Poinsettia fun facts


Greetings all, and a happy midwinter holiday season to you!

Just to prove I am still alive–yes, I still have big plans for this little blog, and they are coming, but sometimes things just have to move in their own time no matter how much it drives us impatient people crazy–here’s a post about one of our favorite Christmas decorations here in the U.S., the beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

I was inspired by a link shared by Rosalee de la Foret about plant-based holiday rituals. I was a little disappointed, and this is no reflection on Rosalee, who by sharing this link gave me hours of entertainment, because there actually wasn’t much info on plants. However, in the section about poinsettia, the post says:

“The Aztec name was said to mean ‘mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.'”

I don’t know the original source of that etymology, but it is all over the internet. I’m a language nerd, and if you are too you might find this interesting. I’m hoping that even the non-language-nerd plantophiles among you will enjoy this; but if not you can skip to the tl;dr version at the end. Ok, so, although I know next to nothing about Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by the Aztecs), I thought that etymology up above sounded a little spurious. Then I thought, many plant names tell us something about how the plant works medicinally, I wonder if this could be one? And if so, what does its indigenous name actually mean?

So I did a little internet research.

I found that there are actually two versions of the Nahuatl name to be found on the interwebz: cuetlaxochitl and cuitlaxochitl. Now xochitl means flower, that’s easy enough. It’s the other part that’s tricky. If the original form was indeed cuitla-, it is apparently derived from cuitltatl, which means excrement, giving us a name that basically means “poop-flower”. Here’s the dictionary entry from the online Nahuatl Dictionary (click to embiggen):


The dictionary also has an entry for cuitlaxochitl (none for cuetlaxochitl) which indeed translates it as poinsettia; however, they note that there was no text that contained the full word, only its component parts. They speculate the name derives from poinsettia’s growth habit. (I hope this isn’t ruining your enjoyment of the flower.)

cuitlaxochitlSince there apparently is no text containing the word cuitlaxochitl, it must come from oral tradition. So it’s not surprising the word would be transcribed in different ways, and there is a possibility that the correct form was indeed cuetlaxochitl, as reported in the post about plant-based holiday rituals and in many other places on the internet that don’t cite their sources. There are so-called “Aztec herbals” (cool!) such as the Codex Cruz-Badianus (a.k.a. Codex Barberini) and Florentine Codex, but they don’t have any recognizable illustrations of poinsettia.

Using the Nahuatl Dictionary, I found that cuetla- is a root in various verbs that describe a sort of floppy, back-and-forth wavering or wriggling motion. It can even describe shapes with a wavery outline, like a canyon winding through a landscape. Some examples involving cuetla- include the way a warrior shakes and thrusts a spear, the way a snake wriggles when caught, a person fainting, and the movement of leaping flames. It is also the root of a verb meaning to wither. So this is how we get to a translation that means a flower that withers, though the “mortal”, “perishes”, and “like all that is pure” parts seem to be complete nonsense as far as I can tell.

But which is it? Poop-flower or wavery-withering-flower?

Medicinal uses

The name question inspired me to dig deeper into poinsettia’s medicinal uses, with which I was not familiar. The genus Euphorbia belongs to the Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family. These often have irritating latex sap and some are poisonous. Poinsettia sap is only mildly irritating, but that seems to have garnered it an unearned reputation for toxicity.

I found next to no information on the ethnobotany of poinsettia. There is a reference to the sap being used as a galactagogue, although the author who mentions it claims it is not effective as such. All over the internet I find repeated the claim that the Aztecs used the sap to make a fever-reducing (antipyretic) medicine, but I can’t find the original source so must remain skeptical for the time being. Other members of the spurge family, however, are used medicinally in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere. Depending on species they may be used to treat skin diseases (including skin cancer), warts, cancerous tumors, “hair related problems”, respiratory complaints, diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections, venomous bites, wounds, rheumatism and arthritis, diabetes, jaundice, vomiting, “viral fever”, and as an antiseptic. But this is a diverse family including some quite toxic members (e.g., castor bean) so don’t assume that medicinal qualities are the same across all members of the family. In other words:

“The worldwide distribution of the family exposes its members, to all sorts of habitats to which they must adapt, therefore inducing a large variety of chemicals (secondary substances) that are employed for survival/defense….medicinal properties of some [Euphorbiaceae] species may be due to stress factors that characterize most habitats of the family.”

One recent study on E. pulcherrima found it to be very effective at inhibiting the growth of aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus mold (source); another found some indications that the leaves contain cytotoxic compounds that may be useful against cancerous tumors (source).

Tl;dr version

Poinsettia is native to Mexico, where its indigenous name probably translates to either “poop-flower” or “withering flower” (depending on whether the name is actually cuitlaxochitl or cuetlaxochitl). I looked for information on poinsettia’s medicinal and other botanical properties to see if they were reflected in either or both of these names.

My research was hampered by the fact that I don’t currently have any university affiliation and therefore can’t access the full text of professional/academic journals. I could find very little specifically about the medicinal uses of poinsettia, but other members of the spurge family are used medicinally around the world, for a variety of complaints of which skin diseases and digestive disorders may be the most common.

A name translating to “poop-flower” might make sense given that many Euphorbiaceae species are used to treat diarrhea and as laxatives. All over the internet I keep finding the word for excrement, cuitlatl, translated as “residue” and then making the poetic (if uninformative) leap to “soil,” making poinsettia the “flower that grows in soil”, but can’t find the original source, and the Nahuatl Dictionary is pretty firm that the word actually means feces. I cannot find any indication that poinsettia has any more of an affinity to dungheaps than any other plants do, so if this is the name of the plant I would speculate that the “poop” relates to its medicinal application.

Alternatively the plant’s name might be more like “withering flower” or “wavering flower.” The leaves do have a wavy sort of outline which might have been in accordance with the Aztec concept of the word root cueta-. Again though, this could have referred to a medicinal use–perhaps for fainting, another meaning of cueta-. Another possibility might be that it referred to a tendency for the plant to wilt. I would assume it wouldn’t wilt any more than any other plant, in its native habitat, but I must admit that in spite of my ministrations, every poinsettia I have brought home has wilted in pretty short order.

Sorry I couldn’t solve that little linguistic mystery, but I learned a lot in the effort. I hope it was interesting for you. If you have any experience using poinsettia medicinally, I’d love to hear about it!

