Category Archives: History of Healing

Cacao Herbal Monograph

I’ve decided to be really cliché and do a Valentine’s kind of theme for my herbal post this week.  I will share this short monograph on Cacao that I wrote for Natural Herbal Living Magazine in February of 2015.  Because chocolate! ~ Stephany 

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming indoors on a cold winter day and waiting impatiently while Mom whipped up a batch of homemade hot cocoa. Our modern love affair with cocoa and chocolate go back to the days when the early Spanish and British explorers first brought it back from the New World. Although preparations and uses for the plant have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that cacao holds a special place in our culture. Few people stop to consider that what is now considered a confection was once widely used as a medicinal preparation.

 Scientific NameTheobroma cacao
Family: Malvaceae
Other Names: cacao tree, cocoa tree

Origin of Cacao
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin, but its range spread north to Central America when more cultures began cultivating it. The cacao tree will only flourish in very specific climatic
conditions. It’s a tropical undergrowth plant, and it depends upon high temperatures and humidity only found near the Equator. The trees also require the presence of the Forcipomyia midge, which inhabit these ecosystems, for pollination.

Each of the roughly 12- inch (30 cm) pods growing from the trunk and main branches produce anywhere from 25 to 40 bitter-tasting seeds, or beans, which are surrounded by a white pulp. Cocoa powder and chocolate are both products that come from processing the cacao bean. The beans are processed into powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate; the pulp is harvested for other uses.

You can see how these would be hard to break.

The pods will not open without some sort of mechanical assistance from animals or humans. Spider monkeys,who use the pods as a food source, earned the reputation as the “bringers of cacao” due to their efficient dispersal of the seeds.[1]

The Science

There are a lot of claims about cacao’s superfood status, and even more traditional and modern
suggested uses. I’ve included below a brief summary of what has been investigated through scientific methods.

Constituents
Cacao contains the xanthines theobromine and caffeine. It also contains the fatty acids stearic
acid and oleic acid. Recent scientific research into the phenol content of chocolate has identified thousands of various polyphenols in chocolate including the flavonoid quercetin and the flavonols epicatechin and catechin.[2]

Actions
The theobromine in cacao acts as a central nervous system stimulant, working on both the cardiac and respiratory systems. Theobromine is also a diuretic, a vasodilator, and a smooth- muscle relaxant.[3] Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and diuretic too. Unlike theobromine, it is a vasoconstrictor.[4]

It seems worth noting that these opposing actions of vasodilation and vasoconstriction could have a toning effect on the vasculature, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. The various phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory actions, which contribute to cacao’s positive “metabolic, antihypertensive,anti-inflammatory, and anti- thrombotic effects.”[5]

In addition to these actions, chocolate has been termed a euphoric, as it has been theorized to impact serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.[6]

Cacaos Many Uses
There is an incredibly rich history of ethnobotanical use that continues up to the present day. While today cacao is thought of as food, historically cacao has been considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive.

History and Tradition
Cacao’s long history of both medicinal and ritual use began in Mesoamerica. The similarity between Aztec and Mayan use of the plant, point towards its use by a common ancestor.[7] According to both cultures, cacao was gifted to humans by the divine and was an integral part of religious rituals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most common preparation was a drink made from cacao powder or paste cakes mixed with water. Depending on the area, the drinks contained additional ingredients such as chili powder, vanilla, or ground maize. The drink was typically frothed by making it in a special cacao pot with a spout for blowing into it, or by quickly transferring the drink between two vessels.[8] Traditional cocoa powder preparations were considered to have antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic (stimulating uterine contractions), emmenagogue, and parasiticidal actions.

Early Spanish explorers reported that indigenous peoples used cacao to treat angina, constipation, dental problems, dysentery, asthenia, gout, and many other diseases [9] including alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds.[10]

The use of cacao as a medicinal plant spread to Spain and Great Britain as these empires settled the Americas. In 1624, Spanish physician Santiago de Valverde Turices was the first to assign energetic qualities to both cacao powder and chocolate. He claimed that while the powder was cold, chocolate drinks were hot, dry, and suitable for cold, damp conditions.[11] Henry Stubbe was one of the first Europeans to write extensively on cacao. His text, titled The Indian Nectar; or A discourse concerning chocolate wherein the nature of the cacao-nut is examined…, was published in 1682. Axtextli, a beverage he mentioned as an aphrodisiac, was a mixture of cacao paste, maize, mecaxochitl (black pepper),and tlilxochitl (vanilla).

InThe English American published in 1648, Thomas Gage mentioned that black pepper mixed with cacao was a remedy for a “cold liver.”[12] King’s American Dispensatory recommends a mixture of cacao and milk as a restorative drink for “persons convalescing from acute diseases.” M. Grieves mentions in A Modern Herbal that in her time, cacao was given as a diuretic along with digitalis to relieve “accumulation of blood in the body resulting from cardiac failure” and as a remedy for hypertension due to the vasodilative action.

