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Consumer Reports

The power of herbs, home remedies | (KRT) NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Weeds such as winter's annual chickweed deserve far more respect and use than they get.

Just ask Mary Black.

She soothes ear infections or pinkeye with a poultice made from chickweed and two wild-growing, flowering plants known as goldenseal and eyebright.

But you need to know what you're doing.

"Unfortunately, most people don't realize that using plants as medicine also has side affects and is much more time consuming, if done properly, than the pill the doctor prescribes," says Black.

She began researching the history of herbs when she came to Williamsburg 10 years ago and started working with the Powell and Gaol kitchen gardens in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. That research motivated her to write a book on the American history of home medicine, a project she hopes to finish in the near future.

Her infatuation with herbs goes back to 1972 when she lived next door to an herbalist in California. Black raised goats, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, dogs and cats. Needless to say, her vet bills were high, so she learned how to treat her animals' medical needs and even give them shots.

"I started using my neighbor's remedi, and I found most were just as effective, but all were more time consuming," she says. She also began raising her own plants for medicinal needs.

"It has been an ongoing learning process for the last 30 years."

Most of her research comes from rare books available in a few libraries such as the British Library in London and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, she says. One of her favorite more modern books is "The Complete Herb Book" by Maggie Stuckey.

"Although there are many books on herbs, not one compares accurately to the herbal medicine from the Greeks to the modern revival," she says.

"Of course, my main focus is the 18th century, but I do trace the history of plant use for medicine back to Pliny and, of course, Hippocrates."

Black repeatedly warns that using herbs can be dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. Before using herbs medicinally, she recommends consulting with a doctor who is open to alternative medicine. She once met a young pregnant woman who took goldenseal for the flu without consulting her physician. The woman did not know that goldenseal is an emmenagogue oil that stimulates the flow of menstrual blood, and she had a miscarriage.

You also need to realize that herbs are not the cure for anything and everything. A healthy diet must be included with any treatment, she says. Many times a cleansing diet of fruits and vegetable broth is beneficial with any herbal treatment.

"This means changing your lifestyle, not just getting a shot or pill," she says.

The safest way to enjoy herbs is to grow lots of them in your garden, she advises. She recommends rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, lemon balm, spearmint, pennyroyal and peppermint as beneficial and enjoyable plants.

In return, you will have fewer flies, gnats, mosquitoes and insects harmful to other plants in your garden. And plants are excellent sources for making your own shampoos, conditioners and lotions.

"I want people to become aware of the wonderful uses of plants and their history, but I also want them to realize that it's not an easy solution and not something to be treated lightly," she says.

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