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Aztec medicine, here is an article on the topic which you can actually read in its entirety online. Here is a book chapter looking at the pharmacological effect of Aztec medicinal herbs, also complete. Here is a page that even has a few recipes and images from the Codex Cruz-Badianus.


In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

How to support Free Fire Cider and the Fire Cider 3

Fire Cider

You may have heard recently about the fire cider trademark controversy. It’s a short but sad story: Back in the 1970s, Rosemary Gladstar coined the term “fire cider” for vinegar infused with garlic, onions, horseradish, and chili pepper. Like many of her recipes, she freely shares it with everyone so they can make their own at home and tweak it in any way they want. In the ’90s, she copyrighted the name, so that is her intellectual property–yet she still shares it with the rest of us.

Over the last 45 years, fire cider has become a commonplace, traditional name for a folk remedy. Unfortunately, one company–Shire City Herbals–decided to trademark the name so only they could use it. The trademark really should never have been granted, since there is ample evidence that the name has been in generic use for decades. Not to mention its inventor is still alive and well and can describe its original creation and use. But it was, and to make matters worse, Shire City Herbals are now suing three small herbal business owner/farmers for using the name fire cider. The owner of Shire City Herbals is on record saying that the boycott of their product has actually doubled their business (a claim I doubt), yet at the same time, they are suing Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution, and Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine–the “Fire Cider 3”–for $100,000 for supposedly harming Shire City Herbals’ business as well as trademark infringement. When people created a Facebook page to organize a boycott, Shire City’s owner complained to Facebook who forced the removal of the page; a subsequent page also had to be removed for the same reason. In spite of this blatant example of greed and legal skullduggery, Shire City continue to portray themselves as a grassroots company that cares about people’s health.

It is my belief that conventional medical care is only going to become more and more expensive, until the day comes when we don’t have enough fossil carbons left to fuel it and make the plastics it depends on. Medical expenses are now the number one reason for bankruptcy in America. There is, and there will continue to be, a need for health care that all people can afford and, as much as possible, make for themselves. Herbalism has filled that role from the time of Dioscorides, to Nicholas Culpeper, to my great-grandmother, to me. By sharing these methods within our communities, putting people before profit, we have kept the tradition of herbalism alive so that it can do the same for us.

However, it’s clear that some herbalists are more interested in money than medicine. In my opinion, they are a disgrace to this calling. Capitalism being what it is, it may be impossible to legally stop them. But as far as I am concerned, morally it is theft twice over–first they have stolen Rosemary Gladstar’s intellectual property, and secondly in their attempt to create a monopoly on fire cider, they are co-opting our collective herbal heritage. And because of bullying tactics like these (and by the way, Young Living have done the same by trademarking the name “Thieves” (read the comments at that link too) as in Four Thieves), all of herbalism may over time be brought under greater legal scrutiny and regulation which could ultimately make it impossible for us to practice at all.

If you feel similarly, I urge you to do the following:

  • Don’t even buy fire cider, make your own! It is so easy. Keep the tradition, skill, and knowledge alive and share it within your community. Here are some instructions, or watch the lovely Rosemary show you how.
  • Read more specifics about the situation here. Or check out this article.
  • If you prefer to buy fire cider, you can purchase some online from Herbal Revolution. If you want to financially support the Fire Cider 3, buy other herbal preparations from Farmacy Herbs or Nicole Telkes. Or donate to the legal defense fund.
  • If you are lucky enough to have co-ops in your area, you can encourage them to stock products from local herbalists and NOT Shire City.
  • Sign the petition.
  • Like the Tradition Not Trademark Facebook page.
  • Contact Shire City Herbals (the owner is Amy Huebler) and let them know what you think of their behavior. Refrain from actual harassment. A polite approach is likely to be most effective here…although truth be told I feel like if these people had any conscience we would have seen evidence of it by now.
  • Spread the word!

I guess recently there’s been a fair bit of ranting here, what with Etsy’s religious discrimination against pagan and “metaphysical” services (I still have not decided on an alternative platform for my preparations but will update when I do), and now this. But I feel I have to do my part to bring these things to everyone’s attention because they can so easily slip through the cracks. Herbalism is still around in large part because of mutual support among users and makers of herbal remedies. We are only as strong as our communities, and if we allow our traditions to be exploited for the benefit of the few instead of the many, if we stand by and let any member of our community be bullied and threatened, it weakens us all.

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–mallows

S ambigua

This is Part 4 of a series of a number yet to be determined. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.

Six weeks or so ago, I could see why Juan Batista de Anza saw this as the Valley of Paradise. I mean, I have to struggle a bit to see past the mega-suburb that lies on top, but I can just about imagine what he must have seen: snow on the distant blue mountaintops, juniper-scented breezes, the graceful twisted trunks of sycamores and oaks along the river, and green hills speckled with wildflowers and golden granite boulders.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long. Maybe three months of the year if we’re lucky; the other nine are sere and brown. Remember the story of Persephone? The way I first heard it, her grieving mother Demeter blights the earth during the months Persephone spends reigning as queen of the Underworld, and this is what we know as winter. But recently I read an interpretation (I cannot for the life of me remember the source–sorry) that said that in Greece, the “dead” time of year is summer, not winter. I don’t know how accurate that is; I’ve never been to Greece (alas) and winter is still the time when days are shortest, light is least, and plants are mostly dormant. But I think of that interpretation as I watch the seasons in inland Southern California. Persephone doesn’t spend much time above ground here.

In this dry and fire-prone climate, plants survive the heat by either storing water internally, finding some way to draw it up from deep beneath, or shriveling up, turning brown, and waiting, their life hidden underground. Many of these plants, of course, can help us hold onto moisture too. Rebecca Altman of Cauldrons & Crockpots has written extensively and eloquently about the waterways of our bodies, for example this lovely post, and this piece on how ocotillo moves stagnant waters, and this post on dampness and our bodies’ boundaries. Maybe she notices moisture and dryness so much because she is from Scotland, one of the rainiest places in the world, and now lives in Southern California, one of the least rainy. (Stephen Colbert once referred to the British as “mist-based life forms.”) Regardless, moisture–and the lack thereof–is something very much on the minds of all Californians these days.

I don’t want to infrige her copyright by quoting huge chunks of her writing, so just go read any of those posts. It’s ok–I’ll wait.

