"Noch mal!” says Herr Gehring, pouring more beer. “Have another!” My husband and I don’t protest. When in Germany, where we recently spent nearly a year, we do as the Germans do. Is it the beer, or a trick of the Black Forest light? Glinting among the kohlrabi and rhubarb of the Gehrings’ garden we see a magical sight: a bottle of what looks like liquid sunshine.
Zauberpflanzen (magic plants) is German for certain plants known for centuries to have seemingly miraculous properties. As Frau Gehring puts another wurst on the grill, she explains that the bottle that so entrances me shines with the blossoms of one of Germany’s best known Zauberpflanzen: Arnica montana.
As with many herbs that entered the realm of folk medicine, arnica was used first in pagan times to curry favor with spirits. The blossoms were thought to be especially potent on the summer solstice. Bunches were gathered and set on the corners of fields to spread the power of the corn spirit and to ensure a good harvest. While Germans don’t believe in garnishing their fields with arnica these days, its power as a folk medicine has persisted.
A. montana is a perennial flower from the Asteraceae family, native to the mountains of Europe, as its name (montana) suggests. The yellow, daisy-like flower, seen from May to August in elevations of 3,500 to 10,000 feet, was mentioned first by Matthiolus, an Italian physician, in 1626. Folk remedies using arnica as a tea or tincture for wounds, bruises, rheumatic pains, heart weakness and even asthma, prevailed for centuries before that.
In Germany, Arnica is known commonly as wundkraut (wound herb), bruchkraut (fracture herb) and fallkraut (fall herb). In the mountains, where the steep paths make falling quite common, it was well-known that an application of fallkraut would help to heal any swelling or bruising to the body. Referred to in mountain dialect as “stand up and go home” (Stoh up un goh hen), arnica’s common names attest to its fast-healing properties.
Arnica is now an ingredient in more than 100 herbal preparations in Germany, where plant-based medications are well-researched, highly respected and government-regulated. Germany’s Commission E, an expert committee on herbal drugs and preparations from medicinal plants, cites arnica as a treatment for various post-traumatic conditions, including bruises, sprains, contusions and rheumatic ailments.
Because arnica can cause adverse effects when taken internally (it is listed as a poisonous plant in the United States, where it has been cultivated since it was imported from Europe), home-brewed teas made from fresh preparations are not recommended by the Commission. It recommends tinctures for external use at a 3:1 to 10:1 dilution, and that salves contain a maximum of 20 to 25 percent tincture or 15 percent arnica oil.
In any case, arnica should be used only in dilute form — if internal use is too high, dizziness, diarrhea, heart arrhythmia and even death can occur. Likewise, topical preparations also can cause a reaction and, in some cases, may lead to skin allergy. If reactions occur, discontinue use.
Homeopathic preparations, which are very small dosages in pill or drop form, are considered safe when prescribed by professional practitioners. British studies have shown that postoperative swelling, pain and bruising are reduced significantly if homeopathic arnica is taken prior to surgery.
The Aspirin of Homeopathy
In the Department of Plastic Surgery of Queen Victoria Hospital in West Sussex, England, 37 patients undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome participated in a double-blind study. The researchers administered homeopathic arnica tablets and herbal arnica ointment to patients, and concluded that there was a significant reduction in pain in the arnica-treated group.
Anecdotal evidence for arnica’s effectiveness abounds. A friend of mine who underwent hip surgery in England took homeopathic arnica for six weeks prior to her operation on the advice of her doctor. She experienced no postoperative bruising and very little inflammation. Best of all, the pain was not nearly as acute as she had expected after such major surgery.
Homeopathic use of arnica as a sports medicine has been praised by U.S. experts, as well. Steven Subotnick, D.P.M., N.D., D.C., author of Sports and Exercise Injuries: Conventional, Homeopathic and Alternative Treatments (North Atlantic, 1991), finds that among his patients with acute injuries and afflictions from overuse, homeopathic arnica decreases pain and speeds healing. Subotnick is so impressed with its results that he has referred to arnica as “the aspirin of homeopathy.”
Dr. Irmgard Merfort of Freiburg University in Germany knows that arnica works — but has discovered that it does so in a very different way from aspirin. Merfort’s studies confirm that it is the sesquiterpene lactones (ester derivatives of helenalin and dihydrohelenalin) that are considered to be the active compounds in arnica. These natural products work together to stop inflammation of the blood vessels. But the difference is that they work on a molecular level — by inhibiting the messages that tell the gene to encode for inflammation.
“They use a unique mechanism of NF-kappaB [a central mediator in the immune system] inactivation, which is quite different from that of other anti-inflammatory agents,” Merfort says. “Based on our results, sesquiterpene lactones could serve as lead compounds for the development of novel, potent anti-inflammatory drugs for the treatment of inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel diseases. These drugs also could be important in the treatment or prevention of adult respiratory distress syndrome or systemic immune response syndrome.”
