Ryan Drum

Island Herbs

P O Box 25, Waldron, WA 98297-0025

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THREE HERBS: NETTLES, HORSETAIL AND MULLEIN


Certain aspects of each herb will be presented based on personal experience with no intent to be encyclopedic.

All three of these herbs have physical hazards:

Caution is advised.


NETTLES (Urtica dioica v.Lyalli)

All true nettles are edible; all stinging nettles have similar medicinal properties. Not all stinging nettle species/varieties produce the same therapeutic RESULTS.

The species/variety I describe here is: Urtica dioica v.Lyalli or simply U. Lyalli, a large and robust species, confined to the North American West Coast. The roots/rhizomes, leaves, stalks, fruits/seeds are all used therapeutically. For an extensive discussion of nettles see M.Grieve.

Nettle Roots/Rhizomes
One question that may have therapeutic implications is: in nettle root-derived medicines, how much of the material used is from “true roots” and how much is from rhizomes?

True nettle roots are perennial; growing deeply into the earth, yellow, smooth, tough, long, oval in cross-section and extremely resistant to fracture. They are relatively sparse and laborious to harvest. I usually include them in “nettle roots”. I wonder if other herbalists and medicine makers do so. I have not read or heard of any use distinctions.

Most material called "nettle roots” is mostly, if not all, nettle rhizomes. Nettle rhizomes are abundant in horizontal criss-crossed tangles, easy to harvest, relatively fragile, brittle, square in cross-section, and have a solid pith as they age. Both nettle roots and rhizomes have a distinct ammonia odor when first unearthed. (More complete nettle harvesting and processing details in: Ryan Drum, Medicines From The Earth, 1999, pp 63-71)

When I make nettle root medicine, I use mostly young rhizomes, 2-10 years old. First year reproductive rhizomes are mostly water, bruise easily when harvested, and don’t seem to make as strong a medicine. Older rhizomes are often fungal and insect infested, the pith gone, and very woody. Non-emergent nettle rhizomes have no stinging hairs; as soon as a growing nettle rhizome tip grows little roots and emerges, it grows stinging hairs as the chloroplasts develop and the tip turns green in color.

Teas and tinctures of nettle roots/rhizomes are recommended for mild BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). I usually recommend 1 oz. dried roots/pint of infusion, 2x daily. The water may be as important as the herb. For the hardy, I encourage juicing enough nettle rhizome tips to yield at least 30cc (1 fluid ounce) consumed daily. This is possible only where nettles grow abundantly; depending on the individual, fresh rhizome juice can be either extremely invigorating or nauseating. An excellent discussion of botanicals for BPH is Brinker 1994.

Green Nettle Shoots/Young Growing Tips
Young nettle shoots are a great food and restorative whole body tonic. In environments with mild winters, nettle shoots begin to emerge in Sagittarius (21.Nov-21.Dec), with especially exuberant stinging hairs. Nettles flower on Malta at Christmas. For a supply of young nettle growing tips and young leaves throughout the nettle growing season, cut the main nettle stalk near the flowers to encourage growth from axillary buds. In U. Lyalli this occurs on mature plants with seeds matured and often shed, from leaf axils until a hard frost. Flowering can begin again in early Autumn.

Young nettles are especially rich in proteins, minerals and secondary metabolites, and, “free amino acids”. These are uncommitted amino acids in nettle sap, waiting for anticipated rapid growth in response to either temperature or sunshine sudden increases. When we consume fresh live (or barely steamed, 5-7 minutes) nettles we get those amino acids for our own protein repairs and replacement. Eat young nettles to enhance post-traumatic healing from wounds, auto collisions, surgery, and radiation treatments.

I usually recommend 2-8 ounces/day raw or steamed young nettles. I teach patients how to firmly and thoroughly compress and roll raw nettles to mechanically disarm the stinging hairs. Nettle shoots could probably be dried for subsequent food or medicinal use. M. Moore suggests freezing young nettle tips or fresh juice.

