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Preserving the Wisdom of the Ages - Medicinal Plants
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 • Posted November 10, 2010

Perhaps another topic can be added to the old adage of "only two things in life are certain: taxes and death – that being changing demographics. The year 2009 was one of "unprecedented" occurrences: from the installation of the country’s first African American President of the United States, to the expression of political clout by immigrant populations, and unthinkably, to the reported depletion of the Medicare fund for aging Americans. Demographics have indeed changed, and perhaps, Americans will have to rethink their future.

As the health care reform (debate) heats up, people in the heartland wonder, "Will the government be able to fix it?" or, "Will we like it when they are finished with it?"

For those who want to be independent of government and its ability or inability to provide health services, perhaps we should become more self-sufficient. After all, the earth is populated by descendents of those resourceful people who survived because they knew how to grow, gather and wisely use the fruits of the earth. Reviewing how humans survived in the past can give us perspective on the uncertain future of health care today.

Having returned recently from a road trip through Brewster County, Texas, the back page of the Big Bend tourist magazine caught my eye. It reads, "People have been passing through here for generations."

Margarita Kay, the author of Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West, reminds us that the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico have in the last five hundred years been named at different times: the Chichimeca, Northwest New Spain, Mexico Norteno as well as the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico, southern California and Texas, reflecting the governing entity of the particular age.

Populations come and go when viewed in an "epic historical context". It should then come as no great surprise that, especially this region of America, has become flooded with immigrants, because, these Indian/Mexican ethnic groups have lived here in the past. The Aztecs are thought to have migrated into the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City) about one hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519.

"They had previously survived hundreds of years of wandering (in the Southwest)… and had of necessity, become expert botanists…"

After establishing their capital at Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs prospered and became "magnificent horticulturists… an immense botanical garden was established with nearly two thousand species of flora… where medicinal plants were cultivated and studied." (Joie Davidow, Infusions of Healing.) Also, she writes that "Basic knowledge of herbal medicine was common, where even in cities, families maintained gardens where they grew plants for food, medicine and ornament."

The Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortez , wrote historic long letters to the king of Spain. He expressed, " fear that no one would believe his description of a city so full of wonder that even the conquistadors themselves could hardly grasp what they were seeing."(Davidow) Unfortunately however, the Spanish, who were determined to wipe out all traces of pagan religious practices in the New World, destroyed the Aztec civilization and burned the great libraries with their wealth of medicinal information. Today in America, as more people live in urban environments (the norm for a highly developed country), they have come rely on "others" for food and medicines.

Although the current state of affairs has taken about a century to evolve, many Americans have reached a precarious point: that of being totally dependent on corporations for food as well as "big business" pharmaceutical companies, insurance networks and government clinics to provide health care.

In only a tiny fraction of time (relative to the history of the human race), the average American has become clueless as to how to survive without the corporate structure of services and products that are available today. And we all know how corporations are concerned with bottom line, often, over and above their delivery of quality service and products.

However, human beings have lived on Earth for thousands of years by using plant medicines and folk remedies. Admittedly, plant cures have been abandoned when a "better one is neatly package and readily available at the grocery store." Never-the-less, the human race in all parts of the world managed to survive into this age without modern drugs.

As people have become disenchanted with the health care network and its cost, plant medicine is a multi-billion dollar business. Health food stores, yerberias and grocery stores carry hundreds of different medicinal herbs. But knowing how to use plant remedies is the catch.

Margarita Kay adds that "Mexicans and Mexican Americans have a long tradition of healing, passed orally from their grandmothers for what they consider enfermedades benignas, or minor ills." She explains that "undocumented workers, afraid of encounters with immigration officials, bring remedies across the border or recognize them in the fields where they labor." Especially Mexicans, perpetuate the legacy of the Aztecs.

"The plant pharmacopoeia used to this day – from what we know of the earliest documented medicinal plant use – includes herbs of Renaissance Europeans, remedies of sixteenth-century Aztecs, Arab herbal medicines that date back to Hippocrates, medicines from Africa and healing wisdom from North American Indian tribes."

Again Margarita Kay relates that, "The archaeology of medicinal plants shows that the plants used for treating illnesses today have not been haphazardly chosen but instead exhibit long histories….only a tiny fraction of the 250,000 to 750,000 plants estimated to exist are used as medicines in the pharmacopeias of various societies…."

It makes sense that medicinal plant use has an ancient past, and a site in northern Iraq helps to argue its case. Skeletal remains, carbon-dated at more than 60,000 years, provided researchers with traces of pollen from five plants that are "used today throughout much of the world for medicines: Achillea (yarrow), Centaurea (thistle), Senecio (groundsel), Ephedra (Mormon tea) and Althaea (mallow.)" (M. Kay)

As one travels the highways in central Texas, it is possible to see many plants that belong to the plant pharmacopeia of the ages. Especially around Fredericksburg and Mason, the trained eye can spot yarrow, thistle, mugwort (artemesia), and verbascum (mullein) growing wild. Verbascum, known in Europe since ancient times, appears as a grey-green rosette until it is ready to bloom and then forms a spike from one to five feet tall with small yellow flowers.

Dr. Kay reports that respiratory illnesses are common in the American and Mexican West, especially in the colder climates, and that after being naturalized from Europe, verbascum has been used to treat these ailments. Knowing what part of a plant is to be used and how to prepare it for medicine are extremely important. Several books are available which provide specific information and directions on the preparations of teas, tonics, tinctures, salves and salts.

Infusions of Healing, A Treasury of Mexican American Herbal Remedies by Joie Davidow makes for an interesting read and is illustrated with drawings of numerous plants discussed in the book. The author provides botanical as well as Mayan and Aztec names (if they are known) of more than 200 herbs and plants with extensive notes on their histories and healing properties. The book also contains sections devoted to various ailments and their herbal remedies. Infusions is published by Fireside Books.

Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West by Margarita Artschwager Kay contains similar information with the addition of phytochemical data on the 100 plants she showcases. Healing is published by The University of Arizona Press.

Both of these books caution against relying on common plant names when considering use of a medicinal plant. As plant names vary from one region of the world to another, application of a plant with a similar name to the actual medical herb desired, could be useless or toxic.

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