The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock Arctium lappa
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.