By Christopher Nyerges



In the past 20 years, there has been a great revival in the knowledge of and use of plants for medicine. Since so many of today's 'official medicines' originated from the plant kingdom, you might say we are all getting back to our roots. What is medicine? Broadly speaking, medicines can be any substances that relieve the symptoms of an illness, or, ideally, affect the proximate cause of the illness.

For most of the patented, bottled medicines you have in your bathroom or kitchen medicine chest, there are numerous counterparts in nature. And if all you are doing is eliminating a symptom, we need to realize that this is only a short-term 'solution'. Still, with all inherent dangers surrounding the modern hospital, and high cost of bottled medicines, we feel that it is a far safer route to learn about those medicines which can be grown just outside your door.

Lets examine a few that are easy to use and easy to grow.

 You've eaten too much, and you reach for one of various preparations that are intended to relieve your indigestion and gas. Instead, you could make a cup of California bay leaf tea. Just put one leaf in a cup, add hot water, and drink when it is cool enough to drink. The flavor is remarkably refreshing. California bay trees can be grown from wild seeds, or can be obtained from some area nurseries.

Another possibility with indigestion and gas is to include a small sprig of epazote leaf with your meal. Epazote leaf, dried, is easy to add to soup, potato salad, and bean dishes. You can also have an after-dinner tea of epazote to relieve gas and indigestion, though it is somewhat flavorless. I recommend that you add a bit of peppermint to the tea for flavor.

Here's another scenario: You awaken one morning with a sore throat. You feel congested and you're starting to cough and sneeze. You can reach for the commercial liquid or tablet that curbs the cough symptoms. Or, you can use some of the natural materials that were probably used in the making of those remedies.

Oil of eucalyptus is a common active ingredient in many cough medicines, and you can simply pick a few eucalyptus leaves, make a hot tea by infusion, and drink it. The flavor of the various eucalypti vary, so you might smell around until you find a variety you like. For example, we really enjoy the Eucalyptus citriodora, which is lemon-scented. If neither you, nor your friendly neighbor have a eucalyptus tree, they can be purchased at most nurseries.

Another possibility for that sore throat: horehound. Horehound is a member of the mint family that is often cultivated in gardens. It tolerates drought, and is easy to grow. In fact, it is a very common 'weed' throughout the United States. You collect the young horehound leaves, infuse for tea, and drink the liquid hot. The flavor is, well, terrible. It is very bitter, which you can allay by adding honey and lemon, and drinking quickly. Horehound tea is very effective for coughs and sore throats.

When you were hiking this past weekend, you got a few minor cuts and scratches. Will you reach for that tube of creamy stuff and rub it over your cuts? You could, or you could just pinch off a bit of an Aloe vera plant, break open the leaf, and spread that gel directly onto the wounds. Aloe has been used for centuries for just such medicinal applications. Aloe is easy to grow in pots or in the garden, and is widely available at nurseries.

You have high cholesterol, and there are a number of things your doctor has told you to do: Cut out salts, fatty and oily foods, stop smoking and eliminate alcohol. Exercise more, and lose some weight. Did you know that numerous studies have shown that including garlic and onions in your diet can reduce your cholesterol level? We don't normally think of garlic and onions as 'medicine', but they have a variety of proven or reputed medical properties, and the lowering of cholesterol levels is perhaps the most documented. In this case, you simply eat garlic and onions  ideally raw where possible, but cooked also  in order to receive the beneficial qualities.

Speaking of cholesterol, another good way to lower cholesterol levels is to include foods in your diet that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. In 1986, two biochemists (Norman Salem, Jr. with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland, and Artemis Simopoulos of the American Association for World Health in Washington, D.C.) discovered that a common weed, purslane, is the richest leafy-plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. And purslane is such a common weed, worldwide, that you shouldn't need to plant it  you may just need to look for it. It is common in rose beds. To take advantage of purslanes benefits, you simply eat it in salads, or cook it into soups, stews, vegetable dishes, etc.

Have a headache from all the punk or rapper 'music' next door? Before you automatically reach for that aspirin, consider the original source of aspirin, the inner bark of the willow tree. The cambium layer of willow bark contains salicin, which the body converts to salicylic acid the active ingredient in most aspirin. If you grew a willow bush or tree in your yard, you could prune off a small twig, remove the bark, and brew that bark for a few minutes in warm water, and then drink it for headaches. The tea may be mildly bitter, but will work (more or less) as well as aspirin.

According to long-standing traditions throughout Northern Mexico, eating the young prickly pear cactus pad (once the stickers are removed) is said to help with diabetes. In the past 20 years, we have met dozens of people who claim to have had relief from adult-onset diabetes by consuming the cactus, and weve met three who actually stopped taking insulin. Doctors who have researched this have come up with some medical verification. They say that the prickly pear contains a substance which strengthens the pancreas so it is more able to produce insulin. Plus, they say the fiber content of the cactus is beneficial.

Needless to say, none of the above is intended to replace competent, professional medical care for serious illness. In the interest of increasing wisdom and self-reliance, learning which plants can be used for simply medicines can be useful. Your own integral gardening should not only be a place where food is grown, and where you can experience peace of mind, but it can also be your pharmacy.

Nyerges is the author of "Guide to Wild Foods", "Enter the Forest", and "Urban Wilderness". He has been leading wilderness walks since 1974. For information about his books or schedule, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or .

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