Elspeth’s Herbal Part Three




The date palm tree, Phoenix Dactylifera, is one of the oldest fruit trees in the world. There are hundreds of varieties. The most important for the desert people are the driest dates which can be ground into flour. Dates were cultivated more than five thousand years ago and are mentioned in the Koran and Bible.

Islam regards the date palm tree as the tree of life mentioned in the story of Genesis. It grows well in the dry desert heat, and is comparable to rice, wheat, and potatoes in other cultures. It reaches heights of 40 to 90 feet tall, bears an incredible amount of nutritious fruit and water is found at its foot.  Its trunk provided lumber. Its leaves made thatched roofs and baskets.

The seeds were fed to camels or burned as charcoal for fires. Its crown was woven into rope and its sap was used to make “arrack,” the “strong drink” referred to in the Bible. It sustained life in the desert.  Without it, the desert would be uninhabitable.


It is a symbol of the Tree of Life in many traditions including the Genesis story of the tree in the Garden of Eden, and was sacred to Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Romans. It flourished throughout the Middle East and at the time of Christ, forests of date palms grew in Palestine. To Pagans, the tree symbolized Astarte and Ishtar but for Christians it symbolized the crucifix.

It was thought that the reason the date palm was so useful to humans was because it was the brother of humankind having been created from a bit of earth that God had leftover when He made Adam. Because of its height and its fruit clusters, it symbolized fertility, the sun, growth, stature, sexual satisfaction, and female beauty.

Long before the advent of Christianity, the palm tree and its leaves were symbols of resurrection, immortality, and rebirth along with other resurrection symbols such as the lion and the phoenix. It is because of these meanings that ancient Egyptians placed palm fronds on their coffins.


Uses include the treatment of respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal disturbances, and the improvement of fertility in both males and females. Eat dates before your dates?

It has natural anti-inflammatory properties and may be used to treat conditions such as lupus or arthritis. Asthma, bronchitis, and tuberculosis respond to this fruit. As an expectorant it makes coughs more productive.  It helps sooth a sore throat and reduces fever.

Dates can be used to treat gastrointestinal problems, as a laxative, and to induce vomiting.


GARLIC (aka Allium) –


The Latin name for garlic is Allium Sativum L which traces from the Celtic word “all,” meaning “burning, acrid.” Garlic is a species in the onion genus, Allium. It has been used for medical and culinary purposes for over 7,000 years and is native to central Asia.


Pliny wrote that garlic and onions were invoked as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths.

Mohammed equates garlic with Satan when he describes the feet of the Devil as he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. Where his left foot touched the earth, garlic sprang up, while onion emerged from the footprint of his right foot.

In Palestine if the bridegroom wears a clove of garlic in his buttonhole, he is assured a successful wedding night. Garlic is reputed to be an aphrodisiac and for its ability to increase semen.

Greek midwives hung garlic cloves in birthing rooms to keep the evil spirits away.

Homer reported that Ulysses owed his escape from Circe to “yellow garlic”. Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at crossroads, as a supper for Hecate. The practice of hanging garlic, lemon and red chili at the door or in a shop to ward off potential evil, is still very common in India. European folklore gives garlic the ability to ward off the “evil eye, a powerful ward against devils, werewolves, and vampires.

An old Welsh saying is: “Eat leeks in March and garlic in May, Then the rest of the year, your doctor can play.”

Garlic was used as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene during World War I and World War II.  During World War 1, the Russian army used garlic to treat wounds incurred by soldiers on the Front Line. Although Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 largely replaced garlic, the war effort overwhelmed the capacity of most antibiotics, and garlic was again the antibiotic of choice. The Red Army physicians relied so heavily on garlic that it became known as the “Russian Penicillin”.

When crushed, Allium sativum yields allicin, an antibiotic and antifungal compound. It can be used for infections, wounds, cancer, leprosy, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. It reduces the accumulation of plaque deposits in the vascular walls and fights the common cold. It is also used to regulate blood sugar levels in diabetics.



Lemon Grass and Bermuda Grass are used for treating digestive tract spasms, stomach problems, high blood pressure, convulsions, pain, vomiting, cough, achy joints (rheumatism), fever, the common cold, and exhaustion. They are also used to kill germs and as a mild astringent.




Hemp, or the Cannabis plant, produces fiber, oil, and seed. It is refined into products like hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel. The name comes from the Old English “haenep” which means high or tall. It has been known and utilized for thousands of years. The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE) from Ancient Egypt has a prescription for Cannabis sativa (marijuana) applied topically for inflammation.


According to Japanese legend, the earthworm has a white ring around its neck because of hemp. Once there were two women who both wove hemp cloth, which was called nuno or jofu. One woman worked very slowly and produced fine fabric, while the other woman worked quickly to produce coarse cloth.

