Article by Matt Tennyson | Photography by Matt Tennyson & Joshua Eller | Owl Staff
In the race to find the answers to our modern ailments, we often turn to the pharmaceutical industry for an easy, quick fix. The unfortunate consequence of this is that we’re often taking pills that we don’t need.
Daniel R. Levinson, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states that many physicians have “questionable prescribing patterns” and they often “prescribe per beneficiary, which may indicate that these prescriptions are medically unnecessary.”
In ancient times, plants were the basis of all health, functionality, and life. From the Native Americans using rosemary in their herbal remedies, to the ancient Chinese using ginseng to relieve stress and fatigue, to the Europeans using goldenseal to fight off infections, plant-based medicine has been at the forefront of holistic healing for thousands of years.
Interestingly enough, much of western pharmaceutical medicine has taken its roots from pharmacognosy, which is basically just a fancy term for plant-based medicine. For example, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences states, “The cancer drug Taxol originally came from the bark and needles of yew trees.”
While the development of pharmacology certainly has its merit, sometimes the cures we’re looking for are hidden in plain sight, right in our own backyard.
The famous dandelion (Taraxacum) has been used for centuries as a powerful medicinal plant. The University of Maryland Medical Center points out, “In the past, dandelion roots and leaves were used to treat liver problems. Native Americans also boiled dandelion in water and took it (dandelion) to treat kidney disease, swelling, skin problems, heartburn, and upset stomach.”
Dandelion is easily infused into tea that has many medicinal properties. To make the tea, simply pour hot water over the dandelion roots into a cup and steep them for several minutes.
Local herbalist Bill Messenger has had personal experience with using natural remedies as an alternative to western medicine. Messenger had suffered a hiatus hernia, which he was able to cure using a plant known as calamus (Calamus aromaticus).
According to an article entitled “Calamus” written by Messenger for Maryland Conservationist Magazine, “the base of the plant is chewed as a folk cure for indigestion throughout the world, especially in India where it was once the official remedy for stomach disorders.”
Messenger adds, “The oil, extracted from the plant, is used in some patent medicines today as a digestive aid.” Calamus is often found near marshes, ponds, or swamp areas.
Another powerful medicinal plant growing in our backyard or garden is called broadleaf plantain. You may have seen it before and assumed it was just a nuisance. Broadleaf plantain contains several bioactive compounds, vitamins, and minerals.
According to a report from the Elsevier Journal of Ethnopharmacology, “Plantago major l. (broadleaf plantain) leaves have been used as a wound healing remedy for centuries. They add, “These (cures) include diseases related to the skin, respiratory organs, digestive organs, reproduction, the circulation, against cancer, for pain relief and against infections.”
Messenger says that “broadleaf plantain seeds can be ground into a meal using a mortar and pestle or they can be eaten raw.” He adds, “The entire plant is edible, though many find the taste of the leaves to be bitter.”
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is another beautiful, yet effective plant that has promising skin healing properties. As the National Library of Medicine states, “Jewelweed mash was effective in reducing poison ivy dermatitis, supporting ethnobotanical use.” Jewelweed is often found near streams or shady, moist areas.
For aches and pains that often permeate our joints as we work hard and get older, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) may have some promising yield. Brandeis University lays it all out, saying, “Germany recently approved the use of (stinging nettle) roots (to treat) for prostate cancer, rheumatism, and kidney infection.” This prickly plant is found throughout open forests and streams, but it can also make the occasional appearance in your vegetable garden.
Along with its medicinal properties, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) makes for a revitalizing and healthy snack. As Cornell University points out, “P. oleracea (purslane) is listed as a treatment for parasites, a blood-cleanser, and to refresh the digestive system.” Purslane is also packed with Omega-3 fatty acids, proteins, and other vital nutrients. Purslane is a common garden weed that is found throughout the world.
It is important to note, however, that there are precautions one should take before consuming any of these natural remedies. A warning from the University of Maryland Medical Center states, “Herbs can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care provider qualified in the field of botanical medicine.”
Considering that just about everything we consume and use comes either directly or indirectly from plants, it’s no surprise that there are powerful cures throughout the natural world. Whether it’s for a common headache or a more serious disease, plant-based medicine could very well have the cure to our bodily ailments. As the philosopher Voltaire once said, “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”