Originally presented as a paper at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine
An Intuitive Study of
Gnaphalium obtusifolium L.
Sweet Everlasting, Cudweed, Old Field Balsam, Sweet White Balsam,
Indian Posy, Life of Man, Poverty Weed, Fussy Gussy
Matthew Wood MS (Herbal Medicine)
Registered Herbalist (AHG)
The isolated biologically active molecule is the basis for the definition of the properties of a drug in biomedicine.
The association of a particular molecular structure with an identifiable function in the body is the basis of the ‘structure/function’ claim which a drug is entitled to bear.
By comparison, in herbalism the whole plant is used. Thus, the medicinal properties of the plant need to be defined in terms of the action of the whole. This requires different methods of analysis and different standards of definition.
These have not yet been settled upon by herbalists. For instance, do we define the medicinal properties of the plant by its major medicinal constituents or as a whole entity containing those constituent parts?
This touches upon the issue of reductionism versus holism.
Herbalists as individuals and as a community can make the choice whether they want to define medicinal plants according to the reductionist approach of biomedicine, the holistic approach of natural medicine, or both. The following paper represents a study of a medicinal plant according to the holistic approach, so that the emphasis is placed upon understanding the plant as a whole entity, containing constituents, rather than as a group of constituent parts.
An intuitive method is used, since the intuition comprehends patterns that unite separate phenomena into a whole.
The results of intuitive research are checked against historical usage, pharmacology, and clinical experience. The paper therefore suggests methods and definitions through which the understanding of the whole plant as a medicinal agent can be developed.
In addition, it provides a demonstration of how an herbalist (the author) enlarged his understanding of the medicinal properties of an herb, (Rabbit Tobacco, Gnaphalium obtusifolium L.), from reputation only to active use.
The usual approach in science is reductionistic, i.e., the whole is reduced to its parts. The part can isolated, quantified, and its action tested. Thus, biomedicine would study the active ingredients in order to understand the action of the whole plant. In holistic medicine, on the other hand, the greatest value is placed on understanding and treating the whole organism. Likewise, it is supposed that the whole medicinal substance, say the plant, is superior to the fragmented parts the constitute the whole plant.
Methods of Study
1. The whole plant can be treated like a ‘personality.’ In order to understand the whole plant, rather than the isolated ingredient, we first of all need to be able to visualize that the separate constituents of the plant are united together into a whole and that this whole can have attributes. In other words, the plant is not just a slurry of different chemicals, but possesses an inherent wholeness that unites these diverse ingredients into a single, operative entity.
We are not used to thinking of plants like this. We do not think of them as being individual entities with specific traits. This makes it sound too much like the plant has or is a ‘personality.’ This, however, is exactly what we need to learn. The plant is not a bundle of separate chemicals, but is an intelligent being the directs all of these constituents in an integrated, self-maintaining, self-healing fashion. The separate parts are bound together by an entity-like core, and this, as director of the parts, has characteristic habits and expressions, just like a personality.
Now we are really speaking of the plant species as an untity, rather than the individual plant, because each individual reacts much the same as other members of the same the species. All have the same genetic programming. Thus, the ‘personality’ that the species has is not so much like the personality of a separate human or dog, for instance, but the personality of the entire species.
We really have to posit the existence of ‘personality’ in all lifeforms because they unite separate components into a whole entity that reacts to external stimulation in a characteristic fashion. A bunch of chemicals by themselves could not navigate the many threats posed by evolution and natural selection; rather it is the intelligence of the specific life form that reacts to environmental stress. This underlying personality in turn reflects the medicinal properties of the whole plant because it contains them and uses them altogether, in concert, for its own survival.
2. Studying personality via the intuition. In order to understand a plant in such a way it is necessary to draw upon a wide range of resources than the material alone. We might think of how we do this in regard to analyzing humans. Some are more hidden and some are more readily displayed. Some, like George Washington, Adolf Hitler, or Leonardo da Vinci, remain to some extent hidden, unknown, and inexplicable, while others, like Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, or Winston Churchill, seem almost to have poured themselves out, to the last drop, and left very little in hiding. It is through their actions and appearance that we understand such people, not their chemistry, and it is the same with the medicinal powers of plants. In using them we gain experience and insight. Additional information is supplied by their taste, smell, touch, and appearance. The natural history, stages of growth, and environmental niche supply additional knowledge. Chemical constituents contribute to our understanding, but they are not the basis for a well-rounded knowledge of either the medicinal properties, or the personality of the plant.
Undoubtedly we run a risk of anthropomorphizing our sense of plant identity, just as we tend to project our own characteristics on the people we study. Our knowledge is imperfect – this must be freely admitted – but how much less perfect is it when the plant is merely viewed as a bunch of chemicals independent of any guiding intelligence, overall purpose, or – for lack of a better word – personality? If the scientist ignores the personality, because it is too subjective or does not leave material traces, then scientific knowledge is true within its own sphere, but incomplete from another perspective.
3. Plant properties and morphology. Among the old methods used to discern the essential nature of the plant is the doctrine of signatures. This is widely dismissed as child’s play in conventional science, but I find the doctrine to be particularly helpful. The signatum, if rightly understood, reflects the innate energy pattern or personality of the plant very closely. As Rudolf Steiner explains, the signature represents a bunching up of energy in resistance to external environmental stresses which, in a human being would cause a disease, but which in a plant causes adaptation resulting in a “distortion” or change of structure (Wilhelm Pelikan, 1997, 12). The signature thus represents the stress the plant has survived and also its healing property. Many regret the doctrine of signatures as an archaic survival of “magical thinking.” As a matter of fact we need to cultivate the poetic faculty or imagination to oftentimes see the signature and this is basis for true magical thought. We might just as well criticize such people for their “materialistic thought” but such arguments are circular.
Closely related to the doctrine of signatures are the physical properties of the plant, such as we find through our senses. The taste closely corresponds to the medicinal properties of the plant, a method used in traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western herbalism for millennia. These in turn often reflect the medicinal constituents located in the laboratory. For instance, flavonoids are usually associated with fruit acids and thus with the sour taste, a taste which we like in hot weather for its cooling capacities (lemonade, fruit, etc.)
As we analyze the properties and constituents of the plant we naturally find a need to express these properties in general terms. This gives rise to the doctrine of energetics. Thus, plants are divided into two categories, hot and cold, suited to the treatment of cold, stagnant, depressed conditions and hot, overexcited, irritated ones respectively. Further categories include damp and dry. Dampness may be further subdivide into damp flowing (which responds to astringents) and damp stagnation (which responds to alteratives). In the East another category, wind, represents spasm and tension. Energetic categories vary from culture to culture, but generally we have from two to six.
Another important area of insight comes to us through examination of the morphology and botanical kinship of a plant. Study of the morphology (shape) is closely related to the doctrine of signatures in some ways, but also more closely related to scientific interests. This method comes down to us through the work of J. W. Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, Joakim Bockemuhl, and Margaret Colquhoun. By understanding the shape of a plant through its different periods of growth, and in its different structures, as well as by relationship with its close kin, we can grasp its energy, personality, or essence.
The study of the relationship of a plant to its kin is also important because there may be a relationship between the medicinal constituents and properties in the plant and its close relatives. When there is not – when close relatives have highly different properties – this also is interesting.
3. Empirical knowledge. Finally we come to the scientific study of plant chemistry. We often find plant constituents listed in textbooks in a disorganized framework; in the plant of course they form a functional unit, each compound undertaking work necessary for plant survival. If we truly understand the energetics, taste, morphology, and signatures of a plant, we will begin to understand how these multiple constituents fall together into a meaningful whole, both for the plant and for the person who receives it as a medicine.
