Forget-me-not, for I am the borage family Boraginaceae :)

The boraginaceae family is commonly known as the borage family or the forget me not family.  Both are members of this plant family and both grow wild around Grimsby and can be seen on the regular herb walks I give around Bradley Woods.  This family are mainly herbaceous plants (which die back to the ground after each growing season).  There are roughly 100 genera within this family and 2000 species.

boragiaceae flower

Boraginaceae was initially classified as Lamiales because they shared (with Lamiaceae and Verbenaceae) ovaries with four deeply divided partitions, a style attached to the base of the ovary, and fruits that break apart into four nutlets. These similarities appear to have evolved independently, however, and borages differ in having alternate leaves, round stems, different secondary metabolites (no iridoid alkaloids), regular flowers, the same number of stamens and petals, and flower clusters.

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands :)

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands 🙂

The family includes a number of garden ornamentals, such as heliotrope and Virginia bluebell.  There are also several toxic members of this family due to the secondary metabolites that they possess. Medicinally members of this family include Pulmonaria (lungwort), Myosotis (forget-me-not), Borago officinalis (borage) and Symphytum officinale (comfrey).  There is also Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss), Lithospermum officinale (Gromwell) and Cynoglossum officinale (Hound’s-tongue).

Symphytum officinale - comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Symphytum officinale – comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are found in most, if not all, of the plants of the Boraginaceae family. Some of these alkaloids are hepatotoxic (toxic to the liver), causing veno-occlusive disease of the liver, which can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver. There is also some suspicion of carcinogenicity. The development of veno-occlusive disease in adults has only so far been observed after long-term intake of high doses. However, infants and children seem to be more susceptible, with some case reports of hepatotoxic responses after minimal exposure – therefore herbs in this family should only be used under the guidance and supervision of professionals such as herbalists and doctors.

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Members of the Boraginaceae family are often covered with bristly hairs. The flowers have a radial symmetry, often borne along one side of branches or at the tip of the stem, in a spirally coiled inflorescence that unwinds as the flowers mature (some are similar to a scorpions tail uncurling).  There are 5 sepals, united at the base into a calyx, 5 petals, united into a corolla.  The flowers have 5 stamens and 1 style.  There are often small appendages (fornices) on the insides of the petals near the point where the tube and limb join.  All these parts are attached near the base of the ovary.  The leaves are simple, usually alternate and bristly-hairy.  The fruit is usually a dry capsule that separates into 4 hard, seed-like sections (nutlets). In a few species the fruit is a berry.

In discussion of the Doctrine of Signatures, “Large leaves stand for surface area and gas exchanges or breathing, hence the lungs and skin……..Hairy or hirsute leaves and stems are a signature for ..hairs of the mucosa” (Wood, 1997)

It is hard to draw clear themes for this family. Demulcent properties are widespread, but usually just form a minor part of the indications for any one herb in this family.   Medicinally, these plants are astringent, good internally as tea or externally as poultices for pretty much any wounds or excretions that need an astringent to tighten up the tissues. A few members of the family are mucilaginous, useful for their emollient properties. Some contain volatile oils and may serve as an antidote to poisons by functioning as diaphoretics. Many members of this family have irritating hairs that may cause dermatitis on some individuals. Also, several plants contain minute amounts of poisonous alkaloids (as mentioned above), making them toxic when used long term or in high doses.

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Symphytum officinale and Borago officinalis are undoubtedly the two most commonly used in the UK – I know I use both regularly in my clinic.  Symphytum has a very strong tradition for promoting healing in damaged tissue, particularly after sprains, fractures and wounds, but also for internal treatment of ulcerated tissue.  Its common name is knitbone as it is an excellent herb for speeding the rate of mitosis (cell division) increasing the speed of healing.  Here is a youtube video of an American herbalist David Hoffman discussing the properties of Comfrey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szRvmxzEwbI

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There has been controversy regarding the use of comfrey internally.  The use of the root internally has stopped in mainstream herbalism although the leaf is still used internally.  The controversy is regarding the relatively high levels of hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids – there was a case where a man developed liver failure after using comfrey, but.. when you look at the case he was drinking excessive amounts of comfrey root tea internally over an extended period.  This said, even as a herbalist I allow the people who I prescribe comfrey leaf to internally a break to allow the liver to recuperate prior to re-prescribing again.  I have cooked and eaten the young comfrey shoots. They are great to harvest at this time of the year and they can be treated and eaten like asparagus or mixed in salads. Young leaves make an excellent vegetable or can be added to soups and stews.

