Written by Anne McIntyre
Flowers are a particularly loved part of a plant, and many herbalists work with them to heal emotionally and spiritually. Here we share with you some words of wisdom from Anne McIntyre’s most recent book.
The role of flowering plants
By resonating with us at all speeds of vibration, from the spiritual to the material, plants have the potential to heal us on every level of our being. Yet this is not all; something about flowers is particularly special, as if they express the essential nature of all flowering plants and convey their messages to us in all their variation of purpose. They are vital to the plant’s survival and represent the peak of plants’ evolution.
The first organisms were single-celled bacteria living in the sea. Then came algae, which are believed to be the ancestors of all other plants, followed by fungi, mosses and lichens. Ferns, taller plants and then trees such as giant horsetails came next, followed about 200 million years ago by plants bearing seeds known as gymnosperms – of which the wonderful ginkgo tree is a living example, as are conifers.
Flowering plants, botanically known as angiosperms, evolved about 140 million years ago, the earliest of them probably resembling a magnolia tree. In botanical terms, a flower represents a reproductive structure made up of modified leaves which attract insects and a variety of other small creatures in order to ensure their cross-fertilisation and reproduction and hence their survival. This was a far more sophisticated means of reproduction than had gone before. The cones of conifers have sperm cells packed tightly in pollen grains relying on the wind to blow them to the ovules of female cones. Spores of fungi and mosses are also vulnerable to the vagaries of the wind. More than 80 per cent of all green plants are flowering plants and every flower has the same purpose, to ensure that male pollen grains from the stamens of one flower come into contact with the stigma of a female pistil.
The intricacies of nature are amazing in their perfection. The stigma produces special secretions making sure that no pollen from other species than its own germinates, and once the right pollen has germinated, it extends a tube into the stigma down its style and makes contact with the ovary below, where two male pollen cells fertilise three female cells. An embryo is thereby produced with a food store wrapped up neatly in a seed capsule and primed to spark into life once it is in favourable conditions.
The beautiful colours and shades of flowers, their enormous variety of shape, size and pattern, as well as their wonderful perfumes, are all developed to attract specific pollinators – insects, birds, moths, beetles, even snails. The evolutionary links between the form, colour, nectar and scent of flowers and the sensory perceptions of their pollinators is truly fascinating. One of the earliest pollinators was the beetle, which crawled into primitive flowers to eat pollen, distributing grains around the area and enabling self-pollination. More evolved species of flowers developed nectar-secreting glands to attract flying insects that would brush against the pollen and so carry it to other flowers.
Flowers with tubular shapes developed simultaneously with those insects and birds with a sucking proboscis or beak sufficiently long to reach the nectar. Some flowers, such as antirrhinums, will only open when the right size pollinator lands on its lower lip. In some flowers, patterns such as lines or spots on the petals, as seen in horse chestnut and eyebright, point the way to the nectar to a hungry insect. Scents wafting through the air will attract pollinating insects from huge distances, as will bright colours to those insects with good sight. Some flowers only emit their scents at night when their colour fades; many, including evening primrose, open only at night to attract night-flying moths.
It is clear that one of the vital roles of flowers is to ensure the continuation of their species and therefore their survival. Flowering plants make up 80 per cent of all plants on the planet, and we as human beings also depend on plants for our survival. Flowers are absolutely essential to all human life. Not only do flowers convey messages to their pollinators, but the early herbalists believed that flowering plants embodied messages regarding their healing virtues in their shape, colour, form and pattern. The delicate drooping blooms of the purple Pasque flower certainly do intimate the sad drooping head of the nymph Anemone, forsaken by her lover, Zephyr the Greek god of the West wind. This points towards the flower’s famous healing powers for women feeling similarly forsaken and forlorn when taken as a homeopathic remedy.
By contrast, the bright blue, purple and yellow heart-shaped flowers of heartsease have a much more uplifting nature, with their ability to heal the heart and lift the spirits. Heartsease has been used by healers for thousands of years as a love potion and to bring comfort to those feeling hurt, rejected, lonely or broken hearted as Shakespeare well knew,
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell: It fell upon a little western flower, Before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, And maidens call it love-in-idleness
– Midsummers Night’s Dream
The healing potential of flowering plants is an integral part of the deep bond that exists between humans and nature. That flowers have the ability to heal us, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually, is something that has been recognised and utilised as far back as we know. Now in the 21st century with evidence of the healing role of flowers going back 60,000 years, we are still striving to understand the totality of their significance in our lives.
Flowers have been used in many different ways for healing, in a variety of herbal preparations, as essential oils, homeopathic remedies and flower essences. Each system of medicine claims a certain mode of action or vibrational level of healing for its own. One thing is clear to me from the flowers’ history of healing: the essence of the flower that permeates every remedy has the same healing potential that permeates the essence of our being.
Preparing floral medicines
The art of healing comes from nature and not from the physician.
Therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind
– Paracelsus (c. 1493–1541)
It is best to pick the flowers you are planning to use first thing in the morning on a fine dry day once the dew has dried, so they are as fresh as possible. Choose the healthiest looking plants, remove any soil and old leaves or flowerheads and check for insects. The sooner you make the flowers up into your preparations the better, so they don’t lose any of their vibrancy and medicinal effects.