Modern Day
Although human studies of theobromine have confirmed its potential usefulness in inhibiting
coughs,[13] for the most part, the use of cacao as a medicinal has faded out of practice. It is,
however, still widely considered a dietary supplement with health- promoting qualities. There is a great deal of research available on the health benefits of adding cacao to our diets.

The phenolic compounds seem to protect against chronic diseases related to oxidative stress, one study concluding, “Several in vivo studies have provided strong support for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich foods, such as certain cocoas and chocolates, may be associated with reduced risk for vascular disease.”[14] A study released last year has addressed the potential of cacao polyphenols in preventing “metabolic diseases and chronic inflammation associated with obesity.”[15]

Since “milk proteins inhibit absorption of flavonoids” dark chocolate may be the best way to
consume chocolate for the dietary benefits.15 Cacao may also have mental health benefits.

Ask many people, and they will tell you that they self-medicate on down days with chocolate. This practice seems to be supported by research on how eating chocolate impacts mood. Cocoa butter, which is another by-product of processing the beans, is used extensively in modern cosmetic preparations, due to its rich emollient properties, as well as in the chocolate-making process.

Using Cacao Safely
As with any food plant that is also a medicinal herb, there are some precautions to keep in mind
as you incorporate it into your daily regimen.

Side Effects
Cacao can cause allergic reactions in some people, although that is rare, and it may trigger migraines in some individuals.[16] Many of its side effects are related to the caffeine content.
As with all caffeinated beverages, moderation is key.

Contraindications and Drug Interactions
Avoid cacao if you have an allergy to any member of the Sterculiaceae family. People who suffer from kidney stones or gout may also want to avoid cacao as it increases urinary oxalate levels.[17]

There are a number of pharmaceutical drugs that interact with caffeine including clozapine, beta-adrenergic antagonists, lithium, and drugs used for testing for heart conditions. Be sure to discuss your caffeine intake with your physician before starting a new prescription. The flavanols in cacao may also interact with blood- thinning medications. (Sorry you all…gotta include the CYA disclaimers. The main thing here is to communicate with your providers about excessive consumption.  I am looking at you people who drink a pot a day!)

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation
Follow your physician’s recommendation regarding daily caffeine intake during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In some studies, excessive caffeine in the maternal diet has resulted in colic in infants.[18]

 Dosage and Administration
There are no established dosages for cacao powder. Administration is generally in the form of a beverage or confection. Half of a 3-ounce chocolate bar contains 86 – 240 mg of theobromine and 9 – 31 mg of caffeine.[19]

[1] 1 Nisao Ogata, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube, “The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics,” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao ed. Cameron L. McNeil (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2006), 87.

[2] 2 Chiaki Sanbongi, Naomi Osakabe, et al., “Antioxidative Polyphenols Isolated from Theobroma cacao,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46, (1998).

[3] Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents, (Herbalchem Press, 2009), 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G. Lippi, M. Franchini, et al., “Dark chocolate: consumption for pleasure or therapy?” Journal of Thrombosis Thrombolysis 28, (2013).

[6] Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, and Heather Brotchie, “Mood state effects of chocolate,” Journal of Affective Disorders 92 (2006).

[7] “Caroline Seawright. Life Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica,”(archaeological essay, 2012). Full text: http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/ARC2ZT, pp. 13.

[8] Hillary Christopher, “Cacao’s Relationship with MesoamericanSociety.” Spectrum 3, (2012).

[9] Donatella Lippi, “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?”Nutrition 25, (2009).

[10] 10 “Chocolate,” National Standard Food, Herbs and Supplements Database (2014).

[11] Lippi, “Dangerous liasons.”

[12] Gage, Thomas. The English American. London, England: Printed by A. Clark, and are to be sold by J. Martyn, Robert Horn and Walter Kettilby, (1677). pp. 241.

[13] OS Usmani, MG Belvisi, et al., “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough.” The Journal of the Federation of American Studies for Experimental Biology 19 (2005).

[14] Carl Keen, Roberta Holt, “Cocoa Antioxidants and cardiovascular health,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81, (2005).

[15] Faisal Ali, Amin Ismail, and Sander Kersten. “Molecular mechanisms underlying the potention antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenols Molecular Nutrition Food Research 00 (2013).

[16] Leira, R. and Rodriguez, R. [Diet and migraine]. Rev Neurol. 1996;24(129):534-538.

[17] Massey, L. K., Roman-Smith, H., and Sutton, R. A. Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J Am.Diet.Assoc. 1993;93(8):901-906.