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Borago officinalis is most often used by herbalists as an adrenal tonic, it is a great herb to increase a person’s courage, lift their mood and reduce mild depression.  An infusion (2 tsp per cup, allow to stand for 10 mins) can be taken 2 times a day for rheumatic conditions, pleurisy and affections of the mucous membranes.  Old recipes recommend a concoction of flowers soaked in wine and drunk for melancholy and depression.  Young leaves make a fine addition to salads and lend them a pleasant cucumber like flavour. They can also be treated like spinach. The flower corolla can be used to colour vinegar blue.

Lithospermum officinale was traditionally used for treatment of kidney stones. Other members of the Lithospermum genus have traditionally been used as contraceptives. Laboratory experiments have confirmed that Lithospermum ruderale has a marked contraceptive effect.  Pulmonaria officinalis, as the name suggests, was traditionally used for lung complaints, particularly tuberculosis.  Fruits of the southern African Boraginaceae species are edible, but not very tasty. Some species are browsed by game. A tea is made from the dried leaves, stalks and berries of Ehretia rigida subsp. nervifolia. Dried, ground root powder mixed with cold water is used for diarrhoea (Trichodesma angustifolia subsp. angustifolia). Leaves of Lobostemon, (with pretty bell-shaped flowers) fried in sweet oil and leaf decoctions are old Cape remedies for ringworm, sores, ulcers, burns and wounds.

Oh… and forget-me-not 🙂

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This plant is not used in current herbal medicine practice but had a strong affinity for respiratory organs, especially the left lower lung. On the continent it is sometimes made into a syrup and given for pulmonary affections. There is a tradition that a decoction or juice of the plant hardens steel. The plant has astringent properties; it has been used in lotions. In traditional herbal medicine, forget-me-nots have been used to treat eye diseases.

Five petals, flat face, a yellow eye, usually blue but can be pink to white. The blossoms are added to salads as a garnish and make excellent candied blossoms. However, the plant does contain some pyrrolizidine, a chemical not to eat a lot of so use only occasionally and not to excess.

It is said that whomever wore this flower would not be forgotten by his or her lover. There are two stories that illustrate the flower’s significance among lovers and explain the common name, although both have tragic endings. In the first story, a suitor was picking this flower for his love and saw the perfect specimen. It was close to the cliff’s edge but he reached for it anyway. Losing his balance, the man plummeted over the cliff, shouting, “Forget me not!” as he fell. The second story originates in Germany. A knight and his lovely lady were walking along a riverbank. He was picking this flower for her when he tripped and fell into the river. Before he went under he threw the small bouquet to her and shouted “verges mein nicht”, the German name of the flower.

The figwort family – Scrophulariaceae

Yes I know… plant families have the hardest names to pronounce and this one is no exception.  As promised here is the article on the Scrophulariaceae family or the figwort family.  This Friday I will write about the borage family and I will finish the series writing about the cabbage family before returning to other aspects of herbal medicine.

figwort

The name for this plant family was derived from the European species of Scrophularia – the common figwort. The plants were used to treat haemorrhoids, which were known as “figs” in the past.  Figworts were also used to treat scrofula, a form of tuberculosis carried in the milk of infected cows.

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The figwort family used to contain plants such as eyebright (which is an amazing medicinal herb – a semi-parasitic plant which lives on grass and which is an effective anti-inflammatory and anti-catarrhal herb) and also foxglove (a herb which isn’t used by herbalists but is by the pharmaceutical companies in order to make the cardiac medicines digitalin and digitoxin).  These plants have ‘left’ this plant family because as botany has advanced using modern technology looking at plant genetics it turned out that they were were not related and in fact belonged to different plant families.

