Category: Wild Medicine Info

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I’ve been looking for a way to organise my recipes and test driven quite a few apps. I’ve now discovered Yummly. It’s easy and a pleasure to use. You can find a treasure trove of recipes on it and control what you see by what your dietary preferences are down to great detail. I’m now putting all my recipes into Yummly format and you can see them all either her on this blog, or at my Yummly page: yummly.com/page/monicawilde

It’s easy as pie [sic] to sign up with your Facebook or Google account. Do have a browse and remember to give me some ‘Yums’ if you like my recipes!

Wild Antidote for Smoking

Antidote for Tobacco – Victorian ‘nicorette’!

Trying to give up smoking? One of the most commonly used herbs was Lobelia inflata, nicknamed Indian Tobacco after its use by Native American peoples. It can be hard to get hold of these days as it is Schedule 3 herb which restricts its sale to the general public. If taken in inappropriate amounts it acts as an emetic, causing nausea and vomiting.

Here is another Native American smoking cessation aid which can be made at home:

White Oak Chew Beans

150 grams White Oak Bark, finely chopped
A tiny pinch of capsicum (cayenne) powder (no more than a 12th of a teaspoon / 345mg)
Gum arabic (or edible pine resin)

Grind both your oak bark and capsicum with a pestle and mortar to pulverise them into a very fine powder. Moisten with gum arabic enough to make it stick together. A chew is about the size of a bean. Chew a bean several times a day. In three or four days the desire for tobacco will be gone. Whenever you want a cigarette take a chew on an oak chew bean.

Calamus Chews

I have recommended calamus root (Acorus calamus) to a lot of people as chewing the dried root does help with cravings. It also creates a ‘zen-like’ focus eliminating the fuzzy mind that can go with withdrawal. This also includes withdrawal from some benzodiazepines.

Jim McDonald in Blessed Bitters says “Cravings need not be relegated to food, however. Small doses of many bitter herbs can be very helpful for cravings associated with many addictions, due to their calming affect on mood. An example of this is the chewing of calamus root to ease the cravings for tobacco.”

Use around a centimetre of the root, chew to moisten it and then wedge it between your gum and cheek. Chew again whenever you get cravings. In large quantities (over 3 cm) Acorus can make some people feel nauseous to work out your own tolerance level.

If collecting your own, do remember that sweet flag (Acorus) root can be confused with blue flag (Iris) root which is poisonous so take special care when harvesting. The freshly dried root is by far the most effective. I have written much more on the use of Acorus here in cooking, medicine and collecting it.

Valerian Drops

If anxiety is a big factor, you could also take a tincture of valerian root Valeriana officinalis to chill your nerves. Put it into a dropper bottle and place a few drops on the tongue for 2-3 minutes at the point of craving or take a teaspoon 3 or 4 times a day if anxiety pervades your life.

Smoking Thins Your Brain – The Evidence!

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A day after this article was posted, research was published showing that smoking thins your brain and is linked to all major neurological diseases. Even 25 years after giving up, your cortex is thinner than someone who’s never smoked.

When people have conversations about getting old, most people say that it’s the loss of mental powers that would bother them most. They don’t want to be a great age if they have senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and memory problems. These are all inextricably linked to smoking, in that smoking hugely increases the likelihood of your brain function and memory being affected in old age.

The study involved 244 male and 260 female subjects — five times larger than any previous similar research on smoking and cortical thickness. Their average age was 73. The test group included current smokers, ex-smokers and non-smokers. All of the subjects were examined as children in 1947 as part of the Scottish Mental Survey.

Researchers used health data gathered during recent personal interviews with the subjects, and also analyzed data from MRI scans showing the current state of the subjects’ brain cortices.

“We found that current and ex-smokers had, at age 73, many areas of thinner brain cortex than those that never smoked. Subjects who stopped smoking seem to partially recover their cortical thickness for each year without smoking,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Sherif Karama, assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University, psychiatrist at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and an affiliate of the Montreal Neurological Institute.

The apparent recovery process is slow, however, and incomplete. Heavy ex-smokers in the study who had given up smoking for more than 25 years still had a thinner cortex.

Although the cortex grows thinner with normal aging, the study found that smoking appears to accelerate the thinning process. A thinner brain cortex is associated with adult cognitive decline.

“Smokers should be informed that cigarettes could hasten the thinning of the brain’s cortex, which could lead to cognitive deterioration. Cortical thinning seems to persist for many years after someone stops smoking,” says Dr. Karama.

Journal Reference:
S Karama, S Ducharme, J Corley, F Chouinard-Decorte, J M Starr, J M Wardlaw, M E Bastin, I J Deary. Cigarette smoking and thinning of the brain’s cortex. Molecular Psychiatry, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2014.187

Wild Garlic & Hazelnut Pesto

Wild Garlic & Hazelnut Pesto

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

2 x 250ml tubs

Wild Garlic & Hazelnut Pesto

This fresh and fiery pesto can be made with any of the wild garlic family. This commonly includes wild garlic or ransoms (Allium ursinum), few flowered garlic/leek (Allium paradoxum), three cornered leek (Allium triquetrum), and crow garlic (Allium vineale).

Ingredients

  • 150 g hazelnuts, lightly toasted
  • 150 g (very large handful) wild garlic
  • 150 ml good quality olive oil

Directions

  1. Pick your wild greens in the spring and lightly rinse them to remove any soil or leaf mould.
  2. If picked including bulbs (on private land with permission only), trim off the roots.
  3. In a mill blender, first grind your hazelnuts until very finely chopped.
  4. Then, with the blender blade, add the wild garlic and olive oil and blend for about 2 minutes until smooth.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste, or a sprinkle of pepper dulse (Osmundea pinnatifida) if you have it.
  6. Scoop into a tub with a lid.
  7. Chill and refrigerate when not in use.

Notes

Serve with crackers as a spread or dip. Use a spoonful to spice up a soup or a stir fry.

I used hazel nuts as they are indigenous to Scotland and can be foraged in great quantity in the autumn as they were 5000 years ago and more. For a less nutty flavour you can use unsalted cashew nuts. If you are very patient, leached acorns or pignuts make a nice base!

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Bone Stock with Seaweed

We’ve got out of the habit of making stock but at one time they were an indispensable part of cooking. Nowadays there are stock cubes and gravy powders, cup-a-soups and instant miso but still nothing beats the deep, rich flavour of a good, slow simmered stock. It’s not difficult. It just takes a little time. You can make stock with fresh bones, roast bones or just vegetables.

Here’s a roast lamb bone stock with vegetables and seaweed.

Bone Stock with Seaweed

Bone Stock with Seaweed

Ingredients

  • 1 roasted leg of lamb bone (or any large beef marrow bone)
  • 1 onion quartered
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 parsnip root chopped
  • 2 carrots chopped
  • 1 red chilli pepper whole
  • 1 cm ginger root sliced
  • 2 sticks of celery chopped
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • 6 x 6cm sticks of dried kelp
  • 3 litres (12 cups) of hot water

Directions

  1. Put all in a large saucepan together and bring to the boil.
  2. Once boiling cover and turn to a low heat, allowing it to simmer for 2-3 hours until everything is tender.
  3. When cool strain off the liquid.
  4. Store in the fridge until used in soups, stews, casseroles, or freeze in ice cube trays for instant stock cubes.
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Winter Solstice 2014

Today, 21 December at 22:03 GMT the North Pole (with the earth’s axis at 23.5 degrees) tilts its furthest away from the sun. This is the shortest solar day of the year and we call it the winter solstice.

For thousands of years, people in the Northern hemisphere have noticed it and celebrated. The pagan festival of Yule marks the rebirth of the sun and start of winter on the solstice. Druids would sacrifice animals under the sacred plant mistletoe as part of their Yule rituals.

The Romans held the week-long Saturnalia at this time and decorated their homes with holly wreaths to ward off evil spirits.

Christmas was established in late December in the fourth century, deliberately to override the attraction of the pagan festivals.

Another curious thing is that although you’d expect the shortest day of the year to have the latest sunrise and the earliest sunset, this isn’t the case. The latest sunrise does not occur until around the 2nd of January and the earliest sunset has already happened – around the 10th of December.

