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Five Incredible Herbs You've Probably Never Heard Of

The herbal dark ages are over! Some herbalists refer to the period from the 1920s to the 1960s as the “herbal dark ages” because their use all but disappeared in our modern society. Since then, of course, their use has flourished. The names of many herbs have become household words once again; St. John’s Wort, ginger and gingko are herbs that most people are aware of and can name at least one medicinal property of each. Gingko even has its own joke to remind us of its use—”I read an article about this great herb to improve memory but I can’t remember the name of it!” Still, however, herbs are not revered the way they once were before the advent of allopathic medicine and when most Americans still worked closely with the land. Since July is herb month, I’d like to write about some lesser-known medicinal herbs with phenomenal properties, in hopes that one day these herbs will enter into our vernacular and that the plant kingdom will once again be the first place we look to for medicine to heal ourselves. This information is by no means comprehensive; always do your own research and always consult your health care professional before you begin taking a new herb. Many herbs have precautions that are as important to know as are their beneficial aspects.


Andrographis is a medicinal herb that has been used for centuries in Asia yet still remains relatively unrecognized in the United States. According to Prescription for Herbal Healing by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC, “[Andrographis] has been used for centuries to treat upper respiratory infections, fever, herpes, sore throat, and a variety of other chronic and infectious diseases. In Scandinavian countries, it is commonly used to prevent and treat the common cold.” In addition, Balch describes this herb as being beneficial for hepatitis, liver and gallbladder problems. “The primary active ingredient in andrographis, andrographolide, increases bile flow....It was found to be more potent than silymarin (active ingredient in milk thistle), which is used clinically as a hepatoprotective (liver-protective) agent. Also, the andrographolides present in andrographis are potent stimulators of gallbladder function, therefore reducing the probability of gallstone formation,” she states. Finally, Balch describes a number of studies on the effects of andrographis on cancer cells that showed promising results.

Cat’s claw

An herbal gift of the Earth native to Central and South America, cat’s claw is gaining popularity in Europe and the U.S. because of its multitude of uses. Cat’s claw is a vine with “claws” it uses to climb up trees, sometimes reaching lengths of 100 feet. According to the National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson, “In modern herbal medicine, cat’s claw is usually taken to boost the immune system. It is also taken for arthritis, rheumatism, all kinds of inflammation, gastritis, ulcers, neuralgias, intestinal problems, viral diseases like shingles, and as a complement to cancer treatments.” Leslie Taylor, ND, lists in her book The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs the following additional properties of cat’s claw: “cleanses the bowel, fights free radicals, relieves pain, kills viruses, detoxifies, cleanses blood, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, and decreases depression.” Many books recommend taking the herb with a little acidic juice in water (lemon or orange) to help break down the beneficial compounds of cat’s claw during digestion.

Two species of cat’s claw exist—Unicaria tomentosa and U. guianensis. Taylor writes that, “U. tomentosa has declined in the Peruvian rainforest because of overharvesting in the last five to eight years.” Apparently U. tomentosa is sought after due to a more effective ratio of immunity-stimulating alkaloids. Ethically harvested cat’s claw bark is often a valuable source of income for many Brazilian and Peruvian villages; therefore it is important to purchase only ethically harvested bark not only to guarantee the health of the species, but also to ensure that native populations of these countries will be able to rely on this source of revenue in the future.

Devil’s club

Devil’s club (not to be confused with Devil’s claw which has different uses) is a little-known herb with a variety of beneficial aspects. “Devil’s club is a close cousin of ginseng that is native to the Pacific Northwest. The thorny plant has a long history of medicinal use among Native American peoples, particularly the Tlingit, Skagit and Kwaikiutil. It is so widely used for such a variety of complaints that it is sometimes referred to as the Tlingit aspirin,” states mountainroseherbs.com. According to the Therapeutic Herb Manual by Ed Smith, its uses include arthritis and rheumatism. fevers, colds, flu and coughs. hangover, stomach ailments, swollen glands and the regulation menses after childbirth. Overall, Smith describes devil’s club as a “rejuvenating tonic that enhances physical endurance, stamina and overall good health, and optimizes longevity.” Please be aware that in larger doses this herb has mild laxative effects. A liquid extract of the dried root bark is an easy-to-use form of this herb. Although Smith states that devil’s club is a popular Native American folk remedy for diabetes, you should consult your health care professional before using the herb if you have diabetes.


Grindelia can be found growing in southwestern North America, growing by the coast in sunny well-drained areas. A liquid extract of the dried flowers and leaf are used for a multitude of purposes. Smith lists the following uses for grindelia: “harsh, dry, unproductive coughs with wheezing and constricted chest, asthmatic wheezing, bronchitis and sore bronchi...specific for swollen and congested spleen. Topically to treat wounds, indolent ulcers, impetigo, eczema, allergic dermatitis and poison ivy and poison oak.” Overall, Smith states that grindelia is “antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and vulnerary [promotes healing of wounds].” In other words, a tincture of this herb would be valuable as an addition to any camping first aid kit for treatment of mild scrapes or poison ivy rashes resulting from you insisting on walking barefoot through the woods to the beach.


Shatavari, or Indian Asparagus root, has been used medicinally since ancient times in India. According to the book Adaptogens by David Winston and Steven Maimes, “Shatavari first is mentioned in two ancient religious texts, the Rig Veda and the Atharvaveda. It was noted as a powerful rasayana (revitalizing and restorative herb) that enhances physical strength, maintains youthfulness, and improves memory and intelligence. The word Shatavari literally translates as ‘she who has hundreds of husbands.’” In ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, shatavari remains a revered female reproductive tonic. Winston and Maimes also write that, “Several animal studies have indicated that [shatavari] may inhibit breast cancer and stimulate increased immune system response.” In addition, Smith describes shatavari as being liver-protective, a remedy for deficient lactation, PMS and menstrual cramping, helpful for diminished libido in women and deficient fertility in women and men, and a general tonic during menopause. All of those uses, plus more that I still wasn’t able to fit in this article!

When I take a medicinal herb, I think of all the ways the plant is going to help me feel stronger, live more fully and make good use of my time on this planet. I thank the plant and the Earth for all of its healing gifts. The next time you are walking through the woods, take a moment to thank the plants for sustaining us. Without them, we would be nothing—literally! They are truly great friends to have.