I experience a jolly mood and energy boost from eating raw nettle shoots, leaves, and fruits but never from non-emergent rhizomes. I suspect that I may be responding to an unexpected supplementation of neurotransmitters, acetylcholine, choline, serotonin and histamine from uncooked nettle venom.

Nettle Leaves
Nettle leaves are used fresh or dried in tea (infusions), tinctures, and salves.

I usually prefer nettle leaf teas for urinary and hemostatic applications.

Fresh leaves are freeze-dried, powdered, and encapsulated and are preferred for treating asthmatic and allergic conditions.

I use the mature leaves and stalks fresh or dried, in hot soaks in the bath, buckets, or boots. Patients are encouraged to soak 1-2 hours several times a week or even daily to relieve joint pain. Continue treatment until symptoms resolve and repeat weekly for relief maintenance as needed.

I suspect that in males (men have 20x more gout than women) extended nettle soaking involves transdermal metabolite relief directly to painful gouty joints. Nettles are frequently cited as an effective treatment for relief from gout (there is no cure for gout) but usually as strong infusions.

Flagellation with stinging hair-rich leaves and stalks can bring relief to arthritic joints. After the swelling subsides, secondary effects manifest.

According to Grieve, Roman soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall in Britain whipped themselves with nettle stalks and leaves to stay warm (formication) and may have enjoyed the injections of neurotransmitters.

In my area, native whalers reputedly rolled in fresh nettle patches immediately prior to going out whaling to help them stay awake. When I tried nettle self-flagellation, I formed a lot of hot angry red welts which subsided in an hour or less; but, little red centers remained after the welts had resolved and these red spots itched dreadfully for days (and nights). Not recommended.

I realized that the native whalers were staying awake scratching for hours in their little dugout canoes. (See: Nettle Seeds below). I have not seen any Roman literature on itchy border guards.

Childbirth Hemostatic Use of Nettles
In 1990 I received a long letter from an experienced Michigan midwife; one who was frequently called to help with difficult births. She and other midwives had been successfully using strong infusions of my wild-harvested nettle leaves (no stalks) to control postpartum bleeding, reducing the anticipated blood loss by as much as 90% (postpartum bleeding is the number one cause of death worldwide for women of childbearing age). Prior to the birth of her third child she had used all of her supply of nettle leaves from me and obtained some from another source.

After the baby was out she was very surprised to be told that she was hemorrhaging heavily. She had used the nettle infusion expecting little postpartum bleeding. Instead of 20-40 cc, her midwife estimated she lost 500cc or more of blood. Otherwise, it was an easy birth. She believed the nettle tea had failed. She wanted to know if there was something different about my nettle leaves. She and other midwives wanted to prevent further unexpected potentially fatal postpartum bleeding. I did not see any of the possible weak nettle leaves to check for post harvest mishandling. I wondered if rodent control warfarin, an anticoagulant, had contaminated those nettles. (In any future nettle hemostatic failures, that is perhaps the first test I would suggest.)

I wondered what species of nettles she had gotten. I suspected that there might be a significant differential factor in nettles that have a true winter dormancy and those that do not. My nettles do not. The obsessive care I take in nettle leaf harvest may also be a factor.

There is an important lesson here: how can practitioners be certain the herbs they use will work as expected? Unfortunately, the real answer is: only by trying.

I now believe that variations in therapeutic efficacy in the alleged same perennial plant are real and can differ widely from year to year in the exact same individual plant, just as wine produced from grapes grown on the same plant will vary detectably. Then, we can expect greater variations from plant to plant, location to location, variety to variety, beyond local fluctuations in nutrients and weather.

The hazard might be lessened by only using local plants. Otherwise, constituent measuring and standardization might guarantee desired patient responses.

Nettle Leaf Contraindication
In lectures and clinics many of us consider nettle tea as safe and nutritive for everyone.

