Opinion: One Woman’s Conversion to Medicinal Herbs

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Wholeness in plants and people

“The scientific basis of medicine is much weaker than most patients or even physicians realize, and this leads to treatment based on uncer­tainty,” former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop wrote in a 1992 editorial about health-care reform.

This weakness is seldom acknowledged by those who control the juggernaut of the medical world. Nor is ­scientific uncertainty accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in judging the efficacy of plant medicines. But is scientific validation a prerequisite for those of us who want to use herbs for our health? I’m skeptical. Re­searchers in the laboratory often take a jigsaw approach, reducing a plant to its smallest constituents, then choosing only the most active to investigate. I believe this approach is conceptually flawed.

In my universe, every plant is a symphony. You can’t throw away any notes without the risk of creating a ­cacophony. When only a plant’s most active ingredients are used, some essential notes are lost. Plants may contain buffering agents and synergistic elements that can make the whole plant–or concentrated extracts of its fruits, flowers, leaves, stems, or roots–safer or more powerful than one or two constituents. Echinacea and valerian are examples of plants that work better as whole plants or as plant parts than as active ingredients separated out of the whole.

Using my own herbs for medicine adds harmony to my life. Each fall I make an extract of echinacea roots by steeping them in vodka or other alcohol. Echinacea is an immune booster that keeps colds and flu at bay. I do the same with valerian, a sedative that helps me sleep after a stressful day. I dry chamomile flowers, which smell and taste wonderful, then combine them with dried lemon balm for a snooze tea. I use calendula, comfrey, and chamomile to make a salve that soothes chapped skin. My vivid red homemade St.-John’s-wort oil works great on ­bruises. I add nutrition to salads when I toss in the violet leaves of early spring and purslane later in the season.

These are solutions to minor problems, but they contribute a lot to my health. I’m convinced that my herbs have kept me free of major ­medical problems for years–no small feat as I’m seventy-three. Oh, I’m not self-sufficient: I still buy vitamins and extracts of herbs that I can’t grow, such as ginkgo for my memory and saw ­palmetto for my husband’s prostate. I also suspect that the very act of walking out into fresh air to tend and harvest my own herbs adds to their power to heal. They are more vital, to me, than plant constituents isolated in a laboratory.

I wasn’t always an advocate for the healing power of herbs. Two decades ago, I was disdainful of herbal medicine. I grew lots of herbs, but for pleasure, not for healing. My conversion happened one icy Saturday when my husband, in his car slip-sliding up the road from our house, bumped into and bruised the leg of one of our heifers who was in the roadway. My husband had to leave for work, so I had to take care of the limping cow.

I decided to try comfrey, an ancient wound healer that is also called knit-bone. I pick-axed through the ice and dug up several thumb-sized roots, made a decoction in a bucket, and trudged down to the creek where the cow had retreated. The cow slurped up the murky brew, and the next day I gave her a second dose before she walked up the hill to join her friends.

After that, I experienced many other incidents that, while worthless as scientific proof, nonetheless convinced me of the power of herbs to heal. I read as much as I could. I also listened closely to people in the medicinal herb business whom I trusted and many of whom have become good friends–people such as Jim Duke, Mark Blumenthal, Steve Foster, and David Hoffmann.

My joy in growing my own herbs is related to my need for connectedness to the earth, for a sense of wholeness. I think that other people today feel that same hunger. There are many paths to this wholeness, but mine is to follow the ancient wisdom of herbs, to glean from past generations of healers.

I believe pharmacognosist Norman Farnsworth when he says: “For every disease that afflicts mankind, there is a treatment or a cure occurring naturally on this earth.” And I take comfort from Ecclesiasticus: “The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them.”

Portia Meares is an herbalist and gardener in Wolftown, Virginia. She founded The Business of Herbs newsletter in 1983 and is a member of the International Herb Association.

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