood pressure.
Allopathic practitioners treating the capillary symptoms of hypertension, diabetes, arsenic poisoning and allergic conditions, often use rutin. Buckwheat has high levels of flavones so is used by herbalists for much the same problems.
Bioflavonoids and Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid)
During 1936, research by Albert von Szent-Gyorgyiin discovered that scurvy was only helped when ascorbic acid was given with bio-flavonoids.
Ascorbic acid is present in fruits and vegetables only with a bio-flavonoid molecule. It is known to act as a regulating factor in the peripheral circulation as well as exhibiting anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties.
These molecules are named after the Greek words anthos meaning flower, and kyanos meaning blue.
Similar in structure to flavonoids, these pigment molecules found in hawthorn, blackberries, and blueberries (Vaccinium spp), are well known anti-oxidants, especially on the circulatory system and can be coloured anything from blue to red.
They are currently subject to much research. These molecules are the glycosides of anthocyanins.
These are molecules built from a backbone of anthocyanidins. They occur in relative abundance in dark coloured fruits such as bilberries, blackcurrants and blackberries.
Also known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC’s), or condensed tannins. An oligomer (from the Greek oligos- ‘a few’) is a molecule made from a few monomer units (from the Greek mono – ‘one’ and meros – ‘part’), contrasted to polymers, that in principle can be made from an unlimited number of monomers.
They are famously found in hawthorn, bilberries and blackberries and contribute to its medicinal actions. Effects of OPC’s are to increase intracellular vitamin C levels, decrease capillary fragility, scavenging oxidants, and inhibition of collagen destruction.
These molecules are found throughout the plant kingdom and particularly in the leaves of the pea family (Fabaceae). A fermentation product of coumarin (dicoumarol), occurring naturally in spoilt sweet clover, is a potent anti-coagulant, widely known for being the basis of the rat poison ‘warfarin’. It is the coumarins that can be smelt following the cutting of grass.
These molecules are similar to coumarins in structure. Known for their strong purgative action, they appear in plants as glycosides. Anthraquinones are found in yellow dock-root (Rumex crispus), rhubarbs, senna (Senna alexandrina), alder buckthorn, and Aloe vera.
Volatile (essential oils)
The countless different mixtures found within plant essential oils provide us with some of nature’s most potent medicines. The name essential oil stems from the fact that when they were first distilled, it was believed that the captured volatile components were the material aspect from a medicinal plant spirit essence.
Generally speaking, essential oils are mixtures of hydrocarbons and other oxygenated compounds derived from them. The most common hydrocarbon present is the terpene, a molecule created by successive accumulation of isoprene molecules (C5 H8). With different variations of this building block, a wide range of substances can be synthesised in plants.
Some of these include: Monoterpenes (C10 H16); Sesquiterpenes (C15 H24); Diterpenes (C20 H32); Sesterterpenes (C25 H40; Triterpenes (C30 H48).
The largest constituent group of volatile oils. Monoterpenes are extremely volatile, evaporating at temperatures above 40˚C. They are the top notes detected when inhaling any volatile oil.
Monoterpenes have anti-septic properties. Compared to the antiseptic quality of phenol, (the standard pharmaceutical marker for an anti-septic), thymol is 20 times as potent.
Some monoterpenes have fungicidal and anthelmintic effects e.g. thymol, whilst others have a localised circulatory-stimulating rubefacient property, including menthol, camphor and borneol.
For this they are regularly included in ointments and linaments, whereas internally, they produce an expectorant action – examples are cineol from Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), pinene from garden angelica (Angelica archangelica), and pinene-borneol and others from garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
Numerous monoterpenes act on the nervous system. Carminative herbs are known to act through local nerve endings in the gut, producing an anti-spasmodic action. Furthermore, some monoterpenes, including citral from lemon balm, as well as limonene, myrcene, citronellal and citronellol, will have palpable sedative activity, citronellal being most potent. They can exhibit anti-spasmodic action comparable to the morphine alkaloid papaverine.
Other volatile oil constituents include the molecule anethole, which is found in fennel, and reportedly comprises up to 90% of the volatile oil extracted from aniseed (Pimpinella anisum).
Others, such as cineole, are notably found in Eucalyptusand cajaput oil (Melaleuca leucadendron), apiole is found in celery and parsley, and myristicin from nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). These substances, similar to other volatile components, have carminative, anti-septic, expectorant and circulatory stimulant qualities.