When market day arrived, the slow woman had not woven enough fine cloth to wear, so she insisted that her husband carry her on his back in a huge jar. She went naked except for the hemp fibers around her neck. But the slow woman foolishly mocked the dress of coarse fabric produced by the fast woman. She in turn exposed the nakedness of the slow woman, who buried herself in the earth to hide in shame; and turned into the earthworm. The hemp fibers became the worm’s white ring.

Hemp is associated with purity in Japan and plays a symbolic role in their courtship. The man’s family would send hempen articles as gifts to the woman’s family to show that she was acceptable. Strands of the fiber were arrayed at the wedding to symbolize the wife’s obedience to her husband. Hemp is easily dyed, and Japanese men expected their wives to take on any “color” the man chose.


The Ancient Greeks used cannabis not only for human medicine, but also in veterinary medicine to dress wounds and sores on their horses. In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nose bleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. Green seeds of cannabis steeped in either water or wine.  was used, (after removing the seeds) to treat inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear.

Hemp, with added other herbs added, is often made into a salve for burns, and bug bites, and to heal and rejuvenate skin. It is a universal healing preparation combining the effects of an antibiotic ointment with the effects of a salve to remove pain.

Ancient texts confirm that cannabis’ psychoactive properties were recognized, and doctors used it for treating a variety of illnesses and ailments. These included insomnia, headaches, a whole host of gastrointestinal disorders, and pain.  Cannabis was frequently used to relieve the pain of childbirth. They used it for dysentery, sunstroke, clearing phlegm, digestion, and sharpening appetite.

It was noted that it “makes the tongue of the lisper plain, freshens the intellect and gives alertness to the body and gaiety to the mind.”




The Egyptians used honey as an embalming fluid and a dressing for wounds. Honey has one of the largest mythological traditions in the world. In Greece we find a plethora of myths related to it. The most characteristic mythical trust that reflects honey’s special value for Greeks is its designation as the food of the Gods of Olympus known as “ambrosia”.

The use of honey for the humans is praised in several classical texts of ancient Greece, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus, and in philosophical texts of Plato, Aristoteles, Democritus, and others. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recorded the pharmaceutical values of honey. Honey also played an extremely important role in cookery in ancient Greece as one of the basic ingredients in cooking and confectionery. Its use in ancient Greek food recipes, and it’s a priority as the basic material for the preparation of sweets and delicacies, gave it great importance.


A tale of the origin of beer:

A woman by the name of “Kapo”, was the beautiful daughter of “Osmotar”, who is supposed to have been the man that invented beer. His daughter was said to take six seeds of barley, seven leaves of hop, and mixed them into seven separate pitchers of water. “On the fire she sets the caldron boils the barley, hops and water. Let them steep and seethe and bubble.”

The concoction did not ferment, and had no taste? “What will bring the effervescence, who will add the needed factor that the beer may foam, and sparkle. May ferment, and be delightful?”

Many creatures tried, but none succeeded. Finally, another sparkling maiden found a tiny shell and created a bee.   The bee was instructed to fly to a far island, where a maiden peacefully slumbered under honey bearing blooms, and collect nectar from these flowers.

The bee soon returned with the honey, which was quickly added to the stubborn mixture. Immediately, the foam rose in the vessel, and the new beverage was found to have a wonderful taste.

“Thus, was brewed the beer of Northland, At the hands of Osmo’s daughter.

Great indeed the reputation of the ancient beer of Kalew.  Said to make the feeble hardy, famed to dry the tears of women, famed to cheer the broken-hearted, make the aged young and supple, make the timid brave and mighty, make the brave men ever braver, fill the heart with joy and gladness, fill the mind with wisdom-sayings, fill the tongue with ancient legends.

And only makes the fool more foolish.”


Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and many other people used honey to treat common ailments. Honey contains high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide and sugar, both of which kill bacteria. Honey has antibacterial qualities that make it effective in helping to heal wounds and burns. Honey’s powerful antimicrobial properties make it ideal for soothing raw tissues.

Mix one teaspoon. full of honey with a few drops of lemon juice to ease a sore throat. Its natural anti-inflammatory effect aids in healing the irritated issue. Honey helps with stomach aches and stomach ulcers.  A tablespoon of honey mixed with one half cup of warm milk soothes an upset stomach.

Honey helps kill viruses, bacteria, and fungus, making it a good substance to place on wounds. Honey’s natural antiseptic and antimicrobial properties may help to prevent infections by killing the bacteria in and around the wound. Burns also benefit from honey.

Honey’s antibacterial properties have been reported to be effective against staph aureus, which causes many wound infections, as well as a strain of staph known as MRSA, or methicillin resistant staph aureus, which is notoriously resistant to antibiotics.  Treatment of staph with medical grade honey is now common in hospitals.