Our learning does not stop here, with the plant itself, but also includes the action of the plant on the human being. Often, indeed, it is not easy for us to understand the properties of a plant until it is “translated” into the human realm. This means that we interact with the plant in our mind, emotions, and body. The plant has an effect on all levels. Probably the most profound learning possible comes from actual communication with the plant, as an equal – it can tell us for what it is medicinal. We can also take the plant to produce physiological symptoms, as is done in a homeopathic proving. Finally, however, it is in the actual use of the plant in a clinical setting that our knowledge become galvanized. As we see the plant work, in more and more cases, we understand more deeply and multifacetedly its personality and properties.
Conventional evidence-based medicine disapproves of the use of case histories for learning about the action of drugs or herbs, but it is here that the story line is richest and we have the most to learn. Again, however, there is an argument between those who value the primal constituents of human nature – intuition, imagination, and instinct – and those who consider them unreliable. The argument is circular but, for myself, I choose to know the story of creation, in its large and small parts.
To illustrate these different methods of learning I have chosen a plant called sweet everlasting or rabbit tobacco in the United States. I chose this for two reasons, first because I came across a case history that indicated its use in a very hard to treat condition (congenital asthma) and second, because I knew it had an association with the spirit world in American Indian medicine (tobacco is used for communication with spirits). Very late in my study the relationship between these two facts became clear, at least in my mind, and that led me to feel that I did in fact have a well founded understanding of this plant.
I. Rabbit Tobacco
The everlastings are a group of plants known for the survival of their flowers in a dried, preserved state after the end of the growing season. The name is now applied generally to any plant which tends to be preserved in this way, but the original everlastings belonged to four closely related genii in the Asteraceae family: Gnaphalium, Anaphalis, Antennaria, and Helichrysum.
Dioscorides used the Greek word gnaphalon (“a lock of wool”) to describe a member of this group (or probably, several related species). The term gnaphalium was subsequently adopted to describe the various everlastings. By the present time most everlastings, including members of all four genera, have been known by this name at some time in their history. Changes in botanical nomenclature have separated them into four groups, but their kinship is apparent in appearance, popular names, and medicinal uses. If we look through the records of diverse times, cultures, and continents, we find general agreement in the use of the everlastings, except for one unusual member (Gnaphalium arenarium). In short, this wide group of plants needs to be studied as a whole to provide a context for the discussion of even one of its members.
One of the most outstanding of the everlastings is Gnaphalium obtusifolium L., or sweet everlasting. Not only is it an everlasting but it has a beautiful scent and (most remarkable of all), this smell is spontaneously emitted, from time to time, months and years after it was dried, due to changes in the moisture of the air or barometric pressure. Standing out in a field of sweet everlasting, when the first drops of rain fall, is quite an experience: ‘What’s that smell?’ Unlike the European everlastings, which were not widely used in folk and professional medicine, sweet everlasting is an important plant in the medicine of the Indian people of eastern North America.
Sweet everlasting is a prominent inhabitant of old sandy fields and meadows in eastern North America. It was well known to the Indian people and still carries the name rabbit tobacco as testimony to their idea of its place in the universe. It is said that Rabbit, while untangling himself from a thicket, first discovered the properties of this plant as a cure for cuts. It was widely used by the Indian people – as well as Euro-Americans – for this purpose. Another story explains that Rabbit uses sweet everlasting as a tobacco to communicate with Creator, just as humans have their own kinds of tobacco. It was – and still is – used in tobacco smoking mixes by some Indian people. Yet, because of certain properties, it is avoided in smoking mixtures by others.
Upon the discovery of the North American continent by explorers from Europe, various everlastings were recognized as cousins of the Old World everlastings. Specimens were first identified as Gnaphalium Americanum, but due to a glitch in communication it was not clear where in the Western hemisphere they originated. (The boat on which they arrived had been in both North and South America). However, G. Americanum became the technical name most commonly used by early writers on the American everlastings such as John Gerard (1597) of London, John Clayton (1687) of Virginia, and William Salmon (1710) of South Carolina and London. In 1756 Linneus gave this particular species the name G. obtusifolium, referring to the appearance of the blunt lower leaves, and this is the appellation under which it is known in botany today. Michaux attempted to make an end run around Linneus, calling it G. polycephalum in 1806. It appears under both names in nineteenth century medical literature but today the Linnean denomination is considered correct.
The English settlers recognized this new plant as a relative of their own cudweed, cottonweed, or everlasting, but because of its beautiful smell it was known, in distinction to the others, as sweet everlasting. Throughout its American range it is often associated with a cousin from which it needs to be distinguished, pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea L.) This plant has pearly white, unscented flowers, and overlaps in range. It tends to grow further to the north and west.
From its habitat in poor sandy and exhausted soils, rabbit tobacco also came to be known as ‘old field balsam’ and ‘poverty weed.’ Collected in bouquets as an everlasting gave rise to the name ‘Indian posy.’ The most poetic name is ‘fussy gussy,’ while the most mysterious is perhaps ‘life of man.’ The most spooky is ‘owl’s crown,’ since the owl is considered to be a messenger bringing tidings of death in American Indian medicine. It is also the chief predator of the rabbit. The following common names are collected by Timothy Coffey in The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers (1993, 260):
Balsam (N.Y.), Balsam-Weed, Chafeweed, Feather-Weed (N.Y.), Filed Balsam, Fragrant Life-Everlasting, Fuzzy-Guzzy (Ohio), Golden-Motherwort (N.C.), Indian-Posy (Long Island), Ladies’-Tobacco (Wis.), Life-Everlasting (New England, Ohio), Life-of-Man (N.H.), Moonshine (Vt.), None-So-Pretty, Old-Field Balsam (New England), Owl’s-Crown, Povery-Weed (Maine), Rabbit-Tobacco (Ga., Ky.), Sweet-Balsam, Sweet Life-Everlasting, White-Balsam.
It is remarkable that few of these names betray Old World origins, and that the most common British names, cudweed and cottonweed (Salmon, 1710), were completely unknown in the New World. Many settlers apparently saw this plant for the first time on the sandy coastal shores of eastern North America. The striking appearance stimulated their imagination to provide new names. However, Coffey tracked the name ‘chafeweed’ to William Turner (1551) and ‘golden-motherwort’ to John Gerard’s (1635) ‘golden mothwort.’ Coffey explains that the soft leaves of the British species were used to prevent chafing and, “mixed with fat, were given to cattle that had lost their cud.” Gerard explains that mothwort or mothweed repels moths. Coffey traces the name ‘feather weed ‘to the practice of the poor, in New York, who stuffed their mattresses with the plant when they couldn’t get goose down.
At the time when the English settlers first arrived in North America the European everlastings were widely appreciated by housewives in Britain for their decorative potential (Gerard, 1635, 642), but they were hardly used in medicine. “I have seen it used only in one place,” testified Nicholas Culpeper (1652, 45). However, as will be noted below, cudweed is still in use in English folk medicine today.
In North America, the use of sweet everlasting as an indoor bouquet or posy was a well established folk custom among early Anglo-American housewives. Peter Kalm (1751, 70) notes that “English ladies” (as opposed to German-, Dutch- or Swedish-American housewives) liked to pick the plant – stalk, leaf and flower – and put the bouquet in the house, about the windows or chimney. I carry on this practice myself: the occasional release of the beautiful scent at unexpected moments when there is some kind of atmospheric change makes it a special ingredient in the home. Rabbit tobacco was also used in the home by American Indians, though here it was used, not just for its smell, but for protection against ghosts and witchcraft (see Smith and Merring, below).
