Fruit. Photo by Xemenendura

Common buckthorn health benefits: for constipation

Fruit. Photo by Xemenendura

Fruit. Photo by Xemenendura

Flowers. Photo by Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria

Flowers. Photo by Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria

Bark. Photo by TeunSpaans

Bark. Photo by TeunSpaans

Common buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, is also known as purging buckthorn and European buckthorn, or just buckthorn. It is a shrub or small tree which reaches a height of up to 6-10m (18-30′) and a spread of 3m (9′). It is attractive to wildlife.

Buckthorn is a close relative of the shrub known as Cascara sagrada (Spanish for “sacred bark”), Rhamnus purshiana.

Buckthorn will grow in any soil, even very alkaline soil, and anywhere not in complete shade. It’s happy in dry or moist soil, so it is a good survivor in most conditions.

The part most often used in medicine is the fruit, although the bark can be used instead. As it’s dioecious, to obtain fruit you will need at least two plants, one male and one female.

The specific name cathartica and the name purging buckthorn refer to its use as a purgative (a strong laxative). This is virtually its only medicinal use, though it is also diuretic, but this probably goes unnoticed alongside the laxative effect.

Please note that buckthorn is not suitable for use by children, pregnant or nursing women, also people suffering from Crohn’s disease or obstructions of the bowel.

Do not take buckthorn for more than 7 days in a row.

Adults can eat 8-15 ripe fruits to benefit from the effects, but these can be quite violent. For a more manageable result, you can make a standard infusion using 15g (a half ounce) crushed semi-ripe fruits to 250ml (1 US cup) boiling water. Leave to infuse for 30-60 minutes, then drain off and discard the fruit before use. Up to 1 cup a day is the maximum dosage, which may be split into 3 individual doses.

You can also use the bark for the same purpose. This must be dried in the shade for at least 1 year and up to 3 years before use, or you can dry it out in a very cool oven for a few hours.  Don’t use fresh bark, as it will cause diarrhea and vomiting. To make a decoction of bark: Put 30g dried aged bark in a small saucepan and add 2 cups of cold water. Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain off and discard the bark and take the liquid either as a single dose or split into three. Max. 1 cup a day.

Buckthorn is native to the UK and across Europe, but it was taken to the USA by settlers, apparently for use in landscaping and has subsequently been so successful that it’s become an invasive weed, and therefore banned in some states and in Ontario, Canada.

Various dyes can be obtained from the bark, but I have no information on the mordants you need to use, though it would probably be interesting to experiment if you like natural dyes.

Remember that if you’re growing herbs for medicinal use, it’s important to use organic growing methods to ensure that you don’t accidentally include noxious chemicals in your remedies. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.


Crepe ginger is a tropical plant

Crepe Ginger health benefits: may help diabetes and liver disease

Crepe ginger is a tropical plant

Crepe ginger is a tropical plant

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Crepe ginger, Costus speciosus, is also called cane reed, crape ginger, Malay ginger, spiral flag and spiral ginger (but this last name is also used as a name for the entire genus Costus). It is in the same family, Zingiberaceae, as ginger, but is not related to sweet flag. It has a number of Latin synonyms as well: Banksea speciosa, Cheilocostus speciosus, Costus formosanus, Costus spicatus var. pubescens and Hellenia grandiflora.

Though it’s not really obvious from the picture shown, it has large glossy leaves rather like a rubber plant arranged spirally around the stem, which makes it an ideal house plant.

The flowers look as if they were made from crepe paper, which accounts for the name, and are produced from a knobbly bud-shaped cone – not from the top but from various places all around. If it’s happy, no doubt several flowers will be produced in succession.

Most members of the family Zingiberaceae are fragrant, but I haven’t been able to find any definite information about this plant’s fragrance.

The species is a perennial which reaches a height of 6-10 feet (2-3m) in good conditions, the leaves are 6-12 (15-30cm) inches long, and the individual flowers are up to 3 inches (4-8cm) across, but there are several cultivars which are smaller, for example ‘Pink Shadow’, which looks very beautiful, but only attains a height of around 5 feet (probably a good thing, if you’re planning on growing it indoors), and there are also variegated varieties which are less likely to flower. In tropical areas, you can grow it outside, but please note that in these conditions crepe ginger can become invasive.

Crepe ginger is not hardy, requiring a minimum temperature of 55ºF (13ºC) day and night to survive.

Crepe ginger is not suitable for use by pregnant women except during labor as a birthing aid.

The parts used in herbal remedies are the sap, leaves, young stems and the rhizomes (a rhizome is a large underground stem).

