Herbs for Health: A Good Night’s Sleep

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Asian Ginseng
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Siberian Ginseng
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Reishi mushroom
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Gotu kola
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No matter how hard we try, we just can’t do without sleep. The body’s internal regulators usually do a pretty good job of establishing when and how much we sleep, but schedule changes, long airplane trips, excitement, stress, or nagging worries can upset the pattern. If insomnia persists despite conservative measures–getting more exercise, for example, or going to bed at the same time every night–people sometimes turn to sleeping pills. Prescription drugs may have undesirable side effects such as reacting with alcohol or drowsiness the next day. Some are habit-forming or addictive. Insomniacs who do not need a physician’s attention may be pleased to discover that herbs can help them sleep without annoying side effects.

Herbs used for the treatment of insomnia also act, in varying dosages, as sedatives, hypnotics, soporifics, antianxiety agents, calmatives, minor tranquilizers, and nervines. Most do this by depressing the central nervous system. The following herbs are among those most commonly used to induce sleep.


Few herbs have as long a history of medicinal use as valerian. Of the 200 or so species of Valeriana native to the Northern Hemisphere, South Africa, and the Andes of South America, the best known to herb gardeners is V. officinalis (the official valerian of the apothecary shops). Over the past thirty years, more than 200 scientific studies have demonstrated its effectiveness as a mild sedative, pain reliever, and antispasmodic as well as in increasing coronary blood flow. More than 120 chemical components have been identified from the root and its essential oil. In the 1980s, a series of Swiss clinical studies showed that valerian extracts significantly improved sleep quality for people suffering from mild insomnia while producing minimal side effects (1).

One of valerian’s most appealing aspects as a sedative is that it does not interact with alcohol and produces no morning aftereffects. Some components of valerian have been found to be toxic to certain types of cells in laboratory experiments, but toxicity has not been shown in therapeutic doses of whole-plant extracts. Some individuals, however, have reported headaches or a stimulant effect after taking valerian. These effects may be a consequence of large doses taken over a long period of time. Like any other substance, valerian should be used in moderation.


Hops are the strobiles (fruits) of the herbaceous vine Humulus lupulus, best known as the bitter flavoring ingredient in beer. Hop teas have traditionally been used for insomnia, restlessness, and other nervous conditions as well as for intestinal cramps and lack of appetite. The German government has approved the strobiles for use in the treatment of mood and sleep disturbances (2). A regulatory monograph by the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy (ESCOP), pending ratification by its member countries, approves hop use for nervous tension, excitability, restlessness, sleep disturbances, and lack of appetite (3).

And what about those hop-filled sleep pillows? According to pharmacognosist Varro E. Tyler (4), when stored, hop’s volatile oil components undergo oxidation to produce the compound methylbutenol, which when inhaled depresses the central nervous system. That probably accounts for the sleep-inducing attributes of hop pillows. How much of the compound is delivered during a night of inhaling the subtle fumes emitted from a hop pillow or how long a hop pillow’s effectiveness lasts is unknown.


Few herbs have a stronger folk reputation as a sleep aid than catnip (Nepeta cataria). Well into this century, a simmering pot of catnip tea was a fixture on the back burner of many American homes, awaiting colds, fevers, stomach upset, or sleeplessness. Well known for the stimulating responses it evokes from cats, the compound nepetalactone may have depressant effects on the central nervous system in other animals. More research is needed to confirm catnip’s reputed value as a human sleep aid.


Most of America knows of chamomile’s reputation as a sleep aid from the trade name of Celestial Seasonings’ popular chamomile tea, Sleepytime. The most widely used species is the annual German or Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Infusions of the dried flowers have been recommended for gastrointestinal spasms and inflammation. Pharmacological studies have shown mild sedative effects on rodents (5), and chamomile has traditionally been used to treat mild sleep disorders, especially in children. Its sedative effects have not been well confirmed by studies on humans, however. A cup of chamomile tea before bedtime could be like a glass of warm milk–soothing and relaxing, no matter what its pharmacological activity may be.


Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) has been recognized for use as an antispasmodic and sleep aid for more than 100 years. As with many American medicinal plants, its use today is more widely accepted and appreciated in Europe, where the fresh and dried whole plant and preparations such as teas are used to treat nervous anxiety, especially in cases of sleep disturbances (6).

Pharmacological studies have shown that passionflower prep­arations measurably depress the central nervous system. Although several studies have confirmed sedative, antispasmodic, and anxiety-relieving activity of several chemical fractions, the active component has not been pinpointed. It is likely that several chemical components act synergistically (7). Unfortunately, there has been little ­clinical research except for a handful of studies involving passionflower in combination with other herbs. The late German physician Rudolf Fritz Weiss suggested that passionflower is mildly sedative and hypnotic, but is best used in herbal preparations that contain other ingredients (8).

Valerian, hops, catnip, chamomile, and passionflower are the most widely used and perhaps best known of herbal sleep aids. They all have a long tradition of safe use, although some are not as well documented by clinical studies as they might be. And if the herbs themselves don’t make you nod, try reading the scientific papers on them late at night. They are guaranteed to put you to sleep.


(1) Leathwood, P. D., and F. Chauffard. Planta Med. 1985, 51:144.

(2) Monograph Lupuli strobulus, Bun­desanzeiger, No. 228, 1990.

(3) ESCOP. Proposal for European Monographs 2, ESCOP Secretariat, Bevrijdingslaan, The Netherlands, 1992.

(4) Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.

(5) Leung, A. Y., and Steven Foster. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley, 1995.

(6) ESCOP. Proposal for European Monographs 1, ESCOP Secretariat, Bevrijdingslaan, The Netherlands, 1990.

(7) Speroni, E., and A. Minghetti. Planta Med. 1988, 54:488-491.

(8) Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine (translated from German by A. R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, 1988.

Three Ginsengs: Asian, American, and Siberian

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), used in China for more than 2000 years, is the most renowned of all Asian medicinal plants. Hundreds of scientific studies over the past forty years have focused on the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical aspects of the use of Asian ginseng and, to a much lesser degree, two other members of the ginseng family, the closely related American ginseng (P. quinquefolius) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Although methods and results are hotly debated, much of the research has provided a scientific basis for the traditional claims about ginseng. These include its effects on stamina and fatigue, cholesterol, reproductive performance, stress reduction, aging, and longevity.


The genus Panax contains about six species, of which four are native to eastern Asia and two to eastern North America. The native habitat of Asian ginseng is mountainous forests of northeastern China and Korea. American ginseng ranges from Quebec west to Manitoba and south to northern Florida and Alabama. It is most abundant in the Cumberland Gap region of southern Appalachia. Both species thrive in sweet soils on cool, shaded, rocky slopes. Siberian ginseng is indigenous to northeast Asia, including much of the far southeastern former Soviet Union, northeastern China, Korea, and Japan.

Asian and American gin­sengs are herbaceous perennials up to 24 inches tall with simple, erect stems. The stem divides at the top into three to five fronds, each producing three to five toothed leaflets. A single flower stalk 3 to 8 inches long terminates in a small umbel of inconspicuous pink or pale yellow-green flowers, each giving way to a small red berrylike fruit that contains two seeds. Taproots suggestive of a human form grow down from a short rhizome and give rise to a number of fine rootlets.

Siberian ginseng is a spiny-stemmed shrub with numerous upright stalks 3 to 15 feet tall. The leaves, which grow on slender stems 1 to 4 inches long, are palmately divided into three or more elliptical, toothed leaflets 3 to 5 inches long. Tiny five-petaled flowers occur in terminal umbels that grow singly or in groups of up to four on long stalks. The blackish, ovoid fruits are a little more than 1/4 inch long.

The generic name Panax is derived from the Greek pan (“all”) and akos (“remedy”), referring to the root’s reputation as a cure-all. The word panacea has the same Greek roots. The word ginseng is a transliteration of Chinese ideograms that mean “essence of the earth in the form of a man”.

According to ancient beliefs, ginseng represented the crystallization of the unseen spirit of nature in the form of a man who dwells in its root. Thus, ginseng roots that were clearly man-shaped held the spirit and power of God and were effective in curing disease and strengthening the weak.


The earliest written account of Asian ginseng dates from about the first century a.d.: “It is used for repairing the five ­viscera, quietening the spirit, curbing the emotion, stopping agitation, removing noxious influence, brightening the eyes, enlightening the mind, and increasing the wisdom. Continuous use leads one to longevity with light weight” (1).

Petrus Jartoux, a Jesuit missionary in northern China, in 1714 became the first Westerner to publish a description of Asian ginseng. Another Jesuit missionary, Joseph Lafitau in Montreal, discovered American ginseng in 1716. Soon the export of American ginseng to China began.

The root of American ginseng was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1842 until 1882, principally as a stimulant and stomach remedy (2), but it was regarded primarily as an export commodity. Throughout much of its range, commercial harvest has jeopardized the survival of wild American ginseng, and its harvest and commerce are now strictly regulated. In 1989, more than 2 million pounds of cultivated American ginseng, valued at more than $54 million, was exported from the United States.

Siberian ginseng also has a long history of use in China and the former Soviet Union. In the United States, it has been grown mainly as a specimen plant at botanical gardens and arboreta, including Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, where it was introduced from St. Petersburg in 1892.

Traditional uses

Chinese medical practitioners classify Asian ginseng as yang (which has a warming/male character) and use it for increasing ch’i (energy), strength, and blood volume; promoting life and appetite; and quieting the spirit and giving wisdom. It is used alone or combined with other herbs to treat shortness of breath with spontaneous perspiration, nervous agitation, forgetfulness, thirst, and impotence (3). American ginseng is considered a yin (cooling/female) tonic whose action is to reduce heat of the respiratory or digestive systems (4). It is used for treating weakness of the lungs accompanied by dry cough, weak fever with thirst, and stomach heat.

Siberian ginseng is used in the modern practice of traditional Chinese medicine for increasing ch’i, treating energy deficiencies that result in lower back pain and kidney problems, and normalizing body functions (5). In northeastern China, it is a folk remedy for bronchitis, heart ailments, and rheumatism. The Chinese believe that its regular use helps to restore vigor and memory, improve general health, promote good appetite, and increase longevity (6).

In North America, American ginseng was an important medicine among the Seneca, especially for the elderly. The Crow tribe used the root or an infusion of the leaves to induce childbirth without suffering (7). The Oklahoma Seminole used the root to treat nosebleed and shortness of breath and as a “woman catcher” (8). The Penobscot referred to the plant as “man root” and used the root to increase the fertility of women (9). The Ojibwe and Menominee used the root as a tonic and to strengthen mental powers (10).


Asian, American, and Siberian ginseng are considered distinct medicinal plants. The basic premises of ginseng research differ in the Orient and the West, the Chinese tending to investigate how ginseng works while many European and American studies have focused on whether it works. Although the ginsengs have been shown to produce ­significant physiological effects, research procedures and interpretations have come in for criticism. The risks and benefits of the plant in modern health maintenance are also difficult to assess. Cultural factors, timing of harvest, preparation, dosage, and method of administration all influence the efficacy of ginseng.

Studies from 1959 to 1975 by the Bulgarian researcher V. W. Petkov provided a pharmacological basis for the stimulant ­effect of Asian ginseng on the respiratory and central nervous systems and its ability to lower blood sugar and blood cholesterol and increase brain-cell reactivity in response to stress (11).

