Do you often find yourself hearing how plants are good for you in terms that are not common vocabulary? Specific terms can be cumbersome, but they can also help better understand the plants’ capacities to heal us. Here is the archive from our newsletter Herb Nerd section, so you can geek out on the medicinal action of plants with us!
Bitter (adj.) from the Old English biter “having a harsh taste, sharp, cutting”.
Bitters (n.) from bitter “bitter-tasting medicines,” 1713. “A liquor in which bitter herbs or roots are steeped, used medicinally.”
– ONLINE ETHYMOLOGy DICTIONARY
Nowadays, people refer to bitters as extracts to be added to cocktails for a deeper taste. There is a reason behind this association of medicine and pleasure. Bitters used to be referred to as the medicinal tinctures they are, traditionally flavoured with bitter plants. They have their origins in the ancient practice of brewing low alcohol beverages used as potent solvents to extract the medicinal properties of the plants. However, except for the occasional fun cocktail, the term “bitters” is often associated with less sexy terms like laxative, digestive or liver stimulant. They are not part of our daily foods and medicine as much as they used to be.
Common bitters include Dandelion, Chicory, Oregon grape, Burdock and Yarrow. According to Michael Moore in his Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest, they “slightly speed up the orderly emptying of the stomach.” Indeed, bitter compounds in plants act on digestion by triggering a chain of salivary and gastric secretions, which include “hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen, hormones to stimulate the pancreas and gallbladder, and the protein carriers for vitamin B12 transport.”
If you find yourself addicted to sweets or having a hard time digesting fats or proteins, a little bitter action might help. Bitter tonic plants basically send the signal to your digestive organs that it’s time to break down these heavy foods.
Emollient (adj.) from the French émollient “softening, making soft or supple”, from Latin emollientem
Emollient (n.) “a therapeutic agent or process which softens and relaxes living tissues,” 1650s.
– ONLINE ETHYMOLOGy DICTIONARY
When we think of the word emollient, we immediately think of body oils and lotions, due to their well-marketed capacity to “hydrate” and protect the skin from the elements. An oil or butter does not technically “hydrate” the skin, but it provides a coating that seals in the moisture already present on the skin, and will protect it from drying out. Just like sebum, the oil our body naturally produces. Lotions and creams contain water, so they add moisture in with the oil when applied.While the plant oils are sought after for their emollient qualities, we don’t think enough of the herbs as being emollient themselves. Yet, Aloe Vera and Oats extracts are often added in products to soothe
and protect the skin, and reduce inflammation.
Calendula, Chickweed, Plantain, Marshmallow, Mullein, Coltsfoot, Pansy, Rose, Flax and Licorice are other examples of plants with emollient qualities.
When you touch the aerial parts of these plants, and when you crush them between your fingers, there is a plump, oily, juicy, jelly-like texture to them. If you have noticed that texture already, you’ve felt the precious compounds (mucilages, glycerols, starches, pectins) that make these plants so soothing for the delicate sensitive skins. But their action does not stop there.
The particular mucilage they contain makes a thin film that also protects all mucous membranes of the body, acting as an anti-inflammatory. That is why emollient plants are also used internally to soothe the irritated stomach lining, intestinal tract, throat or bronchial tubes, helping to thin and loosen secretions. When used internally, emollioent plants are called demulcents.
Rubefacient (adj.) “making red, causing redness,” 1804, from Latin rubefacere “to make red”.
Rubefacient (n.) “substance producing redness in the skin,” 1805.
– ONLINE ETHYMOLOGY DICTIONARY
Rubefacient plants are used topically to increase blood flow to an area by dilating the small capillaries. That creates redness of the skin, hence the term rubefacient. Increased blood circulation warms up the tissues and provides a sensation of heat and relief. Rubefacients are also called counter-irritants. They stimulate the immune response by creating local inflammation. This irritation causes tingling and warmth, temporarily masking some deeper pain in the tissues. But that is only a side benefit, as the increased blood flow also promotes deeper healing.
Rubefacients can be warming or cooling. Warming rubefacients include cayenne, mustard, prickly ash, garlic, ginger, pine, juniper, horseradish, rosemary, fir. Cooling rubefacients include mint, camphor tree, wintergreen, nettle.
Rubefacient plants with cooling energetics will still increase blood flow and create a sensation of heat locally. The best example is menthol, a plant compound found in Mint. You might remember the effect common menthol balms have when applied on a congested chest: sensations of both cold and heat at the same time. This is another paradoxical ability that plants have!
Warming rubefacients can be used for cold extremities due to poor circulation or for stiff muscles after long cold exposure. If the pain is aggravated by heat, then a cooling rubefacient is a better choice.
Vulnerary (adj.) “used for or useful in healing wounds”, from Latin vulnus “wounds” and vulnerarius “a plaster, or dressing, for healing wounds (Pliny the Elder, Natural History).
Vulnerary (n.) a vulnerary remedy.
– MERRIAM WEBSTER DICTIONARY
When plants are identified as vulneraries, they often have the capacity to reduce inflammation, stimulate cell growth and overall speed up the wound healing process. A vulnerary plant often has anti-microbial and astringent qualities, helping to prevent infection and dry up discharge. They can also be soothing. Indeed, many vulnerary plants are also emollients.
The overlapping of medicinal qualities may feel overwhelming, but try thinking about it this way: not everyone comes to the rescue with the same set of skills and the same personality. Learning to work with a plant, you start to understand their personality and the particular ways they help in certain conditions. For example, a wet wound that is not healing properly may benefit from a wound wash with astringent Sage, Spruce or Yarrow. If the wound is dry and needs support to heal well, maybe a salve with emollient Chickweed, Plantain, or Calendula is a better fit.
Other vulneraries include Chamomile, Goldenrod, Poplar, Comfrey.
Infusing vulnerary herbs in honey works great for wound healing as well! A powerful anti-microbial on its own, raw honey is great at drawing out infection and when infused with a favorite vulnerary herb it becomes the perfect wound dressing.
“The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth.
Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this: Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Take only what you need and leave some for others. Use everything that you take. Take only that which is given to you. Share it, as the Earth has shared with you. Be grateful. Reciprocate the gift. Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer