Brassicaceae – the cabbage family

Here is the last article in the series looking at the different plant families.  The last family which I am going to cover is the cabbage family.  This family is also known as the mustard family as well as Cruciferae (which was the old plant family name).  This older name related to a key identification feature – cruciferae means cross bearing and all of the flowers in this family have four petals which are arranged in the shape of a cross.  The family contains over 330 genera and about 3,700 species and is a medium sized family of economic importance as a lot of our food sources are from this family.  They are mainly herbaceous plants and a mixture of annuals, biennials, and perennials.  Can you think of any plants from this family that you would eat?

Love your food

Love your food

Some examples of food crops from the brassicaceae family include: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, rapeseed, mustard, radish, horseradish, cress, wasabi, and watercress.  Did you get any right?

cabbage family examples

Interestingly, six of our common vegetables–cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale–were all bred from a single species of mustard, Brassica oleracea. Plant breeders developed the starch-storage abilities of different parts of the plant to come up with each unique vegetable. Commercial mustard is usually made from the seeds of the black mustard (B. nigra) mixed with vinegar.

brassicaceae breeding

In addition to their long culinary history, these vegetables are revered because they are filled with vitamins, nutrients, and minerals essential for good health. Many of these vegetables can be eaten when very young and most are relatively easy to grow. It’s not surprising that all of these qualities have led this to be one of the most popular families in vegetable gardens.  Around 40% of all vegetables consumed in Northwest Europe are members of the Brassica family.

Plant Identification

Brassicaceae

They are a highly uniform group and so Brassicaceae are easily identified by the four petals when in flower.

  • They are usually herbaceous in habit, occasionally becoming shrubby.
  • Leaves are alternate and either simple or pinnate.
  • The distinctive flowers are yellow, white or pinkish/purplish and are usually carried in a spike.They have 2 fused carpels and 6 stamens: usually 4 long, 2 short. They are odourless.
  • The fruit is a capsule.
  • As you become more familiar with this family, you will begin to notice patterns in the taste and smell of the plants. While each species has its own unique taste and smell, you will soon discover an underlying pattern of mustardness. You will be able to recognize likely members of the family simply by crushing the leaves and smelling them.

All species of Mustard are edible, although some taste better than others. In other words, it doesn’t matter which species of mustard you find. As long as you have correctly identified it as a member of the Mustard family, then you can safely try it and see if you want it in your salad or not.  Which is a good thing as members of this family can be difficult to tell apart.  Most members of the Mustard family are weedy species with short lifecycles like the radish. Look for them in disturbed soils such as a garden or construction site, where the ground is exposed to rapid drying by the sun and wind. The Mustards sprout quickly and grow fast, flowering and setting seed early in the season before all moisture is lost from the ground.

In the Grimsby area you can see Rape escaped, Shepard’s Purse, Charlock, Garlic Mustard, Horseradish, Watercress and Hedge Mustard to name just a few.  Unfortunately in this area the council spray Glycophytes/RoundUp everywhere so please only harvest in your garden (if you don’t use chemicals) or from a designated organic area.

Key medicinal theme: Pungency and stimulation

The chemicals produced by this family are mustard-oil glycosides (glucosinolates) which defend the plants against microorganisms and animals. They can poison livestock if eaten in sufficient quantities and therefore charlock is seen as a troublesome weed on arable land and not an early source of a cabbage like vegetable (cabbages are slow growing whilst charlock is quick).

Brassica plants are particularly rich in glucosinolates (Mustard oil glycosides) and therefore a spicy mustard like taste is characteristic of the family.  The glucosinolates are probably responsible for most of the medicinal actions of the herbs of this family. They are digestive stimulants and respiratory decongestants with antibacterial and antifungal actions.

Externally, they have a rubefacient effect exploited in the use of the mustards and cabbage in poultices for anti-inflammatory effects.  If you have ever breastfed or strained your knee you may have used a cabbage leaf to ease the pain as a poultice.

