Bach Flower Remedies and the Doctrine of Signatures

Dr Bach described himself as a herbalist and he had a knowledge of plants and medicine gained from talking to folk healers as well as from personal study.  What, then, was the influence of ideas central to herbal medicine in his discovery of the 38 flower remedies?  We can speculate (in the absence of any definitive knowledge!) and in this blog I’d like to consider the possible influence of one idea known as the Doctrine of Signatures.

Today this is much mocked by sceptics, but it undeniably contributed to the shaping of herbal medicine as we know it now, as well as to the discovery of some drugs used in conventional medicine.  The Doctrine stated that God had marked some plants to tell us how they could be used – the leaves of lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalislook like diseased lungs and so were used to treat lung diseases; the structure of the eyebright (Euphrasia officinalisflower resembles an eye so the plant was used to treat eye conditions, etc. [1]

Doctrine suggested seed heads linked to teeth

Henbane seed heads; image courtesy of Jenny Humphrey

It was popularised by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) but there is evidence of its importance throughout the history of medicine.  Henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.) was smoked by the Ancient Egyptians to treat toothache – perhaps as a result of the seed heads looking like a row of teeth.  In fact, henbane contains hallucinogenic compounds including scopolamine which would cause users to forget their toothache for a while, even if it didn’t cure the pain permanently! [2]

The Doctrine was key to the writings of William Coles, a contemporary of Nicholas Culpeper but, in contrast, Culpeper believed in the astrological properties of plants.  However, even Culpeper succumbed to the idea that every plant had a purpose – writing on honeysuckle that chewing it did not help a sore mouth he said, “If it is not good for this, what is it good for? It is good for something, for God and Nature made nothing in vain.”[3]

Other aspects of the Doctrine were the idea that plants grew where they were needed and that their behaviour could also guide us to their medicinal effects.   The former was important in the decision of Rev. Edward Stone to try taking willow bark to treat his agues (willow is abundant in damp conditions where agues (with malaria-like symptoms) were common). Initially, the effect of Stone’s allusion to the Doctrine was to make physicians sceptical of his report of the bark’s effects, but his work led eventually to the discovery of the drug aspirin.[2]

But do the sceptics have a point?  It’s easy to select examples either to support or dismiss the Doctrine.  However, faced with finding a plant to treat a specific condition from the thousands available, where would you begin?  At least the Doctrine provided an arguably logical starting point.  And if healers tried a plant and it didn’t work they would move onto something else (a bit like pharmaceutical companies do today with potential drugs).   In some ways this mirrors Dr Bach’s discoveries – he carefully observed the nature of plants (shown in part by their behaviour?) but also tried many plants and discarded those which did not show the desired effects.

Juglans regia

Walnut: hard shell or hard hat?; image Mo sibbons

I’ve had a think about the Flower Remedies to see if there are any whose indications might have been suggested using the Doctrine.  Some are obvious… aspen with its quaking leaves suggesting anxiety; chestnut bud’s sticky coating suggesting mistakes that are difficult to throw off; walnut’s hard shell giving protection; water violet standing proud and alone in ponds and impatiens, impatiently firing off its seeds explosively.

What do you think?  Any more examples?  Post them on facebook here

Sources:

[1] Science Museum; http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/doctrine

[2] G.Kyd, M. Sibbons, (2013); Molecules Medicines and Mischief: A Year on the Chemical Trail around Cambridge University Botanic Garden; link to book info.

[3] T. Breverton, (2011); Breverton’s Complete Herbal; Quercus Publishing Plc, ISBN: 978-0-85738-336-5, p176

Next time: Energy and Shape

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy “Plants” #38 Rock Water

Rock water

(Ok, so not exactly a plant, but couldn’t leave it out…)

Rock water

Water; image from pixabay

Rock water, the remedy for rigidity and self-denial, is made by the sun method.

Water can be taken from any healing spring but it must be free of human interference so distant from areas of habitation.   This will minimise any water pollution.

Pollution of streams has three major sources – fertilisers, pesticides and acid rain.

