Willowherb's Hidden Secrets
The forgotten herb
Willowherb - of which there are a number of varieties - is today viewed as a pretty summer weed or as a garden pest. However, this beautiful pink-purple flower has much more to offer than a pretty shape and colour. In addition, far from being a pest, this is a her with extraordinary healing properties.
Alternative names for willowherb
There are many alternative names for willowherb, too many to name here, but two of the most common are:
- Fireweed - due mainly to willowherb's ability to colonise areas of country side where fire has destroyed other plants.
- Bombweed - this name came about during world war II because it often showed up first in craters left by bombs.
History of the willowherb
The willowherb also has other varieties and names such as
- great hairy willowherb
- great willowherb
- rosebay willowherb - this variety tends to have white flowers
They all have interesting properties that were used centuries ago both as a food and for medical reasons. This is perhaps not that surprising when we discover that willowherb is related to another healing herb - 'evening primrose'.
The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, was high in his praise for the herb and listed a number of uses for the plant:
"All the species of Willow-Herb have the same virtues; they are under Saturn in Aries, and are cooling and astringent. The root carefully dried and powdered, is good against bloody fluxes, and other haemorrhages; and the fresh juice is of the same virtue."
In addition, Culpeper also recommends willowherb leaves made in to a brew for asthma and whooping cough. It's thought that the herb may have anti-spasmodic properties that would help to sooth the coughing spasms with whooping cough and asthma.
However, even before the work of Nicholas Culpeper willow herb had been used for centuries not only for its healing properties and food but was also made into a herbal tea. Willowherb tea is still made in Russia today.
Other healing properties willowherb was used for - and still used today - is for the treatment of urinary and digestive problems. It is also taken as a treatment for urinary infections.
In ointment form it can be used for many skin irritations including burns, rashes, itching and so on. In the past, instead of ointment, poultices were made up from the peeled roots for the same purpose. In Germany a poultice made from the leaves was used to treat mouth ulcers.
Because the willowherb has been used for many centuries there are of course a few superstitions that have grown up around it. One popular superstition was that willowherb could get rid of gnats and flies as well as repel snakes. Certainly other herbs such as lavender does repel flies and willowherb might have the same properties. However, whether or not it actually repels snakes is another matter.
In some parts of England, willowherb, along with a number of other plants, had the local name of 'mother-die' attributed to it. There are a number of superstitions that held if certain flowers were picked then this will mean a death in the family.
As in the past, so today willowherb is also used in various rituals and beliefs systems - all positive! In particular, willowherb was used a a mixer for mushrooms when making magical ointments and drinks.
Medicinal uses for willowherb
In addition to willowherb being packed with vitamins and minerals, modern research carried out on the herb found additional, extraordinary properties.
A study published in the journal of 'Food Chemistry' reported that willowherb was the only plant from the group tested that contained the chemical myricetin. This is known to have powerful antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are known to help protect body cells against conditions such as cancer.
Other plants also known to contain myricetin are onions, walnuts and red grapes. In addition, research continues as willow herb may also contain other anti-cancer properties as well as anti-inflammatory abilities.
Tentative results have shown that willow herb may also contain chemicals that many not only help against medical conditions such as Parkinson's Disease but also Alzheimer’s. In addition the herb may also be helpful in keeping our bones healthy as well as properties that may be useful in the treatment of diabetes. However, it's early days and research continues.
Further research has also highlighted that willowherb may also have both anti-microbial and anti-viral properties. One particular bacteria - propionibacterium acnes - that is responsible for the common skin condition acne - has shown to be responsive to treatments by preparations of willowherb.
A word of caution, in general willowherb is not thought to be toxic to humans, however, this is by no means certain. Certainly one of the chemicals found in willow herb - epilobium - has been known to interfere with hormone cycles in the body. Therefore, if you are on birth control pills, are pregnant or taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy) then the advice is to avoid taking this herb.
The month of June is almost here and when these lovely herbs begin to show their flowers, perhaps we can all keep in mind that, rather than being a nuisance, they are a wonderful addition to Mother Nature's medicine chest.