Several years ago a young woman was buying a pound or so of nettle leaves each year from me. Then, one year she ordered 4 pounds of nettle leaves. Several months later she ordered 8 more pounds of nettle leaves. I wondered if she was consuming all those nettles. I was sold out when the Autumnal 8 pound order arrived. I was thinking I would call her and suggest another possible wildcrafter when I received a call from her mother urging me to not sell her daughter anymore nettles. The daughter had apparently developed an extensive whole body rash while consuming the 4 pounds of dried nettle leaves (as infusions). When she had run out of the 4 pounds, and consumed no more nettle infusion for some weeks, the rash faded and disappeared. The mother believed the rash was a direct consequence of excessive nettle tea consumption. Without a more complete case history, I am tempted to agree. Moderation is the caution here.

Nettle Stalks
Dried nettle stalks, after the leaves have been removed, and cut into smallish pieces, make a pleasant infusion for both drinking and adding to luxuriant herbal baths.

Nettle Fruits and Seeds
Nettle fruits and seeds are used variously for recreation and therapy (see: Treasure, J. 2003). I recommend 5-20 grams/cc of fresh green nettle fruits chewed thoroughly as a very refreshing stimulant.

I suspect that my great feel good responses to eating a few grams of fresh nettle shoots and leaves in Spring and later, in Summer, eating raw nettle fruits, are caused by the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and serotonin. Acetylcholine is the most abundant neurotransmitter in our brains. Maybe a little bit extra from eating nettle provides a dash of manufacturing cost relief. Caution, drinking a decoction of 30 grams fresh nettle fruits in 12 ounces water can induce 12-36 hours of wide-eyed wakefulness.

Some Nettle References

  1. Brinker, F. 1994. An overview of conventional, experimental, and botanical treatments for non-malignant prostate conditions. British Jour. Phytotherapy 3:154-176.
  2. Brinker, F.1995. Eclectic Dispensatory of Botanical Therapeutics pp117-119
  3. Drum, R.1999. Medicines From The Earth pp63-71
  4. Grieve, M. 1931. A Modern Herbalpp574-579
  5. Moore, M. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West pp185-190
  6. Treasure, J. 2003. Urtica semen reduces serum creatinine levels. J.AHG 4:22-25
  7. Weed, S, 1989. Healing Wise pp163-190
  8. Yarnell, E. 2003. Urtica spp. (Nettles) J.AHG4:8-14

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HORSETAIL (Equisetum arvense)

The sterile leafy stems of common horsetail, Equisetum arvense, are used worldwide for medicine. The fertile temporary strobili-bearing stems when young were allegedly eaten by the Romans. Fertile and young vegetative shoots of the Giant horsetail, E. telmatiea, were an important Spring food for Coast Salish Peoples on the North Pacific Coast from Oregon to Alaska (Pojar and Mackinnon). Excessive consumption of raw horsetails is thiamine suppressive and GI-disruptive.

Only the emergent stems of horsetail are used for medicine.

I could find no reference to medicinal use of the usually deeply-buried tuberous rhizomes. The primary medicinal uses of horsetails are as a source of silica and for urinary/reproductive problems (Turner).

Horsetails as a Source of Silica
Horsetails are the most-heavily silicified land plants, 5-10% dry weight silica.

Equisetum plants use silica plates for stem structural stiffening instead of woody reinforcement. These plates are only loosely interconnected and can present a hazard when inhaled during the garbling of dried stems. (One acute episode of silica particulate dust is usually manageable by resident lung macrophages, with silica being expelled in excretory sputum; in some individuals, the silica is reworked into delicate hollow spherical globes.) Chronic exposure to sharp silica particles induces silicosis (chronic fibrosis), COPD and occasionally primary lung cancer.

