Medicinal Plants and Their Relevance Today

Over this series of blogs we will be taking a look at the fascinating world of medicinal plants and their relevance today, including recipes you can try at home and preparation techniques to help you along the way.

Chemist’s shelf from the hedgerow

Medicinal uses for plants have been practiced the world over for thousands of years, passed down by our ancestors from generation to generation, revealing the valuable experiences with the plants they used. It wasn’t until we began to document this knowledge that the first real evidence to this practice existed, dating back from as far as 4,000 – 4,500 years ago with various surviving texts from India, China and Egypt.

Evidence here shows the vast array of plants with known medicinal uses, with lists in some cultures going into the hundreds. In ancient Chinese medicine this stretched to 2,500 plants, but today this figure is almost double that, and with plants still laying undiscovered this can only increase.

High Street Chemist

Fast forward to the present day and the way in which we prescribe medicine now is very different. We have mostly become disconnected from the source of our medicines in the same way most people have become disconnected from the animal that provides the protein on their plate. Medicine is packaged differently, no longer necessitating the need to seek out these wild medicinal plants to treat our ills directly, instead placed on chemist’s shelves for our convenience, breaking the connection with the plant that put it there.

A hint to the remedies origins on the packaging

This change came in the 18C when the active ingredients in medicinal plants began to be identified and the plant extracts were formed into powders and pills. From there the chemical structures of these extracts became identified and then produced synthetically.

Traditional Victorian chemist cabinet, now in a posh hotel.

So does foraging for wild plants with a medicinal value have any relevance with all the modern medicines we have at our disposal? I will suggest absolutely it does, apart from the joy of reconnecting with the plants that can be found all around us, there is a direct medicinal benefit from doing so. There are shown to be better treatments provided by wild plants than their synthesised replacements. For example the chemical preparation of Aspirin isn’t kind on the stomach whilst the direct plant source in the form of salicin (found in meadowsweet and willow trees amongst others) doesn’t have the blood thinning or stomach irritation effects that you get with aspirin.

Synthesised pain killers alongside natural alternative

As hobbyist medicinal plant foragers we do need to express some caution with our approach to these incredible plants and their uses before we throw ourselves headlong into their amazing world. First and foremost, any serious health conditions must be consulted directly with a health professional. There are medicinal issues that the hedgerow cannot address like Meningitis or Jaundice, to do anything else would be fool hardy. Secondly do not use herbal remedies if already receiving medical treatment. The use of two drugs can lead to harmful chemical reactions, at the very least it can negate any positive effects.

That said there are plenty of opportunities in which we can safely immerse ourselves into this wonderful world. We will be taking a look at some of them in the weeks ahead. Join me next time as we show you a step by step guide to produce your very own pain killer from the hedgerow.

 

Jay Jenner

Instructor