However, after the solstice each day is getting lighter every day. This is because solar days in December last around 24 hours and 30 seconds, while we still measure each day as exactly 24 hours. Because of this, the sun cycle on each day is about 30 seconds later every day, until the solar days shorten again. It’s hard to notice it at first, as to start with it is only by seconds a day but soon a minute, then 2 minutes a day. However, the evenings are getting lighter again as we set the course for summer!

In Edinburgh, today is 10 hours, 39 minutes shorter than on the June summer solstice.

Next year winter solstice will be on 22nd December at 04:38 am.

Air Fresheners cause Allergic Reactions

 

 

From today restaurants now have to declare any allergens in food on their menus. Supermarkets and other places that sell prepackaged food must also declare them. However, although foods and cosmetics must now warn you of potentially harmful and fatal allergens, there is one area that is completely a law to itself and unregulated!

I wrote the following letter to the BBC:

Dear Have Your Say

There is a certain irony in the news that restaurants have to declare allergens of food they serve – very helpful – but when you then use their toilet facilities you are likely to be sprayed with allergy causing chemicals from an automatic ‘air freshener’.

These ‘air fresheners’ produced by companies such as PHS are absolutely everywhere these days. They are known to contain allergy causing chemicals but unlike food and cosmetics are completely unregulated. I had an allergic reaction in a Tesco supermarket recently and the staff showed me the inner canister in our attempt to find information on its contents.

It carried the following advice:
Warning: May cause allergic reaction
And advised that it should only be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas!

There are numerous reports (I can provide citable sources) of allergic reactions to ‘air fresheners’ that end up causing asthma and heart attacks. The parents of children developing asthma are advised to stop using plug in fragrance dispensers in their homes. Care homes have seen huge rises in respiratory complaints after ‘air freshener’ installations.

Why is it legal to pollute the air in toilets and not declare it, while illegal not to provide allergen declarations on food and cosmetics?

I may have the choice to plan ahead and now avoid ever using a Tesco or Costa Coffee toilet but in a place like Gatwick Airport, having passed through security unable to leave the airport, there is no choice.

Using a public loo for a fundamental need, where a PHS canister lurks on the wall automatically spewing out allergen-causing ‘fragrance’, does not just mean relieving myself, it also means risking an allergic reaction with potential anaphylactic shock and even death.

Kind regards
Monica Wilde

The PHS canister that caused the allergic reaction (apologies for the bad photos but it was hard to tea the at the time).

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Here is a link to the Food Standards Agency directive on allergen declarations in food: http://www.food.gov.uk/business-industry/allergy-guide

Here is a report of heart problems caused by Glade Air Freshener:

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This is what an anaphylactic shock looks like.

The Effects of Anaphylaxis on the Body

Courtesy of Healthline.com

Update 2019

Here are some links to news articles on the concerns which are starting to become public knowledge.

The Times: Clean air for all: Scientists call for pollution warning on air fresheners. May 2019

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/scientists-call-for-pollution-warning-on-deodorant-and-air-fresheners-ncc5q7pnm

The Guardian: Cleaning products a big source of urban air pollution, say scientists. Feb 2018

Research shows paints, perfumes, sprays and other synthetic items contribute to high levels of ‘volatile organic compounds’ in air

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/15/cleaning-products-urban-pollution-scientists

Natural Products: Household chemical pollution could be “next diesel scandal”, doctors warn. May 2019

https://www.naturalproductsglobal.com/europe/household-chemical-pollution-could-be-next-diesel-scandal-doctors-warn/

Grasping the Nettle

You can get a cheery mood and energy boost from nettle leaf and particularly from raw dried nettle seed (technically fruits and seeds), rubbed through a sieve to remove the irritating hairs.

Nettle seedThe ‘feel-good’ factor from eating raw dried nettle fruits/seeds is caused by the neurotransmitters acetylcholine nd serotonin, with choline and histamine also found in uncooked nettle venom. In herbal medicine they are used as an adrenal tonic for people who are burnt-out, run down, fatigued and low in energy, zest for life and libido.

Acetylcholine is the most abundant neurotransmitter in our brains. It stimulates the nervous system (ANS), improving mood and heightening sensory perception, attention span, vigilance and intuition. Acetylcholine disruption may be a primary cause of depression and possibly Alzheimer’s and muscle degeneration.

Serotonin is mainly found in the gut and it also acts on the nervous system (CNS). Its main functions include regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep, and it influences memory and learning. Serotonin in nettle spines causes pain when you pick them! Its abundance in many seeds and fruits may be to stimulate the gut to expel the seeds, and it can cause diarrhoea in quantity.

Nettle seed is used therapeutically both as freshly picked seed and as fresh nettle seed tincture.

Chew 5-20 grams of fresh green nettle seed well, as a refreshing stimulant. You can take 1 to 2 tablespoons a day. Some people experiment with nettle seed for recreation but we advise not exceeding this amount.

Be careful too, if you boil fresh nettle fruit/seed in a ratio of 1:12 (eg 50 grams fruit/seed to 600 ml of water), a large wineglassful (250ml) may keep you wide awake for 12-36 hours!

Nettle seed also tastes delicious toasted and can be used instead of poppy seed in crackers, bread and sprinkled with chopped nuts into salads.

Urtification

Incidentally, the prescence of acetylcholine in nettle venom may well explain why the ancient practice of urtification (whipping with nettles for pain relief) works! Anything which increases the presence of acetylcholine in the synaptic space is found to produce analgesia. Benzodiazepines for example act as analgesics through their action of enhancing acetylcholine release.

Wild Labneh Roule Cream Cheese

Recipe for a delicious ‘cream cheese’ substitute

This is a very simple way to make a cream cheese replacement for those lovely soft herby French cream cheeses called roule. It’s not a real cheese as nothing is added to separate the curds and whey but it’s a close call!

Ingredients
1 small pot of good quality plain organic yoghurt
4-5 wild garlic stems
4 new green ground elder leaves
6 small sorrel leaves
Salt and pepper

Directions
Put a colander or sieve to stand over a bowl. Line with a pieve of cheesecloth folded to give 3 layers. Spoon the yoghurt onto the cheesecloth and cover with a saucepan lid or piece of tin foil. Leave to drain for 24 hours.

After 24 hours the whey should have drained off (use it in a soup or sauce), and the yoghurt should have thickened to a cream cheese consistency. This is called labneh.

Very, very finely chop the wild greens. Put in a bowl with the labneh and fold the wild greens in with a fork. Add some salt and pepper, forking it in until the taste is to your liking. Remove and mould into a ball or log. This will keep for a week or two in the fridge – if you haven’t eaten it long before then!

Is Comfrey Edible?

Is Comfrey Safe to Eat?

Tuberous and Russian comfrey

Tuberous comfrey (left) with cream flowers, Russian comfrey (right) with purple flowers.

Common comfrey is a wild-growing herb that has a long tradition as both an edible and a medicinal species. It is a nutritious plant, being very high in Vitamin A, riboflavin, potassium, manganese and dietary fibre, and also a source of other vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and selenium needed by our bodies. It isn’t eaten a lot, as it has a slightly hairy, rough texture as the leaves age, but the young leaves and buds are very tender and delicious in recipes such as Comfrey Leaf Lemonade Fritters. The leaves are used a lot as a herbal tea. In other countries it has been grown as a vegetable and prepared as a ratatouille – and very tasty it is too!

In herbal medicine, comfrey is traditionally used to repair damaged joints, broken bones and torn tendons. This is because comfrey is very high in both vitamin K and vitamin K2 which promote fracture healing (Hodges, 1995). Incidentally, comfrey is one of the few plants that takes up vitamin B12 from the soil, the vitamin that vegans need to supplement with to avoid pernicious anaemia. The name comfrey comes from the Latin ‘confera’ which means to knit together, hence the old country name for comfrey of Knitbone. (It’s botanical name comes from the Greek word symphyo meaning to unite.) Comfrey root ointment is used to treat painful osteoarthritis of the knee. A clinical trial showed that the ointment works significantly better than a placebo ointment, with five times the effect in pain reduction and four times improvement in quality of life (Grube, Grünwald, Krug & Staiger, 2007).

Napiers Comfrey Salve Comfrey is often used in ointments such as this Napiers Organic Comfrey and Hypericum Soothing Salve

It is also used in cosmetics because comfrey contains substances that help skin regrow, including allantoin, rosmarinic acid and tannins.