Fertilisers are a source of the nutrients nitrogen and/or phosphorous for plants and promote growth so are used in agriculture.  Common fertilisers are ammonium nitrate, urea and ammonium phosphate.  These are water soluble so are readily washed into streams by rainwater.   They can cause algae to grow, blocking sunlight from aquatic plants.  The plants die and along with the algae are decomposed by microbes.  This depletes the oxygen levels in the water causing other living organisms to die.

A possible pollutant of rock water

Chemical diagram of pyrethrin I

Pesticides are also used in agriculture to control animals or plants which adversely affect crops.  One of the most commonly used classes is the pyrethrins.  The first examples were isolated from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium and the compounds are potent insecticides.

So-called acid rain occurs when atmospheric pollutants, such as nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide from car exhausts, react with water to produce acids like nitric acid and sulfuric acid which increase the acidity of rain.

A possible pollutant of water

Chemical diagram of oxazepam

 

Water pollution is more problematic in urban areas where wastewater enters rivers.  Some recent studies have looked at the effect of commonly-used prescription medications which can contaminate water.  One of the biggest polluters are the benzodiazepines, like Valium and oxazepam.  The latter compound has been found in Swedish rivers and makes fish less fearful and more active.

Anti-depressants like setraline (Zoloft) also have an effect on fish, suppressing territorial aggression and promoting sociability and boldness.  However, although in a laboratory environment these effects are beneficial and the fish live longer and perhaps happier lives, in the real world changes of behaviour which make fish more chilled and bolder may lead to them being more likely to be eaten.

Other effects of drugs including Prozac have been seen in starlings.   Prozac causes changes in feeding patterns and females show a reduced libido which, in the long term, could affect the viability of the species.  There are various possible solutions to pharmaceutical pollution including filtration of wastewater through constructed wetlands but their high cost raises the question of who should pay.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

rock water

Water; image from pixabay

Thanks for your company on this meander through the Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy plants.  Hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a bit more about these special plants as much as I have. I’m currently turning the series of blogs into a book which will be published later in 2017.

In the meantime, look out for some new blogs soon!

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #37 Willow

Willow (Salix vitellina, usually Salix alba var. vitellina)

Salix alba vitellina

Golden willow twigs; image courtesy of www.jprwillow.co.uk

Willow, the remedy for those filled with self-pity and resentment, is made by the boiling method. Salix vitellina, or golden willow, is considered to be a variety of white willow, Salix alba.

Used historically to treat pain and fevers, the modern-day use of compounds related to those in willow bark is due to the work of Rev. Edward Stone.  He was suffering from agues (a collection of symptoms including intermittent fever) and decided to try chewing a piece of willow bark.  He felt it helped his symptoms and, after testing the powdered bark on 50 of his friends, reported its benefits in a letter in 1763.

The bark contains the compound salicin which is readily oxidised to give salicylates (ions of salicylic acid).  In the tree these act as allelopathic compounds, excreted into the soil to deter other plants from growing.  In the human body they act as COX enzyme inhibitors so reduce the production of prostaglandins.  These would cause pain and inflammation.

Acetyl salicylic acid

Chemical diagram of aspirin

However, the use of salicylates can cause the side-effect of stomach bleeding so in 1890, the pharmaceutical company Bayer launched a project to look for a gentler alternative – one which retained the beneficial properties but with reduced potential side-effects.  The compound they came up with was acetyl salicylic acid, better known today as aspirin.

Aspirin was the first of a new class of drugs known as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and became widely used. It was the drug of choice against the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.  The use of aspirin to treat inflammation and fevers has been overtaken by newer drugs such as paracetamol.  However, the potential side-effect of stomach bleeding has led to another use. Today many people take a low dose of aspirin to help prevent heart attacks and strokes.  Aspirin remains one of the most important and widely used drugs on the market with an annual global usage of over 100 billion tablets.