The popularity which rabbit tobacco achieved among the Anglo-American settlers as a medicine was probably due to Indian influence rather than European. Culpeper (1652) testifies that it was little used in England. The bestowal of new names also shows that Europe was probably not the origin of medical knowledge of this plant. By the time Constantine Rafinesque wrote in 1830, rabbit tobacco was well established as an American folk remedy for cuts, colds, asthma, diarrhea, and pain. It was used by lay healers and professional doctors. However, Gnaphalium never entered deeply into the medical tradition and today would be considered an obscure and seldom used medicinal agent by herbalists following the literary (as opposed to the folk) tradition. It remains something of a folk remedy in the American South and is sometimes used by Eastern Europeans searching for Gnaphalium uliginosum.
During the height of its popularity in the nineteenth century, Gnaphalium obtusifolium was given a homeopathic proving, i.e., it was given in repeated doses until it produced symptoms. These revolved mostly around muscular and skeletal issues, especially sciatica. Some of these symptoms were confirmed in practice, but due to its narrow scope Gnaphalium remained a remedy of little consequence in nineteenth century homeopathy and has largely passed into oblivion in contemporary homeopathy. The fact that the traditional folk medical uses of the plant were not brought out in the provings may be significant. A good sense for the plant was not developed in the homeopathic provings or clinical experience.
In the twentieth century the use of rabbit tobacco in herbal medicine and homeopathy declined significantly to the point where it must be considered mostly a local Southern folk remedy of sporadic application. I first learned about its efficacy in congenital asthma from a woman in Virginia. However, sweet everlasting is still available in Western herbal commerce and it is still well known among American Indian people.
II. Botany, History, and Traditional Uses
The Gnaphaliums are native throughout the world. In North America there are about 10 representatives, plus a close cousin, Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting). Another genus closely related to Gnaphalium, found in both the New and Old World, is Antennaria. In Europe there are also about a dozen Gnaphaliums, as well as a few Antennarias. Then there is a fourth genus, Helichrysum, only found in the Old World.
Table 1. Geographical distribution
Americas Both Eurasia
| \ / \ / |
Anaphalis Gnaphalium Antennaria Helichrysum
Gnaphalium obtusifolium is the most common representative of the everlasting clan in eastern North America and the most easily recognized, with its distinct, pleasant smell. It ranges from the Canadian maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, south to Florida, west to Texas and Wisconsin. It prefers poor, sandy soil, hence the name ‘old field balsam’ or ‘poverty weed.’ Equally as common, Anaphalis margaritacea ranges further north and west and not as far south.
North American Indian Medicine
Rabbit tobacco is widely used among the Southern Indians. The name is undeniably of American Indian origin. It is usually applied to Gnaphalium obtusifolium, but sometimes to Anaphalis margaritacea. J. T. Garret (2003, 91, 236), an Eastern Cherokee,uses the name rabbit tobacco for Gnaphalium obtusifolium, Anaphalis margaritacea, and Antennaria plantaginifolia.
Garret treats us to a Cherokee folk tale describing the origin of the name. Rabbit was caught in the underbrush one day and while freeing himself he got cut. There was some sweet everlasting growing nearby and he quickly discovered that the plant was curative for cuts. This story reflects a knowledge of the habitat in which rabbits like to hide and feed (thickets) and their weaknesses. Rabbit skin is very thin and delicate. If a rabbit is chased by a dog or predator the skin can tear and bleed.
This tale does not explain the association with tobacco so I asked my friend Sondra Boyd, R.N., Ph.D., of Erwinna, Pennsylvania, a Cherokee trained in medicine by both the Eastern and Western bands, why the plant was called ‘rabbit tobacco?’ She explained, “the old people noticed that the rabbits liked to gather where there was a lot of this plant growing, so they thought it must be their tobacco, their way of connecting to the Creator.”
In 1687 the Rev. John Clayton noted that the Indians of Virginia were “most famed for curing of wounds.” Among the diverse “very good wound-herbs” they utilized were “the Gnaphalium Americanum commonly known by the name white Plantain” (Erichsen-Brown, 1989, 403). The reputation of sweet everlasting as a wound remedy was reported by Peter Kalm (1751, 70). He learned of it from John Bartram, the noted botanist widely traveled in both Indian and colonial America along the eastern seaboard.
Mr. Bartram told me another use of this plant: a decoction of the flowers and stalks is used to bathe pained or bruised parts of the body, or they may be rubbed with the plant itself tied up in a thin cloth or bag.
Here we see the idea of the sweet everlasting pillow, which will be further encountered below.
James Mooney (1886, 325), who studied extensively among the Eastern Cherokee, wrote about the use of Gnaphalium decurrens, winged cudweed or winged life everlasting. This species, now known as G. viscosum, is identical to G. obtusifolium except that the leaves are stalkless. It is probable that the two were not differentiated by the Cherokees. He writes that it is “considered one of their most valuable medical plants.” The decoction is drunk for colds and it is used in the sweat lodge. As the next source notes, it is also diaphoretic.
Several books by modern Cherokee authors mention the use of rabbit tobacco. Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey, Cherokee Plants, and their uses – a 400 year history (1975, 51), identify rabbit tobacco as Gnaphalium obtusifolium and record the following uses:
Decoction for colds; use with carolina vetch [Vicia caroliniana] for rheumatism; sweat bath for various diseases; warm liquid is blow down through through joy-pye-weed stem for clogged throat (diphtheria); ingredient in medicine for local pains, muscular cramps, and twitching; chew for sore mouth or throat; smoke for asthma; cough syrup.
The use of rabbit tobacco for cramps and twitchings reminds us of rabbit, a twitchy critter.
We also find Gnaphalium obtusifolium to be a plant of importance among Indian people further west. Huron Smith (1923, 30) reports its use by the Menomini Indians of central and northern Wisconsin. Smith himself was knowledgable about the use of herbs (he often quotes the eclectic materia medica) and was a sympathetic interviewer, so his information is unusually good compared with some other ethnobotanists.
It is used separately, or mixed with gall from the beaver’s body, to make a smudge as a reviver. When one has fainted this is used to bring him back to consciousness again, the smoke being blown into his nostrils. Then again, when one in the family has died, his spirit or ghost is supposed to come back to trouble the living. Bad luck and nightmares will result to the family from the troublesome ghost. This smudge discourages and displeases the ghost which, after a fumigation of the premises with this smudge, leaves and never returns.
Smith clearly sees the relationship between getting the soul of the conscious person back, and getting rid of the unwanted spirit haunting the house. The use of Gnaphalium, to correct problems arising at the border between life and death will be further described below. Smith continues, “burning of these herbs gives off a peculiar characteristic odor, reminding one of the smell of [slippery] elm bark, dried medick flowers, and colts foot herb.” (This shows Smith’s depth of knowledge about herbal medicines; even most herbalists could not characterize or describe the smell produced by burning any of these plants). Smith also notes that it is “a very important sorcerer’s medicine.” Smith (1928, 214) also found that the Meskwaki Indians, formerly of southern Wisconsin, now living in central Iowa, also used Gnaphalium obtusifolium as a smudge to awaken from unconsciousness.
My friend Paul Red Elk, who was raised by his grandfather and grandmother, traditional practicing herbalists on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, communicated his grandfather’s opinions about rabbit tobacco. He hesitated during his description, saying, “there aren’t any words in English for this, so I have to remember how to say it in Lakota first.” He went on to explain that rabbit tobacco is a plant that “walks the borderline” between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is helpful when the dead have been cut off from the living and have something they want to share or say, but it has potentially unpleasant side-effects and applications, so it has to be used with caution.