The Soviet researcher I. I. Brekhman found that Soviet soldiers given an Asian ginseng extract ran faster in a 3-km race than those given a placebo. Radio operators receiving Asian ginseng extract made fewer mistakes and transmitted text faster than those who took a placebo. In addition to increased work efficiency, the Russian studies demonstrated enhanced adaptation to darkness and temperature extremes, and increased reactivity of certain types of brain cells in response to stress among persons taking ginseng root extracts. They also showed that ginseng stimulates the central nervous system and respiratory system and reduces blood sugar, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure. (12)

Extracts of Asian ginseng root have been shown to counteract the toxic effects of chloroform, amphetamines, and other toxins, and to prolong the lives of mice exposed to X-rays (13).

Asian ginseng extract increases the weight of seminal vesicles and prostate glands, and also increases sperm counts and pregnancies in rodents. It also appears to stimulate synthesis of DNA, RNA, and protein. External application of ginseng ­increases the rate of skin regeneration and helps prevent wrinkling. (14)

The main active components of ginseng are saponins called ginsenosides. In studies of X-ray-irradiated rodents, protection of the animals from the damaging effects of radiation appeared to be closely correlated with dosage and ginsenoside content. Seven European clinical studies involving standardized ginseng extracts showed shorter reaction times in response to visual and auditory stimuli and increases in respiratory efficiency, alertness, power of concentration, grasp of abstract concepts, and visual and motor coordination (15).

The isolated ginsenoside Rb-1, a central nervous system ­depressant and tranquilizer, ­reduces blood pressure (16) and has demonstrated effects against convulsions, pain, fever, psychosis, and ulcers. It inhibits conditioned avoidance response, has weak anti-inflammatory ­activity, increases gastrointestinal motility, and accelerates ­synthesis of serum and liver ­cholesterol, RNA, and serum protein. On the other hand, the ginsenoside Rg-1 counteracts the effects of fatigue and slightly increases motor activity and blood pressure (17).


Numerous studies have confirmed the safety of ginseng used in moderate amounts (0.6 to 2 g per day), with no reports of significant toxicity or interactions with drugs. Leading medicinal plant researchers have suggested that ginseng should be used for no longer than three months, then discontinued for one month. The British Herbal Compendium, a handbook of the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, recommends that ginseng not be used by pregnant women or people with high blood pressure or when other stimulants such as caffeinated beverages are regularly used (18).


(1) Hu, S. Y. J. Chinese Univ. Hong Kong 1977, 4(2):283-305.

(2) Claus, E. Pharmacognosy, 4th edition. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1961.

(3) Hu, S. Econ. Bot. 1976, 30(1):11-28.

(4) Hsu, P. In Hensley, D., et al. (eds.). Proc. First Nat. Ginseng Conf. Lexington, Kentucky: Governor’s Council on Agriculture, 1979.

(5) Foster, S. American Ginseng. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council, 1990.

(6) Duke, J., and E. Ayensu. Medicinal Plants of China. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications, 1985.

(7) Goldstein, B. Am. J. Chinese Med. 1975, 3(3):223-234.

(8) Howard, J. Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicines, Magic and Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

(9) Speck, F. Proc. Int. Cong. Americanists 1915, 19:30-32 (publ. 1917).

(10) Smith, H. Bull. Public Museum of Milwaukee 1923, 4(1).

(11) Petkov, V. W. 1978. Arzneim.-Forsch. 28:388-393.

(12) Shibata, S., et al. In Wagner, H., et al. (eds.). Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, 1. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1985.

(13) Staba, E., and S. Chen. In Hensley, D., et al. (eds.). Proc. First Nat. Ginseng Conf. Lexington, Kentucky: Governor’s Council on Agriculture, 1979.

(14) Farnsworth, N., et al. In Wagner, H., et al. (eds.). Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, 1. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1985.

(15) Ng, T., and H. Yeung. In Steiner, R. (ed.). Folk Medicine: The Art and the Science. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1986.

(16) Shibata, S., et al. In Wagner, H., et al. (eds.). Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, 1. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1985.

(17) Saito, H., et al. J. Japan. Pharm. 1974, 24:41-48, 119-127.

