Thursday, 26 February 2009

India Protects Herbs from Patents

My father brought my attention to this article in the Guardian the other day:

India moves to protect traditional medicines from foreign patents

Apparently, following repeated efforts by multinational pharmaceutical companies to patent both medicinal plants and traditional medical treatments (around 5000 issued so far), India has decided to take a stand and has now placed around 200,000 treatments in the public domain so that they are free to use, but cannot be sold as a brand.

A database containing these treatments, which took 8 years to compile, will now be used as a reference by the European Patent Office so that India will no longer have to fork out millions of dollars to lift patents on plants and treatments which already had long traditions of use in India.

It seems lifting the patents on Turmeric (Curcuma longa) & Neem (Azadirachta indica) alone cost India $5billion whilst patenting such plants has the potential to dramatically reduce the 15 years and $15billion it usually takes a pharmaceutical company to produce a new drug.

In spite of highlighting the continued greed of Big Pharma this is wonderful news. Not just because such positive steps are finally being taken to protect traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha, but also because it can leave even the staunchest sceptic in absolutely no doubt that these plants must have something to offer considering the kind of money involved.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Anatomy matters...

It must look like I'm failing to do justice to the blogosphere already, several days gone and no new post!

In fact, I've been heading (possibly stupidly) in the opposite direction by starting another new blog with this one only just on to its second page.

I have my reasons however. One of my hopes, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, was that this blog might actually help me remember all the things I learn and discover by forcing me to write them down in a coherent fashion. So far it seems to be working, but there's a huge hole in the anatomy and physiology department - an obviously necessary subject in any attempt at understanding herbal medicine.

Bunging conventional concepts of anatomy and physiology in here just doesn't seem to work for me. It jars somehow and I wouldn't be able to keep an even pace.

Consequently I've decided to start a sister blog which contains those aspects of my studies:

There's not much in it yet (I'm quickly trying to cover all the absolute basics before moving on to stuff that's actually new to me) and I'm sure there will be overlaps with this blog, but I think that's a good thing. I'm hoping for a really dynamic relationship between the two blogs, balanced with a separation that makes the two subject areas more manageable.

Finally, I'm hoping the already installed tag cloud will make the blog a handy little revision database for myself and all those hard working souls who have been ploughing their way through the Discovering Herbal Medicine course. You'll have to let me know what you think...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Ethnomedica: Pine Trees and Bark Baths

Further to the recently pine-scented theme, here are a couple of other Ethnomedica "Remembered Remedies" that I've dug out:
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Used to ease muscles. It worked and is still used by Anon. It is prepared in the following way:
"bark-small pieces put in the bath"
Anon has used this remedy since 2000 and learned of it from their Mother in Yorkshire, England when they were 15 years old. Anon has told friends about this remedy and has also passed the knowledge to the Ethnomedica project so that it can be safeguarded for future generations. (ref:48P)
I've heard of bark-baths before and must remember to try one some time to see if it's as soothing as it sounds. This second one, however, is new to me and I wish all medicine was like this:
Pine tree (Pinus sp.)
Used to treat whooping cough. Anon isn't sure if it worked and hasn't used it since they were a small child when they remember being taken out to:
"inhale air in the pine woods"
Anon used this remedy in 1955 and learned of it from their Mother in Kent, England. Anon has passed this knowledge to the Ethnomedica project so that it can be safeguarded for future generations. (ref:36P)

Imagine your doctor telling you to spend time in a beautiful forest to get better. What a treat that would be! Could inhaling pine-forest air have any genuine therapeutic benefit? Well I can only imagine it doing good. Think how relaxing it is to breathe in that green aroma, and take in those calming colours. Just the vaguest scent of spring is enough to give me a real boost, let alone a whole forests worth of life and vitality.

It could be argued that such effects are purely psychological, but there's no denying the potency of essential oils when added to a steam bath, so to stand surrounded by air so thoroughly imbued with their scent must have a pretty substantial effect when combined with that of such a therapeutic environment.

photos: Menchi (cone) & Szeder László (forest)

Please note that reference to a plant by the Ethnomedica project is no guarantee of its safety or efficacy. Please consult a suitably qualified practitioner before taking herbal medicines.


