Herbs are hardy beasts. Like street kids who grow up in tough surroundings, these plants are survivors. Most have had to withstand harsh weather and little nourishment from the soil. This helps clear out the weaklings, making their genetic strains stronger. Their strength has also led them to develop an array of potent plant powers—phytochemicals: flavonoids and saponins, tannins and phytosterols.
HEALING FOR YOU
These plant chemicals, which play a beneficial role in the developing herb, also bring us health when we use them. Take bitters, for instance. You find them in herbs like dandelion, mugwort, gentian, horehound, burdock, and yellow dock. Botanists believe bitter elements probably help protect the plant from being eaten in the wild. Bitter herbs are wonderful for improving digestion in our bodies. They help heal the lining of the gut, improve the way digestive enzymes, juices and hormones flow, and stimulate the flow of bile. Bitter herbs seem to validate that old saying that the worse something tastes, the better it is for you.
Alkaloids—plant chemicals which botanists tell us help regulate plant growth, while discouraging damage from predators—can exert powerful effects on our minds when we use them. Coffee is full of alkaloids. So are opium, black tea, cocoa, and tobacco. All of these plants are considered sacred by our ancestors, going back thousands of years. Many immune-enhancing plants, so useful in protecting from illness and clearing infection, are also rich in alkaloid compounds. Take echinacea and goldenseal, which I have used for half a century to heal my family when they were threatened with infection of any kind.
Meanwhile, gums and resins such as myrrh, pine, and the Ayurvedic remedy guggul, taken from branches and woods, carry the life blood of a tree or shrub. They transport nutrients to wherever the plant needs them. Many of these plants, including the wonderful guggul, can be used to enhance our own circulation and even to rebalance good and bad cholesterol.
EAT YOUR COLOR
The brilliant colors of flowers, stems, leaves and fruits are not just beautiful to look at. They are rich in flavonoids—phytochemicals responsible for vivid yellows and oranges and reds, that attract bees and other insects for pollination. Such glorious living hues also attract animals. Then the beasts who eat these plants unwittingly act as carriers for their seeds. Colorful flavonoids bring to us humans great anti-aging benefits. They are powerful antioxidants against free-radical damage—even more powerful than the well-recognised Vitamins A, C, E and the minerals selenium and zinc. Plants rich in flavonoids help protect us from degeneration, they strengthen our blood vessels and the collagen in our skin, they guard our cells from oxidation destruction, they calm inflammation, and help keep the body free of water retention. Some flavonoids can even help clear muscle spasm.
The saponins which you find in roots and leaves lather like soap. Some are useful expectorants for coughs. Others help us regulate our hormones or counteract stress. Meanwhile, the essential oils of herbs, found in leaves and flowers, fruits and barks, help plants like mint, bergamot, lavender and ginger attract pollination thanks to their signature fragrances. And they protect these plants from disease thanks to their anti-microbial actions. In our lives, some essential oils make it possible for us to create beautiful perfumes and incense. Others have antiseptic actions, others improve digestion, stimulate circulation, improve the look and texture of skin and do a hundred other good deeds. The anthraquinones, found in the roots and leaves of herbs like yellow dock, protect plants from fungal and bacterial destruction. For us, plants rich in these yellow phyto-chemicals can help stimulate bile production, boost a sluggish liver, and improve digestion. It is fascinating to become familiar with the actions of phytochemicals. The more you learn about them, the more you realize just how all-encompassing herbal healing can be.