Flowers have traditionally been used for medicinal qualities, and are being studied by researchers for their healing properties.
Beautiful to gaze upon and delightful to smell, flowers’ usefulness extends beyond gardens and vases. Historically used for their medicinal properties, flowers are once more becoming a sought-after remedy. That’s not surprising since many of today’s—and possibly tomorrow’s—pharmaceutical powerhouses are derived from plants.
Tradition meets science
According to a 2010 Ipsos Reid survey, 73 percent of Canadians use natural health products, including botanicals. Until more research is done, many health claims rely on a combination of tradition and science, though researchers are validating some traditional uses as well as discovering new benefits.
We present a brief overview of some of the most popular flowers used in natural health products. Flower preparations can increase or decrease the effects and side effects of medications, other botanicals, and supplements. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children, and anyone with a health condition should always seek the advice of a health care practitioner before taking supplements, including botanicals, to find an appropriate product and dosage.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea purpurea)
Ranging from light pink to purple, this popular Native American plant derives its name from the Greek word echinos meaning “hedgehog.” The prickly scales in its large seed head resemble an angry hedgehog’s spines.
Native Americans began using echinacea more than 400 years ago to treat infections, bites, and wounds, and as a general cure-all for coughs, colds, and many skin diseases. It’s also been used to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria.
Echinacea’s popularity waned in North America with the introduction of antibiotics. Today, it’s one of the most used botanicals, particularly to lessen the severity and duration of colds and flu. Herbalists also recommend it as an immune system booster and infection fighter against urinary, vaginal (candida), upper respiratory tract, and ear infections.
In a recent review of 24 double-blind trials, researchers reported mixed results, possibly due to differences in product composition and manufacturing. Other studies have found that it improved cold symptoms, reduced the number of colds, and proved effective against respiratory tract infections.
Researchers are now studying its infection-fighting and wound-healing claims. In laboratory experiments, standardized preparations of echinacea have exhibited powerful antiviral and antimicrobial properties that may help fight infection, reduce bacterial-induced acne, and lessen inflammation. More research is needed to confirm results at various doses.
Availability: extract, tincture, tablet, capsule, ointment
Rosehip (Rosa family)
Rosehips, the slightly bitter, edible fruit of the rose plant, develop after the rose has flowered. Beginning as green, tomato-shaped bulbs, they ripen and redden over summer and early fall. Deadheading, or removing dead rose blooms, results in reblooming but prevents rosehip formation.
Traditionally prized for its vitamin C and anti-inflammatory properties, rosehip has been used to prevent and treat colds, flu, and other infectious diseases. It’s also been used as a tonic for gastric, intestinal, urinary, and kidney problems. Other claims include arthritis relief, weight loss, and diabetes and hypertension treatment.
Graham Butler, registered herbalist, says, “Rosehip is a good adjunct to a nutritional program designed to support cardiovascular health.”
Emerging research is investigating old and new claims. In a small Scandinavian study of obese subjects, daily consumption of 40 g of rosehip powder for six weeks lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reducing cardiovascular risk. Other studies have not shown significant weight loss effects or improved glucose tolerance. Results on rosehip’s effects on rheumatoid arthritis are mixed, appearing more effective for relieving osteoarthritis symptoms.
Availability: fresh, dried, powder, tea, extract, capsule, tablet, oil; also used to make jam, jelly, and soup
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is easily recognizable by its small, blue-violet flowers and delicate fragrance used to scent many personal care products. Its name comes from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash,” as lavender was often added to baths to purify both body and spirit.
Lavender has long been valued for its calming and sleep-inducing effects. Other traditional uses range from aiding digestion to treating skin ailments such as fungal infections, eczema, and acne and relieving pain.
Numerous studies focusing on lavender’s ability to promote calm, reduce anxiety, induce sleep, and reduce depression have shown positive results. Researchers are exploring lavender’s antimicrobial properties. A 2013 Polish study found that the Blue River and Munstead varieties of lavender had the greatest antibacterial effect against two strains of bacteria.
In a 2013 study of women who had undergone Caesarean sections, those given lavender oil aromatherapy reported less pain. An earlier pilot study of women undergoing breast biopsy surgery reported patients receiving lavender oil had higher satisfaction with pain control, though not less pain.