Although herbal medicines are widely considered by the scientific community to be of lower risk than synthetic drugs, they can still sometimes cause toxicity or side effects (De Smet, 2004).

What are pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs)?

You may have found warnings or restrictions on the internal use of comfrey on the internet. This is because comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are a group of 660 phytochemicals found in over 6,000 plants. PAs can also found in honey, grains, milk, offal and eggs. In the case of some species of comfrey, a particular PA called echimidine has caused special concern as it is toxic to the liver in animals. Due to this, medicinal or food products for internal use containing comfrey root, are restricted in many countries, with a few also restricting comfrey leaf, although it contains far fewer alkaloids.

The species really matters!

Comfrey Leaf Fritters

My homemade Comfrey Leaf Fritters made from tuberous comfrey (Symphytum tuberosum).

There are several species of comfrey plant. I only eat common comfrey, Symphytum officinale (leaf not root) which rarely contains echimidine and tuberous comfrey (Symphytum tuberosum) which has less than 0.02% PAs. The difficulty nowadays is that common comfrey hybridises to Russian comfrey and some modern analysis shows echimidine appearing in common comfrey too.

Up until now (2018), Common comfrey leaf Symphytum officinale has been allowed in over-the-counter preparations in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany. Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations prohibits the sale, for medicinal purposes, of any products containing echimidine (Canada Gazette, 30 March 1988). Canada’s Cosmetic Regulations ban Symphytum species EXCEPT for Symphytum officinale which is allowed. Echimidine, considered to be the most toxic of the PAs found in comfrey (Brauchli-Theotokis 1987), is rarely found in most samples of common comfrey (Symphytum officinale L.) (Couet et al. 1996; Roitman 1981) but seems to appear more often in later studies. This may be due to the ability of common comfrey to hybridise with prickly comfrey creating a hybrid called Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum).

Look at the photo at the top of this post – it shows the difference between tuberous comfrey and Russian comfrey. Here in Scotland, tuberous comfrey always has cream flowers.

Common comfrey has flowers that range from white to purple. This make identification a little more difficult. Common comfrey in England mainly has strong coloured pink-purple flowers and lance shaped leaves, while Russian comfrey, which tends to be a bigger plant with broader pointed leaves, has paler violet or blue-purple flowers. Russian comfrey is widely sold to gardeners as the Bocking 14 hybrid for fertiliser. Due to the concerns about PAs, it is important to be able to identify the different comfrey species and it is not easy to tell them apart – except for the tuberous comfrey.

Common comfreyCommon comfrey
Common comfrey with white flowersCommon comfrey with white flowers
Common comfrey with pink flowersCommon comfrey with pink flowers
Common comfrey with purple flowersCommon comfrey with purple flowers

British herbalists use, common comfrey Symphytum officinale. Please see the following excerpt from American Botanical Council research in 1994 when the first concerns were raised.

“The first Canadian action was taken in 1982, when the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada introduced an amendment to Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations which prohibits the sale, for medicinal purposes, of any products containing echimidine (Canada Gazette, 30 March 1988).

Echimidine, considered to be the most toxic of comfrey PAs (Brauchli-Theotokis 1987), is not found in common comfrey (Symphytum officinale L.). However, it is present in prickly comfrey (S. asperum Lepechin) and its hybrids with S. officinale (Huizing, Gadella, and Kliphuis 1982), including Russian comfrey (S. x uplandicum Nyman), which is the most commonly encountered commercial comfrey in Britain (Clapham, Tutin and Warburg 1962) due to its popularity as a garden fertiliser especially the strain called Bocking.

Russian comfrey hybrid

Russian comfrey Bocking 14

Russian comfrey flowers

Russian comfrey flowers

The intent of the Canadian legislation is to have more careful attention paid to identification of botanical species by the herbal industry, and to alert the Canadian public to the potential danger of PA consumption. There was no intent to underestimate the relative potential danger of echimidine-free S. officinale. Both root and leaf of Symphytum officinale have been shown to be carcinogenic in rats (Hirono et al. 1978), though again in this paper there is species confusion because the authors equate common comfrey and Russian comfrey!”

Animal testing – is it like for like?

Apart from the species mix up, these theoretical dangers quoted above in Hirono et al. 1978 are not without controversy. Dangerous actions are sometimes attributed to herbs because of in vitro or animal studies. And yet many papers that demonstrate actions in vitro or in animals cannot always be replicated in vivo – i.e. in humans. Animals and humans are not the same. In the Hirono study, the researchers found that forcing rats to eat huge quantities of ground comfrey leaves and roots did them no good at all – especially the 2 week old baby rats. Of note, out of 28 rats fed 8% of diet as dry weight comfrey, one showed a liver tumour at 600 days (a long life for a rat!). The average adult human would probably need to ingest 20,000 comfrey leaves to produce a comparative dose. Assuming 3 dried leaves of comfrey per cup of leaf tea, this equates to drinking 6,666 cups of tea. If you drank a cup of comfrey leaf tea every single day, it would take you over 18 years to reach this level of consumption!

A respected research herbalist, Margaret Whitelegg MNIMH wrote a paper in January 1993 called “In Defence of Comfrey” that was submitted to the Department of Health and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists – when these issues first surfaced. If you use her reference below of 5,607 leaves in a man-sized rat being equivalent to the injections of isolated PAs in another animal study, you’d need 1,867 cups of tea, so 5 years if drunk at a cup a day to match the study dose. 

There are actually very few cases of comfrey toxicity in humans and they are all more complex than occasional consumption of comfrey as a vegetable. One of the 4 actual human cases known at the time, was a woman who took comfrey in excess – a.k.a. overdosing. She was a forty-seven year old non-alcoholic woman who began to feel unwell in 1978 with vague abdominal pain, fatigue and allergies (Bach, Swan et al (37)). She drank as many as ten cups of comfrey tea per day in addition to taking handfuls of comfrey pills, for over a year. Four years later, her serum aminotransferase levels were twice normal range. Eight years later she had further signs of liver disease. Despite the obvious abuse of comfrey and its use in a very unusual way, nevertheless this case is used to condemn the plant when taken in normal, moderate doses. I wonder what the effects of 10 cans of Red Bull or Coke drunk every day for four years would be on your liver? However, that doesn’t result in a ban of soft drinks. 

In her paper, Margaret Whitelegg made the following points that I find significant: 

“While evidence on pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA) toxicity is mounting and the case against any PA-containing plant appears increasingly clear, the controversy over comfrey deserves closer inspection. It appears to be damned by its association with the effects of other PA containing plants, by the effects of its alkaloids on laboratory animals and by certain cases of hepatotoxicity through ingestion of the plant by humans. Yet I would argue that the case against comfrey is by no means proven in the scientific literature.”

She goes on to say:

“Effects on Animals.
Papers on the harmful effects of PAs on laboratory animals are legion, both those in other plant species (1-7) and in comfrey itself (8-11). One of the most often cited papers to this effect is that of Culvenor et al, “The structure and toxicity of the alkaloids of Russian Comfrey, a medicinal herb and item of human diet (12)”. He reported on an experiment in which alkaloids of comfrey were administered intraperitoneally to two-week old rats, either as a single dose or as multiple doses beginning at two weeks old over intervals of nine weeks. Evidence of hepatotoxicity was found. Bone (13) and Pembery (14) criticise this paper. Their criticisms reflect certain problems that occur repeatedly throughout the literature, whether proposing hepatotoxic, genotoxic or carcinogenic effects. Both authors suggest that two-week old rats are more vulnerable to the effects of PAs and, according to Jago, (15) are particularly susceptible to the induction of megalocytosis. Pembery, for the Doubleday Institute, looks more closely at the numerical data and extrapolates equivalent quantities of PAs for humans, suggesting that exposure in humans at such levels is unlikely :  “…it can be seen that the dose required to produce the least effect in the rats, reduced liver function, detectable by a change in the proportion of the plasma proteins, is equivalent to the alkaloid from 5,607 leaves if administered to a “man-sized rat” That is, if we assume that the effect of the alkaloid in man (sic) is going to be the same as in a young rat, apparently the most susceptible of any so far tested. If an average comfrey leaf is taken as 100g (and older leaves are much more than this), this dose level represents about eight times the body weight of the man-sized rat. Deaths occurred at levels equivalent to the alkaloid from 19,880 leaves or equivalent to 28 times the bodyweight of the man-sized rat.” [My bold emphasis.] 