There are many ways that you can take healing flowers to benefit from their remedial effect. The easiest way to do this is in food and drink by using edible flowers and culinary herbs and herbal teas, which many people may be doing without realising their medicinal benefits.
A man may esteem himself happy when that which is his food is also his medicine
– Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
Salads with basil, coriander, nasturtiums and chives, vinaigrettes with garlic, fish with dill or wild garlic, new potatoes with fresh mint, casseroles with thyme and pizza with oregano are all very familiar. Once your food is absorbed from the digestive tract, the nutrients and therapeutic constituents of the plants enter the bloodstream and then circulate around the body. Your favourite culinary flowers and herbs all contain volatile oils that lend their wonderful flavours and scents. These oils have antioxidant and antimicrobial effects, helping to protect the body against stresses of all kinds and to ward off a wide variety of infections, which would have been vital for health as well as enhancing culinary skills in the days before fridges, when food may have been less than fresh.
Edible flowers don’t just heighten the visual impact and the flavour of our food, they can also contribute a wide range of nutrients and medicinal compounds. Almost all of them contain vitamins A and C and mineral such as calcium, phosphorous, iron and potassium.
They are also rich in antioxidants which give the flowers and leaves their colours. Pigments that make carnations red, chrysanthemums and calendula orange for example, are rich in antioxidant polyphenols including flavonoids which protect the body against oxidative stress and may help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Calendula flowers contain more flavonoids known as lutein and zeaxanthin (that help protect the eyes from age-related disorders) than cabbage, kale or spinach and nasturtiums are also rich in them. Violets are a good source of another bioflavonoid called rutin which protects the blood vessels from damage and reduces inflammation. Apparently, even though it is an ancient practice, there is a scientific name for people who eat flowers for food, it is called floriphagia!
Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food
– Hippocrates (c.460BC–c. 370BC)
Nutrients found in our favourite flowers
- Vitamin A: Dandelion, squash flowers, basil, dill, peppermint, rosemary, sage, coriander, lavender, violets
- Vitamin B: Peppermint, sage, coriander, garlic, dandelion, sunflowers, feverfew, peppermint, hibiscus
- Vitamin C: Echinacea, borage, nasturtium, garlic, peppermint, rosehips, dandelion, dill, rocket, rosemary, basil, sage, coriander, oregano, roses, purslane, calendula, fennel, violets
- Vitamin D: Dandelion, rosehips, nasturtiums
- Vitamin E: Dandelion, skullcap, sage, rose, sunflowers
- Vitamin K: Basil, sage, coriander, dandelion
- Calcium: Bergamot, chamomile, fennel, marshmallow, sage, dill, peppermint, rosemary, garlic, oregano, coriander, dandelion, lavender, borage, violets, hibiscus
- Iron: Peppermint, bergamot, nasturtium, begonia, French marigold, dianthus, rosemary, day lily, skullcap, peony, lavender, dill, sage, coriander, oregano, dandelion, echinacea, calendula, chamomile
- Magnesium: Rosemary, day lily, wood betony, basil, dill, peppermint, sage, oregano, coriander, dandelion, dianthus, sunflowers
- Manganese: Basil, dill, rosemary, peppermint, sage, chrysanthemum, coriander, garlic, oregano, dandelion
- Potassium: Dandelion leaf, peony, bergamot, day lily, dianthus, fennel, rosehips, dill, rosemary, peppermint, oregano, violets, wild pansy
- Zinc: Chamomile, day lily, skullcap, peony, bergamot, dandelion, marshmallow, rosemary, peppermint, sage, caraway, garlic, coriander leaf
- Chromium: Coriander, hibiscus, dandelion
- Copper: Skullcap, sage, day lily, fuchsia, bergamot, peony, dill, rosemary, peppermint, wild garlic, coriander, dandelion
- Selenium: Garlic, coriander, fennel, basil, chamomile, St John’s wort, oregano, sage, rosemary, lime flowers
You can also prepare a variety of different floral preparations including tinctures, elixirs, oxymels and honeys. Theses floral preparations can be made with single plants and then when needed you can combine several together to address the health problem you are trying to resolve or you can make ready-made combinations all in the same preparation for treating common ailments such as colds and coughs, digestive troubles, stress and insomnia when they arise. A good example of a popular and old fashioned cold and catarrh remedy is a combination of equal parts of peppermint, elderflowers and yarrow.
You can also make preparations to apply to the skin as it is very absorbent and covers a large surface area for absorption. Tiny blood capillaries under the surface of the skin take the medicinal compounds in the flowers into the bloodstream and from there they are circulated throughout the body. Infusions of flowers can be used as hand and foot baths, infused or diluted essential oils can be massaged into the skin, tincture-based rubbing lotions can be applied to the skin as can ointments and creams, compresses and poultices. In addition, fresh flowers and leaves can be applied directly such as yarrow, marigold or lavender flowers to staunch bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions and relieve minor burns.
The conjunctiva of the eye will also absorb floral extracts. A calendula, elderflower or chamomile eyebath or compress can be used to relieve sore and inflamed eyes. The nose and the nerve endings lying in it can provide another therapeutic pathway which we use when we smell a flower or use oils for inhalations. When we use a hot tea or a few drops of essential oil in hot water as an inhalation, the messages from the aromatic flowers are carried directly to the brain and are also taken into the lungs where they are absorbed with oxygen into the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body.