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Archive for the 'Plants' Category

14
Feb
12

Echinacea: How to grow and use this powerful antibiotic and immune-stimulant

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

If there is one plant image that has come to epitomise herbal medicine and good health in the last two decades, it would be the purple cone flower of echinacea. Splashed on supplements, chemist walls, natural healing centres, echinacea was the best selling herb of the 1990s. It’s prominence is well-deserved offering a range of potent medicines and a strong alternative to pharmaceutical antibiotics for Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and tuberculosis.

In our ever-escalating chemical arms race with germs, we look set to come off as the losers. Each year seems to see the mass-outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that modern medicine just can’t seem to nail. Plants, especially herbs, offer our greatest hope.  So why is it that plant therapies can work where the pharnmaceutical companies are failing? Complexity in nature, is a fine thing.

Pharmaceutical companies rely on incomplete science and market-driven solutions, to produce patentable isolates that are quick, efficient and cost-effective to get to market. For instance, penicillin has one chemical constituent-penicillin. Bacteria that reproduces so quickly can easily find a way around that one mechanism. Plants on the other hand have far more complexity. They have had hundreds of thousands of years to evolve their complex chemical compounds that work together to produce strong and effective medicines. This complexity makes it difficult for bacteria to bypass the plant medicine’s actions.

Echinacea’s complexity makes it a potent healer

Echinacea has complexity. The plant contains many chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids.

Echinacea was highly valued as a medicinal herb by Native Americans and early settlers there, treating weeping wounds, boils, abscesses and snakebite. There are nine species of Echinacea of which two are used medicinally Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea. E. angustifolia, the narrow-leaf form, is the most cited in herbal medicine work as it is considered more potent. It is usually wild-harvested in the US and therefore the most expensive.  E.purpurea has a broad leaf and is the most common as it is easier and faster to grow. It is still highly regarded amongst herbalists and those relevant chemical compounds seem to be consistent across the varieties.

Today, echinacea has a well researched and confirmed reputation for enhancing immune function. There are multiple lab and animal studies suggesting echinacea also relieves pain, reduces inflammation, and has hormonal, antiviral and antioxidant effects. For this reason, echinacea is recommended to treat a large range of infections, inflammations, hay fever, cold sores and slow-healing wounds. The effects on colds and flu are unclear with plenty of for and against studies. But it seems the quality of the plant extract taken seems to be the greatest area for dispute.

How to take echinacea

The University of Maryland Medical Center indicates that adults:

For general immune system stimulation, during colds, flu, upper respiratory tract infections, or bladder infections, choose from the following forms and take 3 times a day until you feel better, but not for more than 7 – 10 days:

  • 1 – 2 grams dried root or herb, as tea
  • 2 – 3 mL of standardized tincture extract
  • 6 – 9 mL of expressed juice (succus)
  • 300 mg of standardized, powdered extract containing 4% phenolics
  • Tincture (1:5): 1 – 3 mL (20 – 90 drops)
  • Stabilized fresh extract: 0.75 mL (15 – 23 drops)
  • Apply creams or ointments for slow-healing wounds as needed.

It also states that people who are immune-compromised should not take echinacea due to possible drug-interactions.

How to grow Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea sales represent 10% of the dietary supplement market in the United States. For those of us who can’t afford these supplements, try growing your own patch of purple health in your cultivated beds.

Echinacea pupurea is best treated as a biennial and sown from seed. (Please note that seeds can take around 3 weeks to germinate). Best to sow pre-soaked seed into trays in early autumn, transplanting into the garden in spring. You’ll see flowering before the end of the next autumn. Echinacea loves full sun and can handle drought and wind, requiring only around 25mm of water per week through summer. Slugs and snails are its worst enemies.

For New Zealand readers: I have Echinacea purpurea seeds for sale, contact me here.

Echinacea purpurea tincture made from flowerheads

The best time to harvest echinacea flowerheads is when they are coming into flower and are at about one-twelth flowering (one in twelve flowers are open). Gather a large amount of the aerial parts including flowerheads and buds.  This is when the active constituents in the aerial parts are in their prime. (If you do this early enough in the season you’ll probably be able to get a second go over).

To make the tincture you take the fresh clippings and add them to as high a proof alcohol as you can find, to the ratio of one part plant to two parts alcohol. Mix in a blender before placing in a glass jar and leaving on a sunny windowsill. Shake every day for two weeks before straining out the plant material and store the liquid in a cool, dark place.

Links to research supporting echinacea’s efficacy

Continue reading ‘Echinacea: How to grow and use this powerful antibiotic and immune-stimulant’

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31
Jan
12

Terrifically Useful Tuesday: Kigelia – Sausage Tree

Image credit: bsterling @ FlickrCC licence

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

One of the things I love about the internet is that you can set up systems to send you alerts for wonderful things. My french toast this morning was interrupted by sausages, actually sausage trees, thanks to an interesting auction on Trade Me.