“More importantly, however – and this applies to all experiments with isolated alkaloids – both authors argue that to give alkaloids in isolation and injected intraperitoneally into animals, cannot reflect the effects in humans of the entire plant taken orally. This reflects one of the central tenets of herbal medicine, that an isolated chemical of a plant, while useful for certain indications, cannot define the action of the whole herb, where the herb is more than the sum of the individual parts, its constituents working synergistically to create its healing effects. A press release by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (16), written by F. Fletcher Hyde, FNIMH, speaks of  “…two insupportable assumptions. First, that the naturally occurring complex in the plant … can be regarded as a mere physical dilution of alkaloids that the human metabolism is identical with that of the rat which is susceptible to these alkaloids, and not with the sheep which is resistant to them.” 

“…Tea, almonds, apples, pears, mustard, radishes and hops, to list only a few items, all contain substances which, if extracted, can be shown to be poisonous when tested under conditions similar to those used in the comfrey experiments. Must we then ignore our experience of the usefulness and wholesomeness of these foods because controlled trials and scientific evidence have not been published to establish their safety?” 

Personally, I would have also added honey to that list as it often contains the highest levels of PAs in your local supermarket. I also think that there is an extremely valid point to be made that extrapolating results to determine the safety of humans eating comfrey, from results of animals being injected with high concentrations of the alkaloids extracted from comfrey, is not sound.

The plant part matters: leaf not root

“Health and Welfare Canada has for many years refused to register comfrey root products for any medicinal application, in recognition of the much greater risk presented by root material as compared to leaf. Comfrey root has been consistently observed to contain roughly ten times the concentration of PA found in leaves (Mattocks 1986, Roitman 1981). Manufacturers have been advised that the inclusion of comfrey root in herbal preparations is no longer acceptable.” Again, this refers to the root not the leaf.

Research can be contradictory

Comfrey was banned in Australia because of a paper called, The structure and toxicity of the alkaloids of Russian comfrey (S. x uplandicum) a medicinal herb and item of human diet by Dr. C. Culvenor, et al, Australia, 1980. Although Culvenor and his associates identified eight alkaloids in comfrey, four being new to science; there does seem to be inaccuracy, when he quoted the results of Pederson (1975 ). Quotes indicated that he found a 9% concentration of alkaloids in leaves, when Pederson’s actual figures were 0.9 parts per thousand when estimated by titration, and 1.9 parts per thousand when estimated gravimetrically.

Theoretical dangers are often attributed to herbs because of the singular action of one constituent, although herbs are a complex blend of hundreds of phytochemicals whose combined beneficial and protective action often negate the harmful action of one compund. For example, meadowsweet contains salicylic acid (naturally) which is what aspirin is made of (chemically). Aspirin can upset stomachs yet meadowsweet is used by medical herbalists to treat stomach ulcers. Meadowsweet, unlike aspirin, contains many other phytochemicals which have a soothing effect. Read more here about the use of comfrey in creams and ointments.

Reported side effects

There have been some side effects reported from:
• taking comfrey medication (species not recorded) – a woman (1985) taking two comfrey medicines, one for four months and one for six months, and 2 women (1987) who took comfrey-pepsin tablets for 6 months.
• drinking comfrey tea (species not recorded) – a boy with Crohn’s disease (1987) who regularly drank comfrey tea and a woman (1989) who drank 10 cups of comfrey tea daily for 4 years
• eating comfrey  (species not recorded) – one single case of a man (1990) who ate 4-5 cooked comfrey leaves a day for 2 weeks  where comfrey may have contributed to his death by liver failure (he also had some other very bizarre dietary habits).

These few case studies do support that underlying illness, poor nutrition and the concurrent use of hepatotoxic drugs, increase the likelihood that veno-occlusive (liver) disease may develop when using PA-containing drugs or eating PA-containing plants (Rode, 2002). In particular, they point out that you should avoid taking comfrey in excess – the feature that unites this handful of reports.

To put this in perspective, according to the Office for National Statistics, between 1993 and 2011 around 23,630 people have died in the UK from drug-related poisoning not including drug misuse! (The total deaths if you include drug misuse being 52,732.) Where the cause of death is mentioned on the death certificate, this includes:
• 8606 deaths due to paracetamol poisoning
• 8324 deaths due to antidepressants
• 4611 deaths due to benzodiazepines (Diazepam (Valium), Temazepam and Nitrazepam
• 3079 deaths due to Tramadol
• 872 deaths due to aspirin
• 0 deaths due to comfrey

Note for people taking medication

An obvious recommendation with comfrey is not to eat or drink it excessively. I would add that you should definitely not eat it if you already take a drug that is known to harm the liver. This includes: acetaminophen (Tylenol and others), amiodarone (Cordarone), carbamazepine (Tegretol), isoniazid (INH), methotrexate (Rheumatrex), methyldopa (Aldomet), fluconazole (Diflucan), itraconazole (Sporanox), erythromycin (Erythrocin, Ilosone, others), phenytoin (Dilantin), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), simvastatin (Zocor), and many others. If you are on other medication, especially carbamazepine (Tegretol), phenobarbital, phenytoin (Dilantin), rifampin, or rifabutin (Mycobutin), speak to your doctor or medical herbalist before using comfrey, as like other herbs, it may compete with the drug in your liver, the combination of which can cause side-effects.

Using comfrey in pregnancy

Warnings about use in pregnancy, breast-feeding and children found on medicinal/drug advice websites will always caution against use in these conditions without the advice of a doctor unless specific clinical trials have been done on children or pregnant women – which they rarely are! So this is a default warning. To be quite honest very few doctors would even know the answer as without specific genotox/clinical trials this information does not exist. To be on the safe side, pregnant or breastfeeding women should not eat or drink comfrey. Externally, the tiny amount used in a cosmetic cream would be negligible. If you are pregnant or planning to conceive, and wish to use herbal medicines, please err on the side of caution and seek the advice of a qualified medical herbalist.

Why I eat comfrey

There are many issues with the way that research is reported on the internet and many people scare themselves by reading badly referenced and poorly interpreted reports. I eat comfrey personally because I cannot find a single published case history of a healthy human actually experiencing (as opposed to theoretically being at risk from) liver damage from eating identified common comfrey. Nor do I intend to ever consume 20,000 leaves nor drink a cup a day for 18 years.

I also have a huge amount of cream-flowered tuberous comfrey growing here in Scotland (less than 0.02% PAs). So this is mainly the species I eat, in season.

I’m not saying that comfrey is totally safe or denying the presence of PAs. That would be to discredit science and just be ignorant! However, it is all a question of perspective. I believe that I will be doing less harm to my body by occasionally eating or using comfrey than I would from, for example,  drinking caffeinated drinks daily, eating processed foods full of chemicals, eating non-organic food sprayed with pesticides, breathing in fragrance chemicals from electric “air fresheners”, traffic fumes, pharmaceutical drug side-effects… the list goes on.

One point that I also find particularly relevant is that not only does the comfrey species matter but the animal species that are studied matters too. Rats are not like humans. Especially 2 week old baby rats. Rode, 2002 points out that as not all animals are susceptible to PA toxicity, comparing humans to rats is not comparing like for like. Using ragwort (Senecio) as an example, as it contains high levels of PAs, she says “The response of different animal species to PAs varies tremendously. Pigs, chickens and rats are highly sensitive to poisoning by Senecio, whereas mice and sheep are resistant. Moreover, the response of a species to Senecio might not reflect its susceptibility to other PAs. For example, guinea-pigs are susceptible to Senecio, but resistant to monocrotaline. Additionally, the route of administration can dramatically affect the toxic response. For example, rabbits are relatively resistant to chronic feeding of Senecio, but are killed by a single injection of the purified alkaloids. Despite their sensitivity to PAs, pigs readily accept comfrey and show no adverse effects, even when comfrey represents 40% of their diet. Chickens, another sensitive species, also show no ill effects when fed comfrey. By contrast, rats appear to be sensitive to the PAs in comfrey. Indeed, when rats consume high levels of comfrey or are injected with purified comfrey PAs, they develop liver tumours and hepatic lesions indicative of PA poisoning. However, rats might not be an appropriate human model because their hepatic response to PAs seems to differ from the human response.”

