Allspice (pimenta dioica)
Allspice is typically sold in powdered form, though some natural foods stores carry it in whole berry form. (If you've ever seen whole nutmeg, which we'll visit later on this list, allspice looks similar, but is larger.) One of the main chemical compounds in allspice is volatile oils, which lend the berries their spicy, rich aroma, and many of their medicinal properties. In herbalism we classify plants by their herbal actions, which means the way the plants act upon our bodies, internally and/or externally. Volatile oils as a whole are antibacterial, meaning they attack unhealthy bacteria in our bodies and the air. Allspice can also be used in the treatment of indigestion and flatulence specifically, which means it has a carminative herbal action. In a poultice, which means crushing the plant matter and applying it externally with or without a carrier oil, allspice is great for reducing bruises and soothing sore joints and muscles. This herbal action is called anti-inflammatory or analgesic.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum glanduliferum)
We know cinnamon as a baking agent, a flavor of gum, and an addition to applesauce. Many of us don't use cinnamon as the powerful antispasmodic medicine that it is. It soothes the smooth muscles of the body, which includes the stomach, bowels, and uterus, so it's good for menstrual cramps and cramps caused by indigestion. It also normalizes blood sugar, which helps reduce snack cravings, mood swings related to blood sugar, and is helpful for diabetics. Like allspice, cinnamon can be applied externally to soothe inflammation.
Cayenne (Capsicum annum)
I mentioned our friend cayenne in my last post, as an immune and circulatory booster. But I like to bring it up in kitchen-centric contexts for one of its lesser-known properties: it's a coagulant, which means it stops bleeding. So the next time you nick yourself with a knife while chopping, sprinkle some cayenne powder on the cut, and you'll be amazed by how quickly the wound stops bleeding and starts healing. This also makes cayenne an excellent addition to your herbal first aid kit for hikes and bike rides!
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Cumin is available in seed or powder form. In Ayurvedic/ancient Indian medicine, seeds should always be cooked lightly before eating, as the medicine is dormant in the seed until it's "awakened" by the cooking process. As medicine, it's a digestive aid, helping with nausea, diarrhea, and even morning sickness. It's a great source of iron, useful for iron-deficient anemia and for folks in the active-bleeding part of their menstrual cycles. It can ease cramping and muscle pain, which makes it antispasmodic. It's also used by some herbalists as an aid for insomnia, which gives it the herbal action of mild sedative.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano is no stranger to anyone who has ever made their own spaghetti sauce. I used a photo of oregano as the image for today's post specifically because this little plant is so well-known in its dried form, found in most kitchens in North America and Europe, but is far less familiar in its fresh and/or flowering form. The flowers are particularly special for this plant, because they are the source of Oregano oil, which is precious to aromatherapists and has healing properties of its own. So get to know them, especially as spring is coming on, and many of our plants will start flowering. That's the time of year when gathering your own herbs is easiest - flowers are like little lighthouses, helping us differentiate individual plants amongst a sea of green.
So! Back to oregano. This plant is packed with volatile oils, and the specific compound carvacrol, which means it is strongly antiseptic and antifungal. Dabbing oregano oil on your pulse points before travel is a great way to stave off airborne infections on public transit. You can also dilute it with water and spray on surfaces in your home to clean! Commercially, carvacrol is often put in mouthwash. It's also useful as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, or pain reliever, great for toothaches. (To get a similar effect, chew a fresh oregano leaf!) Once it's done all that great work in your mouth, oregano enters the digestive tract, where it's an antispasmodic, useful for soothing spasms of indigestion. John Gallagher of Learningherbs.com also lists oregano as an antidepressant and a anti-anxiety herb, which I'm excited to read more about. Is there nothing this common kitchen herb can't do?!
So get cooking with herbs you already have in your kitchen, and let me know how it goes! As always, if there's an herb or an ailment you would like explored on this blog, leave it in the comments or zip an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Herbal Apprentice" in the subject line. Happy healing!
I used a wonderful Herbs & Spices chart from LearningHerbs.com for this post, as well as my handy-dandy, well-loved Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman.
*Legalese: In our society, only MDs get to say they are "treating" disease. As such, this blog post has not been analyzed by the FDA, and the advice within has not been scientifically proven to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Please see a health practitioner for medical treatment.