A Long History of Use
Frau Gehring, who is 70, doesn’t concern herself with studies. Sure of its potency already, she has been making arnica tincture each summer for the past 50 years, as her mother and grandmother did before her.
Although she does not pick the arnica these days because it’s a protected plant in Germany (she now buys dried flower heads at the local pharmacy), she still likes to “cure” the Zauberpflanzen in the summer garden, as she always has done.
Once it’s ready, Frau Gehring uses her arnica tincture to treat everything from her granddaughter Josefa’s bruised knees to her husband’s gardener’s shoulder.
It seems Herr Gehring must have applied some arnica this morning. He certainly doesn’t have any trouble lifting his beer-pouring arm.
“Noch mal!” he says, pointing the bottle toward my glass. “Ja, Danke schoen!” I reply, and take a long drink. All in the interest of science, of course.
Garden- and beer-lover Nancy Allison travels regularly to Europe to gather stories about plants. She thanks her husband Aleqx for making sure she gets on (and off!) the right trains, and for translating interviews and texts from German to English.
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Arnica,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at
May 1 – 2 in Ashland, Oregon. The Oregon Herb Conference will feature springtime herb walks and workshops with knowledgeable herbalists and physicians from the Pacific Northwest. An ideal weekend retreat for those wanting to further their knowledge in a serene creekside setting. Continuing Education credits for health professionals. Contact Linnea Wardwell, Herbal Education Services, P.O. Box 3427, Ashland, OR 97520; (800) 252-0688; www.botanicalmedicine.org.
May 4, 11, 18, 25 in Boulder, Colorado. Herbal Medicine with Brigitte Mars. Learn to use diet, herbs and other natural remedies to improve health and vitality. Each class will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and will feature a different topic. Cost is $350. Pre-register by sending a $50 deposit. Contact Brigitte Mars, 1919 D 19th St., Boulder, CO 80302; (303) 442-4967; www.brigittemars.com.
May 5 – 7 in Baltimore, Maryland. SupplySide East will offer exhibits, seminars dedicated to science and research, and speakers from the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American Herbal Products Association, National Nutritional Foods Association and more. Contact Virgo Publishing, Inc., 3300 N. Central Ave. #2200, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (480) 990-1101; www.supplysideshow.com.
May 8 in Wellesley, Massachusetts. 24th Annual Herb Plant Sale, sponsored by The New England Unit of the Herb Society of America, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Sale will feature more than 200 varieties of herbs, from angelica to yarrow. Contact The New England Unit of The Herb Society of America, P.O. Box 503, Belmont, MA 02478; (617) 484-4841; www.neuhsa.homestead.com.
May 15 in Sarver, Pennsylvania. The 14th Annual May Plant Sale and HerbFest offered by the Herbal Thymes Club from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Offering a selection of hundreds of herbs for sale, aromatherapy products, herbal food items and refreshments. Also includes a free lecture by a master gardener. Contact Herbal Thymes Club, P.O. Box 1082, Mars, PA 16046; (724) 625-3865; www.herbalthymesclub.org.
May 18 – 23 in Rothenburg o.d. Tauber, Germany. The 35th Annual TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Conference. The Conference always has preserved an open-minded atmosphere, direct contact with speakers and a friendly way for participants to connect with each other. While there are different methods of diagnostics and therapy in Chinese Medicine, TCM practitioners all share the same concern in trying to alleviate suffering and cure disease. Contact the TCM Congress, www.tcm-kongress.de/web_eng/home; e-mail email@example.com.
May 22 in Creston, British Columbia. The 1st Annual Dandelion Festival, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Celebrate the virtues of the lowly dandelion with cooking demonstrations, lectures, a vendors’ market and more. Contests for best dandelion photography, painting/drawing, craft, quilt, culinary use and, of course, wine. Contact Rosewood Centre, 849 Erickson Rd., Creston, BC, Canada V0B 1G3; (250) 402-6200; www.rosewoodcentre.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 22 in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Using Herbs Topically, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Learn how to use salves, suppositories, vapor inhalations, poultices, pastes, sprays and oils. Cost is $35 (or $25 if received 10 days prior to the class). Contact Sharol Tilgner, Wise Acres Farm, P.O. Box 523, Pleasant Hill, OR 97455; (541) 736-0164; www.herbaltransitions.com; e-mail email@example.com.
May 28 – 31 in Sun Valley, Idaho. The 7th Annual Sun Valley Mountain Wellness Festival. The festival will include an opening keynote address by Marianne Williamson, a spiritual musical concert and more than 50 workshops. Cost is $35 for two days of workshops and movement classes; individual keynotes and music event tickets range from $15 to $40. Contact Sun Valley Mountain Wellness Festival, P.O. Box 2420, 371 N. Main, Ste. 202, Sun Valley, ID 83353; (800) 634-3347; www.svmtnwellness.org.
