Your-Kitchen-Your-Herbal-PhLast month I was at the Annual Herbal Forum at Round Top. This is a gathering of people, from across Texas, who grow and use herbs in cooking and for health benefits. I use herbs in cooking but there is a very long tradition for the beneficial uses of herbs for curing aliments, preventing illness and maintaining wellness. I’m going to spend an occasional week, here and there, on exploring an herb or two as they relate to the rural elderly.

The use of herbs and plants in healing and wellness is the oldest approach in medicine. Early people discovered that leaves, bark, sap and other parts of plants helped in healing cuts and curing maladies. The average person today would not recognize the “pharmacy” of the 17th century which was filled with dried plants and other natural items which were ground into the various medicinal powders. As medicine evolved,  practitioners developed purified chemicals and the use of prepared pills became our common mode. Today, there is a gulf of perception between a bottle of aspirin and a box of peppermint leaves, but both are used to reduce the discomfort of a headache.

Three assertions. First, we may generally acknowledged that the use of homemade remedies and herbs is more common in rural communities and among the older population who may be more familiar with local traditions of self-care. Second, the validity of a herb for any particular use usually lacks a systematic history of clinical trials to verify its utility and effectiveness. Third, modern health care providers have been slow to return to using herbs because of concerns about the difficulty in predicting exactly how a natural product may effect a patient.

A consequence of these assertions is that often patients use herbs to treat themselves and others and if the health care provider is not aware of this, his/her treatments may interact negatively with what the patient is doing. Thus, it behooves care providers to be aware of herbal health practices,  find out if patents are using them and plan their interventions accordingly.

This can get complicated. For example, Echinacea is commonly used as a preventative measure for colds or as an intervention to reduce the severity of a cold. However, there are two varieties of Echinacea and each has somewhat different properties and uses (Brinker, 2013). The article by Brinker reviews historical uses and clinical trials with Echinacea angustifola root extracts and Echinacea purpurea fresh plant extracts. They each may be useful in helping resolve different health issues, but there is also overlap between the varieties and varying levels of effectiveness depending on the exact source and processing. Thus, the modern care provider needs not only to find out what his/her patients are doing for self-care, but he/she needs to be aware of subtle differences between varieties of the same thing.


Brinker, F. Echinacea: Differences Matter. HerbalGram, February/April 2013, issue 97, pp 46-57. The HerbalGram is a journal published by the American Botanical Council ( which is a good source for herbal and botanical information.

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Join us for a real-time discussion about questions raised by this essay on Wednesday from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. See Discussion and SL tabs above for details. Link to the virtual meeting room: