Meet Stevia Rebaudiana: The Plant Behind the Hype

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Stevia rebaudiana, the plant behind the popular sweetener

Last week, I was vacationing in Canada when an interesting commercial popped up on the television. It was an ad for the sweetener, stevia, and it featured enthusiastic users growing plants at home. Needless to say, it caught my attention. I had heard that stevia extract came from a ‘natural’ source. But I’d never stopped to consider what that meant from a gardening perspective.

I decided to dig deeper. Continue reading

Drink To Your Health With These 10 Best Medicinal Teas

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Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of freshly brewed hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas contain powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before reaching for a pill, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading

Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

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The National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

A stroll through the secluded campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland is an otherworldly experience. First, there’s the security, then there are the imposing, mainly windowless limestone buildings towering hundreds of feet in the air. I stopped by NIH late last week to visit a little known but remarkable garden. Located directly across the parking lot from the world’s largest biomedical library, it is known as the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE HERB GARDEN

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) Herb Garden was established in 1976 as part of NIH’s Bicentennial celebration. Initially composed of low borders of boxwood, lavender and thyme, the garden has since grown to include over 100 flowering herbs. Meticulously arranged in symmetrical beds, the plants bear silent witness to the healing power of nature and the integral role it has played in the development of modern medicine over time.

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View of the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

THE TOTUM POLE

The first thing you notice upon entering the space is a large Indian totem pole located at the far end of the garden. A part of the NLM’s new Native Voices exhibit, it was carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation from western red cedar found in Washington State. The totem, which symbolizes and promotes good health and healing, is the main focal point of the garden. Its colors also have deep meaning.

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Totem pole is focal point at the NIH Herb Garden

STORY-TELLING BENCHES

Flanking the totem pole are two ‘story-telling’ benches, also carved from western red cedar. The bench on the right side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Bear and the Steelhead, which teaches respect for nature and the natural cycles of life.

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NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Bear and the Steelhead’

The bench on the left side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Raven and the Sun. The story tells of how at great pain, the Raven delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity and how we humans should treasure them as essential to our survival.

NLM bench 'The Raven and the Sun'

NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Raven and the Sun’

CULPEPER’S WORLD-FAMOUS HERBAL GUIDE TO RADIANT HEALTH 

Among the nearly 20 million books and other forms of medical information on its library shelves, the National Library of Medicine considers Culpepers’s Complete Herbal  to be a primary source for information on herbs and herbal medicine. Written over 350 years ago by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), the guide contains a wealth of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge. It also includes a listing of herbs and their properties, many of which can be found in the garden.

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Culpeper’s master work, The Complete Herbal

Culpeper was a 17th century physician and herbalist who spent much of his life outdoors gathering and cataloguing medicinal herbs. Although he studied medicine at Cambridge, he abandoned a traditional practice in order to provide low-cost health services to the poor.  He believed that no man should have to ‘starve’ to pay a physician.

Mikania micrantha growing wild in the forest 

Culpeper saw plenty of suffering around him. So, he sourced his medicines from the surrounding countryside, which enabled him to offer the bulk of his services for free.

He wrote,

This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”

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Considered a radical in his time, Culpeper’s  herbal medicine practice and writings on the subject proved to be a thorn in the side of his fellow physicians. Moreover, Culpeper believed that expensive fees and the use of Latin by doctors kept power and freedom from the general public.  He shocked the establishment by publishing the Complete Herbal and other works in vernacular English so that everyone could read them.

Today, it is widely believed that Culpeper’s systemization of the use of herbals was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals.

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Up close in the NLM Herb Garden with Verbena bonariensis in the background

A sample of some of Culpeper’s cures using various plants and flowers can be found on the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden website. I caution you, however, from attempting any of the remedies at home since they have not been officially proven to work. Following are just a few plants whose healing properties caught my eye.

PLANTS THAT HEAL 

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  USES:  Diaphoretic, immunostimulant and tonic.

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Boneset

Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans)   USES: To reduce inflammation and treat sore mouths and ulcers. It also can be applied to painful joints.

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Cinquefoil

Goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis)   USES: Mild diuretic and treatment for urinary tract inflammation and kidney stones.

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Goldenrod

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)  USES: Reduces fever and treats skin infections.

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African Blue Basil

Comfrey, Knitbone (Symphytum Officionale)  USES:  A healing plant for broken bones, wounds and ulcers.

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Comfrey, also known as Knitbone

Here was a surprise. Although I am aware that Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, can be somewhat toxic, I didn’t know it can also kill rats.

Lenten Rose

Finally, I certainly didn’t know that Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be used topically for wounds, cuts and abrasions and is also good for allergic mucus problems including hay fever. I may try it out!

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Yarrow

These are just a very few of the many interesting and beautiful flowering herbs to be found at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden. The garden is maintained by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners and the Potomac Chapter of the Herb Society of America. For more information on the garden and how to get there, click here for the website.

 

 

Capsicum Named 2016 Herb of the Year

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It may be time to get out the dictionary to see what designates an herb. The International Herb Association (IHA) has chosen the pepper family known as capsicum as 2016’s Herb of the Year. The prize, which is awarded annually as a part of National Herb Week, shines a spotlight on this often misunderstood fruit; declaring it outstanding for its virtually unlimited culinary, medicinal and decorative uses.

What is capsicum exactly?

Capsicum, also known as peppers, is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants.) Native to South America, its many species have been cultivated and traded for more than 6,000 years. According to experts at the Chile Pepper Institute, there are literally thousands of varieties, ranging from fiery hot to mild tasting, with new ones constantly being discovered. And among the known varieties, the fruits go by different names, depending on the type and location in which they are grown.

red green and yellow peppersThe mild tasting bell pepper is sometimes referred to as ‘Stoplight Pepper’

Sound confusing? Capsicum terminology can get rather complicated, since pepper, chili, aji, paprika and capsicum are all used interchangeably to describe the same genus. Add to that the fact that frequent cross-pollination among domesticated species has produced even more variations and classification becomes next to impossible. Despite the huge range of varieties, however, experts now widely agree that the genus capsicum consists of 5 domesticated species:

 

Capsicum annuumThe most common and extensively grown of the five domesticated capsicums, C. annuum includes the bell pepper, jalapeño, pimiento, piquin and cayenne among others.

 

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Jalapeño pepper

Capsicum baccatum: Ají amarillo, also called amarillo chili and ají escabeche.

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Aji Amarillo pepper

Capsicum chinense: Includes some of the world’s hottest peppers like the habanero, scotch bonnet and red savina. Pods and plant types vary within the species.

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Habanero peppers

Capsicum frutescens: This shrubby cultivar that includes the tabasco is often considered part of the species Capsicum annuum. Fruits typically grow erect and are very small, maturing from yellow to bright red. Large clusters of berries make this a popular ornamental plant.

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Ornamental peppers

Capsicum pubescens: The least common of the five, a cultivar distinguished by its apple-like shape and black seeds. It includes the varieties rocoto and the Mexican manzano.

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Peruvian rocoto pepper

A part of cooking for thousands of years

Although chili peppers had been a part of the human diet across the Americas for centuries, they were virtually unheard of in the rest of the world. That is, until Christopher Columbus brought the unusual species back from the New World. At the time, the fruit of a plant native to India, called Piper nigrum, (commonly known as peppercorn) was the key ingredient used to flavor foods in countries like Europe.

peppercornsPeppercorn, Piper nigrum

In the beginning, Europeans weren’t so enamored with capsicum. But eventually, as traders began carrying the berry to places in West Africa, India and Asia, the pungent fruit quickly caught on. In the end, capsicum’s discovery would end up revolutionizing cooking the world over as it became an integral ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Thai, European and American cooking and medicine, all of which now lay claim to the spice as their own.

 

Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties

The same chemical that produces a pepper’s fiery sensation in the mouth is loaded with medicinal properties. This is due to a phytonutrient called capsaicin, a chemical that gives hot peppers their ‘heat.’ In the wild, capsaicin protects the fruits from being eaten by insects and other mammals. In modern medicine, the pepper compound has been successfully used to dramatically reduce the sensation of pain.

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The amount of capsaicin in any one fruit is highly variable depending on genetics and environment. (All chili peppers have some degree of the chemical, though, with the notable exception of bell peppers, which have practically none.) Habanero peppers are among the most capsaicin-rich chilies that are commonly available. A 2006 study published in the “Journal of Environmental Science and Health” found that the species habanero (a part of C. chinense) had higher concentrations of capsaicin than any other species in the capsicum genus.

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Habanero mix

When a capsaicin cream or ointment is applied to the skin, it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Capsaicin medications have been shown to successfully relieve pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and shingles. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a medicated skin patch made from capsaicin for treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). According to spokesmen, the pure, concentrated, capsaicin-containing prescription drug was the first to undergo FDA review

“This new product can provide effective pain relief for patients who suffer from PHN,” said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Rheumatology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

And just last year, the capsaicin patch was approved for use in the Europe Union for the additional indication of the treatment of adult diabetes patients with peripheral neuropathic pain.

Other studies have shown that pepper fruits can be used to make medicine for problems relating to digestion including upset stomach, intestinal gas and cramps as well as conditions such as poor circulation. Capsaicin has also been used to relieve toothaches and seasickness and a form of the phytonutrient is currently being studied as a remedy for migraine pain.

 

World’s hottest chili pepper identified

Recently, the world’s hottest chili pepper was identified. Known as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the golf-ball sized fruit was named the spiciest pepper on the planet. On the Scoville Heat Scale (which measures the pungency, or heat factor, of peppers), the Trinidad Moruga scored about 240 times hotter than the jalapeño, with a Scoville heat unit value of 1.2 million. (The average jalapeño ranks at about 5,000 units.)

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Moruga Scorpion pepper

Pure capsaicin, by the way, has a heat unit value ranging between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville Units.

For more information on capsicum and where many of the known varieties rank on the Heat Scale, check out Uncle Steve’s Hot Stuff.

 

How To Grow Herbs Indoors

Everyone loves the taste of herbs harvested fresh from the garden. And winter doesn’t have to spell the end of that enjoyment. Just a handful of pots indoors can supply bundles of savory herbs throughout all the seasons. All you need are some culinary herbs, a sunny window and a little TLC in the form of good soil, judicious watering and a regular supply of food. Continue reading