[18]Evans, R. W., Fergusson, D. M., Allardyce, R. A., and Taylor, B. Maternal diet and infantile colic in breast-fed infants. Lancet 6-20-1981;1(8234):1340-1342

[19] Mumford GK, Evans SM, Kaminski BJ, et al. Discriminative stimulus and subjective effects of theobromine and caffeine in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl) . 1994;115(1-2):1-8.

Discovering the Bean Feasa

This similar to an article  which originally ran in Plant Healer Magazine, but I’ve updated it a bit based on new things I’ve read and questions students have asked.”  <3 Stephany

Recreation of an Iron Age Irish roundhouse.  The early days of domestic medicine.

During my studies with Sean, he shared with me an article written by Kenneth Proefrock in which Kenneth states “the conclusions our ancestors were able to draw regarding the subtleties of health and healing must still be within us.”[1]    I loved it so much, I contacted Kenneth who kindly provided me with enough information that I could cite him in my thesis.

For some reason that single statement spoke to me deeply.  I know I’ve mentioned that before but my explanation didn’t make sense to some people. I guess I felt like it gave I me some direction at a time when I needed it. I had made it through  most of my biomedical training  for the most part unscathed and was studying Ayurveda.  I don’t even know why–probably because all the cool kids like to talk about Ayurveda or TCM and having learned my plants from an old Gaelic dude in the SCA, I didn’t know a lot about those modalities.

Ayurveda is a very rigid, prescriptive practice and  it just wasn’t speaking to me. It’s probably my genetic structure which causes me to rebel against the construct of professionalism. I have Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Dutch Jew, and Quaker heritage.  I am at the very core of myself, a village peasant.  The plants weren’t speaking to me, either.

More importantly my education had made me more aware of the moral gray area that we enter when appropriate the knowledge of other cultures. I decided that I just wanted to avoid the hassle.  Kenneth’s statements encouraged me to maintain the focus of  my anthropological studies on the healers and folkways of own heritage.

And I am on that.  I know my history. I know which translators are pretty solid and who was writing creative nonfiction. That’s part of being a responsible researcher.  I have facsimiles of Irish history books written in the 1600’s and every herbal published in the UK before 1600.  I am such a nerd that when I find a partially legible note scribbled in the front of a copy of Kuno Meyer’s Triads of Ireland about “Professor Binc….”  I know that whoever wrote the note was a student of Daniel Binchy’ s because Binchy used Meyer’s translations as texts.

For the purposes of brevity, this article will focus primarily on the Irish culture, but I contend anyone who has studied the folk healers of their own ancestry will recognize synchronicities as I did when I explored other branches of my heritage.

Scholars who study Irish history face several disadvantages.  The first problem is that the acidity of the soil in Ireland has yielded little in the way of organic remains.  The second is that being a people who were very fond of oral narrative, the Irish didn’t bother with writing much down.   When they finally took to writing, they did so with fervor. Irish scribes preserved the knowledge of ancient societies through the Dark Ages. Manuscripts such as the Rosa Anglica would have been lost to time were it not for these monks.[2]

Unfortunately, the failed attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Irish by the English included the destruction of the monasteries and churches where many of the early Gaelic manuscripts had been hidden.

Written documentation is sparse and generally pertains to professional healers.  There are two surviving Brehon Law tracts which pertained to medical practice: the Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-lying)[3] and the Bretha Déin Cécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht)[4] which were written between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 9th, by Irish monastic communities.  The tracts confirm the existence of both male and female physicians known as liaig and ban-liaig, respectively.   They also established norms regarding the responsibility of caring for the injured and ill called folog nothrusa (maintenance of sickness).  Brehon law texts also refer to bags carried by physicians known as línchor.[5]

Commentaries known as glosses, were added to these documents during the 11th- to 12th century which implied that women physicians functioned mostly as midwives. They were undoubtedly added due to the increasingly patriarchal conservatism of the church as there is ample documentation of female healers practicing in the early modern era.  This is how the phrase “gloss things over” got its start.

One recension of the Irish mythological cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland)[6] was included as part of the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) written in 1150 CE by another monastic community.  It includes a narrative called the Tain bo Cuailgne which mentions of a group of liaig said to accompany certain armies, wearing bags known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

When researcher Audrey Meaney catalogued early burial sites in the UK, it was mostly women whose graves contained artifacts, the placement of which left the impression that they had originally been contained in some sort of bag.[7] This seems to back up folk narratives which assert that females were once responsible for healing in their communities. More to the point though it was many women who had these bags at various sites.

This was one of the first times that I saw (truthfully… it was an advisor who pointed it out to me) that what I thought was only a problem amongst creative nonfiction writers, was a very real problem in anthropological research.   In their quest for compelling discoveries, they read much into what in what was probably just an everyday practice.  It seems likely that moms just carried a first aid kit than a village had 27 shamans.

