In medieval Europe, herbs were not only sown near gardens, but also brought inside to cover floors with a sweet, refreshing blanket of strewing herbs. This custom was introduced to Europe by the conquering Romans and the Persians before them. Banquets and processions were occasions for scattering herbs and flowers for officials to walk on. The aroma was so pleasing that chamber rooms and parlors were soon covered with fresh herbs when visitors arrived. The coronation of Tudor kings and queens began with the strewing of sweet flag and meadowsweet. Church floors and pews were laced with local flowering herbs for fragrance and to reduce disease. Herbs were also burned to repel insects and reduce the stench from the lack of sanitation.
Today, herbs can be simmered in an open pot to freshen a room or strewn on the carpet before vacuuming. A few drops of essential oil can be dropped on a moist sponge or cotton ball to quickly freshen a room. Cooking angelica, anise, or fennel seeds in an ungreased frying pan will also quickly release a purifying scent. Bowls of fresh herbs can be placed in spring water near entrances and in the kitchen and bathrooms for a refreshing finger bath.
In Western herbalism today, it’s common to differentiate between three kinds of herbs that act on the nervous system: nervine tonics, nervine relaxants, and nervine stimulants.
In cases of shock, stress, or nervous debility, nervine tonics can strengthen and restore nervous system tissues. One of the best remedies is common oats (old-fashioned whole oat groats, not instant or rolled). Other nervine tonics include ginseng and Siberian ginseng.
Nervine relaxants help alleviate stress and tension. These herbs are the closest natural alternative to tranquilizers, but they should always be used holistically—too much tranquilizing, even from an herb, can deplete the nervous system. This category includes black cohosh, California poppy, chamomile, hops, lady’s slipper, lemon balm, passionflower, rosemary, St.-John’s-wort, and valerian.
Nervine stimulants usually are not needed; it’s generally more appropriate to stimulate the body’s innate vitality with nervine tonics or digestive tonics, which have a deeper and longer-lasting effect than stimulants. When direct nervine stimulation is indicated (such as in cases of abnormally low blood pressure), the best herb to use is kola, though coffee, yerba maté, and black tea may also be used. These stimulants have a number of side effects and can themselves cause minor psychological upsets that can lead to anxiety and tension. Some herbs that are rich in volatile oils are also valuable, the most common being peppermint.
Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and people. The term was coined more than a century ago by a young Pennsylvania botanist, John Harshberger, who said that ethnobotany was the study of plants used by primitive and aboriginal people. Over the last century, the term’s meaning has broadened to mean the use, importance, and perception of the environment by the original inhabitants of the North American continent or by aboriginal peoples elsewhere.
In terms of medicinal herbs, ethnobotanical research provides information on many previously unstudied plants. Plant chemists study these plants to verify traditional uses and in hopes of finding new medical treatments and other uses.
The unofficial “father of ethnobotany,” Richard Evans Schultes, Ph.D., director emeritus of Harvard University Botanical Museum, spent fourteen years living among and studying the Indians of the northwest Amazon. During this time, he collected more than 25,000 plant species, some 1,500 of which were used as medicines by the Indians. Many of these have never been even superficially studied by plant chemists.
If your information on herbs has come from someone who is not a medical doctor—perhaps in nutrition or some other field—you may find the importance of modern medicine downplayed. Some (but not all) herbalists believe that herbs and a positive attitude can cure anything. But many people believe we still need modern medicine for major ailments such as cancer and heart disease.
Herbalism and modern medicine are not mutually exclusive—they simply represent different perspectives. Although there are extremists in both camps who criticize the other’s approach, the major differences between the two systems are more in emphasis than in substance. In both approaches, an illness requires treatment and recuperation for cure. Modern medicine glorifies treatment. Herbalism gives the recuperation of the human body far greater emphasis.
If your herbalist tells you that you don’t need a physician but your common sense and your body tell you that you do, then go see your physician, or at least call. The smart consumer relies on the best of each system to achieve optimal health.
Applying healing herbs to the skin can stop bleeding, protect against infection, and ease pain. The skin also absorbs some chemicals from the plant and moves them into the bloodstream. This is how herbs applied to the skin can stimulate internal organs or circulation, thus encouraging healing.
Poultices are made by adding hot water to dried, powdered herbs or fresh, coarsely ground herbs and placing the herb directly on the affected area. The herbs may be covered with gauze and taped in place. They can be kept warm with a hot water bottle or heating pad and preferably are left on overnight or for a few hours.
Plasters are oily or waxy mixtures blended with herbs and applied to the chest area or abdomen to stimulate the internal organs. They may include ingredients such as olive oil or beeswax. In past times, the mixture was spread onto a cloth and rolled tightly for storage, then unrolled and applied when needed.
Cammarata, John, M.D. A Physician’s Guide to Herbal Wellness. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1996.
Griffin, Judy. Mother Nature’s Herbal. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn, 1997.
Griggs, Barbara. Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1997.
Hobbs, Christopher. Handmade Medicines: Simple Recipes for Herbal Health. Loveland, Colorado: Botanica Press, 1998.
Hoffmann, David. An Herbal Guide to Stress Relief. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1991.
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