Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)
Parts used: Rhizomes and roots
Benefits: Wild yam is a primary source of material for steroid production and also serves as a hormone precursor, thereby aiding the proper function of the reproductive system of both sexes. Although sometimes wild yam is listed as a natural birth-control agent, it’s more often used to promote fertility and treat all aspects of menstrual dysfunction. The roots and rhizomes contain bitter compounds that help tone the liver and increase bile flow. Wild yam is also useful for liver congestion and inflammation. It’s especially indicated for those who store excess heat in their bodies or who have high blood pressure. Additionally, wild yam is a nervine and antispasmodic and is excellent for soothing muscle cramps, colic, and uterine pain.
Suggested uses: Wild yam can be made into teas, tinctures, and capsules. It is bitter and not often prepared by itself as a tea, though it is tolerable when blended with other herbs.
At-risk warning: Native populations of wild yam are under siege, and some varieties are highlighted on the United Plant Savers “at risk” list. Use only cultivated varieties of wild yam.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Parts used: Roots
Benefits and uses: Valerian is a commonly used herb and is a shining example of why we need to consider plant energetics and individual constitutions as opposed to the “this herb for this condition” mentality. But before we talk about herbal energetics let’s learn a little about this aromatic plant. Valerian grows readily in gardens and in the wilderness of North America. If you’ve ever been around fresh valerian roots you’ll probably never forget that smell. Some despise it, likening it to gym socks that haven’t been washed in months. Others, like myself, adore the smell, pungent and vibrant. Thesmell of the roots can be a first step in matching this plant to a particular person. Many herbalists agree: if you don’t like the smell, this plant probably isn’t for you.
Valerian is used extensively for nervousness, insomnia, and muscle spasms, including menstrual cramping. Valerian, however, is not a plant well suited to all people. Rather than relieving nervousness, anxiety, and promoting restful sleep, valerian has been known to stimulate and increase hyperactivity in certain persons. Michael Moore, in his book Plants of the Pacific Northwest, gives a detailed description of who this plant works best for, and who it doesn’t work for. He explains that because of its tendency to stimulate digestion, lungs, and heart function, it can have adverse effects on people who do not need these systems stimulated.
In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood gives indications for valerian as cold pallid skin, anemic, and nervous. Lesley Tierra sums it up simply in her book Healing with the Herbs of Life: valerian is a distinctly warming herb, great for those people who suffer from nervousness, insomnia, and muscle spasms due to a cold condition. Valerian is a great herb to promote restful sleeping and does not produce a long list of symptoms common to prescription sedatives. It’s relaxing, yet allows for REM sleep and leaves you feeling refreshed in the morning without grogginess. Of course the effectiveness of valerian, as with all plants, is dependent on the herb matching the person, rather than the condition.
Keep a fresh root tincture of valerian at your bedside for those nights when you can’t seem to keep your mind from racing to a thousand different thoughts.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Parts used: Leaves and flowers
Benefits: Contrary to what its name implies, passionflower is a calming, relaxing herb. It has a long history of use in its native range in South America, where it is used to treat epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks. An effective but gentle herb, passionflower can be used for hyperactive children as well as adults. It has some analgesic effects and is effective as a pain reliever for toothaches, headaches and menstrual pain. It has strong anti-spasmodic actions, which make it useful for cramps and spastic/convulsive muscles. The plant is well known for its sleep-inducing properties and is often combined with valerian for this purpose. It is one of the best herbs for stress, anxiety and depression and can be effective combined with St. John’s Wort.
Suggested uses: Brew the leaves and flowers as an infusion and drink throughout the day. Use a tincture at bedtime to promote deep, restful sleep.