If mature silicified horsetail stems are placed in a small kiln with an observation port and watched while all of the organic material is burned away, exquisite delicate three-dimensional replicas of the stems will remain until they shatter when the kiln is moved or the door opened. They strangely resemble the magical cities of glass pictured on the first paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Silica in mature horsetails is only barely available for extraction in water or hydroethanol. It is opaline silica glass. In dried mature stems, especially, the silica is insoluble.

We need silica for bone and tooth formation, and the maintenance of healthy skin, and mucopolysaccharide structures.

In studies done at UCLA , electron probe analyses of elemental species present just before bone began to form in fetal rats showed the presence of silicon before any calcium or phosphorous. As bone formation actually began with the deposition of calcium phosphate, the silicon vanished. Silicon may need to be present for successful tissue mineralization to both begin and successfully progress.

Dissolved silica is therapeutically useful to aid bone formation in growing children, especially adolescents who are complaining of (probably) very real pains associated with overnight bone elongation episodes. In adolescent humans long bones can elongate by up to 2 cm overnight. I urge parents to indulge youth who are actually presenting growing pains, by allowing their respective children to stay in bed to allow completion of bone remineralization after an elongation episode.

Similarly, silica aids bone repair subsequent to fractures and splintering due to injuries from falling, impact trauma and vehicular collisions. In the latter bone remodeling and repair can take many months.

Painful teething in children can be helped with horsetail syrup, 5-10cc, 2x daily.

To successfully extract available silica from horsetail, live young actively growing stems are used to prepare a thick syrup; in them, silica is still in solution waiting to be deposited as structural plates. Silica tends to be insoluble at pH below 7.2-7.4. The pH of honey is 7.4-7.8. Quickly cut-up soft green stems and place in very warm (100-110oF) honey, 1 part horsetail to 3 parts warm honey and keep at circa 100oF for several days, stirring several times daily. The high honey sugar content will burst equisetum cells and preserve the contents from microbial growth

Brinker (1995) suggests that some silica may be extractable from dried mature horsetail stems. Fresh juice from either young plants of Cleavers (Galium aparine) or nettles (Urtica spp.) also tends to be rich in silica.

Equisetum Infusions for Urinary Relief
Infusions made with dried horsetail stems (and leaves) are effective as a mild urinary tonic for irritated bladders, sore urethras, and mild benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) (Brinker, 1994). Pacific Northwest natives used horsetail tea to speed labor and expulsion of the afterbirth (Turner).Do not use horsetail tea with overt nephritis, renal calculi, or blood in the urine.

For BPH, drink 250 cc horsetail infusion twice daily but not within 2 hours of going to bed since for some men, horsetail teas are very diuretic.

Horsetail References

  1. Brinker, F. 1994 ibid
  2. Brinker, F. 1995.Ibid
  3. Grieve, M. 1931.Ibid
  4. Pojar, J. and MacKinnon, A. 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast
  5. Turner, N.J. Et al, 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany

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MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsis)

For decades, I sold dried mullein leaves, some dried flowers, and, occasionally dried mullein flowering stalks with all three stages of floral development present (unopened floral buds, open flowers, and some hard green capsules with developing seeds in approximately equal proportions).

Mullein Leaves
I usually harvested the big fuzzy basal rosette leaves of autumnal first year plants and vernal second year plants. The cut leaves were tied by their respective petioles in bundles of 2-8 each and the bundles hung to dry for up to two weeks. The leaf blades would dry to crispness in 3-5 days but the dry-resistant petioles could take up to 4 weeks to dry to complete crispness. This is a critical factor since much of the mullein I have seen in the market place looks moldy. At herb Faires plastic bags of dried mullein leaves in the sun often have big droplets of moisture on their shady sides. If damp mullein, even with crispy dry leaves, but with still wet petioles is stored in airtight containers, it will mould.

For good future therapeutic use, mullein leaves (and stems) should be dried to crispness.