Significantly, a trial by Dr. Clare Anderson, from the Laboratory of Pharmakinetics and Toxicology, School of Medicine, University College, London, tested forty long-term comfrey consumers, who then submitted for liver function tests (Anderson, 1981). This was a small group for a clinical trial but with prolonged consumption of comfrey leaf (0.5–25 g day for 1–30 years). 

This is the only study that I can find that has actually tested humans! The abstract from the subsequent paper (Anderson & McLean, 1989) states that: There was no evidence of liver damage in a group of 29 people who had regularly consumed comfrey. Twenty-nine volunteers responded to mailed questionnaires regarding duration, amount, and form of comfrey used. At the same time, liver function tests (bilirubin, transaminase, and GGT) were performed on the volunteers. Most volunteers (21/29) had used comfrey for 1-10 years (mean intake 3.0 g dry leaf/day); 5/29 used it for 11-20 years (mean intake 2.6 g dry leaf/day); and 3/29 used it for 21-30 years (mean intake 11 g dry leaf/day). 

All were found to have perfectly fit livers!

Update: Later in 2019 there is a NIMH seminar on comfrey with an update on modern evidence. So we shall see what new thinking comes to light on the question “is comfrey toxic?”.

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Author

Monica Wilde, 2014Monica Wilde works at Napiers the Herbalists. She is a Research Herbalist with a Masters Degree from UCLAN and an advocate for quality, safety and research in herbal medicine. Her special interest is researching drug-herb interactions. At weekends, Monica runs foraging courses and events specialising in wild food and wild medicine.

Podcast

Robin Harford of Eatweeds.co.uk has recorded a Podcast interview with Monica speaking about comfrey. Click here to listen. It is the second interview on the Podcast.

References

Anderson, C. (1981) Comfrey in Perspective. The Lancet, 1(8235): 1424
Anderson, P.C. & McLean, A.E.M. (1989). Comfrey and liver damage. Hum Toxicol. 8: 68-69
Couet, C., Crews, C. & Hanley, A. (1996) Analysis, separation, and bioassay of pyrrolizidine alkaloids from comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Nat Toxins. 4(4):163-7. PubMed PMID: 8887946.
De Smet, P. (2004) Health risks of herbal remedies: an update. Clin. Pharmacol. Ther., 76: 1–17
Grube, J., Grünwald, L., Krug, C. & Staiger. (2007) Efficacy of a comfrey root (Symphyti offic. radix) extract ointment in the treatment of patients with painful osteoarthritis of the knee: Results of a double-blind, randomised, bicenter, placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine, 14: 2-10
Hodges, S., (1995) Comfrey root & bone healing.Bone, 16(3): 405
Pedersen (1975) Arch. Pharm. Chem. Sc. Ed. 3: 55-64
Rode, D. (2002). Comfrey toxicity revisited. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 23(11): 497-499
Roitman JN. (1981) Comfrey and liver damage. Lancet. 1(8226):944. PubMed PMID: 6112346.

Wild Carrot Identification


The carrot family of Apiaceae contain both edible and deadly species. You need to “know your carrots” before foraging for them. With poisonous hemlock on the left and edible cow parsley on the right, it is really, really important that you are confident in the differences before you chow down! 

Some leaf shapes to memorise!

Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace)
Daucus carota
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Leaves extremely deeply lobed, fringe-like. Sprout from lower portions of the plant around a central rosette, from which will grow several, central, hairy stems later holding the blossom. Flowers are white on umbels and characterised by a tiny purple flower that appears as a dark spot in the centre of the flower head (to help insects find their way).

First-year Queen Anne’s Lace leaves resemble Poison Hemlock. Remember that Wild Carrot stalks are hairy.

Cow Parsley
Anthriscus sylvestris
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Leaves are 3 pinnate. When crushed have a fresh green smell. Leaf stalks are smooth, hairless and although they can sometimes be purple-ish but never have spots or blotches.

Characterised by a U shaped grove that runs along the upper side of the leaf stem. (Hemlock leaf stalks are round in section.)

Hemlock
Conium maculatum
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It only takes 100g of coniine to kill – that’s just a handful of leaves! It paralyses the muscles so your lungs cannot operate and you suffocate to death. If you can be kept alive in intensive care on a ventilator, this will wear off after 3-4 days. Best not to experiment!

Leaves are 3-4 pinnate spaced wider that cow parsley. Purple blotches or streaks on lower stem. Stem is smooth and hairless. It has slightly fetid smell.

Hemlock Water Dropwort
Oenanthe crocata
Hemlock Water Dropwort
This contains the central nervous system poison, oenanthotoxin. The stems and roots are the worst, it just takes one root to kill a cow! If you only learn to ID just one poisonous plant, that grows in the same local as alexanders, wild lovage and other goodies, then let it be this one!

Here are the roots. Sensibly called ‘dead man’s fingers’! It’s all in the name.

Hemlock Water Dropwort roots

Water Hemlock
Cicuta virosa

Wikipedia image by Aomorikuma

Coltsfoot Honey

Coltfoot is a one of my favourite herbs for several reasons:
• It used to be the shop sign of the herbalist in medieval times, like striped poles were to barbers and golden balls were to pawnbrokers.

• It is one of the first flowers to appear in Spring bringing cheery yellow to a still wintry landscape.

• It is fantastic for sore throats (see my post In Praise of Coltfoot) containing many useful phytochemicals.

For medicinal purposes with a cough or a sore throat you can make a tea from the leaves, but you can also make coltsfoot flower honey – soothing, tasty and popular with children!

Very simply: Snip the flowers with stem attached with scissors on a sunny morning.

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Fill a clean (sterilised) jam jar to the top with flowers and stems.

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Cover with good quality runny honey.

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Seal and put in a warm place or sunny sill for up to six weeks.

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Strain out the flowers (easiest if you warm it to thin the honey first by placing the jar in warm water). Repot in a sterile jar and keep in a cool cupboard until needed.

Glycaemic Index of Sugars

 Glycaemic Index of Sugars

Sugar Name GI
Glucose 96
Sucrose (white sugar) 64
Brown sugar 64
High fructose corn syrup 62
Evaporated cane juice 55
Black strap molasses 55
Maple syrup 54
Lactose 46
Sugar cane juice 43
Barley malt syrup 42
Raw honey 30
Brown rice syrup 25
Fructose 22
Agave syrup 15
Mannose 6
Stevia under 1

Is Comfrey Cream Safe?

Comfrey in topical creams and ointments

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.) is used in a lot of cosmetics because it contains allantoin and is fantastic for preserving skin elasticity. It binds the connective tissue together, helping your skin to remain soft and supple. Comfrey extract also helps to renew & stabilise collagen, and maintain elastin, two critical proteins that support connective tissue and capillary walls. 

The worry about comfrey is over products taken internally because of safety concerns with internal use. You can read more about it in this article ‘Is Comfrey Edible?’. These concerns do not apply to topical use except possibly in strong concentrations and there is no restriction on external use. Comfrey leaf skin preparations have not been shown to damage the liver. They are widely used in cosmetics, herbal medicine and also in new pharmaceutical treatments for arthritis. The clinical safety is very high in these new products and comfrey ointments would certainly not be allowed by the FDA or MHRA if there were any safety concerns.

Many people also raise concerns after they have read MSDS sheets on the internet which warn against use on broken or irritated skin. They do not realise that information from MSDS sheets is about the ingredient in its concentrated form and is to provide health and safety advice for use by factory workers in the case of spills, etc.

The information on an MSDS sheet cannot be literally transferred to a finished product as, in a finished product, the ingredient is considerably diluted and also becomes part of a synergistic blend. Although Germany is reported as restricting topical comfrey, please read the following extract from the most recent 2012 research:

“Literature on comfrey often concentrates on PAs, recommending a restriction of the duration of treatment, also with externally applied comfrey preparations. However, in Germany, the restriction limiting application to 4–6 weeks/yr applies only to preparations containing more than 10 mg, but less than 100 mg pyrrolizidine alkaloids (daily allowance; Bundesgesundheitsamt, 1992). Fully licenced medicinal products available today contain depleted or PA-free extracts. The application results in far below the daily allowance of 10 mg. As a consequence there are no restrictions in Germany on these products as regards the duration of treatment (Bundesgesundheitsamt, 1992).”

