I was rearranging my bookshelves a few weeks back and was reminded, upon rediscovering a stack of singularly focused books, of my past fascination with herbs and herbal remedies. I don’t remember truly curing anything with tinctures or poultices, but I do remember feeling a sense of resonance with the following sentiment from one of those books: “For thousands of years people have turned to plants for healing help, so it is rather ironic that this form of medicine should be considered “alternative” while the relatively new science of synthetic drugs should be viewed as “orthodox.””

This got me thinking about the rich historical relationship between plants and humans, and I began to wonder when and why did medicine and herbs part ways. Some researchers contend it was during the 1800s that the “scientific pharmacy” was born, when alkaloids from plants like poppy (used to make morphine) and quinine (used to make anti-malaria medicines) were isolated and purified. A new school of thought emerged that viewed the non-living compounds of plants as healing agents, not the plants themselves. And herbalism was viewed with increasing skepticism, as this segment from the University of Minnesota’s Health & Well-being describes:

Once the therapeutic effects of plants were attributed to inert chemicals, certain medical practitioners, who increasingly wanted to portray their profession as a rational and scientific endeavor, sought to distance themselves from the “superstitious” and intuitive practices of herbalists and other traditional healers. In the United States, the teaching of herbalism in the curricula of medical schools was prohibited and whole schools were closed in the 1930s. One of the casualties was the University of Minnesota’s school of homeopathic medicine, which was closed as a result of these reforms.

During the 1990s (which I just noted is the publication date of all but one of my books), herbalism experienced a resurgence, perhaps due to disagreeable side effects synthetic drugs can cause, or to people’s desire for a more holistic approach to health. As a result of this increased interest, and a desire for safety and regulation, the federal Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed in 1994, allowing botanical medicines to be sold as “dietary supplements.”

And, it turns out that broadening my scope on the topic to include countries outside of the US, led me to learn that 70-95% of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East use traditional medicine for primary healthcare today. Meaning, a parting of ways between medicine and herbs has not taken place throughout most of the world. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO), is working to “strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy” by creating WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-23. Interestingly, this strategy aims to promote safe and effective use of traditional medicines by regulating, researching, and integrating traditional practices into modern medicine. And herbalism lives on.

Did you know…

Here are a few interesting remedies I discovered that use common herbs from the pantry or yard:

  • Thyme leaves can be used as a digestive tonic, or for coughs or sore throats.
  • The succulent interior of Hens & Chicks can be used to soothe burns, stings, and insect bites, or diminish warts.
  • Sage leaves can aid digestion, or be dried and placed near linens to discourage insects.
  • Rosemary leaves can stimulate circulation, and relieve migraines and headaches.
  • Oregano flowering tops can be infused into a tea to soothe colds and headaches.
  • Tea made from bee balm leaves can help relieve nausea and menstrual pains.

BTW, if you’re interested in the books I found, they are: “Herbs” and “The Complete Book of Herbs” by Lesley Bremness, “Healing With Herbs” by Penelope Ody, “The Natural Remedy Book for Women” by Diane Stein, and “Holistic Herbal” by David Hoffmann.

To Do This Month:

Mark your calendar for the Wisconsin Garden Expo, February 8-10, 2019 at the Alliant Energy Center.

Download and print these kid-friendly herb flashcards from the Herbal Academy, which also offers extensive trainings and courses in herbalism.

If you want to dive deeper into herbal and other natural remedies, check out the myriad of options at the Community Pharmacy.

Learn more about how Chinese traditional medicine practices are impacting endangered species and stay up to date with the latest policy swing regarding rhino and tiger parts from Time Magazine, or learn what some groups like Save The Rhino are doing to help.

Take in the holiday spirit at Olbrich Gardens’ Holiday Express – open December 1-31, 2018 – by watching model trains weave their way through a wintry scene in Obrich’s atrium. Or, find dozens of other fun and educational events on the Nature Net calendar.

Lavender Soap

Medicinal Herb Books

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Events This Month

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For Educators:


Have you heard of TED Ed? An extension of the original TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), TED Ed is TED’s youth and education initiative which has a mission to “spark and celebrate the ideas of teachers and students around the world.” They create original animated videos based on content and knowledge from educators, and offer paired questions and resources for teachers. TED Ed also provides a platform for teachers to create their own lessons, and a means for students to craft and share their own own TED-style talk, while increasing their “presentation literacy.”

Below is a sample video that relates to this month’s topic of traditional and herbal medicine – but there’s much more to be discovered, including videos on the survival of the sea turtle, and discerning the smallest thing in the universe.


For Families:

Drying Herbs

Winter is a fine time to lay out a plan and design your herb garden for spring-time planting, and there’s no lack of resources out there, including from sites like GrowVeg and The Spruce. Winter is also a suitable time, due to low humidity, to dry herbs for later use or for decoration. Most tips for herb drying suggest bundling them in small bunches and hanging them to dry. Mold and dust are the biggest culprits of drying-gone-wrong so, protecting your herb bundles by placing them in an area with plenty of dry, fresh air, and covering them with paper or muslin are important. According to Taste of Home, you can expect your bundles to dry in 7-10 days, depending on bundle size and humidity, and you’ll know “they’re completely dry if the leaves sound like crisp cornflakes when crushed.”

You can also dry herbs in a low temperature oven with the door left ajar (to let moisture escape), or sandwiched between paper towels in a microwave at 30-second intervals. Regardless of method, simply crumble the dried leaves with your fingers and store in an airtight container for cooking. For decorating, check out these tips from the Herbal Academy or Hello Glow.

Here a few more resources I came across that certainly seemed worth sharing:

  • Herb Gardening provides general information about herb gardening, including details on growing unique herbs, and how to grow herbs in pots, indoors, or with hydroponics.
  • Brooklyn Botanic Garden provides a very nice history of herb garden design.
  • Madison Herb Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to education about herbs. They also support (with time and money) the herb garden at Olbrich Gardens.
  • Four Elements is a Wisconsin-based herbal farm that not only grows herbs but produces teas, lotions, soaps, and more.
  • Santa Maria Novella Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica is an amazingly historic apothecary in Italy that I had the great fortune of visiting in 2011. Run by monks for the past 400 years, the perfumes, tinctures, and elixirs are created from ancient recipes.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.