There’s an herb for that! You can use healing plants and herbs to treat virtually every ailment. While we have yet to discover all potential uses of medicinal plants and herbs, there is a long and storied history of healing plants that has left us with extensive practical knowledge of thousands of medicinal plants.
Revival of Healing Plants
Every culture has historically used healing plants from the surrounding environment. In the west, we abandoned the practice of healing plants when modern medicine and drugs came along. Europe, however, retained herbal medicine as a part of modern medicine. Despite having parted ways in the 20th century, herbal medicine and modern medicine are converging – albeit slowly, as researchers are increasingly drawing from the past to incorporate plants into primary research on their healing properties.
The garden has everything we need
The medieval physician and philosopher, Paracelsus said: “God grows a plant for every disease. Look around nature and draw from God’s pharmacy.”
In the past, most people’s gardens included medicinal plants such as Sage, Chamomile, and Peppermint, which alone or in some combination were thought to address almost any ailment. Today the healing effects of medicinal plants and herbs are all but forgotten. Instead of the garden, we go straight to the pharmacy.
The idea that our environment provides everything we need – food and medicine, is as old as time. But our relationship with technology, our adaptations and interventions of our environment, has rendered much of what our ancestors learned and practiced inert in favor of expediency.
Proximity of medicine
In all fairness to modern medicine, pharmacology is just a more efficient way of using natural compounds found in nature. This efficiency can actually be quite beneficial. But in the process of turning the whole, natural plants into ever-more complex derivatives, we have leaped over a fundamental aspect of natural healing: proximity.
Just as the industrialization of food has brought with it many consequences and hazards, the pharmacological revolution has also presented many challenges that aren’t always apparent. The further away we get from our food – and thus our medicine, the less we know about what we are putting in our bodies and the more susceptible we are to placing our health in the hands of a commoditized business. This distancing can provide a lot of convenience and expediency, but it comes with trade-offs in terms of empowerment, our ability to manage our health and wellness with our own two hands.
The value of slow medicine
“Food is Medicine” is a term that was originally coined by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine. Eating healthy foods from the local environment is the foundation of natural medicine (and, Hildegard’s food medicine); the best medicine is a healthy diet. Hippocrates is believed to have said “Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food”, which conforms to the idea that healthy foods can heal – or rather, healthy foods can allow our bodies to heal themselves, a notion central to Hildegard’s nutritional treatment, as well.
The idea of “God’s pharmacy” works when we maintain our proximity to the foods we eat. Similarly, harvesting the benefits from healing plants requires that we have patience and work to form our own unique relationships with the natural remedies that are readily available to us.
In 2017, Victoria Sweet published her latest book, Slow Medicine, which describes the challenges our modern medical framework faces. She references Hildegard of Bingen medicine as the foundation for the slow and preventative cures that nature often provides.
Origins of Herbal Medicine
Formalized herbal medicine was developed in the early Middle Ages as a component of medieval medical treatments. It was central to the practice of monastic medicine, in which the gardens surrounding monasteries contained a wide array of plants cultivated specifically for their healing properties.
Herbal medicine was not an organized genre of medicine, but rather a dynamic and growing body of information and prescriptions based on documentation that accumulated over centuries. The practice was largely one of careful intervention and observation, preserved for posterity due to the meticulous record keeping of the monastic orders.
The genesis of medicine and healing practitioners
Throughout the centuries, the most famous doctors were those who specialized in healing plants and herbs. Among the most famous practitioners in 12th century Germany, our namesake Saint Hildegard of Bingen independently demonstrated the healing power of plants and was instrumental in documenting volumes of information that survives to this day.
For centuries, herbal medicine was the only known source of medical treatment. Contemporary medical practitioners, such as Victoria Sweet refer to this age old system as “pre-modern” medicine. With global industrialization in the twentieth century herbal medicine lost its significance, and fell into near obscurity.
Taking medicinal plants more seriously
Recently, the trend has reversed course. Today, herbal medicine and phytotherapy is back in vogue, though still very much within the category of “alternative” medicine. The resurgence is, in part, due to the groundswell of consumers desiring alternatives to what they see as an over-reliance on drug intervention within the medical community.
There is a top-down movement coming from pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners due to the growing body of research on healing plants. As a result, pharmaceutical companies research and development on herbal treatments is rapidly growing and dedicated research departments, such as the Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry of the University of Mainz, are emerging.
7 Examples of Hildegard’s Healing Plants
Everyone is familiar with Peppermint and Chamomile, most likely as teas or flavors in candy, but there’s more to discover. These plants remain in our pantries, because they have a long history of beneficial properties.
Even plants that we consider to be strictly ornamental have healing potential. In addition to beauty, roses possess healing properties. Hildegard of Bingen recommended the active ingredients in rose for inflamed and swollen eyes, and as an elixir for the psyche. Other healing plants include:
Tansy belongs to the rose family. Pastor Sebastian Kneipp recommended taking tansy in milk to relieve cramps. You can also use tansy and for its overall antibacterial effects. Tansy is an ingredient in Duckweed Elixir, a natural remedy used for detoxification and general immune system support. The essential oil of this healing plant is used topically for its anti-microbial properties. Traditionally, tansy was also used to treat parasites. Tansy contains a compound that is toxic, so you should only use tansy under the supervision of an herbalist or natural medicine practitioner.
