Friday, 11 February 2011

Chasing the Winter Blues

Last week we went back to our roots (literally) to learn about winter herbal remedies. The western pharmacopeia is full of ancient and new herbs that help us to overcome wintertime afflictions, coughs, colds and flus.  A battalion of remedies exists to ward them off (or at least keep them at bay) including syrups, lozenges, balms, teas and tinctures.

We started with the Holistic Evergreens: Holly, Yew, Ivy, Mistletoe and Pine (all very Christmassy!)

Holly (Ilex) – The berries (favourites of those gluttonous wood pigeons) are somewhat toxic, but not deadly and if dried, ground and powdered create an effective antiseptic dusting powder used in winter to help dry sticky or seeping wounds.

Yew – (Taxus baccata) the oldest growing plant in Europe (Fortingall Yew?) is one of the classic herbs that has been in use since ancient times (first noted in Avicenna’s work of 1021 AD) and commonly found in cemeteries in Europe). The leaves and berries can be toxic, but both the bark and a fungus producing Taxol growing within the inner bark have proved extremely efficacious in treating cervical cancer.

Ivy (Hedera helix) – is very high in saponins and is used as an expectorant in bronchial treatments as it will stimulate a cough. It is also used topically as a vulnerary and studies show that Falacarinol, a plyyne produced from the leaves, can help to prevent breast cancer.

Misteltoe (Viscum album) is actually a semi-parasitic plant that grows in a wide variety of trees. It is classified as a Schedule 3 plant as it is so potentsive having a strong effect on the circulatory and respiratory functions.  However, combined with garlic and hawthorn in herbal preparations it can be used lower blood pressure.  Research has also indicated it as a recuperative supplement for post-cancer operation patients.

Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) – Pine needle tea is packed with tannin rich antioxidants and full of oligomeric procyanidins which are fantastically good for you (and also found in Sea Buckthorn and Grape seed extract oils).  These are also now used as a supplement for those recovering from cancer as the help to kick start the immune system and remove those ever-roaming free radicals…

EARLY BLOOMERS are those lovely plants that spring forth with new life far faster than the sun rises in northern climes.  They bloom like mad when no others will dare and gain the affection of starving bees and insects in reward.  Like the evergreens above, they provide a seasonal cabinet of good cures:

Magnolia – is an ancient genus, evolved before bees were around so its the beetles that benefit from this show of flowers. The bark is used as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, great for times of ‘over-indulgence’.

Fragrant Winter Hazel barks such as from Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)  have a high tannin content which is astringent and used in familiar over-the-counter lotions for treating insect bites, acne and aftershave. Winter Hazel bark (Corylopsis glaucescens) is antiseptic and a vulnerary too.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus) is one of the few where the flowers and leaves are used rather than bark. The flowers encourage salivation and a slake a great thirst, but are also used to help with colds and treat depression. Traditionally leaves and roots are poulticed and used to treat rheumatism, aches and agues.

Winter Bush Honeysuckle (Jasminim mediflorium) produces flowers that are good to use on dreamy people. They can also be made into an infusion to treat coughs.

Winter Flowering Jasmine (Jasminim multiflorium) flowers are a diaphoretic which can be used to reduce a fever. They actually do this by raising the body temperature causing vasodilatation which brings blood to the surface and helps to detoxify the system.

Winter Flowering Viburnum (Viburnum farreri opulus) – was often called Cramp Bark as it was used as an antispasmodic.  Its fruits are used in Chinese medicine and there is some reference to it being used to treat asthma. Funnily enough, Viburnum was the wood  Otzi the Iceman’s used for his arrows too.

White Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) bears fruit that is highly astringent but also contains great dose of that essential winter wonder, Vitamin C. They are often made into jellies and liqueurs (after they are bletted). Both fruit and seeds are mucilaginous and can be used as a demulcent.

Winter Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark is used as a traditional western cough medicine. The leaves however contain cyanogenic gylcocides which is poisonous to animals (and humans, we assume).

Seasonal Remedy Herbs 
Along with our lovely garden harbingers of spring, are a number of other herbs that can be used alone or in combination to combat coughs, colds, warm the body and boost the immune system. They are:

Balm of Gilead (Populus gileadensis)
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Elecampane (Imula helenium)
White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Iceland Moss (Centaria islandica)
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza  glabra)
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa)

If you don’t have time to concoct any of these, try going to a Chinese market and buying a bottle of King-To Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa – a fantastic herbal remedy known to sooth coughs, sore throats and even help with asthma -  highly recommended by Catherine too!

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