Setting that question aside until some remarkable new archaeological find sheds light on the issue, folklore specialists, such as Richard Jenkins, do agree that indigenous healing beliefs informed various “ritual specialists…from the early modern period to the twentieth century.”[8]  The study of these healers is mostly informed by written folklore and ethnographic compilation of oral narratives. Discovering more about these healers provides a glimpse of what their healing culture might look like.

Childbirth: Woodcut from Der Swangern Frawen und he bammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513.

Women gave birth with the help of midwives called cnáimhseach or bean ghlúine[9] (kneeling woman) who was responsible for knowing many methods of protecting the health of the newborn child. It was the bean ghlúine who would lay the iron bar across a cradle or bathe a newborn in saltwater to prevent abduction by the aes sídhe.

These women were also known for having tricks to be able to help relieve the pain of childbirth.  Some claimed to be able to do this by means of transferring the pain of childbirth to a man. A Munster midwife told Lady Gregory, “Did I know the pain could be put on a man?  Sure, I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it.”

Gregory goes on to tell a story of a man, whose wife was in labor, falling amongst his friends gathered outside the home, as if experiencing the pain of childbirth.  What stands out to me about this story is that the men had gathered together outside to support their friend as he waited for his child to be born.  That experience seemed to be the norm, leading one to believe that the birth of a child was a community affair.

The bean feasa (woman of knowing) was an intriguing character, and likely the ritual specialist in Irish society.  While most accounts mention females in this role, there is a male term, fear feasa, which may speak to the fact that the role was likely less gendered than feminist folklorists maintain. There was the “lucht pisreóg” and while many people translate that to enchanter, the literal translation is simply “community charmer”.   In Scotland, she was called the hen-wife or the cailleach-chearc.[10]

The idea that the bean feasa inhabited liminal spaces was probably first put forth in academic circles by folklorist Nancy Schmitz, who published a paper that ended with a brief comparison of the bean feasa and Native American shamans.[11] Folklorist Gearoid Ó Crualaoich depicts the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.”[12]

Working within the framework of beliefs held by many ancient society that illness was caused by malevolent spirits and the like, it was she who was responsible for mediating between the human world and the Otherworld.  Sometimes she did this by use of charms and spells, sometimes by means of divination or prophecy.  While on occasion she would work with herbs or strange potions, she often was called upon when the cause of an illness or misfortune was mysterious in nature.

It is important to note that these healers were not considered witches in the sense of a human who had some sort of pact with the devil, though some of them had power struggles with local priests.   In fact, there is no Gaelic word for that sort of witch.  As Nancy Schmitz explains Irish people all had “access to supernatural power in the form of spells and charms and entrance to the fairy world (for good or evil), was available to anyone who wished to make use of it. No contract with a particular figure of evil was necessary.”[13] This seems to be supported by the fact that Irish Christian literature was still denigrating  fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies)” well into the late seventeenth century. [14]

Biddy Early is possibly the most widely lauded bean feasa in Ireland.  Immortalized by Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Biddy Early is notorious for consulting her infamous “black bottle” for her otherworldly knowledge.  It may say something about “scholars” that I have never once read it suggested that the bottle might contain an entheogen. 

In the years after the Gaelic language faded from common use, these healers were called fairy doctors –described here by Irish folklorist Lady Francesca Wilde:

“The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations.”[15]

There also seem to have been healers who dealt with the everyday illnesses and injuries in a village by means of herbs, charms and other remedies.  In Ireland, she was called the bean leighis (probably some sort of corruption of ban-liaig).  The more I study this the more I think that this term was used to describe older women who helped in the community after their children had grown and gone.

The bean leighis were responsible for passing along the use of cures to the younger members of the community, but it did not seem that their knowledge was exclusive and it could also be that the term was used to describe an action rather than a role.  As James Mangen told Lady Gregory, “my mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures.”  It seems that many of the women of the peasantry had some passing knowledge of these practices leading Lady Gregory to state “An old woman without learning, it is she who will be doing charms.” [16]

The plants  were commonly used is supported by the folk narrative.  Lady Gregory mentions conversations with healers such as Bridget Ruane who assured her that “Dub-cosac (lichen) was “food for the heart, very good for a sore heart” and that “slanlus (plantain) and garblus (dandelion) were both used for curing wounds and bringing people back from the dead.[17]

Most women seemed to have a grasp on enough basic knowledge to care for their families and only turned to outside help when they were in over their head. Irish medical historian James Mooney concurs saying that “every housekeeper is well acquainted with all the virtues of the common herbs” and that she only turns for help when “she has exhausted her resources or is convinced that the illness is of supernatural origin.”[18]

In Irish society, the torramh (wake) was a community event which often lasted days and included plays, sharing of pipes, dancing, singing, and the ancient practice known as caoineadh, or keening. It is during the torramh that we meet another wise woman the bean chaointe (keening woman) who:

“Inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament.”[19]

These funeral rituals support the idea that the Gaels understood the importance of social affiliation in helping people rebound from trauma.[20]  This is a particularly powerful message for me as it is my firm belief that we do a dismal job of mourning these days, which leaves those who have suffered a loss in a state of lingering trauma.

