Seems like only yesterday, though actually it was 2003, that a viral infection called SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) meandered around the world after starting at a live animal market China. For those affected, what first appeared to be an especially bad cold quickly became something ominous, progressing to a potentially fatal pneumonia. Ultimately there […]
Well before the first European settlers arrived in North America, Native American tribes had discovered that by scraping away the rough outer bark of the majestic slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra), they could uncover a remarkable healing substance in the inner bark. They beat the bark into a powder and added water to create a “slippery” concoction ideal for soothing toothaches, healing scrapes, and dispelling constipation.
An herb prized for its medicinal benefits and distinctive flavor, peppermint (Mentha piperata) is a naturally occurring hybrid of spearmint (M. spicata) and water mint (M. aquatica). Unlike other mints, however, peppermint contains in its healing volatile oil the powerful therapeutic ingredient menthol, as well as menthone, menthyl acetate and some 40 other compounds. The oil is made by steam-distilling the plant’s aromatic leaves and stems, which are gathered just before its light-purple flowers appear in the summer.
Since ancient times, Europeans have relied on the root of the marshmallow plant (Althea officinalis) to concoct cough and sore throat remedies. Interestingly, the “Althea” in the herb’s botanical name comes from the Greek word for “heal” or “cure.” And the plant’s common name–marshmallow–comes from the habitat that it favors: marshes and other damp environments.
Few herbal remedies have been as widely used or as carefully examined over the centuries as licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), a botanical member of the pea family that is still widely cultivated in Greece and Turkey. The herb’s key therapeutic compound, glycyrrhizin, is found in the rhizome (or underground stem) of this tall purple-flowered shrub. Hundreds of other potentially healing substances have been identified in licorice as well, including compounds called flavonoids and various plant estrogens (phytoestrogens). Researchers are currently excited about the diverse healing properties of licorice, from its anti-inflammatory abilities to its capacity to soothe stomach upset and control coughs. Even the National Cancer Institute has investigated the medicinal benefits of licorice.
Ancient Greeks reportedly relied on horehound (Marrabium vulgare) to treat mad-dog bite, which explains the “hound” in this plant’s name. But over time, it has been this herb’s power to control a cough that has made it so popular. Soothing teas, lozenges, and syrups concocted from its wooly leaves and white flowering tops make a cough more productive by stimulating phlegm (mucus) output in the airways. Colds, bronchitis, and other minor respiratory problems often respond to horehound treatment as well.
Most cooks–even unadventurous ones–can easily identify the yellowish-brown crescents known as fennel seeds. That’s because these tiny seeds, which actually represent the dried ripe fruits of the aromatic fennel plant (Foeniculum vulgare), have been handed down through the ages as a spice and food preservative. Their heady and memorable flavor, reminiscent of licorice and anise, is familiar to most people because fennel seeds are routinely used in rye bread.
From cough cure to tension-reliever, the woody scented oil and leathery leaves of the stately eucalyptus tree have found myriad uses over the centuries. Australian aborigines relied on this native evergreen for soothing painful joints and healing skin lesions. And settlers to the continent dubbed eucalyptus the “fever tree” in recognition of its disease-fighting powers. While these early users ascribed its potency to the tree’s brisk aroma, it is now known that the thirsty roots were responsible: They kept the surrounding ground relatively dry and thus free of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Famed as a source of the blue-black berries used to make elderberry wine and jelly, both the berries and flowers from the elder shrub (Sambucus nigra L.) have been used medicinally for centuries to fight off respiratory infections and other ailments. American elder (Sambucus candensis L.) is found in the eastern part of North America. What accounts for the plant’s therapeutic action is not well understood, but its healing properties are thought to derive from substances called flavonoids. These substances act as in the body in a variety of ways. As antihistamines, bioflavonoids can be helpful in the treatment of allergies. As antioxidants, they counteract the cell destruction caused by toxic molecules called free radicals. But it is the third property of flavonoids, an antiviral effect, that seems to make elderberry a clinically useful plant.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) may qualify as the world’s oldest cough remedy. Folk healers have been using the bright yellow flowers, roots, and hoof-shaped, wooly leaves of this daisy family member for centuries to suppress dry coughs and soothe sore throats. In fact, part of the plant’s scientific name (Tussilago) stems from the Latin word for “cough.” Shop owners in eighteenth century France painted an image of the plant on their signs to let passersby know that they sold healing herbs.