And Other Tales About Herbal Medicine, Lunar Cycles, And Things That Itch By Kent Ballard
Hurrrry! Hurrrry! Step right up folks! Don't be shy! Come closer, gather 'round me, for you are about to see the Miracle of the Ages! You, sir! Yes, YOU, with the corn dog in your mouth! When you finish that savory carnival delight, will your stomach become disorderly? Madam, yes, YOU with that lovely screaming toddler! You are a fine example of American motherhood, but does your child's ear-piercing howls ever give you a headache? And how about you, my good man down in front in the “Nuke The Whales” tee shirt? Want to quit that nasty habit of smoking the Demon Tobacco with ease and without cravings? Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is your lucky night! I have here in my hand the answer to all your problems! It cures gout, rheumatism, and near-sightedness! One small bottle of this will regrow lost hair, put the spring back into your sex life, and treats scalds and burns! This magnificent product, long known only to ancient royalty, is guaranteed to reverse aging, cause you to lose those extra pounds, and repair dental cavities overnight! Yes, “Perfessor Kent's Radium Nightshade Opium Extract” is only twenty dollars a bottle and worth ten times that much! The line forms on the right, folks! Twenty dollars a bottle or be wise and take advantage of our special for this night only! Three bottles for the amazingly low price of only eighty dollars! Never be ill again! Makes homely women beautiful! It turns meek men into muscular towers of strength and vitality! Instant relief from hangovers and blows to the head and body! A bargain at twice the price! Just pay the small sum to my lovely assistant here who will give you your order and leave these premises and all health problems behind forever!
Unfortunately, not all snake oil salesmen are so easy to pick out. Modern mass advertising bombards us with equally ridiculous claims daily. Possibly the most truthful line in any medicine or health care ad is “check with your doctor first.”
Even before the invention of penicillin, the first of the man-made wonder drugs, there's been an ongoing controversy about herbal medicine. Many doctors say the claims made for it are hogwash, and worse, dangerous. Proponents of herbal medicine say in many cases it works just as well, or better, than manufactured drugs for some needs and is widely available if you know where and what to look for. Even better, it's free, no staggering sums of money being fed into Big Pharma by its users. Take this for what it is meant to be, a disclaimer paragraph. I'm not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV). And I should point out, as an example, there's a reason there are scores of kinds of antidepressants made even by the giant drug companies—not one kind will work on all people. Subtle differences in symptoms, body chemistry, age, sex and many other variables make some work for a few people, and merely give others bad side effects. The same can be said for herbal remedies. So before you rush out and start pulling up what you thought were mere weeds before, be smart. Check with your doctor—and check with an herbal practitioner. You'll most likely get two widely different opinions and only you can choose which one to follow. So, do you hear me, lawyers? I'm not recommending this for anybody!
Having gotten that legal necessity off my back, I can also tell you there are scores of books, some even written by doctors themselves, that give color photos of the herbs and plants in question, what time of year to pick them, and how to prepare them for medicinal use. And you'll find nothing here that will get you stoned, wasted, or obliterated, depending on your preference levels of “high.” What I will do is tell you about a few that I have used with success (for me) and that I would recommend to personal friends. There will be too many to fully describe. Any library or good bookstore will have complete books about them, though, with color pictures and things to look for to make sure you're picking the right plant. For example wild carrots and Queen Anne's Lace look almost identical. I can't tell them apart myself. But the former is edible and healthy for you. The latter is a deadly poison. Obviously I can't be there with you, so do your homework before you try any of this, should you do so despite the warnings.
Let's start with garlic. Besides keeping vampires at bay and making lasagna, it's also a magnificent booster for your body's immune system. Andrew Chevallier, in his wonderful “The Encyclopedia Of Medicinal Plants” says, “It counters many infections, including those of the nose, throat, and chest, It also reduces cholesterol, helps circulatory disorders, such as high blood pressure, and lowers blood sugar levels, making it a useful dietary addition in late-onset diabetes.” I don't personally know about all of that, but it sure boosts my immune system. You know that many folks take Vitamin C for colds. Garlic has the same effect on the body. It's also a good antibacterial agent if you have nothing else to treat a cut or scrape. Just rub a fresh clove over your wound, or burst open a capsule of the oil. This is so widely used in Europe that it's known as “Russian Penicillin.”