Similarly, when harvesting both first and second year mullein leaves, carefully examine each leaf to check for mould /decay on the leaf undersides, and resolutely reject moldy leaves. This also applies fresh mullein leaves cut and used for olive oil extraction for use in salves and rubs.

Mullein leaves, stems, and most of the floral parts are covered with short thin bristles that are extreme irritants to the human respiratory tract and conjunctiva. Trying to eat the leaves is so unpleasant (to all vertebrate herbivores; some insects and perhaps slugs can manage to deal with the little bristles) that this precludes possible GI irritations.

For teas and tinctures, these hairs are best strained or filtered. We use throwaway paper goat milk filters to avoid contaminating or strainers with the bristles. For a few years we did not strain mullein tea or tincture and assumed that the burning of the throat was due to some mullein metabolite. Once we began to strain the fluids before ingesting, no more throat burning.

One day I got a letter from a resident of a neighboring island (before cell phones) which contained a prescription for ½ pound of dried mullein leaf, to be smoked as needed for relief from dry cough painful asthmatic bronchial spasms. The patient reported symptom relief over many months of mullein smoke inhalation.

I reluctantly filled that order. I am an ex tobacco smoker (1968) and severe pneumonia survivor and concomitantly generally antismoking anything except fish (difficult to inhale, but it has happened), even though I know that some plant metabolites are very effectively delivered via the respiratory tract as vapors. Mullein smoke has a long tradition in respiratory therapy (Grieve), but, is it essential? The PDR for Herbs (1998) does not mention mullein leaf smoking (and inhaling) as a therapeutic delivery mechanism. Turner mentions that Native Americans readily used the introduced Verbascum thapsis for smoking, perhaps because of the leaf similarities between the two; and, noted that one native informant said smoking too much was poisonous. There was no clear distinction between therapeutic, religious, and recreational smoking. I wonder if there is a psychotropic effect from smoking dried mullein leaves. Did the pre-Columbian smoking of mullein by Europeans make them more receptive to smoking tobacco leaves?

Mullein Flowers
I harvested mullein flowers and floral buds almost daily from the same mullein plants as the flowers matured sequentially in spirals. I noticed small black spots on the inflorescences, some resembling little drops of a black viscous resin; thin black lines of the same substance appeared in the petiole scars of harvested leaves. The resin appeared to be mullein’s self-cauterizing response to open wound from cutting and from piercing insect feedings. I picked off a bunch of resin, smelled it, tasted it and concluded it vaguely smelled like vanilla. I cut off several 6-12 in. apical mullein inflorescences (knowing that stem leaf axillary buds nearby would probably grow more floral shoots), took them home, and put them on a drying rack in the cabin. As the stalks dried, the cabin progressively smelled more like cookies, especially vanilla wafers. Compulsively living off-the-land (if not off our respective rockers) my partner and I decided this might make a great improvement in our home baking as a vanilla extract replacement. I immediately ran off to the neighbors to borrow a pint of vodka. I packed 1-2 cm cut pieces of the dried stalks into a quart canning jar, shook well several times a day for two weeks until the extract was black and nearly opaque.

We did use the extract in baking until we decided that maybe fine vanilla extract from Madagascar was not an integrity violation. I had tried the mullein extract as an aperitif and decided it was quite yummy in 5-10cc amounts. Then I thought that the dark color and pleasant flavor/aroma of dried wounded mullein stalks might be good in stout. So I brewed up a 5 gallon batch, much to the subsequent delight of my island neighbors.

I had noticed that all previously cut stalk ends were capped with black resin and a blackish sheen shone through the stalk epidermal layers prior to cutting the stems again for extraction. When I had returned to harvest the plants again after the stalk cutting, I saw that the cut ends were completely capped with black resin. Later, I was able to observe capping resin formation as changing from light brown to black in about 4 hours on a warm sunny day.

