Scary Plants for Halloween

Oct 28, 2013

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Happy Autumn, Lovely Reader!

I hope you are staying grounded and hydrated as the world (or at least my part of the world) turns cold and dry and the leaves are blown about by the wind.  If you’re feeling particularly spacey, tired, or overwhelmed, don’t worry:  it’s perfectly normal.  Drink more water, get more rest, and eat warming, moistening foods.

In the spirit of Halloween, this newsletter focuses on “scary” plants – a.k.a. poisons!  Please note, these plants are truly dangerous, and should only be used by trained professionals in cases of true need.  Don’t try this at home, kids; I mean it.

To learn more about herbs (spooky and not), I hope you’ll join me this Wednesday October 30 at the Spice & Tea Exchange of Alexandria, for the final class of my 3-part series on herbalism.

I continue to teach weekly yoga classes – 9 of them at the amazing Yoga District.  I’ve shifted up my schedule a bit over recent months – come out for a class if the location and level suit your needs!

Last month I presented “Staying Healthy On-the-Go” to one of my favorite corporate clients, Chadbourne & Parke LLP.  I showed up for their lunch hour with a fun powerpoint and discussion topics.  (I may be the last person in the USA to learn how to make a powerpoint, so being all “high-tech” is a big adventure for me!)  We had such a fun time, talking about ways to make our busy lives healthier – I love those ladies and am honored to have been presenting various topics to them since 2006!  Do you want wellness workshops in your workplace?  I would be thrilled to design a program for you and your colleagues – anything from a 1-time visit to an ongoing program with email support and incentive gifts participation.  Drop me a line if this idea intrigues you.

And now, on to more dangerous topics… Happy Halloween!

Danger: Poison!

Some herbs we think of as friendly: the idea of peppermint, chamomile, or lavender might put a smile on your face.  And some herbs strike a more sinister note when we call them to mind: belladonna … henbane… foxglove…

      Poisons! These herbs capture our imaginations and often show up in murder mysteries.  You will not find them on the shelf at your local market.

In the right context, however, these poisonous herbs are actually valuable plant medicines.  Some, such as foxglove and belladonna, are still used in conventional medicine, or have inspired modern treatments.  Nearly all of them are used by herbalists.

How is this possible, if they are so dangerous?

     Conventional drugs have a therapeutic index: a range at which the drug is effective but not toxic.  Over-the-counter drugs have a very wide therapeutic index, making them safe for the general public.  For example, if you take 3 aspirin instead of 1, you will not die.  So, we can consider these poisonous herbs as having a very, very narrow therapeutic index.

Another way to look at these plants is through the concept of hormesis.  Hormesis means that a substance may be valuable in a small amount, but detrimental in a large amount.  This runs counter-intuitive to many of our ideas about nutrition and herbalism – we often think if something is good for us, a LOT will be even BETTER!  Or that if something is bad for us, it’s always bad.  Hormesis is a different way of understanding the body’s use of a particular substance: a little goes a long way.

Many poisonous herbs are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tobacco.  (An alternate name for belladonna is “deadly nightshade.”)  Because so many poisons are found in this huge plant family, tomatoes were once deeply mistrusted as a food product.  Tomato farmers once staged events where they publicly ate tomatoes to prove they weren’t poisonous!  There is, in fact, current research exploring the link between consumption of nightshades and rheumatoid arthritis, but that’s a topic for a different day.

While these dangerous herbs should never, never be taken lightly, they do have amazing gifts to give us.  For the right client, with the right dosage, as recommended by a trained herbalist, poisonous plants can support health and wellbeing in fascinating ways.


Frightening Flora

I offer you this information for educational purposes only, and so that you can be on the lookout in your yard and surrounding parks – stay safe!  Please keep your children, your dogs, and your friends at a healthy distance from these plants.

Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is well-known for its ability to dilate the pupils.  This action gave the plant its name: dilated pupils were considered a sign of feminine beauty, and belladonna translates to “beautiful woman.”  Belladonna is still used today by optometrists to dilate your pupils.  Medicinally, it (like many of these poisons) relieves pain.  Each plant has its specialty, and belladonna targets the gut.    Tiny doses are used in cases of peptic ulcers.

Random side note:  this weekend I consulted on props for my theatre family, the Washington Stage Guild.  They needed to know what a tincture of belladonna would look like.  Check out their showInventing Van Gogh that opens this weekend to find out!

Jimsom weed (Datura stramonium)
 is another Solanaceae, and I recently discovered it growing all over a community garden here in DC.  Dangerous!  It’s a spooky and intriguing – looking plant.  Datura targets the lungs: historically, parts of the plant have been smoked as an asthma remedy.

Henbane (Hyocyamus niger) is another pain-relievingSolanaceae;this plant targets the urinary tract, making it useful for interstitial cystitis and other painful inflammatory conditions.

Foxglove(Digitalis purpurea)
 is a powerful heart stimulant.  This attractive garden flowerhas inspired a conventional drug used to support heart function.

Yew (Taxus spp.) contains a plant chemical called taxol.  This has been used successfully to treat ovarian cancer.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) is native to North America, and is very common here in the DC area.  Its deep roots make it challenging to get rid of.  The young leaves are actually edible, IF you boil them three times, changing the water in between batches.  In some places, you can buy canned poke greens, and in the 1930s there was a popular song about “Poke Salad Annie,” who was so poor she made her living gathering and selling poke leaves.

Herbalists argue about which part of this plant to use as medicine.  Some traditions use the root, others use the berries.  Either way, poke is a helpful lymphatic in very small doses, meaning it helps the body to remove toxins through the lymph system.  It is included in a traditional cancer tincture called the “Hoxy Formula.”