The value of plants in our lives

6 August, 2012

Plants are fundamental to life. For millennia the plants, animals, rocks, and trees were the only pharmaceutical giants we had. Like all living things on Earth, every one of us is still a shareholder in Nature – the greatest pharmacy on Earth.

Plants are the most formidable chemists. They are constantly producing an arsenal of chemical compounds, in order to respond to different challenges and threats in their environment. They materialise chemical compounds that make them impervious to particular climatic conditions, certain microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, insects, numerous animals, including us.

We humans are still learning and re-learning how to harness the self healing ability of plants, in order to enhance or rebalance the health of our own body, mind and spirit.

It is this ever expanding and evolving field of knowledge that inspires research and re-education. Throughout human history we have learned a lot from plants and we have continually endeavoured to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.

A wide range of uses

The art of truly relating to the plants is to choose the ones that you feel an affinity with. If you have the ability to grow them for yourself – in a garden or in a pot – this is of enormous value. Growing your own plants and medicinal herbs,  endeavouring to learn more about them, puts you in touch with Nature in a very deep way.

We have never in the history of human kind had so much information about medicinal nature of plants on our fingertips.

The mystery of their magic still stands, but what was magic and mystery to our ancestors is a science to us today.

The more we learn about plants the more we find ways to use them to support health.

At a very basic level we can use them as a condiment or seasoning in food, enhance all those otherwise ‘dull’ dishes by the fragrance and flavour only herbs can provide.

Where would tomatoes be without basil? How can a dish be Italian without a pinch of oregano? Strawberries are crying out to be partnered with lemon balm and lamb laments: ‘If I am to be sacrificed to your feast let me be embalmed by the mint’.

The vibrant natural toiletries and cosmetics industry thrives on the power of plants to impart their healing, nourishing, soothing, invigorating, relaxing and other effects onto our skin and hair.

Traditional use

All cultures have a history of herbal medicine use, usually making use of the plants found closest to home. Even today in the times of advanced technology and medical science still depend on plants for their healing.

Western culture, however, is predominantly excited by the new and upcoming and the novel – and perhaps most importantly the patentable. This means that the good, tried and tested tools of survival become relegated to historical anecdote.

But herbal medicines – the original human health care products – are still fully present and available to our lives if you look out for them.

Common herbs and spices – including ginger, turmeric and garlic, and cinnamon and rosemary as well as fenugreek seeds and leaves, artichoke leaf extract, yarrow, and holy basil all may help lower cholesterol. For lowering blood pressure, herbs and spices including cloves, ground Jamaican allspice, cinnamon, sage, marjoram, tarragon, and rosemary are beneficial. Thyme tincture can out-perform conventional acne treatments.

One has to observe that the western culture is predominantly excited by the new and upcoming and often relegates the good, tried and tested tools of survival to a historical anecdotes.

Until the beginning of 1900s medicinal plants from all over the world were fully monographed in all pharmacopoeias as legitimate medicinal ingredients. They are now presented in relatively small numbers but that is slowly changing as we rediscover the true medicinal value of plants. European laws continue to restrict not only what can be sold, but what can be said about traditional herbal remedies insisting on the randomised trial being the only source of legitimate information.

It is good, then, to see some scientists acknowledging that ancient research is research and that traditional use, or ‘herbal lore’ – as often passed down orally as in written form – can also help us understand the uses and relevance of herbs in our lives.

Herbal teas – wisdom in a cup

The simplest and most traditional way to bring the medicinal aspect of plants into ones daily diet is to prepare herbal teas. Herbal teas are made as simple infusions of single or blended plant materials. They not only taste exciting and wonderful but also often enhance the function of the digestive system, relax or stimulate the mind or have a calming or invigorating effect on ones’ spirit.

A tea, also known as an infusion, is made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried plants and steeping them 5-10 min. The tea may be drunk either hot or cold.

Roots, bark, and berries require longer exposure to heat to extract their beneficila  ingredients. They are simmered in boiling water for longer periods than teas, making a decoction, which also may be drunk hot or cold.

Herbal teas like chamomile, peppermint and fennel are widely available throughout the stores and consumed by many. These are the most remembered herbs from the times when tea from the Camelia sinensis bush, which has come to dominate our culture, was still in India and China and coffee and chocolate was still in South America. Thanks to the real ale industry, hops have stood the test of time too!

But there are many more herbs for us to use  and enjoy in our day to day lives and over the next few months we will be featuring suggestions for a variety of different herbal tea blends that you can make at home by blending dried or fresh herbs.

Our first blend for you to try, St John’s wort and Skullcap Tea, can be found here.