Judy Holcomb talks about herbal medicines 2013.08.28


People have an interest in native plants for their beauty, their addition to soil health and their place in the natural environment. But for those who came before us, said Lenawee Conservation Service educator coordinator Judy Holcomb, the interest was in medicinal properties.

Native Americans used a variety of local plants to help with a host of diseases and afflictions, and the arrival of the white settlers posed a problem.

"When a group was moved from one area to another," Holcomb said recently at a Morenci Garden Club meeting, "they had to get used to a new set of plants, some not found in their native area."

Without their traditional herbal remedies, many died until new medicine was established.

"We weren't thinking about that as we moved them around," she said, "and that led to the demise of a lot of them."

That was compounded by the arrival of diseases brought to North America by Europeans for which no medicine was established.

Holcomb said she often wonders how many people died before proper dosages were figured out.

Holcomb said about half of the medications we use now can be traced back to herbal medicine. Some of the elixirs and remedies were brought across the ocean with settlers; others were learned from Native Americans.

"We have a lot of valid uses for plants, but along the way, pharmaceutical companies discovered they could come up with chemical alternatives," she said.

Many plants were once listed in pharmaceutical guides, but over the years herbs began dropping off the pages.

Many natural remedies are still available to buy in certain stores, Holcomb said, and there are still many people who depend on herbs for health care.

Native plants can make good choices for yards and gardens because of their hardiness—they adjusted to the local environment over many centuries.

"They don't need as much care, as much watering," Holcomb said. "They survive on their own really well. They're often referred to as weeds because they come up in the wrong spot."

Its desirability depends on whether or not it's wanted in a particular location, how fast it grows and whether it tends to take over an area.

Hybridization of native plants is posing a problem, Holcomb said.

"Studies have found that some of our native plants that have been hybridized and sold at nurseries have literally no food content for butterflies and bees. We've worked to create big flowers and long-lasting flowers and the ability to grow in areas where they aren't established."

People generally don't think about the importance of native plants to wildlife, Holcomb said, but those plants are essential to many animals and insects. Many migratory birds, for example, depend on plants for survival.

"They're hitting all those wetland areas that they know of and have been taught to the next generation and the next generation as they make their way back north," she said. "So when we fill in a wetland, we've just closed one of the restaurants on their way."

And then we wonder why we aren't seeing so many ducks this year or other waterfowl, she said.

"They depend on those stopping points," Holcomb said, "and some of them don't survive the trip without them."

Holcomb said there's a general rule of thumb to follow when it comes to the natural world: Everything has a purpose.

Bloodroot: used for jaundice, rattlesnake bites, and as an expectorant for bronchitis.

The red juice from the root can be used as a dye.

Cow Parsnip: potherb.

Trout Lily or Adder's Tongue: poultice for wounds.

Was once listed in the U.S. Pharmaceutical guide.

Skunk Cabbage: poultice, tea for whooping cough and seizures; asthma, rheumatism and dropsy.

Also used in tattooing: dried root powered and mixed with dye, then injected under skin with sharpened fish tooth.

It's a harbinger of spring, Holcomb said, but the odor of rotting flesh might not be considered a good harbinger.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit: head aches, sore eyes.

Eating the fiery root was a test of manhood.

May Apple: laxative; insecticides; used as a poison.

The trick, Holcomb said, is to get the ripe fruit before wildlife does.

Bird's-foot violet: laxative.

Trillium: male and female remedies; cramps; birthing.

"It has a reputation for being an aphrodisiac," Holcomb said. "I'm surprised you still see any of them around."

Dandelion: diuretic.

Many plants have been hybridized, Holcomb said, but dandelions have been left as is.

Bouncing Bet: skin problems, expectorant, jaundice, venereal disease, pox. Adds froth to beer; works as a soap.

Yarrow: crushed and stuffed into the wounds of Civil War soldiers; bruises, toothaches.

Jewelweed: poison ivy care and prevention.

All parts of jewelweed can be liquified in a blender, then bottled and refrigerated for later use.

Goldenrod: ulcers, wounds.

It's not an irritant for those with allergies, Holcomb said. It just gets a bad rap for its association with ragweed.

Thistles: anorexia, jaundice, fevers, back pains of pregnant women.

If thistle flowers close during the day, Holcomb said, rain is on the way.

Bee Balm: headaches, sore throat, congestion, acne, insect bites.

Boneset: dengue fever, broken bones.

Great blue lobelia: syphilis.

Columbine: child birth, fever, headache.

Coneflower: poultice, head aches, tooth ache.

Black-eyed Susan: fighting staph infections, building immunity.