Members of this family contain factors that may prevent cancers, leave are used for rheumatism and toothaches and seeds can be used for headaches and as a tonic. Mustard oils can cause skin irritation and ulcers from both external application and consumption.  Brassicas are also usually a good source of vitamin C.

shepherds purse

Capsella bursa-pastoris is one of the most useful of all herbal styptics / haemostatics. However, this is not an action often seen in other members of the family.  Brassicaceae were only rarely used in folk medicine in the UK. The most frequent uses are for scurvy and as purifying tonics (Nasturtium officinale, Scurvy-grass and Charlock); and for stopping bleeding (Capsella bursa-pastoris only)

broccoli

Here are some recipes which include broccoli a member of the brassicaceae family:

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

• 10 tablespoons of butter
• 1/2 cup tapioca flour
• 3 cups homemade chicken stock, that is hot, or 2 cups stock and 1 cup dry white wine
• 1 cup of cream, or whole milk
• 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
• 2 teaspoons sea salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons tarragon
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1 large onion cut in half
• 3 cloves garlic, cut in half
• 6-8 cups of broccoli, florets and stalks chopped into small pieces(3-4 stalks)
• 4 cups extra sharp cheddar, plus extra to use as a garnish (or a mixture of mild and sharp cheddar)

Directions

  1. Add the butter to a large chef’s pan over medium high heat until melted.
  2. Add the flour and stir with a whisk for a few minutes. Once it’s well incorporated slowly whisk in 1 cup of hot broth at a time, adding the wine last if you are using it. Whisk until smooth and all the liquid has been added.
  3. Turn up the heat, bring to a boil. Add the onion halves and garlic pieces and cook 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream, Dijon, tarragon, salt and nutmeg.
  4. Meanwhile in another pot steam the broccoli until tender. While the broccoli is steaming, shred the cheese. Remove onion and garlic pieces from the soup base and add the broccoli. Take about 1/3 of the mixture and blend it in a food processor or blender. Return to the pot and add 4 cups of cheese. Stir to melt the cheese. Add extra cheese to individual bowls.

Broccoli Casserole

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

• 1 – 1 1/2 pounds fresh organic broccoli, lightly steamed and chopped
• Butter
• 2 cups cultured sour cream
• 2 cups grated New Zealand Cheddar
• 2-3 pastured eggs
• 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 teaspoon paprika
• 1 teaspoon dried basil
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano
• Sea salt and black pepper to taste
• 1/2 -1 cup sautéed sliced mushrooms (optional)
• Juice of half a lemon (optional)
• Several splashes of fish sauce (optional)

Directions

  1. Butter a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Mix together the broccoli, sour cream, cheddar, eggs, garlic, paprika, basil, oregano, salt, pepper and if using the mushrooms, fish sauce and lemon juice.
  3. Place the mixture in the casserole dish. Bake 30 minutes.

Nourishing Broccoli Salad

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

• 2 heads of broccoli, stem peeled and cut into small pieces, as well as florets cut into small pieces, blanched in boiling water for 3 minutes, drained and rinsed under cold water until steam has dissipated.
• 1/2 a red onion, sliced thin
• 2-4 scallions, thinly sliced
• 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, cut into small slivers
• 8 pieces of bacon, cooked crispy and crumbled

Dressing

Ingredients

• 1 cup sour cream
• 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
• 3 Tbsp. olive oil
• 2 Tbsp. raw apple cider vinegar
• 2 garlic cloves minced
• 1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
• Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Whisk all dressing ingredients together in a small bowl.
  2. Mix all salad ingredients together and toss with the dressing. Let sit for 30 minutes for flavors to meld together.
  3. Enjoy at room temperature or chilled. This salad can be prepared up to a day in advance.
  4. Don’t forget to take this to the next picnic you are headed to this summer!!

