Josna Rege

116. Medicinal Herbs

In 1970s, 1980s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on July 17, 2011 at 4:02 am

Sage tea, mixed with a little lemon and honey if you wish, is an excellent gargle for sore throats or cold sores in the mouth.
Wounds will heal more rapidly when washed with sage tea.
Drunk cold during the day, it will prevent night sweats.
We would all be better off if we drank sage tea, which is soothing to the nerves, instead of black tea and coffee

I make such statements regularly about sage, or Salvia officinalis, my favorite medicinal herb. But these pronouncements have passed into my consciousness almost verbatim from Jethro Kloss’ quirky, compendious Back To Eden (1939), which was one of my favorite reference books during my twenties, even as I took some of Kloss’ more outrageous claims with a pinch of salt. For two or three years in the mid-to-late 1970’s I learned all I could about herbs, their culinary, their cosmetic, but especially their medicinal uses. I pored over all the available herbals in the Concord Free Public Library, memorizing both common and Latin names. I absorbed all the herbal lore and extolled the qualities of the various plants, relishing the specialized terminology rolling off my tongue—expectorant, stimulant, tonic, astringent, demulcent. I learned to identify dozens of common herbs, cultivated many of them, and tested them out on myself and any of my friends who were willing to serve as guinea pigs. I got certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, bought a translation of the Chinese A Barefoot Doctor’s Manual, read Earth Medicine, Earth Foods for the wild plants that were used by the Native Americans, and, for a time, seriously contemplated training to become a rural midwife.

My scientist father-in-law, alarmed at my unaccountable reversion to superstition and old wives’ remedies, as he saw them, began sending me regular clippings about the harmful effects of herbs, warning that too much comfrey caused liver damage or that the essential ingredient of sassafras had been found to be carcinogenic. All to no avail: my zeal was unabated.

When and whence did my fascination with medicinal plants arise? Was it after reading Spencer Klaw’s The Great American Medicine Show, a book about the scandalous state of American medical care that my mother gave me in 1976, the year after I finished college? Or was it even earlier, with Plants and Human Affairs, the course that Andrew audited at Harvard, taught by the legendary ethnobotanist Richard Shultes, who gave his students samples of plants he had brought back from the Amazon? (One of those samples, a bark that contained a concentration of caffeine much higher than in coffee, enabled me to stay alert for most of a night while I wrote a paper due the next morning.)

I learned from one such source that, as late as 1900, half of the drugs in the U.S. Pharmacopeia still derived directly from plants, but most of these had since been replaced by chemically synthesized versions manufactured in the laboratory by drug companies. The problem with these man-made drugs as used in modern allopathic medicine is that they tend to act upon disease the way a bomb acts upon a target: dealing a knockout blow but causing a great deal of collateral damage, sometimes even killing the patient as well as the disease. In contrast, in their natural state in the plant, less concentrated but more complex compounds will have a slower but gentler effect, achieving greater balance while doing less harm. I liked the idea of bypassing the medical industry altogether by growing my own medicinal herbs. After all, the 1970s was the era of self-help. I was part of a preventative care self-help group at the Women’s Health Center in Cambridge, where we gave each other check-ups and—I shudder to think of it now—even practiced drawing blood on each other.

Some of my experiments produced strikingly successful results, reinforcing my confidence in the herbal remedies. Once, when our friend Michael was visiting Concord from New Mexico, he got a nasty-looking gash from a sharp object at the bottom of White Pond. I washed it immediately and thoroughly with a sage infusion and bound it with comfrey leaves, and not only did it remain free from infection, but in less than two days it had healed and almost completely vanished without a scar. I drank tea made from red raspberry leaves throughout my pregnancy and had a short and easy labor. Of course such experiences alone did not constitute scientific proof of the safety and effectiveness of the herbs, but they helped to reinforce what I had read in the various books I had consulted. When there was any doubt, I steered clear of the plant, restricting myself to tried-and-true remedies. (And I must add a disclaimer here that no one should attempt to heal a serious medical condition without consulting a trained health practitioner. )

That period of intensive study and experimentation is well behind me, but I still have a few herbs and herbal remedies that I swear by.  Sage, of course, is first among them. We no longer have a sage plantation out in the garden, but we do have a healthy specimen in a big pot and I am sipping sage tea for my sore throat as I write.