Mullein stouts and liqueurs became island favorites amongst the cognoscenti, especially the next generation who used both mullein stout and strong extracts to celebrate an annual local holiday. The event was often outrageously memorable. Must have been the mullein? It is imperative to use only dried flowering stalks, harvested when all three floral phases are about equally abundant on each floral stalk at harvest.

Mullein Flower Ear Oil
Mullein flower ear oil, made with fresh live mullein flowers and unopened floral buds, is very effective for painful symptom relief from earaches caused by inspissated earwax, especially in young children whose cerumen production and secretion is still being perfected. Very warm (105oF) mullein oil is droppered into the outer ear canal. Garlic oil is sometimes added to the mullein earache oil. A subsequent puddle of yellow to dark orange ceriman on the morning pillow is diagnostic for the mechanical problem of wax-impacted ear canals and a great teaching opportunity for the attending parents. Occasionally little or no ear wax is out flooded indicating more serious ear problems, even though the warm mullein or mullein/garlic oil has reduced the pain.

Rotenone in Mullein
Rotenone is a fish poison and very effective insecticide originally of plant origin but recently synthetically produced (US Disp.). It occurs in mullein seeds and seed capsules, and leaves. Mullein seeds and seed capsules have been used as fish poison (Bremness). Mullein seeds and flowering stalks are used to quell human ectoparasites particularly lice and scabies.

After one especially raucous Verbascum frolic, I wondered about a substance link between mullein therapeutic use and mullein extract recreational use. I believe the link is Rotenone.

Rotenone is virtually water insoluble, but readily soluble in ethanol, acetone, and other organic solvents (olive oil?) (Merck Index). Fatal rotenone poisoning causes respiratory failure. Mild rotenone poisoning from inhaled mullein smoke may be spasmolytic for asthmatics and chronic bronchitis. It may suppress the cough reflex, and, act as a local anodyne for inflamed ear canals. Rotenone is more toxic when inhaled than when ingested.

The case for rotenone-sourced psychotropic effects/responses to alcoholic drinks is at yet tenuous; oral ingestion of rotenone seems to cause GI distress, nausea, and vomiting (Goodman and Gilman). So can excessive alcohol consumption. My personal consumption response to 6-12 oz of mullein stout or up to 1 oz. mullein liqueur is usually very enthusiastic. More than that manifests as nausea and distinct aversion to further mullein stout or extract consumption. M. Grieve states that the seeds "intoxicate fish" and, the "whole plant seems to possess sedative and slightly narcotic properties". Therapeutically, I have employed mullein stout when arbitrating interpersonal disputes...

Rotenone as an insecticide is curious. Mullein flowering stalks are copiously infested with epiphytic insects. Dried mullein flowering stalks are my only product returned for insect infestation (and not much of it). I suspect that mullein resin as it dries becomes very antimicrobial as well as mechanically blocking water loss from wound. I encourage a thorough study of mullein resin (done?).

Mullein and BPH
An ND from Toronto, ONT., shared a very useful mullein observation: when treating males with obstructive watery pulmonary mucous accumulations using mullein tea or tincture mixed with goldenrod (Solidago odora) there was often concomitant relief from BPH symptoms, presumably also attended by watery accumulations of proteins. I wonder if smoking mullein reduces BPH symptoms.

Other
I always use fresh mullein leaves in my herbal salves.

Mullein References:

  1. Bremness, L., 1994.Herbs.-Eyewitness Handbooks
  2. Foster, S. and Duke, J. 1990. Eastern /Central Medicinal Plants (Peterson Field Guides)
  3. Goodman and Gilman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics 6th ED. 1980
  4. Grieve, M 1931 Ibid
  5. Merck Index 1968. 8th ED.
  6. Moore, M. 1993. Ibid
  7. PDR for Herbal Medicines 1998. 1st ED.
  8. United States Dispensatory 1947. 24th ED.

Medicines of the Earth, 2005
Ryan Drum, PhD., AHG, Waldron, WA 98297

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