If you know any traditional plant remedies passed on to you by family or friends I would love to hear from you. Please use the link below to access the contributions page. All memories are of interest. Whether it be dock leaves for nettles stings or honey and lemon for a sore throat, please pass on your knowledge now.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ethnomedica: Honeysuckle

I've grabbed an Ethnomedica entry at random and here's what Anon had to say on the 28th October 2008:
Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
Used to treat Eczema. It worked and is still used by Anon. It is prepared in the following way:
"leaves boiled in water, strained, & liquid used to bathe rash."
Anon has used this remedy since the 1950's and learned of it from a Gypsy in Brynamman, Carmarthenshire, Wales when they were 3 years old. Anon has told friends about this remedy and has also passed the knowledge to the Ethnomedica project so that it can be safeguarded for future generations. (ref:90H)

Please note that reference to a plant by the Ethnomedica project is no guarantee of its safety or efficacy. Please consult a suitably qualified practitioner before taking herbal medicines.


If you know any traditional plant remedies passed on to you by family or friends I would love to hear from you. Please use the link below to access the contributions page. All memories are of interest. Whether it be dock leaves for nettles stings or honey and lemon for a sore throat, please pass on your knowledge now.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Pine flavoured

I'm so pleased to have my first handful of visitors to this blog, and even more pleased that such encouraging comments have been left. As an example, regarding my pine bark extract post a few days back, Sarah said:
"Now having tantalised us with this information about pine and pain relief, you do realise you're going to have to make some salve and try it out on someone and let us know how it works!"
What a wonderful prompt for my next project! Unfortunately, not only do I not know how to make an effective pine salve, but I'm also rather short of healthy happy pine trees in this part of deciduous S. Wales. Aside from that, my only guinea pig is me since even my partner won't try most of my experiments. Should I say unfortunately I don't have arthritis? I don't think I'll go quite that far.

Instead, I'll cheat since I just happen to have a small tub of pine salve already! Not made by me I'll admit, but bought from a tiny community in northern Sweden.
And this leads me on to Sarah's next comment:
"Pine isn't something I've worked with nor felt drawn to, but I am about to try some meadowsweet salve which Henriette recommended recently on her blog."
It is so important, as Sarah says, to feel drawn to a plant when working with it. I find that once I know a plant intimately, have seen it grow in every season, have tasted it in a variety of contexts, have maybe held its seeds in my hand, that that is the point at which I may be capable of learning and remembering how to use it and developing some kind of instinct for it. It's no surprise then that most people in the UK haven't adopted Pine as a primary medicinal resource when in many areas they are so few and far between.

But then, it is winter, a time when people in more Northern climes may have relied on the medicinal properties of Pinus more than we give it credit for. And since Sweden is so close to my heart and so abundant with pine trees, I thought maybe the blog-flavour (if you can have such a thing) of this last month of winter should actually be pine, so that I at least can take the opportunity to get to know it better and appreciate it more.

So, back to my salve. The charmingly home printed label translates roughly as "Genuine olden-days resin-salve from Skalmsjö". I have no idea exactly what's in it, but it smells beautifully warm and rounded with equally prominent scents of pine and beeswax. Rather surprisingly, this sort of salve isn't seen often in Sweden these days, a country so determined to look towards the future in some respects that it is hard to say what survives of any herbal traditions at all. This one was bought from the tea rooms which support an old linen mill where such produts help to raise maintenance funds. It's a beautiful place, and my goodness, there's no shortage of pine trees there. Pine is their number one resource!

Back to the salve again: I don't know what it would have been traditionally used for either. Arthritis? Maybe. The only thing I've used it for so far is mosquito bites. And I have to say it was surprisingly effective. If it's ability to soothe my bites, which I have a habit of scratching holes in, is anything to go by, the most obvious traditional Swedish use must have been just that. Besides, the frequency with which pine trees and mosquitos seem to go together must make this salve a very sympathetic magic. And I mean that literally.

So that's my pine salve. It sits on my shelf of goodies and is rarely used, probably because, as mentioned above, I have no instinct for it yet so I forget it's there (and maybe also because it's special and I'm a chronic hoarder). I will definitely take it with me to Sweden this summer, but now I think I'll try to bear its other potential uses in mind as well and when I've found out more about it I'll let you know.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Contribute an Ethnomedica "Remembered Remedy"

If you wish to contribute your own memories of traditional medicinal plant use to me as part of the Ethnomedica project please leave a comment below which answers the questions listed. All comments on this blog are moderated and only those details you agree to disclose will be included if your comment is published.

