The Working of Herbs, Part 6: Herb Actions and the Importance of Family

By Anne Stobart

Previously I considered  issues relating to herb efficacy and how to evaluate herbs and their effectiveness in recipes. Here I review the active constituents and actions of plants in a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throwes’ of childbirth; containing hyssop, pennyroyal, groundsel, wild mint and balm. I have been keen to establish how the herbs were viewed then and how they are understood today. In this post I look at herb actions and how knowledge of plant families may be useful.

Herb actions

A herb action indicates the likely effect of a herb in the body – some examples:

  • Carminative: assists digestion and helps reduce/expel wind
  • Diuretic: increases urine amount/flow.
  • Diaphoretic: induces perspiration and has a cooling effect
  • Emmenagogue: promotes menstrual discharge
  • Expectorant: promotes the discharge of phlegm from the chest
  • Febrifuge: reduces fever
  • Pectoral: benefits chest complaint
  • Sedative: has a significant calming effect
  • Spasmolytic: relieves muscle spasm

Herb actions may overlap, for example both a sedative and a spasmolytic herb are likely to reduce pain.

Herb actions and plant families

Particular kinds of phytochemicals often run in plant families, producing similar herb actions. As we saw previously (Working of Herbs, Part 5), the Mint family has aromatic oils which provide both stimulating and calming actions. Other significant plant families include:

  • Daisy family (Asteraceae) – bitter principles with benefits for digestion alongside flavonoids and terpenes with anti-inflammatory actions
  • Lily family (Liliaceae) – steroidal-like constituents with hormonal actions
  • Pea family (Leguminosae) – has steroidal-like and other constituents producing hormonal and anti-inflammatory actions
  • Pine family (Pinaceae) – resinous components with antiseptic and antifungal actions
  • Poppy family (Papaveraceae) – alkaloids which can be sedative and pain-relieving (see the Opium Poppy in Figure 1)
  • Rose family (Rosaceae) – tannins with astringent and anti-inflammatory actions
Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Figure 1. Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Getting to know plant families is very important for clinical herbal practitioners. Knowing the plant family can also assist the historical researcher in appreciating the possible effects of herbs. Plants in the same family can often be substituted for each other. But, beware, as not all plant families are consistent – for example the Carrot family (Umbelliferae) includes many beneficial (and edible) plants as well as highly poisonous plants such as Dropwort and Hemlock.

An overview of the recipe herbs and their constituents and actions

  • Groundsel (Senecio spp.) contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, volatile oils, flavonoids. Once used as a diuretic and diaphoretic and to relieve bilious pains – but due to high concentration of hepatotoxic alkaloids, internal use is not now recommended.[1]
  • Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) contains terpenoids, volatile oil, flavonoids  and is carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, pectoral, sedative and stimulant.[1,2]
  • Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), contains volatile oil (mostly pulegone), bitters and tannins and is  carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, spasmolytic, stimulant.[1,2]
  • Wild Mint (Mentha spp.) is not readily identifiable, so I have used several near relatives in the Mint family: Water Mint [Mentha aquatica] contains essential oil including methofuran, menthol, menthyl acetate, pulegone and is stimulant, emetic, astringent.[1]; Peppermint [Mentha x piperita] is carminative, diaphoretic, spasmolytic.[2]
  • Balm (Melissa officinalis) contains volatile oil (mainly neral and geraniol), terpenes, flavonoids, polyphenolics, triterpenic acids and is anti-spasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic, febrifuge, sedative. [1,2]

More detail wanted?

The above listing of constituents and actions is based on several monograph sources. For the fullest detail of constituent phytochemicals, Jim Duke’s online database is very well-referenced and it offers a number of search options for specific ‘chemicals’ or particular ‘plants’. The results of a search can be cross-referenced to all plants with a high content of a particular phytochemical. (See Figure 2 for example of  ‘Hyssop’ which, of all the plants listed, has the 11th highest content of alpha-thujone, a powerful emmenagogue.) [3]

Figure 2. Hyssop query in Duke's Database.
Figure 2. Screenshot of Hyssop query in Duke’s Database.

Plant identification

Note that all of the herbs in the recipe are in the Mint family except one – Groundsel which is in the Daisy family. Of course, we do not have absolute certainty about the identification of these plants – especially since the way we name plant species differs from the seventeenth-century. But the whole topic of plant identification is rather too extensive to deal with here, and I have had to make assumptions about the likeliest plants named. I am active in the Herbal History Research Network which aims to encourage researchers in herbal history through sharing experience and best practice. So if you are interested in issues around herb identification, do check out our next London-based seminar on ‘Illustration and identification in the history of herbal medicineon 18 June 2014.

Next post

In my next post I explore more on how these herbs might take effect together and how the type of recipe preparation may be significant – could it really help the ‘after throwes’?

Notes

[1] R. C. Wren, Elizabeth M. Williamson, and Fred J. Evans, Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations (Saffron Walden: C. W. Daniel, 1988).

[2] British Herbal Medicine Association. British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (Keighley, West Yorkshire: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1983).

[3] For further detail on phytochemicals see Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry (Louisville, Colorado: Herbalchem Press, 2008).


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