Sunday, October 04, 2009

Herbs for health

The television programme that has been playing on Saturday nights recently must have had a few young people very excited initially, as it seemed to be offering advice on growing marijuana and opium poppies.
They were to be disappointed, although I guess a few will have stayed and watched James Wong presenting Grow your Own Drugs anyway, and may have learnt something about the value of gardening and the place many garden plants have in the medicine industry.
The programme has probably come at a good time, as many young New Zealanders are having their first taste of home gardening. A combination of economic belt tightening and a hankering for a more natural way of food production has seen many installing their first vegetable gardens. Some will be also looking at more natural health remedies too.
It is claimed that 60% of the world’s population rely on medicinal herbs for their medicines. In New Zealand nearly one-quarter of all prescriptions contain plant-based active ingredients - aspirin is derived from willow and meadowsweet, for example, and you are gargling with thymol (the active component of thyme) every time you open that Listerine bottle. Even the common heart medicine digitalis originally came from the wild foxglove.
On a personal level, I am perfectly happy to use take whatever my doctor prescribes for me, but there are plenty of herbal remedies for those minor ailments that do not really call for a visit down to the medical centre.
Perhaps one of the most fashionable of these medicinal herds is Aloe vera. This is one species in a large family of succulent plants, whose more decorative members are very much in fashion in the warmer parts of the country. They mainly have stately architectural leaves, arranged in rosette form and armed with bards, set off by dramatic candelabras of flowers.
Aloe vera, which is more restrained than many of its kin, is known as the burn-and-bandage plant. Its gel-like sap helps to regenerate skin tissue in cases of minor burns, scrapes, wounds, and sunburn, and then dries into a natural bandage. This one is not totally hardy and is often grown as a pot plant, but can easily be cultivated in a warm frost-free spot outside. The dried gel is said to work as an oral laxative, but I am never going to try that!
If you have got yourself successfully bandaged with the Aloe, but you are finding it hard to relax, a dose of chamomile may be just what you need. The best form is the annual species Matricaria chamomilla which makes a delightful apple-scented tea that is said to help calm anxiety, soothe insomnia, and treat minor digestive upsets. The leaves have been used as a poultice to encourage wound healing as well.
This is very easy to grow. It likes sandy soil and partial shade and as it loves to reseed itself in happy situations, sit will soon be happily ensconced in your garden.

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