Many members of the Allium family also contain volatile sulphurous substances. These are responsible for the distinctive, pungent aroma common in these plants. These include bulb-garlic (Allium sativum), onions (Allium cepa), and many others.
These are the largest group of terpenes in the plant kingdom, but only a few are volatile – notably the azulenes, bisabolol, and farnesene from chamomile and yarrow. Many are very bitter tasting; notably found in the large daisy family.
Sesquiterpenes have a higher molecular weight and are therefore less volatile and less associated with volatile oils. They give rise to the range of different middle and bass notes detected from a particular essential oil. Some of them are volatile however, including the aforementioned azulenes.
These molecules are special in as much as they do not exist in the plant itself but are a product of steam distillation. They will be found in your cup of herbal tea should you have infused the material in a vessel with a lid!
The much valued azulenes are notable for being potent anti-inflammatories and anti-spasmodics, known for reducing tissue reactions of a histamine-induced nature as well as calming the nervous system. They are also strongly anti-septic, as well as exerting a reduction of the anaphylactic shock effect due to allergic responses. They are therefore well indicated for hay fever, allergic asthma, and allergic eczema.
Esters are important constituents of essential oils. Most esters are known to be anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and calming, as well as being a tonic to the nervous system.
Esters are reportedly the gentlest and safest components of volatile oils and are harmless on the skin. They include geranyl acetate, found in lavender and Eucalyptus; and linalyl acetate, the main constituent in lavender, bergamot (Citrus x bergamia), and clary sage (Salvia sclarea).
Some therapeutic actions of essential oils from Medicinal Plants
Volatile oils are highly permeable and therefore easily pass through fatty membranes. This helps explain their use as antiseptics, whereby they kill pathogenic single celled micro-organisms.
All volatile oils diffuse rapidly into single cell organisms, where they are thought to disrupt internal cellular mechanics. Through this solubility, volatile components are easily distributed throughout our bodies, exerting their antiseptic qualities.
Volatile oils reportedly also trigger increases in white blood cell production, enhancing the body’s own natural defence systems. The respiratory, urinary, and digestive tracts, as well as the skin, nervous system and all our mucosa, are the primary areas where volatile oils exert their range of effects. Tissues that volatile oils come into contact with are stimulated in important ways, such as vaso-dilation and general increased circulation.
When nerve endings in the digestive system are stimulated they produce increases in gastric juice secretion, salivation and appetite. Peristalsis is improved whilst flatulence and colic are relieved.
Volatile oils are notable for exerting important effects on the C.N.S including tranquilizing (dampening down of messenger molecules), whereas peripherally, anti-spasmodic effects are noticeable. Digestive conditions such as dyspepsia are known to be relieved through the relaxation of internal tissues brought on by volatile oils.
Asthma will be greatly assisted by relaxation of the bronchioles, which can feedback to relieve tensions often found elsewhere in the C.N.S. It is always worth remembering that tensions can be arrested and soothed as much ‘from the neck down’ as by any sedating of the mind. As we are aware, simply smelling a flower and its volatile oils can instantly evoke strong feelings and memories.
These are a complex group of solid and occasionally liquid substances. They are insoluble in water, but soluble in alcohol, ether and chloroform. A number of plants produce them as self-defensive, protective mechanisms, either as a result of injury or pathogenic attack. Other plants produce them as a matter of course during flowering.
Essential resins are a mixture of resin alcohols, acids and phenols, esters and other inert substances. These can be fashioned with essential oils and gums to create ‘oleo-resins’ and ‘gum-resins’, or even compounded to create ‘oleo-gum-resins’.
Pines (Pinus spp) produce well known sticky resins. Cannabis (Cannabis sativa) and hops both produce an ‘oleo-resin’, whilst myrrh (Commiphora molmol) and frankincense (Boswellia spp) contain oleo-gum-resins. Some of the medicinal effects of the resins include the stimulation of phagocytosis (white blood cell’s destruction of harmful bacteria), and anti-septic qualities.
The term is derived from the Latin word for soap – sapo, hence exhibiting ‘frothyness’ in solution. Saponins are the major constituent within soapwort (Saponaria offiicinalis), a plant whose roots have long been used as a soap. They are also found in many different plants.
Originally known medically for their haemolytic (destruction of red blood cells) properties, saponin-containing plants long been employed as arrow poisons and fish poisons. Incidentally, saponins are toxic to all animals if intravenously injected, which is one reason why whole plant extracts are not administered in this way. Saponin containing plants are covered over on my poisonous plants page.
