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Fascinating - and mostly free!
Member Name: SaraL
Date: 12/09/00, updated on 19/11/00 (334 review reads)
Advantages: easy to try out, wealth of information available
Disadvantages: need to take common-sense precautions
Herbalism, or herbal medicine, is such a vast subject that it's impossible to deal with it in any depth here.
Whether you're making a sweet scented pot pourri from garden flowers; hoping a feverfew sandwich will cure a headache; rinsing your hair in a chamomile infusion or popping a Lane's Quiet Life pill, all these, and much more, come under the broad banner of herbalism.
This, then, is a very general overview to this increasingly popular subject and area of complementary medicine, and some of the things that, in my experience, have been helpful.
For many, herbalism can simply mean picking up a pot of echinacea or st John's wort from the local health food shop. If that's your main interest, a useful, if rather simple guide, is the book A Guide to Herbal Remedies by Mark Evans.
Some of the most successful commercial herbal preparations I've known to work well include Lane's Quiet Life (some people find them sleep-inducing, others just calming); feverfew tablets (for headache, especially migraine) and ginger capsules (travel sickness)
In days of old, of course, all medicine was herbalism and, for me, the principal fascination with the subject involves investigating those ancient principles and growing and collecting my own plants and making weird (and sometimes wonderful) lotions, potions and ungents with them.
Growing herbs is remarkably easy, some have distinct preferences regarding light and shade, but most will thrive on neglect. Herbs and wildflowers generally are often the best choice for poor or stony soils, which they tend to prefer anyway - so if you have one of those 'nothing will grow here' spots, herbs like hyssop, mint, thyme and feverfew may be worth trying. General herbal and gardening books will offer some general advice, but if you'd like something more lavish, then Creating a Herb Garden by Jessica Houdret is as good as any.
The growing of herbs in
the garden can, of itself be a form of herbal medicine - medicine for your flowers and veggies that is! Companion planting involves interspersing your more tender plants with herbs, which help to see off common pests and diseases.
Once you've grown your herbs, they are remarkably easy to store for future use. Forget the traditional method of drying. Dried out herbs that have been hanging up in the kitchen may look pretty in lifestyle magazines, but by the time they've gathered dust and cooking smells they're pretty useless for anything else. Instead you can pop them in the freezer (small amounts in ice cube trays) and use the amount your want when you need it.
Another joy is going out into the countryside to gather 'weeds' or herbs to turn into a theraputic brew. Obviously, if you choose to follow that route you need to be very sure what you're doing. Also avoid collecting anything that's by a roadside where it will have picked up pollution from the roads, or which might have been sprayed with agricultural chemicals.
Warnings aside, this is one of the very few activities that'll prompt me to 'go for a walk' and there's the excitement of discovery when you find a huge crop of rosehips for syrup (excellent for nasty coughs and sore throats) or dandelions (wine and surup for cysitis). If you're at all unsure my absolute favourite guide book for this is the Hamlyn Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants.
So what do you do with your plants once you've got them? Herbs are usually prepared for medical use by steeping in water (macerations, decoctions and infusions); steeping in alcohol (tinctures) or pounding into an ointment. Sometimes the herb is just mashed up a bit (good technical term there) and laid over the skin (a poultice) A good guide book will tell you the appropriate way to use each plant. Here are a couple of suggestions:
* The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine by Simon Y
(quite technical and in-depth for those who want practitioner level knowledge)
* The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
(very comprehensive, but accessible)
There are literally thousands of herbal uses and remedies. Apart from those mentioned above, these are some of the most popular/useful:
* Couch grass tea (it has to be useful for something!) is reputed to be good for arthritis (this tastes pretty bad though)
* marigold (calendula) infusion works for some people against cystitis
* boil up whole dandelions (root and all) as an indigestion remedy
* steep cornflowers (just the flower part) in boiling water and use the liquid on sore, tired eyes
* inhale the steam from yarrow in boiled water for chest infections (yarrow is also supposed to be good for piles but I've not had cause to try that!)
* Press elderberries to obtain juice for bronchitis (also acts as a laxative - be warned)
* Infuse ground elder or sage in boiling water for a mouth wash and gargle for sore throats and gum infections
* Smash the outer leaves of cabbage (organic) a bit and lay on areas of eczema or any spotty skin infections
Finally, remember that just because it's natural, that doesn't mean it's harmless. Most of the media outrages against 'new age' therapies are caused by people poisoning themselves by being plain daft. Don't take any plant whose identity you're not 100% sure of. Make sure you use the part of the plant recommended in a reputable book.
Finally, a couple of websites which may come in handy
(comprehensive guide to everything to do with herbs and numerous links)
(renowned international herbal medicine site)
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