Vitamin D Health Benefits: The Sunshine Vitamin

Sunbathing is a well known way of "taking" vitamin D - don't overdo it, though!

Sunbathing is a well known way of “taking” vitamin D – don’t overdo it, though!

Recent studies have found that vitamin D is an important aid in the prevention of colon cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Vitamin D has long been known to be essential for the maintenance of healthy bones and teeth – a lack of vitamin D causes rickets in children and osteoporosis or osteomalacia in adults.


UK Government admits supplementation with vitamin D may be necessary

In a study performed at Osteoporosis Research Center, Creighton University, Omaha, published in June 2007, researchers found that adults will use 3,000 to 5,000 units of vitamin D per day, if it is available. This is between 7 and 12 times the recommended daily intake.

A study published in March, 2007 had already shown that 60% of British adults suffer from hypovitaminosis D, and 90% have below optimal levels in Winter and Spring. The British Government finally admitted that supplementation “may be necessary” to combat rising levels of rickets (caused by Vitamin D deficiency) in the general population.


Cochrane Research has found that taking 35-50mcg (1400-2000 IU) vitamin D a day reduced the risk of severe asthma attacks requiring a hospital admission or a visit to A&E from 6% to 3%. The number of asthma attacks requiring steroid also dropped.

Another study by the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer.

In 2017 the TEDDY: The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young study found that low levels of vitamin D in childhood is associated with the development of Type I diabetes. The authors believe that supplementation from an early age may help to prevent Type I diabetes developing altogether.


Vitamin D may be called cholecalciferol or D3, which is found in foods of animal origin. Ergocalciferol (D2) is produced by the action of light on yeast. You may also find calcitriol (1-25 dihydroxy vitamin D, or ‘activated’ vitamin D). This form is made in the body from standard vitamin D by the liver and kidneys, so people with liver or kidney problems are not able to use vitamin D in the standard form, and would need to take this type instead (although it is likely that it will be prescribed by their doctors).

Recent research shows improved outcomes in patients taking vitamin D3. The same research showed that patients taking vitamin D2 (sourced from vegetables) actually had worse outcomes than patients who took no vitamin D supplement at all.

Sources of vitamin D

The body makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so until recently the medical profession has been of the opinion that it is not necessary to supplement in most cases. Unfortunately, in areas where the weather is cool, many people do not get sufficient sunlight on the skin to provide a decent level of vitamin D in the system, at least for the most part.

“It’s not possible to make up for 50 weeks without vitamin D by taking two weeks holiday in the sun,” a nutritionist told me. “And even if it was possible, vitamin D is only stored for 60 days, meaning almost 300 days without sufficient vitamin D available.”

The problem is made worse because most city dwellers rarely see the sun during the winter months at all, while people in areas where outdoor life is the norm have taken to covering up to avoid skin cancer.

Apart from sunlight, which produces 10 micrograms (400IU) in 3 hours shining on the face during the summer (only a tenth as much in winter), other sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, kippers, mackerel, tinned salmon, sardines, tuna, eggs and milk.

What does it do?

  • lowers blood pressure
  • controls levels of calcium and phosphorus in the body
  • regulates the immune system
  • maintains healthy lung tissue
  • also used in the breasts, sex organs, the stomach, pancreas, skin, hair follicles, brain and prostate gland (each of these organs has a vitamin D receptor).

Vitamin D is also needed to make calcium and phosphates from food available to the body. The calcium is used for:

  • formation and maintenance of bones and teeth
  • regulating heart rhythm
  • strengthening muscles
  • lowering insulin resistance (one of the major factors leading to heart disease)
  • regulating cell production (and protecting against uncontrolled growth, ie. cancer)
  • by the parathyroids to regulate blood pressure by controlling calcium levels

Professor Michael Holick of Boston University School of Medicine believes that the skin’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight was evolution’s response to the move from the calcium-rich environment of the sea onto the land, because so many systems in the body use it.

How much do you need? More than you might think

The RDA for vitamin D in Europe is 5 mcg, in the US it is 400IU, and in the UK, there is no RDA at all. 1 mcg is equal to 40IU, so the European RDA is half that of the US. However, neither comes close to the recommendations by Professor Cedric Garland and his team after their exhaustive review into studies of vitamin D between 1966 and 2004.

“We now have proof that the incidence of colon, breast and ovarian cancer can be reduced dramatically by increasing the public’s intake of vitamin D,” Professor Garland said.

