Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Salvia the Savior

Salvia officinalis
Source:  Koehler Images

Sage.  The very name evokes notions and emotions.  Images of wise elders with crinkled skin, wizard hats and hooded capes, the recollection of the comforting, warming, smokey, green, earthy scent of Garden Sage's leaves and crackling sausage on the griddle that makes you relax and grin, your belly knowing it will be satisfied.

The genus of Sages is Salvia, whose root word means Salvation.  Straight away you know that to earn such a name these plants have long been held in high esteem for their healing powers.  Out of the plethora of Sages, many of the varieties are used medicinally.  Today we shall focus on Salvia officinalis, or Garden Sage. Any time you see "officinalis" in the Latin name, that indicates it is (or was) the official medicine in the pharmacopoeia.

Sage is one of the herbs sung about in the famous song Scarborough Fair.  It is a cryptic song whose quatrains describe seemingly impossible tasks within each of which is curiously sandwiched, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."  This may, perhaps, be a reference to these herbs being the "Four Thieves" that helped grave robbers avoid succumbing to the Black Plague...a seemingly impossible task of the time.  It is easy to see why with such a use, Sage was commonly called "Savior" through that time period.  (Other herbs reported to be used:  Lavender (antiseptic), Garlic (antibacterial), Wormwood (antifungal, vermifuge)).  Parsley is anti-inflammatory and cleansing, Sage we are about to talk about, Rosemary is a powerful antimicrobial as well as anti-inflammatory, and Thyme is as antimicrobial well (its essential oil kills just about any bacteria and will burn your skin).

Sage is antibacterial, astringent, fluid balancing, adrenal supporting, helpful with fevers and colds, all sore throats, has an affinity for skin complaints (especially dry skin), the lungs, and digestion to name a few.

Sage is used in sausage not only because it tastes delicious, but because its antibacterial properties preserves the meat and makes it last longer.  This was a highly valued virtue back in the days before refrigerators and electricity. This also is good news for when we get sick and have bacterial infection set in our sinuses, throats, lungs, intestines, or elsewhere.

Sage is the holy balancer of fluids.  It will increase where there is too little or decrease where there is too much (gobs of phlegm in your sinuses, junky cough, sore throat from post nasal drip, too much sweating, etc.).  Sage is contraindicated for lactating women as it will dry up their breast milk.  Sage perceives milk as an excess of fluids.  So, breastfeeding mothers should not cook with sage or use it as medicine unless they are weaning.  If you do accidentally eat some Sage-seasoned sausage (or stuffing, or gravy...) and notice your milk supply has reduced, two or three cups of galactagogue tea should get you back on track.  I'm a big fan of Traditional Medicinal's Mother's Milk Tea.  It works like gangbusters.

Matthew Wood, in The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, points out that Sage has the ability to thin the blood and safely dissolve dangerous clots and shares several successful case studies.

Sage, Salvia officinalis
The Cloisters Museum & Gardens at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

It has an affinity for oil and skin, always being of use in really dry conditions, increasing the moisture and suppleness.  The leaf is even textured like skin!  "Sage is for Sages" my first teacher Kathleen always says, referring to its useful influence in the well-being of elders (and their aged skin).  I learned from Phyllis Light that Sage helps the adrenal cortex take over as the main hormone producer post menopause.  Matthew Wood has also documented this indication from Phyllis and has used it to the same effect in his own practice.  Sage has an affinity for fats--be it helping the skin stay toned and moisture-retentive, or supporting the hormonal functions of the body (hormones are made up of cholesterol and a steroid--and hormones run the show), or helping your body digest fats by supporting liver function.

Sage can be very helpful in with asthma, coughs, colds and more.  Its variety of applications is astounding and to be honest they are barely touched on in this brief article.

Recently, my Aunt caught a nasty, gunky head cold and their local store was out of Elderberry syrup.  I was searching my brain for anything she might have on hand in the house that would help and had a flash of insight.  I asked if she had Sage in her spice cabinet.  She did and I instructed her on how to make an infusion.  I called back a few days later and she sounded like she had never been sick.  She told me that after her third cup of Sage tea she was good to go.