Willow bark is still used by herbalists to treat pain, inflammation and fevers. Other chemicals present in the bark, such as flavonoids, may contribute to its success at lower doses than aspirin.  These may also reduce the occurrence of side-effects.

Willow has many other traditional medicinal uses.  Culpeper recommended using a drink made by mixing the boiled leaves or seeds in wine to extinguish the heat of lust in both men and women!  Galen describes using the burnt ashes of the bark, mixed with vinegar to take away warts, corns and superfluous flesh.  Today, salicylic acid (the parent salicylate) is used to treat warts, corns and verrucae.

Willow fluff in Beijing; image http://www.timeoutbeijing.com

In the 1960s, millions of willow and poplar trees were planted in Beijing.  However, these shed catkins in the spring and this can be a fire hazard.  The fluff can also cause irritation to the respiratory system.   Reducing the number of female trees, the main culprits, would be beneficial and recently, only male trees have been planted. For existing female trees, two possible solutions have been tried.

The trees can be given a ‘sex-change’ – their upper branches are removed and male branches grafted on, but, although effective, this is time-consuming and expensive.

In 2016, a chemical method was attempted.  15,000 trees were injected with three plant chemicals which are growth promoters, including indole-3-butyric acid (IBA).  These compounds inhibit flowering and promote vegetative growth – which doesn’t require catkins to be produced. The injections are about 10 times cheaper than the ‘sex change surgery’. IBA is an auxin, which occurs naturally in willows and is used in some commercial plant rooting products.  Results of this trial have not yet been publicised.

IBA

Chemical diagram of indole-3-butyric acid

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #36 Wild Rose

Wild Rose (Rosa canina)

Wild Rose, the remedy for those who are apathetic, is made by the boiling method.

Rosa canina, or dog rose, is usually found growing in hedgerows.  The leaves were traditionally used as a laxative and the seeds as a diuretic. Use of the dog rose to treat bites from rabid dogs may have led to its common name.  Alternatively, this may have been a corruption of ‘dag rose’ referring to the sharp thorns, like daggers.

dog rose hips

Rosehips; image from pixabay.com

The fruits, known as rosehips, are a good source of vitamin C as well as other vitamins and flavonoids. According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, rosehips contain 426 mg of vitamin C/100 g fruit, compared to 50–60 for oranges or their juice and 29.1 for limes.  During World War II, British schoolchildren gathered the hips and these were usually made into a syrup, used to ensure sufficient vitamin C was consumed.

Rosehip syrup is still taken today as a tonic and to reduce tiredness.  Rosehips are also used to treat conditions of the bladder and kidneys and to reduce pain in osteoarthritis sufferers.  The hairs around the seeds cause itching and ground rosehips are used in some commercial itching powders.

L-abscorbic acid

Chemical diagram of vitamin C

Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, is needed in the body to protect cells and keep them healthy; to maintain healthy connective tissue and to heal wounds.  In the UK, the recommended daily amount required by an adult is 40 mg.  A lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy but the body can’t store the vitamin and sufficient can usually obtained from the diet.

Some people advocate supplements giving doses of 1,000 mg or higher but these can cause stomach problems.  Most famously, in 1971, eminent chemist Linus Pauling published claims that high doses of vitamin C could prevent the common cold and cancer.  The winner of two Nobel prizes, Pauling was also a leading peace campaigner and anti-nuclear activist.  However, to date there is insufficient evidence to support his ideas.

Rosa canina; wild rose

Dog rose; image from pixabay.com

Hanging a rose over the dinner table symbolised that all confidences would be held sacred and today, the plaster ornament at the centre of a ceiling is still known as the rose.  This is the origin of the phrase sub rosa, meaning in confidence or in secret.

Rose essential oil comes mainly from the damask rose (Rosa damascena) or cabbage rose (Rosa centrifolia), grown in Bulgaria and France.  It takes around 10,000 flowers to produce 25 ml of oil.  The oil contains a large number of chemical compounds including citronellol, geraniol, rose oxide and β-ionone.  However, the compound β-damascenone is the most significant contributor to the fragrance. The quantity of β-damascenone in rose oil is used as a determinant of quality.

