Medicinal leaves and herbal remedies are foundational aspects of our human existence. Our collaboration with plants on food, health, and happiness are the building blocks of our species.
In our hyper-rationalized dominant culture today, there is plenty of cynicism around the power of plants to support, treat, and cure various ailments. The federal drug administration enforces strict laws and regulations on how herbal practitioners can provide care and label their products. This is ironic, as our allopathic systems of medicine were (and are) based on the powers of medicinal plants to begin with. In a society that seems so intent on binaries and separation, medicinal leaves are actually a crucial aspect of people living healthy lives.
Time and time again, case studies show that health care, in the true sense of care that promotes health, is dependent on healthy food, preventative medicine, active lifestyles, and access to resources. These elements combine together for thriving individuals and communities. Medicinal plants have an important role to play in how we imagine our lives and futures within this context.
These are some big topics to tackle – and can be intimidating to contemplate. So to begin with today, here are six medicinal plants with leaves that actually do something. Plus, suggestions for further research and integration to deepen your understanding of herbal remedies and the health benefits of these traditions. We will look at the active ingredients, pharmacological studies, as well as folklore and archeological record. In doing so, we can gain a deeper understanding of the plant life that shapes us and how medicinal plants can impact our lives for the better.
Echinacea, also known as Echinacea purpurea purple coneflower, is a powerful medicinal plant native to North America. There are 9 different species of Echinacea. These medicinal leaves have been an important herbal remedy for indigenous groups of the Great Plains through the generations.
The parts of the plant used for herbal medicine include the leaves, stem, flowers, and most often, the roots. It is a powerful immune system supporter. Echinacea does this by stimulating the immune system into action. It is a common traditional remedy for a sore throat and the common cold. Traditionally it was also used for more serious infections such as upper respiratory infection and bronchitis. It is a phytochemical, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory plant ally that includes alkaloids, coumarins, and tannins.
Additionally, it is an important prairie plant species that provides for pollinator species wherever it grows. Echinacea doesn’t spread by rhizome like many other plants – but by self-seeding and expanding its root mass. If you go for a long walk through the prairie in late summer, you will see these purple flowers bobbing in the wind with a gentle rhythm. They will most likely be amongst other amazing plants such as bluestem, milkweed, aster, oaks, Jerusalem artichoke, and monarda.
In studies, echinacea does not demonstrate toxicity so it’s a safe plant for beginners to work with. However, within the traditional medicine ways of the indigenous people of the Great Plains, echinacea use does not extend longer than a couple of weeks. Scientists speculate that longer-term use may actually suppress the immune system and lead to negative impacts overall.
We know Homo sapiens have depended on plants throughout our evolution. Chamomile is one of the earliest examples we know of in the archeological record. Scientists have recently found fossil remains of Neanderthals with remnants of both chamomile and yarrow in their teeth. We will touch on yarrow later in this piece. But this scientific discovery expands our understanding of just how far back these traditional medicine practices stretch – 50,000 years ago and probably longer.
From Neatherthals, all the way to our modern era, chamomile remains one of the most popular and accessible herbal remedies on the market. It is well known for its many medicinal properties. For instance, it can support sleep aid, relief from nightmares, and baby ailments such as teething, colic, and upset stomach.
Pubmed also describes the plant’s historical uses being tied to fevers, menstrual pain, gastrointestinal support, hemorrhoids, and muscle spasms – to name a few. This plant is applied to a plethora of aches, pains, and body systems.
It is a flowering plant that also provides “traditional medicine” to its fellow plants. When planted in the garden, chamomile provides support and protection to nearby plants. It helps them to fight off types of fungus and bacteria. In the practice of Biooodymanic gardening, compost tea is made of concentrations of chamomile. People water their plants and crops with this as a way to facilitate healthy growth.
Ginseng is a plant and medicinal leaf in high demand today. In 2020, the cost of wild ginseng per pound was $650 – $800. That number continues to skyrocket. So – is this just a fad? Or is there something powerful in these medicinal leaves that actually works?
