Common ivy, or Hedera helix as it is botanically known, is a plant that most of us will be familiar with. Originally a native of Europe and temperate Asia, it has featured in folklore going back to the ancient Greeks and was known by many names such as lovestone, wintergreen and bind wood. Traditionally it has been used for many purposes. It was believed to help with the intoxication effects from alcohol, to help swollen feet, and was also part of a formula originating in the 12th century that was used in preparation for surgery. This may well have been due to its antiseptic actions.
Before much was known about anatomy, or the chemical constituents of plants, herbalists used the “Doctrine of Signatures” to decide what to use a plant for. This principal states that nature provides plants, trees, and seeds that resemble certain parts of the body, which can be used for supporting the health of that body part. The physical traits, smell and where it is grown relates to part of the anatomy affected.
Easy examples are walnuts that look like the brain and help support brain health, and Kawa Kawa, a native New Zealand plant, which has heart shaped, veined leaves that can benefit heart and circulatory health. With Ivy it was recorded that vines are synonymous with veins and that plants of this type are linked with purifying the blood and bronchial health. It was said that a plant that clings to itself could help clear mucous that is adhered to the inner systems.
Nowadays herbal medicine takes a different approach, as we are able to identify the constituents or chemicals that give the plants their activity. Ivy is now known to contain a chemical called a-hederin, which supports relaxation of the muscle cells in the airways. It produces a substance called a surfactant that allows mucous to become less viscous (more watery) and therefore easier to clear from the lungs. This effect also means that if airways are dry and tickly it can moisten the surfaces to soothe the throat.
Also a feature of contemporary times is that we now have scientific studies to support the effectiveness of herbs. Due to its extensive use over the years there have been a number of studies performed using ivy for bronchial support, including it’s use in children. It is good to know there are natural herbal products that are able to be used for the whole family.
So comparing old and new it looks like those using the “Doctrine of Signatures” were not far wrong with their thoughts on ivy and the respiratory system. However with regards to the Greek philosophies, it looks like our common ivy has stood the test of time.
By Jane Cronin, ND, Dip Med Herb
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