He recommends a daily dose of 25mcg (1000IU). “A glass of milk, for example, has only 100IU. Other foods, such as orange juice, yoghurt and cheese are now beginning to be fortified, but you have to work fairly hard to reach 1000IU a day,” he added. “The easiest and most reliable way of getting the appropriate amount is from food and a daily supplement.”

I will refer to the study mentioned above as “the Garland study”. It was published in the December 2005 Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The authors are well respected: Cedric F. Garland, Edward D. Gorham, Sharif B. Mohr and Frank C. Garland, affiliated with the Moores Cancer Center and the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UCSD School of Medicine; Martin Lipkin of Strang Cancer Prevention Center, New York; Harold L. Newmark, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey; and Michael F. Holick, Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine.

Reclassifying cancer, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis as deficiency diseases?

It seems that clinicians have been underestimating the body’s true requirement for vitamin D to an enormous extent, and that many disorders, including cancers, are in fact deficiency diseases. They may take a lot longer to manifest than the ‘classic’ deficiency disorders discovered around the 1900s, but this only highlights the importance of good nutrient levels throughout life, even when there are no obvious immediate benefits.

More than just your bones and teeth


  • The Garland study showed a massive reduction in the incidence of breast, ovarian and colon cancer in test participants who took 1000IU (25mcg) of vitamin D daily.
  • Professor Johan Moan of the Institute for Cancer Research, Oslo found that diagnoses of cancer made in the summer (when blood levels of vitamin D are highest) have a 50% higher survival rate when compared with winter diagnoses.
  • In a 2005 report by Oliver Gillie of Britain’s Health Research Forum (“the Gillie report”), a lack of vitamin D was linked with sixteen different cancers,
  • Studies published in the Journal of Molecular Biology in January-March 2001 and in the Journal of Andrology in January-February 2002 show a strong link between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer.
  • Two studies in 2000 and two in 2001 showed a link between vitamin D deficiency and colorectal cancer.

Other disorders:

  • High rates of heart disease in Scotland may be caused as much by the weak sunlight and short summers in the north, which lead to low levels of vitamin D, as by diet.
  • Peter N. Black and Robert Scragg of the University of Auckland have published a report stating that getting ample vitamin D helps people to breathe easier and more deeply. The study, published in December 2005 shows that high levels of vitamin D help to prevent COPD, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. “We were taken aback at how large the effect was,” Professor Black said.
  • Research by Professor Michael Holick of Boston shows that topical vitamin D in the form of calcitriol can be used to treat psoriasis.
  • Studies in 2000 and 2001 show a link between vitamin D deficiency and obesity. Another, in August 2001 showed that vitamin D lowers leptin production (which is a hormone produced by fat deposits in the body).
  • Disorders which involve the immune system, including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s Syndrome, thyroiditis, Crohn’s disease and probably others are improved by supplements of vitamin D (but not so much by eating food containing vitamin D, surprisingly). This study was carried out at the University of Alabama, Birmingham USA and published in late 2003.
  • The Gillie report found links between vitamin D deficiency and diabetes, polycystic ovary disease and dental decay.

As if all this weren’t enough, there’s more:

Nervous system:

  • The Gillie report also showed deficiency may be a contributory factor in several diseases of the nervous system including schizophrenia, as well as multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure.
  • Professor Rebecca Mason of Sydney University has discovered that vitamin D deficiency can lead to a lack of co-ordination and balance – so that an elderly person deficient in vitamin D is more likely to fall over, and as their bones will also be brittle (because vitamin D deficiency causes bone loss), they are also more likely to suffer a broken bone as a result.
  • In 2002, the New Scientist published research which suggests that lack of sunlight (and hence vitamin D) during pregnancy greatly increases the child’s risk of developing schizophrenia in later life. This research was endorsed by the Queensland Centre of Schizophrenia Research, Brisbane, Australia.
  • A 1999 study by Alam W. Hollis showed that vitamin D supplementation was a better treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder than light boxes.
  • The November 2000 edition of the Proceeds of the Nutrition Society contains a study by CE Hayes showing that Vitamin D is a natural inhibitor of multiple sclerosis. Another study, published by Kassandra Munger of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston in 2004, confirms this link.

Absolutely incredible stuff, which has led many scientists to state that vitamin D is more than just a vitamin, it’s a hormone. Thankfully, you can still get it without prescription.

Who needs it?

