Natural remedies / herbalism / home remedies / folk medecine / traditional medicine / alternative therapies / complementary medicine / ethnomedicine / ethnopharmacology / phytopharmacology or medicine … call it what you will, it is becoming increasingly popular for a variety of reasons and more individuals are nowadays preferring to take personal control over their health, not only in the prevention of diseases but also to treat them.
This is particularly true for a wide variety of chronic or incurable diseases – cancer, arthritis, diabetes – or acute illnesses which are readily treated at home such as the common cold etc. At the turn of the last century, folk medicine was viewed as a practice used by poverty-stricken communities and ‘quacks’. However, our rejection of synthetic or biomedical products has become a growing trend and during the latter part of the 20th century herbalism has become ‘main stream’ throughout the world. This is due in part to the recognition of the value of traditional and indigenous pharmacopeias and us better understanding how many are incorporated into modern pharmaceuticals.
In the last decade there has been an explosion in the consumption of herbal remedies in the West. Today, Germany and France, followed by the UK, lead the world in sales of such remedies.
Surveys from 2010 indicate that two-thirds of women use herbs for premenopausal symptoms, 45% of pregnant women try herbal remedies and 45% of parents prefer to give their children herbal treatments.
There has always been a distinct difference between Eastern and Western folk medicine
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU have issued guidelines and Acts concerning the safe and appropriate use of herbal medicines. The safety issues related to phytomedicines are complex and include the possible toxicity of plants, the presence of contaminants such as pesticides, as well as potential interactions between these herbal medicines and prescription drugs.
Research is costly and modern drugs are expensive, which is why people in developing countries have continued to use medicinal plants because they are widely available and easy to access. It is estimated that over 50% of the world’s population relies on folk medicine practices.
Now, everyone is getting onto the ‘natural’ bandwagon with articles talking about the latest ‘super foods’ and advertisements jostling to sell you supplements, juices, elixirs, balms, lotions and potions professing all sorts of health benefits.
We are lucky to be living here in Provence – land of considerable folk medicine, surrounded by our own phytopharmacy ! Here are just a couple of plants that you might not have realised have healing properties :
Arbutus unedo : Arbousier / Strawberry tree (Darboussié in Provençal)
The leaves are rich in tannins and 37 constituents in the essential oil distilled from the leaves. The fruits contain sugar, pectin, some iron and carotene amongst others.
Virgil writes about the arbousier in the Aeneid (Book XI, 63-65) where he describes branches of Arbutus and Oak being place on Pallas’ funeral bed. In ancient times it was linked with death and immortality.
In phytotherapy, mixed with other plants, the leaves are successfully used for urinary tract infections. In Corsica the fruits are used for digestive problems, flatulence and as a depurative, infusing green fruits in boiling water and served with sugar. In Tunisia the roots are used for their hypotensive properties and the seeds as an anti-diarrhetic.
The fruits are also used for drinks, jams and marmalades.
Artemisia vulgaris : Armoise / Mugwort (Artémisio, Artémise in Provençal)
Named after the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman equivalent – Diana), goddess of hunting but also childbirth, the Greeks and Romans considered artemisia as a gynecological remedy and to regularise menstrual cycles.
A Provençal saying shows the importance of this plant in phytotherapy : “If every woman knew the virtues of Artmesia, they would always have a piece of it in the button-hole of their blouse.”
Today it is still used to help with menopausal symptoms such as bloatedness and hot flushes. It is a repellant, has antibacterial and antifungicidal properties. In France it is used for menstrual period pains and to stimulate the appetite.
In Tunisia A campestris is reputed as an anti-venom either using dried leaves and flowers externally or drinking a tea, for treating scorpion stings and snake bites, eczema and burns.
In Spain, A barrelieri (endemic to the southern Iberian peninsula) is used for gastric troubles, indigestion, blood disorders and diabetes.
The artemesia family also consists of, amongst others :
- Artemisia absinthium – from which Absinthe was / is made
- Artemisia glacialis – Génépi, glacier wormwood, used as a digestive & widely used for mountain sickness
- Artemisia dracunculus – var sativa is French Tarragon & A dracunculoides is Russian Tarragon
- Artemisia cina – known as wormseed or santonica, which is used a a vermifuge
- Artemeisia annua – sweet wormwood, sweet annie … annual wormwood, which has a camphor-like scent and is used traditionally as a fever treatment, has an active ingredient – artemisinin – which is anti-microbial and is used in the treatment of malaria. A study by University of Washington, Seattle claims success using it combined with iron to attack cancer cells.
Olea europea : Olivier / Olive tree (Ooulivié in Provençal)
The olive tree is rich in symbolism : peace, fertility, purification, strength, victory and reward – it would seem to be amongst the first trees cultivated by man.
Venerated by ancient civilisations and written about by Homer in his poems. During the Olympic games in Greece, winners received crowns of olive leaves.
The medicinal uses of olives go back to ancient times using the fruit, olive oil and leaves. The oil was used in traditional medicine that has long since been forgotten : against viper and other snake bites, as a rub, an unction for scabies (la gale) and used in many unguents and plasters.
Taken orally as a laxative and to treat intestinal worms. Until some time ago, the Provençaux used an emulsion of oil mixed in cold water to treat children’s bumps and scrapes, or as a soothing and moisturising after-sun lotion – coup de soleil.
Nowadays we still use a drop or two of warmed oil in the ear to soothe an earache. It has also been known to be used in the treatment of Candida albicans (thrush).
The leaves used in a tea have been considered as an alternative to quinine – as a febrifuge to reduce intermittent fevers
Wildflowers (or weeds) :
Cynodon dactylon – chiendent pied de poule / Bermuda grass, couch grass (Gramé in Provençal)
Widely used as a mixed seed for sowing rustic, grassy areas, the hybrid variety ‘Titon 85’ is considered as potentially toxic to mammals but nevertheless the wild variety is used in traditional medicines.
The French name of chiendent is a direct translation of the Greek, as the new shoots of rhizomes resemble the canine teeth of a dog.
The rhizome is used in tisanes for its emollient, refreshing and diuretic properties. It was used in association with other diuretics to treat oedema or hydropsy.
In the Midi and Corsica it is often cited for problems with urinating and to treat hypertension. In North Africa it is also used for kidney stones.
Boil the rhizome once for about a minute, discard the water and bash it to remove the tough bark. Drink with honey or lemon.
Smilax aspera – Salsepareille / rough or prickly bindweed (Esclaria in Provençal)
Around us, this vicious weed can grow around 2m or more, but its cousins in Guatemala can grow to 15m long in dense forest !
However, it is a typical example of a medicinal plant that has been forgotten. The root was introduced into the medical world towards the middle of the 16th century. It was used notably for rheumatism and arthritis as well as skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis herpes and leprosy, but also for the flu, anorexia and gout. It was also used as a diuretic and perspiration control as it stimulates the circulatory system, as well as a treatment for respiratory problems and the effects of syphilis. It is still used in traditional medicine in Spain and around the mediterranean basin.
Its more exotic cousins were used for tonics and aphrodisiacs in Mexico, in the Amazon to increase virility and treat menopausal troubles.
In America, at the turn of the 20th century, an infusion of Smilax regelii root was slightly alcoholised and carbonised and sold as Bristol’s Sarsaparilla soft drink. It is also the primary ingredient of old fashioned root beer.
References : ‘Ces Précieuses Plantes de Méditerranée’ Docteur Yvan Avramov; ‘La Phytothérapie’ Docteur Jean Valnet; Pelagia Research Library;Wikipedia