Damask rose was traditionally used to treat coughs, colds and eye infections and to staunch bleeding.  Rose oil is used in aromatherapy for stress and grief to nurture the body and in cosmetics for mature skin.

Apothecary rose (Rosa gallica officinalis) has sedative and antidepressant properties, is an astringent and can lower cholesterol.  Traditionally, petals were dried and rolled into beads which were strung into chains for religious use as a rosary.  Flowers are used in pot pourri and petals sometimes used as confetti.

For an introduction or sources and more info., follow the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #35 Wild Oat

Wild Oat (Bromus ramosus)

Wild oat, the remedy to help those at a cross-roads in their life to find their true direction, is made by the sun method.

Chemical diagram of peramine

Bromus ramosus is commonly known as the hairy brome – one of around 170 brome grasses in the genus.  The brome grasses are classified in a different genus but within the same family as the common oat (Avena sativa) and both their genus names are Latin words for oats.  Other relations include the wheat-grass family (wheat, barley and rye).

Brome grasses are susceptible to infection by endophytic fungi which live within the grass but for the most part do it no harm.  The fungi do, however, produce chemical compounds to protect their hosts.  One common example is peramine, an alkaloid which acts as a deterrent to insect feeding, found in Bromus ramosus infected with Epichloё bromicola.

A well-known example of an endophytic fungus is Claviceps purpurea, which often affects rye, producing the disease ergot of rye.  Ergot produces toxic alkaloids known as the ergot alkaloids which cause two types of illness – one convulsive and the other, commonly known as St. Anthony’s fire, gangrenous.  Medicinally, ergot was traditionally used to induce childbirth and study of the ergot alkaloids led their common nucleus to be identified as lysergic acid.

Chemical diagram of lysergic acid; LSD is the diethylamide, where the H atom of the OH group is replaced by N(CH2CH3)2

In the 1930s, chemist Albert Hofmann was working on making derivatives of lysergic acid and first made the diethylamide which he called LSD-25.   After taking some by accident in the 1940s, he described the hallucinatory properties of the compound, now known just as LSD, and it went on to be used both legally and illegally for its hallucinogenic effects.  The discovery and study of LSD and its effects on the brain made a significant contribution to the understanding of the link between neurochemistry and mental illness.

LSD was tested in a CIA mind-control programme, Project MKUltra, a series of illegal experiments carried out between 1953 and 1973.  The drug was often given without consent, including to prisoners, military and government employees and the general public.   The programme aimed to develop and test drugs and procedures for use in interrogations and torture specifically by altering the victims’ mental state.   Use of LSD was eventually abandoned due to its unpredictable effects.

Wild oat;

Hairy brome; image by Leo Michels (Own work, www.imagines-plantarum.de) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Brome grasses have little economic value and are often considered to be weeds.  The common names of Bromus sterilis are poverty brome or barren brome, attesting to this.  Bromus diandrus is known as ripgut brome – this refers to the danger posed to animals from the seeds.  These are sharp with backward-facing hairs which can become lodged like a fish hook.

The invasive weed cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is relatively fast-growing and fire retardant so interferes with the fire cycle in natural plant communities.   It is combustible so increases the number of fires but is adapted to survive these events better than most other plants.   Stemming the spread of cheatgrass is a significant issue in parts of the USA, due to the increased occurrence of wildfires.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #34 Water Violet

Water Violet (Hottonia palustris):

Leaves of water violet or featherfoil; image by Christian Fischer [CC BY- SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons. org/licenses/by- sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Water violet, the remedy for those who feel cut off from others, is made by the sun method.

Hottonia palustris or water violet has finely divided leaves and is sometimes known as featherfoil or water yarrow.  Lineaus named the genus after a Dutch professor of medicine and botany at Leiden University, Petrus Hotton (1648 – 1709).  There are only 2 species in this genus – Hottonia palustris, native to Europe and Western Asia and Hottonia inflata, native to North America.  The American species has markedly smaller flowers but thicker stems.