May 29 – June 9 in Provence, France. Medicinal Herbs & Aromatic Plants of France: A Plant Lover’s Journey to Provence with Rosemary Gladstar and Robert Chartier. Contact Sage Mountain, P.O. Box 420, East Barre, VT 05649; (802) 479-9825; www.sagemountain.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 5 in Bethel, Connecticut. “Herbal Healing from Mother Earth’s Garden and Tea Party Program,” 9:30 a.m. Enjoy Sunrise Herbal Remedies’ medicinal garden and delicious foods including Rosemary Lavender Cookies, Dill Cilantro Soup and Peppermint Basil Tea. Also featuring plant guides, prizes, contests and an herbal healing talk. Contact Sunrise Herbal Remedies, 35 Codfish Hill Rd., Bethel, CT 06801; (866) 794-0809; www.sunriseherbfarm.com; e-mail email@example.com.
June 5 and 26 in Boulder, Colorado. Herb Walks 2004 with Brigitte Mars. Learn to identify local plants for their edible and medicinal benefits. Walks are from 9 a.m. to noon and meet at Mount Sanitas Trailhead in Boulder. Cost is $20 for adults, $10 for under 16, $15 for over 65 and free for kids under 6. Contact Brigitte Mars, 1919 D 19th St., Boulder, CO 80302; (303) 442-4967; www.brigittemars.com.
June 5 in Coventry, Connecticut. Connecticut HerbFest 2004. Sponsored by the Connecticut Herb Association. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Workshops, weed walks, children’s activities, informational booths and demonstrations, 30 vendors and food. Attendance in the past has approached 900. Cost is $5. Contact Topmost Herb Farm, 244 N. School Rd., Coventry, CT 06238; (860) 742-8239; www.topmostherbfarm.com.
June 5 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Second Annual Herb Festival will offer a chance to buy herb plants, native plants and herb-related products. Contact Wilkins School Community Center, 7604 Charleston Ave., Swissvale, PA 15218; (412) 244-8458; www.wsccpgh.org.
June 5 in Unity, Maine. The 10th Annual Herb Fest of Maine, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will offer classes, herb walks, herbal products, plants, crafts, music and great food. Cost is $6. Contact Kate Dunham, Herb Fest of Maine, P.O. Box 329, Phillips, ME 04966; (207) 639-2005; http://entwoodnursery.com/herbfest; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 5 in Vacaville, California. Celebration of Herbs, with Kami McBride. Learn, laugh, play and celebrate the amazing wisdom of the green world at this exciting and educational event. Contact the Living Awareness Institute, P.O. Box 5381, Vacaville, CA 95696; (707) 446-1290; www.livingawareness.com.
June 7 – 11 in New York, New York. The 9th Annual Botanical Medicine in Modern Clinical Practice conference. Presented by Columbia University, course directors will include Fredi Kronenberg, Ph.D. and Andrew Weil, M.D. The faculty also will include well-known herbalists and physicians practicing integrative medicine, as well as colleagues from the New York Botanical Garden, American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation. Continuing Education credits available. Contact the Center for Continuing Education, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 630 W. 168th St., Unit 39, New York, NY 10032; (212) 305-3334; www.columbiacme.org; e-mail email@example.com.
June 15 – 17 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Natural Products Expo Europe 2004. This tradeshow and conference is for retailers, manufacturers and suppliers in the health and nutrition industry. Contact New Hope Natural Media, Penton House, 288-290 Worton Rd., Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 6EL; (866) 458-4935; www.expoeurope.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 19 in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Summer Solstice Celebration & Grand Opening, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This open house will feature an herbal bazaar of herbal products vendors, herb walks, music, games, a singing circle, dancing, a fire ritual, free classes, a sweat lodge, a meditation area and hundreds of medicinal herbs. Contact Sharol Tilgner, Wise Acres Farm, P.O. Box 523, Pleasant Hill, OR 97455; (541) 736-0164; www.herbaltransitions.com; e-mail email@example.com.
June 19 – 20 in Huron, Ohio. Mulberry Creek Herb Fair will feature a southwest cooking theme, a colossal plant sale, herb and garden vendors, free workshops, classes, music and tours. Contact Mulberry Creek Herb Farm, 3312 Bogart Rd., Huron, OH 44839; (419) 433-6126; www.mulberrycreek.com..
June 26 – 28 in Denver, Colorado. The 9th Annual International New Age Trade Show (INATS)-West will feature about 300 exhibitors and 1,500 attendees. Contact Andrew Toplarski, INATS, 2181 Greenwich St., San Francisco, CA 94123; (415) 447-3223; www.inats.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 27 in Staatsburg, New York. Scarborough Faire Herb Festival, “A Celebration of Herbs, Horticulture and Hudson Valley Foods,” from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Staatsburgh State Historic Site. Herb and garden lectures, culinary demonstrations, a marketplace, gourmet food, beverages, live music and entertainment. Contact Sue DeLorenzo, Staatsburgh State Historic Site, P.O. Box 308, Old Post Rd., Staatsburg, NY 12580; (845) 889-8851; www.staatsburgh.org; e-mail Susan.DeLorenzo@oprhp.state.ny.us.
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