Hildegard’s History of Arnica

The history of Arnica (Arnica Montana) harkens back the early 16th century, as a popular German folk remedy. It was used to treat blunt injuries, bruising, inflammation, and skin lesions.

Even the Shakespeare of Germany, Goethe, appreciated the benefits of Arnica. It is said that he regularly brewed Arnica tea to help recover from a heart attack; his health eventually improved with credit in part to Arnica.

History of Arnica

Modern Arnica products remain popular in Europe and are generally available in most natural food stores and drug stores in the U.S. Homeopathic applications can be taken in tablet form, though topical solutions are more common. The history of arnica as a healing plant is well known, but within Hildegard medicine it is slightly less clear.

History of Arnica
Arnica, a popular German folk remedy

We’ve done some digging on the history of Arnica and Hildegard’s (probable) affinity for it as a reliable healing plant.

Origin and cultivation of Arnica

Arnica is an aromatic, perennial, herbaceous plant with bright yellow flowers that bloom into a star or sunflower formation from June through August. Arnica grows up to 2 feet tall with stems covered in light fuzz and egg-shaped leaves arranged in pairs along the stalks.

Arnica belongs to the genus of plants in the sunflower family known as Asteraceae. There are several species, but the most common species used for medicinal purposes – and native to Europe, is Arnica Montana. This species of Arnica grows primarily in alpine meadows throughout Europe.

History of Arnica
Blooming Arnica

Although it grows wild across large swaths of Europe, it has become rare due to the spread of commercial wild-crafting. As a result, many areas now have restrictions on harvesting wild Arnica. Fortunately, there has been recent success in cultivating Arnica for medicinal uses, which will hopefully allow the natural supply flourish while not impacting the herbal medicinal market.

Hildegard on Arnica: a plant with many names

There is limited mention of Arnica in the medical works of antiquity. It appears one of the earliest probable reference to Arnica was in Hildegard’s Physica, where she states the following:

“If spots and blisters erupt between the skin and flesh, then let the person cook the herb in water and wrap the blemishes, and then the person will be healed.”

Dispute over Hildegard’s history of Arnica

Although some medical historians disagree about whether this was a reference to arnica or a similar herb, today, most agree that Hildegard of Bingen made the first medical reference to arnica for healing purposes.

Dried Arnica

The disagreement about Hidlegard’s reference to arnica stems from her use of the word Wuntwurtz in her medical tome, PhysicaWuntwurtz has no meaning in German. Therefore some medical historians have associated the word with Arnica, because the description in Physica captures the same applications that we know for Arnica, that is, as an effective topical remedy for cuts, blisters, rashes, and pain.

Other interpretations of Hildegard’s use of Wuntwurtz include the plant known in English as Goldenrod (German “Wundkraut”), or Woundwort (German “Wundwurzel”).  Adding to the confusion, modern references often use Wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, mountain tobacco, and mountain arnica interchangeably for Arnica Montana.

History of Arnica
Did Hildegard referenced to Arnica or Goldenrod (image)?

As far as Hildegard’s use of arnica is concerned, our research finds no reason do disagree with the experts.

Medicinal Applications of Arnica

The plant’s medicinal uses are derived from its flowers, which contain between 0.2% and 1.5% of sesquiterpene lactones, which serve for the treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancer .  One of the prevalent sesquiterpenes present in arnica, helenalin, is known for it anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, the arnica flowers contain 4% to 6% flavonoids as well as tannins, coumarin – a precursor chemical compound with anti-coagulant properties, and essential oils.

Arnica extracts are mostly processed into ointments and used topically for the treatment of blunt injuries and accidents such as bruising, contusions, swelling, and sprains. In addition, arnica may be effective to ease the pain associated with rheumatism, joint problems, and chronic venous insufficiency and the treatment of insect bites.

Medicinal Effects of Arnica

Arnica preparations have various effects, including antiseptic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory. Arguably, the sesquiterpene lactones, and among them, the constituent helenalin, plays the most important role as an anti-inflammatory agent. Helenalin acts to suppress the formation of inflammation-causing substances known as cytokines.

Arnica Montana Infographic
Arnica Montana Infographic

The anti-coagulant, anti-inflammatory, and pain-reducing properties of Arnica are likely why it has remained to be as one of the most popular natural herbal applications for bruises, muscle strains and pain, and minor skin injuries and irritation.

Using Arnica at Home

For an arnica wrap or poultice, combine 4 teaspoons arnica flower with a cup of boiling water. Allow the mixture to steep for 10 minutes and then soak a linen cloth in the cooled solution. Apply the linen cloth to the affected area for at least two hours.

For cases involving Inflammations in the mouth and throat, apply a 10-fold diluted tincture solution to mouth and throat.

History of Arnica
German homeopathic diluted Arnica

Application of arnica through ingestion is generally not recommended, so most teas do not include arnica. There are certain homeopathic diluted mediums which may be used as a substitute. Pregnant women should also avoid use of arnica.

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