Water violet is an aquatic plant with submerged leaves. This has implications for its chemical defences.  Phenolic compounds form an important part of many plants’ defences. A study of the total phenolic content of 40 aquatic and semi-aquatic plants with floating, emergent of submerged leaves found that the total content was least in submerged leaves.

Water violet

Water violet; image by Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Phenolics, including tannins, offer protection against pathogens, herbivores and UV-B radiation.  Floating or emergent leaves are more vulnerable to attack as they are accessible to pathogens and herbivores in and out of the water.  Submerged leaves have a lower nitrogen content and a lower calorific value, making them less attractive to herbivores.  Also, as UV-B light penetrates water poorly, submerged leaves have less need for protection from it.

In fact, the presence of both light and carbon dioxide are required for the synthesis of phenolics and other compounds in plants and both of these components are in limited supply beneath the water.  To enable submerged leaves to obtain enough to provide energy, the leaves are thinner (so have a larger surface area to volume) and lack cuticles, so are relatively simple compared to floating or emergent leaves.

Aquatic plants can still obtain enough light to carry out photosynthesis, even when they have submerged leaves.  However, suspended particles, dissolved substances and water depth can restrict the amount of light that penetrates the water.  As in non-aquatic plants, the light is harvested by chlorophyll in the leaves, providing energy to convert water and carbon dioxide to glucose and oxygen.  Water violets are termed oxygenating plants which get their nutrients from the water and also release oxygen back into the water.   Therefore, they help maintain the ecological balance and prevent overgrowth of algae.

Chemical diagram of chlorophyll-a

The plants are an important source of oxygen for fish and invertebrates living in the water and if the quantity of light available is compromised (e.g. by cloudy weather or the introduction of certain light blockers into the water) these may not survive.

Water violets are vulnerable to the removal of their preferred habitat e.g. by increased urbanisation and in some places, e.g. Germany, they are considered to be endangered.  Other potential threats include water contamination and/or overgrowth of algae or other plants.   Bodies of water are sometimes treated with herbicides to remove unwanted growth, but these can also affect non-target plants, such as water violets.

Water violets flower in May and June, producing white or pale violet flowers with yellow ‘eyes’ which are held above the water.

Water violets; image by Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #33 Walnut

Walnut (Juglans regia)

Walnut, the remedy for those who are affected by outside influences, is made by the boiling method.

Juglans regia

Walnut tree with drupes; image from pixabay

Native to regions east of the Balkans,  the common or Persian walnut is now found in Britain and is sometimes known as English walnut.  In the UK, temperatures are not conducive to nut formation and this may have led to the tradition of pickling walnuts.  This involves picking the whole fruit, or drupe, before the shell and kernel has formed inside.  These are soaked in brine (salt and water), dried and bottled in a pickling vinegar containing spices, or boiled in a pickling syrup containing vinegar, sugar and spices.  Pickled walnuts are traditionally eaten with cheese during the Christmas season.

The nuts contain large amounts of alpha-linoleic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.  This can reduce the chances of developing breast cancer and heart disease.  Walnuts can also reduce inflammation and joint pain in rheumatoid arthritis and inhibit the growth and reduce the size of prostate tumours.  Walnuts were rated the number one nut in a study comparing the anti-oxidant properties of nine types of nut.  An added benefit is that they are usually eaten raw whereas other nuts may be roasted, reducing the quality of the antioxidants.  These antioxidants were estimated to be between 2 and 15 times more potent than vitamin E.  What’s more, eating only seven walnuts a day should provide all the health benefits of walnuts discovered so far.

Juglans regia

Walnut in shell; image Mo Sibbons

Traditionally, the bark and leaves were primarily used to treat skin conditions such as herpes, eczema, ulcers and scrofulous diseases (i.e. resembling or due to tuberculosis of the lymph glands). Coachmen sometimes sponged down horses with a solution made by steeping walnut leaves. The husks and leaves were used to treat worms and the juice of the green husks was gargled with honey to treat sore mouths or throats.  The skin coating the kernel was dried and powdered and used to treat colic.  The seed oil was also used to treat colic as well as, externally, to treat skin conditions and wounds.

