The Local Herb Witch and her Kitchen Garden

I’ve often met her within the pages of a novel, and I’ve always admired her: The wise-woman or midwife, the good witch who cures all ills with herbal potions, enhanced with a dollop of magic—or not, as the case may be.

Willow bark tea and basilicum powder, lemon balm and comfrey roots: They must not be absent from the local herbwoman’s inventory. Neither must eye of newt and the occasional bat wing potion, though those are not the topic of this article. Here, we will focus on medicinal plants that play a role in the real world as well as in fiction.

Herbal cures have a long tradition, having served to cure sickness and injuries long before the advent of antibiotics and other chemically manufactured drugs. Interestingly, as bacteria grow increasingly resistant to antibiotics, and more and more people refuse to accept adverse side effects of chemical drugs as inevitable, traditional herbalism and modern evidence-based phytotherapy have seen a revival in recent years.

So let’s see what modern medicine has to say to some of those cures which we encounter in fiction.

Take for example young Healer Keisha from Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series. She has a talent for magical healing but isn’t trained in its use, so she relies heavily on herbal remedies to help her patients. In the following snippet from Owlsight by Mercedes Lackey, Darian, former apprentice of Keisha’s predecessor Justyn, comes to visit:

“Oh, this is good,” he exclaimed, as the garden came into view. “What have you got here?” Without waiting for her reply, he walked carefully around the beds, identifying plants aloud. “Feverfew, wormwood, basil, thyme, lobelia, comfrey—” Keisha was impressed, for she would never have thought he’d have any knowledge of herbs. “I must say, I’m glad Justyn didn’t have all this.”

“Why?” she asked, startled.

“Because then I wouldn’t have had so many reasons to go out into the forest,” he replied with perfect logic. “Keisha, you’ve done some remarkable things here. This is wonderful from the point of view of having supplies at hand.”

All of the drugs mentioned here (feverfew, wormwood, basil, thyme, lobelia and comfrey) are plants which have historically been used in herbal medicine:

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), as its name suggests, was historically used to reduce fevers. Thus, Keisha would prescribe it for a feverish chest cold or to battle a high temperature accompanying an infected wound. She can also treat headaches, arthritis, and menstrual cramps with the herb. Modern scientific studies suggest that feverfew is actually not a good antipyretic (fever-reducing) drug, but it is effective in preventing migraines. There is also some evidence that feverfew can reduce inflammation, though its effectiveness against rheumatic arthritis has not been scientifically proven:

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) gets its name from its historical use as a treatment for intestinal parasites. It was also used in poultices and salves against bruises and insect bites, and, when we first meet Keisha in Owlsight, she is busy decanting a bruise potion made by steeping wormwood in vinegar. In modern times, the herb is often administered to treat digestive disorders. Ingested as tea or as a tincture, it counteracts poor appetite, supports the gall’s function, and helps with dyspepsia (indigestion). There is also some evidence that it might be effective against Crohn’s disease.

Caution is necessary when using the drug, though: Wormwood contains thujone, which can be toxic in high doses.

The European Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products concludes that wormwood herb preparations can be used to treat temporary loss of appetite, as well as mild heartburn and stomach/gut disorders:

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) has been in use as a healing herb across the globe for thousands of years. It contains essential oils, whose antiphlogistic (anti-inflammatory) properties made basil a popular remedy for digestive problems. Keisha will also use powdered Basil as an anti-inflammatory agent for external application — for example to disinfect wounds or heal eczema.

Basil contains estragole, which is suspected of being carcinogenic. For this reason, the herb has lost much of its relevance as a medicinal plant in modern medicine, though some applications are still being discussed:

Keisha will use thyme (Thymus vulgaris) to treat bronchitis and other diseases that come with a heavy cough, since the herb has antispasmodic (spasm/cramp easing), antiphlogistic (fever-reducing) and analgesic (pain-reducing) properties. Historically, thyme has also been used to treat rheumatic complaints and digestive problems, so Keisha may also prescribe a tea to ease belly cramps, or a salve for her patients to apply to a swollen joint.

Modern science has confirmed that thyme can ease bronchitis and other problems in the respiratory tract:

Thyme leaves can be ingested as tea or fluid extract, or combined with honey and made into a cough syrup or cough drops. The herb, like basil, contains essential oil, which is extracted by distillation and rubbed into the skin to treat joint pains, or inhaled to reach the respiratory system.

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is a potentially toxic herb and must only be used in small doses. It stimulates breathing, and thus Keisha will administer it to patients with respiratory problems like bronchitis or asthma.

Lobelia, which is also called Indian tobacco, used to be smoked by Native Americans to treat respiratory disorders. It can induce vomiting, which made it a purgative both in Native American cultures and in western medicine in the nineteenth century. The herb has effects similar to nicotine and in the past was used in drugs that ease nicotine withdrawal.

Very few scientific studies verifying lobelia’s effects on the respiratory system exist, and due to its toxicity, the herb plays only a minor role in modern herbalism:

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) stimulates cell growth and has a long history in herbal medicine, and Keisha will use it to treat everything from open wounds to broken bones. It also works to reduce inflammation, both in the skin and in muscles and joints:

In the past, comfrey was also used to treat stomach problems, or simply eaten as a salad. Today, we know that the plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause severe damage to the liver and might have a carcinogenic effect. Therefore, ingesting comfrey is no longer considered safe, and ointments made with the herb should not be applied to open wounds. Since the alkaloids are also absorbed through the skin, ointments containing comfrey should not be used for more than four to six weeks per year, unless the ointment is made from a compound which does not contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

So, with these herbs in her kitchen garden, Keisha is well-equipped to treat villagers who have a chest cold with a heavy cough and fever. She can bind up wounds with a powder or salve to prevent infection and reduce inflammation, and she has a remedy at hand to treat bruises and broken bones. She can also treat migraines, diarrhea, and menstrual cramps.

These herbs of course comprise only a small selection of the herbs to be found in a village healer’s kitchen garden. For example, there’s also dandelion to treat liver problems, lavender for burns and to soothe stress and anxiety away, and rosemary to relieve muscle spasms and strengthen the circulatory system. Plus many, many more herbs than can be listed here - the study of medicinal plants is a field much too broad for the scope of one article.

If the above has whetted your appetite for more, here are some links to get you started on further reading:

Wikipedia has an entry on herbalism, which gives a broad overview over the different traditional systems of herbal medicine, as well as its modern applications and ongoing research:

The US National Library of Medicine contains informative articles on many medicinal plants and their application in modern medicine:

And for the magically inclined, here’s an Alphabetical List of Magickal and Healing Herbs:

Of course, if you’ve enjoyed this article, you might also visit my blog The Herbwoman’s Arts, where you can find more information on herbal medicine in fiction and real life:

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice. Please do not try this at home!

(Or rather: Do not try any of the remedies listed above without consulting your physician first.)

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