Two Medicinal Plants: Birch and Horsetail

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By: Dr. Rainer Mueller, Walther Cloos

Two Medicinal Plants:

The Birch and its Native Habitat
by Walther Cloos

Among the trees of northerly zones, none has had more impact on human well-being than the birch tree. In areas where plant life is sparse, it flourishes and creates woodlands. The birch is at home across Asia, Europe, and America, where it has long been used for nourishment, clothing, healing, and in construction. Birch has always been considered a symbol of re-awakening life because it grows in regions that other deciduous trees can't survive in. With its light green crown it stands out among the darker evergreens as a harbinger of spring.

Legends and sagas are woven around the birch. During dark winter nights, especially at holidays, offerings were placed near these trees in the form of food and drink (mead). The nomads of Lapland used birch wood to carve statues. There are many ancient tales telling of the sacred birch warding off evil spirits. For this reason the ancients telling these tales sometimes put birch sticks into manure piles or nailed them to stable doors on All Hallow's Eve. In Germany, birches are still used for maypoles, and on May Day rural folk decorate their houses with the newly-leafed branches to create a festive atmosphere.

Birch has been effective in ridding other plants of insects because it is virtually pest-free (traditionally thought to be due to its powerful affinity with the sun, and to its own light-filled quality). When there were caterpillars in the cabbage patch, folk would take a bundle of birch rods, go into the garden and beat the vegetables, saying: "Caterpillars, begone, the moon is setting, the sun comes." Fresh birch leaves were also strewn on the floors of homes to drive away unwanted bugs that can't abide the strong aroma of the young, resinous leaves. In hard times, the tender green inner bark was boiled and prepared like noodles, or ground into flour for bread. Curiously, this living inner bark and the spring sap are much sweeter in the north than farther south.

Today perhaps only nomadic Lapps and a few people in northern Russia still realize the universal benefits of this unassuming tree. They put every part to good use. A Russian proverb says: "The birch gives us four good things—it provides light (torches from the wood), it stifles cries (wagon wheels are greased with birch tar), it heals the sick, and it purifies the body."

Birch wood provides more warmth and longer-lasting torches for long northern nights than other wood. Roofs covered with birch-bark shingles are resistant to rotting. Shoes and milk containers are made from its leathery bark. The tar oil, distilled for greasing wagon wheels, is also used for leather waterproofing and softening, creating the long-lasting "Russian leather."

Today people still use birch branches to lightly beat skin warmed in Russian or Finnish saunas. This increases the flow of perspiration and with it an elimination of waste matter. The sweet birch sap-or "life-blood" which rises up from the roots to the young, new leaves, is full of nutritive and cleansing elements. Often this sap was slightly fermented and, as birch wine, held to be beneficial as an internal cleanser. Indians made a delicious, nourishing drink from it. Birch leaf buds are valued particularly by the Russians. In the form of tincture, infusion, spirits, or even distillate, these very resinous, aromatic leaf buds are used in the treatment of a variety of ailments. Birch Tonic, is a cleansing and rejuve­nating spring drink, and Carbo Betula (birch charcoal) tablets for flatulence are among a range of modern medicines made by the Weleda and Wala companies.


Field Horsetail
By Dr. Rainer Mueller

Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is an inconspicuous "weed" found along embankments and fences. In early spring, the first pale unbranched shoots appear with cone-like spore cases on their tips. They call to mind parasitic plants. Later come dark green summer shoots, looking like leafless miniature trees.

There are just a few species of horsetail left worldwide, relics of the ancient past when a major part of Earth's vegetation consisted of such plants. Horsetail "forests" as big as trees once covered the muddy ground of warm marshy lowlands. Their petrified remains—once unbelievably luxuriant-form part of our present coal resources. Plants at horsetail's stage of evolution don't have blossoms; as a result, they bear no seeds. Like ferns, they are asexual. Spores as fine as dust form on their stems, which in damp, shady surroundings, grow into tiny fungoid structures. Fertilization takes place with the aid of water, producing a new, sprouting horsetail rather than a seed. Other features also indicate that the horsetail originated under conditions completely different from those on earth today. The above-ground structure is the smaller portion of the plant. Its black roots—permeated with small air-ducts to their very tips, creep to great depths, where soil could still be soft and warm as in the earth's far past. The most astonishing feature however, is the way it uses mineral substances. No other plant can absorb such large quantities of silica through which it forms a kind of "suit of armor." Even when horsetail is burned to ash and cooled, we can still admire all the details of its structure in the form of a silica "casting." This silica skeleton gives the horsetail its stiffly erect form. It is so rough and brittle that it once was used to clean and polish metal instruments and utensils. (Its old Ger-man name was "tin weed.") Its silica content also made it a remedy for the treatment of skin, lung, and kidney tissue ailments in the past. Today Weleda and Wala use horsetail in several of their anthroposphical/homeopathic prescription medicines, in kidney and bladder therapy.

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