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Home Remedies That Come Fresh From the Backyard Garden

Herbs Can Do More Than Just Flavor Meals; Consider Their Medicinal Potential as Well

April 14, 2001|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Does garlic cure infections? Will lavender oil bring on sleep? Can fennel help digestion? There may be skeptics, but Carole Ottesen isn't one.

She's confident in the medicinal properties of some herbs, vegetables and plants, and has written a book, "The Herbal Epicure: Growing, Harvesting and Cooking Healing Herbs" ($16, Ballantine/Wellspring, 2001), that tells how to make the most of them.

"I'm not saying all herbs are good," she said by phone from her home near Washington, D.C. "Just because it's a plant doesn't necessarily mean it can be healthful. But these [detailed in her book] are safe and beneficial if you use common sense with them."

Ottesen became interested in herbs several years ago for the usual reasons--they add flavor to foods and are relatively easy to cultivate. Not wanting to depend on the corner market for a supply, she added several to her backyard garden.

But her knowledge of those that please the body as well as the tongue came later because of insomnia. A longtime sufferer, Ottesen read in books such as James A. Duke's "The Green Pharmacy" that valerian could bring on slumber. She tried it "with fantastic results" and investigated further.

She gathered much anecdotal information, including reports that valerian was administered as a relaxant to shell-shocked soldiers during World War I and that it is frequently recommended in Europe as a cure for sleeplessness.

"I eventually found that [many herbs and vegetables] helped me, and I wanted to make them a regular part of my life," Ottesen said. "I swear by echinacea," which herbalists say can fight infections. "I haven't had a cold in three years since I've been using it."

The author is an advocate but she's a cautious one, realizing that many in the scientific community say more study is needed to confirm any benefits from medicinal plants.

She pointed out that anyone who looks to herbs and other botanicals should get as much information as possible and be aware of any risks. Her book details potential benefits, while also listing dangers.

"The Herbal Epicure" begins with aloe vera, noting that its gel can be a salve for burns, psoriasis and itchy scalp. But taken internally, aloe is a "dangerously potent" laxative. Although some may use aloe this way, Ottesen does not recommend it.

She also recommends that:

* When cultivating herbs, be sure you're growing what you think you are. Get plants from reputable nurseries or start from seeds. And keep careful records of all the plants started this way.

* If pregnant, be wary of any herb and don't take medicinal quantities, more than used for seasoning in dishes.

* Don't ingest herbs that are moldy or appear diseased.

* Start slowly, taking just a little at a time. And you may want to consult a doctor about possible allergies or other side effects.

* Although many of the herbs can be mixed into various simple and more exotic recipes (Ottesen lists dozens, from a vitamin C-rich rose-hip chili to a relaxing lavender ice cream), the most common and probably easiest way to use them is through teas.

"Nettles can also make a great tea," Ottesen said. "In fact, I eat weeds every day."

She said to think twice before cursing at those weeds invading your yard. Nettle leaves may be a good tonic in small amounts when made into a tea or mixed into food. The same with dandelions, which are rich in vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as minerals such as calcium and zinc.

"The French grow dandelions to eat," Ottesen noted. "They are rather bitter, though. But you can mix them in a salad or toss them into lasagna. Just don't pick them from just any place because there's a danger of pesticides. Only get them from your garden, where you know how they've been cultivated."

Quality control is a major reason for harvesting your own. And even though it may seem more convenient to buy herbal supplements from the health store, Ottesen warns that you can't be sure of the processing.

"I like my herbs and vegetables to be as fresh as possible, but also I'm totally into organic gardening," she said. "The only way to try to avoid toxins and industrial pollutants is to control the way you grow something."

That appealed to headache sufferer Janet Carrell of Irvine, an avid gardener and mother of two young boys. Carrell said she takes prescription medicine for her migraines but has also bought feverfew supplements at health stores.

She thinks the capsules have helped her but often wonders about their purity and potency.

"I like the idea of being more in charge of the situation and growing feverfew from seeds," she said, while browsing through a Newport Beach nursery recently.

"I already grow some herbs [such as basil for cooking], so it shouldn't be a big deal.

"If it's good for your body [and] you're careful, why shouldn't you try it?"

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