This very brief description of the Gaelic healing culture speaks to their understanding that the wellness of the whole community is crucial to survival.  At every turn, you read community members stepping up to take part in the process.
That may be the one bit of commonality that I have found in all resilient communities- a strong sense of social cohesion which their healers were partially responsible for nurturing.  There is so much to be learned from those who have gone before us in the ways of self-care and community wellness.

[1] Proefrock, Kenneth. 2010. "Otzi and the Judgments of Dian Cecht." Aontacht. December. http://www.druidicdawn.com/aontacht/volume3.html.

[2] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[3] Binchy, Daniel A. “Bretha Crólige.” Ériu 12 (1938): 1–77

[4] Binchy, D. A. “Bretha Déin Chécht.” Ériu 20 (1966): 1–66.

[5] Kelly, F. (2001). “Medicine and Early Irish Law.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, 73-77.

[6] Macalister, D., ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn : The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Translated by Stewart, R.A. 5 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin: Published for the Irish texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938.

[7] Pollington, Leechcraft, p 48.

[8] Jenkins, R. (2007). “The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies.” Folklore, 162-182.

[9] Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, ... Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.  Regional distribution.

[10] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.

[11] Schmitz, N. (1977). “An Irish Wise Woman.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, 169-179.

[12] Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach. Dublin: Cork University Press.

[13] Nancy Schmitz, “Irish Wise Woman,” 173.

[14] Timothy C. Correll, "Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy

Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief," Folklore 116, 2. 

[15] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm

[16]  Gregory, L. (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[17] Gregory, L. Visions and Beliefs

[18] Mooney, James. The Medical Mythology of Ireland. Philadelphia, PA: MacCalla & Company, 1887. p. 138.

[19] McCoy, N. P. (2009). “Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, Changing Performance Contexts and the Irish Wake Ritual.” In B. B. E. Mackinlay, Musical Islands: Exploring Connections Between Music, Place and Research (pp. 207-220). Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

[20] Donnelly, S. (1999). “Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland.” Palliative Medicine, 57-62.

Yellow Dock’s Versatile History

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

I don’t put a lot of my plant articles on my blog because they are usually long and heavily referenced, but  one of my publishers Amanda does allow us to  publish the articles we write for Natural Herbal Living Magazine on our own websites.  You should definitely check it out if you are interested in more great articles about Yellow Dock!  You can subscribe to upcoming issues of the magazine and order backcopies!  Today I am posting this article because I went out to pick some rue and took a picture of my yellow dock I wanted to share with readers. 

The herb yellow dock has a long and interesting history of use that might actually surprise some people who only use the root, but I first want to explain that when you start looking into this history, it can be a bit confusing. For example, Chin-ch’iao-mai is sometimes given as the Chinese name for yellow dock, but this name is also used to refer to Fagopyrum cymosum (golden buckwheat).1 This seems to be a regional difference with at least one source mentioning “at Peking this is Rumex crispus.”2 This confusion continues to occur in modern times. Here in Iowa, you frequently hear old-timers calling Rumex crispus “sour dock” despite Maud grieves’ assertion that sour dock was a name reserved for sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

Historically, the name dock seems to apply broadly to various member of the Rumex species including Rumex obtusifolius (broad dock) Rumex verticillatus (swamp dock) and Rumex crispus (yellow dock). For example, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mention dock, but which species this refers to is unclear.3

The Greek Dioscorides didn’t specifically mention a curly-leafed dock in De Materia Medica, although his entry on “lapathum” mentions four different kinds of Rumex including one that resembles plantain.4 It seems likely that these docks were used somewhat interchangeably throughout history. In fact, William Cook writes in the Physio-Medical Dispensatory “the roots of these several species are of the same general characters, though that of the crispus is decidedly the most effective and least astringent.”5

If you are searching specifically for Rumex crispus in sources from the UK you will want to look for the common names of “curled dock,” “curly dock,” or “narrow-leaf dock.” In Irish, Rumex crispus is also copóg chatach which again means “curled dock,”6 and in Scotland, it is called simply docken or copag.7 One herbal historian mentions that children in northern England would draw dock stalks through their fingers to “milk” out the sap and call the plant “curly-cows,” leading one to believe they were speaking specifically of the curly leaves of yellow dock.

A Tonic Root
In On Regimen in Acute Disease, Hippocrates noted that people who have skipped lunch are unlikely to be able to digest their dinner and recommended that “Such persons should take less supper than they are wont, and a pudding of barley-meal more moist than usual instead of bread, and of potherbs the dock, or mallow.”8  This advice makes sense, given yellow dock’s actions in improving digestion which you can read more about in the article on Yellow Dock syrup on page 39.