These people are most likely to be vitamin D deficient (though it isn’t an exhaustive list):

Who Why
vegetarians, especially vegans almost all good dietary sources are animal products
the elderly the body’s ability to metabolise vitamin D is much reduced
people with kidney or liver problems both organs are needed to make the form used by the body, calcitriol
obese patients vitamin D may be trapped (because it is fat-soluble), rather than being available for use
anyone who doesn’t spend much time in the sun, or who wears sunscreen or covers up whenever they’re outdoors screening the skin from UV light prevents vitamin D production by the body
dark-skinned people the skin pigment reduces vitamin D production in a similar way to sunscreen
anyone taking steroids on a regular basis steroids inhibit the calcium metabolism
anybody who lives in countries North of latitude 35ºN or South of latitude 35ºS – and during the Winter months, anybody who lives in countries North of latitude 50ºN (this includes the whole of the UK) or South of latitude 50ºS sunlight levels are too weak

It’s important to prevent deficiency in pregnant and nursing mothers

  • As mentioned above, low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy are linked with a much increased risk of schizophrenia in the child.
  • Breast milk often contains less vitamin D than bottle feeding milk (perhaps the only nutritional advantage of bottle feeding).

“1000IU dose is safe,” says UK Food Standards Agency

Although the dose recommended in the Garland study (25mcg or 1000IU) may seem high, the UK Food Standards Agency has said that taking a vitamin D supplement of 1,000IU a day is “unlikely to cause harm”.

Clinicians recommend that the daily dose should not exceed 5,000IU (125 mcg). That’s five times the quantity recommended here. Even so, you should know that exceeding this dosage for an extended length of time can lead to thirst, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness and abdominal pain.

Where can I get it?

I offer vitamin D3 1,000iu (this is the type of vitamin D which is most easily absorbed by the body) in my online shop.

Melilot health benefits: for milk knots, palpitations and insomnia

Melilot can be safely used fresh, but not dried

Melilot can be safely used fresh, but not dried

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Melilot, Melilotus officinalis (syn. Melilotus arvensis), is also called common melilot, hart’s tree, hay flowers, king’s clover, ribbed melilot, sweet clover, sweet lucerne, wild laburnum, yellow melilot and yellow sweet clover (there is also a white sweet clover, M. albus, which is very similar in appearance but with white flowers). In some parts of the world it is considered invasive, though as it is annual/biennial, this should not be too much of a problem with proper cultivation.

It is not closely related to red clover and other clovers or to alfalfa (sometimes called lucerne), although it is in the same family, Papilionaceae (or Leguminosae). All the members of this family have the ability to fix nitrogen with their roots, and are used both as green manures and cattle fodder.

Melilot is quite a tall plant, a native of Europe and East Asia, reaching around 4 feet (1.2m) in height. It will grow in any soil, so long as it is well drained, even heavy clay, and tolerates drought. It will not grow in full shade.

The root, shoots, leaves and seedpods are all edible, and the dried leaves were once used as a vanilla-like flavoring, but this is inadvisable because of the high coumarin content if dried incorrectly, though the fresh herb is quite safe. Use it immediately it has been gathered, as the chemical reaction which makes the coumarin starts when it begins to spoil. Coumarin is used in rat poison, and is best left for that purpose.

Do not dry your own melilot for use medicinally. If you must use it dried, buy supplies from a registered herbalist. Melilot is not suitable for anyone on anti-coagulants or with poor blood clotting. Caution: do not take more than the stated dose. Overdosing may cause vomiting/other symptoms of poisoning.

Melilot was used in the past to make herb pillows, but due to the notes above about dried melilot, I do not advise this usage.

Make a standard infusion using 3 handfuls of the whole fresh herb to 500ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) boiling water. Leave to stand for between 15 minutes and 4 hours then strain off and discard the herb.

To make a poultice, wrap a quantity of the fresh herb in a bandage and soak in very hot water. Wring out and apply to the area to be treated, refreshing in the water (which needs to be kept hot) whenever it grows cold.

Internally, a standard infusion is used to treat COPD, colic, flatulence (“gas” or “wind“), hemorrhoids (“piles“), insomnia, intestinal disorders, painful congestive menstruation, nervous tension, neuralgia, palpitations, varicose veins and stomach problems. Externally it can be used as an astringent, an eyewash for inflammation, and a wash for wounds, to treat boils, erysipelas (inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes), rheumatic pains, severe bruising and swollen joints. An infusion made from flowering tops is effective against conjunctivitis. Finally, a poultice can be used to treat boils and similar skin eruptions, headaches, milk knots and rheumatic/arthritic pain.

