Soldier on with afflictions, that is, and we need no reminder at the moment that we are facing a single microscopic adversary that is testing the entire human race.
In laboratories around the world, dozens of vaccines are in the works in an attempt to protect us against the novel coronavirus. Some are using tobacco, of all plants, as part of the process of developing ways to fight infection, though the potential antivirals rely far more broadly on manipulating DNA and RNA.
These efforts employ leading-edge molecular science, but our instinct to fight nature with nature is ingrained deep in the human mind and reaches back thousands of years. Our abiding partner in this quest for wellness is the plant, in all its forms and component parts.
Castor oil seeds, a purgative, were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. For more than 2,000 years in China, the ephedra plant, an odd relative of conifers, has been used as a decongestant.
These traditional remedies also direct how modern pharmacology is shaped. In looking for a new drug, scientists see what plants have been used for specific maladies and test the scientific basis for them, explain Elizabeth Dauncey and Melanie-Jayne Howes, co-authors of “Plants That Cure.”
This approach dates to the 19th century, and one of the first, enduring results was the creation of aspirin as a synthetic version of the salicylates in the bark of willow trees, which people used for centuries against pain and inflammation. Morphine was isolated from the opium poppy way back in 1804, the authors note.
In the West, we may think of herbal remedies as anachronistic, but they still hold great sway around the world — in Chinese traditional medicine, in the Japanese practice of Kampo and in Ayurvedic medicine in India.
Given the size of the herbal supplement market in the United States, you might say that our need for plant-based remedies never went away.
I can’t think of folksy American herbalism without recalling the homespun, banjo-plucking James Duke, a botanist who became a leading authority on medicinal herbs. His book “The Green Pharmacy,” published in 1998, became a bestseller. I saw him later at his six-acre herb farm in Fulton, Md. At the time, he had forsaken his gout pills for celery seeds and reduced his blood pressure with fennel seeds.
What would he be taking against the coronavirus, if he were still with us? Probably the fruit juice of the elderberry, believed to boost the immune system. In many cultures, the berries, somewhat toxic raw, are heated and made into syrups and vinegars, write Dauncey and Howes.
Duke, who died in 2017, might also find a use for Chinese star anise, the seeded pod of the illicium tree. It is used in Asian cuisine but also contains compounds that led to an antiviral medicine. Its cousin, the Japanese star anise, is toxic, by the way — which reminds us that so many plants used for medicines may also do great harm. Obvious examples include the foxglove, source of digitalis, and the opium poppy, whose synthetic incarnation as opioids has caused so much misery. Then there’s the castor oil plant, which is both a laxative and a deadly poison, depending on preparation.
Cannabis became sort of lawful through the back door of medical marijuana. I don’t doubt Cannabis sativa can be effective during chemotherapy or for chronic conditions, but when I was in California reporting on this a decade ago, it amazed me how many people seeking a doctor’s note were walking around with insomnia and anxiety. Two years ago, the state permitted recreational use.
In the District, the authorities allow residents to grow three mature plants indoors for their own use. Whatever you think of marijuana legalization, at least this rule achieved the astonishing feat of turning urban potheads into gardeners.
I dose myself often with a liquid extract of the fermented leaf tips of Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as black tea, and sometimes I make an infusion of the crushed seeds of the arabica berry — that is, coffee. An infusion of licorice is good for digestion, but it blackens the teeth. The seeds of the betel palm turn teeth red as they impart a mild euphoric effect, and these days, you get your mild euphoria any way you can.
The long history of plants as medicine is not just history. Dauncey and Howes tell the reader that at least 28,000 species of plants are still used in traditional medicine, and some 80 percent of the world’s population is “still largely relying on plants for their health care needs.”
How does this fit in with your own garden? The impulse to garden is, on a conscious level, driven by our desire to grow our own food and make our own beauty. The need to nurture living things, I believe, flows from our own innate knowledge that life is laden with paradox: It is both robust and fragile, enduring and fleeting, commonplace and yet so precious.
I wonder, too, if there are some intangible forces at work, that we know instinctively that all life flows from the plant world. Gardeners may feel that unconscious connection the most. This primal link is open to anyone. If you’re new to it, start growing plants and strengthen this affinity. In this regard, lavender connects just as well as marijuana, smells much nicer and its clippings will help you overcome that insomnia.
Tip of the Week
When weeding, watch out for young seedlings of poison ivy now in growth. Look for distinctive three-lobed leaves, light green when young. Remove plants with a long-handled shovel, taking care not to touch anything that has been in contact with the plants.
— Adrian Higgins
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