Crocodile Nuggets

Serves 4

Ingredients

• 3 cups finely shredded, raw or cooked vegetables (I used a mixture of
• broccoli, carrot, cabbage and cauliflower)
• 4 cups finely ground, cooked chicken or turkey
• 4 cups breadcrumbs or cooked rice, or ½ cup coconut flour
• 3 Tbs nutritional yeast or 2 cups shredded cheese, if not dairy-free
• 6 eggs, beaten, egg replacer or 1½ cups leftover mashed potatoes
• 1 tsp garlic granules or powder
• 1 tsp salt
• 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder
• 1/2 tsp onion powder

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat and set aside.
  2. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and mix until well combined. Add some extra breadcrumbs if the mixture is too wet, or add an extra egg if the mixture is too dry to stick together.
  3. Shape the mixture into patties. I used a 2-ounce cookie scoop to make it quick and uniform. Place on the cookie sheet.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes per side or until lightly browned. Serve with ranch dressing, carrot sticks & celery sticks.

To freeze, place the patties in a single layer on a sheet pan and freeze until solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag or container. They freeze well for up to a month.

Broccoli and Potato Frittata

Serve 2-4

Frittatas are a wonderfully quick way to prepare a hot and nutritious dish out of minimal ingredients. When I found myself with a bit of leftover broccoli and leftover fried potatoes, frittata seemed the perfect dish.

Ingredients

• Leftover fried potatoes
• Leftover steamed broccoli
• 3 or 4 eggs
• 1 cup milk, water or ½ milk, ½ water
• Optional addition: Up to 2 cups shredded cheese
• Healthy oil for cooking

Directions

  1. Turn your broiler on. In a skillet, over medium heat, warm the potatoes and broccoli in a bit of oil. Meanwhile combine the eggs and milk until the eggs are well beaten.
  2. When the potatoes and broccoli are warm add a little additional fat and then position them so they cover the bottom.
  3. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. Use a knife to wiggle the eggs in to allow the eggs to spread evenly.
  4. Allow to cook undisturbed for a few minutes so the bottom will begin to set up. Then using your spatula go around the edges of the egg and lift it slightly allowing the uncooked parts to run under the lifted part. Continue to do this until the egg is mostly set.
  5. Then carefully move the egg dish under the broiler. This will allow the top of the eggs to finish cooking. It only takes a few minutes so keep a close eye on it. The eggs will puff up and be a gorgeous tan when done. Remove from oven.
  6. Cut in wedges and serve. This is delicious topped with fresh sour cream.

Gluten-Free Broccoli Cheese Soup

Ingredients

• 8 TBL butter (from grassfed cows)
• 1 organic onion, diced
• 2 organic carrots, diced
• 2 ribs organic celery, diced
• 3-4 cloves garlic, smashed, diced
• 8 cups of organic broccoli florets and stalks chopped into small pieces(4-5 stalks)
• Unrefined sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• ¼ tsp white pepper
• 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock/broth
• 1 cup dry white wine (or additional cup stock)
• 1 cup of raw cream or crème fraiche (from grass-fed cows)
• 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 3 cups extra sharp grass fed cheddar

Directions

  1. Add the butter to a large stock pot over medium high heat until melted. Add onions, carrots and celery and sauté until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add broccoli and stir to coat well with butter. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Add broth and optional wine. Turn up the heat, bring to a low boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook covered (with lid on) until broccoli pieces are soft (roughly about 15 minutes).
  4. Remove from heat. With an immersion/stick blender, puree soup to desired consistency, or process in a regular blender, in batches, taking care not to burn yourself . Return to pot, off heat, stir in cream, dijon, nutmeg and cheese. Stir to combine and melt cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  5. If soup needs to be reheated, reheat slowly and do not allow it to come to a boil. Serve immediately.

On GAPS? If you use creme fraiche and cheddar cheese, this soup is GAPS friendly, as long as you tolerate dairy. Double check the ingredients on your dijon mustard to make sure it’s GAPS legal, or simply omit.
Vegetarian? Just sub veggie broth for the chicken broth.
Basic Stir Fry

Serves 2 and then some depending on how many vegetables you use (leftovers!!)