Culpeper was a fan of all of the docks (he seemed partial to herbs ruled by Jupiter) but asserted that yellow dock was best for those whose “blood or liver was affected by choler,”9 meaning that it countered excess yellow bile due to its cooling properties. According to Greek medicine, yellow bile was a bodily substance that was hot and dry in nature and when present in excess resulted in hot conditions such as fever or irritability. Many modern herbalists take this to mean that yellow dock cools liver heat. He suggested boiling meat with any dock root to make it boil sooner and strengthen the liver but then complained that women wouldn’t add dock to food because it “makes the pottage black.”10

Culpeper was by no means the only herbalist to embrace the root as a liver tonic. Centuries later, the physiomedical physicians such as Cook and the eclectic physicians such as King, Scudder, and Fyfe, classified yellow dock as an alterative which was “especially valuable in cases in which there is evidence of bad blood.” 11 The root was also prescribed by eclectic physicians for a peculiar malady called “melancholia dependent on brain anemia.” This condition, asserted some, was brought on by excessive activity of the mind and excessive excretion of phosphorous resulting in “a diminution of the mental capacities.” 12

Specific Indications
In the days before antibiotics, the dried root was frequently included in formulas that were meant to address specific complaints-most likely because of the root’s perceived ability to cleanse the blood. By 1890, Park, Davis & Company in the US was producing and marketing many different preparations of the root including a fluid extract, a solid extract, and a rumicin concentrate. Yellow dock root was also an ingredient in two of their compound formulas—one being a syrup that contained a few other interesting herbs, including bittersweet nightshade and Virginia creeper:

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) 60 grams
Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) 30 grams
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) 15 grams
Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) 15 grams
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) 60 grams

This formula and others like it were widely used to relieve symptoms of scrofula or skin diseases associated with syphilis. Yellow dock preparations were also mentioned as being specifically useful to those who had a hereditary predisposition to glandular swellings, referred to as strumous diathesis.13

More than Just Root Medicine
Yellow dock probably springs to most herbalists’ minds as a root remedy, however that is really selling this plant short. Dioscorides mentioned the seed of lapathum as being useful against dysentery and other gastrointestinal complaints.14 Culpeper agrees, saying the seeds “stay lasks and fluxes of all sorts,” and “is helpful for those that spit blood.” 15 Maud Grieves confirms the seeds are useful against dysentery.16 Given the prolific number of seeds this plant produces, modern herbalists should investigate these uses. Just keep in mind that the seeds are useful due to astringency, so don’t overdo it.

Another very interesting use of the seeds mentioned in the Anglo Saxon manuscript The Lacnunga is mixing dock seeds and Irish wax and, after a short ritual, placing it on the wounds of a horse that has been elf-shot. This term was used to explain many different illnesses that set on suddenly in both Anglo Saxon and Norse lore.17 In this particular case the term likely refers to a horse suddenly going lame for some reason.

Bald’s Leechbook also mentions dock as being a remedy for water-elf sickness a term that was used during medieval times to refer various illnesses that were accompanied by skin eruptions chicken pox, measles and possibly St. Anthony’s fire, the vernacular name for ergotism.18 The following elf-charm was to be recited after applying the remedy:

“I have wreathed round the wounds the best of healing wreaths, so the baneful sores may neither burn nor burst, nor find their way further, nor turn foul and fallow, nor thump and throb on, nor be wicked wounds, nor dig deeply down; but he himself may hold in a way to health . Let it ache thee o more than ear in earth acheth.
Sing also this many times, “May earth bear on you with all her might and main.” These galdor a man may sing over a wound.19

More frequently though, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mentioned dock leaves for addressing swellings such as boils or as a remedy for burns and nettle stings.20 This practice carried on in the UK.

The leaves were commonly used as poultices or plasters for various conditions in the early 1900’s. Gabrielle Hatfield’s ethnographic survey of East Anglia revealed that people in that area used the leaf frequently. One respondent sharing “Another remedy I remember was the cure for all bumps, cuts and bruises, was the dock leaf, these too were applied to the wound like plasters, and stopped the bleeding and brought down the bump.” 21  In Ireland, the juice of the leaves would be squeezed onto a cloth and used as compress for bruises.22

Healing Ointments
The plant also has a long history of being included as an ingredient in healing salves. English sources report “the poultice made from narrow-leaved dock ‘has been known to cure a growth on a man’s hand.” 23 Scottish healers also made a healing ointment by boiling the root until it was soft and mixing it with fresh butter.24 Grieves recommends boiling the root in vinegar and then mixing the pulp in lard. The leaves are also useful in salves, herbalist Ryan Drum still includes yellow dock leaves in the recipe for Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Healing Salve.25

Dock in Nettles Out
Many healing charms in the UK involve taking a bit of dock and rubbing it on nettle stings to relieve the pain. This is an ancient practice first mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Leechbook. In Cornwall, a common healing charm “Dock leaf, dock leaf, you go in; sting nettle, sting nettle, you come out,”26 while in other areas of England, you might hear: “Out nettle in dock; Dock shall have a new smock.”27 One old-timer explained to a researcher that most people didn’t do this right, saying: “The real cure was where a new leaf was growing down at the ground, there was a drop of liquid in it, and this liquid rubbed on the sting cured it.”28 I have to admit that I had used dock somewhat unsuccessfully on nettle stings until trying this trick and I find that it does seem more effective.

