This week I launch my book, The Herbal Apprentice: Plant Medicine and The Human Being. Because it is the season of coughs, sore throats and colds, I thought three plant stories from the book might be of interest.
Elecampane (inula helenium) bright yellow flowers burst like sunshine. Its sun-like flowers suggest the plant’s warming on action within the body. In herbal medicine, elecampane’s thick, deep roots are used. The root contains two chemical constituents that act on respiratory passages.
First, elecampane is rich in volatile oils that warm the lungs. Volatile oils irritate the lining of the bronchioles, initiating the cough reflex. The irritation stimulates the flow of blood into the bronchiole, delivering nutrients and white blood cells designed for killing invaders in the body. The increase in circulation thins thick mucous facilitating its climb up the cilary, preparing it for expulsion.
Elecampane’s second constituent that irritates the bronchioles and triggers a cough are saponins. Herbs high in saponins create foam when mixed with water. Saponins’ foaming action thins thick mucous.
A couple of winters ago an elderly client’s wife called me to come see him. This client suffered with congestive heart failure and shortness of breath. His wife was particularly concerned about a cough that had developed and was fearful it was the beginning of a nasty respiratory flu that was making its way across the country.
I gave him a tincture of elecampane to take three times a day. Within a week, the cough cleared up. Elecampane brought heat into the lungs, dried up the mucous and relieved the cough.
Mullein (verbascum thapsus) loves to grow in dry soil lacking nutrients. In my herb garden it only grows as high as my knee. Beside the railroad tracks by my home, mullein towers about the prairie grasses. Mullein’s preference for dry soil reflects its medicine. Its leaves are an ideal plant for dry, harsh coughs. Matthew Wood refers to mullein’s salty taste as the signature of the plants medicine. The salty taste draws water into the respiratory passages thinning hard, encrusted mucous, and creates a productive cough.
Mullein contains both mucilage and saponins. Recall that saponins irritate the bronchi and trigger coughing while mucilage thins and loosens mucous. The mucilage in mullein soothes and cools heat caused by viruses in the respiratory tract.
In my practice, I use mullein to cool down and clean out smoker’s lungs. I encourage smokers to drink several cups of mullein tea a day.
Old Man’s Beard (usnea spp.) in the First Nation’s medicine wheel usnea sits in the North, the place of wisdom. I remember my first taste of old man’s beard tincture. I felt I was sipping ancient green wisdom. No plant (usnea is not really a plant) gives meaning to the interdependence of life like usnea.
Usnea is a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi.
Algae forms the green/grey outer surface, and fungi, the inner the white elastic like substance. Usnea grows all over the world, and all over the world it is used to treat cancer, wounds, and lung infections. Usnea’s grey green algae are strongly antibacterial. The inner fungus, the thallus, is immune-modulating.
It was once thought that usnea was a plant parasite because it prefers to grow on trees where the bark is damaged. It was believed that usnea drew nutrients from the tree. We are now wiser.
Usnea acts as medicine wherever it perches on the damaged skin of a tree. Usnea protects the tree from invading plant pathogens. Usnea takes nothing from the tree.
The coating of alga absorbs energy from the sun and feeds the inner fungi. The fungus, catching minerals and moisture from the air, makes its own food and feeds it to the algae. Usnea is self-sustaining. As usnea is dependent on the air for its source of nutrients, it is very sensitive to air pollution. If the air is thick with pollution, Usnea grows slowly if it grows at all. In clean air, usnea hangs from trees like an old man’s beard.
This strange combination of algae and fungi that care for the trees — the lungs of the planet — informs us about the quality of the air and helps us heal our own lung deficiencies. It is a sublime dance of interdependence.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached www.abraherbs.com.