2015-03-04 / Gardening Tips by Bob Beyfuss

Gardening Tips: March 4, 2015

Herbs: Part Three
Before I begin this week’s column, I want to wish George Story a slightly belated happy 95th birthday. George, the founder of Story’s Nursery in Freehold, Greene County, turned 95 on February 22. He was named after George Washington, who shares the same birthday. Many kids today don’t know when Washington’s birthday occurred, which old folks like me grow up knowing because we got a day off from school for both he and Lincoln. Now we celebrate “President’ Day” in lieu of Washington’s and Lincoln’s actual birthdays. Both men were very inspirational for our country. George Story inspired many, many budding horticulturalists including his kids, grandkids and me! I saw him right after Christmas in Florida, this past December, and he is still physically and mentally sharp. His granddaughter, who is also my stepdaughter, Kelly, grows all sorts of interesting palms at her home near Clearwater. I guess it is true that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Many of his kids and grandkids are still actively involved in the horticulture business and now he has great-grandkids who, I bet, will continue the tradition.
Last week I left off talking about the lack of modern, scientific studies on herbal remedies and why they have not taken place. There are several good reasons why this has not occurred. First and foremost is the lack of financial incentive to properly design and conduct such expensive studies. Wild plants cannot be patented so why bother to find useful substances in them that will not generate revenue?
Another major barrier is the difficulty in studying a whole plant that may have dozens of chemical ingredients (some of which may be antagonistic by themselves) versus a single chemical compound. These complexes of ingredients are also very variable in concentration in plants depending upon such uncontrollable factors as the pro­vince in which the plant grows, (i.e. soil conditions, climate, seasonal variations) when and how it was harvested and handled.

It’s Worked for the Chinese
Try telling a serious wine connoisseur that “province” does not affect the specific properties of a given type of wine! Add to that the fact that most herbal remedies are prescribed in combinations of up to dozen different herbs, taken together, that may have even more interactions, makes such studies virtually impossible to design. Chinese traditional medicine, which predates modern western medicine by more than 3,000 years, seems to have worked pretty well for about one third of the world’s population. CTM usually prescribes 10 or more herbs at a time to be ingested together.
Every time I read about a scientific “study” of a complex herb, such as ginseng, I usually have more questions about the meth­odology than the conclusions, since the issues of province, growing conditions, age of the plant and other factors are rarely considered. Even nutrition scientists (the paragons of reductionist science) seem that agree that certain diets such as the Mediterranean diet are “healthy” but when they try to “tease” out the “active” ingredients in such diets, the analysis never seem to work. Is it the red wine? the olive oil? the seafood? the bread? How it is consumed? When is it consumed? It seems far more likely that all these factors come into play than a single ingredient or component of the overall diet.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the herbal industry’s response to this paradox has been for the development of standardized herbal extracts. Some would argue that this approach is the only way to protect consumers from being ripped off or buying snake oil. I happen to believe in the science of the marketplace that generally (but not always) prevents most intelligent people from consistently spending money on stuff that does not do what it is supposed to.

Fear of the Unknown
The fact that many herbs have hundreds, if not thousands of years of reported safe and effective use does not seem to matter to the disciples of modern medicine. Fear of unknown consequences is a powerful motivator that may prevent some from using herbs.
I guess the answer to the question, “Are herbs safe?” is best answered by yet another question “Compared to what?” Almost everything we do in life generally carries some risks. I heard on the news recently that we should not even venture outdoors for any reason without first putting on sunscreen due to the risk of getting skin cancer. A few minutes later another news story reported that we should all increase our Vitamin D intake to prevent various maladies. The easiest way to accomplish this is to get about 10 minutes of direct sunshine a day. Go figure!

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