Moving on to today’s topic: mallows, the family Malvaceae, of which there are many native species.  Calflora returned a list of 40 native species in 10 genera in Riverside County alone. Plus I frequently see some kind of as-yet-unidentified-by-me non-native Malva species–commonly known by the adorable moniker cheeseweed–along the margins of sidewalks all over the Inland Mega-‘Burb. Probably M. neglecta.

S ambigua 2

S. ambigua. Notice the fuzziness of the leaves and the moist look of the petals.

Although related plants are not 100% interchangeable, the keyword for all the mallows is soothing. Henriette Kress groups them together as YAMFDs–Yet Another Mallow Family Demulcent. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) may be the most famous, but for all the species that I’ve been able to find any information about, they are mucilaginous, cooling, moistening, and sweetly nourishing. Matthew Wood calls marshmallow the “indispensable water remedy;” while marshmallow is awesome, I think it’s always best to use native herbs where possible so by all means, if you are in Southern California, use Southern California mallows. They are excellent for people who are overheated (you can see why they are so useful in this climate!) and, from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are a yin tonic. When I went to an acupuncturist I was surprised to learn that I was deficient in yin. Not knowing much about TCM, but being female and tending to be cold when I was younger, I just assumed I would have yin a-plenty. Not so. It’s something for everyone to watch out for in very dry climates like this–it is very likely that on some level, at least seasonally, you will need the soft soothing of a mallow.

All the mallows are useful for treating irritation of the skin, mucosa, and digestive tract. Interestingly, mallows are also drawing, and are used on swellings such as sprains and broken bones. Wood attributes this to mallows’ softening effect; the type of swellings that respond well to mallows tend to be hard.

Mallows harmonize well with rose, which is similarly cooling and soothing but adds a mild astringent action. Wood cites another herbalist, David Dalton, who “considers it [marshmallow flower essence] to be a remedy for hardening of the personality, inflexibility, hardheartedness, intolerance, and inability to feel one’s emotions. He looks upon it as a heart remedy…” This is the energetic dimension of mallows’ softening and soothing action. Rose is, of course, the botanical symbol of love and beauty in many cultures, and a famously heart-centered and heart-opening medicine–but I’ll leave more in-depth discussion of rose for another post.

I have not been able to find very much about mallows in the ethnobotanical literature, although I have no doubt they were used by native peoples. Leaves of Sidalcea malviflora (dwarf checkerbloom) are edible raw or cooked. This species can be found in chaparral and coastal sage scrub plant communities. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page (I can’t link to search results so do a search for the genus name), the Navajo used cold infusion of a related species of checkerbloom to treat internal injuries.

desert mallow

An infusion made from species in the genus Sphaeralcea, the globemallows (our local variety is S. ambigua, desert globemallow or apricot mallow), will help soothe irritated GI tracts when there is dryness coupled with inflammation, according to Kiva Rose (more by her here and here) and Michael Moore. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page, the plant was used for everything from sore eyes to bug bites to broken bones–all applications traditionally within the mallow wheelhouse. Two points of interest with desert globemallow–first, it has tiny, irritating hairs on the leaves and stems. Kiva Rose warns that if working with anything but the roots, be very careful to strain these hairs out. Not just with cheesecloth–we’re talking coffee filters here. Second, and again this is according to Rose, the plant infuses well into oil, even though you might predict that it would cause mold due to its moisture.

When in flower, desert globemallow has gorgeous orange cup-shaped flowers. These are very small, about the size of my thumb nail, but abundant. The plant is typically found in creosote bush scrub and chaparral plant communities, and likes alkaline soil. I planted one in my native herb garden this past fall, and so far it is doing well. It has even produced a few flowers.

I photographed this tree mallow in St. Davids, Wales. At that time I didn't know what species it was, I just thought it was beautiful.

I photographed this tree mallow in St. Davids, Wales. At that time I didn’t know what species it was, I just thought it was beautiful. Weird that something that can live in Wales can also thrive in inland Southern California.

I like mallows so much that I also have a non-native mallow growing in my garden, tree mallow or Lavatera arborea. It is actually from the Mediterranean but, the climate here being so similar to the Mediterranean, it is quite happy here even though its native habitat is maritime. It is so pretty I just couldn’t resist planting one. Unfortunately, it’s very popular with hungry rabbits and/or ground squirrels. It can be eaten by humans too, but the leaves are hairy like those of the desert globemallow which tends to diminish their culinary appeal. Its medicinal uses include as a poultice for burns and sprains.

Abelmoschus moschatus

Abelmoschus moschatus

Today I received some seeds of another non-native mallow, musk mallow or ambrette (Abelmoschus moschatus). They were a gift from Anya McCoy–the creator of Anya’s Garden natural perfumes and author of the Anya’s Garden blog–who generously offered them to her readers (they are all claimed now). Ambrette plants are edible, ornamental, and utilized in Ayurvedic medicine in their native India. The highly aromatic seeds are used in perfumery. Ambrette has many medicinal applications–antispasmodic and nervine (relaxing inside and out!), diuretic, antiseptic, carminative, aphrodisiac, and like other mallows, demulcent and cooling. As aromatherapy it is used to treat depression and anxiety. I am very excited to meet this many-faceted plant!

The heat will be upon us soon, so get your mallow medicine ready! And be sure and check out the various articles I’ve linked for many practical applications of these soothing herbal allies.

Return to Post-Cholecystectomy Syndrome (PCS)

My thoughts on dealing with Post-Cholecystectomy Syndrome (PCS)–pain and digestive problems after having your gallbladder removed–have evolved somewhat, so I felt I had to write an update. Several people have commented on the previous posts thanking me for addressing it, which (1) is very flattering–thank you for reading!–and (2) makes me feel the weight of responsibility to not convey wrong information. I promise to share only the best information I can find, but there isn’t a lot of information available, so my understanding of the topic is bound to change somewhat as I learn more.

To recap, in my first post I discussed the symptoms of PCS and what (little) I know about fat metabolism, since that is where the now-absent gallbladder comes into play in digestion. I briefly went over the role of the gallbladder in Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs they use for gallbladder problems. This is because I’ve never seen it addressed from a Western herbal perspective. Based on that, I made some suggestions for herbal and nutritional support for the upper GI tract and liver.

In my second post on the topic, I opened up a bit about my own experiences with PCS and attempts to remedy it. In particular I suggested that since gallbladder inflammation, gallstones, and the symptoms of PCS seem to correlate with heat and dampness in the upper digestive tract/liver, one might treat them using astringent and bitter herbs–that is, herbs with cooling energetics.

But today I realized that while it might make sense to treat excess heat and damp with herbs that cool and dry, this is not the best long term solution for PCS or gallbladder problems. I do believe they could give short-term relief, and they might be warranted anyway for related conditions (for example if you also have a leaky gut, astringents would be helpful).

What we are talking about here with excess heat and damp is a situation of congestion, which is to say, stagnation. In other words, I was focusing on the heat and damp as the causes of symptoms, which on one level, they are–but the heat and damp have their own cause, and that is stagnation. For long-term improvement, we have to move up the causal chain to find the root tissue state or energetic state, then we find the herbs that address that ultimate cause. (For a detailed explanation of tissue states and energetics, see this article by Kiva Rose.) (EDIT–here’s a great article on stagnation from the TCM point of view.)

Recently I was talking to Rebecca Altman about dampness and the waters of the body, a topic she has written a lot about lately, for example in this excellent post. She made a comment that really struck me–that here in Southern California, nobody needs drying herbs. Obviously she was painting with broad strokes and there are exceptions to every rule, but basically she’s right–it’s so dry here that excess dampness is not a very common condition. And when it is, there are usually better ways to treat it than to dry it out. Dampness is not so much a matter of too much water but of water that isn’t moving–stuck water. And stuck water is not only an issue in the desert–if you are not a mermaid, your body waters can become stagnant. (Maybe even if you are a mermaid.)

So that was in the back of my mind. Then today I was experimenting with an Echinacea tincture I just made, taking note of where I felt it working its magic. Echinacea is a diffusive lymphatic or lymphagogue, which is a fancy way of saying it moves your lymph around. And all of a sudden the pieces came together: stuck fluids need movement. And heat needs not cooling so much as release–a path through which it can escape your body.

Alders, flowing water.

Alders, flowing water.

From the Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view (and I have to reiterate I am not a practitioner of TCM let alone an expert, but what I relate here is based on my research) gallbladder/digestion/upper GI issues are not just a matter of stuck fluid but of stuck qi (“liver qi stagnation”) and stuck emotions. Both Western and Eastern herbalism are agreed that stagnation is involved and that its proper medicine is movement. It just took me a while to fully absorb the lesson.

It’s fitting that it was a lymphatic–Echinacea–that helped me make the connection, because as it turns out, the lymphatic system plays a role in fat metabolism, as does the gallbladder (or lack thereof). I didn’t know about this aspect of the lymphatic system when I wrote about fat digestion previously. While most of the nutrients from your food are transported through the lining of the GI tract to your blood system, there to be circulated around and the wastes processed in the liver, fats are different. Short-chain fatty acids can be directly absorbed into the blood (and then filtered through the liver), but most of the fats we eat are medium- and long-chain fatty acids. These are transported as chyle–“a milky bodily fluid consisting of lymph and emulsified fats” (per Wikipedia)–via lymph vessels from the small intestine to where they need to go for immediate use or storage, and only then enter the bloodstream. The long fatty acid chains are too big to pass directly from the intestine into the veins. By circulating through the lymphatic system, the fat molecules bypass the liver until they have had a chance to be used. The gallbladder’s role is to help digest fats before they get to those lymph vessels, so you can imagine how, if there is no gallbladder or it’s not functioning optimally, the problems will be passed to the next step down the line–the lymphatic system.

So: poor lymphatic drainage, which can (probably*) result from gallbladder/digestive problems, in turn affects the immune system and can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation. And that brings us around to how we might treat PCS using herbs. We need to make sure to:

  • Improve nutrition by eating lots of vegetables, as we know we should, and by supporting the digestion with carminative herbs and bitters. I cannot recommend bitters highly enough. (I have replaced the bile salts I used to take with bitters and the bitters are more effective. Also, I have come to actually crave that bitter flavor, so don’t let that deter you. Very quickly your body will start loving bitter.) Think ginger, turmeric, black pepper (makes nutrients more bio-available), fennel, cloves, dandelion, burdock, leafy greens (the more bitter the better). You may also need astringents (e.g., rose, agrimony) if you are prone to diarrhea.
  • Move around as much as you can. The lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump but depends on muscular contractions to move the fluid around. Walk, jump up and down, hang from things, climb trees, get massages, do dry-brushing–you get the idea. But also, relax as much as you can. Tightness impedes the free flow of liquids.
  • I now think that it’s likely PCS sufferers may also need some kind of lymphatic support, and possibly also alteratives. There are many lymphatic movers and each works slightly differently. Echinacea, calendula, alder, ocotillo, red root, chilopsis, cleavers (bonus: cleavers are delicious!), burdock again. Remember that as the lymph gets moving, two things are likely to happen: (1) any toxins in the lymph are going to get carried to the liver for filtering and removal, so if your liver is seriously compromised (e.g., jaundice) please be very, very gentle and take it slow. See a clinical herbalist, in fact. And (2) any excess internal heat is going to find a way out, so you may see skin eruptions in the form of acne, rashes, or excema. In this case, these are a good sign. Let the heat go.
  • Be aware that signs of stuck fluid may not be nearly as extreme as edema, even though that is the most commonly referenced example. Puffiness around the eyes, a feeling of sluggishness that gets better with exercise, sore glands, a wan, tired, or blah-looking expression, a little excess phlegm or sinus congestion–all these are signs of stagnation.

And as usual I want to emphasize that this is not a matter of “detoxification,” but of nourishment and movement. Most of the detox routines out there are at best pointless and at worst dangerous. In some ways what I have suggested here boils down to common-sense “eat right and get plenty of exercise,” but with a few more sparkles.

*I don’t know of any research on PCS and the lymphatic system. But according to this article, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)–which is one kind of poor digestion, caused by the immune system attacking the intestine–leads to compromised lymph drainage and in turn edema, lymph leakage, excess fat deposition, an impaired immune system, and chronic inflammation. Any effects resulting from PCS would presumably be much less severe–but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Herbalism research resource

Herbalism research resource…try saying that 10 times fast.

Here in Inland Southern California, we don’t really have four seasons. There are basically two, wet and dry. Or more realistically, warm and hot. “Spring” is really kind of a quaint notion here because there’s pretty much no differentiation from what went before, except that the days are getting longer. But my body still feels it, and I know because I am suddenly craving bitter greens. After months of heavy, sluggish, but admittedly comforting foods, my system wants to get moving again!