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The Scrophulariaceae are mostly herbs and contains roughly 65 genera and 2000 species growing predominately in temperate climates.  Plants which are significant to myself in this family include Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), of course Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) and Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa).  I give regular herbal walks where I come across the Speedwells (Veronica spp.) these are also members of the figwort family and has medicinal uses as well as a fascinating history.  If you live in the UK or have visited you will notice that the butterfly bush (Buddleia) has become a common feature of railways and waste ground – this is also a member of the figwort family, as are snap dragons which regularly pop up in gardens with their amazing (and very typical) flowers.

rehmannia

The figwort family have the following common characteristics:

  • Leaves are simple, without stipules.  They are arranged in either an alternate, opposite, or whorled pattern.
  • Their flowers are zygomorphic (this describes the fact that flowers have two or more planes of symmetry), they are often 2-lipped, and can look very like Lamiaceae, usually arranged in spikes or clusters.  Flowers are bisexual and sometimes have brightly coloured and conspicuous associated bracts (a modified leaf associated with flowers).
  • The calyx is the green outer whorl of a flower and in the figwort family these are commonly deeply 4-5 lobed or cleft.
  • The corolla (basically the petals) are usually 4-5-lobed, sometimes 2-lipped, and sometimes forms a nectary spur or sac.
  • The fruit type is usually a capsule.

Medicinally there is an anti-inflammatory, blood cleansing and skin restoring theme regarding medicinal herbs from this plant family.  Scrophularia and Leptandra are both used as detoxifying herbs, e.g. for skin complaints. Rehmannia has a long history of use in Chinese medicine as a liver and kidney tonic, for a wide range of problems, including skin disease and Verbascum thapsus is an expectorant herb, used for bronchitis and catarrh.

Interestingly, both Scrophularia and Verbascum were particularly important in Irish folk medicine: Verbascum being used mainly for pulmonary tuberculosis; Figwort for piles and skin complaints.

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Speedwell is used in homeopathy for chronic skin ailments and cal also be taken as herbal medicine for skin problems, stomach upset and rheumatic conditions.  It makes an excellent strengthening medicine good for affections of the brain including headaches and drowsiness.  This herb is also taken as a spring tonic to purify the blood.  It was valued in Europe as an universal substitute for ordinary tea so much that it was known as the “de l’europe”.  It also has a special place in Christian history as it was named after the saint (Veronica) who wiped away the blood from Jesus’ face as he was being crucified. Therefore the herb is associated with miracles and special powers are attributed to it.  Speedwell is one of those herbs which loses its petals with such as speed that it fits with its name too!!  Why not try it!

 

 

Wishing you all a happy easter

I am supposed to be writing about another amazing plant family today but instead I wanted to wish you all a Happy Easter – I hope that you all have an amazing weekend planned.  I will be cooking lamb for my family seasoned with rosemary and thyme.  I will also be looking after my baby nephew so my sister can attend a wedding.

I will aim to write a post about the next plant family next week (before Friday) so that I can continue the series and finish it by next Friday.

until then….

Have a fantastic weekend.

Ranunculaceae family – beautiful buttercups and other relatives

The series that I am writing on the different plant families is continuing – that is because of the vast variety of plant families out there.  Over the next three weeks I will be finishing with this subject and looking more directly at health issues, herbs and herbal preparations.  But until then I really wanted to introduce you all to the buttercup family.  The word ‘ranunculacae’ can be translated to mean ‘little frog’. This can relate to the diminutive size of the plants in this family and to the fact that the buttercup family prefer damp conditions and may be used as shelter for the frogs themselves 🙂

There are around 60 genera of plants in this family with thousands of different species.  The are mainly herbaceous plants – whose aerial parts die off at the end of the growing season.  Clematis is an ornamental member of this plant family and it is a climbing shrub and popular with gardener for its beautiful flowers.  Did you know that clematis is used in homeopathy though?

clematis

The Buttercup family is like a window back in time. None of today’s species were around “100 million years ago, but the Buttercups and other primitive groups like the Magnolias have retained the most ancestral characteristics over time.”