I take garlic oil capsules whenever the “bug” is going around, along with the recommended dosage of Echinacea prepared in pill form. Echinacea makes such a pretty pink flower in the summer that my wife would hit me with a shovel if I used the ones in our garden, but they're there if I ever need them. A practiced eye in our yard would reveal a “witch's garden” of special plants. Most folks think they're just pretty—if somewhat odd—flowers and plants. In fact, it's my emergency pharmacy. When I use medicinal herbs, I use garlic and echinacea most often. If I'm too late to avoid getting the whooping belch or wobble-nose, whatever nasty ailment that's going around, I take these two plus Ginseng. Ginseng won't boost your body's immune system like the others, but it will give you that little bit of extra strength and vitality you'll miss while recovering. And when I do fall ill, I'm not ill for long thanks to these two common plants.
Several of the books in my personal collection state flatly that Echinacea is the Western world's most important medicinal herb. The fresh roots, dried roots, and the beautiful brilliant pink flower can all be used and prepared in different manners. It's known as a counter to both bacterial and viral infections. Studies have indicated that it has an anti-hyaluronidase action, meaning it inhibits the ability of viruses to invade and take over cells. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Today, Echinacea is being studied by science as a potential treatment for HIV and AIDS.
Funny thing about Ginseng, though. It works, and works well. But only for about 2 to3 weeks. After that, continued doses of it have decreasing effects. But if you're starting a new job or know in advance that you have a strenuous task coming up, something where your body needs to be in top shape, begin taking Ginseng about a week before and up to a couple of weeks later. If you take it longer, it won't harm you. It just won't do anything.
Is cold season approaching and you find yourself out of Vitamin C? Fret not. There's more Vitamin C, ounce for ounce, in an onion than a fresh orange. In really harsh circumstances you can take new, young pine needles from most species and brew them into a Vitamin-C filled tea. Many of the pioneers who didn't know this suffered horribly from scurvy.
I'm a ridiculously healthy person after a long life of self-abuse and debauchery, rarely even taking aspirin, which, by the way, was developed from willow bark. If you run out of the little pills, go find a willow tree, strip off the outer bark until you get to the wet, shiny inner bark. Boil up a handful of the inner bark shavings and drink a small glass of the “tea”. Your headache and minor pains will go away, just as it did for the pioneers who didn't have a drug store on the corner. And like your more familiar aspirin, willow bark will fight a fever too. This saved many a life in olden days, and could save yours or a loved ones if ever trapped in the wilderness.
Dandelions drive lawn care fanatics mad, but they're actually a very valuable plant. The young, fresh leaves, once rinsed off, are tasty raw in garden salads and contain high levels of potassium. Brewed into a tea, they're a good diuretic, which means it ... well, if you don't know what “diuretic” means, go look it up. I'll wait for you.
In any case the real power of the dandelion is in the roots. They're one of the most detoxifying herbs known to man. In 1959 German researchers published findings that indicated the root has a significant action on the liver, stimulating bile production and actually “cleansing” the organ. For the heavy drinkers among us, this also means dandelion root, when prepared properly, is a great hangover remedy. Some say it fights cirrhosis and has a very positive effect on the gallbladder, claiming it prevents gallstones and even dissolves those already formed! (Again, your mileage may vary.) Dandelion root is good for acne and boils. It's also used widely in the preparation of various herbal mixtures like tinctures, decoctions, and infusions. More on these as we go along. Do you drink a lot of soda? The phosphate in many of them block your uptake of calcium. Dandelion root tea, taken several times a week, will keep you from losing precious calcium. Take note, osteoporosis sufferers. And think of this--when was the last time you had to shell out money for dandelions? Just remember to stay away from the stems and their milky sap. They'll make you nauseous.
A personal note here. Late in his life, my father took up wine-making. He preferred elderberry wine, which I never cared for. But one day I visited my parents and saw Dad out wandering around in the pasture with a five gallon bucket. It was nearly full of freshly-picked dandelion flowers. When I asked him what he intended to do with so many dandelions, he explained he'd found a recipe for dandelion wine. I always just thought of that as the title of a Ray Bradbury story, never knowing there actually was such a thing. Dad put a bucket in my hand and told me to fill it. He said the recipe called for a lot of flowers. Weeks later, during another visit, he proudly announced his wine had turned out, well, dandy. He asked me if I'd like a sample. I never cared much for wine, but this stuff was delicious! If ever I literally tasted summer, it was in that glass. It had a slight sweet lemony flavor, went down easily, and left a light aftertaste similar to smelling a dandelion. I asked for another glass. Yes, it had a small bite to it, but it was too good to resist. I had another glass, and after some time, still another.
