Information on Herbs: Medicinal, Culinary, and Homeopathic Uses

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Medicinal, Culinary, and Homeopathic Uses

Information on Herbs: Medicinal, Culinary, and Homeopathic Uses

All of us know what oregano, parsley, garlic, and coriander are….right? They are herbs. But what many people do not know is that herbs are also used for healing.

Just 20 years ago, growing herbs was the exclusive province of a few dedicated herbal connoisseurs who often had to order plants by mail from specialists in places as far away as Europe. Given the vagaries of international mail, it is well that herbs are now much more widely available locally, assuming as they do their rightful place amongst the petunias, marigolds, and tomatoes on the annual spring shopping list for the garden.

The emphasis today is on the fresh use of herbs. in the freshly picked state, many herbs such as parsley, tarragon, rosemary, basil, and chives are vastly superior to the dried stuff from your neighborhood grocer. Tod aym no self-respecting chef at any of Toronto’s best restaurants would dream of being without a regular fresh supply, and some even go to the extreme of installing their own rooftop garden or indoor hydroponic garden.

Mystique of Herbs

Despite the mystique of herbs that lingers from the days when peppercorns were more valuable than gold or when basil was associated with the demons and witches, herbs are remarkably uncomplicated and undemanding as garden subjects go. For one thing, they are often weedy in their natural habitats, and although none of the most popular herbs are natives of Canada, they will grow quite happily in most places where there are at least four hours of exposure to the sun and where the soil drains well.

The more sun, however, the better, for the natural essential oils in the leaves become more pronounced in strong light, and it is these oils that give many herbs their exquisite aromas and flavors. If your soil is s heavy clay, then dig in plenty of sand and peat moss to improve drainage and friability.

The garden should be dug and prepared for planting when all risk of frost has passed. Some thought should be invested in the placement of a new herb garden, for although it could be treated as a vegetable garden – dug up and planted wholesale each year – many herbs are hardy perennials in the Toronto area and easily become permanent fixtures if encouraged.

Close proximity to the kitchen is an important consideration so that fresh herbs are always near at hand whenever the culinary creative juices flow. Not much space is needed: In just a few square feet near the back door, a half a dozen different kinds of herbs could grow. Even apartment dwellers have no excuse for alack of fresh herbs because herbs are quite content to grow in planters on balconies.

When you go shopping for herb plants there is one thing to keep in mind: Many plants sold in the Toronto area are mass-produced from seeds. Starting herbs indiscriminately from seeds is a convenience for the commercial grower, but the practice is not always int he best interest of the consumer since several important herbs such as tarragon and mint are better grown from cuttings. Seed-grown tarragon and mint are completely devoid of the aromas and flavors we have come to associate with those herbs. when in doubt, don’t be afraid to squeeze a leaf or two (even surreptitiously!) and if they don’t smell right, don’t buy.

Here is a short list of herbs to get for your back door her garden:

Basil: There are dozens of varieties, but the most popular are the large-leaved and the Italian miniature bush varieties. Absolutely essential for pesto and tomato dishes of all kinds.


Of two kinds: the regular onion-like variety and the very popular flat-leaved garlic chives. Both are hardy perennials.


Fresh leave coriander is a keynote flavor in Latin American and Oriental cuisines. The common variety is best seeded directly in the garden and harvested at an early stage, with repeat sowings as is necessary to maintain supply. Annual.


For fresh leaves, it needs to be seeded directly in the garden at regular intervals and cut early like coriander. For pickling, use flowers and seed-heads of older plants. Annual.


Most oregano sold is grown from the wrong seeds. Be sure you get the Greek variety with the strong, spicy aroma. Beware of oregano that has little flavor, and watch out for savory (a lovely herb in its own right) masquerading as oregano in some places. With protection, it survives as a perennial.


The curled-leaf type is well known for garnishing, but those in the know much prefer the flat-leaved Italian variety, which has more flavor. Treat as an annual.


The only true French variety has the characteristic sweet flavor reminiscent of licorice, and it cannot be grown from seeds. With good soil drainage, it survives our winters quite well.


The common spice-rack thyme is either the English or French cultivar. Both are perennials, but English is a little harder. Lemon thyme is a radical, but an irresistible departure from the common types, terrific on baked seafood and in tea.

Herbs and Healing

First off, I issue a warning. As with all health matters, PLEASE consult a doctor before undergoing any medical treatments prescribing herbal products. Some herbal products do not mix with each other and some do not mix with pharmecuticals.

The Importance of Proper Diagnosis

Lately, there has been a renewed interest in one of the world’s oldest systems of healing, herbal or botanical medicine, a.k.a. phytomedicine. With the advent of modern technology and the information superhighway, people from all walks of life have been looking for and finding more and more proof that there is really something to “holistic” healing.

