12.6 Herbs and Herbal Remedies


Defined loosely, an herb is any plant with a useful quality. In this discussion, the focus will be on small, non-woody plants identified as useful in health and healing. Other uses for herbs are as spices, for an aroma, or as decoration. Historically, the use of plants for a medicinal purpose predates written history. A medicinal kit from the U.S. Southwest was reported in 1997.The five thousand years old 'Iceman' had medicinal mushrooms among his personal effects.

Their uses must have been discovered largely by accident. Early documented evidence of medicinal use is scarce. Records from ancient Babylon dated at about 2200 BC give instructions for the preparation and administration of medicinal herbs. (My note: see the article about the 'World's Oldest Prescription.')

The Egyptians and Greeks also possessed a considerable knowledge of the use of herbs. Students of Hippocrates, the 'father of medicine' was learning about the use of herbs for easing pain and curing disease in 400 BC. The Romans also used herbs extensively. It has been estimated that more than 200 herbs were introduced to Britain by the invading Romans.

Two famous herbals (books on herbs) of history are John Gerard's Herbal published in 1579 and John Parkinson's massive Theatrum Botanicum was published in 1640 covering 3,800 plants.

Europeans soon discovered that indigenous peoples in the New World also had a vast herbal knowledge of their own. The first written manuscript in the New World on this subject was prepared by Juan Badianus in 1552. It was written in Latin.

Since the late 1700s, herbal medicine was replaced by allopathic medicine. Beginning in the 1960s, however, there was a resurgence of interest in herbs. It is part of the 'do it yourself' populist movement. People want a choice, alternatives to prescription drugs which many persons suspect carry potential dangers. Most herbs are now grown for culinary or decorative use, or for fragrant or cosmetic products. Controlled trials by biomedical researchers have shown that some herbs used in Chinese medicine achieved better results in the treatment of eczema than the strongest preparations available from the pharmaceutical industry.


If you are interested in herbs you are advised to work with an experienced herbalist, especially if you seek to grow and prepare them yourself. The body of literature about herbals is huge.


Here is important information about herbs and plant-based drugs:


Baker, B. "Herbal Remedies" AARP Bulletin May, 1999.

Chase, M "Patients Need to Keep Their Doctors Informed About Herbal Therapies" Wall Street Journal November 16, 1998.

"Herbal Rx The Promises and Pitfalls" Consumer Reports March, 1999.



For a more complete treatment of this topic, see article 12.4. The discussion here is necessarily rather limited. The Native American Indians have made a remarkable contribution to medicine. The United States Pharmacopeia (U.S.P.) and National Formulary (NF) includes 220 substances in listings between 1820 and 1965. (The United States Pharmacopeia is a private, nonprofit group which sets standards for pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and minerals. The U.S.P. now publishes monographs on herbs)

Some 42 new substances of American Indian usage were added and became official after 1890. Only a few are listed and described below.

JIMSONWEED This is a poisonous plant and should not be ingested or smoked. Its seeds are the most poisonous part. External uses have been for hemorrhoids, skin eruptions, wounds, painful joints and muscles. It is hallucinogenic and poisonous. Jimsonweed contains atropine and scopolamine. These drugs affect neural transmitters in the central nervous system. It can relieve asthma when smoked or inhaled as a vapor. Plants of this family are grown commercially for medicinals.

CASCARA The most important use of the cascara was as a remedy for upset stomach and constipation. The active ingredient is extracted from its bark by boiling it in water. Parke-Davis prepared and sold it commercially beginning in 1877. It is today marketed in the form of pills, powders, and liquids. It can also be administered to dogs. The active ingredient, anthroquinone causes increased peristalsis (movement) of the large intestine.

LICORICE We think of licorice as a flavor and color used in a variety of foods and beverages. Nowadays, 90% of imported licorice ends up in tobacco products. It is also used to put a head on beer and as a foaming agent in fire extinguishers. In North America, Blackfoot Indians used wild licorice as an infusion to treat earaches; other tribes ate it fresh. Its medicinal uses included treatment of dropsy, fever, menstrual cramps; menopausal symptoms; irritated urinary bowel, expectorant, and as a soothing agent for irritated mucous membranes. The chief ingredient of licorice is glycorrhizin. It is 50 times sweeter than sugar.