All these almost miraculous properties make it a very important addition to syrups and salves.




Earth Rainforests are a haven for unique vine species. One of these types is called liana, a thick, climbing vine found in abundance in tropical rainforests.  Lianas have an interesting life span for a plant, beginning growth along the rainforest floor, and climbing to sunlight. They are used by humans to make baskets, furniture and sturdy ropes.

It is still used as a source of water which is obtained by making a first cut in the vine, high, over one’s head, to keep the water from being withdrawn by contraction and surface adhesion up the vine. The second cut, made a foot or so from the ground, gives a vine tube which, when drained, yields about a liter of water.


One day a demon chased a group of children into a rainforest, intending them for his dinner. They climbed into a tree, but the demon followed, hauling itself up on a liana vine.

Luckily a friendly parrot gnawed through it and the demon crashed to the ground. Lizards burst forth from its broken corpse and scurried off to colonize the land. Sadly, the children turned into little monkeys.

On the island of Pentecost in the South Pacific, there is a legend that birthed a strange tradition. It seems that in a village several hundred years ago, a woman was fighting with her husband. She ran from him and climbed a tall tree. He ran after her and climbed, and when she jumped off the top, he followed suit. He plummeted to his death, but she had tied a vine around her ankle and was saved, her fall broken before she crashed into the earth. For three months of every year since then the village builds a tower of branches 60 to 150 feet tall and performs the Nagol Ceremony. The “land divers” (men only, from the Longwaran tribe of the island) climb up and fling themselves to the ground, liana vines tied around both ankles. This reminds the women that the men will never again be outsmarted. The men are often hurt and sometimes killed, but in doing so exhibit extreme bravery.


Humans use different lianas for purposes ranging from a source of fresh drinking water to poisons and drugs.

Some Indians of South America crush and cook the roots and stems to make a light syrup called “ampi”, or “curaré”, which they use on the tip of their arrows and darts to hunt wild game. The active ingredient in “curaré”, D-tubocurarine, is used in medicine.

Brazilians consider the root a diuretic and use it internally in small quantities for madness and dropsy, and externally for bruises. It is also used for edema, fever, and kidney stones.

The scraped-off bark of another type of liana, the garlic liana (Mansoa alliaceae), is used to alleviate colds and fever after it’s cooked in water. A steam bath of the leaves of the garlic liana also helps with arthritis pain and fever. When cooked in water, the red wood of the cat nail liana (Uncaria tomentosa) makes a liquid that treats asthma, stomach ulcers, and bladder and kidney diseases.

Another liana called “Cat’s claw,” has antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties.




Lichens are multiple symbiotic combinations of algae and fungi. They have been used medically for more than four thousand years. They are found everywhere.  Many grow on trees and some have a mossy or cloth fiber-like appearance.

One, called Usnea, when moistened and pulled apart, will have a white rubbery or stretchy core. Do not confuse Usnea with Spanish moss, which has a black core.


Shakespeare’s “Idle moss”, referring to the “beard moss” or “tree moss”, was used as an inspiration in many pieces of poetry. According to legend, since this species looks like green or grey hair hanging from tree branches, spirits live in the tree.  In China Usnea diffracta has been called “Lao Tzu’s beard” and has been described as a medicine in Chinese herbals as early as 500 C.E.


Usnea is a well-known herbal antibiotic.   It is anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal, and is quickly becoming a common tool for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It has the unusual ability to target unwanted bacteria without causing major damage to healthy gut flora.

Usnea is a powerful antimicrobial herb that can treat and prevent wound infection.  Its wound healing properties are currently being researched for use, layered, on bandages to promote rapid healing.

The extract is used to combat MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacterial infections.  The effective agent is Usnic Acid.

Usnea is used topically as a tincture, powder, or salve, but is also given internally.


Usnea is easy to prepare and use.  For extractions or decoctions, cut the lichen into small pieces.

Usnea can be extracted using alcohol and made into a tincture.   The mixture is one-part herb to five parts liquids.  The liquid is usually one-half alcohol and one-half water; however, the proportions depend on the herbalist and what the product is intended for.

A concoction is made by boiling the pieces for fifteen minutes. Let it steep while cooling.

Pour either tincture or concoction on a sterile cloth or pad and use to wash wounds.

Powder is made from the dried lichen, by pounding it in a mortar and pestle.  Filter the powder through a fine mesh into a container.  The white strings, or core fibers that remain can be used to pack wounds.

The wonder of herbs and their history is endlessly fascinating. This is but a small window into their lore.  Part Four next month.

One thought on “Elspeth’s Herbal Part Three

  1. Pingback: Elspeth’s Herbal Part Three — The Convenient – Kamau kiemo

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