The Herbalist - Common Spices
I was having the hardest time trying to figure out which plant to write about for the winter newsletter! It’s not that I had run out of plants. That would be impossible. It’s just that my favorite inspiration, my back yard window, was not showing me what to write about. Everything was lying flat on the ground and looking exhausted from having been hit with 2 feet of snow and lots of rain! So as I started to cook dinner and reached into my cabinet, I noticed my spice jars. They are very old and well loved, and each of them has a little hand written label.
These labels are very special; they were one of my first "homework assignments" given to me by one of my herbal mentors. She told me to go through my spice cabinet and label each of the jars. I was to write the botanical name, the common name, it’s constituents, and a few of its actions. It was so much fun. Each time I look at one of them it reminds me that back in history before we had a pharmacy to go to, the lady of the house, to comfort and heal her family, used herbs and spices.
Today the average person doesn’t think of these spices and herbs as medicinal, only something to make our food taste good. There has been many a time that someone would call me up in the winter, with a sick family member. It was usually in the middle of the evening when running to the store was not an option. I would ask them, "What kind of things do you have in your spice cabinet?" There was almost always something that would help. So let’s take a little jaunt through the spice cabinet and look at some common spices most of us have.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) Lauraceae family
Cinnamon comes from the bark of the Cinnamon tree. There are many kinds of cinnamon, but the one with the most medicinal value is Cinnamon zeylanicum. As a nutritionist, one of the first things I think of is using cinnamon to balance blood sugar issues. It has been proven to help lower blood glucose levels. Cinnamon improves circulation, thereby helping someone who has a cold. Cinnamon warms the body and has been used to help with chronic diarrhea, dysentery, poor digestion, coughing, and for clearing congestion. The Chinese believe it helps to build vitality. It is an easy one to reach for when a cold or the flu shows up at your home.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Zingiberaceae family
Being from Hawaii ginger is always something I reach for. It is harvested from the rhizome of the plant and is grown in many parts of the world. It works great for nausea of all kinds. Having grown up on a boat, I can say for sure that it helps with seasickness! It has warming properties, promotes circulation in the body and has been used for menstrual cramps. Ginger can help get the "gunk" up and out of the lungs. Because of its wonderful volatile oils, Ginger helps prevent flatulence and is a good digestive aid.
Garlic (Allium sativum) Liliaceae family
Garlic has to be one of my top 10 herbs. I don’t think any home should be without it. And I don’t mean that pre-chopped stuff that comes in a jar! If you can’t have a fresh head of garlic on hand, at least have some good dried organic granules, but fresh is best. Garlic is great for a cold or the flu. It helps to stimulate immune activity, enhance circulation and lower cholesterol. It can increase urine output, as well as being a good expectorant. Garlic helps to rid the body of parasites and is wonderful for working with a fungus. Garlic is high in potassium, making it good for the heart. It is also packed with Vitamins A, B, and C. Newer research has shown it to help with lowering blood pressure and reducing blood clots.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Mint family
My Rosemary bush is one of the few things that seems to have survived our winter storm. One of my first uses for Rosemary was as an essential oil to help me when I had to study. I would add one drop to a cotton ball and put it in a small jar with a tight fitting lid. Every 15 minutes or so I would open the jar and take a sniff. There is an old saying, "Rosemary helps you to remember." And indeed for me it did because it acts as a stimulant for the brain. Rosemary also helps with the cellular uptake of oxygen and relieves respiratory congestion. It is another one of many herbs that help control parasites. In the old days, meats were rubbed with rosemary, garlic, sage and other spices to help keep the bugs away.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) Mint family
Thyme always helps me with stuffy noses. I just put some in a steamer and inhale. There isn’t enough space to give you all the instructions, but if you email me, I’ll send them to you. Thyme is one of the best herbs for stimulating the thymus, a major gland in the immune system. I love how the names are so similar. Feeling low on energy? Have a cup of Thyme tea. Just remember to keep the pot covered so you don’t lose all those wonderful volatile oils. Another good use for a strong cup of Thyme tea is whooping cough. Let it cool and it makes a good mouthwash; it can kill bacteria in under a minute.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) Mint family
Sage is another one of my favorites for the cold season. Have you ever had one of those coughs that just won’t go away? The kind that doesn’t bother you most of the day but the minute you lie down, you start to cough? Most folks don’t realize that this is caused by postnasal drip and sage will help dry it up. But don’t overdo it because it can also dry you out too much. I make a strong cup of tea, making sure to keep the lid on the pot tightly closed so I don’t lose the volatile oils. Let the tea steep for 10 – 15 minutes, then strain and drink. I am then able to sleep soundly with no more coughing. An important reminder is that drinking sage tea can cause uterine contractions; so pregnant women shouldn’t drink it. You can also combine sage tea with some apple cider vinegar and use as an excellent gargle for sore throats. Sage is not just for turkeys anymore!
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum) Solanaceae family
So you are probably thinking how the heck can I use cayenne as medicine? Well, it is an amazing styptic (stops blood flow). I had known for many years that cayenne can stop the flow of blood, but never had the chance to try it. Well one day I cut my finger pretty badly while cooking. As I gazed at it and wondered if I should go to the emergency room and have a stitch (I guess it wasn’t really THAT bad) I thought to myself; "self, you’re an herbalist what could you do here at home?" So I went to my spice rack, pulled down the cayenne jar, set out a big plate, placed my hand on it and proceeded to pour cayenne pepper on the cut. (Note: be sure to use the powdered form, the flakes won’t work for this purpose.) I was always told that it wouldn’t burn but would just stop the flow of blood. I can tell you right now that it does burn, but only for a couple of seconds! It stopped the bleeding, I was able to put a butterfly band-aid on and there was no longer a need for any stitches. I don’t recommend trying this on your children; they will never get near you again! Cayenne is another of our great circulation plants.
Basil (Ocium basilicum) Mint family
Everyone loves basil and most kitchens would not be without it. There is something so wonderful about the smell. That being said, this herb is a great tonic for those melancholy days of winter. Feeling sad and blue? Drink a strong cup of basil tea. Basil is great for that woman who doesn’t know how to stand up for herself; it brings out her inner warrior. It has been used to help with stress-induced insomnia and tension as well as nervous indigestion. Basil is also one of the better-known aphrodisiacs. Basil can be used as a final rinse for your hair to help rid the scalp of dandruff. Your hair will feel silky and smell wonderful. Basil tea combined with nutmeg and honey has been used to ease childbirth and to bring on the mother’s milk.
Now it’s time for you all to walk to your spice rack and start to label those jars. I promise you it’s fun and a perfect past time for a cold rainy winters day.
Article by Tracy Bosnian, CH, NTP
About the Author:
Tracy is a practicing Nutritional Therapist and Western Herbalist in Portland, OR. She has been teaching medicinal herbalism classes since 1995. Her history includes co-teaching Northwest Herbs at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine as well as the Common Roots course in herbal medicine and the co-presenting of the Breitenbush Herbal Conference.
Tracy graduated as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in 2005, is a member of the Nutritional Therapy Association's Board of Directors and assists with the Nutritional Therapist Training Program in Portland OR. She is co-owner of Hula Kitchen selling Coco Yo coconut yogurt and other specialty food and herbal products. Go to www.HulaKitchen.com or email Tracy@HulaKitchen.com for a complete list of products.
To make an appointment for nutritional therapy, go to www.mynutritionaltherapist.com or call 503-236-2220.
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