Part 1: Your Remembered Remedy
1.1 What was the plant/remedy name?
1.2 For what purpose was it used?
1.3 Did it work?
1.4 Do you still use this remedy?
1.5 How was it prepared and used? What part of the plant was used?

Part 2: About You
2.1 When did you learn/use this remedy? (e.g. 1950's)
2.2 Where were you living at the time? (e.g. Kent)
2.3 How old were you?
2.4 Who told you about/taught you this remedy?
2.5 Have you passed this remedy on to others? To whom?

Part 3: Your Personal Details
3.1 What is your Name?
3.2 Would you like your name to be published alongside the information you have provided? YES/NO

Part 4: Your Contact Details
Your contact details allow us to follow up any unusual or interesting contributions and will not be published or passed on. Please supply one or more of the following if possible:

4.1 Your e-mail address
4.1 Your telephone number
4.3 Your home address

Part 5: Consent
5.1 Ethnomedica Consent:
"I am happy for the information I give to the project to be published and to be passed on to other projects researching different aspects of British traditions." AGREE/DISAGREE
5.2 Herbal Matters Consent:
"I am happy for the comment I have left on the Herbal Matters blog to be published as such and for the author of Herbal Matters to quote from or refer to it" AGREE/DISAGREE

Part 6: Would you be interested in receiving occasional e-mail updates relating to the findings of the Ethnomedica "Rememebered Remedies" project in the future? YES/NO

I look forward to hearing from you

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum

A trip to London not so long ago included a visit to theMuseum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Finding so few mentions of this museum on the net, I thought I'd share my experiences for those that are interested.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that the museum is small. I walked into the RPS reception and announced my desire to visit the museum. "You're in it" I was cheerfully told and, sure enough, when I looked around the foyer I spotted maybe 5 glass cases (some of which I won't cover because they weren't herbal enough) of artefacts with a series of laminated pamphlets to accompany them.

So I thanked the receptionist and set to work at the first case, determined to absorb as much as I possibly could from the displays.

Now, small though the physical 'volume' of the museum is, it makes up for it with the sheer number of interesting artefacts crammed into each case. Every item was numbered and the pamphlets I held described each one clearly. The opportunity to acquire information in this museum is immense. Far greater, I would say, than in your average "family-fun" museum which will so frequently reduce interpretation down to idiot-proof levels.

The cases were all themed. Beginning with the history of pharmacy, and doing justice to the herbs upon which all modern medicine is based, I was confronted which 3 or 4 shelves displaying a few small samples of dried herb material, images of medieval apothecaries, mortars & pestles - all the usual (but utterly fascinating) things. To be honest, this is the case that would have interested me the most, but since the display consisted of so many artefacts with which I regularly work anyway, I felt I had less to learn here and so I turned to the next case as soon as I felt I had browsed all items and everything on the pamphlet at least once.

The second case also had a theme, but a far less obvious choice than the first. The 3 shelves in this case were devoted, one each, to Female, Male, and Child health. In spite of having a far less 'herbal' theme than the last case, this one fascinated me immensely. Several conditions were covered within each theme and artefacts were displayed in their dozens. The remedies on offer ranged from smelling salts for "ladies with a weak constitution" and powerful tonic pills for men (presumably also with a weak constitution, but unwilling to admit so) to interesting herbal concoctions labelled simply 'ladies pills' with only the vaguest explanations about what they were intended to do (one can only guess) and modern Viagra. The children's shelf seemed largely to be about teeth and I confess I didn't really bother with that one, the other two absorbed me so completely. If only I could remember a few specifics about the things I saw, but my useless memory lets me down as always.

Anyway, as I was busily cross referencing artefact with description as systematically as only I would bother to know how, the curator of the museum (who I believe is called Bryony?) came out to measure the cabinet I was looking at. She told me all about their huge collection of artefacts, their efforts to find a balance between interesting levels of interpretation and cramming the cases full to bursting. She openly admitted that even though they had displayed less this year than ever before, the case was still too full. I openly disputed that in return! And she told me they were just in the planning stage for their new display, with new themes, that would open for science week and continue throughout next year.