As with all herbs grown for medicinal use, melilot must be grown organically to ensure the purity of the active constituents. To find out more about growing organic melilot visit the Gardenzone.

Chinese ginseng on the left, American on the right

Ginseng and American Ginseng health benefits: to improve your sex life

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Chinese ginseng on the left, American on the right

Chinese ginseng on the left, American on the right

Oriental or Chinese ginseng, Panax ginseng (syn. P. schinseng), acquired an almost mystical reputation in the 1970s and ’80s, though it has fallen out of fashion somewhat since then. Other names by which it is known include Asiatic ginseng and wonder of the world, or just ginseng. American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius (syn. Aralia quinquefolia), is also known as five-fingers, five-leafed ginseng and redberry. It  is very similar in both appearance and efficacy to Chinese ginseng, the leaf shape being the only obvious difference, as you can see from the picture, though the Chinese reaches a height of around 2’6″ (80cm), whereas the American has a maximum height of around 12-18″ (30-45cm). Chinese ginseng is shown on the left of the picture, and the American ginseng on the right.

There are many other plants which are sometimes called ginseng including ashwagandha (“Indian ginseng”), which has similar properties but is unrelated. None of the others has the same properties as these two, and most are completely unrelated.

Both species of ginseng require moist shade to grow. The part used is the root, which ideally should be 6-7 years old, although commercially grown ginseng is usually harvested at 3-4 years. Commercial quantities of Chinese ginseng are grown in Korea, and American ginseng in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the USA and Ontario and British Columbia in Canada. Although it is possible to grow it in the garden if you have a suitably moist, shaded area, the long growing period to harvest makes this difficult, and it is probably better to buy it in your nearest Asian supermarket or Chinese herbalists. On the other hand, if you do have a shady area it may be worth growing as a conversation piece, as not much else will grow in shade apart from ferns.

Ginseng leaves are sometimes used for tea, but this has little or no medicinal effect (though commercial products may claim or imply otherwise).

Chinese herbalists distinguish between the two plants as follows: the Chinese ginseng is regarded as yang (male) and the American as yin (female). The American is preferred for younger patients (under 40). There are also two different ways that Panax ginseng may be preserved: either peeled and air dried (white ginseng), or steamed without peeling and then dried (red ginseng). The difference in preparation results in different properties.

To use ginseng, put 30g (1 oz) dried ginseng root slices in a small pan with 570ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the liquid reduces by half, then strain before use. The dose is up to 1 US cup a day, split into 3 doses.

In the West, both types of ginseng are used as a tonic for any age group, although in China, Oriental ginseng is not prescribed during pregnancy, for anyone under 40, or anybody suffering from acute depression, anxiety or inflammatory disease. Chinese ginseng is used to treat disorders caused by old age, and is also protective against the effects of gamma radiation, prevents the buildup of cholesterol, lowers blood sugar and acts as an expectorant. It is also an effective anti-inflammatory and has anti-cancer properties. Red ginseng improves the effect of anti-virals in HIV. It has been found that both Chinese and American types have aphrodisiac effects, improving both libido and performance, according to research by the South Illinois University School of Medicine in 2002. American ginseng is used to treat chronic cough and night sweats, but is generally regarded as interchangeable with Chinese ginseng for most purposes.

I offer Korean ginseng as tea and in capsules in my online shop.

Though it’s unlikely that you will choose to grow either of these plants for use as medicine, if you do, you should ensure that you use organic methods to avoid the active constituents being altered or eliminated by chemicals. To find out more about growing organic American ginseng visit the Gardenzone.

Field Eryngo health benefits: for coughs and urinary disorders

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Field eryngo looks like a thistle

Field eryngo looks like a thistle

Field Eryngo, Eryngium campestre, is a close relative of the sea holly, with which it is sometimes confused. It is a perennial which reaches a height and spread of around 18 inches (45cm). Because the roots can reach down to a depth of a meter or more and spread similarly, it can be difficult to eradicate once established in a garden.

Many people, myself included, think that the field eryngo is a very attractive plant, and this is enhanced when it is in flower, from July to August. Although it is a member of the Umbelliferae, the flowers (like those of the sea holly) are very un-Umbellifer-like – being much more like thistles (which are members of Compositae). There are many cultivars which have been developed for ornamental use.