Yarrow tends to grow at the edge of fields and meadows. Like tansy, it is effective for cramps and has a styptic (astringent) effect that can help stop bleeding. In fact, yarrow is most widely used as a blood circulation remedy. You can use yarrow both internally and externally to help wound healing, blood circulation, and cramps. For more, see our posts on yarrow plant uses and yarrow health benefits.
As opposed to yarrow, the healing plant meadowsweet has a very different effect on the blood. Specifically, meadowsweet has a blood thinning effect. The plant also contains salicin, a pain relieving substance found in aspirin. For this reason, meadowsweet elixir is a great natural remedy for pain. You can use meadowsweet tea as a natural and gentle treatment for headaches and rheumatism. Meadowsweet is also good for digestive issues like nausea and stomach aches.
Licorice is one of the best natural remedies for bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. This healing plant helps to break down the mucus that forms in the bronchioles. Licorice is also anti-inflammatory. It reduces inflammation in the throat and stomach lining. Licorice teas are a great way to enjoy its healing properties. And it is delicious! See our post on the health benefits of licorice root for more about this healing plant.
The healing plant, oregano, contains tannins and essential oils, which can treat cramps. In tea, oregano can improve a sore throat and hoarseness. The oils found in oregano are quite powerful, so use caution when taking oregano essential oil. Oregano is also well known for its antimicrobial properties. It is widely used in natural remedies to treat symptoms of colds and to support the immune system.
Thyme is among the most powerful and versatile medicinal flowers. A common use of thyme is for relief of common sold symptoms. You can also use thyme to treat bronchitis, asthma, and allergies. Thyme is often used in tea, but is also a common essential oil. The healing properties of thyme include as a mild antibiotic, an anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain-reliever.) For more information, see our post: thyme benefits.
Sage is a staple in any herbal pharmacy. When it comes to plants with healing properties, sage, is one of the most useful. In fact, the name sage derives from the word “salvation” in Latin (“salvare”). You can harvest sage leaves throughout the year, but the plant’s nutrients are the richest just before flowering. Sage has many useful medicinal properties, including: anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-bacterial, anti-spasm, and relaxant. You can use sage extracts, tinctures, and essential oils to treat internal and external ailments.
Ancient Egyptians used sage as a natural fertility medicine. In Traditional German Medicine, sage is used for ailments of the mouth, throat, and digestion. You can also use steam with sage to treat asthma. Other common medicinal uses of sage include: coughs and hoarseness, muscle aches, nervousness, and as a general tonic for fatigue and symptoms of menopause.
Easy Application of Healing Plants
In order to benefit from healing plants throughout the year, begin processing them immediately after harvest. Without too much effort, you can produce tinctures, oils, ointments or teas from the active healing plant matter. Today, it’s possible to apply these age-old practices at home, so long as you’ve familiarized yourself with the medicinal effects of these herbs.
Coughs, colds, sore throats and bronchitis
In the middle ages, monks made a popular syrup, using honey, sage, and apple cider vinegar. They used the formula to treat coughs, colds, sore throats and bronchitis. You can even infuse sage into honey directly so you always have some healing honey for your tea.
Sage for teeth and gums
Before the advent of toothpaste, monks wrapped a sage leaf around their finger, and massaged their teeth and gums to prevent inflammation and bleeding.
Yarrow for bloating and digestion
Yarrow is best administered in the form of a tincture, which is used for stomach cramps and diarrhea. To make your own tincture, combine yarrow flowers with 80-proof grain alcohol in a glass container. Allow three weeks in a bright place (near a window) to infuse, shaking the mixture daily. Pour the substance through filter paper to harvest the resulting fluid.
Caution with Herbs and Plants
Please note: the effects of medicinal herbs is often more powerful than you might think. Like any medicine, plants that heal also have side effects. It is important to thoroughly research healing herbs before ingesting. Always consult with your physician if you are on any medications. Examples of side-effects of medicinal plants include:
- Excessive consumption of licorice can increases blood pressure.
- Sage works as an appetite suppressant and can limit digestive secretions. Given this powerful effect, nursing mothers should avoid its use.
- Meadowsweet is a blood-thinner, much like aspirin. Therefore, do not use meadowsweet in combination with other blood thinners.
Like mushroom hunters, those collecting natural herbs and medicinal flowers for medicinal purposes, should remain informed. However, the benefits of such engagement can be profound.
We recommend starting with plants that are familiar and readily available. Many books and online resources can help with procurement and preparation. Your local apothecary may also be a great way to help you learn about different healing plants and their properties.
Reconnect with your environment and start exploring the many ways you can improve your health and wellness by tapping into thousands of years of practice.