Followers of the Doctrine of Signatures, believing God marked plants to tell us how they could be used, advocated use of the kernels to treat the brain and the outer husk for wounds to the head.  Husks or kernels were sometimes burned and used with oil and wine to stop hair falling out and to make it fair and a piece of green husk was put into a hollow tooth to relieve pain.

Mona Lisa byLeonardo da Vinci; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Limited trials of the leaf extract have shown beneficial effects for the treatment of type-II diabetes – the extract caused a reduction in cholesterol and triglyceride and HbA1c (haemoglobin bound glucose), with no adverse effects.  The leaves were used in Austrian folk medicine to treat diabetes.  Other proven effects of the leaf extracts include as anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour agents.

Walnut oil is sometimes used in salad dressings or for cooking.  It is also used as a medium for pigments in oil paintings.  It is said to yellow less than linseed oil, a popular alternative, but does tend to quickly become rancid.  Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci used walnut oil paints and wrote about the detrimental effect of the husks on the quality of the paint – the colouring matter of the husk would rise up to the surface of the painting and cause it to change.

 

Juglone, found in walnut trees

Chemical diagram of juglone

The compound juglone, or nucin, occurs almost throughout the tree, mainly in the bark and hulls but not in the kernels.   It is an allelopathic compound, leached into the surrounding soil to deter other plants from growing – originally the effect of walnut trees on other plants was known as “walnut wilt”.  It is also toxic to some insects, fish and microorganisms including bacteria and fungi.  It is active against Heliobacter pylori, a bacterium affecting around 50% of the world’s population.  It has also shown anti-tumour and anti-fungal properties and may be of use in the treatment of athlete’s foot and ringworm.  Current medicinal use is limited to its sedative effect on animals and other potential uses are as a herbicide and biocide.

Juglone is related to lawsone (from henna) and plumbagin (found in Ceratostigma willmottianum (cerato) and other leadworts).  It is an orange-brown colouring agent used in the food and cosmetics industries and it can also be used in inks and dyes.  Walnut husks have also been used to produce a brown dye, used to dye hair or fabrics.   The dye doesn’t require a fixant so the husks will stain the hands if handled without gloves.  The husks of walnuts are often washed to remove the dyeing compounds, which can cause skin irritation as well as staining, before they are sold.

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #32 Vine

Vine (Vitis vinifera)

Vine, the remedy for dominant people who tend to bully others, is made by the sun method.

The name vine comes from the Latin viere to twist, referring to the plant’s twining behaviour.  Vines can live for 600 years and the stems of old specimens can reach diameters of over 30cm, when they are useful as timber. The fruit, or grapes, can be eaten raw, dehydrated to form sultanas, currants or raisins, or the juice drunk or fermented to produce wine.

The fruit of the vine

Grapes; image from pixabay.com

Grape sugar contains D-glucose (dextrose) which doesn’t require to be acted on by enzymes in saliva and so reaches the bloodstream quickly.   Grapes are traditionally eaten during convalescence.

The leaves are astringent as they contain tannins and were used to staunch bleeding and for haemorrhages.  The sap of the vine was used to treat weak eyes.   Grapes were taken to increase flow of urine, to treat anaemia and small-pox and in cases of neuralgia and sleeplessness.  Grapes have an adverse effect on the kidneys of dogs and even small amounts can cause kidney failure.

The so-called ‘grape cure’ involved eating large quantities of grapes (approx. 1.3–2.6 kg/day). Unripe grapes were taken for liver disease and ripe, sweet grapes for those needing to support tissue waste.   In the 1920’s, the Brandt Grape Cure was popularised by Johanna Brandt as a cure for certain types of cancer.   Many variations of the diet have been suggested but all involve a mixture of fasting, drinking only water and eating grapes. The controversial treatment is not recommended by the American Cancer Society but some people claim it has improved or cured their condition.

