“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.
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