Plant Medicine

Sustainable Healthcare – When Botanical Med Boffins Get Together.

As a Medical Herbalist, I belong to a professional regulating body. This is the National Herbalists Association of Australia. It’s the oldest, most respected, and well run complimentary medicine association in the country.

Like many professionals, my knowledge base doesn’t stop with what I learned all those years ago at university. I’ve learnt mostly from the plants and people that i work with, from personal study and research, and I also learn from the formal continuing education opportunities that the NHAA provides. One such opportunity was the recent  9th International Conference on Herbal Medicine that the NHAA put on (end of March – much has happened in between then and now, but I’ve been itching to write this post). Held over 3 days (oh why must it run over the Sabbath – thank goodness for conference recordings!), it was the best excuse for a semi-isolated nomadic practitioner to talk nothing but botanicals, phytochemistry, and grass roots clinical experience, and not have people look at you like you have two heads. In short, it was exhilarating and encouraging, and a good opportunity to catch up with old class mates, tutors, and colleagues, and make new contacts along the way. The presentations and presenters were world-class and cutting edge. Evidence-base and research driven was emphasised, but balanced well with a nod to our empirical roots, getting our hands in the dirt with the plants, and the importance of the heart-centred therapeutic relationship.

The theme of the conference this year was ‘Sustainability in Herbal Medicine’, which seemed to be the theme for March, as I had previously been made aware of a Kickstarter project by Ann Armbrecht (from Numen film fame – a post on that to come) for a new doco on sustainability in Herbal Medicine. The irony was that both were coming from opposite ends of the sustainability spectrum. While Ann is focussing on where our herbal medicines are coming from – are they sustainably grown or wildcrafted?, and although there were a couple of presentations on the former aspect of sustainability in Herbal Medicine, the NHAA conference focussed more on the sustainability of the profession of Herbal Medicine itself.

And I have to concur. In this age of the self-appointed health guru (read ‘coach’), where the internet is primary health adviser number one, and with a close runner up being those sensationalist columns in women’s glossies, Dr Oz, and health food shop marketing, are actual clinical visits to the medical herbalists and naturopaths becoming obsolete? Have we who have spent the better part of a decade burning the midnight oil to amass a diverse knowledge base spanning the biomedical sciences, the art of diagnosis, and the art of counselling, the complexities of phytochemistry, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, the intimacy of medical botany and it’s therapeutic application, the endless hours of learning to critique and then wade through the equally endless research papers, and then the practical application of it all in hundreds of hours of student clinic, in order to earn our degrees and our place as legitimate and truly holistic healthcare providers – have we done this in vain? Only to be trampled by the new fad ‘one size fits all’ cure-all health guru? The recent (and tragic) death, and ‘outing’ of some high-profile ‘wellness gurus’ in Australia has highlighted the contrast. As an interesting side note: as a trained wellness coach, giving actual medical or even health advice is not part of the coaching model. The goal of wellness coaching is simply to help people achieve their wellness goals, and to refer to a trained professional if there is a specific health concern.

So having ranted about that, back to the conference. In regard to the sustainability of the profession we are encouraged to contribute more to conducting our own clinical research (as a body of clinicians) building our own body of evidence-base research, and therefore taking ownership of our own herbal medicine (can anyone say ‘medical herbalists for the use of medical cannabis’? – sorry, another issue which may warrant a post sometime in the future).

Interspersed with this was new clinically practical information on the human microbiome (which i referred to in my previous post), the alarming incidence of gluten intolerance and it’s progression to auto-immune disorders, and the amounting evidence for the environmental toxin factor in the development of most degenerative diseases, as well as working with cancer patients, and managing other clinical presentations and measuring outcomes.  There was a LOT to take in, some of it not necessarily new to us (but new to science-backed evidence), but it was wonderful.

Perhaps my highlight was getting back to our roots and interacting with the actual plants – tasting, smelling, feeling, observing – the art of organolepsis. The difference in organic/biodynamically grown and conventional/commercially grown was clearly palpable.

There is a science and an art to this wondrous calling, and the NHAA managed to honour both seamlessly with this conference.

I realise that this post may seem a bit foreign to the lay person. I am not sorry. This practice that I find myself embraced by requires passion and compassion – for both plants and people. It is obsessive and demanding, yet utterly rewarding. So if nothing else, know this, we are a strange, us plant folk, but we are in love with what we do.

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Plant Medicine

An audience with Rose Geranium

Pelargonium graveolans photo credit: Wikipedia
Pelargonium graveolans
photo credit: Wikipedia
I first met a geranium when I was a child, perhaps as a baby, but my earliest recollection, when I really paid attention to this pretty plant, was around the age of 4. This particular geranium lived in a large pot on my Nanna’s front porch. It’s flowers wore a bright orangey pink. Somewhat garish, but to me endearing as the colour was the same shade that my Nanna adorned her lips with. It being a time when such colours were all the fashion. To the four year old me, and still to this day, the geranium in all her bright glory demanded attention. Yet her scent was harsh and almost acrid, not sweet, and evoked something that spoke of survival. In my mind’s eye, I see that particular geranium as an aging performer, perhaps a lounge singer, a survivor of a long and hard life, yet still with enough sparkle to proclaim her strength. Although my Nanna wasn’t an aging performer with her orange pink lipstick, she had a quiet strength, a cheerful spirit, and an intestinal fortitude that I can only hope to emulate. For this reason, perhaps it was fitting that she had chosen to park a geranium at her front door, and for this reason I will always equate geraniums with my Nan. 
 