Sweet everlasting points out its use as a “walker between worlds” because it does not really die in the fall, but continues to live and communicate even after it has wilted away. The dried flowers are picked in the fall and, because the life still remains in them, Grandpa Red Elk would not allow them to be taken inside the house for another six months. The association with the dead and the afterlife is suggested in the name owl’s crown. In American Indian folk lore the owl is often considered a very unwelcome guest around households because it is taken as a sign that someone is going to die. It is sometimes also associated with sorcerors. The owl is also a major predator of the rabbit.
Paul Red Elk’s grandfather also warned him that rabbit tobacco picks up the psychic impression of people around it, whether good or bad, and can carry it for many years. This is true of a picked clump or a stand of the plants in a field. Therefore, one has to be careful with both the wild and the picked plants, to make sure they are not carrying something unhealthy with them.
Although Paul Red Elk was unwilling to use sweet everlasting as a tobacco, another native American friend of mine had no such compunctions.
As we move West we find that Anaphalis margaritacea or pearly everlasting is more often cited by Indian medicine practitioners, since it is available out onto the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Huron Smith (1932, 362) found that the Flambeau Ojibwe of northwestern Wisconsin, living outside the range of sweet everlasting, used pearly everlasting flowers on a fire to revive a person paralyzed from a stroke. The Minnesota Ojibwe likewise used pearly everlasting combined with wild mint in a decoction, sprinkled on hot stones, as a medicine to revive from paralysis. The Forest Pottawatomi (Smith, 1933, 48, 117), scattered across northern Wisconsin, used the same as a smudge and tobacco “to drive or keep evil spirits out of the room, which might prevent a patient from recovering.” It was used as a “witch charm to drive or keep evil spirits out of the house. The top is dried and placed upon a pan of live coals because it is supposed to hurt the eyes of the evil spirits and cause them to stay away from the house.” In 1950 the Walpole Chippewa of southern Ontario, according to George Merring, used sweet everlasting as a smudge, burning the dried plant to protect the house from witches (Erichsen-Brown, 1989, 405).
American Folk Medicine
As mentioned above, rabbit tobacco was one of the most important plants in the Cherokee pharmacopoeia. By contrast, the English cudweed was but little used. Thus, it seems likely that the use of Gnaphalium owes more to the American Indian than the European materia medica. Very few people were in a position to compare the two plants, though one person who does so was the English herbalist William Salmon (1709, 262). He notes that when he was in America he found “cudweed” “growing naturally in some of the Southern parts of Carolina.” That would be about 1665. He attributes to it the same properties as the English cudweed (Antennaria dioeca). “They are peculiar against Catarrhs, Fluxes of the Bowels, Profusions of Blood in any Part, and the Quinsy.” However, we conclude that it was the reputation of the plant derived from Indian practice that lead to its widespread application in the British colonies. This was certainly the impression of the nineteenth century physicians who stood closer to the folk tradition than we ourselves. Nevertheless, the point has to be made that English cudweed was used on almost the exact same indications as rabbit tobacco.
Charles Millspaugh (1892, 89) gives the following synopsis of the medicinal history of Gnaphalium obtusifolium. “The Everlastings formed part of aboriginal medication, and from there they descended to the white settlers, who, in conjunction with the more or less botanic physicians, used them about as follows. The herb, as a masticatory, has always been a popular remedy, on account of its astringent properties, in ulceration of the mouth and fauces and for quinsy. A hot decoction proves pectoral and somewhat anodyne, as well as sudorific in early stages of fevers. A cold infusion has been much used in diarrhea, dysentery, and hemorrhage of the bowels, and is somewhat vermifugal; it is also recommended in leucorrhea. The fresh juice is considered anti-venereal. Hot fomentations of the herb have been used like Arnica for sprains and bruises, and form a good vulnerary for painful tumors, and unhealthy ulcers. The dried flowers are recommended as a quieting filling for the pillows of consumptives.” (The uses given by Millspaugh reflect his sources rather than his own experience). Rabbit tobacco was also used as a medicine in the Afro-American community, according to Dr. W. McGeorge (John H. Clarke, 1900, I:805).
The first detailed report on the folk medical uses of the everlastings comes from Constantine Rafinesque (1830, 224), professor of botany at Transylvania College, in Kentucky. He uses the names Gnaphalium margaritacea, cudweed, silver leaf and none so pretty. These probably refers to pearly everlasting, but Rafinesque notes that “many other sp. of the genus are equivalent.” He records the use of these plants on the frontier as an anodyne and pectoral, in colds, coughs and pains in the breast. They are mild astringents and vermifuges, used in dysentery and hemorrhage, in powder or decoction. Externally they are applied to tumors, contusions and sprains as a wash. They are given in a disease of sheep. [Salmon mentions a disease of hogs]. Finally, they are “one of the good substitutes for tobacco in smoking.”
In the twentieth century the use of the everlastings in folk medicine largely died out. One of the few herbalists in the literature I have been able to find who regularly used rabbit tobacco in the late twentieth century was Tommie Bass, a folk practitioner located on Shinbone Ridge in northern Georgia (Crellin and Philpott, 1990, 2:365-66). He used rabbit tobacco quite a bit, especially as an ingredient in his favorite cough syrup, a recipe for which is given below. Bass didn’t know why it was called rabbit tobacco since, as he observes, rabbits won’t eat it. He notes that people formerly used to smoke it. He lists the following uses, which are fairly standard in folk medicine: induces sleep, one of the most valuable plants in migraine, sinus trouble, cough, asthma, and stomach problems (to increase appetite).
Bass made a cough syrup that included rabbit tobacco that was very popular with his customers. He mentions it five times, giving five different formulations, but the basic compound seemed to be: boneset, wild cherry, sweet gum bark, mullein and rabbit tobacco. His formulation for commerce added yellow root, redshank (red root) and sumach leaf (Ibid., 106, 151, 308, 365, 419).
Tommie Bass’s Cough Syrup
boneset equal parts
wild cherry bark
sweet gum bark
Homeopathic Provings and Clinical Use
Dr. Edwin M. Hale was the nineteenth century homeopath most responsible for the introduction of many widely used American herbal medicines into homeopathy. His writings show him to be well acquainted with the folk medical uses and the literature of botanical medicine. Unfortunately, he does not give an extensive account of the “many-headed Everlasting,” which he calls Gnaphalium polycephalum – remember, this is another name for G. obtusifolium. However, Hale does give a history of its use in homeopathy, the major symptoms derived from its proving, and the symptoms confirmed in practice.
Hale (1875, 2:271) writes, “this many-headed Everlasting was first introduced into our practice by Dr. Woodbury and others of Boston. Its sphere of action appears to include certain nerves of the face and lower extremities,and the mucous membrane of the bowels. The provings show it to cause an intermittent neuralgia of the superior maxillary nerve of both sides, and an occipital headache, with shooting pains in the eyeballs. Dr. Banks, selecting the remedy from its symptoms, “intense pain along the sciatic nerve, following the larger ramifications,” cured several cases of sciatica; and Dr. Woodbury has lately reported a case cured. By reference to the provings, you will see that the pain is attended by cramps of the calves and feet, and a numbness which takes the place of the pain, at times.
“It has been used successfully in colic, evidently flatulent; in morning diarrhea of dark-colored, liquid, offensive stool in children; also in cholera morbus and cholera infantum, with the symptoms recording in the pathogenesis. It seems to faintly resemble Colocynth and Veratrum album.”
In 1885, Dr. W. McGeorge added some clinical observations and case histories. The proving produced the symptom of “weight and fulness in the pelvis.” He used Gnaphalium successfully to treat the symptom “dysmenorrhea when the menses are scanty and very painful the first day.” He also cured a severely aggravated case of sciatica on the left side that had resulted from a strain. The leg was cramped and drawn up, worse in cold and damp weather (Clarke, 1900, I:829).