The above was from a paper called Staiger, C. (2012) Comfrey: A Clinical Overview. Phytotherapy Research Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.comDOI: 10.1002/ptr.4612 [Merck Selbstmedikation GmbH, Rößlerstr. 96, 64293, Darmstadt, Germany] You will note that the author works for the drug company Merck who are doing clinical trials on a comfrey root ointment. Three pharmaceutical companies (see below) are developing new ointments and would not do so if they were in doubts as to its global marketability.

Grube B, Grünwald J,Krug L, Staiger C. (2007) Efficacy of a comfrey root (Symphyti offic. radix) extract ointment in the treatment of patients with painful osteoarthritis of the knee: results of a double-blind, randomised, bicentre, placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 14(1):2-10. [Merck Selbstmedikation GmbH, Rösslerstrasse 96, 64293 Darmstadt, Germany.] Giannetti BM,

Staiger C, Bulitta M, Predel HG. (2010) Efficacy and safety of comfrey root extract ointment in the treatment of acute upper or lower back pain: results of a double-blind, randomised, placebo controlled, multicentre trial. Br J Sports Med. 44(9):637-41. [CRM Pharmaberatung GmbH, Rheinbach, Germany.]

D’Anchise R, Bulitta M, Giannetti B. (2007) Comfrey extract ointment in comparison to diclofenac gel in the treatment of acute unilateral ankle sprains (distortions). Arzneimittelforschung. 57(11):712-6. [Istituto Ortopedico Galeazzi, Milano, Italy.]

As far as the USA FDA is concerned, on their website, comfrey does not appear as a restricted cosmetic ingredient. Further to that in 2008 the FDA looked at PA in comfrey products taken internally. On page 14 of their report they concluded: “The group also determined that the livers of female F344 rats gavaged with one of the three dietary supplements (i) comfrey root extract, (ii) comfrey compound oil, or (iii) coltsfoot root extract, or an extract of a Chinese herbal plant, Flos farfara (Kuan Tong Hua), contained DHP-derived DNA adducts, although at lower levels than that observed with riddelliine. DHP-derived DNA adducts were not detected from the commercial comfrey leaves (in tablet), comfrey leaves (in pepsin), comfrey consoude, or coltsfoot tussilage.” I.e. Comfrey leaf was not found to be problematic.

Other recent research (Rode, 2002) has found that some of the earlier concerns about comfrey may have been overstated.

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More about the safety of comfrey internally can be found here.

You can also listen to a Podcast interview by Robin Harford of Eatweeds.co.uk with Monica Wilde here. It is the second interview on the Podcast.

Yellow Bolete

Found a bolete I could not identify today, so any pointers welcome. Have consulted Collins, Rogers, Wright and O’Reilly to no avail!

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Found two on a moss bank under old beech, 13 October in West Lothian, Scotland. The bank run also includes Ceps (Boletus edulis) and some Scarletina Bolete (Boletus luridformis) a few trees away.

Bolete: Lemon yellow stem (tapered both ends), yellow stem flesh (no pink or red tinge), does not immediately stain however after half an hour a small central stain of blue started to appear but did not spread further, deep yellow pores, cap flesh yellow. Cap itself velvety brown with pink-red undercap. Doing a spore print overnight.

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White Brain Fungus

Exidia thuretiana – White Brain Fungus.

All the references I looked at suggest that White Brain grows on the wood of deciduous trees, particularly beech/ash. The attached jelly like fungus was growing in a mature pine forest, on pine needles on the forest floor, without a deciduous tree for miles! However, in all other respects it ticks the boxes for White Brain.

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Birch Polypore

Young Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) has been used medicinally for over 5000 years as antiparasitic, antimicrobial, to treat wounds, stomach diseases and in rectal cancer. Tests prove has anticancer effect with no side effects in normal cells (Pubmed) and it has been used to make a new antibiotic called Piptomine.

Pieces of birch polypore were discovered on a leather strings around the neck of the Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy, who died roughly 5300 years ago. He was probably keeping them for medicinal use, possibly as an early antibiotic.

To use them medicinally, dried them then powder them in a coffee grinder or mill. They can then be added to liquids such as stock for cooking or as a tea.

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Meadowsweet Ointment

Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid which is what aspirin is. It has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Here is a simple versatile ointment recipe for treating all “dem aches an’ pains”. I used the leaves as they have a higher medicinal content with a few flowers (which also contain salicylates) for their fragrance.

Handful of meadowsweet leaves
A few meadowsweet flowers
Vegetable oil
Beeswax

Put the leaves and flowers in a small saucepan and cover with vegetable oil. Gently heat, taking care not too boil or burn the leaves, for about half an hour. By the end the leaves will have started to get crisp. Remove from the heat and fish out the leaves/flowers with a spoon. Now add approximately one spoon of beeswax for every 6 spoons of oil. (You can also add a spoon of cocoa butter if you have it.) This will dissolve really quickly. Then strain the oil through a mesh or net (not plastic – it may melt) into a glass jug. Take great care as the oil is very hot!! Now pour the liquid into little tins and jars and leave then to cool in a safe place where no one will knock them. Once cool you can put the lids on and use it. This particular batch is going to a friend with haemorrhoids, a friend with a sprained wrist, and some for my first aid box.

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Wild flower summer cordials

Hopefully by now , mid May, elderflowers are starting to flower in a lane near you. And if not, they soon will be in June. Cordials are delightful and here is a video by John Wright showing you how easy it is to make Elderflower Cordial. If you live in Scotland or the north of England do come and join John and I on 29 June at one one-off ‘Scots Forage’ Edible Seashore Day Out! We’ll be sure to bring some wild flower cordials to taste!

Foraging and identifying elder flowers

Making a cordial

And if you’ve enjoyed making elderflower cordial, why not try meadowsweet cordial. Here’s Monica explaining how.

We hope to see you on 29 June at the seaside for a Great Day Out with feasting and foraging!

Calamus aka Sweet Flag ~ the Singer’s root and Forager’s spice

Calamus (Acorus calamus) is also known as Sweet Flag, Sweet Rush or Sweet Cinnnamon although the roots taste like ginger.

Acorus calamusCalamus (known as sweet flag) has a spicy fragrance to it with the leaves having lemony overtones. In medieavel times the dried stalks were laid on floors to act as a scented mat to walk on. It’s a forager’s treat, as you can eat the raw, partially grown flower stems of calamus. In Spring, the young stalks, with half-grown leaves packed inside them, are sweet and tasty raw in a salad. The roots are edible, with a sort of gingery, spicy, bitter, sweetness to them.

Candied sweet flag root has the aromatic spiciness of ginger, and like ginger, helps to settle the stomach. To make Calamus Candy slice the tender bases at the bottom of the stems into very thin slices. Parboil them, changing the water a few times if you want to reduce the fieriness of the taste. Then simmer them, just covered in syrup (2 parts of sugar to 1 part of water) until most of the syrup is absorbed. Drain them and dry them on waxed paper. When dry roll them in sugar and store them in a sealed jar.

Calamus is used by foragers as a spice, to replace cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg, but a little goes a long way. Chewing on a little piece is a great breath freshener.

The powdered root can be used as a natural insecticide. Put a little on window sills to keep ants out.

Food as medicine

Calamus earned its nickname ‘Singer’s Root’ for its ability to numb the vocal chords so that tired voices can carry on (although you should be carefully not to strain and damage your voice). If your voice is strained, or you get laryngitis, try gently chewing just 1 cm of root and leaving it between your cheek and gum throughout the day. It helps to increase the range of the voice and centre your energy. The latter because of it’s unusual properties of being both a relaxant and a stimulant.

Acorus calamusCalamus is calming but not a sedative. It makes you feel chilled out and relaxed rather than drugged up. At the same time, it simultaneously boosts vitality and vigour – leaving you feeling very centred, clear, perceptive, focussed and alert. It is grounding while also increasing a sense of greater awareness. Native American Indians use it for stamina on long journeys in the same way that the South American Indians use coca leaves. So helpful for running marathons, studying for exams or driving through the night. This dual action also makes a nibble of root helpful if you are trying to give up smoking!