WILLOW These are one of the big success stories in herbal medicine. Willow bark was used as an antipyretic (to reduce fever) and as an antiseptic. The active ingredient can be removed from willow bark by boiling the bark in water for 30 minutes. German scientists synthesized acetylsalicylic acid from salicylic acid. It was first marketed before the turn of the century, thanks to a chemist at Frederic Bayer and Company who sought a drug to relieve his father's rheumatoid arthritis.

WINTERGREEN Have you ever used Ben-Gay? If you have, you are acquainted with the soothing quality of wintergreen's active ingredient which is methyl salicylate. It is found in the leaves and berries. Sioux, Penobscot, Nez Perce, and other Indian tribes used a tea made from the leaves for a variety of ailments, as did many settlers. For aching muscles and joints, it is applied as a poultice. The familiar wintergreen flavor is now produced synthetically.

MAYAPPLE The rhizome of the mayapple was used by North American Indians for inducing vomiting and as a slow acting though powerful laxative. Algonquins made a spring tonic out of it. Some East Coast Indians used it to remove warts. The active ingredient is podophyllin. The FDA has declared it an 'unsafe laxative'. American Indians also used it to abort pregnancies and to commit suicide. The fruit is edible; however, the seeds are poisonous.

AMERICAN HELLEBORE This plant produces an analgesic which chemically are esther alkaloids. Indians used the powder to relieve toothache by working it into cavities of the teeth. Extracts of this plant reduce blood pressure and are used to treat hypertensive toxemia during pregnancy and pulmonary edema. It is also used in homeopathic medicine. It is a dangerous plant.

BEEBALM A few Indians brewed beebalm tea for pleasure and for medicinal purposes. The oil from this plant contains thymol, which is antiseptic against fungi, bacteria, and some parasites. It was taken back to Europe and cultivated there as Indian Nettle.

BIRCH Birch trees were enormously useful. Canoes were made from the bark, birch beer from the branches, and an infusion from the leaves. They drank the active ingredient, methyl salicylate prepared as a tea. They used it for fevers, kidney stones, and abdominal cramps. Birchweiser beer anyone?

BLOODROOT The sap of this plant was used for body painting. Indians living on the shores of Lake Superior used the sap to treat skin cancers. It was also applied to other superficial tumors. Bloodroot was an official botanical drug listed in the U.S.P. from 1820 to 1926.

BLUE COHOSH This little known plant was used by the Indians from problems of the uterus. The active ingredient is caulosaponin which stimulates the uterus. It is dangerous for anyone with high blood pressure.



(My note: There is a more detailed account of hallucinogens elsewhere among these articles. My treatment here is very brief.) These substances do not fit neatly into a proper classification of New World medicinals, but they are worthy of mention here. Hallucinogens, as vehicles to the spirit world, play significant roles in religious life, in rites of passage, and into societal relationships in many aboriginal societies.



CHAMOMILE This is one of the most well known herbs. It is widely used to make a soothing tea. While chamomile has many applications, scientific analysis has not confirmed its alleged wizardry as a tea. The secret of Chamomile's chemical activity lies in a volatile oil derived from the flowers. Extracts are used as anti-inflammatories, as antispasmodics, and as anti-infectives for a variety of minor illnesses. If you like chamomile tea and derive relief from it, by all means continue to do so.

ALOE Aloe reaches far back in time. The Greek historian Dioscorides recorded the use of aloe as a healing herb 2,000 years ago. The gel was applied externally to wounds. It was used to clear blemishes and maintain healthy skin. Aloe has been added to various creams and lotions. Fresh aloe gel gives the best results. The best way to use this herb is to break off a leaf, then slice it down the middle, and apply the gel to the skin.

DEADLY NIGHTSHADE This one is dangerous! The leaves of belladonna have been listed in the U.S.P. since 1820. Modern medicine uses certain isolated compounds: atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine made from the leaves. Atropine is an important drug for ophthalmologists in the treatment of narrow angle glaucoma. People have been poisoned by eating rabbits and birds that have fed on the berries of this plant. Its chemicals can be absorbed through the skin just by handling the leaves of deadly nightshade.

EUCALYPTUS Species of eucalyptus constitute more than three quarters of the vegetation of Australia. The roots store water, and they are a source of an emergency water ration in the outback. Eucalyptus oil is derived from the leaves, roots, and bark. If you rub the leaves of the eucalyptus together, the pungent odor of camphoraceous eucalyptol oil is released. It has a spicy, cooling taste. For the plant, it is a secondary metabolite that wards of plant-eating predators. Some animals such as the koala bear have adapted to the eucalyptus and now dine exclusively upon it. Eucalyptus trees survive in Australia because of their adaptation to the climate and the ability of the seeds to survive fire.

