Flower Power

Healing properties are infused in products at health stores, cosmetic counters and spas

March 16, 2009|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

On a frigid winter's day inside his suburban Maryland home, Jim Duke is sipping a cup of hot tea made from nature's bounty. If it were a balmy winter or early spring day, he would pick rosemary and lavender from his garden to make the pale brew. Instead, he steeps some of their dried leaves, then adds a whole flower that resembles an inverted daffodil.

The tea preparation isn't just about chasing winter's chill. A month shy of his 80th birthday, Duke believes the herbs and flowers in his homemade tea are good for his memory and overall health. For instance, he says, some chemical compounds in rosemary work similar to synthetic chemicals in some drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for Alzheimer's disease.

"Shakespeare called rosemary the herb of remembrance," says Duke, a retired research scientist who holds a doctorate in botany and grows 300 plants on 6 acres near Columbia that he has dubbed the Green Farmacy Garden. "Like sage and lemon balm, it's in the mint family. The flowers and leaves contain natural compounds that prevent the breakdown of vital messenger chemicals in the brain."

It's just one example of how flowers have the potential to heal and restore the body and mind, experts say.

"For centuries, people in cultures around the world have used flowers for well-being," says Andrea Ottesen, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"In traditional cultures, flowers have been used in baths to cleanse unwelcome spirits and invite prosperity. In South America, the Andean women of Peru place rose petals over their eyes [to quell] fatigue. Today, more people are realizing the value of herbal medicine and how many flowers play a role."

From a health and wellness perspective, flower power appears to be in full bloom. At health food stores and grocery chains, cosmetic counters and pharmacies, as well as spas, flowers (or more typically, their extracted essences, which are different from essential oils) are turning up in things like chocolates and bottled water.

Hint, a bottled-water seller, recently released a hibiscus vanilla flavor. The label says Egyptian Pharaohs consumed teas made with hibiscus, a flower said to aid digestion, possibly lower blood sugar and strengthen one's immune system.

Kneipp, a German company whose botanical-healing philosophy dates back more than a century, specializes in herbal and plant-based lines. Its Orange & Linden Blossom Herbal Bath, for instance, incorporates linden flowers, used traditionally to soothe frazzled nerves, ease anxiety and lessen effects of colds and flu.

"A lot of the flower products you see on the market now are grass-roots and consumer driven," says Mary Leber, president of Kneipp USA in New York. "More people want natural products that don't have all the chemicals and additives."

Natural health remedies are something that Linda Wolfe and her husband, Tom, an herbalist who belongs to the American Herbalists Guild and teaches at Georgetown University's School of Medicine, have long promoted. For 32 years, the couple have built a large, loyal clientele at their Smile Herb Shop in College Park.

The colorful establishment, housed in a Victorian-era house with an on-site garden and a greenhouse, is a treasure trove of natural health products, such as raw honey, massage oils and some 250 herbs and flowers, the latter including dried pink rosebuds and bright-orange calendula.

The shop's stock also includes jasmine, a tonic for women and cooling nutritive herb; elder flowers to help with cold and flu prevention; hops, a sedative and sleep aid; and lavender, excellent for stress relief. Then there's St. John's wort for emotional balance. Red clover reportedly supports healthy lymphatic function. The list goes on.

"We're like an old-time apothecary," Wolfe says. "We're one of the few places in the Mid-Atlantic where you can buy loose herbs and flowers. All of the herbs are organically grown and/or ethically wild-crafted."

Wolfe says the shop's customers range from students to elderly patrons on fixed incomes. Some have turned to cheaper herbal remedies because they lack health insurance.

"We also have many people who come in with old family recipes, especially our African-American clientele," she says. "They may want to make a special tea, and it might take just 2 ounces of dried flowers or so."

Flower essences are regulated by the FDA and classified as over-the-counter substances. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, publishes a fact sheet that notes that while most flowers are safe, some are poisonous when ingested.

Dr. Brian Sanderoff, a holistic pharmacist, speaks throughout the United States about the clinical use of herbs and nutrition, and hosts a talk-radio program about alternative and complementary medicine on WCBM 680 AM. He notes the benefits of many flowers - but with caution.

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