The Pasque flower - Pulsatilla vulgaris member of the buttercup family

The Pasque flower – Pulsatilla vulgaris member of the buttercup family

This is a rather variable family, but most have the following features:

  • The leaves are alternate and often palmately lobed or divided.
  • The flowers are generally showy, actinomorphic with free petals. The petals usually occur in multiples of 5.
  • Stamens and carpels are both numerous.

“The Buttercups are considered very “simple” because the floral parts-the petals, sepals, stamens and pistils-are all of an indefinite number and separate from one another. Also, the stamens and pistils are spirally inserted in a cone-like receptacle, although it is often very small to see.  More advanced plant families have reduced, more specific numbers of floral parts, and the parts are often fused together.”  (You can see examples of this easily on buttercups, anemones and clematis flowers).

buttercup

The presence of toxins is a common feature of the buttercup family.  This can include alkaloids (which are deemed medically significant) and also compounds such as protoanemonin which is found in several species of anemone including the stunning wood anemone which is currently in flower arounds woodlands at this time of year.  Protoanemonin can cause gastrointestinal irritation, a bitter taste and burning sensation in the mouth and throat, mouth ulcers, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and even coughing up blood (hematemesis).  Only 20% of plant species contains alkaloids which have been highly researched by humans for their medicinal and poisonous effects.

Because of the dangerous side effects of the buttercup family this article should only be used as a reference point.  I do not advise that anyone utilise the medicinal plants discussed here unless under the supervision of a medical professional such as a doctor or a herbalist.  Even those species safe for medicinal use are generally treated with caution and used at fairly low dosage.

monkshood

 

Species used by medical herbalists include Aconitum napellus (Monkshood, Aconite), Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh), Anemone pulsatilla (Pasqueflower), Hydrastis canadensis (Golden Seal), and Ranunculus ficaria (Figwort, Pilewort).  Monkshood can causes central nervous system paralysis, is often considered to be one of the most dangerous of all plants as it has an extremely low therapeutic window (this is the difference between the medicinal effect and toxic effect and is taught to us herbalists in university. Both monkshood and pilewort is used by UK herbalists for external treatment only.  Monkshood is only used in severe neuralgia and on unbroken skin (I have been treating people for four years now and I haven’t needed to use this!!).  All parts of lesser celandine are deemed poisonous and therefore should not be taken internally.  The toxins in the plant are unstable and therefore this herb is only used externally to help relieve hemorrhoids.

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Lesser celandine was known as ‘Scurvywort’ in Germany as the leaves do contain Vitamin C, while in Russia it was seen to have benefits for skin problems and was used in baths for dermatological complaints.  In the past this herb was boiled with white wine and the drink sweetened with honey to induce pleasant dreams.  Please do not eat this plant.

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Wood anemone has fallen out of use of modern herbal medicine because of the irritant toxins that it contains.  It was used in the past for headaches and rheumatic gout.  In France a vinegar was made out of the leaves which extracts the more acrid properties of the plant.  This preparation was used externally to bring the blood to the surface (rubefacient) in the same way that mustard is used today.

Greek mythology says that these stunning flowers sprung up from the tears of the Goddess Venus as she grieved the death of Adonis. “Where streams his blood there blushing springs a rose, And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.”

black seed

The other plants used medicinally have a diverse range of actions, focused in a variety of body systems, but many have reputations within different traditions as being particularly powerful. For example, Nigella sativa, (Black Seed), is one of the most important of Unani Tibb herbs. It is used as a warming carminative and general stimulant. Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal) was known to physio-medicalists as ‘the king of tonics for the mucous membranes’, used for any atonic condition of mucosa and Cimicifuga racemosa (Black cohosh) is considered by herbalists to be a powerful anti-inflammatory and effective hormonal regulator.