(18) Bradley, P., ed. British Herbal Compendium, 1. Bournemouth, England: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1992.

Book Review

Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals
Varro E. Tyler

Pharmaceutical Products Press/Haworth Press, 10 Alice St., Binghamton, NY 13904-1580, 1994. Softbound, 209 pages, $17.95. ISBN 1-56024-895-5.

Do you have any friends or relatives who are doctors, dentists, nurses, or drug-company researchers who doubt the value of herbal medicines? When you give them resource materials on herbal medicine, do they say things like “Interesting . . . but without references to controlled clinical trials, I don’t find your information persuasive”? If you’ve ever been dismissed by medical professionals, then Herbs of Choice, by Varro Tyler, is the book for you–and them.

Tyler, the Lilly Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy (natural-product pharmacy) in the School of Pharmacy at Purdue University, has long been one of the nation’s most respected and knowledgeable ­scientific authorities on medicinal herbs, or phytomedicines (“phyto-” means plant). He has written more than 250 scientific publications and is the senior author of Pharmacognosy (ninth edition), the standard U.S. textbook in the field of natural pharmacy. Tyler is also a patient, thoughtful, quietly charming man who for years has been on a two-pronged mission: first, to persuade the medical community that phytomedicines deserve respect and, second, to persuade herbalists that these plants must be approached cautiously and scientifically because they can harm as well as heal.

Herbs of Choice is an herbal directed toward medical professionals. Its style and tone should inspire the confidence of health professionals. However, Herbs of Choice is also fairly accessible to the nonmedical reader interested in the latest clinical research on herbal medicines’ effects. In short, two thumbs up.

Herbs of Choice begins with a welcome perspective on issues that bedevil medical professionals interested in herbs: herbal quality and dosage. Pharmaceuticals contain standardized dosages of their active ingredients. In Europe, where phytomedicines are considerably more mainstream than they are in the United States, ­standardized herbal extracts abound, but few standardized extracts are available here, meaning that dosages involve a certain amount of guesswork. Even with standardized herbs, the strength of medicinal teas (infusions or decoctions) varies based on the herb sample used, its freshness, and steeping time. Tyler acknowledges the difficulties involved in using herbal preparations but also provides clinicians with clear information enabling them to make the best use of the most beneficial herbs.

The rest of the book deals with herbal treatments for specific complaints. It is organized, as medical texts are, by body system (respiratory, digestive, genitourinary, and so on). Tyler considers thirty-five ailments, for which he recommends more than 100 herbs. These include ginger for nausea; senna, cascara sagrada, plantago (psyllium) seed, and buckthorn for constipation; raspberry and blackberry leaf for diarrhea; the mints for stomach distress; milk thistle for liver damage; licorice for ulcers; ephedra for asthma; digitalis for congestive heart failure; valerian for insomnia; feverfew to prevent migraines; willow bark for pain; and echinacea for infections and immune enhancement. Some of these herbs–for example, digitalis–should not be used by even ­experienced home herbalists. Congestive heart failure is a potentially serious condition that requires professional care, but because Herbs of Choice is written for clinicians, Tyler includes it.

In addition to citing the medical literature, Tyler also makes extensive use of the 300 monographs produced thus far by Germany’s Commission E, a body whose mission is to evaluate the world medical literature on herbal medicine and make recommendations to the German counterpart of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about their use in over-the-counter and prescription medicines. Tyler enjoys longstanding working relationships with several members of Commission E and has greater access to the monographs than most American herbalists have. That’s a real plus, because the Commission E reports represent the state of the art in medicinal herb evaluation.

Herbs of Choice is a good gift for any medical professional. I intend to give a copy to my family physician, who still thinks that garlic is a harebrained approach to cholesterol reduction despite more than a dozen well-controlled studies showing that it works. Who knows? One day even she may say: “Drink two cups of willow bark decoction and call me in the morning.”