The sap of young leaves and stems can be taken internally for diarrhea, for ear infections and eye infections.

Make a decoction using 30g (1 ounce) of dried rhizome added to 570ml (2.5 US cups, 1 UK pint) of cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, continue heating until the liquid is reduced by half, then strain and bottle, being careful to label with the name of the herb and the date. This may be refrigerated for use within 3-4 days. The dose is up to 1 US cup (240ml, 8 fl oz) per day, split into 3 doses. This can be used to treat coughs and colds, congestion of the nose and lungs, and internal parasites. It can also be used externally to treat skin infections.

In Malaysia, the juice of the rhizome is used as a purgative.

Various studies have found that an extract of the rhizome can be used to lower blood sugar levels, to treat inflammation of the liver, to fight stress, and as an antioxidant. It also increased uterine contractions making it a useful birthing aid where contractions are insufficient. Significant quantities of diosgenin (used to produce artificial hormones such as progesterone) were also found.

Although crepe ginger has a reputation in some areas as an aphrodisiac, no studies have demonstrated this effect.

If you live in the tropics, it may be feasible to grow crepe ginger for medicinal use, in which case I advise that you stick to organic methods, so as to avoid its active constituents being corrupted. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.


Aloe vera is usually grown as a houseplant

Aloe vera health benefits: for burns, wounds and skin problems

Aloe vera is usually grown as a houseplant

Aloe vera is usually grown as a houseplant

Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Aloe vera is one herbal plant which seems to have no other name except the latin (there are earlier latin names, but it’s unlikely you will ever find this plant mis-labeled, if only for “perceived value” reasons). It’s usually grown as a houseplant, although if you live somewhere that doesn’t generally experience frosts, you can grow it outdoors – and even elsewhere, it will appreciate being outdoors during the summer months. If you give it conditions it likes, it may reward you with a long spike of flowers.

Scale insects

Wherever you live, buy the biggest plant you can afford, because the plant is just a rosette of leaves, and you need to cut off whole leaves when you need to use it. When buying your plant, check it carefully to ensure it doesn’t have scale insects (tiny little lozenge shaped beasts usually found stuck to the underside of the leaves, similar to those in the picture, but probably lighter in colour) – as these are very difficult to eradicate – or red spider mite (even tinier, red spider-like creatures). The mites can be put off by misting the plants regularly, or you can get a predator mite – but it’s difficult and expensive to use these on a single plant. Plants grown outdoors are very unlikely to suffer from them – their full name is “greenhouse red spider mite” (Tetranychus urticae).

Aloe vera is a succulent plant (like a cactus), and requires the same growing conditions as other succulents. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that succulents never need watering – they do. In the growing season (summer), they need watering regularly, even twice a week or more if the soil dries out that quickly. Check the soil before watering, and don’t water them if it is still moist.

Unless you buy your plant from an organic source, before using Aloe vera medicinally, take it out of the pot and shake off as much of the compost as possible, then repot it straight away into standard cactus compost (or a mixture of two thirds ordinary potting compost and one third horticultural grit or uncolored aquarium grit) and grow it on for a season so that any chemicals in the plant have a chance to dissipate.

I don’t advise taking Aloe vera internally, and laxatives which contain it are banned in the USA (for good reason in my view). Do not take aloe internally for long periods. A recent study has shown that extended internal use leads directly to colon cancer.

Aloe vera is not suitable for internal use by pregnant women, or anyone suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or hemorrhoids.

Cross section of Aloe vera leafThe best use for home grown Aloe vera is as a sort of emergency bandage. It won’t stop bleeding, but it will soothe and help to heal small cuts and grazes, burns and skin disorders, forming a protective coat over the area and helping to prevent infection. You can pull or cut off one of the outer leaves, cut it open down the middle from top to bottom, and use the gel inside the leaf in the same way you might use ointment or cream. Obviously, every time you do this, the plant gets a little smaller, so it’s probably best to be a little careful about how often you use it. An alternative to butchering your plant is to use a proprietary product. I offer a range of Aloe vera products in my online shop.

This gel, and in particular the yellow sap which you may find at the base of the leaf if you cut it low enough down, is a very strong purgative (which means it will cause the bowels to be emptied completely, usually with gripinig pains). However, there are other laxatives available, so it is probably better to keep your Aloe strictly designated for external use.

As I’ve already pointed out, Aloe vera intended for medicinal use should be grown organically, so that foreign chemicals don’t eliminate or at least reduce its healing properties. To find out more about <a href=”http://www.gardenzone.info/herbs/aloevera.php” target=”_blank”>growing organic Aloe vera</a> visit the Gardenzone.