In the eighteenth century, seasoned sailors found that by sucking on lemons they could avoid scurvy, a debilitating disease that often developed during long voyages when fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce. When the lemon’s key nutrient was formally identified in 1928, it was named ascorbic acid for its anti-scurvy, or antiscorbutic, action. Today ascorbic acid is widely known as vitamin C.
It was centuries ago that Australian aborigines probably first started plucking leaves from a native tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) to treat skin infections. In 1770, sailors from Captain Cook’s expedition to the South Seas ventured ashore at New South Wales and brewed a tea using the leaves of the same tree. This event engendered the herb’s English name “tea tree”–which is actually something of a misnomer because the Melaleuca species bears no relation to the Camellia species, the usual source of tea leaves.
To treat a host of ills ranging from fungal infections to the common cold, traditional healers in South and Central America have long brewed a tea made from the inner bark of a native evergreen tree of the Tabebuia species.
Today, this healing brew, variously referred to as pau d’arco or Taheebo, is readily available in North American health-food stores and sold as a “cure” for cancer and numerous other ills (including diabetes, warts, and vaginal yeast infections). Whether pau d’arco actually works for any of these conditions is unclear and the subject of ongoing confusion and controversy.
The Iroquois and Cherokee were among the first of the American tribes in the eastern United States to use this small perennial plant (Hydrastis canadensis) medicinally. They harvested its fleshy underground stems (rhizomes) and roots and used them to treat a variety of infections and other complaints, from insect bites and digestive upset to eye and skin ailments. By the nineteenth century, healers began to refer to this native wildflower (which resembles a buttercup) as goldenseal because the cuplike scars on its bright yellow rhizomes resembled the wax seals then used to close envelopes and certify documents. The plant’s colorful roots also provided dye for clothing.
Along with its well-earned reputation for discouraging friends and repelling potential lovers, this powerful herb has a storied culinary and medical history. Egyptian pyramid builders took it for strength and endurance. Medieval healers recommended it as protection against supernatural forces–vampires in particular. The French scientist Louis Pasteur investigated its antibacterial properties, and doctors in the two World Wars treated battle wounds with garlic juice when other drugs were unavailable. Most recently, garlic has been touted for heart health as well.
Calendula, the garden plant known as pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), is nature’s remedy for many of life’s little accidents: sunburns, bruises, and scratches to name a few. Europeans have been using this versatile herb for centuries in cooking and healing. The yellow-orange flowers have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic actions–these have been demonstrated in laboratory and animal studies–which make the plant valuable for insect bites, athlete’s foot, and a variety of other disorders.