In 1888, Dr. George Shelton contributed two case histories of sciatica treated with Gnaphalium 1x (10% dilution). The first was a clergyman, aged 27, who had sharp cutting pains, starting from the inner side of the right thigh, just below Poupart’s ligament, extending down the course of the anterior crural nerve to a point about its lower third. The pains were paroxysmal, coming on when walking, occasionally while lying down. He’d had one or two attacks in the pulpit. In several instances the pan extended down the right cord into the testicle and caused him to draw up the leg, flexing the thigh on the abdomen. A few doses of Gnaphalium 1x cured him completely.
The second case was a widow, aged 68, who had severe pains in the outer side of the right thigh for six years, during part of which time she had been confined to bed. The pains were paroxysmal, cutting, tearing, extending down the course of the sciatic nerve. Attacks were worse at night and more frequent, causing her to roll about the bed and cry out with the pain. After unsuccessful allopathic and homeopathic treatment Gnaphalium 1x was given with gradual improvement. In eight weeks the cure was complete (Ibid., 1900, I:830).
Dr. J. H. Clarke (Ibid., 1900, I:830) says with Gnaphalium 30x he cured several cases of sciatica in which numbness alternated with pain. This would resemble the “paroxysmal” attacks mentioned above, i.e., coming in paroxysms or waves. “One was in a very gouty man, the alternation of numbness and pain being present.”
Dr. Edwin Hale gives a list of symptoms produced in the homeopathic provings. I have selected what I thought were the most promising from the list. William Boericke (1927, 307), fifty years later, includes the more proven and characteristic symptoms, but does not add many new ones. Note that asthmatic and respiratory symptoms, so important in traditional literature in both North America and Europe, were not produced by the provings, except for the suggestion of maxillary sinus problems.
Dull, heavy expression of countenance; face appears bloated.
Fullness about the temples.
Neuralgic pain, of a intermittent form, of the superior maxillary of both sides.
Mouth feels parched.
Tongue covered with long white fur.
Flatus of the stomach, windy eructations, nausea and hiccough.Colic pains in various parts of the abdomen, which is sensitive to pressure (confirmed).
Vomiting and purging, like cholera morbus (confirmed).
Borborygmus (abdominal bloating), with much emission of flatus.
Diarrhea, with irritable temper; pains in the bowels of children(confirmed).
Constipation for three days after the diarrhea.
Fullness and tension in the bladder.
Pain in the kidneys.
Irritation of the prostate (confirmed).
Increases sexual desire.
Dysmenorrhea; menses scanty and painful the first day; weight and
fullness in the pelvis (McGeorge).
Debility and rheumatic pains in arms.
Chronic backache in lumbar region.
Lumbago; pain and numbness.
Intense pain along the sciatic nerve (confirmed, Shelton).
Frequent cramps of the calves of the legs.
Cramps of the feet when in bed.
Rheumatic pains in the knee and ankle joints.
Gout (Clarke, Boericke).
Pains alternating with numbness (confirmed, Clarke).
The increase in sexual desire confirms a folk medical usage for impotence.
European Folk Medicine
The European Gnaphaliums suffer from as much or more nomenclatural confusion than the American. In addition to being mixed up with the Antennarias, they are also crisscrossed with the Helichrysums. And like their American cousins, they are not generally used in professional, or even folk medicine. An exception to all this bother is the marsh everlasting, Gnaphalium uliginosum L., which has always held a place of high regard in Russian folk and professional medicine. It has also been markedly free of nomenclatural confusion.
The second member of this family that figures in medicine is Gnaphalium dioecum L., also called Antennaria dioeca Gaertner. This is the only member of the entire everlasting clan native to England, where it is called cottonweed, petty cotton, cudweed, and cat’s foot. This seems to be the original “gnaphalon” of Dioscorides, or at any rate was used in its place by the Renaissance herbalists. Thus, it has a long, but not very extensive, history of medicinal use.
A third member of the clan sometimes applied as a medicine is Gnaphalium arenarium, also classified as Helichrysum arenarium. It is native to Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, as far east as Japan. In Russia both this plant and Gnaphalium uliginosum are known as “the immortalizer,” but today it is more generally known as “strawflower.” This plant is also used for diarrhea, like most all of the members of the greater everlasting clan. However, the modus operandi seems to be somewhat different – strawflower is a bitter that stimulates the liver and gall bladder, while the other everlastings are more widely used as astringents.
The fourth member of the family used in medicine is Gnaphalium stoechas L., now denominated Helichrysum stoechas. The distilled oil is an essential article in aromatherapy. It is known either as helichrysum or immortelle. Interestingly, it is used in a manner similar to the other everlastings.
A short review of the medicinal history each of these four plants would help keep them straight.
Gnaphalium dioecum L., Antennaria dioeca Gaertner
Dioscorides (III:132) describes a plant called “gnaphalon” in the third book of his Materia Medica. He recommends it administered in sour wine, i.e., vinegar, as a remedy for dysentery. His contemporary, Plinius, recommended it for quinsy or tonsillitis. A peculiarity of Plinius’ writing style is hyperbole, so he adds that those cured of this complaint with gnaphalon do not get it again. That sounds like a tall tale, but one thing that struck me about Phyllis Hensley’s story was the lack of relapse into asthma, which is such a common occurrence.
The Renaissance herbalists identified gnaphalon with Antennaria dioeca, though the ancients probably used another of plants interchangeably. Matthioli recommends “Ruhrkrautz” for the pain of tonsillitis while Dodoens gives it for diarrhea and other kinds of flux, and for sores in the lungs. We can certainly see the dependence on the old authorities. William Turner (1551, 1, 124) identified this plant with the cudweed in Yorkshire and the chafweed in Northumberland. He recommends it for the bloody flux, menstrual bleeding and running sores.
The herbal of the Dutchman Rembrandt Dodoens formed the core of John Gerard’s Great Herbal (1597); in fact the latter is considered to have been guilty of plagiarism to a certain degree through his unattributed use of this source. However, when it comes to his account of cudweed, Gerard (1633, 644) does not follow the received tradition at all. Rather, his observations seem to reflect folk tradition:
Gnaphalium boyled in strong lee cleanseth the haire from nits and lice: also the herbe being laid in ward-robes and presses keepeth apparell from moths.
The same boyled in wine and drunken, killeth wormes and bringeth them fourth, and prevaileth against the bitings and stingings of venomous beasts.
The fume or smoke of the herbe dried, and taken with a funnell, being burned therin, and receiued in such manner as we vse to take the sume of Tabaco, that is, with a crooked pipe made for the same purpose by the Potter, preuaileth against the cough of the lungs, the great ache or paine of the head, and clenseth the brest and inward parts.
Gerard also describes the use of the dried everlasting as a posy in the house. It may be kept for as long as a year in the house or a chest, “wherefore our English women haue called it Liue-long, or Liue for euer.”
Culpeper (1652, 44) assigns cudweed to our lady Venus, then launches into an account based on conventional literature. He is rather comprehensive in rounding up the received tradition:
The plants are all astringent, or dry and binding, and therefore profitable for defluxions of rheum from the head, and to stay fluxes of blood wheresoever. The decoction made into red wine and drunk, or the powder taken therein, also helpeth the blood flux, and easeth the torments that come thereby, stayeth the immoderate courses of women, and is also good for inward or outward wounds, hurts and bruises, and helpeth children both of burstings [hernia] and the worms, and the disease called tenesmus, (which is an often provocation to the stool, and doing nothing,) being either drunk or injected. The green leaves bruised and laid to any green wound, stayeth the bleeding, and healeth it up quickly; the decoction or juice thereof doth the same, and helpeth old and filthy ulcers quickly. The juice of the herb taken in wine and milk, is (as Pliny saith) a sovereign remedy against the mumps and quinsy; and further saith, that whosoever shall so take it shall never be troubled with that disease again.