The modern pharmacy has been in existence for only 1% of the time that man has been preparing medicines. During this brief period, man has redefined these things we call drugs as a refined or synthetic chemical, concentrated and identified. But there is plenty of evidence to show that this purification method is the inevitable prequel to deriving a pure toxic drug from a harmless medicinal plant. As a matter of fact, at this point in time, approximately 25%-40% of all prescription drugs are derived from plants. The word “drug” comes from the medieval German word “rogue,” which means a dry herb.

Many of you may have taken an herb or vitamin recommended by a friend or retail store clerk, and felt that nothing happened, nothing changed or improved. At this point, you possibly dismissed the whole field of holistic or natural medicine as a hoax. On the other hand, some of you have probably taken the recommended natural product and have had amazing results. The practice of herbal medicine is not simply a matter of going to a store and choosing some remedy that some company tells you to buy. This may be safe and effective in some cases, but when it comes to the majority of health problems seen in practice today one should ideally be properly trained and qualified to make correct diagnoses first, then prescribe the appropriate herbal combination for that specific condition.

So how do you make herbs work for you?

What are the proper procedures for using these medicinal plants and getting the maximum effect in the shortest amount of time? And what criteria should you use to know when treatment is clinically effective? If you need something for your depression that is natural and herbal, the typical knee jerk – reflex would be to reach for some St. John’s Wort. This would be analogous to taking an aspirin for your headache. St. John’s Wort may temporarily alleviate the symptom of depression but may have to be taken on a continual basis and still may not necessarily address the “root” of the problem. This example illustrates how important it is to recognize the accuracy of proper diagnosis for the treatment of disease.

Importance of Herb Quality

Herbs medicine flowers

The practice of herbal medicine is not simply a matter of going to the store and choosing a product off a shelf of 200 brand names. This may be safe and effective in some cases, but when it comes to choosing what will work best for you, you must question the quality of the herbal product you are buying. Quality has always been of paramount importance. The source or origin of the herbs used will frequently be the deciding factors as to whether an herb is effective or not. Taste is one method of determining quality since high-quality herbs are often strong-testing and hard on the palate. But you can’t sample them off the shelf, and additives can mask the taste of many herbs.

Quality today is quite another story. There are many unscrupulous companies out there selling vitamin and herbal supplements, manufacturers misidentified and/or adulterated botanical raw materials for distribution and sale. It is not uncommon to see among poor quality herbs, adulteration of a root, seed, leaf, or flower with a stem of the plant, the stem has no medicinal qualities and dilutes the beneficial efforts of the herb. These features can be examined under the microscope and the quality of a medicinal plant can be determined by the microscope plant structures with the plant part in question.

Fifteen years ago in America, there were two options if you wanted to use herbs to enhance your health available to you. The first was to grow your own herb garden and make teas. The other was to locate a trustworthy supplier of herbal tinctures or capsules, In either case, you were using the whole herb to obtain a “balancing effect” within your body. In other words, the herbs weren’t just treating a symptom, they were correcting the underlying imbalance in the body that was causing the symptom. It represented the ultimate in holistic medicine. This was also herbal medicine the way nature had intended.

Whole herbs contain hundreds of different components that work synergistically to achieve positive effects and minimize negative ones. A good example is white willow bark, the whole herb source from which aspirin is derived. White willow bark does not cause the gastrointestinal bleeding and other problems that aspirin does because it contains other compounds that temper these effects. Because herbs were actually correcting problems, not just suppressing symptoms, it was generally understood that treating a problem with herbs might take a little longer than treating it with drugs. The drug companies knew that this was the “Achille’s heel” of many herbal treatments. People wanted instant results, and in this regard whole herbs just couldn’t compete with powerful drugs.

Things began to change around the early 1980s, when there seemed to be an increase in public awareness of natural medicines, for the first time, people could easily research health problems on their own. They were no longer relying on doctors to prescribe drugs, many of which had proven to be ineffective and riddled with side effects. By the end of the 80s, there was an overwhelming public demand for things like vitamins and herbal products.


When plants or other forms of natural ingredients are harvested they are naturally contaminated with all sorts of microorganisms including E-Coli and Salmonella. Both are pathogens, they cause disease. Most manufacturers insist that the final blend be sterilized prior to use to eliminate or lower the Bio-Burden. Sterilization even-though necessary creates a major problem. The two most common methods of sterilization are Ethylene Oxide and Radiation. Ethylene Oxide is a known carcinogen and residues are likely to be left in the product. Radiation appears to violate the principle of “all-natural,” and would disturb many who turn to these products to get away from conventional chemical drugs and all their side effects. The consumer has been kept in the dark, and the companies continue to promote their products as all-natural.

The Use of Toxic Solvents

The ingredients in this discussion are derived from plants, herbs, spices, either the leaves, root, or some part of the plant or tree, that come from various sources where there are no controls over the soil, air, or the pesticides used. Due to these factors, there needs to be a test done to ensure that a particular dose does not contain more toxic residues or harmful contaminants than the active ingredient.