Do you feel it too? (Apparently my dog does, as he noshes on any wild grass he can find.)

Herbalist's Guide to Botanical Research screen capI know, it may be a while yet for those of you snowed under back east. In the meantime, what I really wanted to share with you today is this free ebook, The Herbalist’s Guide to Botanical Research. It’s brought to us by Renee Davis of Goldroot Botanical Medicine, an herbalism website with tons of info. One has barely to dip one’s toe into the waters of online herbalism before one discovers that there is, well, a lot of BS out there.  I mean, how many times have you seen the claim that drinking massive quantities of olive oil and lemon juice will detox your liver and gallbladder? I see it everywhere! And it’s complete bollocks. (Seriously people, please do not do that.) I swear at least 90% of blog content is plagiarized from the most dubious of sources. Sometimes the info is basically correct, but is being passed on as gospel by people who don’t really understand why it’s true or how it works. (Of course, there’s a lot of herbal medicine that no one understands how it works! But you know what I mean: if Susun Weed or Jim McDonald tell me that X officinalis is antimicrobial and stimulates bile production, OK; but if I hear it from an anonymous infographic on Pinterest, hmm…maybe not so trustworthy.)

The Herbalist’s Guide to Botanical Research is designed to help you access scientific and academic research reports by helping you formulate better searches and find search engines that return less BS results. Bound to be useful for every herbalist at some point. And it’s free, so check it out!

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–Salvia and Artemisia

This is Part 3 of a series. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

I have an acquaintance who is the son and brother of beekeepers. He was telling me that honey made from desert and arid regions is more pungently flavored than honey from more humid regions. I had never thought of it before–obviously I have more honey sampling to do and I should get on that ASAP–but I remember trying a honey from the Pacific Northwest and finding it disappointingly bland, while the honeys I have had from Southern California have been the best I’ve ever tasted.

I don’t know whether this is due to the plant species used by the bees, or the environmental conditions in which those plants are growing. That is, would a sage honey from Oregon be less flavorful than a sage honey from Arizona? Or is sage less likely to be utilized by Northwest Coast bees versus Southwest bees? I know that I have sampled many orange blossom honeys, but only those from Southern California have had a clear citrus and orange blossom taste for me. (Any apiarists out there want to set me straight on this? I welcome your input.)

nland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted--will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Inland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted–will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the medicinal actions and potencies of plants in different regions. I am pretty new to this part of the US, and am not very knowledgeable about the full diversity of flora; but it does seem to me that there are a lot of native plants here in the mint (Lamiaceae) family–the fragrant rosemary and “other herbs” described by Juan Bautista de Anza in the 18th century, which we now classify as plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities. Mint family plants contain lots of volatile oils which give them their potent aromas and flavors. The family includes the most popular culinary and medicinal herbs, such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm, marjoram, lavender, peppermint, and spearmint. Although there is considerable variability in the mint family–there are around 7000 known species–the most popular ones tend to share similar properties. For example, many are relaxing nervines with analgesic and antimicrobial properties, useful for stomach upset and insomnia (among other things). Spiritually and magically, they are frequently considered to have cleansing and protective powers. This is not to say mint family members are interchangeable. Lavender is not the same thing as peppermint! But there is a family resemblance.

As I have said before, it seems silly to me to import white sage for smudging in Europe (for example) when there are perfectly good plants that grow abundantly there and will do the same job. I think the natural native flora of any region (except maybe the Arctic?) contains sufficient to meet the basic medicinal needs of humans and animals that live on that land. But it does seem likely to me that the plant life in each region will have its own special strengths. Along those lines, I would say that one of the most salient features of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities is their potent cleansing power (both material and spiritual). There are also a number of plants that assist in moisture management, which to me makes perfect sense in this arid land (I hope to address that in another post).

Here I want to look at some uses of the genus Salvia in general. Because there are so many varieties of Salvia in a “sage scrub” community, I won’t differentiate each species here. According to ethnobotanical research, these uses include:

    • treating respiratory problems (colds, coughs, sore throat, chest congestion, flu, pneumonia, nasal congestion, asthma)
    • treating other illnesses (measles, fever, gonorrhea, epilepsy, faintness, diarrhea)
    • treating pain (headache, stomachache, indigestion, earache, gas, bad reactions to poison oak)
    • treating infections, sores, and for post-partum healing
    • cleansing the body (shampoo, deodorant, eyewash)
    • preventing bad luck and dispelling ghosts
    • as a blood tonic and general strengthener
    • as food, beverage, and culinary seasoning

As you can see, people made extensive use of genus Salvia‘s antimicrobial, aromatic, and analgesic properties as well as using it for unspecified “strengthening” and tonic purposes. They also regarded it as purifying and apotropaic (warding off evil). It’s very appropriate that one of the most common genera to be found in Inland Southern California was useful for the most common health problems that people would face–colds and flu, infections, and assorted pains.

Artemisia californica

Artemisia californica (c) Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary’s College.

So far so normal for members of the mint family. But I find it interesting that the uses of sagebrush (Artemisia douglasiana and A. californica) overlap significantly, although it belongs to the family Asteraceae (the daisies). What Artemisia has in common with Salvia is that both are intensely aromatic. (The Spanish settlers of California called it romerillo, “little rosemary” [source]. Artemisia is also the genus mugwort belongs to.)

  • treating respiratory problems (asthma, colds, coughs)
  • treating pain (rheumatism, arthritis, earache, headache, stomachache, cramps, fractures, back pain, difficult childbirth, toothache)
  • treating other illnesses (diarrhea, dysentery)
  • treating wounds, bruises, skin irritation (diaper rash, itching sores), and for post-partum healing
  • treating urinary problems
  • treating menstrual problems and menopausal symptoms
  • cleansing the body and hair
  • repelling insects
  • for smoking with or instead of tobacco
  • clearing the head during mourning, girls’ puberty rites, dispelling ghosts, preventing one from dreaming of the dead, preventing personal injury, ceremonial fires before hunting (sometimes with white sage), unspecified “ceremonial” purposes

So to recap, I’m certainly not saying that Inland Southern California has a monopoly on aromatic plants with cleansing, disinfecting properties. Salvia and Artemisia species exist in many parts of the world and tend to have similar medicinal potencies, and are used in similar ways. But Southern California shares with the Mediterranean a relatively arid climate and a great profusion of aromatic and resinous plants. So, speaking impressionistically and as a botanical novice, it seems to me that the climatic dryness and pungency of the herbs (and subsequently the pungency of honey made from those herbs) are related. Perhaps it has something to do with concentrating and maintaining resources? I don’t know. Just some thoughts.