Sausage trees are crazy looking things. Known as Kigelia africana in botanical circles, these sub-Saharan trees have berries that way around 12 kg and dangle from trees with the colour and shape of sausages. Those berries have a huge variety of uses in traditional and Western medicine. And you can now by the cream in NZ thanks TradeMe user gp.ca.johnson.

The tree’s fruit, bark, roots and leaves are all used for their curative properties – anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-amoebic and anti-skin-aging effects. And this TradeMe auction comes with some very good sources. I love it when people add scientific studies to support use. See refs below (I went and found the URLs so you can just click away).

The kigelia sausage tree grows prolifically across sub-Saharan tropical Africa and as far south as South Africa. It is also grown as an ornamental in Australia and parts of the US.

Kigelia is considered a very important tree economically and for the ecosystem around it. Bats pollinate the dark red and stinky flowers (which is quite odd as flowers pollinated by bats are usually white). Monkeys and elephants love the fruit.  Leaves are excellent livestock fodder. The fruit is poisonous to humans causing blistering and violent vomiting, but roasted fruits are used to flavour beer. The wood itself is used for canoes and when planted along river banks stops soil erosion.

Houghton P.J. (2002) The sausage tree (Kigelia africana): ethnobotany and recent scientific work. South African Journal of Botany 68: 14-20. 

Jackson, S. J., Houghton, P.J., Retsas, S. and Photiou, A. (2000). In Vitro Cytotoxicity of Norviburtinal and Isopinnatal from Kigelia pinnata Against Cancer Cell Lines. Planta Medica 66: 758- 761. (PDF)

Picerno, P., G. Autore, et al. (2005). Anti- inflammatory activity of verbinoside from Kigelia africana and evaluation of cutaneous irritation in cell cultures and reconstituted human epidermis. Journal of Natural Products 68: 1610-1614.

04
Jan
12

12 Medicinal Herbs I Grow and Use Often

Images left to right from top: comfrey leaf; thyme; dill flowers; dried hops flowers; St John’s wort flowers; potted kawakawa; broad-leaved plantain; yarrow flowers; yarrow leaves; lemon balm; feverfew; aloe vera; peppermint. 

There are masses of websites with info on medicinal herbs and quite frankly most of them are rubbish. Written by writers, not by doers they run of a list of ‘facts’, historical details, and an dizzying list of healing properties. What they don’t do is offer actual, real walk-out-into-the-garden-and-use details.

Here are a list of herbs I grow and use the most that don’t need a medical, herbal or botany degree to use or recognise. All have scientific backing. All are super easy. I’m not a herbalist, just a very keen gardener. I believe you should see a herbalist for the proper internal use of herbs (lots of active ingredients in plants can cause all sorts of issues).

Comfrey

I had monumental back and hip problems having a baby. My doctor suggested using comfrey poultices because my tailbone ached for months after. For me, it was a miracle cure. I scrunched up a couple of leaves, put them in a cloth and poured hot water of it and sat with it on the sore bit for 15 minutes a night. I was cured–could walk properly, carry my child and wasn’t constantly in pain. Sore knees, sprains, strains? Go find yourself some comfrey.

Thyme

For sore throats and mouth ulcers I boil the jug and pick a handful of thyme, or use the dried thyme I’ve collected. I let the thyme steep for 30 minutes and add a spoonful of salt. Tastes much better than store bought alternatives and works just as well.

Dill

I collect the seeds of my dill each year and they’ve been a godsend with a windy baby. After the first couple of months I stopped using gripe water (active ingredient is dill), and made herbal teas with crushed dill seeds and gave her tiny sips.

Hops

I have a tin next to my bed of hops, rose petals and lavender. When I’m having trouble getting to sleep I open it up and waft away with the delicious scents.

St John’s wort

St John’s wort is mostly associated with depression, but that’s a whole medical aspect I’m not prepared to get into here. But looking at those brilliant sunshiney flowers will definitely lift your mood. I use St John’s wort for burns and bruises by making a tincture which you can read about here. Warning! Weed alert: grow St John’s wort in a container.

Kawakawa

I battle winter colds with a kawakawa, lemongrass and ginger tea. Kawakawa is a native of New Zealand with a peppery bite. I collect and dry the ingredients and store them in an airtight container. I also chew on the leaves if I’ve got a toothache. Use the kawakawa leaves with lots of holes, the insects are showing you which leaves contain the most medicinal compounds.

Plantain

Insects love to bite me. Luckily I have lots of plantain growing everywhere. I grab a leaf and rub the underside on bites and it takes the itch right out of it.

Yarrow

There tends to be lots of cut fingers in my household–bloody DIYers. Beautiful white yarrow grows as a weed in my garden and wrapping a furry green leaf around the afflicted digit stops the bleeding.

Lemon balm

Brewed into a tea, lemon balm is marvellous for headaches, anxiety or when friends arrive feeling a bit down. It’s also said to be helpful to drink if you have a coldsore. I haven’t had a chance to test that yet.