Availability: fresh, dried, essential oil, extract, tea, tincture, tonic
Camomile (Matricaria recutita or German camomile)
The two types of camomile plant, German and Roman (also known as English), have a daisylike appearance. Their use dates to the ancient Egyptians who dedicated the plant to their gods. Camomile’s name comes from the Greek kamai meaning “on the ground” and melon meaning “apple” because of the flower’s characteristic apple scent.
Camomile has long been valued for anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, astringent, and healing properties. German camomile has traditionally been used to treat chest colds, hay fever, wounds, abscesses, inflammation, skin conditions, and diaper rash as well as muscle spasms, ulcers, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids. Roman camomile has commonly been recommended for stomach upset, sleep problems, and menstrual pain.
Currently, laboratory studies are attempting to isolate and test the biological activity of camomile’s compounds. Several laboratory and animal studies suggest it speeds wound healing. A small clinical trial investigating its effectiveness, in combination with myrrh and coffee charcoal, compared favourably with a standard conventional drug in maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis.
While some recent small studies have supported camomile’s antidepressant, antianxiety, and improved sleep quality attributes, others have produced mixed results. Elvis Ali, ND, often uses camomile to treat patients with anxiety. He says, “Although herbal remedies may take longer to produce results, it’s worth it because they’re gentler than many prescription medications to relieve anxiety, with fewer side effects.”
Researchers are also looking at camomile’s effect on diabetes, osteoporosis, blood pressure, and the immune system. Preliminary results show promise, but more studies are needed to replicate results. Similarly, early test tube and animal studies indicate positive results for compounds in camomile against cancer.
Availability: dried flower heads, tea, essential oil, extract, capsule, tablet, tincture, lotion, ointment, poultice
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
With its bright orange-yellow petals, this plant’s medicinal use dates to the 12th century. Also known as pot marigold, it’s not your common garden-variety annual marigold.
Traditional uses include relief of stomach upset, ulcers, and menstrual cramps as well as healing wounds, burns, bruises, cuts, and accompanying minor skin infections. It’s also commonly recommended for sunburn, hemorrhoids, and diaper rash.
Researchers have examined claims that calendula’s high amounts of flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) might help fight bacteria, viruses, and inflammation. A 2013 study of 240 patients concluded calendula mouthwash effectively reduced dental plaque and gingivitis. While a 2006 study indicated calendula helped prevent dermatitis in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, a 2013 review concluded insufficient evidence to support its use.
Availability: fresh or dried flowers, tincture, extract, ointment
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian, or garden heliotrope, grows in gardens and along roadsides. It has small, sweet-smelling flowers in white, light purple, or pink and a strong-smelling root used for medicine.
Used for treating insomnia, anxiety, and nervous restlessness since the second century, it became popular in Europe in the 17th century.
Research has focused on insomnia claims. Two 2011 reviews found mixed results. One concluded there was weak or unsupported evidence; the other supported the studies’ claims. In his practice, Ali finds valerian useful “for not only helping people fall asleep but to stay asleep. Natural herbs allow patients to get a good night’s rest and they wake up feeling more refreshed and not tired.” However, as Butler warns, “occasionally valerian has a stimulating rather than a sedative effect with some individuals.”
In a 2013 study of menopausal women, a valerian/lemon balm combination reduced sleep disorders better than placebo. A 2011 study of cancer patients indicated that while valerian did not outperform a placebo in terms of sleep, it lessened fatigue, and suggested further study is warranted.
Availability: extract, tincture, capsule, tablet, tea
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
With four bright yellow petals and a lemony scent, its common name comes from the fact it first opens in the evening, withering the next day. A traditional Native American remedy for bruises, wounds, hemorrhoids, stomach problems, and sore throats, it later spread to Europe. There it was called the “King’s cure-all” and was used to treat most ailments.
Evening primrose uses have included skin disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer. For women, it has been used to prevent pregnancy problems, breast pain, endometriosis, and menopausal hot flashes.
Currently, there is not enough research to support evening primrose’s efficacy for pregnant women. However, a recent in vitro experiment suggests that evening primrose extract might inhibit the growth of some types of prostate and breast cancer cells. Two clinical trials found it effective against atopic dermatitis.
Availability: oil, capsule, liquid, powder