However, it is the property of the whole saponin molecule that is toxic. When they are ingested, the whole glycoside molecule is quickly broken down in the stomach, leaving the pharmacologically active, sugarless ‘aglycone’. This sugarless saponin is not haemolytic to humans. However, fish and other cold-blooded creatures are always poisoned by saponins, in any form.
The steroidal form of saponin is found in the majority of plants. Steroidal saponins have structural similarity with steroid hormones, cardiac glycosides, and vitamin D. They are the framework for modern production of synthetic hormones. The contraceptive hormone dioscin was first synthesised from an extract of the yam.
Many saponins act on the respiratory system, where there presumed action is again thought to be by reflex action, this time as a result of their reported emetic effect if taken in higher doses. At doses well below this they are acknowledge to stimulate expectorant activity, notably in mullein, elecampagne and liquorice.
Some can settle the stomach, aiding the absorption of minerals. Oats (Avena sativa) are a suitable saponin-containing remedy for this. Other saponins are anti-inflammatory, such as those found in sweet-corn silks (Zea mays) and silver birch.
These pigment molecules are derived from the triterpene skeleton. Closely related to vitamin A (converting to it in the body), carotenoids are found in many orange and red pigments in plants, for example, lycopene from tomatoes (Lycoperiscon esculentum) and beta-carotene from garden carrots (Daucus carota ssp sativus).
Alongside the opiates, these are possibly the most studied of all the plant constituents. Cardiac glycosides reportedly have very similar properties to steroidal saponins, and are found together in many plants. Cardiac glycosides have a well established use in preventing unpleasant symptoms of heart failure such as the aggregation of fluids, whilst also combating shortness of breath when lying down.
They were famously extracted from a folk-remedy for ‘dropsy’ during the latter part of the 18th century by a Shropshire doctor, intent on isolating the miraculous active principle. The remedy included foxglove, which the doctor knew from experience to be the active principle. The molecule digitoxin was finally isolated in 1875, with digoxin later isolated and used since 1957.
The effects of cardiac glycosides such as digoxin are known to vary with the condition of the heart muscle cells, and the dosage. The use of these potent drugs by clinically untrained people cannot be recommended.
These molecules take their name from the breakdown products after hydrolysis – prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Therefore in any quantity these compounds are very toxic. They are one of the primary constituents responsible for the aroma and flavour of bitter almonds and are common in many stone fruits of the rose family such as peaches, apricots, and hawthorns as well as being found in the elder and clover. This all leads to the question…what is edible anyway?
By using plant medicines with small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides, noticeable anti-spasmodic and sedative effects are produced. They also have an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing the heart-rate and improving digestion. The lungs are known to excrete these molecules quickly.
Plants containing these glycosides are used mainly to increase blood flow to membranes they contact. Hence their use as rubefacients to increase local blood flow. A classic example of their traditional use is the mustard footbath.
As a group, these acrid molecules were mainly known for stimulating and toning the circulation, slowing the heart rate, and improving digestion. Glucosilinates are said to increase anti-oxidant defence mechanisms as well as improving the body’s inherent ability to detoxify and eliminate harmful chemicals. They are present in watercress the subject of much anti-cancer research, discussed presently.
These are central components within any herbal approach to treatment. Most plant remedies have at least a small amount of bitterness. The diverse range of bitter principles in plants amounts to the largest and most diverse group of plant constituents. Bitters will only work through the bitter tasting receptors in the mouth and have no effect if taken as a capsule or masked by syrups. They produce a number of reactions including:
Increasing gastric acid secretions
Stimulating pepsin secretions
Stimulating pancreatic digestive secretions
Intestinal juice production
Hepatic bile flow
Insulin derived glucagon secretions
Toning the muscle of the lower oesophageal sphincter
Toning the muscle of stomach wall and small intestine
Cell division and growth of gastric and duodenal mucosa
Cell division and growth of the pancreas
These are probably the most studied and some of the most potent and toxic plant products. Most plants have at least some alkaloids in them. Chemists have divided the alkaloids into various groups in order to reflect their different origins (biosynthetic pathways) within plants.
These come from the amino acid ornithine. They act on the parasympathetic nervous system, blocking nerve activity. Included here are cocaine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine, hyoscine and atropine. Many of the Solanaceae plants including henbane, datura, belladonna, and bittersweet, contain these types of alkaloids.