Please remember this is for information only – do not try this at home.  See you next week

 

Papavaraceae family – the lovely poppies :)

The wonderful poppy family is a delightful family but one which does not occur in most places – growing everywhere but the tropical areas.  Well known in the UK as the flower of remembrance for those who gave their lives during the World Wars, I was please to hear that one of our local villages Tetney will be planting numerous poppies around the village in commemoration of the soldiers from the first world war 🙂

rememberance poppy

They are 44 genera and 760 species; mainly herbaceous perennials but can be annuals and there are even a few trees in the family.  A herbaceous perennial grows during the growing season and then all of the aerial parts die back leaving nothing to show until the next growing season.  I have strong memories of harvesting poppy seeds whilst in my junior school as they were cultivated along the borders that were outside the vicarage (which was where the school offices where).  It was a joy to find a plant which has such sensory qualities like a tiny maraca.

poppy seed heads

The poppy family is medicinally and economically important.  Only two species are of economic importance for the production of opium and its derivatives for pharmaceutical use: Papaver somniferum (the opium poppy) is cultivated legally in order to obtain morphine and other opiates, and Papaver bracteatum (Iranian poppy), for thebaine. Papaver somniferum is also the source of the poppy seeds used in cooking and baking, and poppy seed oil. The illegal cultivation of poppies in Asia for the production of opium and heroine is virtually equal to the legal production in the rest of the world.

The stunning field poppy - a wild flower around the UK countryside

The stunning field poppy – a wild flower around the UK countryside

Species with medicinal value as a herbalist include the beautiful field poppy – Papaver rhoeas, the stunning yellow/orange Californian poppy – Eschscholzia californica, Yan Hu Suo – Corydalis yanhusuo, fumitory – Fumaria officinalis, bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis and greater celandine – Chelidonium majus.  Greater celandine should not be mistake for lesser celandine which is a member of the buttercup family.  There are also a lot of ornamental poppies – I have the oriental poppy in my garden for its stunning flowers and sculptural leaves and the popular ‘bleeding hearts’ also comes from this plant family.

The Oriental poppy

The Oriental poppy

Identifying factors of the poppy family

  • The plants all contain latex, which will ooze out of split stems – it should be noted that numerous other plants from different families also have a milky latex including the spurges (milkweed) and dandelions.
  • The leaves are are arranged in an alternate pattern along the stems, they are simple in shape and usually lobed or finely divided. They are often a greyish green.
  • Flowers are often attractive. In the Poppies these are large and there is usually only one flower per stem; this isn’t the same throughout the plant family though as fumitory has smaller, irregular, tubular and occur in clusters.
  • Poppy flowers have many stamens (these are the pokey out bits of the flowers and are part of the sex organs required for pollination), although Fumitories may have as few as two. The flowers have a calyx of 2 sepals, but these tend to fall off early so may appear to be absent. They are odourless.
  • The fruit (the ovary of a plant which then contains the seeds) is a capsule containing numerous small seeds.

Medicinally the poppy family is seen as pain relieving.  The cultivation of the opium poppy for medicinal drugs such as morphine is a great example of this.  Recent studies have found that compounds in the poppy family may be the key to relieving arthritic pain too. The californian poppy also has analgesic effects.  The reason why poppies have such a physiological effect on the body is because they generally contain alkaloids.

The stunning Californian poppy

The stunning Californian poppy

The poppy family also has sedative properties, the opium poppy is again a good example of this as it is extensively cultivated for extraction of isoquinone alkaloids, both legally for their use in medicine and illegally for the production of heroin. Eschscholzia californica and Papaver rhoeas contain related alkaloids with a much gentler action. Papaver rhoeas was a major herb in UK folk medicine, particularly used to induce sleep, to calm babies and as pain relief for rheumatism, toothache, earache and neuralgia. Eschscholzia is used similarly for insomnia, restlessness and cough in children.

Members of the poppy family also have an effect on the liver and gallbladder. Both Fumaria officinalis and Chelidonium majus are used for cholecystitis and gallstones.  Both are also used as alterative cleansers for skin disorders, particularly Psoriasis. Chelidonium should only be used by qualified practitioners as it is a schedule III herb meaning that it has a very small therapeutic window and is potentially toxic in the wrong dose.