Natural Remedies: Use Homegrown Herbs and Plants for Healing

The Natural Remedies column shows you how to use homegrown herbs and plants for healing from the garden, including dandelions, spinach, ginkgo, vitamin C from roses, carob pod, eucalyptus tea, aloe and garlic and onions.
By Christopher Nyerges
April/May 1997
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Christopher cuts prickly pear fruit using brown paper to protect his hand.

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The Natural Remedies column shares information on how to use healthful plants that are often as close as your door. Use these homegrown herbs and plants for healing from the garden. 

The true prophet is never accepted by his own people. By some strange quirk of human nature, we tend to think that only something from a faraway country can be of the greatest value. This blindness also affects us when it comes to herbs and nutrition. We think that the best substances for our health are only those herbs and roots imported from faraway China or India or South American rain forests, sold at tremendous costs in small bottles at the herb shop.

When you scan the shelves of herb shops, it's easy to come to the conclusion that health can be purchased in a bottle. In fact, many businesses push that very idea: "Buy our [expensive] product and you'll be happier, live longer, be free of disease, and have a great sex life, besides:"

In this country, we are surrounded by an unbelievable bounty of nature. Just about everything that you'd want for health and nutrition can be found in your backyard or in the wild, or you can easily grow homegrown herbs and plants for healing. No money need change hands. Shockingly, many of the most nutritious plants on the planet are despised as common weeds, and at any nursery in town, you can buy poisons to kill off these valuable weeds. Such sad ignorance.

Poor Man's Cure-All: Dandelions

Dandelions are probably better for you than anything in your garden, wild or cultivated. An analysis of 100 grams (about a cup) of dandelion greens by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 14,000 IU of vitamin A, 35 mg of vitamin C, 397 mg of potassium, 66 mg of phosphorus, 187 mg of calcium, and 36 mg of magnesium. Dandelion greens are also the richest source of beta-carotene, with 8.4 mg per cup. By contrast, carrots—considered an excellent source of beta carotene—contain 6.6 mg per cup. Only young dandelion greens are good in salads, and the older bitter leaves can be cooked like spinach or added to mixed vegetable dishes. And the young dandelion roots can also be cooked.

Nature's "Mineral Tablet": Lambs-Quarter

The health food store shelves are full of pills, including mineral tablets. But nature provides an excellent alternative-one that you take advantage of by eating. This is lamb's-quarter, a spinach relative found worldwide in the wild. It probably grows in your garden even if you don't plant it. Used raw in salad or in juice mixes, 100 grams of lamb's-quarter (about a cup) contains about 80 mg of vitamin C, 11,600 IU of vitamin A, 72 mg of phosphorus, 309 mg of calcium, and small amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron. These figures are slightly lower when you cook the lamb's-quarter for a spinach replacement, or in soups, egg dishes, or vegetable dishes. You could nearly survive on lamb's-quarter alone!

Clear Thinking with Ginkgo

Ginkgo leaves and nuts have been used in the Orient for centuries, and are one of the new popular herbal medications in the U.S. Some researchers suggest that ginkgo may help Alzheimer's patients, and that it should help anyone increase mental alertness. And there are several processed bottles of ginkgo pills on the shelf with the expensive price tag.

Guess what? Ginkgo is widely planted as a street and park tree! It is very common, and you can simply take the leaves and brew your own tea. Never mind that the pill manufacturers report that you shouldn't do this—you can! Make an infusion of the leaves, or if you prefer, simply powder the dried leaves and fill gelatin capsules if you prefer to take your herbs in pill form.

And don't overlook the nuts which fall in September and October. The fleshy outer layer of these nuts have a foul odor, but it is easily cleaned off. The nuts can be dried or roasted, then eaten. Many of the same qualities of the leaves have been attributed to these nuts.

Get Your Daily Vitamin C From Rose Hips

Roses are great to grow in any garden because they provide beauty and fragrance. Also, if you let the fruits mature (referred to as the "hips"), you'll have a rich source of vitamin C. The only known source of vitamin C that is richer is the acerola. Rose hips contain about 7,000 mg of vitamin C per pound, a remarkable amount. By contrast, a pound of oranges (depending on the type of orange) contains anywhere between 100 to 250 mg of vitamin C.

To use rose hips, first snip off the orange-red mature fruit. Once you cut it in half and remove the fibrous seeds, you could just eat it raw. However, most people find it more enjoyable to simmer into tea, or to make it into jams, jellies, or blended nutritional drinks.

Is Milk the Best Calcium Source?

One hundred grams of the edible portion of the carob pod (about a cup of the entire pod, minus the seeds) contains 352 mg of calcium. That makes carob one of the very richest non-meat calcium sources. Even when that same volume is compared to milk-generally considered a good calcium source-carob is nearly three times richer in calcium. Carob is also a good source of B vitamins. Though not a complete protein, it is said that this is the food that sustained John the Baptist in the desert for 40 days (hence the name, Saint John's bread).

You can simply eat the pods and spit out the seeds. Also, you can crack the pods, remove the seeds, and grind the pods into a flour, which you can add to bread and pasty products, or blend into liquids like rice or soy milk.

Throughout southern California and the Southwest, there are tens of thousands of carob trees, mostly along streets and in parks. The brown leathery pods ripen from September through February.

Eucalyptus Helps Cough and Sore Throat

Oil of eucalyptus is an active ingredient in many cough medicines, and eucalyptus trees are extremely common. You can simply pick a few eucalyptus leaves, make a hot tea by infusion, and drink it. The flavors of the various types of eucalypti differ, so you might smell around until you find one you like. This tea relieves symptoms of most breathing and respiratory ailments.

Use Aloe Vera for Cuts and Bruises

When you get a few minor cuts and scratches while doing work, do you reach for that tube of creamy stuff and rub it over your wounds? There's something better. You could just pinch off a bit of an aloe vera plant, break open the leaf, and spread that gel directly onto the cuts. Aloe has been used for centuries for such medicinal applications. Aloe is easy to grow in pots or in the garden, and is widely available at nurseries. Even the best bottled aloe preparations are not as good as the fresh plant.

Cheating Cholesterol Using Garlic and Onions

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, 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 your garlic and onions-ideally, raw when possible-in order to receive the beneficial qualities.

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 purslane's benefits, you simply eat it in salads, or cook it in soups, stews, vegetable dishes, etc.

Use Willow Bark for Headaches

Have a headache? Before you automatically reach for that aspirin, first ask yourself: What is the source my headache? Perhaps your pain is trying to tell you something: You're under a lot of stress, or have had too much caffeine or not enough sleep. Then, 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, 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. Willow is extremely common worldwide along waterways.

Eat Prickly Pear Cactus for Diabetes

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, I have met dozens of people who claim to have had relief from adult-onset diabetes by consuming the cactus, and I've 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 that strengthens the pancreas so it is more able to produce insulin. Plus, they say the fiber content of the cactus is beneficial. Consuming the cactus fruits has also been shown to be helpful for prostate problems.

Prickly pear cactus is not restricted to the Southwest. It is common throughout the Plains, and at least one variety is common along the Atlantic coast.

These are just a few examples of how we can obtain many of our needed healthful vitamins, necessary nutrients, and even medications from plants growing all around us.

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 in place of bottled vitamin pills and simple medicines will ultimately be more health-promoting.

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