For example, Antioxidants are for the purpose of ridding the body of free radical and harmful toxins. These products are derived from grape seed or pine bark and must go through a purification and reduction process. Those processes use chemicals to accomplish these tasks.

The chemicals used are Acetone, Ethyl Acetate, Methylene Chloride, Ethyl Alcohol, and Buty; Alcohol. Throughout these sterilization processes, the product is exposing you to more toxic chemicals than it is purposed to remove.


When you examine a label of a product, the ingredients such as Magnesium, selenium, Manganese, Zinc, Chromium, and iron, adjacent to this list, the % of U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances are listed. If the amount of Chromium listed was 35 milligrams and the RDA was 35 milligrams, the consumer would assume that they are getting 100% of the RDA by using the product.

Upon closer examination, when the iron is listed, for example, in parenthesis there is a small “Fe” which doesn’t mean a lot to the consumer, but this indicates that the iron in the product is actually Ferrous Oxide, a chemical substitute for iron. Iron as “Fe” is not bio-available as natural iron. “Fe” has only 1% bio-availability. This means that the body can only absorb 1% of the required daily allowance.

Chromium is listed as “chromium/chromium polysilicon”, once a chemical substitute for Chromium and its bio-availability is less than 5%.

Selenium is listed as “Sodium Selenate” a chemical substitute for Selenium.

Zinc is listed as “Glutconate” another chemical substitute for the real thing.

The Bio-availability of these chemicals is virtually nonexistent.

The Issue of Standardization (The Drug Version of Herbs)

The rationale currently being used for standardizing herbs is that it will “correct” the slight chemical variations that occur in each plant due to soil composition, the amount of rainfall they receive, their age, the time of day or season of the year they are harvested, how they are stored, etc… The general assumption is that by using various techniques to ensure that each product has the same amount of active ingredients, the therapeutic results will be more consistent. In theory, standardization sounds plausible and perhaps even preferred, but in reality, it opens up a whole new can of worms.

Standardization does not necessarily mean consistency across products. At present, there are no universally accepted methods or legal definition of standardizing herbal products. Ten different manufacturers can (and do) “standardize” the same herb using totally different criteria and manufacturing processes. There are three methods generally used for standardized herbal products. One is to dissolve certain active components in a solvent (such as alcohol) to make a tincture. Another method is to blend various batches of herbs together in hopes of getting a more consistent product. The third and cheapest way is referred to as “spiking” a product. In this case, either the active component or synthesized version is added to a base of herbs or other grounded up substances. The end product may not contain any of the initial herbs at all, but when checked in a lab it will show it has been “standardized” to contain just the right amount of the active component. The more ethical suppliers steer clear of this shady method.

Active Ingredients do not always determine the effectiveness of an herb. Scientists are learning more about herbal compounds each day, and often what they uncover renders previous data obsolete. St. John’s Wort is a prime example. For the longest time, scientists believed that hypericin was the sole ingredient that gave St. John’s Wort its antidepressant properties. That’s why everyone standardizes the herb for hypericin content. But it was recently discovered that other components such as hyper inform are equally responsible for the herb’s mood-altering abilities. A similar situation occurred with the herbs valerian and echinacea. It was originally thought that the active ingredient responsible for valerians calming powers was valerenic acid, but later research showed that other compounds produced those effects. Echinacea was being standardized to contain the chemicals called echinacoside, when in fact it was the alkylamines, glycoproteins, and polysaccharides that gave the herb its immune-boosting properties. Products that are “spiked” or made with low-quality herbs likely don’t contain any of these other essential components.

Healing herbs

Standardized herbal products are not more advanced versions of whole herbs. Whole herbs have been used for the prevention and treatment of illness for literally thousands of years, and are the primary form of medicine for many cultures around the world today. Standardized forms of these herbs should in no way be considered a substitute for or an improvement on whole herbs. If we allow this misperception to continue, we’ll lose the safest and most enduring form of medicine man has ever known. Again, St. John’s Wort is a good example. The standardized herb has become so popular for treating depression that it’s now tough to find the whole, UNSTANDARDIZED form. As a result, the public is completely missing out on the herbs other benefits that traditional herbalists have known about for decades. While St. John’s Wort can be used in teas poultices and tinctures to treat kidney problems, bronchitis, vitiligo, painful menstrual cramps, gastritis and stomach ulcers, nerve pain, recurrent ear infections, gout, and open wounds.

Whole and Standardized Uses to Enhance Your Life: Basically the goal is not to denounce standardized herbs, however, do replace them, instead of whole herbs. They both have merits, and both have a place in modern medicine. Standardized herbs should be used to help correct acute health problems and achieve very specific results. Using standardized valerian to counteract stress or insomnia is a good example.

Whole Herbs should be used on a very regular basis to protect and preserve good health. Think of green tea. Many cultures around the world drink a few cups of it each day to prevent cancer and other types of degenerative diseases. By using the whole plant, you’re taking advantage of the synergy of all the plant’s components.

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