Chemical diagram of resveratrol

Chemical diagram of resveratrol

Some chemical compounds from grapes have shown potential for cancer treatment.  These include the related compounds resveratrol and picetannol, which has an additional hydroxy  (-OH) group.  Both also have a range of other potential medicinal benefits including as anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. They occur in grape skins and also in their seeds.

Resveratrol is produced by the plant in response to injury and protects the plant against fungi, bacteria and UV radiation.   It occurs in larger quantities in red wine than in white as red grapes are fermented with their skins.  Grape seed extract is sometimes taken as a food supplement to treat cardiovascular disease, poor circulation, diabetes-related eye conditions and high cholesterol.

Another use of the fruits from vine

Wine; image from pixabay.com

The Ancient Egyptians claimed wine was the tears of the god Horus and wine has been consumed for at least 6,000 years.  The Greek god of wine was Dionysus, or Bacchus in Roman mythology. Most wine is made using varieties of Vitis vinfera. It was initially probably made by accident – grapes contain sugar and juice and readily start to ferment in the presence of wild yeast, which is sometimes found on the skin of grapes themselves.

When wine began to be produced on purpose, grapes were crushed by trampling with bare feet to yield the juice – this made use of any fungi on the feet to instigate the fermentation process.   Today, the health benefits of wine are still promoted but these are tempered with the potential damage of excessive alcohol consumption. Claimed benefits of moderate consumption include to help prevent breast and colon cancers, reduce the effects of ageing and reduce the incidence of depression.

For an introduction or sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #31 Vervain

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Vervain, the remedy for those whose over-enthusiasm may lead to burnout, is made by the sun method.

Vervain © Whiskybottle | Dreamstime.com

Vervain © Whiskybottle | Dreamstime.com

It is considered a holy herb that legend has it was used to staunch the wounds of Christ after crucifixion.   Some of its common names are herb of grace, herb of the cross, herba sacra and holy wort.   Vervain was used as an altar plant by the Romans and was also sacred to the Druids. In Holland, Germany, Finland, Slovakia and Denmark it is known as iron herb – traditionally used in a procedure to harden steel and also in love potions to promote love as hot as burning iron!

Vervain was placed in fields to prevent bad weather. It was believed to handicap witches, protect against the Evil Eye and had unique lock-opening properties.  A man whose hand had been treated with vervain could turn keys and slide bolts at his slightest touch.

Its numerous uses in traditional medicine included to improve the sight, to treat fevers and ulcers, for purging and to promote lactation.  It was also used as a poultice for headaches, earache and rheumatism and also applied externally for piles.    The herbalist Culpeper recommended its use ‘for those who are frantic’.  Another common name for vervain is simpler’s joy which may refer to its wide range of medicinal uses – a simple was a herbal remedy.  Simplers foraged for medicinal herbs and sold them to apothecaries. As vervain commonly grows near areas of human habitation, the name can also be interpreted as referring to the simpler’s happiness at knowing this valuable plant was close-by or their feelings on seeing the plant, in anticipation of shelter at the end of a long day!

chemical found in vervain

Chemical diagram of hastatoside

Vervain is used in herbal medicine today to treat stress and nervous exhaustion.   A tea is also sometimes taken for insomnia and two closely related compounds found in the extract, hastatoside and verbenalin, have proven sleep-promoting effects.  Verbenalin has one less (-OH) group than hastatoside. These compounds have also shown antioxidant and liver-protecting activities and the extract of vervain also has anti-inflammatory activity. Other beneficial compounds include acubin, which has liver-protecting properties and verbascoside which has antmicrobial and antiinflammatory activities.

The essential oil verbena or lemon verbena, comes from the related plant Aloysia tryphylla.  It is used in aromatherapy to helps to ease exhaustion, relieve anxiety, boost concentration and for its antibacterial, antiseptic and antispasmodic effects.  In perfumery and cookery, it offers a lemony fragrance and taste.  It is one of the herbs used in the French liqueur Verveine du Velay. Lemon verbena contains verbascoside but a study of the antioxidant activity of the extract showed this was higher than predicted on the basis of verbascoside content, suggesting possible synergistic effects.

