The Garden of Medical Delights

Posting is a little scarce here these days (sorry!) is because I’m spending a good deal of time in my garden, pruning like crazy while the plants are dormant, doing a huge amount of weeding (which never seems to end) and preparing the areas of land for planting veggies come spring – which in my subtropical part of the world, means early March.

One of the reasons I started this blog last year, in fact, was due to my need for a creative outlet. I could do very little in the way of gardening back then due to its being the Shmittah year, and now I’m trying to get a handle on a garden that’s been left, for the most part, unkempt for nearly a year and a half (I did manage to put in some winter veggies last October – garlic, snow peas, and sweet potatoes, and a few bulbs and flowers which are now coming up, but the clay earth was rock-hard after a long dry summer, and was extremely difficult to dig in until the winter rains loosened the earth a little).

It would seem natural for someone like me, both an avid (though very amateur!) gardener and a physician, to put in a garden full of plants that have medicinal uses. My psychiatrist neighbor has, in fact, put some St. John’s Wort in his rockery – not that he uses it on patients, just for the hell of it. However, while I have plenty of herbs in my garden, they are used mainly for culinary, not medical, purposes. Thyme and rosemary go great with potatoes, basil makes wonderful pesto, I make the occasional tea using peppermint or lemon verbena…that sort of thing. I don’t have any problems with people using herbs for medicinal purposes – as long as they don’t give up any conventional treatments they need, and the herbs don’t interact with said treatment (e.g., various green herbs with warfarin, an anticoagulant). But generally speaking, it’s very hard to standardize treatments with the active ingredients in the plant by ingesting the plant as is. The same plant can vary in its active ingredient content, depending upon the soil it grows in, the weather conditions while growing, the manner in which it’s harvested and stored, etc.

Still, some of the plants may come in useful from time to time, and some of the claims of medicinal properties made for these plants are the kind I might personally use, so I decided it was time to look up the medical literature regarding a few of the plants growing in my garden.

Aloe Vera

The Aloe plant that grows near my front door was given to me, along with several other succulents, by my great-aunt when we moved into this house (12 years ago this month). She was moving to a smaller apartment and needed to get rid of the many potted plants on the terrace of her old house. It’s since grown a bunch of baby satellite aloes, and produces lovely blooms every spring in orange and yellow.

One Friday afternoon, I received a 1.5-inch long burn on my arm while putting a dish in the oven. Remembering the aloe plant outside, I figured an experiment was in order. I ran some cold water over the whole burn, then broke off an aloe leaf and rubbed the broken edge over the left half only.

The result? It was a second-degree burn, and while I can still discern a faint scar on my forearm, said scar is only half as long as the original burn — the right half. Since then, we’ve been using the aloe leaves for this purpose.

As it turns out, a systematic review regarding the efficacy of aloe vera tends to agree, but because the studies reviewed were very different from each other, it was difficult to come to a hard and fast conclusion about aloe’s efficacy. So I wouldn’t use it on anything beyond a first-degree or mild, small second-degree burn.

Passionflower/fruit (Passiflora)

I have two passionflower vines, one in a large pot and one augmenting the hedge. They needed a lot of water and I was a little negligent in that respect last summer, so they produced only a few flowers and no fruit last autumn. I hope that come spring and with sufficient watering and fertilizing, they’ll come through for us. I love passionfruit, but it’s rather expensive to buy in the store.

Passiflora extract (either in pill or elixir form) is commonly thought to have a mild anxiety-reducing effect, and is sometimes also used as a sleep aid. There are apparently several compounds in the plant which demonstrate these effects in animal studies in a known mechanism. There is also a recent randomized controlled trial (RCT) involving 60 patients, who were given either passiflora extract or placebo 90 minutes prior to undergoing outpatient surgery. The group which received the passiflora exhibited significantly less anxiety, without evidence of sedation.

However, the Cochrane systematic review (written a year before the above study came out) found that “RCTs examining the effectiveness of passiflora for anxiety are too few in number to permit any conclusions to be drawn. “.

Bottom line: may be useful for mild anxiety and doesn’t look like it can hurt. For severe, debilitating cases, it’s best to use synthetic meds which have proven efficacy. And despite the lack of sedative effect in the RCT, I would still be wary of driving or operating heavy machinery after taking passiflora extract — for now.


I’ve been growing garlic during the winter in my veggie patch for a couple of years now. I buy some Chinese white garlic bulbs in the supermarket, separate them into cloves, and plant individually in the ground. Once removed from the earth in late March-early April or so, I weave the stalks to make a garlic bunch and hang outside my living room window to cure – which takes about a month (and has the added benefit of scaring the vampires away 😉 ). It’s fun, easy and makes me feel…well, productive.

My patients and quite a few of my acquaintances use garlic in a variety of ways for minor illnesses, including:

* Olive oil heated up with garlic cloves administered in the ear canal to soothe earaches (I suspect the warm oil alone would do the trick; never to be used if a perforated eardrum is suspected)

* Mincing onions and garlic and letting the vapors spread in a child’s room in lieu of a humidifier and/or Vicks VapoRub

* Curing pinworms by sticking a garlic clove up a child’s ass (Don’t try this at home, boys and girls.

* Squirting garlic extract up one’s nose to clear the nasal passages and sinuses (My kids’ daycare lady offered me this once when I had a cold. It was a very memorable experience and did the job, but trust me on this one: Afrin is a lot kinder and is just as effective).

However, herbal medicine ascribes far greater powers to the lowly bulb. Garlic is known for having weak antibacterial properties due its allicin content; however, this chemical is apparently not well-absorbed via the digestive system, so don’t count on eating garlic to cure your pneumonia (you might chase away everyone else but the microbes, though).

Another fairly well-known claim about garlic is its alleged ability to lower LDL (“Bad”) cholesterol. The evidence for this remains controversial – there is a very good discussion regarding this at Garlic Central.

There is also some evidence demonstrating that the more garlic one consumes in one’s diet, the lower one’s risk of getting certain cancers. More research needs to be done to ascertain this, however – a recent analysis of these claims call the evidence “very limited”.

But what the heck, we like garlicky dishes. And if it keeps us healthy by the way, all the better! 🙂


4 Responses

  1. Great post, Es! I will send this to other people if you don’t mind.


  2. Brave you, planting anything in this drought! I have some pots of herbs on the porch that I keep going by watering with the used bathwater, but my conscience is bothering me about doing any real planting in the garden this year, since there’s no water to spare.

  3. Stace – you can send it to whoever you like,as always. How’s the hubby?

    Antigonos – I figure that stressing the ‘edible garden’ part of it somewhat makes up for the use of water (using every water-saving trick in the book, and the aloe doesn’t really need watering). The lawn, on the other hand, will be even yellower than usual this summer…

  4. The hubby is thankfully healing. We will find out more at the orthopod’s appointment tomorrow morning.

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