Garden season is in full swing, and medicinal herbs are as readily available as pansies at local nurseries.
But curing your ailments with herbal plants is not as simple as putting them in the ground and sucking on the leaves.
To get the most out of the herb, you must know what you're doing. Some herbs, such as ginkgo biloba, have nuts that can be eaten, but others require a more complicated process to extract the active ingredient.
Herbs are used as remedies for a variety of ailments ranging from a weak sex drive to the common cold.
Some herbs are simpler to use straight from the garden, including echinacea and chamomile, according to Gordon Kenneson, a horticulturist at Moscarillos Garden Shoppe in West Hartford, Conn.
Echinacea mostly is used to relieve cold symptoms. To use it, remove the plant from the soil and crush or chop up the root. Let the root pieces sit in vodka (or clear alcohol) for several hours. Drain the particles from the liquid, and use the liquid in a tea, or ingest the drops by placing them under your tongue.
Herbalists say chamomile can relieve stomach pains and calm nerves. Gardeners can dry chamomile leaves by hanging them in bunches upside-down for several days. Grind up leaves, and put them in a tea ball to make tea.
Although some medicinal herbs such as ginseng and ephedra are plentiful at plant shops, and in oil and tea forms at natural foods stores, health experts warn they should be used under the supervision of a trained herbalist. Ingesting the wrong combination of herbs can be deadly.
In fact, Kenneson discourages people from ephedra at all, citing re ports indicating it might cause cancer.
''Some of the herbs can be dangerous. Like any medication, you must be careful with them,'' Kenneson said. ''Taking chamomile or mint is harmless, but if you start using others, you can run into trouble with overdosing.''
St. Johnswort, a plant with a yellow flower, is an antidepressant and is also under investigation as a possible treatment for AIDS. Once the herb starts to flower, gardeners can soak 2 ounces to 6 ounces of the dried flower in 1 cup of vodka for several hours. Strain it, and put it in a cup of tea or warm water.
Ephedra, which is often used in tea, is a stimulant that, if used in excess or in combination with other herbs, can have an effect similar to speed, said Valerie Hawk Hoffman, an herbalist and owner of Sunrise Herb Farm in Bethel, Conn. It is sold on the Internet and known as ''Herbal XTC'' or ''Herbal Speed.''
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