Ingredients

• 1/2 cup quality stir fry beef
• A truck load of chopped up veg Including things like:
• bok choy
• mushrooms
• peppers
• onions
• broccoli
• eggplant
• zucchini
• green beans
• baby corn
• 1 – 2 tsp gluten free tamari
• Optional: sesame seeds, unrefined sesame oil, and green onions
• Brown rice

Directions

  1. Chop up your veggies and meat
  2. Saute the meat and veggies on medium heat with a bit of virgin coconut oil.
  3. Put your serving on plate and add the tamari after cooking rather than during (because it seems like the taste gets lost in cooking and you have to add more and more and more).
  4. Serve with 1/2 cup of brown rice if you wish.
  5. Top with sesame oil, sesame seeds, and green onions if desired!

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.

borage (4)

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

comfrey (9)

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.

029

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 🙂

006

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.

foxglove (10)

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.

mullien (2)

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!

 

 

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.

Rheumatoid Arthritis – dietary and lifestyle advice

A lovely lady contacted me by phone yesterday with questions about rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  I would love to help and support the person that she was calling about but it is such a complex ‘pathology’ that advising certain herbs would be irresponsible.  As with most chronic health issues I always advise that they are best to come and see me for a consultation.  The herbal consultations that I give usually last an hour and are an investigational process where all aspects of health and wellbeing are looked at.  The different body systems, past history of health, family history, diet, lifestyle, emotions, even physical signs are assessed such as blood pressure, pulse and tongue diagnosis.  When someone is coming with specific issues a physical examination of the area in question can also be done.  Getting a whole-istic view of the person and their health issues enables me to know which herbs would be beneficial for them and also gives me the information I need to tailor personalised dietary and lifestyle advice for them as well.

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So because of yesterdays enquiry I said that I would blog about rheumatoid arthritis.  Do you know what it is?  There are hundreds of different forms of arthritis – osteo- and rheumatoid being the most common and well-known.  It is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the musculoskeletal system mainly affecting the joints.  But unlike osteoarthritis which affects the weight-bearing joints (in part due to wear and tear) rheumatoid arthritis mainly affects the hands, wrists and feet (but can affect the knees, spine and other joints in the body).  Women are more likely to get RA than males and white people are more affected than other ethnicities.  The majority of cases occur between the ages of 25-59 and it has been seen that the contraceptive pill may offer some protection against the development of the disease.  At present modern medicine cannot give an explanation as to why people get RA and others don’t.  There are two main theories as to the cause.  It is proposed that RA is caused by an infection which has triggered the rheumatic response and the second theory is that it is due to the immune system not working properly and attacking its own constituents because it cannot recognise self anymore.

People are diagnosed with RA when they present with the following criteria: arthritis of three or more joints, arthritis of the hand joints, symmetrical swelling of the same joint areas, serum rheumatoid factor (determined by a blood test) and radiographic features of RA.  There are hereditary patterns with this disease too.  

RA signs and symptoms

The onset is usually gradual, people can feel fatigued, have a low-grade fever, have joint stiffness and weakness and vague joint pain at the start, it can develop into painful swollen joints after several weeks.  Several joints are usually affected in a symmetrical fashion.  The affected joints are usually warm, tender and swollen, and the skin can take on a ruddy purplish hue.  The severe joint pain is accompanied by severe inflammation in the small joints but can progressively affect all joints in the body and result in the erosion of the bone and cartilage and the development of nodules around the joints which can be debilitating.  Unfortunately doctors look at prescribing aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories followed by anti-inflammatories, immunosuppressives, and corticosteroids as the disorder progresses – a symptomatic approach which doesn’t look at the cause.  Also a lot of these drugs can cause side effects such as digestive upsets, headaches and dizziness and ironically aspirin and NSAIDs can increase the ‘leakiness’ of the intestinal lining and accelerate the faulty immune response responsible for this disease.  Long term use of corticosteroids is not advised in sufferers of RA due to the side effects that they case.  In the most severe cases of RA joint surgery and replacement are considered.

