I think I may have first used the term ‘slow medicine’ to explain my yearly participation in Pemberton’s Slow Food Cycle Sunday. In one of my top five eureka moments, I was dazzled by the apparent philosophical compatibility of the slow food movement and the practice of herbal medicine. Just as ‘slow’ foods nourish and sustain us and ‘fast’ foods do not, herbal medicines act slowly to produce health effects that rapidly acting drugs cannot.
Hippocrates is credited with saying:
“Leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal your patient with food.”
It is good advice though presumably it was originally uttered in Greek.
Our genes recognize and know how to work with plant molecules and the beauty of medicinal herbs is that they function as both food and medicine. They contain vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins destined for use in normal growth, development and reproduction processes. However, as anyone who has ever tended a garden knows, plants also have to defend themselves against a variety of germs, insects and salad lovers. Since they cannot hide under the henhouse, they protect themselves and their communities by producing and mixing chemicals specific to the nature of the emergency. For example, when spider mites infest a lima bean patch, the plants release a mix of volatile oils that summons spider mite predators. Incredibly, though logically, the blend of oils released will only attract the predator of the offending species of spider mite. Throughout history, people have used the emergency-response chemicals of plants as medicines, flavourings and recreational drugs. Volatile oils such as the ones emitted by unhappy lima bean plants are extracted and sold as essential oils for use in aromatherapy. Eucalyptus oils are routinely used for inhalation treatment of respiratory infections. Yarrow grows abundantly in the valley. When prepared for use as a tea, it releases a wonderful aroma that has anti-inflammatory and germ killing properties.
Other familiar and useful classes of secondary compounds include tannins, bitters and resins. The gut healing properties of the tannins in that refreshing cup of black tea can be exploited to treat ulcers and diarrhoea. Tannin-rich plants you will see growing freely along Pemberton Meadows Road include alder trees, wild roses and all sorts of berries. As an aside, a good British Columbian merlot is loaded with tannins and I sincerely regret that it too does not grow wild on local roadsides.
Bitter plants have histories of use as digestive aids. Two extremely bitter herbs, frankincense and myrrh were so highly prized that they were considered the perfect gift for Christ. Bitter herb preparations such as Angostura are now popular flavorings for alcoholic drinks but originated as remedies for tummy troubles. In fact, those of us who enjoy gin and tonic before a decadent meal benefit from the fat metabolizing action of gin’s bitter juniper berry. Oregon grape is a familiar local plant that is stunningly bitter.
Resins are sticky substances exuded by some plants that can have germ-killing and anti-inflammatory properties. Anyone who has ever parked under a budding cottonwood tree probably hates resins but they are useful for purposes other than promoting the car wash business. Bees use cottonwood resins in their hives to combat infections and seal out mice and other marauders. Herbalists dissolve the resins in olive oil to make ointments for sore, aching joints and muscles. Black cottonwoods are ubiquitous in this valley and you will be grateful for their shade as you make your rounds on local farms.
The types, quantities and combinations of secondary compounds vary according to species, individual plant, local environment, time of day and season. Clover growing in Russia does not contain the poisonous compounds that discourage heavy foraging by snails and slugs because the bitter winters provide an effective form of slug population control. While the moderate British winters are kinder to Her Majesty’s molluscs, they must plan a menu of restricted clover gobbling when local clover launches fall production of these chemicals.
As we go about our busy lives it is easy to forget that we are dependent on plants for the air we breathe and much of the food and medicine we consume. Plants are relentless chemists charged with building the molecules on which our lives and the lives of all animals depend. As you pedal along the side of the road as far as humanly possible from the centerline, take a moment to salute the chemical prowess of Kingdom Plantae.
Fascinated? If you would like to hear more, plan to attend a Slow Food Sunday herb walk on Helmer’s Organic Farm. Complimentary walks are offered at 9:30, 11:30 and 2:00.