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Herbal Adventures – The Asteraceae – The Star – Family
Herbal medicine is folk medicine, earth medicine, wild medicine, herbal medicine. Herbs are amazing powers of nutrition, medicine, magic and beauty. They are easy to grow and easy to use. But beginners, as well as experienced herb users, can sometimes feel lost: so many herbs, so many plants, so many weeds to get to know. How can one even begin to feel confident?
One of the best ways to “get” herbal medicine is to learn a little botany. Plants are grouped into botanical families, and plants in the same family often have very similar characteristics. In previous columns, we looked at the mallow (Malvacaceae), rose (Rosaceae) and buckthorn (Polygonaceae) families. That’s about 5,000 plants we’ve gotten to know. But that’s just a few, compared to the family we’ll meet: the Asteraceae (Aster-a-cee-a).
With 20,000 members, the Asteraceae (“aster” means “star”) family is one of the largest and most diverse of all plant families. From the fossil record, it appears that this family evolved quite recently (only millions of years ago) and this may explain its size. The Asteraceae family contains some of the most helpful, and well-known, of all herbs: arnica, burdock, oysterwort, calendula, chamomile, chicory, mugwort, coltsfoot, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, matter, gravel root, grindelia, yarrow . , thistle, tansy, yarrow, valerian, wormwood, and wild lettuce. It offers us delicious foods: sunflower seeds, lettuce, true artichokes, sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), escarole and endive. And, it is one of the landscaper’s favorite families, because many Asteraceae – such as chrysanthemums, dahlias, bachelor’s buttons, daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, zinnias and, of course, asters – bloom for months with colorful hardy flowers , and many are perennial, too.
Plants become members of a family when their flower structures are the same. But dandelions and barberry and sunflowers don’t seem alike. How can they all be in the same family? The flowers of the Asteraceae are much smaller than you think, here’s how. The flower you see is not the flower a botanist sees. Where one sees one dandelion flower, the botanist sees hundreds of small flowers arranged to look like one flower.
The older name for this family tells the story more clearly: Compositae. Each bloom consists of hundreds of tiny flowers. With a hand lens, you can look closely at an Asteraceae flower and see the many tiny flowers clustered together that make up the larger “flower”.
Look at a sunflower; even a picture will help. You can clearly see the many yellow flowers that make up the disc, or center, of the sunflower. Eventually, each of those disc flowers that are fertile will become a seed. Now look at what you thought the sunflower petals were. Each yellow petal is actually a whole flower, called a ray flower. The ray flowers of the sunflower are sterile, so produce no seeds.
To see a prolific ray flower, look at a dandelion in bloom. Each of those yellow threads that make up the dandelion “mop” is an individual ray flower; and each one produces seed. (There are no disk flowers on the dandelion.)
Some Asteraceae have disc flowers, but no ray flowers, such as goldenrod or mugwort or some forms of chamomile. So there are really three flower patterns in the Asteraceae family: ray and disk flowers together (echinacea, daisy, black-eyed Susan); ray flowers only (dandelion, lettuce, artichoke); and only disk flowers (wormwood, ragweed).
In general, Asteraceae are considered edible and safely medicinal, but they often contain very active ingredients along with their exceptional supply of nutrients. Many Asteraceae contain active alkaloids that are medicinal; but that means they can also be harmful. (It’s the alkaloids in dandelion, chicory, escarole, endive and old lettuce that make them taste so bitter.) Two helpful medicinal Asteraceae – ossetia (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and queen of the meadow (E. purpurea) – have a terrible sister (E .rugosum) known as “white snakeroot”. This sister contains an alkaloid that, eaten by cows and excreted in their milk, accumulates in people who drink the milk and causes their eventual death. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died as a result of it, in fact. Even common garden lettuce contains alkaloids that are comparable to opium alkaloids; and the juice of wild lettuces has long been used, as to this day, opiates, to relieve severe pain.
Since roots and seeds are usually richer in alkaloids than leaves and flowers, it is safest to experiment first with the flowers of unfamiliar Asteraceae. I read that native women valued Senecio aureus so much that they called it “lifeoot”. Big; it grows here. I will dig some root. Then I learned that some species of Senecios are considered livestock poisoners. Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t. Finally, my archaeologist neighbor told me that Senecio pollen was found around the oldest known human grave. Ha ha! Of course! Dye the flower. Voila! I have seen a dose of 5-8 drops of liferoot flower tincture, taken daily from ovulation to menstruation for at least three cycles, restore menstrual bliss to the most painful of women.
Asteraceae pollens in both fresh and dried flowers can cause respiratory problems and allergic reactions in sensitive or sensitized individuals. Ambrosia (Ambrosia artemisifolia) is in this family, remember. There have been several close calls with children reacting badly to chamomile, and two deaths from echinacea. (It is assumed that they felt themselves with daily use of echinacea capsules, and went into shock when they took a larger dose. There were no problems with large doses of echinacea tincture; but I would not take it every day.)
What Asteraceae grow wild around you? Which ones do you or your friends grow? Whether you use their roots, their leaves, or their flowers for medicine, magic, food, or beauty, the starry family of Asteraceae shines your way.
Medical Asteraceae Stars
Arnica (Arnica montana) flowers relieve muscle pain.
Bardoka root (Arctium lappa) nourishes deep health.
Bonese (Eupatorium perfoliatum) herb clears flu.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers heal wounds.
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria chamomilla) soothes a baby.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) root strengthens the liver.
Horsetail flowers (Tussilago farfara) relieve coughs.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) herb improves liver function.
Echinacea (Echinacea augustifolia) root fights bacterial infections.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) root is a favorite lung healer.
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) prevents migraines.
Grindelia (Grindelia robusta) herb in flower opens breathing, stops itching.
Sage root (Senecio aureus) flower tincture counteracts severe menstrual pain.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seed tincture prevents liver distress.
Mug/cronewort (Artemisia vulgaris) herb is an old woman’s friend.
Queen of the meadow/gravel root (Eupatorium purpurea) helps the kidneys.
Tanacetum vulgare flowers repel insects.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) flowers heal wounds, prevent colds.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root brings sleep.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthemum) herb prevents parasites.
Wild lettuce (Lactucca species) juice relieves severe pain.
Legal Disclaimer: This content is not intended to replace conventional medical care. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal instructions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified health practitioner with a specific formula for you. All materials in this article are provided for general information only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable health practitioner if you need medical care. Exercise self-empowerment by seeking a second opinion.
Susun S Herb
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