FOXGLOVE In 1775, Dr. William Withering in England attended to a woman suffering from severe congestive heart failure (dropsy). He expected her to die, but was surprised weeks later to find her fully recovered. She drank a herbal tea made from the foxglove. His study led to the discovery of digitalis. This contains several glycosides, which increase the force of heart contractions. Drugs derived from Grecian Foxglove have been used widely since the late 1940s.

GINSENG Does it do anything? It is hard to evaluate the medicinal qualities of a plant that has been said to help every human ailment. Biologically active compounds have been identified in the plant. Whether and how these might be useful remains unclear. The Food and Drug Administration merely categorizes ginseng as safe from tea. As far as what else it does, you are on your own.

MINT This is one of those herbs that really works as a home remedy and you will probably enjoy its taste. It is the menthol in peppermint that is primarily responsible for this herb's beneficial effect. Mint is recommended for indigestion, flatulence, and colic.

TROPICAL PERIWINKLE It is mentioned here because we have a separate unit in this course when we discuss the pharmacopeia from the rain forest. Discussion of this plant serves as a transition from home remedies to the modern drugs derived from living organisms in the rain forest. A tropical periwinkle received its official status as a medicinal plant only in recent years. Eli Lilly and Company has developed two anti cancer drugs, vincristine sulfate (Velban©) and Oncovin© from it. They are used to treat Hodgkin's, lymphomas, childhood leukemia, and breast cancer.



The gardening of herbs is as straightforward as growing flowers and they are much less demanding than growing vegetables. The majority of herbs are pest-free and disease-free. They require little more than a well drained, a sunny site with plenty of room and a moderately fertile soil. (My note: there is an abundance of literature on this topic. An article you might like is: Henry, S. "A Beginner's Guide to Backyard Botanicals" Health May, 1999)



This herb is licensed in Germany for treatment of depression, anxiety and insomnia. It has cornered 50 percent of the antidepressant market in Germany, where Prozac has only a 2 percent market share.

An overview of 23 clinical studies in Europe found that it may be useful in cases of mild to moderate depression and caused far fewer side effects than standard drugs did. At this writing (ll/13/99), a three-year federally funded study is under way to compare the herb with a prescription antidepressant and a placebo. Reported side effects with St. John's wort are dizziness, dry mouth, increased sensitivity to sunlight.


Condor, B. "St. John's wort: Herbal remedy may offer a new solution to an old problem" Chicago Tribune November 6, 1997.

"Herbal Rx The promises and pitfalls" Consumers Reports March, 1999.

Van, J. and Kotulak, R. "Jury is still out on St. John's Wort" Chicago Tribune January 29, 1998.



In the months since its U.S. debut, sales are skyrocketing for this dietary supplement, promoted as a quick cure for depression that also helps lube joints and boost liver function. It is not a nutrient and it has not been approved (or disapproved) by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's chemical component is s-adensylmethionine (pronounced "sammy"), a compound found in every human cells. It has been studied since the 1970s, and at least 40 clinical studies support its use-but in an injectable form, not pills.


"What makes SAM-e run?" Consumer Reports October, 1999.



In the 20th century, the pharmaceutical industry has increasingly relied on synthetics. There remain, however, a large proportion of medicinals that can be reasonably derived only from plants. At least 25% of the prescriptions dispensed by the modern day physician contain active ingredients from plants. Were it not for folk medicine, there would not be as many excellent drugs available to modern science," according to Norman Farnsworth, PhD, UIC College of Pharmacy, Chicago. Essentially all of the plants yielding useful drugs, or which are found in prescriptions as extracts were known in medicinal folklore.

..... CJ '99


Doane, N. Indian Doctor Book Charlotte: Aerial Photography Services, Inc. 1980.

Greenwald, J. "Herbal Healing" Time November 23, 1998

"Historical cache of medicinal plants" Science News Vol. 151 April 7, 1997 p 207.

McHoy, P. and Westland, P. The Herb Bible New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1994.

Peterson, A. "The Making of an Herbal Superstar" Wall Street Journal. February 26, 1998

"Recent roundup of popular herbal remedies" Kankakee Journal December 11, 1998.

Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs Emmaus (Pennsylvania) : Rodale Press, 1987.

Vogel, V. American Indian Medicine Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.