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–further resources

This is Part 2 of my series on native plants of Inland Southern California. For Part 1, go here. Originally I planned to talk about medicinal uses in greater depth in Part 2, but instead I’m going to do that in Part 3.

Last time I mentioned a few native species, but you may be interested in learning about others. This is a sort of annotated bibliography of sites where you can pursue your own research.

USDA Plant Database–You can enter the name of any species, either as the Latin binomial or its common name, in the search box and bring up a range map, images, list of subspecies (if any), and some other basic info. The Related Links tab will take you to even more resources.

California Native Plant Link Exchange (CNPLX)–This database allows you to search by a number of different variables: plant scientific name, plant common name, bioregion, county, plant community, family, and more. I have found this extremely useful because my county covers a variety of different bioregions; I can narrow the search by adding more variables. It will give you a list of all plants matching your criteria, each cross-referenced with other counties and plant communities where it grows, and even nurseries and seed suppliers. The only down side is it doesn’t have pictures.

Las Pilitas--Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas–Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery–There are two physical nurseries, one in Santa Margarita and one in Escondido, and they also ship to customers. But for those doing research, it’s most useful for its images and descriptions of plants.

Calflora is another database where you can search by many variables, including plant type, periodicity (annual/perennial), bioregion, and county, with the added benefit of pictures.

The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants is dedicated to preserving and propagating native California plants. It operates a nursery in Sun Valley, and also offers classes in botany and native plant gardening.

Now, if you’re reading this you are probably curious about medicinal applications for these plants. So below are some resources on regional ethnobotany that will be of interest.

University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany allows you to search by plant name. It returns a brief description of how the plant was used medicinally and the bibliographical source for that info. Each different use of a plant has a separate listing.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest is hosted by New Mexico State University. It’s not an extensive list, but you can find a plant listed by family, or search for one. Click on the link for a plant and you get pictures, a fairly extensive description, and a bibliography.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest--Abies concolor

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest–Abies concolor

Luiseño Ethnobotany gives many traditional uses of plants, not only medicinal but those used for tools, weapons, ceremonial, etc. It has a linked bibliography and “Ethnobotanical Master List” organized by family, and some plant names are links to images. The Luiseño people are among the native inhabitants of San Diego and Riverside Counties.

The Malki Museum in Banning hosts the Temalpakh Ethnobotanical Garden. Their website has a brief list of medicinal plants used by the Cahuilla people. The garden is described as a “living illustration” of the book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Katherine Siva Saubel with Dr. Lowell J. Bean.

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum has a pdf on Native American Uses of California Plants. Some of the plants are not found in Southern California, but many are found all over.

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

Michael Moore has written three books each of which covers some plants that grow in Inland Southern California: Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.

For modern medicinal uses of plants (California and otherwise), a good resource is the Herbalpedia, which you can purchase here, but much of which you can access without purchasing via HerbMentor. The Herb of the Year for 2014 is Artemisia, the native California species of which happen to be among my very favorite plants.

Inland Southern California’s native plants–a brief introduction

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA. Photo links to original site–I want to credit the photographer but don’t know who that is.

I’ve been trying to research what the native flora of inland southern California was like before intensive white settlement, and it’s been very difficult. Then suddenly today it occurred to me that there might be others interested in knowing more about that and also finding it really hard. Maybe I could make that a teensy bit easier. (Probably not, but it’s worth a try, right?)

Part of why it has been so difficult to find information on this subject is that the landscape has been heavily modified by humans for hundreds of years. It is the worst, ugliest kind of suburban sprawl and pretty much all traces of the original flora have been erased. While I have found a lot of info on the plants of the coast and the mountains, the lowlands have been suburban sprawl for so long no one remembers anything else.

The “Inland Empire” of Southern California occupies the western parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It basically consists of valley lowlands surrounded by the Santa Ana mountains in the west, dividing the inland from the coastal lowlands (LA basin and Orange County), the San Gabriel Mountains in the north, the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains in the east, and some more mountains in the south that if they have a name I don’t know it. The Santa Ana River is the major watershed.

When the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza reached this area in the late 1700s, he named it Valle de Paraiso (Paradise Valley), and described it as fragrant with rosemary and other herbs with rich grassland. So that is our first clue to the native flora–rosemary and fragrant herbs.

Much of Southern California consists of sage scrub (which, as you might guess, is dominated by sage–“a characteristic suite of low-statured, aromatic, drought-deciduous shrubs and subshrub species”, if you want to get technical about it [source]), but it turns out there are a bunch of different types of sage scrub. For example, around LA and Santa Barbara you’ll find coastal sage scrub. In the inland lowlands, it’s a subtype called “Riversidean sage scrub” and is mixed with some chapparal, grassland, alkali meadow, and even wetlands in patches.  You might not think it given that so much of America’s produce comes from California, but our soil is actually pretty awful in this region. It’s heavy, clayey silt which is full of nutrients, but so alkaline that most of them aren’t bioavailable to plants. Hardpan is very close to the surface. Being “drought-deciduous” means that during the summer, everything turns brown and looks dead–but it comes back to life and greenness when the rains come.

Sadly, even what little is left of this plant community is being rapidly destroyed (source). Not only has the weather been getting progressively hotter and drier, but the land is being devoured by yet more suburban sprawl.

Fragrant herbs

Specific plants that can be found in the original plant communities here include:

Artemisia Californica-GaviotaCACalifornia sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Honestly this is the best-smelling plant I have ever encountered. To me it’s like rosemary and sage with notes of peach and rose and something else that’s just magical. I can’t get enough of it.

Salvia apianaWhite sage (Salvia apiana). The stuff people smudge their haunted houses with. Except that usually people should not be using white sage because it’s not native to their region (it’s always best to use what grows in your area–it grows there for a reason, after all–not to use something just because it’s sacred to some people who live halfway around the world or across the country).

Salvia melliferaBlack sage (Salvia mellifera). Both “apiana” and “mellifera” mean that bees are attracted to these plants.

Eriogonum fasciculatum flowerCalifornia buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). This plant has gorgeous flowers that produce a delicious honey.

Acmispon glaberDeerweed (Acmispon glaber). It is loved by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and deer. One of its common names is California broom. I think I may formerly have had one in a planter–it was sold as “broom,” but clearly wasn’t the European variety. It smelled absolutely wonderful. But sadly, it died. It is definitely worth trying again though.

Atriplex lentiformis silvery saltbushSilvery Saltbush (Atriplex lentifolia). Saltbush is able to capture salt and survive very arid alkaline soils where hardly anything else grows. The leaves taste, as you might guess, like salt.

Encelia farinosaBrittlebush (Encelia farinosa). The Spanish used the sap of this plant as incense in the mission churches.

Populus trichocarpaCottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Sometimes called Black Cottonwood. I haven’t seen any examples of this growing wild and free yet, but I hope to–it is a beautiful tree.

Platanus racemosaWestern Sycamore (Platanus racemosa). As I mentioned in a previous rant post, this is a native and beautiful variety of sycamore or plane tree.

ceanothus oliganthusCeanothus (Ceanothus sp.). Sometimes known as California lilac for its blue–or white, or pink–flowers. The medicinal herb red root is a variety of Ceanothus.

manzanitaManzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.). Manzanita has always been a favorite of mine, I guess because it’s a favorite of my dad’s. When I was little and lived in Northern California, we would go for hikes in the coast range mountains and he would point out different kinds of plants and animals. Manzanita has smooth, graceful red branches that stand out against its bright green leaves. I think it looks very elegant.

California poppyCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Last but not least, the state flower. It’s illegal to wildcraft it, so I’m hoping to start growing some of my own soon.

Please stay tuned…

I hope this brief rundown has been of use for people interested in getting to know native California plants. Obviously I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the diverse Riversidean sage scrub community. Next time I’ll talk about some medicinal applications further resources, and in Part 3 about medicinal applications.

Just because it sounds like science doesn’t mean it ain’t crazy

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming at the author of this POS article?

Is this someone coughing, or me screaming into a kleenex about how dumb this article is?

Today this article from Slate was brought to my attention: “Something to Sneeze At: Natural remedies that claim to ‘boost your immune system’ don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t.” And it really pissed me off.

I’m thinking that if you’re reading a blog about herbal medicine, you will probably have a similar eye-rolling response to this, but I want to rant anyway because some of what this article says is downright dangerous.

The article links to a selection of “natural immunity boosters” promoted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, and dismisses them as “expensive placebos.” These, apparently, are meant to represent all natural remedies. It then goes on to say that you don’t want to boost your innate immune system at all because it causes all the unpleasant “symptoms” we think of as being sick. Excessive immune response, after all, is responsible for autoimmune disorders and allergies. In fact,

“The mainstay of treatment for symptomatic cold viruses is to suppress, not boost, our crude and clunky innate immune responses. That’s why we take fever reducers and antihistamines.”(emphasis original)

Let’s rip this article apart, shall we?

Bogus claims

I’m no fan of Dr. Oz, and I shudder to think that he is now the figurehead for natural remedies among the general public, but alas, he probably is. Let’s look at the specific things being promoted on this page of his website (which, remember, we are supposed to consider representative of all natural remedies, if we accept the implication of the Slate article):

  1. larch (claimed to reduce the number of colds by 23%)
  2. oregano oil (to boost immune system and “cleanse your gut”)
  3. Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, enoki, etc.; a source of antioxidants)
  4. cruciferous vegetables (to “support your liver and immune function by boosting the liver’s ability to flush out toxins”)
  5. avocados (to support adrenal function)
  6. ginger (to “break down the accumulation of toxins in the organs”)
  7. black currants (to promote health vision and supply Vitamin C)
  8. oats (to lower cholesterol)
  9. pomegranates (which “contain ellagic acid and punic alagin which fight damage from free radicals and help preserve the collagen in your skin”)
  10. pumpkin seeds (as a source of magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure)
  11. sage extract (as an expectorant)
  12. eggs (just as a source of vitamins and minerals)
  13. graviola (“traditionally used to kill parasites, ameliorate liver problems, reduce fevers, and help treat colds and the flu. Scientists have studied graviola since the 1940s and most research has been centered around annonaceous acetogenins, a group of natural compounds that appear to have some anti-tumor properties – meaning they may help fight various types of cancer cells and thus help boost immune function”)
  14. green veggies, mushrooms, onions, seeds, and berries (for overall nutrition)

On this list, 4 items are promoted just for general good nutrition (Japanese mushrooms, black currants, eggs, and collectively, green veggies, mushrooms (again), onions, seeds, and berries). I don’t think anyone can critique that; these are all nutritious foods, hardly “expensive placebos.”

A further 7 items are foods for which specific health-enhancing claims are advanced (cruciferous veg, avocados, ginger, oats, pomegranates, pumpkin seeds, and graviola). I’m not going to do the research right now to determine whether the specific claims are valid, but again these are all nutritious foods. Will they cure cancer? Probably not. Will consuming them help your body perform its necessary normal functions? They sure will.

The remaining 3 items are herbal preparations (larch, oregano oil, and sage extract), and are the only ones that could possibly be considered “potions” and “snake oil”, as the Slate article paints natural remedies. I will come back to these later. I don’t know anything about larch, but am a big fan of sage. For expectorant purposes, I would probably take a tea rather than an extract, or even just inhale the scent of the essential oil, but extract would work. I am very dubious about the oregano oil claims. First of all, the website doesn’t make clear whether Oz is talking about infused oil or essential oil. Taking oregano essential oil to “cleanse your gut” is massive overkill. Essential oils are super-concentrated; they are super expensive to make in terms of the amount of plant material required to make them; and you rarely need to take something that strong internally. Furthermore, although oregano does have antimicrobial properties, how is it supposed to tell the difference between the beneficial gut flora and the pathological ones? You are much better off just eating oregano!

Back to the Slate article: “Research on these products [i.e., Dr. Oz’s recommendations as stand-in for all natural remedies],” it says, “shows that they are expensive placebos.”

Does research show that? If you click on “expensive placebos” in the article, it links to The Cochrane Library (“independent high-quality evidence for health care decision making”). The implication being that at The Cochrane Library site we will find evidence to refute the claims of natural remedies.

