Flowers come in an astonishing array of colors, scents and forms–botanists estimate there are more than 240,000 types of flowering plants in the world. Although we primarily appreciate flowers for their uplifting effects on the spirit and psyche, many flowers also contain a wealth of healing compounds with measurable effects on the body and mind.
The pigments that provide flowers with their bright colors, the molecules that give them their unique scents, and even the compounds that help repel predators are some of the many elements that have been identified as having healing properties. The flowers listed here are some of the most widely used and studied in herbal medicine.
Used since Roman times, calendula (Calendula officinalis) has a centuries-old reputation as a wound healer. The bright yellow and orange blossoms contain volatile oils, tannins and resins that calm inflammation; speed healing; and have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.
In recent studies, calendula has been proven to help heal venous leg ulcers, which are notoriously slow-healing wounds caused by poor circulation. Calendula often is a primary ingredient in herbal salves for skin rashes, diaper rash, minor cuts and burns, and chapped lips. A strong tea made from calendula blossoms makes an excellent footbath for athlete’s foot, a facial wash for acne, an eyewash for conjunctivitis, a mouth rinse for aphthous ulcers (canker sores) or a vaginal wash for yeast infections.
Help Your Heart with Hawthorn
European doctors and herbalists have long been savvy to the heart-healthy benefits of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.); they’ve been prescribing hawthorn since the late 1800s for angina, heart rhythm disturbances and mild congestive heart failure. The abundant clusters of pink and white spring flowers of the hawthorn shrub are packed with compounds that improve cardiovascular blood flow, strengthen the contraction of the heart muscle, lower blood pressure and calm palpitations.
Numerous clinical studies in Germany have shown that hawthorn improves symptoms of heart failure such as shortness of breath, fatigue and fluid retention. Many herbalists recommend hawthorn tea as a tonic to maintain heart health, particularly for people older than 40 and those who have a family history of cardiovascular disease.
If you take medication for a heart condition, check with your doctor before using hawthorn because it can enhance the effects of certain drugs. For best results, take hawthorn long-term–it takes at least two months of continuous usage for the benefits of the herb to accrue.
Pacify Anxiety with Passionflower
Native to the southern United States as well as Central and South America, passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a fast-growing vine with showy purple and white flowers. The flowers and leaves have a long history of use for easing anxiety and insomnia dating back to the Spanish conquistadors, who learned about the sedative effects of the plant from the Aztecs.
Research has shown that passionflower contains a variety of mild tranquilizing compounds, and extracts of the herb have been shown to be as effective as prescription drugs in relieving anxiety symptoms. Unlike anti-anxiety drugs, passionflower doesn’t have negative side effects, such as impairment of job performance.
Passionflower shouldn’t be used during pregnancy because compounds in the herb (harmala alkaloids) are uterine stimulants. If you are taking prescription sedatives or monoamine oxidase inhibitory (MAOI) antidepressants, check with your health-care practitioner before using passionflower.
Heal Wounds with Yarrow
Reputedly used during the Trojan wars to treat wounds, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has been recognized for more than 2,500 years for its healing properties. The feathery leaves and dense clusters of tiny white flowers contain a variety of compounds that help stop bleeding and have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Sometimes referred to as an “herbal Band-Aid,” yarrow tea or diluted tincture can be applied as a compress to minor wounds to staunch bleeding.
Yarrow also promotes sweating and traditionally is used as a hot tea to lower a fever. Because it dilates peripheral blood vessels, yarrow also is often included in herbal formulas to help lower blood pressure.
A strikingly beautiful native North American plant, Echinacea purpurea, the most commonly used echinacea species in herbal medicine, has large magenta flowers. Echinacea was the favorite medicine of the Plains Indians, who used it for treating infectious diseases and wounds.
Several hundred scientific studies have confirmed that echinacea is a potent natural healer: It stimulates immune function, strengthens cells against invading microorganisms and has natural antibiotic activity. Echinacea is effective for helping the body fight off colds, flu and virtually any other type of infection. It also can be used externally as an antiseptic wash to treat wounds or skin infections.
The flowers and roots of echinacea contain the healing properties, and both are used in teas, tinctures and other medicinal preparations. For best results, take echinacea at the first sign of an infection.
Relax with Lavender
The fragrant purple spikes of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) are well-known for their relaxing and mood-lifting effects. Since ancient times, lavender has been a beloved herb for easing stress and anxiety, and as a natural sleep aid.
Numerous studies have shown that the fragrance of lavender significantly decreases anxiety, including in high-stress situations, such as dental offices and nursing homes, and during medical procedures. In studying the effects of scent on the brain, scientists have found that lavender increases the type of brain waves that are associated with relaxation.
To enhance sleep, fill a small muslin tea bag with dried lavender flowers and place it inside your pillowcase. Soaking in a warm bath with lavender essential oil is another pleasant way to take advantage of the relaxing benefits of lavender.
Meadowsweet: Gentle Pain Relief
The sweet, almond-scented blooms of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) are rich in salicin, a compound with potent natural pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. In the 1800s, chemists began tinkering with extracts of meadowsweet, and the result was the creation of the synthetic drug aspirin.
Although meadowsweet isn’t as powerful as aspirin, it also doesn’t cause the stomach irritation for which aspirin is notorious. In fact, meadowsweet often is used to soothe the mucous membranes of the digestive tract and is recommended to relieve excessive stomach acidity and to treat diarrhea.
The tiny, golden-centered flowers of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) have a delicious apple scent and flavor, making chamomile tea an herbal favorite. Much more than just a tasty beverage, chamomile eases indigestion, insomnia and emotional tension. At the same time, chamomile is gentle enough to soothe a colicky baby.
Widely used in topical skin-care products, chamomile contains bisabolol, a compound that relieves inflammation, calms skin irritation and fights problem-causing bacteria. Chamomile flowers also are rich in apigenin, a potent antioxidant that reduces inflammation, protects skin from free radical damage and helps repair injured skin cells. In German studies, chamomile cream was found to be as effective as hydrocortisone cream and more effective than noncortisone prescription creams for treating eczema-type skin problems.
Cheer Up with St. John’s Wort
The bright yellow star-shaped flowers of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) are a common sight along roadsides in late summer. The fresh flowers and buds are rich in compounds (hypericin and hyperforin) that have mood-brightening effects. St. John’s wort has a well-deserved reputation as the most popular herbal remedy for easing mild to moderate depression. In dozens of studies, extracts of the herb have been proven to relieve mild to moderate depression as effectively as prescription antidepressants.
St. John’s wort also has been used for centuries for treating wounds, burns, bruises, varicose veins and nerve-related pain, such as sciatica, and recent studies are verifying the herb’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
For treating depression, St. John’s wort is most effective when taken as a standardized extract, generally 300 mg three times daily. Because St. John’s wort has a cumulative effect on mood, it can take one to two months to notice a difference. The herb can interact with numerous medications, so consult your doctor if you’re taking prescription drugs.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1,001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).