For an introduction and sources and more info., click the links.

Secrets of the Bach Flower Remedy Plants #30 Sweet Chestnut

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Sweet Chestnut, the remedy for those suffering from anguish and deep despair, is made by the boiling method.

Native to Southern Europe, the sweet chestnut was introduced to Britain by the Romans. They ground the nuts to make a flour or coarse meal and this was used to make porridge.   Nuts are surrounded by a spiny husk or cupule which gives them protection from predators and cupules usually contain two to four nuts. John Evelyn, the English gardener and diarist, wrote that the nuts were ‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’.  However, although commonly eaten in other parts of Europe, in England they were usually fed to pigs.

Sweet chestnut seeds or nuts

Sweet chestnut cupules; image from pixabay.com

The best chestnuts come from marrons – varieties which are monospermic (ie only produce one seed per fruit) and a meal made from these contains 15 % sugar. This was sometimes used to whiten linen cloth. Candied chestnuts are known as marron glacés and they are also eaten raw or roasted.  Roasted chestnuts are traditionally used as a stuffing for turkey.

Cooking foods changes their chemical composition and the nutritional value, colour and flavour also change.  When chestnuts are roasted, the volatile compounds γ-butyrolactone (GBL) and furfural are formed.  The former has a sweet caramel flavour and the latter a woody, almond flavour.  But the compounds produced are not always beneficial – acrylamide, a probable human carcinogen and known neurotoxin, is also produced.   The median acrylamide content found in tests of commercial samples was 90 μg/kg and in 2009 tolerable limits for carcinogenic effects of 2.6 μg/kg body weight/day and for neurotoxicity of 40μ μg/kg body weight/day, were estimated.   For a 70 kg person, in the absence of any other sources, this would suggest eating 2 kg a day would be safe!

Chemical diagram of GBL

Chemical diagram of GBL

γ-Butyrolactone occurs in small quantities in some wines but for commercial use it is synthesised.  As well as its use as a flavouring, it is used as a solvent and reagent in chemistry.  It can be used as a solvent for cured superglue. Although it is not medicinally active, it is a prodrug for γ-hydroxybutyric acid or GHB.  This means it is metabolised in the body to produce GHB, which produces intoxication similar to that of alcohol.

GHB is used recreationally, to increase athletic performance and as a date rape drug.  Medicinally, it is sometimes used to treat narcolepsy and was previously used in anaesthesia.  In the UK, GBL and GHB are class 3 drugs, so possession or sale for human consumption is illegal. GBL is permitted for use as a food flavouring or other legitimate uses, but this must be registered.

Furfural is produced commercially from agricultural by-products like oat hulls and is used as a chemical feedstock and solvent.  Although used as a flavouring agent in low concentrations, it is toxic and a skin irritant.

The Romans valued chestnut flower honey for its taste and it is used for dressing wounds, skin ulcers and burns today due to its antibacterial and antioxidant properties.  Leaves were chewed or made into a tea to treat fevers.  The major medicinal use, however, was to treat paroxysmal and convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough and other conditions of the respiratory system.

Sweet chestnut seeds or nuts

Sweet chestnuts; image from pixabay.com

The wood is more durable than oak although it loses durability after around 50 years old, so is used when the wood has to be sunk into the ground. In south east England sweet chestnut is coppiced to produce poles.  The wood and bark are a rich source of tannins which are used in the tanning of leather.

A 250-year-old sweet chestnut tree was the focus of an anti-road protest in London in 1993.  The tree, on George Green in Wanstead, was to be cut down to make way for an extension to the M11 motorway.  Protestors slept in the tree for 5 weeks before they were evicted and the removal of the tree was also challenged in court.  One argument was that, as letters were delivered to the tree by the Royal Mail, it constituted a legal dwelling.  The tree was eventually cut down in December 1993.

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