By Nancy Smorch
I just received the new Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal, by Michael J. Balick, PhD, with a forward by Andrew Weil, MD. It’s a really well written and well rounded book on using plants for health, cooking, beauty, and the home. I just got it yesterday, and already, I’ve read quite a bit of it. It’s sparked some renewed enthusiasm for making sure I include more herbs in my garden this year.
I’ve found that the study of herbs can be as simple as recognizing the various plants, to as complex as understanding the chemical constituents in each plant. It can really be a never-ending learning experience, if you like.
You could focus just on the culinary uses of herbs and have fun adding them to your food choices. You could experiment with the spices of various regions. Try a Central and South American flare with herbs and spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, garlic, and cilantro. Move to a more Middle Eastern and African cuisine by incorporating rose, saffron, curry, dried chiles, and fenugreek. Try some Indian flare, a favorite of mine, with various peppercorn, ginger, fennel, cardamom, tamarind, or lemongrass - all kinds of “exotic” stuff!
You could also focus on the medicinal uses of herbs. When you get into the chemical constituents in these amazing plants, you begin to understand how they can actually have such a powerful impact on your health. They are made up of chemical compounds, just like medicine. However, they tend to not have the side effects of many drugs. Using the whole herb allows for all of the components of the plant to work together, much like nature intended, rather than trying to isolate one component. There are herbs that should be avoided in certain situations - just because it is a plant or herb, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be good for you. You still need to do your research.
As an example of medicinal properties, some herbs have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. What’s interesting is that some plants with anti-inflammatory properties work differently in different parts of the body - they have affinities to particular body systems. In terms of inflammation, according to the Rodale's book, corn silk helps the urinary tract, while marshmallow root works with the digestive tract, kava relaxes muscles all over the body, and wild cherry bark works mostly to relax the respiratory muscles. It's interesting how herbs can be site specific.
I experienced this first-hand in my studies and practice with essential oils. The oils can be very “intuitive.” Combine this intuition with the intention of the person using the oils, and the oils tend to go where needed. There have been times that I have woken up in the morning and been a little groggy, and I will put lavender essential oil in my temples, neck, shoulders, abdomen, and a swipe under my nose. I’ll then cup my hand over my nose and take a few deep breaths. This helps to wake me up and clear my mind a bit. Then there have been times that my mind has been a little chaotic, so I’ll swipe some lavender essential oil across my forehead, behind my ears, and again under my nose and take a few deep breaths, and this tends to calm my mind and energy, and helps me focus and develop more clarity. Different situations and needs, same oil.
If cooking with herbs or using them for medicinal purposes doesn’t interest you, perhaps the history of them will. For me, it was fascinating to read about how wars were started over herbs (and spices), and how countries and select ports thrived due to the growth and trade of these special plants. Many of them have played an important role in shaping the culture and traditions of various regions of the world. Take, for example, the ancient Taoists. They saw cooking as a pursuit of health and experimented with leaves, roots, stems, flowers, seeds, bark, and fungi to test their healing and health-promoting traits.
Also, interesting to note is how the British East India Company built factories in certain regions of India in the 1600's, becoming almost a sub-country within India. It printed its own money, acquired its own territories, and had its own army.
Ayurvedic medicine and healing originated in India, due, in large part, to the abundance of plants and herbs there. Stories have been told of gifted sages who “unlocked” the healing properties of many of the plants in India.
Not interested in history? How about using herbs for beauty or the home? Herbs can be used on the outside of your body to promote healing, for exfoliation, to help fight infection, and to sooth irritated skin. They can also be used internally for beauty, because what we put inside our bodies effects the outside as well. For example, comfrey has been used as an emollient, for stimulating cell growth, for helping wounds heal, and for helping dry skin. Among many household uses, tea tree oil can be incorporated into many cleaning supplies to kill bacteria, and you can use dried flowers like lavender in sachets under your pillow or in an eye pillow for a restful sleep or a relaxing mediation.
So, as you can see there are a ton of fun ways to explore the world of herbs. Check out Rodales’ new book and also visit the Herbal Academy of New England for some great research, ideas, and online classes.
And, now that spring is here, it's the perfect time to plant some herbs of your own and start building a tool kit for medicine, cooking, beauty, and home!