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!

 

 

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Fabaceae family – commonly known as the Pea family :)

We are all aware of peas, the delicious green vegetable which is difficult to eat in public.  Well peas come from the Fabaceae family.  This family of plants is quite large and contains many edible and medicinal members which I am looking forward to sharing with you all today.  The pea family is economically important to us, something which you will discover throughout this article.

pea family

The group is widely distributed and is the third-largest land plant family in terms of number of species.  Along with the cereals, fruits and tropical roots a number of leguminosae have been a staple human food for millennia and their use is closely related to human evolution.  A number are important food plants even today and include the soyabean (Glycine max), beans (Phaseolus spp), obviously peas (Pisum sativum), Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum), Alfalfa  (Medicago sativa), Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea), Carob, which is a great substitute for chocolate (Ceratonia siliqua), and Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra).  I have written a previous blog article on liquorice which you can access here: https://herbsforhealthandwellbeing.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/national-liquorice-day/

There are roughly 470 different Genera and 14000 Species in the fabaceae family, these plants are found mostly tropical areas, and in warm temperate Asia and America but can be found all over the world.

There are many uses for various members of the Pea Family including;

Green Fertiliser

Green fertiliser is the term used when a crop is grown with the sole intention of ploughing it back into the soil.  Clover, and Vetch are native wildflowers in the UK and are valued for the nitrogen fixing effect of symbiotic bacteria in the root nodules, as well as increasing the biomass of the soil.  Alfalfa can be grown as a green fertiliser over the winter months to reduce the opportunities of weeds to set in flower beds and can be dug into the soil in the spring to fertilise the land ready for growing fruits and vegetables.

Livestock fodder

Medicago sativa (Alfalfa) although edible for humans is grown almost exclusively as fodder for livestock.  Admittedly I like to sprout alfalfa seeds and eat them or add them to my salads as a sprouted seed is highly nutritious.

Food (for human consumption)

Many varieties of beans and peas are cultivated worldwide as a valuable source of protein, and are especially useful, as they can be easily transported or stored when they are dried.  I know that in my cupboards I have chickpeas, cannellini beans, kidney beans, black beans, black-eye beans, soybeans and I like to grow/buy fresh peas, green beans, runner beans, butter beans and sugar snap peas.  How about you?  What foods in your kitchen can you think come from the pea family?

Industrial Use

The timber of several fabaceae trees are used for the manufacture of furniture worldwide.  Dyes can be yielded from several plants and can several gums.

Medicine

There are around 150 plants in the Fabaceae family which have medicinal uses, some of which are commonly used by modern medical herbalists.  Here are a few commonly used today:

astragalus

Astragalus membranaceus – An adaptogen, immunostimulant, and cardiac tonic.  Used to treat Ischemic heart disease, hypotension, and chronic infections.

Liquorice root is a typical example of a herb which is better being decocted instead of infused

Liquorice root is a typical example of a herb which is better being decocted instead of infused

Glycyrrhiza glabra – A sweet, anti-inflammatory herb with hormonal effects.  Detoxifies and protects the liver.  Used to treat bronchial disorders, and adrenal insufficiency.  Contra-indicated where there is Hypertension.  50 times sweeter than sugar

red clover (1)

Trifolium pratense – A sweet, cooling alterative herb, with diuretic and expectorant effects that can support the reduction of hot flushes.

melilot

Melilotus officinalis – The herb has aromatic, emollient and carminative properties.  It relieves flatulence and in modern herbal practice is taken internally for this purpose.

PEAS

peas

Peas are really little powerhouses of nutrition that are a boon for your health and the whole planet. Read all their benefits, how to use them properly, and some easy recipes. We’ll start with the benefits of this tasty powerfood.

1. Weight management – Peas are low-fat but high-everything-else. A cup of peas has less than 100 calories but lots of protein, fiber and micronutrients.

2. Stomach cancer prevention – Peas contain high amounts of a health-protective polyphenol called coumestrol. A study in Mexico City determined you only need 2 milligrams per day of this phytonutrient to help prevent stomach cancer. A cup of peas has at least 10.

3. Anti-aging, strong immune system, and high energy – This comes from the high levels of antioxidants, including: flavonoids: catechin and epicatechin, carotenoids: alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, phenolic acids: ferulic and caffeic acid and polyphenols: coumestrol.

4. Prevention of wrinkles, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, bronchitis, osteoporosis and candida – These come from peas’ strong anti-inflammatory properties. Excess inflammation has also been linked to heart disease, cancer, and aging in general.