Ginseng is an important medicinal plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Its use has been recorded for thousands of years. There is a species native to the continent of Asia. However, American ginseng differs in the concentration of chemical compounds – and is coveted as a result. We know it as a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant plant. It supports brain function and clinical trials suggest that it benefits our mood as well. It supports those who experience erectile dysfunction. Additionally, it boosts the immune system (similar to echinacea). Also, it is an anticancer compound in the sense that reduces the risk of certain cancers. More study is needed in this area.
A popular way to ingest ginseng and reap the health benefits is to steep the roots like an intense tea. This is known in the herbalist world as a decoction.
Depending on what herbal remedies pique your interest and needs, you may want to immediately run out of the house to find ginseng. But hold onto those herbal impulses – not so fast with ginseng, unfortunately.
Wild ginseng in North America is seriously endangered. These medicinal leaves and roots are not something to harvest willy-nilly. The plant has a slow root growth pattern. Combined with over-harvesting, especially in Appalachia, this creates a dangerous situation for the plant moving forward into the future. Massive education and conservation efforts are underway to protect wild ginseng. In many cases, only indigenous people to certain areas have legal permission to do so.
So what are some other medicinal leaves to consider using instead to similar effect? Valerian, lemon balm, and skullcap are great plants to start with and with which to familiarize yourself. Another idea is……
Nettle! It’s also known as “grandmother nettle” in many folk herbalist traditions around the world – especially in Eurasia. Nettle is a prolific grower that is naturalized on most continents and it’s easy to harvest once you know what you’re doing.
The medicinal leaves of nettle provide necessary minerals to our diets – such as copper, iron, and magnesium. It is also chock-full of protein – way more than the spinach greens you can buy at the supermarket. It’s like a dietary supplement you can forage for free, depending on where you live and the natural areas you have access to.
But, and this is important, stinging nettles are true to their name and will give you some zinging pricks if you aren’t careful. Many people prefer to harvest these medicinal leaves with gloves on. However, if you pinch quick and confidently at the uppermost growth of leaves, you can often sneak some herbal medicine without the painful poke. It takes some getting used to.
If you do get poked, it might be painful. But don’t despair! There’s actually medicine in this experience as well – the pain won’t last forever and it is a powerful way to promote circulation to your appendages. Sometimes, people do this on purpose when extra help is needed in this regard. Additionally, healers use this plant to lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. The plant is regarded as an “anti-diabetic” support.
Peppermint is a plant that surrounds us, whether or not we realize it: it’s in toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoos, conditioners, soaps – the vitalizing and rejuvenating scent is a popular addition to many of the products we use – including ice cream and liquor!
And while aromatics are a powerful healing element all on their own, there are plenty of additional healing elements to peppermint’s medicinal leaves.
As is often the case for herbal remedies, peppermint can be used to support diverse challenges and health concerns in our human experience. Unlike allopathic medicine – which often has a specific remedy for a specific ailment, plant medicine is often more broad and preventative in approach.
Peppermint specifically is a powerful digestive aid. Herbalists often use it in cases of intestine pain, IBS, and general indigestion. Additionally, it can soothe pressure ulcers. It is a diuretic – this means it can help you pee and process excess fluids in the body. Paired with anti-inflammatory properties, peppermint can do a lot for all of us. However, some people are allergic to this family of plants – this is something to consider and exercise caution around.
In traditional European healing communities, yarrow is known as “the wonder warrior, wounded healer” remedy, or “the healer’s healer”. Botanically named for the way Achilles used it to staunch the bleeding of his fellow soldiers in the battle of troy, this plant has followed human armies and settlements around the globe as its powerful medicinal leaves were indispensable pre-modern medicine.
Yarrow is an antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiseptic leaf that can stop or start bleeding, support a fever, ease bruising, and more. Its uses are nearly endless and it grows easily and flowers for a long period – making it easily accessible in the warmer months and easy to preserve when the winters come.