Dad had made one small error in the making of this wine. He'd let it ferment too long. The stuff was at least 80-proof, and probably higher than that in alcohol content. But so tasty! So smooth! We sat in the back yard under the shade of their hackberry trees talking about everything under the sun, then I felt the call of nature. I was okay until I tried to stand up. I nearly went over headfirst into the lawn. I was HAMMERED, drunker than Hogan's goat. I managed to sit back down before falling and simply stared at Dad. “What ... how ..?”
My father gave me a small grin and said, “It's got a little kick to it.”
I would not describe that as “a little kick.” I suddenly felt as though I'd been drinking straight vodka by the kitchen glass full. Dandelion wine sneaks up on you. Somebody was playing with my personal gravitational field. I kept leaning left and right, regardless of any attempt to sit straightly. My wife wound up driving us home that day. I have no memory whatsoever of leaving my parent's house, the ride home, or anything else until the next morning. So pay attention, drinkers! Dandelions are magic. You can use one part to get loaded with, and another part to help you with the skull-splitting hangover the next day.
A word about herbal preparation is in order at this point. There's a galaxy full of different ways to prepare various herbs, and usually more than one way per herb. Lest I write an article long enough to give our dashing and debonair publisher, Lyle Davis, an ulcer, let's do this instead. You'll need a book on medicinal herbs anyway, so pick one (or several) that give detailed instructions on how to go about this. Some of them, like blood root, you simply pick up and eat. (They taste like cabbage and are used as an expectorant, promoting coughing and the clearing of mucus from the respiratory system. It was once used—and still can be used—to treat chronic bronchitis, and since it also has an antispasmodic effect, it also treats asthma and whooping cough. But only eat two or three leaves. More will induce vomiting and still more are toxic. Not for use by pregnant women or those who are breast-feeding. Women used to apply the bright red juice of the leaves as a rouge. From 1820 to 1926, it was listed in the “Pharmacopoeia of the United States.” A very powerful little plant, that one.)
Other herbs are made into a tea. That's simple enough—if you know which ones and how much of the “tea” to drink. In the herbal books and websites you may research, “teas” are known as infusions. This is a simple simmering of dried herbs in a hot cup of water. Stronger yet are decoctions, where other herbs are boiled for some length of time to extract all the chemical properties possible out of them. Some are made into tinctures, meaning they're mixed in alcohol (vodka or rum) and this magnifies the effect on the right herbs. Tinctures can be stored up to two years and remain effective. And they're taken by the teaspoon full, and even then mixed with water. Extremely powerful. There are medicinal herbs which you can simply mix the dried and powdered (correct) parts of the plant with regular petroleum jelly, making a warm, soothing muscle rub which can be applied to sore joints and strained muscles. Before petroleum jelly was widely available, our ancestors used lard in its place.
I know of two common plants that have excellent healing properties, but I'm not going to give you their names. The reason for this is that although they have admirable effects, the dosage level between “healing” and “death” is such a thin, fine line that I won't go near them, and many other herbalists won't either. They're both highly poisonous, yet the specific chemistry in both is used in modern, “normal” medicines. In fact, many of the drugs prescribed to you by doctors were derived from herbs, barks, roots, leaves, and berries. But huge pharmaceutical factories have much finer quality control than what we would have at home, and they've been prescribed by genuine doctors, who, I hope, are smarter than I am—at least in traditional medicine.
What we know as “modern medicine” is only two centuries old, if that much, and you must ask yourself how the human race survived at all before its development. Consider too that they led lives far more dangerous and strenuous than ours. Thousands of years of desperate trial and error went into the discoveries of herbal medicines, for that was all they had. They didn't know why some plants and herbs healed the sick and injured. Chemical analysis was unknown, as was most of the operation of the human body. But when they stumbled across something that healed, word of it spread and became common knowledge among small groups, then tribes, then whole kingdoms. To me, the really fascinating thing about herbal medicine is how quickly we, as a species, forgot centuries of common knowledge. We've lost the secrets of the ancient engineers who built Stonehenge and the Pyramids. We've lost much more than that—the ability to treat ourselves when ill or damaged. But this knowledge is being resurrected now, and I often take advantage of it.
Despite all the warnings about herbal medicines, we must keep in mind that if we went to a stranger's house and got into their bathroom cabinet, taking excessive amounts of unknown but legally prescribed, professionally made pills and capsules that they take under a doctor's orders, we'd be in serious trouble, and fast. We'd either find ourselves transported to a hospital or a graveyard pretty quickly. Perhaps both. Since childhood we have all been warned not to take other people's medicines or strange pills, the content of which we know nothing. Common sense applies here, and is no different with herbal medicines. So should you go out to gather any of the hundreds of plants that have specific remedies for certain maladies, toss a garden trowel, knife, scissors, and at least one professionally written book into your sack or backpack with good photos and descriptions of your plant in question.
