Two chefs in a restaurant kitchen. One turns to the other & says ‘Ah Pierre, your cooking is so superb it’s almost herbal medicine.”

It made me think how readily we divide the things we digest into food or medicine, turning to the latter only when we are unwell.

We overlook the obvious; that everything we eat affects us in some way, & many fruits & vegetables are in fact herbs. The loose definition of a ‘herb’ is any plant used by man: for medicine, flavouring, fragrance, dyes & cosmetic uses.

Those people who protest that  they like their food plain, meat & three vege, might be surprised to learn that they are eating herbs. The humble potato, cabbage, carrot & celery are found in Herbals as often as Burdock & Bogbean.

I’d like to take you on a wander through the vegetable garden & take a closer look at some of these unsung heroes. For me, part of the appeal of vegetables as healing herbs is that everyone has access to them. They’re not hard to grow or buy, are easy to identify, & most people will eat them without too much persuasion.

When our son, Giles, was at primary school he made up a chart to see if he was getting his daily vitamins. Of the six he listed-A,B,C,D, E & K-green leafy vegetables appeared on every column except Vitamin D. It seems so simple doesn’t it?

Vitamins B & C are depleted by oxygen, water & heat, so it pays to eat at least some of your greens in a raw state, & the others, steamed for the shortest time possible. I learnt that the time to take greens off the heat is when they are the brightest colour.

The most familiar vegetable of all, must be the potato. For a long time it was viewed with suspicion because it’s Solanum family cousins were unpleasant plants like Belladonna ( Nightshade) & Henbane. The potato still has connections with those relatives, all parts of the plant above soil level being poisonous, as are green potatoes.

Raw potato juice, mixed with carrot juice & honey, to improve the flavour, can be taken internally to relieve stomach ulcers & diarrhea. Don’t use the juice of more than one large potato a day.

Years ago I met an interesting man, whose family were European Gypsies, & he shared some traditional remedies with me. I was amazed how frequently raw potato was employed.

Slices of raw potato, or cucumber can be applied to the temples to ease headaches, especially those brought on by sunstroke & sultry weather. ( By the way, the water in which potatoes have been cooked can be used to clean silver & restore shine to furniture & leather.)

Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies were nearly turned into a pie, because they had eaten a quantitiy of lettuce, which was soporific. It still intrigues me that lettuces have this sleep inducing property. The Wild Lettuce, Lactuca virosa, is a very powerful plant, with sedative & hypnotic properties, &  sometimes toxic, causing death by paralysis.

Our salad lettuce, Lactuca sativa, however offers only useful properties. Lightly steamed leaves can ease digestive problems such as ulcers, gastric problems & irritable bowel syndrome. If you suffer from insomnia, as well as eating lettuce with your evening meal, you could try simmering a lettuce in ½ litre of water for 15 to 20 minutes. Drink a large cupful at bedtime for several days. ( Store the rest in the fridge.) This might well do the trick when your sleep pattern has been disrupted, & you find yourself wide awake at the same
time each night.

The same brew is also prescribed (3 cups a day for adults) for gastric spasms, palpitations, congestion of the liver, whooping cough & bronchitis.

Cabbage & Broccoli both contain sulforaphanes, part of a group of chemicals called phytochemicals. These not only promote good health, they are part of a complex chain, stimulating certain enzymes in the body, which in turnhelp to remove carcinogenic molecules in the cells. They both contain goitrogens, which interfere with the bodies ability to absorb iodine, & should be avoided by anyone suffering from thyroid goitre.

I have been amazed & excited by the potential of the humble cabbage. Over 30 years ago, when my daughter was born at the Warkworth Maternity Home, the staff made cabbage leaf poultices to relieve engorged breasts, & wonderful things they were too!

Now I know, that a cabbage poultice can also be used to soothe: boils, bruises & swellings, varicose ulcers, eczema, burns, bronchitis, rheumatic pains, neuralgia, sciatica, migraines & lumbago. No wonder cabbage was known as the ‘Doctor of the Poor.’

A cabbage poultice is simple to make, take several large, dark green leaves, & remove the central rib. Pound the leaves with a rolling pin or similar, & then wilt the leaves on the side of a boiling kettle, or a radiator. When cool enough to place on the skin, apply several layers & cover with a cloth or bandage, to keep the warmth in & hold in place.

A cabbage leaf decoction is easy too. Rinse 5 or 6 good green leaves, shred them & cover with 1 litre of water, boil for 30 minutes. Drink as required, sweetened with honey.

When I was small, my Mother used to make an onion & brown sugar syrup for coughs. I made it for my children too, it was probably the first herbal medicine that I  ever took, or made. Just slice one or two onions & layer in a jar with brown sugar or honey. Leave in a warm place for an hour or two. A teaspoon at a time given to children will ease a persistent cough. Although it smells strong, it tastes quite nice.

If you can’t tolerate raw onion you can get it’s benefits by making a medicinal wine, although I wouldn’t recommend it as an aperitif!

Take  300 gms of chopped onion, 100gm of honey & 600 ml of white wine. Put it all together in a bottle & leave for 48 hours, shaking frequently. Strain & store in a cool, dark place. You can take a wineglass full, 2 or 3 times a day.

Leeks also have similarly impressive properties to onions, as does garlic, but I think most people are familiar with using garlic.

One of the things I do remember about cooked leeks, ( this may be an old wives’ tale) is that they protect the innards when someone has swallowed an open safety pin or similar sharp object. The alternative I’d heard of was a cottonwool sandwich, but even with lots of butter I think that would be awful.

Corn silk tea is a simple & effective remedy for bladder problems. Collectthe silks as you husk the corn, & spread out to dry on a flat surface, in a shady, well ventilated spot. When absolutely dry, they can be stored in an airtight container, in the dark.

Steep 1 teaspoon of silk in ½ cup boiling water for a few minutes. Strain & add honey if desired. Take 1 tablespoon every 2 or 3 hours.

I want to remind you, again that these articles are guides only. Herbs, in this case vegetables, should be used with common sense &  in moderation. If you have a serious health problem do consult your health practioner & proceed with caution. Don’t go mad & eat 5 kg of something in one day. Watch for any adverse reactions & stop taking the offending plant if you do react.

While I was researching this article, I was constantly amazed by the useful properties these everyday vegetables make available to us. I kept accosting various members of the family… ‘did you know carrots increase the production of red blood cells?’ etc etc. They treated me with kindly tolerance, but I reckon secretly they’ll be buying a few extra veges .