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Herbal Preparations  Antioxidants  Ailments Treated  Herb Uses  Juicing  Superfoods

Herbs are plants which are more than providers of nutrition or decoration. When we talk of herbs we usually mean plants with culinary or medicinal uses, and many of the "weeds" and decorative plants in the garden provide such a bonus.
In earlier times herbs and spices used in cooking helped to mask the taste of food which may not have been as fresh as we are used to today, or the heavy salting used to preserve it. Those which were and are still used, also have powerful antibacterial properties, eg. garlic, onions, allspice and oregano, so they can do more than add flavour. Turmeric is a potent antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic and antiviral agent; curry leaves are antiamoebic, antimalarial and antidiarrhoeal.
From earliest times plants have been used for their healing properties, there is evidence that Neanderthal man was using them 60,000 years ago. These were known to selected members of the community or shamans, who were highly regarded and they passed the knowledge to the next generation. Usually it was connected to religious practices and monasteries of the time had cultivated areas for the production of herbs - one of the seven offices of the church was the gardener.
By medieval times specialist Apothecaries had begun to take on the role and charged for their expertise. This meant only the wealthier people could afford to pay, so 'herb wives' came into being. In mid nineteenth century Ireland one 'Herb Woman' called Biddy early did not charge for her knowledge, but accepted gifts of food or alcohol - she was eventually tried for witchcraft, but was acquitted. The tradition of 'charms' still exists in some places usually they are some herbs combined with a prayer - indeed my father used to be consulted for a 'charm' which involved Mouse Ear, to relieve whitlow, an inflammation of the end of a finger. While the herbs used by Apothecaries were from cultivated stock, the herb wives gathered their remedies from the wild - the plants were known as 'simples' and the 17th century polymath Thomas Brown named the practice "simpling". These Folk Medicines use many of the plants which are uprooted and discarded as weeds.
In the sixteenth century the physician Paracelsus wrote about the concept that some plants were intended to treat ailments due to a resemblance they have to bodily parts or the disease symptoms. He was not the first to make this connection as herbalists in the time of Galen had done the same. This philosophy is known as the Doctrine of Signatures and those of a more religious bent attributed it to signs left by a higher power during the creation. For example the Lungworts, Pulmonaria, were prepared in remedies to treat breathing problems as the leaves are roughly the shape of lungs and have similar spots that appear when they are diseased., Another example is Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria), probably better known as Lesser Celandine, that pestilent little weed known to many gardeners, as the roots are similar to the distended blood vessels of hemorrhoids.

Most of the drugs used in conventional medicine use plant-based extracts, chemicals which replicate them or have been modified to enhance the effect, or reduce side effects. There are still experts in the field researching new plant sources and utilizing the knowledge of local populations who have used the plants around them to treat their communities for hundreds of years.

When using herbs during cooking, trial and error should sort out how much to add, but when a therapeutic effect is desired the quantity and method of use are more important. They are best if used in the fresh state, but can be dried to ensure a constant supply throughout the year. When using dried material half the quantity is needed as the active ingredients are more concentrated.

  • Collecting Herbs Take care when collecting herbs and only do so if certain about identification. Choose fresh, healthy material, cutting only what is required to allow the plant to regrow - pick fruits when ripe. Fresh herbs can be kept whole for a short time in plastic bags in the freezer. Roots for drying can be separated off in the autumn when propogating.
    NB. it is illegal to uproot plants growing in the wild without permission.
  • Drying Herbs For leaves, flowers, delicate herbs and those containing volatile essential oils, natural drying is best. Spread leaves and stems out on clean paper (not newspaper), turning occasionally, or hang up in bunches, in an airy place always out of direct sunlight. Flowers should be cut at noon when fully open and hung up in paper bags in a warm airy place until crisp. Soak roots in cold water for a few hours then scrub clean, cut into small pieces and dry in paper bags until crisp. Fleshy parts like fruit and some roots may require gentle heating to dry properly. Leave them out as above for a day or two then place in an oven set below 45°C for about two hours, or over a radiator, until dry. This is indicated when no soft material remains, eg. twigs should snap and leaves should be crisp.
    Store dried material in airtight opaque jars in a cool dark place - light can alter the active ingredients. Any soft or mouldy material should be discarded, crumble up leaves and flowers. Label with the name and date of harvesting to indicate the age, as herbs retain their potency in this state for about six months.

Having gathered the plants they can be prepared in a number of ways for use. Some of these preparations are described on the next page.

This has been a short introduction to herbal remedies and there are many books on the subject for more detailed descriptions. If this use of the plants around you appeals, then MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE IDENTIFIED THEM CORRECTLY. Before you make a dash for the mortar and pestle remember that many herbal remedies are very potent and are the basis of conventional medicines, so can have side effects, are contraindicated in some conditions and can interact with other medication. Below are a few other sites for further information.

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists in Devon provides training.
Henriette's Herbal Homepage more than 1,600 pictures and descriptions of plants and herbs.
Read A Modern Herbal online, first published in 1931, by Mrs. M. Grieve, contains Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs. The book was prepared nearly 100 years ago so the information may no longer be accurate or advisable to follow.

Herbal Preparations  Antioxidants  Ailments Treated  Herb Uses  Juicing  Superfoods

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