Traditional western herbal medicine uses Sweet Flag as a digestive bitter – yet another common name is bitterroot. It perks up the appetite. It is used for treating stomach cramps, heartburn, dyspepsia and flatulent colic, as it stimulates peristalsis in the gut and removes gas in people who have developed a very sluggish metabolism but can be overstimulating to many people. Taking too much is liable to make you vomit as it can overstimulate the stomach.

You can chew the root fresh or dried. You can also make an infusion by leaving the root in a jar of cold water overnight or adding hot water to half a teaspoon of powdered calamus. It is also used to settle nausea, especially in travel or motion sickness. However, as large doses can cause vomiting, always try just a little bit at a time.

Modern herbalists have used it to treat PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), people who experience flashbacks. Some have also used it as an adjunct in the treatment of anorexia, autism and epilepsy.

In Ayuvedic medicine it was used to keep the voice going when reciting the Upanishads. It is called vacha meaning literally ‘to speak” but also referring to the way it connects the heart to the voice, helping anxious people feel able to speak up about things on their mind.

More recently clinical studies suggest that it can cure and reverse diabetes – something the American Indians tribes have known for a very long time!

Amount you can eat

The dose varies from person to person. Some Native Americans’s would set the limit as – a root as long as your little finger. Bearing that it can be overstimulating start with just a nibble. A tiny bit may suit you just fine.

There are unsubstantiated reports that large pieces (my little finger is about 3 cm) are hallucinogenic. However, there is no real evidence of it being psychedelic any more than it is psychotropic. TMA (trimethoxyamphetamine) which is similar to Ecstasy can be synthesised from calamus although, in its natural state, it cannot convert into TMA in your body. But it is pleasantly psychoactive and it is probably the heightened sense of awareness felt, while feeling very calm and relaxed at the same time, that is being reported.

In herbal medicine, the maximum dose that is generally recommended is 4g of the dried root (about 3/4 of a teaspoon), 30ml of a decoction and 4ml of 1:5 tincture up to three times a day.

An essential oil is also distilled from the root and used in medicine and perfumery.

Sweet safety

Please note that British calamus is not the same as American calamus (Acorus calamus var. americanus) which is banned by the FDA in the US. The American variant is a fertile diploid strain, the British one a sterile triploid. This can be confusing for people when trying to check sweet flag’s safety on the internet. There has been contention over whether or not β-asarone in calamus could cause cancer. This is because baby rats in a lab test were given extremely high doses of β-asarone extracted from the concentrated essential oil of Asian calamus (the tetraploid strain). More recent studies show that β-asarone actually inhibits colorectal cancer and colon cancer. Its cultural history has always associated it with life and vitality not death!

Importantly, calamus has been shown to be neuroprotective against cancer-causing acrylamides. These are found in foods that are processed at high temperatures. The worst culprits are chips, crisps, bread, biscuits, coffee (in some studies over 54% of acrylamide intake) and cigarettes (which triple blood acrylamide levels). Although we hear little about this in the news, in 2005 Heinz, Frito-Lay, Lance and were sued for endangering public lives by providing foods with high acrylamide content and they settled for $3 million out of court. McDonalds and Burger King settled in 2008, and in 2010 an action was filed against Starbucks requiring them also to warn the public about the dangers of acrylamides.

Calamus is not, as stated on some websites, a member of the Araceae family (like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Lords and Ladies). It is a member of the Acoraceae family.

Wild iris Iris versicolor (poisonous – with blue petalled flower), sweet flag (edible – with tiny yellow flowers on a spike (spadix)) and the acrid yellow water iris Iris pseudacorus (False acorus) quite often grow side by side. Once the flowers are out it is easier to identify them but make sure you separate them as otherwise you may poison yourself.

sweet-blue-flag-id

And finally – don’t be greedy. A little goes a long, long way and in this case, if your eyes are bigger than your stomach, it may be your stomach that lets you know!

 

Turkey Tail mushrooms – Trametes versicolor

Turkey tail mushrooms are found growing on logs, especially fallen beech, throughout the world and certainly here in Scotland. Their rather obvious name is due to them looking literally like the colourful tails of a male turkey. They can be dried and then the powder boiled in water to make a medicinal tea. Wonderful for supporting the immune system.

Of interest is the US FDA investment of $5.2 million in clinical trials using the polysaccharide PSK extracted from turkey tail fungi to treat cancer patients alongside their conventional treatment. The trial runs until 2014 and it will be interesting to see if scientific evidence will back up its use in traditional herbal medicine.

Turkey Tails - Trametes versicolor

 

Valerian – Valeriana officinalis

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Valerian is so good for anxiety that Valerian B.P. (made to British Pharmacopeia standards) was handed out to civilians in air raid shelters during the First World War. At high strength it is extremely good at calming the nerves fast, so useful for heading off panic attacks and in cases of extreme nerves – like stage fright, fear of flying and exam stress. The root is the part used and it has a very distinctive, earthy smell. This smell drives cats crazy for some reason and encourages them all to congregate for feline valerian orgies!

Valerian is also used as a sleep remedy although it doesn’t cause drowsiness. This makes it useful as a day time mental sedative where keeping alert is essential. As a sleep remedy, it is particularly indicated where the insomniac is kept awake by worrying – the hamster on a wheel mind going round and round at three in the morning! Or can’t drop off to sleep because the mind is churning over the day’s events. Symptoms that go with this are often restlessness or twitchiness. So people who have nervous tics, habits, restless legs or who are inclined to pacing are well-suited to valerian.

At Napiers we combine it with other herbs for sleep – Hops for drowsiness, Skullcap as an antispasmodic and painkiller. It is a majestic garden plant as you can see from this photo taken in my garden in July.

Meadowsweet – Filipendula ulmaria

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Meadowsweet is now coming into bloom along the stream here at Wychmoss. It’s original Latin name was Spiraea ulmaria which is where the name A-Spirin (aspirin) comes from as chemists first isolated salicylic acid from meadowsweet (it is also found in willow bark and, to a lesser degree, birch bark). You can certainly smell it in the leaves which are reminiscent of Savlon or Germolene! It is certainly nature’s aspirin, having the same analgesic and anti inflammatory properties although, unlike aspirin, it doesn’t affect your stomach.

It was used by early people’s and often found in graves. Click here for Fort Teviot story.

Meadowsweet flowers were used to flavour mead and are still used in Meadowsweet Cordial, teas and sorbets.

Feverfew – Chrysanthemum parthenium

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Feverfew is excellent as a preventative for recurrent headaches. Research has shown that this is probably due to it having a beneficial effect on the platelet clumping implicated in migraines. It is best taken as a fresh tincture, capsule or mixed with food (I find adding a few leaves to a marmite sandwich also masks the strong flavour) as just chewing the leaves can cause mouth irritation.

The name ‘feverfew’ is less likely to have evolved for an action in lowering feverish temperatures, but more because it eases the aches that often accompany a cold, chill or flu.

Other plants that help with headaches and migraine include scullcap, ginger and cayenne pepper.

Pink Purslane

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Pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica) is an edible plant in the Portulacaceae family related to Spring Beauty (Claytonia perfoliata) and Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which is high in Omega 3 oils – normally found in fish oils and algae. It has a host of vitamins and minerals and the leaves are excellent in salads.

Leopard’s Bane

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Leopard’s Bane (Doronicum pardalianches) is related to Arnica (Wolf’s Bane) and also poisonous as neither should be taken internally. Great drifts of this are now in flower along the river bank at Colinton Dell, enjoying the sunny May weather!

Now at home, and checking its identity, I realise I need to go back and have a closer look as it could well be its close relative Plantain False Leopard’s Bane aka Plantain Leaved False Leopard’s Bane (Doronicum plantagineum) with slightly smoothed edged leaves.

Both were naturalised in Britain by 1570 and either way, I’m certainly not eating it!

Sanicle

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We found Sanicle (Sanicula europea) in the woods of Colinton Dell this evening. A member of the carrot family, the leaves are edible. In the Middle Ages it was a popular medicinal herb and it’s name comes from the Latin ‘to heal’ or ‘healthy’ I.e. sanitarium, sane, sanitary. It was used externally as a wound herb and for varicose and other ulcers, rashes, chilblains and bruises. As a mouthwash for sore gums or gargle for sore throats. Internally it was used to treat gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, and also respiratory or urinary infections. Medicinally both the leaves (during flowering) and the roots (in Autumn) were used.