5. Blood sugar regulation – Peas’ high fiber and protein slows down how fast sugars are digested.  Their antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents prevent or reverse insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes).  All peas’ carbohydrates are natural sugars and starches with no white sugars or chemicals to worry about.

6. Heart disease prevention – The many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in peas support healthy blood vessels. The formation of plaque along our blood vessel walls starts with chronic, excessive oxidative stress and inflammation.  The generous amounts of vitamin B1 and folate, B2, B3, and B6 reduce homocysteine levels, which are a risk factor for heart disease.

7. Healthy for the environment – Peas work with bacteria in the soil to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the soil. This reduces the need for artificial fertilizers since one of their main ingredients is nitrogen.

After peas have been harvested, the remaining plant easily breaks down to create more organic fertilizer for the soil.  Peas are also able to grow on minimal moisture, so they are a perfect crop in many areas due to not needing irrigation or using up valuable water supplies.

8. Prevent constipation – The high fiber content in peas improves bowel health and peristalsis.

9. Healthy bones – Just one cup of peas contains 44% of your Vitamin K, which helps to anchor calcium inside the bones. Its B vitamins also help to prevent osteoporosis.

10. Reduces bad cholesterol – The niacin in peas helps reduce the production of triglycerides and VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein), which results in in less bad cholesterol, increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and lowered triglycerides.

For several pea recipes check out:

http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/pea

http://www.peas.org/recipes.php

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/collections/peas

Enjoy 🙂

Harvesting Herbs or Wild Crafting

WHO

The World Health Organisation document “Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP)” (World Health Organization, 2003) raises the following concerns about wild collected botanicals:

“Safety – The plant must be carefully identified to ensure that the correct species is harvested and to ensure that there is no adulteration or mixing of different species within harvest batches. Post harvest handling activities should ensure that contamination by microbial or chemical agents does not occur. Harvest site assessment must be carried out to ensure that there is no site contamination with toxic substances.

Quality The botanicals must be harvested at the correct time of year to maximise therapeutic levels of active constituents. The botanicals must be processed, handled and dried correctly to ensure that breakdown of active constituents does not occur.

Efficacy – The botanicals must be correctly identified, the correct part of the plant harvested at the right time of year, and the processing and handling must be done correctly for the final product to be therapeutically effective.”

So I would like to share some information with you all with regards to harvesting herbs from the wild.  There is a lot to know and understand before you choose to harvest wild plants.

 

First you need to be able to correctly identify plants, there are some great ‘keys’ out there that aid identification.  This is a must as there are numerous plants which look very similar and in certain circumstances one can be poisonous whist the other one edible.  It is imperative that you can correctly identify plants – if in doubt leave it out.  Also you need to research the plant and see how long it takes to regrow or re-establish itself.  Some plants are slow-growing and can take up to 10 years to get back to pre-harvested levels, others are fast growers and you wouldn’t be able to tell that you had harvested there in a few months or a season.  Learn all of the poisonous plants in your region so that you can be 100% certain with plant identification.

Secondly, you may have invested time and even money in purchasing a plant identification guide but before you can harvest anything you need to understand the habitat that you are planning to harvest from.  For example, in your area it may seem that a certain plant or herb is abundant but it may be that it is the only patch growing in the region.  There are certain agencies that you can speak to in order to get an understanding of your local area.  One way it to explore it 🙂  As I live in Grimsby, I contacted the Lincolnshire Naturalist Union and I am a member of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.  Both charities can give you the information you require.  Please do not rely on books.  For example, the amazing pasque flower is deemed abundant in books and online – and in places such as Canada it probably is, but in the UK it only grows in 18 sites across the whole country making it REALLY SCARCE!!  

The Pasque flower - Pulsatilla vulgaris

The Pasque flower – Pulsatilla vulgaris

A safe way to determine whether you can harvest a herb it to focus on what most people call weeds.  These are plants which have a great ability to adapt and grow in abundance – the likes of dandelions, plantain, chickweed, cleavers, brambles and nettles are all seen as being weeds but in fact have numerous health benefits and many can be eaten as food as well as used as medicine!!

Nettles make a great herbal tea and soup and has medicinal benefits too

Nettles make a great herbal tea and soup and has medicinal benefits too

There are several laws governing the harvesting of plants from the wild.  In the UK it is illegal to cut or chop trees without the landowners permission.  I was walking though a local woodland which is also a nature reserve and saw a guy with a chainsaw sawing up an old oak tree so he could have a garden ornament.  Luckily there were also wardens in the area and he got caught.  He was breaking the law despite the fact that the woodland belonged to the people – it was still maintained by the local council and therefore their permission would be required.  The guy has been charged and is awaiting trial.