All this sounded so proactive and positive to me. I was really impressed with what she told me about how they plan themes for these small cases each year and then add the interpretation they've produced from it to an online directory when they've finished with it. Inevitably the conversation came around to the pharmacy at the National Botanic Garden of Wales which I always hoped we could develop and improve. I was surprised to find she had actually visited us at NBGW, but no surprise since it turns out she's good friends with Professor Terry Turnerwho is central to all things pharmaceutical at the gardens.

So a thoroughly enjoyable visit which certainly took some time in spite of its small size. It left me wondering how much time is actually spent on it by them. If a museum of that size can have a curator, even a part-time one, it begs the question why the NBGW pharmacy doesn't. Oh how easy things must be for a London institution with stacks of dosh! But well done to them anyway.


[At the time of writing] The Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum is open from 9am until 5pm, Mon-Fri. Entrance is free and pre-arranged tours are available which include a wider range of exhibits.

The Museum can be found on the ground floor of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society headquarters on Lambeth Road about halfway between the Lambeth North and Vauxhall Cross stations.

For those who are interested, the Museum of Garden History is directly across the road, but charges a £6 admission fee so I didn't bother.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Picture Perfect

Having started this blog, I have as yet to sort myself out camera-wise so that I can properly illustrate the things I'm talking about. I hope to remedy that soon, but in the meantime I decided to scour the public domain for some nice copyright-free imagery I could decorate the odd bit with.

What I found is what you see adorning every spare space on this blog (assuming they're still there at the time you read this) and they're so wonderful, and I've used so many of them, that even though the copyright has expired, I couldn't very well not acknowledge them.

There's something so fresh about these images which date back to some time around the 14th century. They don't have the dullness of a modern photo, nor the time-bleached dustiness of most historical herbal manuscripts. And is it just me, or do they contain a brilliant sense of humour and gaiety too?

They come from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval "handbook of wellness" based on an 11th century medical treatise by Ibn Butlan. It seems the high volume of illustrations was one if its main selling points, but I think the descriptions that go with them are also something to behold so I'm sorry not to be able to include more of them with the images.

Here are a few of my favourites, and I highly recommend visiting the rest on Wikimedia Commons (unless of course I've downloaded and displayed the whole lot by then so that you don't need to...)

Sugar (Saccharum sp.)
Nature: Warm in the first degree, humid in the second.
Optimum: The white, clear kind.
Usefulness: It purifies the body, is good for the chest, the kidneys, and the bladder.
Dangers: It causes thirst and moves bilious humors.
Neutralisation of the Dangers: With sour pomegranates.
Effects: Produces blood that is not bad. It is good for all temperaments, at all ages, in every season and region. [oh, if only!]

Woolen Clothing (Vestis lanea)
Nature: Warm and dry.
Optimum: The thin kind from Flanders.
Usefulness: It protects the body from cold and
holds warmth.
Dangers: It causes skin irritation.
Neutralisation of the Dangers: With thin linen clothing.

[now who could disagree with that? And isn't it useful to know the proper taxonomic name for underwear!]

The Fruit of the Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
Nature: Cold in the third degree, dry in the second.
Optimum: The highly fragrant variety.
Usefulness: Smelling it helps alleviate headaches and insomnia; spreading it on the skin works against elephantiasis and black infections.
Dangers: It stupefies the senses.
Neutralisation of the Dangers: With the fruits of ivy.
Effects: It is not comestible. It is good for warm temperaments, for the young, in Summer, and in the Southern regions.
[It looks as though the dog enjoyed its last supper at least]

Friday, 13 February 2009

Dandy Dandelion

So, I'm 6 posts in to my brand new blog and so far 5 have skirted around talking specifically about medicinal plants. It's time to remedy that, and what better remedy than the humble
dandelion - possibly my favourite herb of all!

The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is actually an aggregate made up of hundreds (I might be exaggerating a bit) of micro species which all differ in some way from each other. If you look closely at a few growing round and about, you may spot some of the differences between plants. Most obviously, the average dandelion can feature anything from broad, shallowly lobed, wavy margined leaves through to soft, narrow, but spiky-looking toothed leaves which do far better justice to the origin of the name "tooth (dent) of the lion".