Dock in Folklore
In many Irish folktales, you see the phrase bán ag dul ar scáth na copóige, referring to a bright moonlit night. It is a shortened version of a longer Irish saying which translates to, “the moon seeking the shade of the dock and the dock receding from it.”29 Dock also figures prominently in Scottish tales, which credit the plant with being able to break a fairy’s hold over a child. Possession by fairies was a frequent theme in Gaelic lore.
The stories sometimes passed along practical knowledge as well. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Happy Family” talks of the dock forest planted by the people who lived in the manor house as a home for the snails,30 which probably speaks to a once common practice of using docks as shelter plants in heliciculture, the farming of edible terrestrial snails.

1 Shiu-ying Hu, Food Plants of China, Chinese University Press (2005) p 370.
 2 Shizhen Li, Porter Smith, and George Arthur Stuart, Chinese Medicinal Herbs: A Modern Edition of a Classic Sixteenth-Century Manual. Dover Publications (2003) p 385.
 3 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 4 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD) p 263.
 5 William Cook, The Physio-Medical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy, in Accordance with the Principles of Physiological Medication, Wm. H. Cook (1869) p 457.
 6 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 7 Mary Beith, Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Birlinn (2004) p 214.
 8 Hippocrates, Translated by Francis Adams, “On Regimen in Acute Diseases,” 400BCE.
 http://classics.mit.edu//Hippocrates/acutedis.html.
 9 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826).
 10 Ibid.
 11 John William Fyfe, John Milton Scudder, Specific Diagnosis and Specific Medication, 2nd ed., John K. Scudder (1909) p 699.
 12 Waldo Forbush, “Rumex crispus,” Journal of Therapeutics and Dietetics II. (1908) p 169.
 13 George S. Davis, Organic Materia Medica: Including the Standard Remedies of the Leading Pharmacopoeas as Well as Those Articles of the Newer Materia Medica ... and of the Preparations Made Therefrom, 2nd ed., Park, Davis & Company (1890).
 14 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD).
 15 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826) p 64.
 16 Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses Vol. 1., Dover (1971).
 17 Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Boydell Press (2007).
 18 Audrey Meaney, “Extra-Medical Elements in Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Social History of Medicine 24(1) (2011) 41–56.
 19 Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England : Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest Vol. 2 Longman (1864) pp 353-354.
 20 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 21 Gabrielle Hatfield, Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine (Kindle Locations 1974-1976), The History Press (2012), Kindle Edition.
 22 David Elliston Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, Timber Press (2004) p 97.
 23 Mark R. Taylor, Taylor MSS (1920), Norfolk Records Office, Norwich, England 4322.
 24 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, “18th Century Book of Herbal Remedies: Complete Transcription,” (trans. 2012) Accessed April 10.
 https://www.rcpsg.ac.uk/Librar.
 25 Ryan Drum, “How to Prepare Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Herbal Salve,” Island Herbs (2010).
 http://www.ryandrum.com/salve.htm.
 26 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 27 William Black, Folk-Medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture, Elliot Stock, (1883) p 194.
 28 Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford University Press (1995).
 29 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 30 Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales from Hans Andersen, Oxford University Press (1999).

Reviving the Bean Feasa: Ethnomedicine 101

harvestI wanted to start this new series by explaining my understanding of the pluralistic nature of the health care system that exist in any given society and some other anthropology terms.

I feel like this is important, if a little dry.  Some of the terms I use are also used by people outside the discipline and they don’t  always mean the same thing.  That doesn’t mean anyone is necessarily wrong. It just speaks to the lack of cohesion between disciplines, which is one of my strongest critiques of academic.

Anthropologist, Arthur Kleinman first defined a society’s health care system as being comprised of the popular, folk, and professional sectors. This is the model which I learned in college and has been useful to me in studying the history of healing.

Professional Healers

The professional healthcare sector is comprised of academically trained providers such as MD’s, naturopathic physicians and yes, clinical herbalists.  In the past these healers were often trained through an apprenticeship to a professional healer who agreed to see to their education.  Prescriptive formulas or professional patent medicines employed by professionals. frequently replaced native medicinal preparations.

Cultural healing systems such as Āyurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) were constructs of the literati of their respective cultures. Study was most frequently limited to males of the elite class and required education of a level that few received in these highly stratified societies. Education in these modalities is still expensive to obtain.