Feverfew

I used to eat a leaf a day to ward off migraines. They taste pretty awful so I’d roll them into a ball and cover them with honey or mashed potato or peanut butter or just about anything to cover the bitterness. This is a longterm strategy, it will take about a month of continual use before the active compounds start kicking in. I haven’t taken it while pregnant or breastfeeding and suggest you don’t either.

Aloe vera

Sunburn, skin irritations, after-waxing redness? Aloe vera is my summer go-to plant. Grab an aloe vera spear, slice off the spikes, slit in half and rub juicy, refreshing aloe vera innards all over the skin. Instantly cooling, really soothing.

Peppermint

Nausea is the mindkiller-when you’ve got it, it’s very hard to think of anything else. Use peppermint for a zesty herbal tea to ease the quease.

01
Nov
11

Sweet Iris

Sweet iris Iris pallida, the source of orris root used in perfumery. Flowering for the first time in the gardens at LPL HQ. The rhizomes are harvested after three years and then dried for up to five years and give off the aroma of violets. Perfumes that smell powdery contain orris root. The preparation of the root for perfumery is all done by hand and makes orris root one of the most expensive ingredients in fragrance-making.

05
Jul
11

Corker

It was far too frickin freezing this morning to be outside. It was so cold that I even invited a Jehovah’s Witness in for a cup of tea. He politely declined, sensing I was a woman who simply couldn’t be saved and carried on his way. He was after all on a mission from God.

The gentleman did leave me some reading material that, surprisingly, did catch my botanical interest. Awake magazine’s July 2011 issue has an article about cork. I haven’t paid much attention to cork, even though it is an often-met hurdle between me and a glass of some sparkling elixir. But the JW magazine has, and here I summarise some of the most interesting tidbits.

  • The outer layer of bark from the cork oak tree is phenomenally useful due to it’s light, fire-resistant, insulation and elastic properties.
  • Harvesting is done completely by hand and top-quality corks are still punched by hand.
  • The trees are first harvested at 25 years. The bark regrows and is harvested every 9-10 years after that. The best quality wine corks are taken from trees that are at least 50 years old.
  • Spain and Portugal’s cork forests support several birds in danger of extinction – the imperial eagle, the black vulture and the black stork -as well as the Iberian lynx.
03
Jun
11

Watching Ray Mears Northern Wilderness

There’s a whole lot of nature doco-watching going on in our house right now. It’s become the thing to do for us to keep sane while being up at strange hours, spending a lot of time nursing and trying to get a young one to sleep. The flavour du jour is Ray Mear’s Northern Wilderness series.

The six-parter exploring Canada, has the typical BBC visual splendour and a great mix of social and natural history combined with a bit of practical survival. Unlike the showy and shallow styles of certain US presenters, Mear’s takes both a practical and social anthropological approach to his bushcraft.

There’s a lot of plant-based info candy in this series. Here a just a few snippets from the first two eps that I found really interesting.

Buy the DVD at the BBC shop

Birch

The number of different ways a single plant can be used by humans constantly tickles me. Episode 1 shows the First Nation’s tradition of pulling apart the many layers of birch bark into almost paper thin sheets. These can then be bitten to form intricate patterns. Episode 2 introduces the beautiful, strong but lightweight canoes used by the fur traders along Ontario’s French River.

Poison Ivy

Everyone has heard of the infamous poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but it’s thankfully rare in NZ. Leaves are grouped in threes, each with jagged edges. Containing urushiol oil, it causes itchiness and blistering on contact, painful enough for 350,000 Americans a year to seek medical treatment.

The fascinating bit of info here is the use by some of the First Nations tribes in eastern North America as an early form of chemical warfare. When the wind was blowing in the right direction, the plants would be burned carrying the toxic oil into the eyes and lungs of the enemy. Cleverly diabolical.

There is a lot of really good plant stuff in these programmes.

Buy the DVD at the BBC shop

Buy the book Northern Wilderness: Bushcraft of the Far North at Mighty Ape

27
May
11

Saffron Harvest

Saffron makes me dream of exotic adventures in Arabia, Persia and India, but I’ve just had my very first saffron harvest a million miles away in little ol’ New Zealand. It won’t provide my yearly requirements, nor make me a fortune. But it may provide me with a winter’s supply of this spicy saffron drink to strengthen the body and warm the heart.

I tend to get all spicy at this time of year, adding exotic flavours to everything not only for great food but to summon their healing powers to keep me wholesome over the winter. Saffron is one of the very few of such ingredients I can grow in my own backyard. Should the end of civilisation arrive anytime soon please, please let me have enough stocks of cloves, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, turmeric, ginseng, dried pomegranate seeds. Oh and chocolate! There must be chocolate.

Spicy Saffron Elixir

Take a pinch of each of the following powdered spices and add them to a pot of black tea. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. Steep for 3 minutes. Strain and sweeten with honey or raw sugar.




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