It is also illegal to dig up roots without the landowners permission.  So please check who owns the land and contact them prior to digging roots up.  They may be happy to let you dig up brambles for them (the roots of which are astringent and tonic helping to reduce mouth inflammations (as a mouth wash) and reduce diarrhoea.(as a decoction).  Please, please do your research, into ID, the status of the plant and who owns the land.  

Another UK law states that a profit cannot be made from what is harvested from the land so if after all of the hard work and research you chose that you would like to harvest wild plants for food or medicine then please only do so for yourself and your family.  Never take more than you need.

And unfortunately the research doesn’t stop there either.  You may have correctly identified a useful plant, it is locally and nationally abundant and you have the landowners permission to harvest it.  What do you know of the land?  Is it near a busy road? Are pesticides used nearby? Are you near an industrial estate?  You have to assess the area and determine if the plants that you would like to collect are safe from pollution or contamination.  Unfortunately chemicals do not wash off as easily as a bit of dirt.  It is also appropriate to harvest away from regular dog walking runs and avoid the spray line of a large dog.  With all plants harvested it is essential to wash them.  Sometimes with flowers this is detrimental so researching the area is essential.

“It is said that herbs effectively gathered from their natural habitats may be more potent than those that are cultivated. Wild crafting was a common and original worldwide process for collecting herbs; it was only superseded by commercial growing once demand and supply could not be met. It still is a frequently used method of collection and generally only reputable wild herb crafters who know how to correctly identify herb species and who pick from areas unpolluted by roads, industry or conventional farming, pursue this caring profession. Gathering takes place at the peak of each herb’s growing cycle. All harvesting is done taking in mind the non-depletion of natural plant populations or damage to their habitats.”

You have chosen to harvest a common plant, from an area which is free of pollution and with the land owners permission…. When you harvest please only take 10% of the plant.  If you are harvesting flowers or leaves only take the top few stems.  When harvesting a whole plant only take 10% of the total plant population in the area you are harvesting from.  If you are digging up roots, only take 10% and replant the plant to give it the opportunity to reestablish itself.  The key it to be respectful of nature and to only take what you need.  Do not decimate an area.  It isn’t just us who require the plant.  A lot of native species are home to a vast array of different species who are also dependant on it for food, shelter and/or protection etc.  Out of respect, please leave some of the healthiest and lushest plants in the area where you are wild crafting.

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On that not, if you are harvesting in an area and there is some litter…. pick it up while you are there and dispose of it correctly!!  We are all in our environment and whether we like it or not we are all dependant on it for our survival.  It isn’t something which is away from us.  Our whole economy is dependant on it.  The oil, wood, food, shelter, clothing – even the man-made objects have all been created from the resources in our environment.  Please do your bit.  Picking up a bit of litter when you are already out harvesting does make a difference, as does recycling or upcycling.  Not wasting food, lowering your energy consumption and choosing where you want to spend your money!!!

Sorry for digressing there… back to the subject in hand….

Walking in Bradley and Dixon Woods in the Summer with the light speckling through the canopy

Walking in Bradley and Dixon Woods in the Summer with the light speckling through the canopy

Always leave the area as beautiful as it was before you harvested from it.  Never harvest from nature reserves.  Never harvest herbs or plants which are rare or endangered.  Why not cultivate them instead?  Especially native ones.  I have recently purchased milk thistle and pasque flower seeds.  I am looking forward to cultivating them.  Not only are they rare native flowers in my region but they are medicinal and will benefit the local wildlife as well as myself. Who knows with the permission of landowners I may be able to plant some into the wild and hopefully re-establish the plant population.

milk thistle sliced

There are some great things that you can do though.  When autumn comes and the flowers have set seed, collect the seeds.  You can cultivate some yourself but please spread them in the area away from the mother plant.  Do you bit to help nature along, she will thank you for it.  Also if you are aware that an area is going to be developed or destroyed then please rescue the plants of interest from the area before it is decimated.  Where I live I was only 3 blocks from the countryside but unfortunately they are building out.  There was some beautiful bittersweet (a poisonous herb which as a qualified practitioner I am licensed to use therapeutically).  It is a stunning plant, with bright purple and yellow flowers similar in style to the potato (they are from the same plant family).  It only grew in that area and it was losing it habitat.  I was lucky enough to harvest some of the berries prior to the habitat being destroyed and there are bittersweet plants currently growing in pots in my garden.  I will hopefully keep one but will return them back to a similar habitat locally for them to re-establish.