This group of alkaloids have a reputation for notable toxicity, linked with liver damage. This is another group emanating from the amino acid ornithine, found in ragworts (Senecio spp), coltsfoot, and the borage family – famously comfrey. The potential risks from eating comfrey is addressed in the material medica
Indole alkaloids arebuilt from the amino acid tryptamine. Included here are the mood molecules (see nervous system chapter) such as serotonin, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, as well as the tranquillizing alkaloids found within the numerous passionflowers. Also of note are the products of ergotamine, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (L.S.D), and the well documented central nervous stimulants strychnine (famously found in Strychnos nux vomica), johimbine (from Corynanthe yohimbe syn Pausinystalia yohimbe), and psilocybin, the latter being found in ‘magic’ mushrooms.
These include the anti-malarial drug quinine which gives its name to this group of molecules. This substance was originally derived from Cinchona ledgeriana. Also included here are the isoquinolines. They are all constructed from the amino acid phenylalanine. Notable extracts include mescaline from the low-growing peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), the opiate alkaloid papaverine and the compounds berberine and hydrastine from Berberis species.
These are derived from the nucleotides adenine and guanine and act on the nervous system, prolonging the life of many secreted hormones including adrenaline. Included in this group are the xanthine alkaloids caffeine, theobromine, theophyllene, and aminophyllene from coffee shrubs (Coffea arabica), cocoa (Theobroma cacao),and the tea plant (Camelia sinensis) respectively.
Cancer preventative compounds in fruits and vegetables
Vegetables, fruits and whole grains contain an impressive array of phyto-chemicals that are increasingly recognised as being of help to regulate and negate cancer development.
Various studies and tests suggest that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are associated with reduced risks for a number of common cancers. Hundreds of potentially valuable substances have been identified by food chemists and natural product scientists. Many are being evaluated for the prevention of cancers, although the varied mechanisms of action of the majority of plant constituents in cancer prevention are still unclear.
The following groups of molecules are all currently subject to research:
These are a diverse, structurally related group of compounds synthesised by plants and bacteria. The fact that these molecules are anti-oxidants, able to quench single oxygen atoms, has led to many theories and hypotheses regarding their roles in preventing disease processes, especially ones related to chronic oxidative damage such as cancer and cardio-vascular disease.
Recent research has suggested that carotenoids may also modulate processes such as mutagenesis (where the information of an organism is changed – usually within nature in a stable manner), cell differentiation and cell proliferation, independently of their role as anti-oxidants or pre-cursors of vitamin A. Some studies have revealed that increased consumption of beta-carotene rich foods, as well as higher blood levels of beta-carotene are associated with a reduced risk of lung cancer. Both lutein and lycopene, among the most abundant of carotenoids, are known to exhibit exceptionally strong anti-oxidant activity.
Dietary sources include carrots and tomatoes and all red/orange pigmented food as well as green leafy vegetables. A recent fad for ‘goji berries’, a close relative of the tomato, can be partially explained by the presence of carotenoids amongst other anti-oxidants. It is cheaper and surely wiser to source our common plants such as rowans, hawthorns, and rosehips for similar effects.
This molecule, and its derivative chlorophyllin, have both shown to exert profound anti-mutagenic behaviour against a wide range of potential human carcinogens. Some researchers have postulated that a reduced carcinogen uptake may be because of the complexes that chlorophyllin forms with carcinogens in the diet or digestive tract.
One recent study indicated that the amount of chlorophyllin required to protect against aflatoxin-induced-liver-carcinogenesis was less than 1500 parts per million (p.p.m). Aflatoxins are toxins produced by fungi especially members of Aspergillus fungi. They contaminate cereals before harvest and during storage.Chlorophyll concentrations within spinach are in the region of 150-600,000 p.p.m, dependent on soils. All green leaves contain chlorophyll in varying concentrations. Algae are rightly recognised as a superfood due to their abundance of chlorophyll as well as the high amounts of amino-acids and trace elements.
These compounds are ubiquitously found in fruits and vegetables and known to have an array of biological activities including oestrogenic effects. Pharmacological effects are reportedly due to their inhibition of certain enzymes as well as their anti-oxidant activity.
Certain flavonoids and the isoflavones (present in significant amounts in the pea family), are thought to act as competitors for hormone binding sites, preventing oestrogen induced stimulation of breast tumour. Ordinarily flavonoids are widely distributed in a healthy diet and are abundant in grapes (Vites spp), cereal grains (Poaceae family), tea, citrus fruits, buckwheat, umbelliferous vegetables, brassicas, and tomatoes.