Because sage is so strong, some, like Matthew Wood, recommend not using it as high-dose medicine long term (past 3 weeks) in case its extended use is too drying.

So here we have another friendly medicinal kitchen spice, and this one truly can save your life.  Salvia the Sage.  Sage the Savior.  Salvia salvatrix.  Perhaps I've talked you into keeping a Sage plant in your windowsill or in your garden this year!

"Cur moriatur homo cui salvia crescit in horto?" (Why should a man die who grows sage in the garden?)  --Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Yarrow

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium by Walter Siegmund

Today I am going to introduce you to a likely familiar face and it is my hope that you will learn something new about its virtues.  I have seen Yarrow growing almost every place I have traveled, from the chilly, windy peak of Mt. Hood to the boggy beaches of New England and beyond.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common plant found the world over and everywhere it grows it has been used medicinally.  The wild white variety is the official medicine.  Gardeners are familiar with intense yellow and red flowering yarrow, but they are not used in herbal medicine and better suited for dried flower arrangements.  Sometimes the white variety is tinged with a pink hue.

Armies of old knew this plant well.  The leaves and flowers of this plant may be chewed and used as a poultice for wounds.  Yarrow is a hemostat, anesthetic and antiseptic.  Thus is stops the bleeding by stimulating the blood flow to the surrounding capillaries, numbs the pain and keeps the wound clean.  Yarrow has come in handy for more kitchen whoopsie-daisies than I care to remember and is invaluable in the wilderness.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium by O. Pichard

If there ever was an herb to have in a first aid cabinet, this is it.  You can keep powdered Yarrow on hand for wounds, or I like to infuse honey (which is bacteriostatic and powerful in wound healing in and of itself) with Yarrow leaf and flower and I refer to this as my "herbal 'neosporin.'"  I coined that term, you heard it here first.  (Don't worry Neosporin®, I'm not selling it or marketing it under that name.)  It heals wounds so nicely.  The anesthetic effect takes a bit longer to take effect than poulticing with fresh Yarrow, but it gets the job done.

Like many external hemostats, Yarrow "normalizes" blood internally.  That is, it will check internal bleeding or dissolve blood clots/stagnation internally, depending on what action is needed.  It is really fabulous in menstrual complaints.

Not to be outdone by its already marvelous powers, Yarrow is a stimulating diaphoretic.  It is warming and opens up the periphery of the circulation and the pores, allowing an illness to sweat out or a fever to break, as needed.

The stimulating properties of Yarrow have been capitalized in other ways.  Peoples in various parts of the world are known to use powdered Yarrow as a stimulating snuff (it's good for nose bleeds, too, that way I hear), and before the days of sedating Hops in beer, Yarrow was used in many brews for its bolstering effect and preservative virtues.  

The dried stems of Yarrow are traditionally used when casting the I Ching.  There are also old folk incantations that were coupled with Yarrow to bring visions of future mates or to determine if love was requited. 

Achillea millefolium is a plant everyone should know.  Because no matter where you go, cuts and scrapes happen.  And when you know this plant ID positively--you will wonder how you ever went through life without it.  Take the away the sharp pain from a cut?  Remove the throbbing dull ache of a burn?  All while keeping the wound clean??  Why wouldn't you, if you could?

Just a note to the wise...

Be sure you know how to differentiate Yarrow from Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum--it's deadly.  It's the plant that killed Socrates.  They really look nothing alike.  Yarrow grows maybe a foot tall with a rigid stem and leaves made up of innumerable little hair-like leaflets (this is where millefolium comes from in its Latin name).  Hemlock grows much, much taller (5 ft.+), has a mottled stem with reddish flecks on it and a large umbels of flowers, with leaves almost shaped like a dainty flat leaf parsley.  But to the careless armchair botanist who gives little thought to employing observation and intuition...or a child--it could be a deadly error.

Poison Hemlock,
Conium maculatum
Deadly.
Image sourced through Wikipedia and originally from [http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=COMA2] : William & Wilma Follette @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Dat

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.