What we find there are 16 links to “intervention review” articles–reviews of experimental data previously published by the Cochrane Collective–on various substances used to treat cough and cold. Only 7 of these reviews pertain to what might be termed “natural” or “alternative” remedies (unspecified “Chinese medicinal herbs,” echinacea, garlic, heated humidified air, honey, Vitamin C, and zinc). Two points stand out here: (1) None of those is among the items promoted on Dr. Oz’s website; and (2) only one of the natural remedies examined was found to definitely be not at all helpful, and even then the authors called for more research:

  • On “Chinese medicinal herbs”: “Chinese herbal medicines may shorten the symptomatic phase in patients with the common cold. However, the lack of trials of low enough risk of bias, or using a placebo or a drug clearly identified as a control, means that we are uncertain enough to be unable to recommend any kind of Chinese medicinal herbs for the common cold.”
  • On echinacea: “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds, although, it is possible there is a weak benefit from some Echinacea products: the results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.”
  • On garlic: “There is insufficient clinical trial evidence regarding the effects of garlic in preventing or treating the common cold. A single trial suggested that garlic may prevent occurrences of the common cold but more studies are needed to validate this finding.”
  • On steam: “Steam inhalation has not shown any consistent benefits in the treatment of the common cold, hence is not recommended in the routine treatment of common cold symptoms until more double-blind, randomised trials with a standardised treatment modality are conducted.”
  • On honey: “Honey may be better than ‘no treatment’ and diphenhydramine in the symptomatic relief of cough but not better than dextromethorphan. There is no strong evidence for or against the use of honey.”
  • On Vitamin C: “given the consistent effect of vitamin C on the duration and severity of colds in the regular supplementation studies, and the low cost and safety, it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial for them. Further therapeutic RCTs are warranted.”
  • On zinc: “Zinc administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms reduces the duration of common cold symptoms in healthy people but some caution is needed due to the heterogeneity of the data. As the zinc lozenges formulation has been widely studied and there is a significant reduction in the duration of cold at a dose of ≥ 75 mg/day, for those considering using zinc it would be best to use it at this dose throughout the cold.”

In conclusion, (1) only a fatuous idiot would consider Dr. Oz’s recommendations to be representative of the vast array of natural/alternative remedies on the market; (2) most of what Oz recommends is just food anyway; (3) no refutation of the efficacy of Oz’s suggestions is provided by the Slate article or The Cochrane Library site.

That is pathetic. If I had handed that in as a term paper, my advisor would have given me the dreaded disappointed-face. Of course, he would assume the paper was just incompetently researched and written, not a cynical and disingenous attempt to discredit alternative medicine…which is what this is.

Dangerous implications

But what’s worse is the implication that all natural remedies are snake oils, used only by ignorant bumpkins who don’t understand science, and the claim that immune suppression is actually desirable. Go ahead, re-read that quote up above. Apparently our immune systems are so “crude and clunky” that we’re better off just disabling them rather than letting them do their job.

There are a couple things to be considered here in regard to “immune boosting.” First, many herbal medicines are marketed as boosting the immune system because the Food and Drug Administration does not allow manufacturers to claim or imply that the herb is in any way a medicine or cure. Herbs are treated as food supplements, and about the only thing we can legally say about them is that they will support the body in doing something it already does anyway. When it comes to illness, therefore, all we can say is that an herb supports the immune system. Even if that’s complete BS in terms of how the plant actually works.

I believe the choice of the term “boost” is in order to make the product more attractive to consumers. Here’s the other thing about herbal medicines–they are no way to get rich. You can’t patent them, and you can’t truthfully mass-market them. Less-scrupulous manufacturers and sellers try to amplify the potential market for a medicine by (1) suggesting that herbs are taken in the same way as pharmaceuticals, (2) implying that everyone can benefit, and (3) using language designed to sound efficaceous and medicinal to as many people as possible. Hence “boost.” It sounds more active than “support” or “nourish.”

Don’t suppress your immune system!

The immune system produces the “symptoms” that we think of as sickness (fever, chills, boogers, vomit, diarrhea, etc.). All of these either attempt to flush the pathogen out, or kill it with heat. Over-the-counter medications are designed to suppress these symptoms, and many people imagine this means they are suppressing the cause of the sickness (the germ or virus). But they’re not. They can only suppress the symptom by suppressing the immune system itself. This in turn means that the virus or bacteria live longer in your system and are contagious longer. (There are reams of scientific studies to support this. It would take me hours to track them all down. Go to Google Scholar and do a search and be amazed.)

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Rather than hobbling your immune system, next time you have a cold or flu try being nice to your body. During the first 24 hours of symptoms, hit it hard with elderberry and/or echinacea, Vitamins C and D, and zinc. Then feed it nutrient-dense but easily digestible foods like homemade soups (hard to make when you’re sick, I know–I’m making some up in advance and freezing them just in case), and stay hydrated with lots of water or tea. Juice is OK in moderation–it’s very high in sugar, and once you’re sick, the amount of Vitamin C in orange juice isn’t going to do much good. Keep taking elderberry (tea, tincture, or syrup). If you have chills, don’t take antipyretics to lower your fever (in fact don’t take these at all) but help it with warming herbs like ginger.* Get as much rest as possible, and don’t neglect the recuperation period.

Even better, before you get sick, make sure you are getting good nutrition, lots of vitamins and minerals. Get sunshine, exercise, and meditate. (Don’t you dare tell me you can’t. Practice makes perfect.) You can take adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng or astragalus–an appropriate selection for your specific needs–nourishing infusions (nettles are awesome), and nutritive tonics. There are some crazy, BS natural “remedies” out there which you are wise to avoid. But to lump all alternative medicine in with wacky oregano oil gut-cleanses and lemon juice and olive oil detoxes is throwing the baby out with the bath. It’s also worth bearing in mind that most doctors aren’t scientists. Not. Even. Close. Moreover, medical practice exists within the overall context of a culture and it is subject to the body- and health-related beliefs of that culture. They are beliefs, not truths. Look–don’t trust me, and for God’s sake don’t trust Dr. Faust (<–his actual name), the author of the article in Slate–do the research, use common sense, question the assumptions, trust your own experience.

Too often, I see people I know–intellectually brilliant people, many of them–only being skeptical of a scientific-sounding claim if they already doubt it. Don’t do that. I know life is short and we can’t perform our own experiments on everything–sometimes we have to just trust what other people tell us. But choose those people wisely. Make them earn it. And if they tell you you should suppress your immune system when you’re sick, laugh in their stupid faces.

*Always, always, always use your common sense. If your fever is very high or shows no signs of abating after a couple days, or if you are immuno-compromised, seek medical help.