The compound indole-3-carbinol is a compound derived in the acid conditions of the stomach from glucobrassicin, found in cruciferous vegetables. During digestion, many derivatives of indole-3-carbinol are produced, and these molecules act as a trigger to induce specific enzymes.
The production of these enzymes, including cytochrome P450 and glutathione S-transferase, is known to result in increased metabolic activity towards chemical carcinogens. They contribute towards the known anti-carcinogenic properties of inole-3-carbinol, as well as the reduced risk of cancer associated with diets rich in brassicas.
Broccoli (Brassica oleraceae var botrytis ) is high in indole-3-carbinol and glucosilinates and contains the carotenoid lutein. Indole-3-carbinol has been reported to help arrest the growth of prostate cancer (although mechanisms remain unclear), whilst it also decreases growth in human papilloma-virus.
These organic molecules are widely distributed in plants. They have distinctive, characteristic flavours and odours in addition to their variety of pharmacological and toxic activities. Many brassica’s including watercress leaves contain the isothiocynate molecule gluconasturtiin.
This compound is transformed by the act of chewing into phenethyl isothiocynates (PEITC), which is responsible for the sharp taste of the plant.
Watercress consumption relating to cancerous growth was increasingly studied after it was discovered that dietary doses of watercress and the resultant PEITC increases urinary excretion of NKK (4-methylnitrosamino-1-3-pyridyl-1-butanone) metabolites in smokers.
NKK is a proven potent pulmonary carcinogen in rodents and is believed to be one of the causes of human lung cancer. Inhibition of the various metabolic activation pathways of NKK by PEITC results in increased excretion of harmful metabolites in urine.
These molecules are believed to act as antioxidants or as some other agent contributing towards anti-carcinognic or cardio-protective actions. Ellagic acid, a polyphenolic molecule generated from ellagitannins has been viewed as one of the most promising chemo-preventative agents for reducing risk of human cancers.
The ellagitannins are a chemically complex group of substances. Ellagic acid is found in substantial amounts in grapes, strawberries, raspberries, cabbage, whilst another polyphenol compound, curcumin, is found in ginger and turmeric. These compounds work by scavenging oxygen radicals involved in oxidative destruction of membrane lipids, through the inhibition or induction of certain enzymes.
Sulphur based compounds
Sulphides have been shown to inhibit a variety of tumours induced by chemical carcinogenesis. Topical applications of oil-soluble diallyl sulphide and diallyl disulphide (both are found in garlic, onions and brassica’s) significantly inhibited skin papilloma formation as well as increasing the rate of survival in mice.
Sulphoraphanes are also found in broccoli. They are noted for increasing the rate by which the specific form of oestrogen linked to breast cancer – known as 2-hydroxyestrone, can be broken down through the liver by up to 50%.
Tests on animals found sulphoraphane inhibited breast cancer growth. When topically applied, sulphoraphane may protect against U.V radiation damage, and thus potentially against cancer. These molecules are being investigated in numerous clinical trials.
Recent research has revealed that broccoli seed sprouts contain 30 to 50 times as much sulphoraphane as mature plants, helping our body produce detoxifying enzymes as well as exerting anti-oxidant effects. 30g of sprouts is considered to be worth 1kg of mature heads.
These molecules are known to exhibit a diverse range of metabolic, cellular and molecular activities. Compounds under investigation include geraniol and farnesol, which have shown in tests on animals to inhibit pancreatic cancers.
The terpene perillyl alcohol (POH) is the hydroxylated analogue of delta-limonene. Essentially this means that these two molecules are structurally identical, except that POH has an extra oxygen atom.
Both of these compounds have been shown to help prevent carcinogenisis at the initiation and progression stages of liver cancer, lung cancer, U.V-induced skin cancer, and breast cancer development.
The effects are believed partly due to their inhibition of the production of certain proteins which then trigger altered gene expression. Perillyl alcohol is absorbed from the gut and metabolised to what are considered the active metabolites, perillic acid and dihydroperillic acid.
Studies have revealed that POH is more than 5 times more potent than delta-limonene at inducing tumour regression. Dietary terpenes are found widely in citrus fruits such as lemon, grapefruit, lime, and orange, as well as in lavender, mints, celery seeds, and cherries.
The substances found in whole grains are similar to those found in fruits and vegetables. They include: sterols, phytases, phyto-oestrogens, lignans, ellagic acid, and saponins. Because the phyto-chemicals are concentrated in the germ and the bran, to ensure and to maximise health benefits, it is necessary to consume the whole grain. Refinement of wheat or rice, for example, massively reduces the phyto-chemical content!