On Different Cross-Cultural Uses of Shared Herbs

Equisetum × moorei, Brno - Židenice, Czech Rep...
Horsetail image via Wikipedia

When I was in Chinese Medicine School, my herbal teacher and I got into an intense discussion of plantain seed.  In Western medicine, plantain (a related species to psyllium) seed is used as a mild laxative.  In Chinese medicine it is used as a diuretic to guide fluids from the small intestine and to stop diarrhea.  Usually I’d expect that different parts of the plant would have such different uses, but in this case we were both talking about the seeds.  As I was dropping off to sleep that night it hit me:  in Western medicine we eat the seeds with all the roughage.  In Chinese medicine we make a decocted tea and strain it out.

When I was in Guatemala last week, I spent time talking to herbalists who used the same herbs I do, differently.  One woman who had been documenting the indigenous uses of herbs for 25 years told me that horsetail was used for respiratory inflammation.  The Mayan women I was staying with used it for stomach inflammation.  Neither of them had heard of the western use for bones, nails and hair.  But all of the uses make sense:  minerals like silica which build the bones and hair are also anti-inflammatory.  Chances are that all of us mix the herbs with “medicine horses,” herbs that direct their action to certain parts of the body, directing the constituents. I use oatstraw and nettles with horsetail to reinforce my uses while the Mayan women use peppermint to reinforce theirs.

The women had never heard of using plantain as a spit poultice for bites, but they do use it for respiratory conditions, most likely for lung yin deficiency since in a land where water must be filtered and many people suffer from diabetes, yin deficiency is rampant.  I am more likely to use plantain internally for erosions or ulcerations since it helps skin granulation.

Urtica dioica Stinging Nettle -  Schmitz Park
Stinging Nettles image by brewbooks via Flickr

Stinging nettles grow in China (Urtica cannabina L) and  are used regionally to expel wind and removes wetness, promote blood circulation, to relax muscular spasm and for snake bite.  We tend to use nettles for allergies, as a nourishing source of minerals, as a counter-irritant and to build blood, acknowledging the diuretic and yin-depleting effects.  The seeds are acknowledged as bacteriostatic in modern Chinese pharmacology, but are used to reverse kidney disease in the US.  I never saw nettles either growing or in the marketplace in Guatemala, although Rosita Arvigo indicates that they are grown but only mentions the roots which are used for prostatitis and BPH.  Guatemalans do use a different plant they call ortigas as an arthritis counterirritant but it is much fiercer than Urtica diocia.  In Mexico uses extend to elephantiasis and leprosy, while Cubans include hemorrhoids as a use.

 

Garlic
Garlic image by sivandsivand via Flickr

 

Now there is the possibility that plants used in each country are slightly different.  David Winston maintains that Chinese plantain (P. asiatica) has a different range of constituents, allowing its use as a diuretic and kidney yang tonic, although I saw plenty of P. major on the Great Wall and it is also used.  So can the soil microbiota:  Nicole Maxwell identified cyperus grasses used for contraception and to enhance fertility, but both, from different kinds of soils were the same species.  But plants can be used differently because of rarity, or because more plentiful herbs fulfill a given function.  Banana leaves are used for burns in Guatemala, even in hospital settings, but tend not to be available in the US.  Or cultural reasons can limit use:  In Japan, garlic was rarely used until recently despite its being an extremely powerful herb.  The Japanese reportedly associated garlic with Koreans and found it unrefined, (although they now have their own garlic festival thanks to internationalizing tastes.) You can still find traces of the reluctance in some of the older macrobiotic literature. Unpleasant harvesting may interfere with the use of a plant.    Skunk cabbage, which grows in swamps, was more used in the various Native American tribes than in North American herbalism today, probably because people are adverse to getting their feet wet and muddy.

 

American Skunk Cabbage, Yellow Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage Image via Wikipedia

I find that cross-border information via email lists and Facebook, a growing international foodie culture, cheaper travel, and more written information have increased the knowledge of different herbal uses.  So for instance, Leslie Taylor’s The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs has information on the use of herbs in Amazonia, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, India and elsewhere all in one source.  Thomas Avery Garran, Jeremy Ross, David Winston, Michael  and Leslie Tierra and Peter Holmes have written about using western herbs in Chinese medicine and vice versa.

What is a local herb?  There is something like an 80% overlap in Chinese and Western herbs, which often students of Chinese medicine are unaware of due to using pinyin transliterations or pharmaceutical Latin instead of  English or botanical Latin names. Z’ev Rosenberg taught a class where we would wildcraft US herbs used in Chinese medicine from the mountains around Taos and would discuss their use in traditional Chinese  medicine in the afternoons. Osha, Chuanxiong and other ligusticums have overlapping uses.  I used to bring in live specimens to the clinic at PCOM so people would understand the plants that provided the herbs, and labeled them with common and pinyin names so that people’s English language and pinyin Chinese databases could be  mutually accessed. Other schools have planted botanical gardens of Chinese or other herbs which can be observed as plants and recognized for in the context of both systems of medicine.

There is a downside of learning more uses for the herbs when it comes to the testing used for practitioners of Oriental Medicine in the US.  I would routinely misidentify the traditional Chinese treatment categories that herbs fell into because I knew so many other uses.  The categories, tastes and temperatures of Chinese herbs allowed it to develop into perhaps the most sophisticated herbal medicine system, but stereotyping herbs by categories also keeps people from understanding the full range of herbal uses.  The NCCAOM herbal medicine test was thus torture for me because I couldn’t keep my Chinese stereotypes straight.  But that is a matter of testing and certification and I’d rather learn than pass tests.

That said, it helps to know more than “Herb X is good for Condition Y, in any number of systems” because there are different underlying conditions. Excellent diagnosis of the constitution and energetics of the condition is important.  A headache could be caused because the liver energy is rising up when inadequate kidney yin fails to anchor it, because too much sugar created an expansive headache or because of prior trauma to the head, so knowing herbs as “headache herbs” is inadequate.

David Winston’s impending materia medica which takes herbs from Chinese, European, Cherokee, other Native American, Eclectic, Ayurvedic and Unani medicine and assigns them common energetics, allows you to mix herbs from other traditions in a commonsense manner that can focus on underlying conditions.  This will allow us to better access the full range of uses for common herbs.  I await its publication.   In the meantime I suggest getting an understanding of whether an herb is hot or cold, which of the ten tastes characterize the plant, what systems of the body the herb has an affinity for and what special characteristics the plant has for treatment.  But do it from a consistent point of view rather than what you read, since the definition of categories tends to differ from one herbal system to another. Then find other herbs that tend to combine well with your main herb for specific types of applications, which support ancillary functions (like detoxing in a weight loss formula) and may guide the herb to a part of the body (like acyranthes for the knees) or harmonize the herbs (like licorice) or enhance penetration (like black pepper).

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