This conventional account is followed by a personal observation and case history. Culpeper (1652, 44) grew up in Sussex, where he evidently observed the following:
I have seen it used only in one place. It is frequent in Charlton Forest, in Sussex, and was given with success for that almost incurable disease, the chin-cough. Beat it up into a conserve, very fine, with a deal of sugar, and let the bigness of a pea be eaten at a time.
‘Chin-cough’ is an old name for whooping cough. Here we again find cudweed used in the treatment of very irascible respiratory problem.
William Salmon (1710), one of the last of the Renaissance herbalists, gives the same basic information as Culpeper, less the case history. He defines the qualities of cudweed as temperate with regard to hot or cold, but dry (astringent) in the third degree.
Although Culpeper was little acquainted with the active use of cudweed, I am informed by Anita Ralph, medical herbalist (NIMH), living east of Sussex, in Kent, that cudweed is still used by local people as a remedy for difficult cases of throat infection. Thus we have an instance in which a folk tradition survived beneath the literary radar down to the present time.
The reputation of cudweed was barely kept alive in German professional medicine. The active ingredients of G. dioecum are considered to be tannins, aromatic oils, phytosterols, resins, and bitters (Pahlow, 1989, 192).
Gnaphalium uliginosum L.
Although little used elsewhere in Europe, Gnaphalium uliginosum holds a position of high regard in Russian folk and professional medicine. The chemical composition has been studied and will be referred to below. The Latin name derives from the noun uligo or uliginis, meaning wetness or dampness. This refers to the habitat where it grows. It is sometimes known as “marsh everlasting.”
Zevin (1996, 73) says that Gnaphalium uliginosum is named “the immortalizer” in folk tradition and has been used since the most ancient times. This contrasts with many other cultures and countries where it is little used, but resembles the North American Indian perspective. It was used in imperial Russia for centuries, most commonly for treating wounds, open sores, and stomach pain. Another common name, translated “toad’s head,” refers to the fact that it was used to treat quinsy or tonsillitis, known as “toad” in Russian folk medicine. The immortalizer maintained its reputation largely through the oral tradition, rather than in the printed herbals, but eventually attracted the attention of Russian doctors. Serious medical experimentation with Gnaphalium uliginosum was begun in the early 1930s and it was adopted into mainstream practice before World War II.
A poultice is used externally to stop bleeding. Alcohol or oil extract or infusion is used for wounds, old sores, chemical and thermal burns, dermatomycosis and weeping eczema. “An oil extract is reputed to prevent balding if rubbed into the scalp.” Infusions and decoctions are used for the treatment of stomach and duodenal ulcer, gastritis and diarrhea. It is used to stop internal bleeding in the intestines or uterus. Sores or abrasions of the uterus and vagina. Infusions are also used to treat nervous excitability, insomnia, headache, tonsillitis, asthma and diabetes. Infusions and foot baths of the decoction are used to treat incipient hypertension, stenocardia and heart palpitations. As described below, these conditions are specifically associated with a medical condition called “hypotonia” in Russian medicine.
The herb or aerial parts of the plant are used. They are collected in August, when the plant is in flower and dried in a shady place. The infusion is made from 1 cup (250 ml) of boiling water poured over 1 tablespoon (15 g) of the dried herb and steeped for ten minutes. The standard recommendation is 1 cup, 3 times a day.
The decoction is made by boiling 2 tablespoons (30g) of the dried herb in 1 cup (250 ml) of water for 15 minutes. Cool at room temperature for 45 minutes, strain and drink 1/2 cup, 3 times a day after meals. It may be taken for 1-2 months. The decoction is used as a foot bath to treat hypertension. Place 9 ounces (250g) of the herb in 1 1/4 gallons (5 liters) of water heated to 90-95ºF. Let stand for 30 minutes. Use as a foot bath once a day, a half an hour before bedtime.
Gnaphalium uliginosum is used for a condition known in European medicine as “hypotonia,” which is said to affect nearly half of all adults over fifty years of age in Russia. Zevin (1996, 193) explains, “in hypotonia, the muscular tension of the arteries relaxes, which can impair the flow of blood into the heart.” This condition is not recognized in modern American medicine, but was known as “passive venous congestion” in early twentieth American practice and was treated by astringents such as Aesculus hippocastanum and Collinsonia canadensis. Evidently, everlasting is here being used as an astringent and, like Helichrysum, a blood thinner. All formulae for hypotonia given by Zevin (1996, 196) include either Crataegus, a mild astringent, or Gnaphalium. The most simple formula is the following:
1 part cudweed
2 parts horsetail
1 part periwinkle
1 part yarrow
The Immortalizer is also mentioned in a formula for thrombophlebitis:
1 part yarrow flowers
4 parts everlasting flowers and leaves
2 parts birch leaves
2 parts chamomile flowers
A comparison of Gnaphalium uliginosum with G. obtusifolium shows that they have similar properties in the folk tradition – wound-healing, headache, asthma, digestive tract, diarrhea, and kidneys. The major difference is the use of the former in high blood pressure, hypotonia, and blood coagulation.
Gnaphalium arenarium L., Helichrysum arenarium G.
This plant, although a member of the greater everlasting tribe, has properties of a different nature from all the rest. It seems to be primarily a bitter which increases secretions from the gall bladder and bile to improve digestion. Ludwig Kroeber (1948, 211) says that under the common names strawflower and sand immortelle, and the botanical names Gnaphalium arenarium or Helichrysum arenarium, it is associated with chronic affections of the gallbladder, poor secretion of digestive juices and intestinal worms. Zevin has an account of the modern uses of this plant in Russian medicine.
Helichrysum italicum var. serotinum G.
“It would seem there are about five hundred species of Helichrysum,” writes aromatherapist Phillipe Mailhebiau, M.D. (1995, 66). They are polymorphous and it is difficult to distinguish between them. Several species are extracted for the volatile oil, of which the above is the one preferred by Mailhebiau. “On inhaling essence of Helichrysum italicum, one gets the pleasant sensation that the blood circulation is coming alive and that the blood is fluidifying and purifying itself. Helichrysum italicum is, in fact, an anticoagulant and fluidifier, and must be prescribed in cases of circulatory pathologies – rosacea, violaceous acne and varicosities.” It is a vasoconstrictor and antispasmodic, recommended to prevent cardiac infraction and cardiovascular spasm. It is also anti-inflammatory, therefore useful in phlebitis and arteritis. It is mucolytic and recommended in head colds and sinus problems. Mailhebiau uses it with oil of lavender for pain and wound-healing from blows, bruises, and trauma. It is useful externally or internally, in very small doses.
The typical patient is a young woman, blonde, blue-eyed, with very fair, even transparent skin, a delicate constitution, and a dreamy countenance. She has circulatory problems, causing a red nose or rosacea, clammy, pale hands alternating with red/blue blood stagnation, cold hands and feet, general coldness, but sensitive to sunlight, sunburn, and allergies.
III. Analysis of Rabbit Tobacco
The holistic standpoint requires us to analyze rabbit tobacco on at least three different levels: the subjective experience, the empirical properties of taste and smell, and the objective pharmacological constituents. We also want to learn from clinical experience. Together these undertakings provide the most complete view of the plant.
How can one not like such a beautiful everlasting, with a sweet smell, dead stalks that open and close with the weather sending forth the beautiful scent, with such a rich folklore. Even the common names alone stir interest. Yet, I was slow to begin my studies of this plant.
