Herbs for Health: Health Benefits of Evening Primrose

| October/November 1995

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) opens its four-petaled blossoms after sunset or on dark cloudy or rainy days. It is worth the time to visit an evening primrose plant at dusk and watch as the cream to bright yellow petals unfold like a slow-motion film. The show starts in June and continues through October.

Evening Primrose: The Plant

Evening primrose belongs to the Onagraceae (evening primrose family), whose members also include fireweed and fuchsia. Its many common names allude either to its resemblance to other plants or to its historical reputation as an herbal panacea: scabish, king’s cure-all, night willow herb, and German rampion. A biennial with a sturdy taproot, evening primrose grows to about 8 feet tall and flowers in its second season. You might find this North American native in your backyard or in fields, along roadsides, or in waste areas throughout much of eastern North America, where it is naturalized. It is a weed in Europe, where it has escaped from cultivation.

Historical Uses For Evening Primrose

All parts of evening primrose are edible. Native Americans in Utah and Nevada ate the seeds. The young leaves can be used raw in salads or as a potherb. They are usually cooked in several changes of water to get rid of their bitterness. English settlers in America took the seeds back to the British Isles as early as 1614, and in the decades following, evening primrose was grown in both English and German gardens for its nut-flavored roots, which were boiled like parsnips. The plant returned to North America in the mid-nineteenth century as a vegetable called German rampion for its similarity to rampion (Campanula rapunculus), a bellflower with edible roots and basal leaves. The seeds have also been used as a substitute for poppy seeds, which they resemble.

Native Americans also used evening primrose for a variety of medicinal purposes. The Ojibwa poulticed the whole plant on bruises. The Cherokee drank a tea made from the root to take off weight. The Forest Potawatomi considered the seeds a valuable medicine, but records documenting its use have been lost. European settlers began using the plant as medicine in the eighteenth century. The Shakers used the leaves or roots externally to promote healing of wounds and a tea of the leaf and root to settle an upset stomach.

Modern Uses For Evening Primrose

One of the best-known uses of evening primrose oil among today’s consumers of herbal medicine is in mitigating discomfort associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). A number of double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have shown that evening primrose oil significantly reduced irritability, breast pain and tenderness, and mood changes associated with PMS; however, one study concluded that the relief of PMS symptoms by evening primrose oil was statistically insignificant compared with that of the placebo.

In recent years, evening primrose has garnered attention as an important dietary supplement and a good source of essential fatty acids: substances, like vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, that the body cannot manufacture yet needs to maintain health. They normally are obtained through the diet. Common essential-fatty-acid sources include vegetable oils and leafy green vegetables. A deficiency in essential fatty acids may produce scaly skin lesions, hair loss, poor wound healing, diminished immune response to infections, and fatty degeneration of the liver. It can also adversely affect the circulatory, nervous, digestive, endocrine, respiratory, genitourinary, and reproductive systems.

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