I am particularly partial to the dandelion for several reasons. First, my habit of siding with the underdog leads me straight to this plant which is so regularly dismissed by gardeners as a troublesome weed. How can it be? Just look how it grows! A hardy perennial which begins blooming in early spring and can carry on right through the hottest summer. Resistant to nearly every pest and disease you could throw at it. Beautiful architectural seed heads - the stuff of childhood time-telling fancies. Such pretty flowers too. I remember being asked to explain the dandelion to some Indian visitors once who were struck by its beauty and wondered if they could grow one at home.

The seeming invincibility of the dandelion and its abundance in our habitat is another clue to my fondness for it. It is a widespread belief amongst herbalist that nature has provided what we most need to survive in the greatest quantities. So it follows that the dandelion must have something truly valuable to offer us (or else the gardeners wouldn't complain so bitterly about them). Likewise, science would tend to support the idea that what can survive the rigours of nature so effectively, must contain a cornucopia of protective and reparative substances and these, it may surprise some to know, are often the active principals in a plant which are also so beneficial to human health.

I feel I've established a foundation for the worth of the dandelion now, but what does it actually do? Well, this question is a big one - the plant is just that brilliant! Broadly speaking there are two things the dandelion is most famous for. Firstly, it contains a good few bitter principles which are specific to the liver and digestive system. Bitters help to stimulate the release of gastric juices and, although they can be difficult to stomach in those who have enjoyed a sugary Western diet for so long, they can be acclimatised to when given a chance. So, as long as you don't have gallstones, dandelion can make a wonderfully health promoting addition to your diet.

I personally find only the oldest leaves are too much to be pleasant these days, whilst my favourite part is the flower which I find so delicate and sweet (yes, top-to-toe, the whole plant is edible). Bizarrely, some of those who have been convinced to try a flower have complained of extreme bitterness - a response I simply can't fathom. When I find it I'll be bound to share a wonderful dandelion-flower salad recipe I have somewhere which even my 80+ grandmother enjoyed.

Now, before I go on too much about the culinary potential of dandelion, I should move on to the second main use which links nicely with its old English name "Piss-a-beds". Yes, dandelion is one of the most effective diuretics available. By effective, I don't mean that you need a bush handy before testing its culinary delights, simply that it does the job very well for those that need it (and to some extent for those that don't if I'm entirely honest) and often without the side effects associated with conventional diuretic medication. Principally, dandelion is one of the only diuretics which will replace as much potassium as it leaches from the body. For that alone, I believe it is natures real answer to water retention.

At some point I'll have to do another dandelion fan-club post to highlight its many other merits (top of the list: dandelion coffee!), but I shall leave you now to go and grub up some of these bitter-sweet friends from the garden. After all, what better revenge can the gardener get than to eat the lot of 'em.

Ethnomedica "Remembered Remedies"

Ethnomedica "Remembered Remedies" is an RBG Kew-based project which aims to collect, archive and disseminate oral history data about tradtional medicinal plant uses within the British Isles.

What this actually means is that a nationwide network of volunteer collectors such as myself spend time speaking to people in their local community to learn about how plants were once used, and even how they continue to be used.

Collection can be done in a number of ways. All collectors are trained to conduct oral history interviews and may speak to their friends and neighbours, or even visit local community centres or residential homes. Collection can also be done using an Ethnomedica 'Remedy Card'. These cards may be on display in museums, gardens or other relevant institutions and can be filled in by visitors. They are then collected, the data recorded and the remedies we find out about are often put on display for the benefit of others.

The importance of this project is clear. Everyday more of this priceless information is lost as younger generations fail to learn this knowledge from their parents and grandparents. After so many years of hype about the exotic medical systems of jungles and rainforests around the world, it is suddenly apparent that we are losing the secrets of our own back yard!

To me this project is essential, but because it struggles due to a lack of funding and the obvious pitfalls of a largely volunteer-driven enterprise, I am keen to support and promote it in any way I can. I will therefore be sharing with you, now and again, some of the more fascinating remedies I have collected on behalf of the Ethnomedica project.


If you know any traditional plant remedies passed on to you by family or friends I would love to hear from you. Please use the link below to access the contributions page. All memories are of interest. Whether it be dock leaves for nettles stings or honey and lemon for a sore throat, please pass on your knowledge now.