Western practitioners mentioned by those discussing the history of herbal medicine, such as Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Gerarde, were academic elites and as such members of a professional healthcare sector.  Even Culpeper, who was frequently at odds with the English College of Physicians,  began his career having been apprenticed to an apothecary.

This leads me to tangent for a moment on the term “herbalist” which I find more and more problematic to use. Historically,  the term herbalist came about as a descriptor for someone who had authored an herbal.  Take John Gerarde as an example. Gerarde is often spoken about as an herbalist. Technically he did author (or at least plagiarized) one of the most influential herbals of the Middle Ages,  but he  was not a naturalist.  He was a junior warden of the  Barber-Surgeon’s Company and consequently a professional physician, in his era.  He was also a sexist, asshat-but I digress.

My point is that herbalist is at best a modern construct and you would be hard pressed to find a historical figure that corresponds with the modern idea of an herbalist.

Folk Healing

The folk health care sector is comprised of the traditional healing specialists of a community. Historically, these healers included lay midwives, fairy doctors, bean feasa, and “cunning folk” with far more in their repertoire than the therapeutic delivery of plant medicine. Folk healers often work from a framework influenced by indigenous cultural ideas about the spirit world influencing health and the communal aspects of wellness.

Folk healing is not limited to a particular spiritual practice. In many Gaelic communities, priests were called on as folk healers when it was thought an illness was caused by the supernatural-what anthropologists sometimes term a “naturalistic” cause. Modernly it is at least theorized that a lot of these types of  conditions were due to mental health problems and mental health professionals now fill this roll.  To my way of thinking that is just wrong. But more on that later.

Popular Health Care or Domestic Medicine

Popular health care refers to self-care, or familial care, practices informed by popular knowledge. Often knowledge of this nature is passed along by word-of-mouth – frequently as home remedies that are passed down through the generations or through community skill-sharing networks. In its strictest sense, the term does not apply to any particular type of remedy. It also is not limited to addressing illness. Self-care in the form of diet, hygiene and simple protective measures are aspects of the popular healthcare culture.

Self-medication still accounts for more than 80% of medical care in our society.  It is not a thing of the past; it was simply co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies. People stopped self-medicating with the old home remedies and started buying over-the-counter replacements. We take aspirin or Tylenol instead of decoctions. We stopped making ointments and turned to Vick’s Vaporub, Ben Gay, and more recently –essential oils. Grandma’s marshmallow syrups were outperformed-first by patent medicines and then by Robitussin.

The work I have done in trying to educate people about the early practice of domestic medicine is in part, trying to illustrate the widespread nature of early popular health care practices.  I am also restore our respect for women as the “keepers and carriers of knowledge”.

Where Modern Herbal Healers Fit? 

Traditional Western Herbalism employs  botanical therapeutics in a way that is grounded in Greek Medicine and the professional methods of physicians the late 19th and early 20th century.

This is what some anthropologists call cultural sedimentation. Basically what this means is that professional medical practices of the past are picked up by the folk healers and common folk,  who keep using these methods even after the professionals have moved on to new approaches. Tinctures are an example of a type of patent medicine used primarily by the professional healthcare sector, until modern times.

That in no way invalidates their usefulness.  Botanical preparations were the only type of medicine animals and humans had at their disposal until the beginning of the 20th century and we certainly learned much about their effective delivery through centuries of  trial-and-error experimentation.

All of that being said,  I really hesitate to label Traditional Western Herbalism as folk healing.   It is taught and disseminated in a way similar to other professional healing practices.  In fact, that may be one of our greatest challenges. As members of the professional sector, we have had to pay for our education and clinical training, but we are not duly recognized as professionals in many places.

I also think the training a modern herbalist receives omits many of the responsibilities that I consider inherent to the role of the folk healer.

What is Ethnomedicine?

My anthropological focus is actually ethnomedicine, rather than ethnobotany.  I investigate far more than how plants were used by a culture because I was taught that to understand a native healing practice, you have to know a place.  You have to understand that culture’s history,  social structures,  agricultural practices, and spiritual beliefs in a way that gives you a complete picture as to how healing occurs in a society-both physical and emotional.  You have to learn to  view illness and treatment according to a native explanatory model and put aside the biomedical model.

Illness vs Disease

Disease is a biomedical condition or a pathological state that exists whether or not they are culturally recognized.  Illness is more of a social construct -based on whether or not, a condition has been stigmatized or devalued in a society. Anthropologists tend to understand that is not always easy to distinguish between the biological aspects of illness and the social aspects.  This distinction is what makes it entirely possible for me to view ASD as an illness but not think of it as a disease that needs to be cured.

So that covers some of the terminology that I might use as I eventually move on in this series and some ideas that I have explored in my research.