While writing this I'm reminded of a certain mushroom that grows almost everywhere in the temperate zone of United States. It's snow white, tall, and very noticeable in the woods. They're excellent with meals or battered and fried all by themselves. Unfortunately there is an almost identical mushroom known as “The Death Angel.” It almost takes a botanist to tell the difference between the two. Yet every year, some poor fool will pick one and eat it, sure of his ability to know one from the other. Eating even a mouthful of the Death Angel is fatal. There is no treatment, no way to save the doomed person. He'll be dead within a day or two at the most, even after checking himself into a hospital with the arrival of the first symptoms. And those who have eaten them, perversely, have all told the doctors they tasted wonderful.
Then they died.
As with wild carrots and Queen Anne's Lace, a minor error can have fatal consequences. But you can also say the same thing about many prescription medicines.
Let's look at another facet of this. The economy is in a shambles now and millions are out of work. Even many of those still employed have lost their health benefits and prescription coverage. I'm not saying that I have fully replaced traditional medicines with my “witch's brews.” What I am saying is that even a little knowledge about herbal medicines has saved me many trips to the doctor. A human immune system can only take so much, but if there's a way to boost my immune system, making my body more capable of fighting illness and infections itself, and if there are herbs and plants known to have genuine, tested, and proven antibacterial or antifungal properties I will at least try them. Some I have used for so long now that buying or preparing them is no more unusual to me than buying a bottle of aspirin. I have no way of knowing how much I've saved over the years in office visits, drugs, pills, capsules, whatever a competent doctor would have prescribed for me—but it's a lot of money.
And you don't even need to go out in search of medicinal herbs and learn the proper preparation techniques. Every health food store and most common drug stores these days have shelves full of already-prepared herbs, complete with information on the bottles of what they do, what they treat, the proper dosage, and in many cases drug interaction information. The garlic oil capsules and Echinacea tablets mentioned earlier are two examples where I do this myself, and many other ready-made herbal pills and capsules can be found even in small displays.
Saw Palmetto is used by many men to treat enlarged prostate glands. Although known primarily as a “man's herb,” women have taken it and reported an increase in their libido and some claim it stimulates breast enlargement. Yarrow was native to Europe, and considered so valuable in the days before modern medicine it was brought to North America by immigrants and now can be found growing wild in temperate regions around the world. In classical times it was known as “herba militaris” because of its effectiveness in staunching war wounds. An astringent, it stops blood flow from cuts and scrapes and has a long history as a wound healer. The Scots made a traditional wound ointment from yarrow and made all kinds of bitter drinks out of the plant which were said to help stop even internal bleeding. Women used it to promote menstrual flow, regulate their monthly cycles, reduce heavy bleeding, and ease menstrual pain and discomfort. Both sexes claim it is useful in reducing varicose veins. More specifically for women is black cohosh root, which Native Americans used to treat rheumatism, but is now better known for its relief of painful periods and the miseries of menopause.
Again, there are literally hundreds of plants, roots, leaves, flowers, and berries that have medicinal properties. Someone wishing to find this knowledge needs only to visit a library or do an in-depth study of herbal sites on the Internet. Don't merely take my word for this. Do your research. The knowledge known for thousands of years, and yet so recently forgotten, is yours to rediscover.
Sometimes even research doesn't even cover it all. My wife and I had another couple as guests at our home once, the visiting woman being a full-blooded member of the Cherokee Nation. We'd recently purchased this property and were anxious to show it off to friends. While her husband, my wife, and I were all wearing blue jeans, the woman was wearing a pair of shorts. As we ambled through the forest I accidentally led us through a patch of the evil and hated Nettle Grass, the “itch weed.” Skin contact with the leaves of this cause a furious burning and itching sensation, as many of you have sadly experienced yourself. The woman let out a little yelp and it was only then that I took a second look—we were deep inside a patch of Nettle Grass.
I apologized immediately, but while hopping out of the patch, she told me no damage was done. Well, Nettle Grass had certainly done damage to me in the past and I thought she was simply trying to be brave and polite. But while I watched her, she got out of the patch of itch-weed and began to look around the edges of it. Presently she reached down, pulled up a common old weed, and broke the stem of it, rubbing the juice on her legs. I had no idea what she was doing.
She broke the stem in several places, each time rubbing the leaking juice on her legs in different spots, then looked up and smiled. “There! All gone now!” And she never scratched at her legs again. Whatever she'd done, she'd nullified the strong irritant found in Nettle Grass. Her husband acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired. But I had to ask.