The ubiquitous yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is known to help heal wounds caused by metal—hence its common name Knight’s Milfoil, since warriors would carry it in their belts as they went into battle. It grows in our kitchen garden, returning year after year. So too does comfrey, which is also effective in healing wounds and even fractures—hence its common name, Knitbone.

Horehound is a well-known expectorant, effective for clearing phlegm. If you’ve ever had horehound candy you will forever recognize its distinct medicinal taste. Coltsfoot, one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, is a demulcent, coating and soothing sore throats. Red clover tea is a pleasant-tasting stomach tonic; nettles are good for the circulation; myrrh is excellent for the gums; and goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis—also known as Heal-all—heals wounds and clears inflammation of mucous membranes. Goldenseal powder was (and still is) in such demand that our friend Maureen once said that she ought to start a goldenseal plantation to support her in her retirement. Andrew did in fact start a number of plants some twenty years ago. I just noticed yesterday that there are only three survivors; two of them, though, are sporting large red berries. Perhaps we can still hope for Heal-all to cure what ails us in our fast-approaching old age.


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  1. dear josna, fascinating, particularly the bit at the end about getting old and needy of a promising cure all: i do sympathize! in our family, though, we swore by cod liver oil, in copious amounts, and no art of persuasion will bring me back to that! bine

    • We did attach a certain romance to herbal lore and healing in the 70s. I think perhaps many of us were influenced by Barbara Ehrenreich’s pamphlet, Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Feminist Press, 1973). Have you read my story on my own experiences with cod-liver oil and malt? x J

  2. Funny that just today I asked my pharmacist to give me a list of the side effects of one of the many drugs I am being prescribed now and he handed me a three page treatise!!

    I love your ideas and wish they were all so easy to use for tendonitis, Rheumatoid arthritis,
    and chronic pain.
    Meanwhile I am scheduling an epidural to ease the inflammation from a pinched nerve in
    my back caused by a fall a few weeks after my back surgery. I wonder what wonder herb could fix that?

    • Dear Marianne, You are very gently making the important point—and one I failed to acknowledge—that there are many things that modern allopathic medicine can do that herbs can’t. There may be herbal treatments for, say, tendonitis, but probably none to match the antibiotics that can wipe out a slew of bacteria-caused diseases or the anesthetics that permit surgery without excruciating pain. (Still, there may be some herbal treatments that could ease some of the symptoms of RA–no doubt not as powerfully as today’s drugs, but perhaps with fewer side-effects.)

  3. Dear Josna, I found intersting your experience about herbal medicine to cure. To tell you about my health, in my active adulthood I was hospital myself, resorting to various cure methods, Allopathic, Ayurved, Homeopathy, Nature cure and yoga and I found that these used to give me only placebo effect, the feeling of cure was temporary with side effects.For the last twenty years I realised like Archemides, the real problem of our health with humans, we are highly obssessed to our body than to our mind and we live in constant fear of death than life when compared to other animals and insects who live their life naturely than humans who live artificially living with misery. We have created many number of crutches used for able bodied humans. What an irony! For the last twenty years I am living with no illness without any medicines and I learnt that our body is a huge store house to take care of itself. A doctor is needed to set our brocken bone. Our trend is that we use a machine gun or a rocket to kill a fly. That is the tragedy of humans. I can share my experience with people who are confused and insecure in their day to day life as if they are having Roller coaster Drive with a bleak future created by economic system. But I loved your narratives. Thank you Josna. I am in Hyderabad to spend few days with Sangeeta. I will read many more of your writing at a later day. with best wishes, G. P.Kamat Sangeeta’s Dad
    27 July 2011

    • Dear Mr. Kamat, What a delight to receive your comment! I think that you are quite right that a doctor is useful as a carpenter of sorts but that we create or worsen many of our own maladies by dwelling fearfully upon our bodies and our material conditions. Your image of using a machine gun to kill a fly reminds me of another such analogy by a scientist, Amory Lovins, who compared using nuclear power to create electricity to using a chainsaw to cut butter. Love and best wishes to you all, Josna

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