N.A.S.S Dingwall Branch Information Page

Any information given in these web pages are not intended to be taken as a replacment for medical advice. Any person with a condition requiring medical attention should consult a qualified doctor or therapist

Herbs

There is much mystique surrounding herbal plants. This is a pity. Although many herbal remedies still in use today undoubtedly have beneficial actions and have an important part to play in modern medicine, they are not the panaceas they are sometimes claimed to be. Medicinal plants will never replace all synthetic products - or the surgeon's scalpel. Because they are natural' substances it should not be assumed that medicinal herbs are completely safe and free from side effects.

Like any foreign chemicals introduced into the body many normally harmless medicines can be poisonous if taken to excess in strong doses or over a long period of time. They may react adversely with other medicines or foods that are being taken or aggravate a pre-existing condition.

The precise pharmacological effect of most herbal remedies is still not known. For this reason it is inadvisable for pregnant women to take any herbal preparation internally (except for the mildest of herbal teas), especially during the early stages of pregnancy. Professional advice should be sought too before children are dosed with herbal medicines.

Many of the well-known potent herbal remedies of old are now considered far too dangerous for herbalists - or even doctors - to prescribe. Such plants should never be used for home treatment.

Ways of obtaining medicinal herbs

The easiest and surest way of obtaining good-quality medicinal herbs or parts of them is to buy them from a qualified herbalist, a retail chemist or from a reputable specialist supplier, either over the counter or by mail order. Commercial growers collect herbs in the right conditions at the correct time of year and day, and they dry and store them in the best possible way. Buying herbs also takes away the worry about identifying the plant correctly. Unfortunately there are occasional cases of adulteration of herbs bought from trade sources. It is therefore important to choose only recommended suppliers. But beginners should always get professional advice before diagnosing and treating themselves. Most tea substitutes are, however, normally harmless.

Identification should usually not be a problem if the herbs have been grown in a private garden. The important medicinal or aromatic properties of the herb may, however, be lost if the herb is not collected, dried and stored in the correct way.

Several of the medicinal herbs described in these web pages are not native to the British Isles and either can never be found in the wild or are only rare escapes from cultivation. Among native British plants there are also several that are extremely poisonous and should never be collected by amateurs. There are also several good reasons for not collecting even harmless, common wild herbs.

For one thing, identification can be tricky and it is all too easy for the inexperienced person to mistake one species for another closely related one. The wrong species may be harmless but have no medicinal action or it may have an unintended effect, or be highly dangerous. Because one part of a plant is edible (say the berries of a woodland species), it does not necessarily follow that the other parts are too. It is also extremely important not to pick a part of another species with the herb being collected. If wild herbs are collected expert advice should always be sought if there is any doubt about the identifying signs or about other aspects of herb collecting.

Another important reason for not collecting wild herbs in Britain is that nowadays there are few places, except in the remotest parts, which have not been in contact with chemical sprays and pollution. This means that herbs should never be collected from or near agricultural land, along roadsides and paths, near factories or sewage works, or from anywhere where the plants may have been exposed to chemicals, fertilisers, traffic fumes or industrial activity.

Even in localities free from such contamination there are now legal restrictions on what can be collected. In Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal for anyone, without permission of the owner or occupier of a piece of land, to uproot any wild plant. This law means that roots and rhizomes of wild plants cannot be freely collected anywhere except on your own property. Furthermore, although none of the plants in this web pages is one of the 62 very rare British species now specially protected by law, some, such as Mezereon and Breckland (Wild) Thyme, are very uncommon in the wild and should never be collected in their natural habitats.

For all these reasons the collection of wild medicinal herbs is not recommended. Instead, herbs should be grown or bought as required. In gardens the right selection of herbs can provide not only a source of refreshing beverages and remedies for simple ailments, but a variety of foods and flavourings and also decoration both in the garden and indoors. Some ideas about which herbs to grow and basic guidelines about cultivating them in gardens, window boxes and balconies are given in the next section.