Book Review: The Backyard Medicine Chest

The Backyard Medicine Chest: An Herbal Primer
• By Douglas Schar
• Elliot and Clark
• PO Box 21038, Washington, DC 20009-0538, 1995
• Softbound, 160 pages
• $12.95
• ISBN 1-880216-28-0.

The Backyard Medicine Chest is a primer for the would-be herbalist, intended as a simple, fun, entry-level herbal for the reader who has little previous experience with the medicinal uses of herbs. It contains inexpensive herbal solutions to thirty common ailments that are usually treated with nonprescription drugs: digestive problems, respiratory problems, female problems, problems with muscles, joints, and back, nervous problems, and skin problems. The book also offers instructions on making tinctures and a base cream.

Under each major topic is a discussion of individual conditions; among digestive disorders, for example, are diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, intestinal flu and nausea, and hemorrhoids. Each of these subsections includes a profile of a single herb useful for treating that condition. Cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) is recommended for the treatment of diarrhea. Although few herbal practitioners today use it, cranesbill is an effective astringent owing to its high tannin content. Regrettably, little scientific research has been done on this herb.

Boneset is the featured herb for the treatment of influenza and the common cold. Early North American documents show that boneset was a popular remedy for fevers related to colds and influenza. It was also prescribed for influenza by eclectic medical practitioners of the nineteenth century. Laboratory experiments during the past decade have confirmed that various Eupatorium species, including boneset (E. perfoliatum), have immunostimulatory activity. Boneset otherwise has not received much recent scientific study except for the identification of relatively high levels of liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the leaves. Neither boneset nor damiana, which Schar recommends for nervous exhaustion, fits the description of safe and well-researched herbs that the author sets forth in the introduction.

On the other hand, most of his recommendations–such as chamomile as a gastrointestinal strengthener, ginger for intestinal flu and nausea, caraway for gas, licorice for cough, and chasteberry (from the chaste tree, Vitex agnus-castus) for menstrual irregularities and premenstrual syndrome–are generally accepted as safe and useful by both the herbal and the scientific community.

One serious drawback to this book is that readers may be left with the erroneous impression that they can consume, with utter confidence and safety, any herb listed therein. About licorice, for example, the author writes, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rated this one ‘generally recognized as safe,’ so you can drink as much soothing licorice tea as you like.” On the contrary, the FDA has approved licorice as “generally safe” only in the minute amounts used in food products. German government regulations for the conditions for which Schar recommends licorice root are quite different: duration of use is limited to four to six weeks because of potential adverse side effects including sodium retention and potassium loss leading to high blood pressure, and its use is contraindicated in liver disorders and pregnancy. Adverse drug interactions with certain diuretics and increased sensitivity to digitalis compounds have been ­reported.

Schar provides numerous historical anecdotes but only a smattering of scientific references. Contrary to the title, you will not find most of the herbs in your backyard. If you are new to the subject of herbal medicine, you will find this to be a humorous and informative introduction, but make sure that you corroborate the information presented with advice from a more authoritative source.

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