Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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Many current drugs that we know as conventional medicine originally were derived from plants. Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin, originally was derived from white willow bark and the meadowsweet plant. Cinchona bark is the source of malaria-fighting quinine.
Vincristine, used to treat certain types of cancer, comes from periwinkle. The opium poppy yields morphine, codeine and paregoric, a treatment for diarrhea. Even today, morphine — the most important alkaloid of the opium poppy — remains the standard against which new synthetic pain relievers are measured.
Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, the herb echinacea (purple coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. For centuries, herbalists prescribed echinacea to fight infection, and research confirms that it works.
Herbs are used medicinally topically as well as ingested. Salves, ointments, rubs and compresses of leaves, stems, roots and flowers are used to soothe sore muscles, heal burns and cuts, or even set broken bones.
Herbal teas, tinctures and extracts as well as capsules and tablets containing a ground form of the raw herb are ingested to take advantage of the medicinal properties of herbs.
Some American Indians pulverized the dried roots and smoked certain herbs for respiratory complaints including asthma. Heating the leaves and flowers of some herbs and breathing in the steam is another common use of herbs in medicine. And some herbs added to food, such as seed bladder nuts mixed with fruit relieve constipation.
Herbal medicines are not like manufactured drugs. They work gently and take time to act. Before you attempt to concoct your own herbal remedies, be sure to check with an herbalist or your doctor to ensure the safety of the plant and understand the amounts, proper ways to use the plant and side effects.
Here are some of the more popular medicinal herbs found locally:
- Aspen: a pain reliever like aspirin — use inner bark or young green stems; also the dust on aspens is a SPF (sun protection factor) for balms made with sesame oil
- Basil: for headaches, rheumatism, colds; aids digestion and has calming properties
- Calendula (pot marigold): minor cuts and burns, sprains and bruises — make a warm compress with an infusion of this plant; internally: flowers; mouthwash for mouth ulcers and gum disease; eases menstrual cramps and soothes digestive ulcers.
- Chamomile: gentle sedative, good for ailments of the digestive tract as a tea and can be used as a mouthwash for inflammations such as gingivitis; also make a steam and breathe in when you have a cold or bronchitis — use flowers.
- Dandelions: diuretic (roots); flowers soothe muscles; leaf and flowers for premenstrual bloating.
- Echinecea (Coneflower): an antibiotic that boosts the immune system and is useful in treating infections and insect bites — use leaf and flower at peak of bloom.
- Geranium (native of the Rose Family): An astringent for sunburn and skin rashes — use leaf; also stop flow of bleeding — use root; also can be used as an eye wash and to gargle with.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. The Master Gardener program does not endorse the use of these herbs as medicine but simply provides the information for educational value. Call 970-879-0825 or email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.