Field eryngo is mainly found in dry grasslands and beside paths, sometimes by the coast. As you can no doubt tell from this habitat, it likes well drained soil, from medium loam to almost pure sand, tolerates pH balances ranging from acidic to very alkaline, and even saline soils, and is capable of growing in soil with very low nutrition. It cannot grow in the shade. The roots (harvested in Autumn from plants at least 2 years old) are the part used in herbal medicine.

A decoction of roots made from 1-2 teaspoonfuls of root added to a saucepan containing 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of cold water, brought to a boil and simmered for 10 minutes is used to treat nervous tension, liver and kidney disorders, cystitis, urethritis, and as a diuretic. It’s also useful to stop the production of milk in nursing mothers and is strongly expectorant, useful for chronic coughs.

When grown for use in herbal remedies, it is important that field eryngo is grown organically to avoid its remedial proterties being obliterated by foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic field eryngo visit the Gardenzone.

Holly leaves health benefits: for urinary disorders and arthritis

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Holly is emblematic of Christmas

Holly is emblematic of Christmas

Ho Ho Ho! As it’s Christmas Day, which is celebrated by many people around the world, I thought I would see if holly had any properties as a herbal remedy. And as it turns out, it does.

Holly, Ilex aquifolium (though apparently sometimes called Ilex balearica), is also known (mainly outside the UK) as mountain holly, English holly or European holly. There are a number of other plants in the Ilex genus with medicinal properties and these are all closely related, of course. Sea holly, although called a holly (and with very similar shaped leaves), is completely unrelated.

Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree, growing to a height of around 30 feet (9m) eventually. It’s hardy enough to stand the snow and ice of what used to be a typical British winter, although it’s become rare to have snow on the ground for weeks on end any more due to global warming.

The berries are not often used in medicine nowadays and are toxic – so keep them away from small children and/or teach them not to eat them. They are very pretty, though, so it’s good to have a female holly, the type that bears berries, rather than a male one. Of course, there must be a male holly about somewhere or there will be no berries in any case.

Holly comes in a large number of cultivars (which means cultivated varieties), reflecting its popularity with gardeners. Most varieties are strictly male or female, which makes it easy to make sure you have the type you want, but there are some which can be either, which is obviously a bit confusing. Even more confusing is that many of the names for male varieties end in “Queen”.

Female varieties
‘Angustifolia’ narrow green leaves, red berries 12-20ft H x 6-10ft W
‘Argenteo-marginata Pendula’ or ‘Perry’s Silver Weeping’ weeping form, silver-edged leaves, bright red berries 8-12ft H x 10-15ft W
‘Bacciflava’ or ‘Fructu-luteo’ dark green leaves, bright yellow berries 12-18ft H x 15-20ft W
‘Handsworth New Silver’ narrow silver-edged leaves, red berries 10-15ft H x 5-8ft W
‘J C van Tol’ or ‘Polycarpa’ dark green spineless leaves, large red berries 10-18ft H x 6-10ft W
‘Pendula’ or ‘Weeping holly’ weeping form, dark green leaves, red berries 8-12ft H x 10-15ft W
‘Pyramidalis’ dark green leaves, some spiny, some spineless, bright red berries 15-20ft H x 6-10ft W
‘Blue Angel’ dark bluish-green leaves, bright red berries 6-10ft H x 6-10ft W
Male varieties
‘Ferox’ or ‘Hedgehog holly’ extremely attractive, dark green leaves covered with lighter green spines (not just around the edges) 8-15ft H x 5-8ft W
‘Ferox Argentea’ similar to ‘Ferox’, but with white spines 8-15ft H x 5-8ft W
‘Golden Queen’ gold-edged leaves 10-18ft H x 6-10ft W
‘Silver Queen’ silver-edged leaves 12-18ft H x 6-10ft W
‘Blue Prince’ dark bluish-green leaves 6-10ft H x 6-10ft W
Varieties which can be either male or female
‘Argenteo-marginata” silver edged leaves, females have red berries 18-25ft H x 10-15ft W
‘Aureo-marginata’ gold edged leaves, females have red berries 15-18ft H x 8-10ft W

Varietal information adapted from the Readers Digest Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and Flowers

As mentioned before, it is the leaves which are used medicinally, although the berries were once used as an emetic. You can use the leaves either fresh or dried, in which case they are gathered in the spring. Make a decoction using 2-4 tablespoonfuls of leaves to 570ml (2½ US cups, 1 UK pint). Put them into a small pan and bring to a boil, then simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. The dose is up to 1 cup a day and is used to treat arthritis, gout, stones and urinary disorders, COPD, pleurisy, catarrh and congestion of the lungs, and to reduce fevers.

