Weird Science

D. Andrew White M.Sc. 10/12/2010

Herbs, Folklore & Science


Herbology is one of the oldest sciences. Human beings have been using herbs for medicines for thousands of years, and almost every culture has had some herbal medicine tradition. Many modern medicines were derived, originally, from herbal remedies. In fact, it is a mystery as to how 'pre-scientific' cultures discovered some of these herbal concoctions. Some of the herbal effects are quite subtle, others require complex preparation, some herbs are only effective when mixed with other agents. How did our ancestors discover these remedies? This ancient knowledge is a true marvel (Davis 1996, Heatherley 1998).

Worldwide today there is a belief that natural herbal medicines are safer and better than synthetic pharmaceuticals. The fact that almost everyone has an elder who is a herbalist has hindered us from taking a critical look at herbs. (No nice person wants to dis an elder!) For it is not commonly realised that not all of traditional herbal lore is accurate. Some herbs are in fact toxic, others are merely placebos, and most have a milder pharmaceutical efficacy than tradition has maintained (Thase & Loredo 1998).

Scientific investigation has shown that herbal efficacy is due to natural chemicals in the herbs. In other words, herbs are drugs. Often some of the chemicals are pharmaceutically active, others are bio-irritants, others are toxins, and still others have little effect on the human body. All of these chemicals can be mixed up in a wild melange in a single herb (Greive & Leyel 1931, Thase & Loredo 1998). The mixtures depend not only on the species of plant, but also on individual genetic traits, and on growing conditions. Concentrations of active ingredients therefore vary widely between individual plants (Davis 1996, Thase & Loredo, 1998).

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a common Eurasian weed. There are many other Hypericum species, but St. John's wort is commonly believed to have the strongest pharmaceutical properties. St. John's wort seems to have some ability to boost the moods of people are emotionally depressed , i.e. it is an antidepressant. Studies seem to indicate that hypercin, a dianthrone derivative, is one of the antidepressants. Another compound hyperforin blocks the re-uptake of several neurotransmitters. Hyperforin's mode of action is similar to many artificial anti-depressants. Other ingredients such as catechin and epicatechin seem to have some anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties (Thase & Loredo 1998). However, only the hyperforin has been subject to full scientific tests as of 2000 (Spinella 2001).

None of the chemicals in St. John's wort have proven to be superior to synthetic drugs. As of 2001, about 30 studies showed St. John's wort to be better than a placebo. About 10 studies show it to be equivalent to synthetic antidepressants such as Prozac. However, it has not been shown to be superior to Prozac (Rist 2002).

Hypercin does have some side-effects, it is phototoxic. It can react in sunlight to irritate and inflame the skin of those who have ingested too much of the chemical. St. John's wort can activate the liver enzyme CYP3A. Too much CYP3A activity can cause the liver to breakdown 'toxic' compounds. This can cause St. John's wort to interfere with prescribed medications. Some of the drugs it diminishes the effects of include: anticlotting agents, immune suppressants, certain HIV medications, and the birth control pill (Rist 2002). Also, like many other substances, St. John's wort can cause allergic reactions in some people (Thase & Loredo 1998).

Since hyperforin is an antidepressant, it should not be combined with other antidepressants without proper medical guidance. Essentially, this could entail overdosing on antidepressants (Spinella 2001).

Synthetic drugs are usually more accurately dose controlled than are herbs. Furthermore, herbal remedies have not been as critically tested as have artificial drugs. Therefore, uncritical acceptance of all things herbal should cease, because there is risk to human health involved. Herbs like any other drug should be used with caution (Thase & Loredo 1998).

However, in many countries there is an economic advantage to herbs like St. John's wort. Herbal remedies are often cheaper than factory made drugs. For example, in many cities in India naturopathic and homeopathic shops are as common as pharmacies. This reflects the economic reality of India just as much as it reflects local beliefs (White 1995). Herbal remedies are readily available in all parts of the world, so are interesting variants of herbal tradition. Herbal traditions are quite interesting right here in the Americas, where herbal traditions of Amerindian, Afro-Caribbean and European origin have co-existed, mixed and often fused (Davis 1996, Heatherley 1998).

Herbal traditions, if for no other reason than that they are ancient, should be preserved. Herbal remedies are drugs. Associations between herbs and the zodiac and sympathetic magic, are all purely folkloric. There is no reason to believe that herbs are magical panacea. Each herb species should therefore be subject to safety tests and subject to recall if they are found to be unsafe.


Davis, Wade. 1996. One River - explorations and discoveries in the Amazon rainforest. Touchstone. New York.

Edwards, Rob. 2004. No remedy in sight for herbal ransack. New Scientist. 181(2429): 10-11.

Grieve, M. and Leyel, C.F. (Ed.). 1973 (1931). A Modern Herbal - the medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and folklore of herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs and trees with all their modern scientific uses. Tiger Books International. London.

Heatherley, Ana Nez. 1998. Healing Plants - a medicinal guide to native American plants and herbs. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. Toronto.

Park, Robert L. 1997. Alternative Medicine and the Laws of Physics. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 21, No. 5. 24-28.

Quack Watch. 2005.

Raso, Jack. 1995. Mystical Medical Alternativism. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 19, No. 5. 33-37.

Rist, Curtis. 2002. A Worts-and-All Remedy. Discover. Vol. 23, No. 1, 72.

Spinella, Marcello. 2001. Psychoactive Herbal Medications. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 25, No. 1, 43-49.

Thase, Michel E. and Loredo, Elizabeth E. 1998. St. John's Wort: nature's mood booster. Avon Books. New York.

White, D. Andrew. 1995. Observations of Tamil Nadu. Personal Journal.

Toadstools & Etymology

Amanite tue-mouche et crapaud

In different English dialects the words ‘toadstool’ and ‘mushroom’ are used differently. Anglo-Canadians usually reserve the word ‘mushroom’ for edible fungi, and they use ‘toadstool’ in a less clearly defined manner. In the U.K. mushrooms are those toadstools which are edible. In the U.S.A., ‘toadstool’ means a poisonous mushroom!

Where does the word ‘toadstool’ come from? Often it has been claimed that the word derives from an old Germanic version of ‘death-stool’. But clearly this was not so. In many Germanic languages, such as Old German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish, the word ‘toad’ in toadstool really is toad. The same is true in Celtic languages such as Breton, Gaelic and Welsh. Even some Basque mushroom-names reference ‘toads’. Translated literally mushrooms can be called variously: toad-hats, toad-skins, toad-cheeses, toad’s-parasols and toad-stools. V.P and R.G. Wasson have suggested that the ‘toad’ in toadstool refers to poison. Toads do have poisonous skin. This poison was used in the past, sometimes for nefarious purposes. Originally only toxic and/or inedible mushrooms were called ‘toadstools’. This name-transfer may have been by way of analogy. Since many of the words for ‘toad’ are not cognates, it is possible that ‘toad’ was a widespread European synonym for ‘toxic’. *

In Dutch paddestoel translates as ‘toad’s-stool’.
In Danish paddehat means literally ‘toad’s hat’.
In Welsh caws llyffant translates to ‘toad cheese’.
In Breton kabell tousec means the ‘toad’s bonnet’.
In French crapaudin, or ‘toadlet’, is the fly agaric.
In Basque zapo-perretxiko means ‘toad-mushroom’.

The word ‘mushroom’ is actually derived from Norman French. In France ‘mousseron’ still more-or-less refers to the St. George’s mushroom (Calocybe gambosa). The St. George mushroom somewhat resembles an agaric, but it has pale gills. It is an esteemed edible, that is harvested mostly in April. A few other pale-coloured edible mushrooms are also called mousserons. The root-word ‘mouss’ could originally have been in reference to moss, mould or to slime. Possibly the word has some relationship to the Greek words for mould (mykes) and slime (myxa). Maybe the rootword goes back to some common Indo-European source.


Nieves-Rivera, Ángel M. 2004. Ethnomycological Notes: I. Lightning Bolts and Fungus Lore. Moeszia - Erdélyi Gombász, mikológiai folyóirat. 2: 84-89.

Nieves-Rivera, Á. M. and D. A. White. 2005. Ethnomycological notes. II. Meteorites and fungus lore. Mycologist 20 (1): 22-25.

Wasson, Valentina Pavlovna and Wasson, R. Gordon. 1957. Mushrooms Russia and History. Volume 1. Pantheon Books. New York.

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