The Healing Power of Nature

Just a few miles east of the Phoenix Maricopa County Extension office, near the juncture of Price and Broadway Road, is one of only four nationally accredited naturopathic colleges in North America where botanical medicine is both studied and practiced. The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences, as part of its curriculum, teaches how traditional and contemporary cultures use plants for their healing properties, remembering that within the plant kingdom is found the origins of most of the today’s pharmaceutical drugs.

Debra Brammer, N.D., is a Naturopathic Physician and Chair of the college’s Department of Botanical Medicine. Her practice is based on the principle of Vis Medicatrix Naturae, “the healing power of nature,” and part of her tutelage includes the creation of healing gardens. These may be visited by community gardeners who wish to see the cultivation of a variety of common and unusual herbs and plants which possess curative properties.

Coming from a family tradition of rural healers, Dr. Brammer first learned the many uses of medicinal plants in the gardens of her great-grandmother, making up teas, liniments, compresses, tinctures, concoctions and salves, along with the production of food crops. Creating botanical medicine was a way of survival in isolated, rural areas. Like her ancestors, Dr. Brammer sees the healing applications of horticulture, not only in its medicinal usage but also through the benefits of the cultivation itself as therapy and a powerfully effective method to manage stress: “We are cyclical creatures‹gardening is a way to slow down and tie ourselves down. A lot of illness is exacerbated by not remembering our own rhythms. Illnesses, such as insomnia, are so much easier to treat if we remember this.”

This type of horticultural therapy can be practiced with common plants through container-cultivated gardening. Easy-to-grow potted herbs may then, in turn, be prepared as botanical medicines and can become a patient’s symbolic method of physically taking charge of his or her health. Such simple efforts can show beneficial results for a variety of patients whether confined by health restrictions or physically able.

Dr. Brammer explains that standard naturopathic practice considers the whole person, and examines the causes of “disease” and the “obstacles to cure,” such as lifestyle factors. She cites, as an example, a former patient suffering from frequent headaches, who expected to receive white willow bark, Salix alba L., Saliccacere, from which aspirin was originally derived; instead, this patient was examined for what life factors contributed to the development of headaches. New patients receive an extensive initial interview appointment. This interview is conducted by naturopathic physicians in assessing the many lifestyle factors affecting health, helping educate patients to see the bigger picture contributing to their overall health condition and well-being.

Many botanical remedies come from texts such as The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology, and Therapeutics by Felter and Ellingwood or Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, which originated in the medieval period when botanical medical practice often went hand in hand with alchemical and metaphysical experimentation. For example, Aconitum napellus, Monkshood or wolf’s bane, was grown for medicinal uses, but was also considered useful in becoming invisible and as a protection from werewolves and vampires!

In general, therapeutic plants are found in most gardens today because of their sundry culinary uses. Some commonly cultivated medicinal plants include chili peppers, Capsicum, a member of the Solanaceae family. Peppers, which are all considered useful as circulatory stimulants and digestive aids, are in addition, an excellent source of antioxidants, and contain more Vitamin C than oranges, according to Dr. Brammer. Garlic also possesses many health benefits, being considered an effective blood tonic, circulatory stimulant, digestive enzyme, natural cholesterol reduction agent, and as both an antibacterial and anti-parasitic agent. Passionflower, Passiflora incarnate/edulis acts as a general central nervous system depressant, which in small doses can have a calming, relaxing and anti-anxiety effect.

Other frequently cultivated plants containing therapeutic properties include the toxic botanicals, designated as such to naturopathic physicians because they can “be strong allies when used appropriately and with a full understanding of their action and the sequelae of toxicity,” according to Brammer. Some Southwestern plants in this category include Cactus grandifuloru, Night-blooming cactus, which is well known as a treatment for cardiac conditions. ) Turpentine Bush, Ericameria (Haploppappus) laricifolia (Gray) and Desert Broom, Baccharis sarothrodies (Gray), are both used for anti-inflammatory baths.

They may be made into teas or salves, helpful for conditions ranging from arthritis to muscle pain. Some say the Apache leader, Geronimo, used Turpentine Bush as his most effective medicine.

A walk through the well-labeled medicinal gardens at the college reveals an arrangement of plants based on their therapeutic applications, including respiratory, sedative, cardiac, and circulatory uses. The community is welcome to explore the possibilities in creating botanical medicine gardens. Each April interested gardeners may also attend the Southwest Conference on Botanical Medicine in the college’s exhibit hall. Topics on ethnobotany, such as “Obscure Medicinal Plants of the Southwest,” are presented by well-respected authorities, such as Michael Moore, director of Bisbee’s Southwest School of Botanical Medicine and author of Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, the Mountain West and the Pacific West. There are also guided herb walks through the Desert Botanical Gardens with ethnobotanists, such as Phyllis Hogan, founder of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association and an instructor in bilingual programs with the Pima, Hualapai, and Navajo tribes, or popular Sonoran Desert botanical illustrator, Mimi Kamp.

Photos by Janice Austin