If you take a big whiff of the plant, it might remind you of the smell of a doctor’s office – it has a clean and crisp quality that wafts through the air when you crush it with your fingers.
If taken as a tea, it can have a bitter and astringent taste. It pairs really well with peppermint and honey when taken orally. These sorts of complementary relationships can make certain medical plants more palatable to ingest.
You’ve made it this far into this piece on the world of medicinal leaves and plants. It’s an enchanting and empowering area of study and practice to embody.
Alternative medicine is a very broad category, and it can be difficult to know where to begin when starting off as a beginner. With that in mind, let’s look closer at three different modalities to explore should you want to learn more:
Ayurveda is by no means a new age discipline of healing – even though it is consistently gaining traction on a global level – from big cities in India to small towns in Iowa.
Ayurvedic practices are a tradition from the Indian subcontinent of Asia. It is a system of medicine that is over 3,000 years old. A rough translation of the word is “knowledge of life”. The most basic principle is that disease and illness are due to imbalances within the body. Ayurveda promotes and supports people seeking health through balance. Medicinal plants are a huge aspect of how we seek out balance according to this tradition.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is another ancient healing modality, often referred to as TCM. You may have experienced this tradition and not realized it at the time, as it has also spread across the globe and supports diverse people with unending ailments.
Some elements that make up this tradition of healing include acupuncture, tai chi, and herbal remedies – these techniques and procedures are used for medicinal purposes, as well as spiritual, energetic purposes, with many people arguing that the two are one and the same.
There is a significant amount of scientific study around TCM, as remedies are often effective on acute and chronic conditions. Western medicine has a lot to learn from TCM – elements that can be incorporated into allopathic care for the benefit of patients and providers.
TCM is also a big business. With WHO approval, the tradition continues to grow from where it sits currently – a 130 billion dollar per year enterprise made up of both big and small practitioners.
Ayurvedic and TCM healing modalities are powerful means and philosophies that include medicinal leaves and herbal remedies. Large populations turn to them for instruction and care.
But the reality is that we all come from a legacy of plant medicine – even if we are separated from that knowledge due to genocide, oppression, migration, and globalization. Sometimes the most powerful way to engage with plants is to work to uncover your own connections to specific plants and to reintroduce ancestral and family folk medicine into your life.
Traditional uses of plants are inherently connected to landscape – so figuring out where you come from through oral history or even DNA tests can be a great place to start. Ethnobotany is a discipline of study that looks closely at the relationships between people and plants. And depending on the part of the world where you trace your ancestors, there will be scientists, folklorists, and historians available to provide hints and clues at the very least.
Our world of course looks different than the ones our ancestors inhabited. Most of us do not have the privilege of close connection to land and nature as our urban populations grow and expand. There is power in simply beginning this process – and digging into where we come from to better understand where we are going, lead by medicinal plants that connect us to the past, present and future all the more.
Beginning to work with, utilize and understand medicinal leaves is an exciting adventure to undertake. Soon enough, the whole world starts to look different. The greenery that once seemed like a background feature of our lives shifts into focus – inspiring our sense of creativity and connection.
That being said, you don’t want to be over-confident or cavalier as you use medicinal leaves. This is especially when you are just beginning. There are serious side effects to ingesting certain plant matter, including death. For example, essential oils are a popular product today. People use them internally. Certain companies promote this. However, doctors and herbalists alike warn against the side effects of doing so, as plant extracts are not a safe way to engage with medicine use without the supervision of a medical professional.
Ultimately, continuing to study plants with equal parts respect and curiosity is key. Look to reputable sources such as plant ID books, scientific studies, and elders in your community for guidance and instruction.
Plus, the plant world is so vast and strange and exciting, that really, we remain beginners and continue to learn no matter how long we study. It is one of the beautiful and haunting aspects of our short lives here on this wondrous planet. Medicinal leaves are alongside us, every step of the way.
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