Rose riddle

On a summer’s day, in sultry weather,
Five brothers were born together.
Two had beards and two had none,
And the other had but half of one.

Who am I?

Riddle attributed to Albertus Magnus, 1193-1280. The clue is in the title but I bet you still don’t get it!

Get pickled! A Ploughman’s Lunch is good for you.

Are you a lover of all things pickled? Pickled onions, peppers, gherkins, capers (or of course, nasturtium seeds)? Well you can easily justify your indulgence. You probably already know that apple cider vinegar has unique health benefits but it seems that even plain ol’ vinegar is also good for you.

A clinical study conducted on vinegar (acetic acid), found that adding vinegar to your meals reduces the increase in blood glucose and insulin after meals. It also increases the feeling of being full. The results, according to Ostman et al (2005), show there is an interesting potential for fermented and pickled products containing acetic acid to lower the glycaemic index (GI) of meals, helping to control glucose and insulin response and satiety. In other words, vinegar with meals helps to protect you against both diabetes and obesity.

Bring on the Ploughman’s Lunch next time you’re at the pub and be sure to eat your pickled onions. Be liberal with the vinaigrette on your salad. (And don’t scorn that gherkin in your Big Mac, children!)

Click for a recipe for pickled nasturtium seeds – home made capers for free!

Pickled Nasturtium Seeds

References
=======================================================================Ostman E, Granfeldt Y, Persson L and Björck I. (2005) Vinegar supplementation lowers glucose and insulin responses and increases satiety after a bread meal in healthy subjects. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59(9):983-8. PMID: 16015276

Horsetail – an ancient plant with healing properties

This weekend I noticed horsetail Equisetum arvensis poking up, making its first appearance of the year. It’s a natural source of silica and very good for strengthening hair, bone and brittle nails, and also high in antioxidants, helping to prevent abnormal cell growth (Cetojević-Simin et al, 2010). Silica helps to bind protein molecules together in the blood vessels and connective tissues, and is the material of which collagen is made. Collagen being the connective “glue” that holds our skin and muscle tissues together. Horsetail is a biosilicifier (Law and Exley, 2011) and also contains potassium, manganese, and magnesium, and many trace minerals.

You can make it into a tea by pouring boiling water over the fresh or dried herb to infuse. However, if you want the full benefit of the silica (around 5%) you should juice it as less than half a percent is water soluble. The juice has a pleasant taste but only juice it when freshly picked. This is for a simple mechanical reason – if you let it start to dry out, it will burn out even the most powerful juicer. Believe me, I’ve done it when I left a bag of horsetail overnight instead of juicing it as soon as I’d picked it!!

Medicinally, it helps with osteoporosis. As it contains silicon, a mineral needed for bone health, it has been used to treat osteoporosis. A clinical trial of 122 Italian women showed that taking horsetail improves bone density and is worthy of further study in this area. It is also a diuretic and often used in combination with other herbs to treat kidney stones. Clinical trials have also shown it to have an antidiabetic effect (Safiyeh et al, 2007) without any side effects of liver problems (Baracho et al, 2009). Modern uses also include it as an ingredient in treatments for prostate problems as its diuretic properties are useful in reducing nocturia – the need to get up and pee in the night!

A 1:10 dilution of horsetail essential oil has also been found to be highly effective against bacteria including; Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Salmonella enteritidis; fungi: Aspergillus niger and Candida albicans (Radulović, Stojanović & Palić, 2006). Again it just shows that plants do not like bacteria any more than we do!

The Ancient Greeks and Romans also used it to staunch bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems.

The botanical name Equisetum come from ‘equus’ – horse and ‘seta’ – brittle. The strength of the silica in it makes the plant an excellent substitute for a Brillo pad, to scrub up your pots and pans when living wild. Its stem is jointed and easy to pop apart. Children can be kept entertained for hours with its natural “Lego-type” ability to be taken apart and then put back together – in a different order!

It is one of the most primitive of plant forms belonging to a species over 100 million years old, and it reproduces by spores not seeds. It is a “living fossil” like the Gingko biloba and the Monkey Puzzles Araucaria araucana trees here. It is also related to the fern.

Historically, during the Gold Rush in the USA, miners would look for horsetail growing in sandy soil on river banks they were prospecting. Horsetail will greedily absorb molecular gold in solution, possibly more than any other plant, but still less than 1 part per million – not a sufficient quantity to warrant extraction! More recently in Canada, engineers using geobotany, will burn horsetail and analyse the mineral content of the ashes.

Horsetail is particularly fond of damp areas around streams, bogs, ditches and the margins of ponds. Here at Wychmoss, it grows quite happily alongside blue flag and skunk cabbage in the damp area where the mill streams dives underground.

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Doses
Herbal tea: 2 – 3 teaspoonfuls in hot water, 3 times a day. Pour hot water onto the horsetail and let it infuse for 5 – 10 minutes.
Tincture (1:3 or 1:5): From 1 – 5ml, 3 times a day
Standardized dose: 300 mg, 3 times a day, standardized to contain 10 – 15% silica
External (e.g. compresses): 10 g of herb per 1 litre water daily. It can also be used as a facial wash.

Cautions
Very large doses of horsetail Equisetum arvense taken over a period of time could lead to vitamin B1 (thiamin) deficiency as it also contains an enzyme called thiaminase, which depletes thiamin (Fabre, Geay & Beaufils, 1993). It should not be taken during pregnancy as it contains selenium or during treatment for conditions where maintenance of vitamin B1 is essential. Horsetail also contains small amounts of nicotine and should not be used with nicotine patches if you are trying to give up smoking.

References
Baracho NC, Vicente BB, Arruda GD, Sanches BC, Brito J. (2009) Study of acute hepatotoxicity of Equisetum arvense L. in rats. Acta Cir Bras. 24(6):449-53. PMID: 20011829

Cetojević-Simin DD, Canadanović-Brunet JM, Bogdanović GM, Djilas SM, Cetković GS, Tumbas VT, Stojiljković BT. (2010) Antioxidative and antiproliferative activities of different horsetail (Equisetum arvense L.) extracts. J Med Food.13(2):452-9. PMID: 20170379

Chaadaeva AV, Tenkeeva II, Moiseeva EV, Svirshchevskaia EV and Demushkin VP. (2009)Antitumor activity of the plant remedy peptide extract PE-PM in a new mouse T-lymphoma/eukemia model. Biomed Khim. 55(1):81-8.PMID: 19351037

Fabre B, Geay B and Beaufils P. (1993) Thiaminase activity in Equisetum arvense and its extracts. Planta Med Phytother. 26:190–197.

Graefe EU and Veit M. (1999) Urinary metabolites of flavonoids and hydroxycinnamic acids in humans after application of a crude extract from Equisetum arvense. Phytomedicine. 6(4):239-46. PMID: 10589442

Law C and Exley C. (2011) New insight into silica deposition in horsetail (Equisetum arvense). BMC Plant Biol.11: 112. PMID: 21801378

Oh H, Kim DH, Cho JH and Kim YC. (2004) Hepatoprotective and free radical scavenging activities of phenolic petrosins and flavonoids isolated from Equisetum arvense. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 95(2-3):421-4. PMID: 15507369

Radulović N, Stojanović G, Palić R. (2006) Composition and antimicrobial activity of Equisetum arvense L. essential oil. Phytotherapy Research. 20(1):85-8. PMID: 16397851

Safiyeh S, Fathallah FB, Vahid N, Hossine N and Habib SS. (2007) Antidiabetic effect of Equisetum arvense L. (Equisetaceae) in streptozotocin-induced diabetes in male rats. Pak J Biol Sci. 10(10):1661-6. PMID: 19086514

Soleimani S, Azarbaizani FF, Nejati V. (2007) The effect of Equisetum arvense L. (Equisetaceae) in histological changes of pancreatic beta-cells in streptozotocin-induced diabetic in rats. Pak J Biol Sci. 10(23):4236-40. PMID: 19086577

Stajner D, Popović BM, Canadanović-Brunet J and Boza P. (2006) Free radical scavenging activity of three Equisetum species from Fruska gora mountain. Fitoterapia. 77(7-8):601-4. PMID: 16934417

Copies of clinical trials can be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ by searching on the PMID number after each reference.