What is a Simple?
A "simple" is one herb used at a time.
A "simpler" is an herbalist who generally uses herbs
one at a time, rather than in combinations.
Why Use Simples?
Most herbalists I have met -- whether from China
or Japan, Eastern or Western Europe, Australia or North America
-- use herbs in combinations. Simplers, like myself, don't.
Because I believe that herbal medicine is people's
medicine, I seek to make herbal medicine simple: as simple
as one herb at a time. Because people worry about interactions
between the drugs they take and herbs, I keep it simple: with
simples, interactions are simple to observe, and simpler to
avoid. Because empowerment in health care is difficult, I
want to offer others easy, safe herbal remedies: and what
could be easier, or safer, than a simple?
Make Me Think
When I was just getting started with herbs,
one thing that confounded me was the many choices I had when
I began to match symptoms to the herbs that relieved them.
If someone had a cough should I use garden sage or wild cherry
bark or pine sap or mullein or coltsfoot (to name only a few
of the many choices)? One way out of this dilemma was to use
them all. I made many cough syrups that contained every anti-cough
herb that I could collect. And they all worked.
As I got more sophisticated in my herbal usage,
and especially after I completed a course on homeopathy, I
began to see that each herb had a specific personality, a
specific way of acting. I realized I couldn't notice the individual
actions of the herbs when they were combined.
It felt daring at first to use just one herb.
Would wild cherry bark tincture all by itself be enough to
quell that child's cough? Yes! Would mullein infusion alone
really reduce a person's asthmatic and allergic reactions?
Yes! Would sage soaked in honey for six weeks ease a sore
throat? Yes! Each herb that I tried as a simple was successful.
They all worked, not just together, but by themselves.
The more I used individual herbs the more I
came to know them as individuals. The more I used simples,
the simpler and more successful my remedies became. The more
I used one herb at a time, the more I learned about how that
herb worked, and didn't work.
When we use one herb at a time, we come to know
that herb, we become intimate with that herb. Just as we become
intimate with each other by spending time one-on-one, tete-a-tete,
simply together, we become closer to the herbs when we use
them as simples.
Becoming intimate with an herb or a person helps
us build trust. How reliable is the effect of this herb? When?
How? Where does it fail? Using simples helps us build a web
of green allies that we trust deeply. Simples help us feel
more powerful. They help abate our fears, simply, safely.
Simples Are Subtle
Using one herb at a time gives us unparalleled
opportunities to observe and make use of the subtle differences
that are at the heart of herbal medicine. When we use simples
we are more likely to notice the many variables that affect
each herb: including where it grows, the years's weather,
how we harvest it, our preparation, and the dosage.1 The many
variables within one plant insure that our simple remedy nonetheless
touches many aspects of a person and heals deeply.
One apprentice tinctured motherwort flowering
tops weekly through its blooming period. She reported that
the tinctures made from the younger flower stalks had a stronger
effect on the uterus; while those made from the older flower
stalks, when the plant was going to seed, had a stronger effect
on the heart.
Give Me Power
Using one herb at a time helps me feel more
certain that my remedy has an active value, not just a placebo
value. Using one plant at a time, and local ones at that,
reassures me that my herbal medicine cannot be legislated
away. Using one plant at a time allows me to build trust in
my remedies. Using one plant at a time is a subversive act,
a reclaiming of simple health care.
Combinations erode my power, activate my "victim
persona," and lead me to believe that herbal medicine
is best left to the experts.
From Complex to Simple
Take the challenge! Use simples instead of complex
formulae. Let's rework some herbal remedies and get a sense
of how simple it can be.
The anti-cancer formula Essiac contains Arctium
lappa (burdock), Rheum palmatum (rhubarb), Ulmus fulva (slippery
elm), and Rumex acetosella (sheep sorrel). Rhubarb root has
no possible use against cancer; it is a purgative whose repeated
use can "aggravate constipation." Slippery elm bark
also has no possible anti-cancer properties and has no doubt
been added to counter some of the detrimental effects of the
rhubarb. Sheep sorrel juice is so caustic that it has been
used to burn off skin cancers, but it would likely do more
harm to the kidneys than to any cancer if ingested regularly.
Leaving us with a great anti-cancer simple: burdock root.
One that I have found superbly effective in reversing dysplasias
and precancerous conditions.
A John Lust formula for relief of coughs 2 contains
Agropyron repens (witch grass), Pimpinella anisum (aniseed),
Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), Inula helenium (elecampane
root), Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort), Thymus species (thyme
herb), (murillo bark) 3, Chondrus crispus (irish moss), Lobelia
inflata (lobelia herb). Witch grass has little or no effect
on coughs; it is an emollient diuretic whose dismissal from
this group would leave no hole. Anise seeds are also not known
to have an anti-pertussive effect; although they do taste
good, we can do without them. Lobelia can bring more oxygen
to the blood, but is certainly not an herb I would ever add
to a cough mixture, so I will leave it out here. Licorice
is a demulcent expectorant that can be most helpful for those
with a dry cough; however, I do use it for a variety of reasons,
among them its exotic origins and its cloyingly sweet taste.
Lungwort is, as its name implies, a pectoral, but its effect
is rather mild, and its place in the Boraginaceae family gives
me pause. How much pyrrolizidine alkaloid might it contain?
Thyme, and its more common anti-cough cousin garden sage,
contains essential oils that could both quiet a cough and
counter infection in the throat. A strong tea or a tincture
of either could be our simple. Irish moss is, a specific to
soothe coughs and a nutritive in addition, would also make
an excellent simple. But it is elecampane that I would crown.
It is not only a specific to curb coughing, it counters infection
well, and tonifies lung tissues. Several small doses of a
tincture of elecampane root should quiet a cough in a few
Simples are fun. Give them a try.
1. Among the many variables, I have especially
noticed that the tinctures that I make with fresh plants are
many times more effective than tinctures made from dried plants.
My elders tell me that preparations of common plants growing
in uncommon places will be stronger as well. Many herbalists
are aware of certain areas of their land that nurture plants
that are particularly potent medicines.
2. John Lust. The Herb Book. 1974. Bantam.
3. Note that this formula, as is frequently the case, contains
an "exotic" herb which Mr. Lust does not include
in the 500+ herbs in his book, nor does he give us a botanical
name for the plant, leaving us literally unable to prepare
his formula as presented.
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