For some, the idea of herbal medicine conjures up the image of a black-clad alchemist scheming over a steaming cauldron of newts and tails. But in reality, alternative treatments have become much more mainstream - and much better understood - than in years past.
As the cost of health care rises, more people are turning to herbal remedies and alternative medicines, and some are even turning their back yards into mini-dispensaries of natural health tonics.
"The reasons for making your own herbal remedies are simple: They're easy, inexpensive and sometimes stronger than what you buy in the store," said Maria Noël Groves, a clinical herbalist and owner of Wintergreen Botanicals in Allenstown.
Groves currently is running a class called Beyond the Home Herbalist at her shop, where she teaches simple herbal remedies for common ailments.
"Once you know the basics, you can create unlimited remedies to help heal many common ailments," she said.
In 2007 - the most recent year for which reliable data is available - about 38 percent of adults and 12 percent of children used some form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to a report generated by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"(Herbs) are really easy to work with, they are generally very safe and effective, and people really like to be able to go into their back yards or into their pantry and pull out what they need, when they need it," Groves said. "It's very empowering, it saves money and - while as an herbalist I'm not allowed to say herbs treat diseases - a lot of times people do notice an overall improvement in health when they use herbs."
The 2007 study found that those using this kind of medicine come from a variety of backgrounds, but are typically between the ages of 30 and 69 and are more likely to be women with higher levels of education and higher incomes.
"I'm seeing a huge resurgence of people using herbs in the home - and not necessarily people who want to be herbal practitioners, although that's definitely increasing as well," Groves said. "A lot of people are just regular folks who want to be able to cure a greater variety of their ailments at home with herbal remedies."
People can purchase herbal remedies prepared in pill, powder or tincture, but that can get pricey. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Americans spend $14.1 billion per year on herbal remedies, spending on average $30 or less for each product.But Groves says growing or simply harvesting these herbs from nature yourself can be just as easy.
Still, she stresses, using herbal remedies doesn't mean eschewing traditional medicine. "If it's a medical emergency, I highly recommend getting medical treatment," Groves said. "But for cold and flu or day-to-day chronic pains, for example, herbal remedies can be very effective for a fraction of the cost."
Popular and versatile
Some good beginner herbs to plant are ones that are easy to grow and have a good safety profile, Groves said.
One of her favorites is lemon balm. It smells good, makes a great tea and can be infused in honey. It's also a good "general calming and uplifting remedy," Groves said, suggesting it for help with anxiety or insomnia. For external application, she said, it can help in preventing the herpes virus from replicating.
Another versatile herb is holy basil. Different from culinary basil, this annual can be used to bring about calm without sapping energy and can balance blood-sugar levels, Grove said. It can also fend off viral infections and is a mild anti-inflammatory, she added.
Bee balm also is very popular and grows robustly. Using the leaves and the flowers, you may find this plant is effective as an anti-viral and useful in fighting off colds and flu.
When it comes to pain or anti-inflammatory treatment, meadow sweet - one of the natural sources of aspirin - is an herb of choice, useful for treating headaches and stomach aches.
Burdock and dandelions, Groves said, are good for liver health and enhancing digestion.
"They are a nice all-over detoxification, and they are nutritious," Groves said.
How to harvest
Depending on the remedy, harvest the leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits, roots or barks of plants after researching what you aim to treat.
For those who don't have time or inclination to tend to herbs, there are plenty just waiting to be harvested in the wild. When getting started, Groves said, it's important to take a few precautions. First, always cross-reference with at least three identification books to make sure you're correctly selecting the plant.
"I like to watch a plant for at least one full year to make sure I am comfortable with its identification," she writes in her class materials. "Look at leaves, flowers, seedpods, fruits, growing patterns. If something you see doesn't quite match with the identification patterns put forth in a book, don't pick it. Wait and keep researching."
She said most plants are easiest to identify when they are flowering, so it's best to keep an eye out for flowers when getting to know them. Other precautions include picking in a clean area, away from roads and highways, and in a place not sprayed with chemicals. And, she said, when picking herbs near water, make sure the water itself is clean because the plants are known to concentrate groundwater.
Also, Groves added, don't harvest sickly plants that have either diseases or bug infestations.
"If it doesn't look 'happy,'?" she writes, "don't harvest it."
Be an ethical harvester, Groves said, by never picking a plant that isn't abundant in the area. Harvest only 1 to 10 percent of available plants, she said, and always ask permission before harvesting on someone else's land. Also, she added, choose plants that are more like invasive weeds: dandelion, burdock, autumn olive, plantain and Japanese knotweed, for examples.
Sustainability is key.
"When possible, harvest in a manner that promotes the growth of a plant," Groves writes in her teaching materials. "For instance, pinching off mint-like plants, carefully pruning small branches of trees for bark. Make sure to leave some flowers to go to seed, fruits for wildlife, etc."
Preparing for use
Once harvested, the herbs can be steeped into a tea or put into a tincture, Groves said. Teas are often easiest to make and the least expensive to buy. They also can be gentler than other herbal remedies, she said, although the strength of the medicine depends on which herbs are used and the concentration of the tea.
To make a tea, dry the herbs. This can be done in a brown paper bag. Put the herbs in the bag, clip the bag shut, and put it in a sunny spot, such as the dashboard of a car, for one to three days. Once the herbs crumble easily between the finger tips, remove the bag and strip the leaves form the stem. Groves said the leaves are best stored in a glass container and kept in a cool, dark place. Aromatic herbs keep for about one year, she said, while roots, seeds, bark and non-aromatic herbs might keep for two or more years. However, she said, heat, light, oxygen and moisture will cause herbs to lose potency or go bad more quickly. Once prepped for storage and usage, herbs and roots can be strained and steeped in hot water. A medicinal or tonic tea, Groves said, usually involves one tablespoon or more of dried herb per cup of water, steeped or simmered for five to 15 minutes. A strong medicinal tea is one ounce of dried herb per quart of water, she said.
Happy - and healthy - sipping.