As with all plants grown for medicinal uses, holly should be grown organically to avoid the properties being reduced or completely changed by chemicals. This basically involves feeding when necessary with garden compost rather than packets of fertilizer, and as holly is resistant to most attacks by pests and diseases, there should be no need for any other treatment except pruning into shape from time to time.

Let me just end this post by wishing you a very happy Christmas, or whatever your holiday of preference.

Lungwort health benefits: for COPD and asthma

Lungwort is mainly used for COPD

Lungwort is mainly used for COPD

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis (sometimes labeled Pulmonaria maculata), has many other names, including spotted dog, Mary and Joseph, soldiers and sailors, Jerusalem cowslip and Bethlehem sage. It is not related to sage or cowslips, though.

Lungwort is a woodland plant, and grows happily in full shade or semi-shade, preferring moist soil, although it will grow anywhere shady if there’s plenty of humus. It’s a hardy perennial (right down to -20ºC/-4ºF) and has the unusual trait of producing flowers of different colors on the same plant. These appear from March to May and are useful to bees as an early nectar source.

Make a standard infusion with leaves and flowering tops, using 2-3 teaspoonfuls of fresh or 1-2 teaspoonfuls of dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water. Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes, strain and sip slowly or allow to cool for external use. You can use this to treat coughs such as COPD, asthma and sore throats, as well as diarrhea. Externally, it can be used on cuts and grazes and also as a treatment for piles. The leaves can also be used fresh to stop bleeding – which is most likely where the names Jerusalem Cowslip and Bethlehem Sage came from.

As with all herbs used for remedial purposes, it’s important to grow Lungwort organically, so that toxic chemicals are not included in your remedy. To find out more about growing organic lungwort, visit the Gardenzone.

Cowslip health benefits: for COPD

The cowslip is one of the prettier wild plants

The cowslip is one of the prettier wild plants

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Cowslips, Primula veris, have a number of other names, including mayflower, herb Peter, (wild) primula and fairywort. Cowslips are closely related to primroses. The word “cowslip” comes from Old English cu-slyppe, meaning cow dung, which probably reflects the places in which it was found. Despite the original meaning of its name, the cowslip is often called the herald of Spring, because it is one of the earliest Spring flowers to appear.

Cowslip as a remedy has quite a long list of exclusions. It is not suitable during pregnancy. It is not suitable for anyone taking Warfarin or other anticoagulants (drugs which thin the blood). It is not suitable for anybody who is sensitive to Aspirin (salycylates). So long as you or the intended patient does not fall into any of these groups, it’s safe to read on.

Cowslips are becoming quite rare in the wild, so if you intend to use them for herbal medicine, you should grow them in your own garden. Although it’s a perennial, the roots have specific effects which are different to the leaves and flowers, so you may need to grow quite a few! It’s quite easy to propagate, either by sowing in late Summer or by dividing existing stock in late Spring or early Autumn. It prefers dry soil that is neutral or slightly alkaline.

Use the flower petals on their own to prevent or relieve spasms or convulsions, and as a sedative useful for treating hyperactivity and sleeplessness in children. They may also be helpful in treating asthma. The flowers and leaves (gathered in Spring, used either fresh or dried) to induce sweating, for pain relief, as an expectorant and diuretic. For all these purposes, make a standard infusion by using 2-3 teaspoonfuls of fresh or 1-2 teaspoonfuls of dried herb to a cup of boiling water. Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes, strain and sip slowly.

The roots (harvested in Spring, can be dried for later use) can be used to treat COPD and catarrh, also to slow blood clotting and as a treatment for rheumatism. To use the roots, make a decoction by putting 30g (half an ounce) of dried root into a small pan containing 570ml (2½ cups, 1 UK pint) of water, bringing to a boil and simmering for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half. The dose is one cupful per day.

Infusions and decoctions can be sweetened with honey if preferred.

An oil made from chopped flowers can be used externally to treat bruising.

As you can see, cowslip is an extremely useful herb, but to avoid contamination by chemicals, like all herbal remedies, it’s important that it is grown organically. To find out more about growing organic cowslips, visit the Gardenzone.