–Michael Castleman



Shiitake and cancer: Studies at Budapest’s Institute of Pathology and Experimental Cancer Research have shown that lentinan, a polysaccharide found in the shiitake mushroom(Lentinus edodes), is a promising anticancer agent and immune-system stimulant. Besides inhibiting metastasis to the lung, which is considered the most dangerous aspect of cancer, lentinan can stimulate increased production and activity of the body’s natural killer cells and macrophages to destroy tumor and other aberrant cells.(1)

Certain types of tumors are more susceptible than others to attack by the immune-system cells that lentinan stimulates. Thus, the range of lentinan’s defense is limited, but within that range, and for other conditions aided by a strong immune system, lentinan appears to be highly effective.

Reishi and inflammation: Classified more than 2000 years ago as a superior medicine, the reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) has been confirmed in a pharmacological study as a strong anti-inflammatory agent with no known untoward side ­effects (2). Tests carried out at the University of Texas included comparison of mushroom extracts with the common anti-­inflammatory drugs hydrocortisone, phenylbutazone, and ­aspirin, all of which produce various degrees of side effects and toxicity. In both oral and topical applications, the mushroom’s spores had an anti-­inflammatory effect comparable to that of either hydrocortisone or aspirin and exceeding that of phenylbutazone.


Best known as a garden flower in the United States, the four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) is considered toxic. Ingestion of the seeds or roots has caused poisoning in children. However, since the four-o’clock was introduced to Africa from Latin America, traditional healers in Zaire have used the powdered seeds to treat infected wounds. The Natural Science Research Center in Zaire studied the activity of seed extracts–both water and methanol extracts as well as a combination of the two–against seven strains of bacteria and found that M. jalapa was effective against all of them, the combined extract more so than either of the others (3).

Some of the bacteria strains used in the tests are common to both wound infections and intestinal disorders. The intestinal bacteria cause severe diarrhea and occasional deaths in many parts of Africa.


Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is used in Europe to stimulate mental function, and recent research in India has revealed significant effects of a water extract of the fresh leaf on learning and memory (4). Rats given the extract orally for 14 days before testing retained learned behavior up to sixty times as well as control animals.

Previous research has indicated that gotu kola improves memory and helps overcome the effects of stress and fatigue. Two studies have shown the herb to improve the intelligence quotient and behavior of mentally retarded children. No toxicity has been noted in this or any other study, even at doses as high as 16 g/kg–equivalent to nearly 2.5 pounds of fresh leaves for a 150-pound human.


A study conducted at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Oregon tested the effects of freeze-dried nettles (Urtica dioica) on ninety-eight hay fever sufferers, who evaluated the effects of treatments subjectively on questionnaires (5). Of the sixty-nine participants who completed the trial, 57 percent of those in the test group felt that the nettle treatment was moderately or highly effective, and half of those found it at least as effective as previously used hay fever medications. However, 35 percent of participants who received a placebo found the placebo moderately or highly effective.


A diet high in fructose tends to increase the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. A recent study at Kagawa Nutrition College in Japan examined the effects of adding spirulina (Spirulina platensis, a blue-green alga) to the diet of rats with high serum cholesterol induced by fructose (6). The addition of spirulina, in amounts equivalent to 5, 10, and 15 percent of total diet, consistently reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels while increasing the activity of lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme involved in fat metabolism.


(1) Ladanyi, A., J. Timar, and K. Lapis. Cancer Immunol. Immunother. 1993, 36:123-126.

(2) Stavinoha, W. Third Academic/Industry Joint Conference, August, 1990. Sapporo, Japan (unpublished).

(3) Kusamba, C., K. Byamana, and W. Mhuyl. J. Ethnopharm. 1991, 35(2):197-199.

(4)Nalini, K., et al. Fitoterapia 1992, 63(3):232-237.

(5)Mittman, P. Planta Med. 1990, 56:44-46.

(6) Iwata, K., et al. J. Nutr. Sci. & Vitaminology 1990, 36:165-171.

“Herbs for Health” is offered bimonthly by the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation as a supplement to ­The Herb Companion.

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