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Purple Loosestrife

lythrum salicaria

 

I'm a rather passionate advocate for purple loosestrife. This wetland dweller has become much maligned in recent years, and almost invariably admissions of its beauty are negated by admonishments for its terrible invasiveness. In reality, purple loosestrife is not nearly as destructive to habitats as it’s often made out to be, being more problematic when it colonizes disturbed, fallow habitat than when it exists as a member of an intact ecosystem. Be that as it may, it has become the poster-plant for the dreadfulness of invasive species, and accurate information of its virtues is lost amongst denouncements against its existence. Alas...

The plant is easily identified. It grows somewhere between two and six feet, bearing an interesting combination of whorled, opposite and alternate lance shaped leaves and blossoming forth stunning pink-purple six petalled flowers. It is most often found in ditches and wet areas, though occasionally takes residence in nearby fields. The leaves and tops should be gathered while in full flower. Historically, the root has also been used, but it's rather woody and a pain in the tail both to dig up and chop up.

Purple loosestrife offers great potential as a valuable and practically useful medicinal, possessing an admirable balance of astringent and mucilaginous properties. This may seem odd if you think of astringents as being drying and mucilage as being moistening, but remember that astringents do not dehydrate tissues, they tighten and restore tone to them, and in doing they lessen oversecretion.  So purple loosestrife restores tone to tissues while also bathing them in a soothing mucilage, which eases inflammation and ensures lubrication.  I find that including more leaves and stems in preparations yields a more astringent medicine, while collecting mostly the flowering spikes increases the presence of mucilage in water based preparations.

These virtues may be a benefit in numerous complaints. Herbalist David Winston writes that, “This combination of actions, along with it's other actions, makes this plant appropriate for diarrhea, bacterial or amoebic dysentery, enteritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), leaky gut syndrome and as a gargle for sore throats.”  Perhaps most practical among these possibilities is the treatment of diarrhea and dysentery.  Purple loosestrife tightens the tissues and therefore helps to quell the looseness of the bowels, while at the same time doing much to soothe the irritated tissues. In addition, research has suggested that loosestrife is markedly antibacterial, and so may help to combat any infection while simultaneously healing the tissues and relieving the distressing symptoms of such complaints.  It must be noted that diarrhea is not an illness in itself, but a way that the body purges itself of offensive matter.  It should therefore not be initially suppressed, rather, allowed to run its course for a day or so, and then addressed if the condition does not begin to show signs of resolution.  With regards to leaky gut, purple loosetrife, as a demulcent and astringent, certainly makes sense, but would have to be a part of a broader protocol to be achieve more than superficial results.

David Winston adds, “The herb can also be used as a vaginal douche for leucorrhea and bacterial vaginosis, and as a nasal douche for nose bleeds. Topically the ointment is used for ulcers and sores and a poultice is soothing to bruises, abrasions and irritated skin. The stems can be used as chewing sticks to prevent bleeding gums caused by gingivitis.”... all these indications make sense when considering purple loosstrife's astringency.

Purple loosestrife also provides an excellent eyewash.  Maude Grieve writes in her Modern Herbal that "It has been stated to be superior to Eyebright for preserving the sight and curing sore eyes, the distilled water being applied for hurts and blows on the eyes...". The presence of mucilage makes purple loosestrife an excellent herb, as well, for soothing dry eyes, or any ophthalmic irritation or infection characterized by dryness.  I almost always add plantain to my eyewashes, and to these two mallow or sassafras leaf can be added for additional mucilage, while strawberry leaf can be added to increase astringency.  To make such a preparation, simply infuse the dried herb(s) in near boiling water till lukewarm, then strain through a coffee filter to remove any fine particles and add 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of tea. You can apply this via a dropper bottle, eyecup, or simply ladle over the eye with a tablespoon.  Be aware that such a tea will spoil, and should be made as needed, and any leftovers can be frozen and defrosted for later use.

Conrad Richter, of Richter's Nursery in Canada, offers these additional insights: "Most people are surprised to learn that purple loosestrife has very potent hypoglycemic and hepato-protective properties. Simple alcoholic extracts were demonstrated to have these effects on laboratory animals a few years ago. For example, animals treated with carbon tetrachloride, a compound very damaging to the liver recovered almost completely when treated with purple loosestrife. In animals treated to induce diabetes, purple loosestrife brought blood sugar down to normal."

Purple loosestrife has been studied with regards to its antimicrobial actions.  In particular, it was found to be highly effective against candida albicans.  Here, we should clarify that the "candida" that many people think of when they here the word candida is probably better termed dysbiosis (an imbalance of the microflora of the gut).  In suggesting that purple loosestrife may be helpful for candida, I'm specifically thinking  of topical preparations for tings like thrush and "I started to get inflammed itchy creases in my groin and now my partner has inflammed itchy creases in his/her groin... what can I do for that?"  Perhaps a purple loosestrife sitz bath or compress?  An oil or salve?  These are easily made and tried and the results reported on...

More should be noted about Purple Loosestrife's role in our environment.  As mentioned above, virtually all the attention given to the plant regards it as an unstoppable invasive plant which inevitably overshadows and crowds out native plants, dries up wetlands, and generally destroys ecological balance (In actuality, WE upset ecological balance).  I've been observing local stands of purple loosestrife for two decades now, and have noticed that the only places it seems to vigorously take over and displace native plant species are in areas where human "development" has disturbed (or destroyed) the habitat and then left it fallow.  In such cases, purple loosestrife moves in and colonizes the area with a vigorous rapidity few other plants can match, and once established, they leave little room for the return of native flora. However, in established habitats that include purple loosestrife, I have yet to see it out-muscle other established plants to any frightening degree, or to spread with the unstoppable abandon it shows when colonizing disturbed ground.  Claude Lavoie writes in his "Should we care about purple loosestrife?" that "Purple loosestrife is certainly an invader, and some native species likely suffer from an invasion, but stating that this plant has ‘large negative impacts’ on wetlands is probably exaggerated. The most commonly mentioned impact (purple loosestrife crowds out native plants and forms a monoculture) is controversial and has not been observed in nature (with maybe one exception). There is certainly no evidence that purple loosestrife ‘kills wetlands’ or ‘creates biological deserts’, as it is repeatedly reported."

Beyond that, Purple Loosestrife possesses the incredible virtue of phytoremediation, which is to say that it can accumulate environmental pollutants (such as PCBs) and break them down into inert compounds.

 

(alas, I originally had found a study online that discussed that specific claim; but lost these sources in a computer crash.  I've not been able to "re-find" it online.  In a nutshell, from what I remember, areas of a wetland invaded by purple loosestrife showed lower PCB concentrations than measurements taken in those areas before the Purple Loosestrife established itself, and PCBs were not found in the the plants in concentrations that would seem normal for mere accumulation.  It was posited that the plant actually broke down the PCBs.  If anyone can turn me onto where to find that again, I'd be especially stoked.  That said, outside of the breaking down of PCBs into inert compounds, Purple Loosestrife is well known as a phytoremediator that accumulates pollutants; removing them from the water.)

 

This brings to light an entirely new consideration as to the role of purple loosestrife in the environment: Is it coincidence that the plant has become invasive in environments that it just happens to be able to cleanse pollutants from? Or, in some way, does this tendency exhibit the unforeseen ways in which Nature tends to and heals itself?

I don't have the answers to these questions, and I freely acknowledge that I don't think this is always and ever the case (whatever we consider, we should consider it in context it occurs in), but clearly we can see that there is much more to this beautiful plant than is oft told...

jim mcdonald

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