This was the extent of my experience with geraniums (common geraniums anyway, which interestingly are a wild edible and appropriately, a survival food) until my second year of college during the module on medicinal weeds, when my dearest mentor introduced me to the scented geraniums (genus: Pelargonium). This opened up a whole new world of wonder and fascination, and one in particular piqued my interest; the Rose-scented Geranium. The essential oil of Rose Geranium is the main preparation used in commerce, and offers most of the actions of the whole plant, however if you can come by it, or make it yourself, the tincture is as equally magnificent. 
 
I’m currently formulating a balm to ease the symptoms of Fibrocystic and other breast dysplasia, and Rose Geranium essential oil will have a role in that recipe due to it’s affinity with women’s hormonal balance. However, today I found myself in a situation that made me feel anxious and confronted, and the Rose Geranium essential oil, which was the nearest thing I had available, proved to be quite calming and relaxing when applied neat to the pulse points on each wrist. One drop only was needed and then both wrists rubbed together. I find there to be quite a nourishing quality to Rose Geranium. Not necessarily in a motherly sense, but more of an empathic “I’ve been there” seasoned veteran sense.  As a bonus, the mosquitos also stayed away. 
 
Rose Geranium, or to introduce her properly, and perhaps make it easier for you to find a cultivar to grow yourself, Pelargonium graveolans  has the telltale rose scent yet with a citrus undertone. The whole effect is calming but also uplifting. If the common geranium is the older performer, then to me Rose Geranium embodies the spirit of the up and coming starlet. Sweet, cheerful, but with hints of being ballsy enough to survive whatever comes her way, something that also implies that ‘old soul’ veteran, even if she physically isn’t. 
 
As such, there is yin and yang in this plant, and thus a balance is effected when we partake of it in it’s various forms and applications. The plant itself bears hermaphroditic flowers.  A native to South Africa, Rose Geranium dislikes the shade, and according to the Plants For A Future database, prefers well-drained sandy and loamy soils, in an apparently wide range of pH, that may be dry or moist (but not too wet). Rose geranium is an evergreen shrub that will grow to 1.2m / 4ft, but she also grows well in pots in full sun, or next to a heat retaining wall. These requirements she shares with her common cousins. From memory my Nan’s bright geranium lived in stark contrast against a whitewashed wall on a chocolate coloured porch, and this combination of heat reflection and heat retention ensured that she thrived even on the most wintery of days. Although if it is bitterly cold, you should probably bring her into a greenhouse. Which is really the least you can do, given the food and medicine that she offers. Her flowers and leaves are edible and can be eaten raw or infused as a relaxing tea.
 
The Plants For A Future database states the medicinal actions as follows; An aromatic, rose-scented herb, the whole plant has relaxant, anti-depressant and antiseptic effects, reduces inflammation and controls bleeding. All parts of the plant are astringent. It is used internally in the treatment of pre-menstrual and menopausal problems, nausea, tonsillitis and poor circulation. Externally, it is used to treat acne, haemorrhoids, eczema, bruises, ringworm and lice. The leaves can be used fresh at any time of the year. The essential oil from the leaves is used in aromatherapy and is also applied locally to cervical cancer.
 
 
My beloved mentor from all those years ago, traditional herbalist Linda Bates, states that Rose Geranium is; sweet, astringent, pungent and harmonizing – i.e. warming and/or cooling, moistening dryness and drying dampness. It works to stimulate, restore, decongest, soften and stabilize. The medicinal actions are: anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-parasite, anti-ulcer, vulnerary (wound healing), resolves bruising and gives pain relief. [http://lindabatesherbalmedicine.com]
 
Rose geranium has an overall cooling quality when needed and for this reason she has been employed for the hot flushes of menopause and the heated irritability and frustrations of PMS. I suspect that she would also be a beneficial ally in alleviating and correcting a dark and profuse menstrual flow where there is also congestion and heat. I was mainly taught about Rose Geranium in the context of addressing women’s issues and it’s in this context that I have mostly used her. Her apparent mode of action in balancing the hormones is by supporting the adrenal cortex and aiding in detoxification, mainly through the kidneys and lymphatic drainage, thus also making her useful for premenstrual water retention. Through personal use, I have found her to be a valuable nervine. 
 
There is magic in this world. And the magic is in synchronicity, and in chance meetings that leave a lasting impression no matter how brief, and in those chance meetings that resurface in the still black depths of a mind filled with purpose. Such is my encounter with Rose Geranium. Prior to todays quick dab of essential oil on the wrists, I haven’t actually used her medicine in quite a while, but in my current personal challenges she has reappeared as a very timely ally. 
 
Although no literature that I am aware of discusses an affinity with the breast, I feel by virtue of her anti-inflammatory properties, her hormone balancing, and her detoxifying abilities, that Rose Geranium presents herself to ease the worry of a breast that belies the need for self-nourishment, to nurture the feminine spirit that has fought an uphill battle for far too long. A breast (usually the left) riddled with nodules of silent anguish and knots of self-doubt, of the tenderness of guilt, and the indurations of self-sacrifice. For this reason, I will apply her topically in the balm that I am making, and take her internally in tincture along with other supporting herbs. 
 
I thoroughly recommend seeking an audience with this remarkable plant, in any of her forms. She offers a love song for the long-suffering soul. 
 
 
* A note on plants and their inimitable personalities: many plant folk will meet a plant and feel or intuit it’s personality based on which aspect of the plant’s character is presenting itself in response to or in the context of the particular need at hand. In this regard some plant folk will differ in their feelings about a plant. Nevertheless the energetics (eg: if it is cooling or drying, etc.) and the actions of the plant will remain consistent across all encounters.
 
Where to find Rose Geranium in Australia (if she doesn’t grow near you);
Essential OIl: www.mullumherbals.com
Fresh Plants to nurture: www.herbcottage.com.au  or  http://www.herbs-to-use.com/ or
 
Floral Blessings,
Michelle xo