My interest in rabbit tobacco was stirred by number of experiences. There is considerable confusion in the old medical literature about the different everlastings and I wanted to get a correct picture of the botany of the family. The name “rabbit tobacco” is enticing, hinting at its prominence in American Indian medical tradition. I heard several impressive stories about its use as a medicine which led me to believe that it would prove to be a valuable addition to my practice as an herbalist. I also learned about its magical uses from Indian practitioners. These were confirmed for me in several remarkable dreams I had about the plant.
For a while it seemed that rabbit tobacco was everywhere around me, even though it grows far away (or so I thought and the books taught). For years I had been putting bundles of the plant around the house and I found I did not like to be without it. I even came into possession of an old pharmacy bottle labeled “Gnaphallium [sic] polycephalum” with a remnant of the herb inside. I had been introduced to this herb from half a dozen different directions, yet I still was uncertain about its botanical nomenclature and relationships, so at last I decided I must make it an article of study.
The final event which forced me to experiment with this herb as a medicine was an account of healing which was conveyed to me by a student in Virginia. Phyllis Hensley, of McGaheyville, was raised on a “mountain farm” in the Blue Ridge where the people were too poor to pay for medical advice. She was afflicted with asthma from birth to age seven. Her mother treated her with homemade pine oil preparations and other methods which did not cure. The neighboring farmer – Phyllis called him a “naturalist” – picked a bunch of the flowers and his wife sewed them up into a pillow which they gave to the young girl. In an era when country children in big families often had no store bought toys or personal possessions, Phyllis took to the pillow as a prize possession. It was like a security blanket for her and she slept with it for a year until, I suppose, it disintegrated. By that time she was completely cured of the asthma. I found some Gnaphalium obtusifolium on her land and she positively identified it as the “rabbit tobacco” given to her by her neighbor. To this day she is free of asthma, though suffering from tendencies to bronchitis in the winter.
Knowing the great difficulty in treating children or adults with congenital asthma I considered this to be a remarkable story worth investigating and thus began at last my clinical and literary study of rabbit tobacco.
Most plants have one or two unusual and interesting qualities; rabbit tobacco has many. It is used as both a medicine and a tobacco, and is associated with rabbit in both applications. In addition, it makes an excellent “posey” or sweet-scented dried flower decoration for the house. The scent is both beautiful and complex. It is one of the few medicines which is administered in the form of a pillow.
The fresh flower does not have as much scent as the dried, because it is not as open. Moist drops of rain or fog falling on the drying, dying plant open up the flower and thus increase it’s scent during the fall months. After it is picked, the flower dries and opens up. The fluffy down with its seed is now ready to be dispersed. The scent of the dried flower is sweet, spicy and lemony – somewhat like the smell of slippery elm bark. The story is not yet over, however, since changes in the humidity or temperature cause the dried plant, from time to time, to disperse the beautiful scent. This continues to happen for several years after the flowers have been picked. Thus it “walks between the worlds” of life and death.
A rather dramatic incident confirmed Paul Red Elk’s teaching about rabbit tobacco as the “walker between worlds.” The week after talked to him I was down in northern Alabama, visiting my good friend Phyllis Light, a skilled practitioner of traditional herbal medicine. I described Paul’s teaching about this plant, using the name sweet everlasting, which Phyllis did not recognize. That night she had a dream. The plant I told her about helped her in the dream to connect with a long deceased friend who had been a mentor to her when she was young. He appeared and said, “I’m moving on to another plane now, but I have some gifts I want to hand on to you,” and proceeded to give her books and memorabilia. In fact, as this man was dying, twenty years previously, his jealous/abusive divorced wife took books and papers which he had intended for Phyllis. “The plant you talked about helped in the dream,” said Phyllis. “But it looked like what we call rabbit tobacco.”
Another incident confirmed Paul’s teaching about rabbit tobacco carrying the vibrations of activity and people which have been around it. I left my house in the care of a house sitter one time who, having heard Paul say this, was superstitious about the plant and removed it from my house. I felt that the plants were violated and contaminated by the action and this was confirmed by a call from one of my Indian friends who said, “I don’t know what your caretaker did, but there are some herbs that she ruined.” I like the plant in my house and I feel it spreads “good vibrations,” but after this batch was ruined I had to make a six hour trip to pick more. That house sitter was not invited back.
Fortunately, since that time I have managed to locate rabbit tobacco within an hour of my house. It seems to be moving westward, probably because there has been more rain in Minnesota in the last several decades. All of us, including botanists and Indian plant pickers, have been surprised by this change.
I have found sweet everlasting valuable as a tobacco. I had a dream that the fairies said that I should make my ceremonial tobacco out of three plants. One would help open the door to the other world, the second would help open me up to the millions of possibilities in that world, and the third would help me focus on what I was experiencing in that world. They didn’t tell me which plant was which, though I knew the first one automatically.
Ordinary Nicotiana rustica or N. tabacum opens the door to the other world when smoked responsibility in a pipe. I was already using Nicotiana with the two plants in the dream. One of them was rabbit tobacco, so it seemed likely it would be the plant that would help open up the possibilities. I continued to smoke the three plants I was accustomed to using, but after a while I cut back to two – tobacco and rabbit tobacco – in order to build up my experience of their effect before adding a third.
One time I was just smoking the chanupa (peace pipe) with Nicotiana tabacum and Gnaphalium obtusifolium when Rabbit put in an appearance. He said, “you are using my rabbit tobacco, but if you use it you should remember that I am a trickster.” Then he showed me his ears and continued, “I am a perfect listener and hear everything, but I don’t always follow through. If you use rabbit tobacco it will help you to hear what’s going on in the spirit world, but you may need another helper in order to retain what you hear.”
The operation of our senses on a plant is most important. Taste, smell, texture, and appearance are all of great importance.
Taste. Hale (1:221) offers his opinion that the leaves are “aromatic, slightly bitter and astringent, but rather an agreeable taste.” I consider the taste to be predominately sweet and spicy, moderately warm, and slightly astringent. I would not think of it as bitter; perhaps Hale used the term bitter in a general way, as many Americans do, for a flavor they don’t particularly like. Note the composition of G. uliginosum given below (no bitters, though there is an alkaloid, which can be bitter).
“From the tastes rabbit tobacco should have the following properties:
Astringent – pulls together relaxed, boggy tissues, reduces discharges, dries and slightly warms.
Aromatic, spicy, or pungent – stimulating, warming, and energizing. It may in fact be somewhat thinning and fluidifying, as Mailhebiau says of Helichrysum. Aromatics almost always act on the respiratory tract.
Sweet – nourishing, perhaps moistening, reducing dryness and atrophy.
Note that the astringence, which is drying, and the sweetness, which is moistening, are opposing qualities. This polarity is also seen in the way in which the very dry flower releases a sweet smell when it is slightly moistened. Damp and dry interplay in this plant.
Stimulants are often beneficial for numbness and pain, symptoms brought out in the homeopathic provings. They are also often good for low, putrid conditions, or they prevent these conditions from arising.
Smell. Rabbit tobacco is an interesting plant because it is one of the few which is traditionally administered by the sense of smell. In North America we have the tradition of the sweet everlasting pillow; in Europe the helichrysum is used as a volatile oil.
Gnaphalium obtusifolium has a beautiful fragrance which could be analyzed as sweet, resembling vanilla, with just a hint of spice. The smell is not actually the same as the vanilla-like scent found in plants that contain coumarins – new mown hay, yellow clover, alfalfa, red clover, cleavers, wood betony, sweet woodruff, etc. Interestingly, it reminds one somewhat of the smell of sweetfern (Comptonia asplenifolia), which is also found growing in the same environment: sandy, barren soil, often with an acidic content. However, sweet everlasting is found on acid soils associated more with oaks, while sweetfern is found on those with more pine. Both has a scent and taste not unlike chai tea – milky and spicy. The pioneers in fact used comptonia with milk to make a spicy tea.
