A Herbalist's Favourite Herbs
By Joseph Nolan, Medical Herbalist
A question people often ask me is, “what’s your favourite herb?”. It's an unanswerable question, because it depends entirely on the situation, condition, patient and time of year, amongst other variables. But, naturally, there are some herbs I use over and over again and which I would never be without.
One of my greatest hits is without a doubt Reishi Mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum. It is a revered traditional medicine in the Chinese pharmacopeia, although it grows throughout the northern hemisphere and, such was its reputation as the Immortality Mushroom, that it was used extensively as a decorative motif in China's Forbidden City. Studies have have found Reishi useful in the treatment of cancer, hepatitis, high blood pressure, allergies and possibly in Alzheimer’s Disease. It has strengthening effects on the immune system generally, and on the liver. In clinic, I use it for people who have little resistance to illness: stressed businesspeople, hard living students, frail pensioners, asthmatic schoolchildren and people struggling with chronic illness or living with cancer. I also use it for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, ME, or fibromyalgia, when resistance is low and they feel rather wilted. I have found in practice, though, that for hay fever, it works very well as part of a treatment plan, but isn’t sufficiently anti-histaminic for use on its own once symptoms have got going. Another wonderful thing about mushrooms is the very low risk of interaction , or adverse reaction, with medication. Reishi is very well tolerated and presents very little problem with prescribing. I love the stuff.
Another of my indispensable herbs is, of course, Chamomile, Matricaria recutita. It is probably, aside from possibly mint, the best known medicinal herb and rightly so. Certainly, it is good for helping to relieve temporary upsets and bouts of anxiety and it puts one in a more relaxed mood, aiding sleep. But in addition to being relaxing, Chamomile improves digestion - acting as a gentle laxative when required, easing heart burn and helping with cramps, bloating and pain. The herb is anti-inflammatory, improving skin problems like eczema and allergy reactions like hay fever. For new mothers, young children and babies, you can’t beat it, and at teething time one had better stock up. As a wash, often with calendula, it is great for the minor skin eruptions of babyhood and also useful for oral thrush. And Chamomile is great for muscle spasms of all kinds, being relaxing in the truest sense of the word. It’s a desert island herb for sure.
Another desert island herb is the aforementioned Calendula, C. officinalis, the petals of the common garden marigold. Externally, it is a great wash for fungal and inflamed skin problems and works very well with Chamomile for cradle cap, ringworm, thrush and to encourage healing after giving birth. Calendula balm helps heal wounds once they have closed and improves dry sore skin and scars. The tincture can be used topically, either neat or in creams and gels, for a variety of inflammatory and fungal skin problems. Internally, it works very nicely for all these conditions, as well as IBS and inflamed digestion, oral thrush and some reproductive complaints. In the American Civil War, Calendula petals were used to staunch and bind gunshot wounds, preventing infection and encouraging healing. It is a wonderfully useful herb and I wouldn’t be without it.
They say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and I find this also applies to “weeds”. The most pestiferous garden weeds are some of our most useful medicinal herbs - dandelion, yarrow, nettle, feverfew, couch grass, chickweed, sticky willy (or cleavers), elder and hawthorn trees and plantain. This last one, Plantain, ends up in a hefty percentage of my prescriptions. Plantain is a herb of the trampled waste ground, turning up between paving stones, at the edges of paths, in untidy clumps of weeds where the mower can’t quite reach and even in the compacted ground of train yards where few plants can force their roots into the cement-like soil. There are two native species: broad-leaf or Plantago major (also called, usefully, wide weed) and ribwort aka P. lanceolata, and for home use they are interchangeable. Plantain is astoundingly rich in minerals, and exerts both healing and soothing powers when taken either in tea or tincture. I use it predominantly for skin, respiratory and digestive problems, when it strengthens the skin or mucosa. Eczema, IBS, and chronic rhinitis also usually get the plantain treatment. It's worth noting is that, while dock (or docken leaves, if you’re up north) gets the press for nettle stings, plantain actually works better and it’s anti-itch and anti-allergic properties carry over into hay fever and allergies. And to think, people chuck it away!
I hope that answers that question for a wee bit. Stay tuned for more of my favourite herbs, to learn more about your local weeds and how to use them.