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RA can be a complication of many other autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis and can be aggravated by a ‘leaky gut’ – where the digestive system is inflamed and semi-digested food particles enter the bloodstream.  Physical or emotional stress as well as poor nutrition may be involved in the onset of the disease.

rheumatoid arthritis

Other common symptoms which accompany the joint pains and inflammation include: weight loss, feeling ‘out of sorts’, anaemia, osteoporosis (fragile bones), depression, muscle wasting, peripheral water retention, nodules, carpal tunnel syndrome, swollen lymph nodes, infections etc.  The progression of RA is variable and depends on the individual so it isn’t possible to predict who will develop severe symptoms.  In general 25% remain fit and can function effectively, 40% have moderate impairment, 25% are quite badly disabled and 10% become wheelchair patients.

If there is anything that I have missed out about rheumatoid arthritis and its pathology (how it affects the body) please do not hesitate to contact me and I will be happy to explain.

Herbal treatment varied in accordance to the individual needs.  The joy of herbal medicine is that it is tailored to suit the persons needs and can be altered to suit the changing requirements.  When seeing a patient with RA the prescription may have to be changed several times before progress is made.

Dietary Advice

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In general Ra is not found in societies that eat a diet more in tune with our ancestors.  The western diet is linked to the rate of incidence of RA.  Eating a diet rich in wholefoods, vegetables and fibre and low in sugar, meat, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats help with the prevention and possibly the treatment of RA.  There is strong scientific support for the roles that food allergies and dietary fats play in the inflammatory process.

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A diet high in seafood is beneficial for most rheumatic diseases.  Therefore if you cannot add a lot of seafood to your diet please look at supplementing with fish oils or take 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil daily.  Eat 2-3 servings of baked, broiled or pickles fish weekly.  Herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon are natural sources of omega 3 fatty acids which counteracts the effects of inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids.

Hippocrates quote

Hippocrates quote

It may be worthwhile becoming a vegetarian if you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  A study in Norway discovered that vegetarian foods normalised the dietary fatty acids and reduced inflammation in rheumatic disorders.  During this study the patients were allowed only garlic, herbal teas, vegetable soups and juices/smoothies for the first week or two and then meat free and gluten-free food was introduced and alternated each day.

Limit your consumption of beef, eggs, refined carbohydrates and sugars and animal fat.  These foods contain omega 6 fatty acids (pro-inflammatory).

Avoid lemons and lemon juice as it can contribute to the excretion of calcium from muscles and bones.

Supplement high doses of Vitamin C to support the body in preventing/reducing the damage to the synovial membranes of the joints.

If you experience anaemia and/or muscle wasting as part of your RA you may not be getting the right nutrition in your diet.

Add turmeric and celery to your diet regularly.

A low salt, low-fat, high oily fish diet also benefits RA.  Where possible aim to cut out all gluten and dairy products.

Lifestyle Advice

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Physical therapy can benefit people who have RA – look at introducing exercise/activity into your lifestyle on a regular basis.  Perform 3-10 repetitions of range of motion exercises daily such as flexing the knee back and forth as far as it will go in both direction.  Use swimming as your primary form of aerobic exercise – it is easier on the joints than land-based exercise.

Heat and cold can both have a relieving effect on the painful joints – alternate with hot and cold compresses to support the reduction in inflammation.  In the morning take a hot shower or bath to help relieve morning stiffness.

Massage can be beneficial, especially in the early stages of RA – go to a professional, or if you cannot afford this research how to massage the joints in the affected areas and self-massage on a regular basis.

I have chosen not to give herbal remedies which benefit RA in this article because of the health implications that there are.  Botanicals which may benefit RA may aggravate other health issues such as increasing blood pressure, speeding up/slowing down the metabolism of pharmaceuticals and affecting the hormones within the body.  I implore anyone who experiences this disorder to contact myself for a consultation where we can work together to aim at improving your quality of life using herbal medicine and dietary and lifestyle changes.