The property that dose not come across in the scent of rabbit tobacco is the astringence, so it must be supposed that the medicinal pillow does not pass this on to the patient. The respiratory tract is especially suited to inhalation therapy and it seems likely that the compounds associated with the sweet and spicy smells are the active ingredients here. But what is the avenue of activity? From watching and talking to persons responding to rabbit tobacco I have concluded that it relaxes the muscles, but it may also penetrate through the alveoli and open up the oxygen exchange with the bloodstream. As we know, the European everlastings are credited with an action on the blood, thinning it and making it more “circulable.”
Appearance and Texture. Plants with a hard stalk that remains long after summer is over, like this one, are presumably high in minerals. Interestingly, rabbit tobacco is somewhat softer and gentler to the touch than many of the plant stalks which survive in winter. That indicates an unusual strength associated with softness. Note, in the following list, that many of the minerals found in Gnaphalium uliginosum are not the standard calcium, magnesium, and potassium so often found in plant assays but unusual ones – iron, copper, aluminum, chromium, and manganese.
I have had a limited number of experiences with this remedy up to this point. One thing I can say for sure: rabbit tobacco has an amazing usefulness (palliative or curative?) on asthma. While I was teaching in London I used as an “example patient” a student with chronic, life long asthma. His complexion was pale, dark, and sallow. He looked as if he did not get enough oxygen. The lungs and tongue were dry. After giving him some Gnaphalium obtusifolium tincture he took some deep breaths, experienced a pain in the left-center of the chest, and began to look less pale. The asthmatic symptoms diminished though he did not like the pain. “Have you felt that pain before or not at all?” I asked, trying to determine whether it was an aggravation of the underlying symptoms (and hence curative) or a creation of new symptoms (in which case the remedy was probably not appropriate). “That’s what it felt like when this recent attack first came on and I went to the doctor for steroids.” I lost touch with this student, but the initial lesson was not lost on me.
Several weeks latter I was consulted by one of my long term clients. She had asthma since childhood and had a pale, dark, sallow complexion very similar to the former case, so I thought of rabbit tobacco. She was a smoker. She felt relief from its use, but not cure. An apprentice, who was sitting in at the time, also had asthma and a sallow, pale, though not dark complexion. She tried rabbit tobacco and also found it helpful, but not permanently curative. Both began to breath deeper and look less pallid and sallow when they took the first dose of rabbit tobacco.
That fall I collected enough rabbit tobacco to make a pillow, following the folk medical custom. I gave it to the first of the two clients mentioned in the preceding paragraph. She has used it for about three months, and feels very good about it. Her asthma is slowly getting better. She uses the inhaler a lot less. “Now when I run up my steps to my apartment I don’t have to stop halfway to catch my breath,” she says. She sleeps with it and finds it “like a refuge.” The fact that it was associated with rabbits meant a lot to this patient. “I’ve skinned out a lot of snowshoe hairs and I know a lot about rabbits,” she said. “The skin is very thin and delicate, and it is easily injured. If a dog chases the rabbit too long it can get blisters on the skin, or little tears with bits of blood in the fur. . . . I guess you could say that it is like a refuge for the wounded small animal part of me.” She noted that her asthma was connected to fear. Think of the little scared rabbit.
The chemical composition of Gnaphalium uliginosum L. has been studied most extensively, since it is an important medicinal plant in the former Soviet Union. It contains tannins (up to 4 percent); volatile oils (0.05 percent); fats; resins; the alkaloid gnaphalin; many minerals, including iron, copper, aluminum, chromium, manganese; phytosterols, flavonoids, thiamin, carotenes, ascorbic acid, and phytocides, the chemical composition of which has not been much studied. It contains no glycosides, saponins, or bitter principles (A. Petersone, 1976).
At first I was not able to string together the odd assortment of signatures, folk uses, traditions, subjective experiences, popular names, tastes, symptoms, and actions of rabbit tobacco into a unified conception of the plant. Then an asthmatic commented to me, “I feel as if I am not totally alive, as if death is squeezing me out of my body.” This seemed appropriate for someone who could not get enough air into herself, as she explained it. Rabbit tobacco did not help this woman a great deal, but did it help another woman who felt exactly the same way. These cases taught me that sweet everlasting was indeed a plant that “walked the border of the worlds.”
The connection with the sensitive skin was brought out in another case. I was examining a life-long asthmatic with my friend Margi Flint, registered herbalist (AHG). She noted that the woman had used a lot of prednisone and that this made the skin thin and weak when it came to give off a sweat. She recommended a stiff decoction of yarrow to waken up the skin, while I thought of rabbit tobacco. The woman was afraid of the strong yarrow and used the rabbit tobacco – at the next class everyone remarked on the improvement in her skin, though she hesitated to attribute an improvement in the asthma to the remedy.
So rabbit tobacco is suited to persons with a delicate respiratory apparatus and delicate, thin skin. There is also a nervous delicacy seen in the problems with sciatica and neuralgia, which the plant easily produced in the homeopathic provings. The association with the rabbit also reminds us to think in terms of sympathetic excess or “fight-or-flight.” We remember “the wounded small animal part of me” which the one woman described.
The physical properties – astringence, sweetness, and spiciness – indicate a gentle, permeating quality which might be valuable for those who are too easily impressed upon by smells, emotions, and chemicals. The sweetness, which is the strongest taste, would indicate an ability to strengthen and build tissue, while the spiciness would be slightly warming and stimulating. The astringence, which is very mild, would tone the tissues slightly, making them less permeable as well. It is likely that the American rabbit tobacco also thins the blood and acts on the cardiovascular system like its close cousin marsh everlasting or like the slightly more distant helichrysum.
Today, when we are confronted with so many delicate children suffering from asthma and food sensitivities it may be that the rabbit tobacco could prove highly efficacious. Certainly, it has proved itself to be something of use, either curatively or palliatively, in that extremely difficult-to-treat and unpleasant condition, congenital asthma. It seems to have a general positive effect on many respiratory conditions, as indicated by the esteemed position it held in the cough formulas of Tommie Bass. His association of it with wild cherry makes a great deal of sense, since this is an herb I would associate with histaminic over-activity, respiratory sensitivity, and food allergy. It may also have a positive effect on circulatory congestion, a problem so common in those of increasing years. In the very elderly we often find the thin skin and delicacy of constitution that this plant demonstrates.
When I understand a plant in a complete fashion I usually find an exact correspondence between the physical properties of the plant, the psychological traits associated with it, and the outstanding signature or physical expression of the plant. These three pictures together, in unity, point to the core personality of the plant. I have confidence when I have all three together, rather than one or two. This is, I believe, because the ‘intuitive method’ looks for resonance between different pictures in order to find the core resonance or personality. Although the preceding discussion offers hints of resonance between different levels and portraits of the plant, I would point out the following as the most precise correspondences:
1. Physical health: Rabbit tobacco is used for congenital defect or weakness, i.e., incomplete inheritance.
2. Psychological health: It is used when a legacy from a mentor or ancestor is not passed on and there is a break in the psychological inheritance.
3. Signature: Something like ‘life’ continues in rabbit tobacco, after the death of the plant, so that it carries on a communication between the living and dead.
The congruence of these three traits of rabbit tobacco together give me confidence that I understand the plant to its core, even though it is a strangely complex entity and seemingly a self-professed ‘trickster medicine.’
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