She taught me that Jewel Weed, a waist to chest high plant, was the natural remedy for the irritant found in Nettle Grass. And while Jewel Weed can be found everywhere (and wanted nowhere, like other weeds) it can almost always be found growing around a patch of the much-loathed itch-weed. In the ensuing years, I've discovered she was right. Rarely have I seen a patch of Nettle Grass that did not have several Jewel Weeds growing around it. She taught my wife and I how to identify it by the stems, which “bulb out” along the shaft where the leaf stems come out. It's kind of knobby-looking and a plant I never gave a second thought about until then. She told us her grandmother taught her about using Jewel Weed when she was a little girl, playing in the woods of Tennessee.
I thought about all the times I had been tormented on hikes and while camping by Nettle Grass. I walked back into the midst of them, bent down, and swiped my arm through them. Instantly, there was the old familiar maddening feeling of an itch that scratching won't stop. I walked back out and pulled up one of the knobby-stemmed weeds and did as she had demonstrated. The relief was instant. The juice from the weed simply made the nasty sensation vanish on contact.
I'd have paid a considerable sum to have known that information as a child. To me, it was a minor miracle. She said Jewel Weed also had similar anti-burn properties to aloe vera, but they worked better on her husband than they did for her. While burning brush on our property my wife and I have received minor burns and have discovered the same thing—the juice of Jewel Weed does reduce the pain and eliminates the formation of blisters, but it works better for me than her. Why, I have no idea. By now, I imagine some doctors are half-angry with me, being taught all through university that herbal medicine is mere legend and witchcraft. I'd love to have them try that simple experiment for themselves. And even most doctors will grudgingly admit that aloe vera is a plant that should be in every home. It's an attractive house plant, and breaking off a portion of a stem and squeezing the juice on minor burns eliminates the pain. Keep rubbing it gently on the burn, and it will also keep blisters from forming.
I find no fault with doctors who scoff at herbal medicine. They've spent long years of hard study to learn the intricacies and near-miracles of modern Western medical practice, a science which is still advancing by leaps and bounds, and I'm thankful for their dedication. But some of the things they've been taught, well, I simply disagree with. One item, besides herbal treatments, is the steadfast claim by modern psychiatry that lunar cycles have no effect on human beings.
Study after study has said this to be the case, and someone learning about the human mind merely from textbooks cannot be blamed for taking them at their word. But ask any police officer—as I have—and you will get a very different answer. Many police forces add extra men to their watches on nights of the full moon. Years ago, I spoke with a woman who was the night admissions nurse at a drug rehab facility and she said she dreaded full moons. “The real crazies come right up out of the woodwork,” she said. “Some people who have been responding well to treatment just go over the edge. They sneak out, they wander the halls at all hours, they cry, rant, and rave, and almost only during the full moon.”
Once I had an informal conversation with a practicing psychiatrist. Remembering what my police friends and that nurse told me, I put the question to him: do full moons have a weird effect on some people? He glanced at me briefly, then smiled. “Not officially. There have been plenty of tests over the years conducted on this and it's considered an old wife's tale. But in practice...yes.” He thought for a moment, then added with a wry grin, “You wouldn't like being in some wards of a mental hospital during a full moon.” While chatting with friends at work one evening, the subject came up and a coworker remarked that every bar fight he had ever seen happened under a full moon. Amazingly, a couple of others nodded and said they'd noticed the same thing. I find this difficult to believe, but made a mental note to sit close to the door the next bright night I went out for a beer. None of these people had any explanation for it, not even any theories. But there it is, as the British say.
The older I become, the more I realize our world is a strange place. Ancient myths turn out to be true. Things happen for which there are no explanations. Small women lift cars off of trapped husbands single-handedly. People walk away uninjured from devastating plane crashes and car wrecks that should have killed them instantly. Men and women constantly risk their lives to save total strangers in disasters, then think nothing of it later. We, all of us, are very unusual creatures.
In some of my books, even the ones written by doctors who have done exhaustive chemical analysis on the properties of herbal medicine, there are notations in many entries that pretty much say, “This works. We don't know why. Haven't a clue.” But don't write off their claims of healing properties as mere nonsense. It was only a few decades ago that modern psychiatry discovered simple lithium compounds were a miraculous treatment for bi-polar disorder, long thought to be untreatable by any means. Today it's prescribed for such patients everywhere, and with usually great success. They've done study after study, have generated great stacks of research. And to this day, no one has the first idea how it works.