Skeptical Gardener

I’m very happy in my new home. I’m especially happy with my large yard. I’ve already picked a small patch for gardening, and may try to weasel my way to expanding the borders if I can get the BF to cooperate with my plans. As spring planting time is nearly upon me, I’m gathering all my supplies. Reclaimed wood, containers, seeds, and information.

As I’ve been researching for things to plant, I’ve found that some are being claimed to have special properties. For instance, I’ve often heard it claimed that marigolds repel aphids and that nasturtiums repel rabbits. Such a thing is incredibly useful to gardeners, if true. And even if it isn’t true, there’s no harm in pretty flower borders decorating the veggie patch, is there?

Still, I would look very silly if I said to someone who knew better that this magic flower over there kept pests at bay, only to have him turn around and tell me that it’s doing no more to ward of pests than it is to ward of tigers. Just because the pest isn’t around doesn’t mean my plant actually put up an effective force field. Why did I think it would? Because someone told me?

When I first heard claims of pest-control plants, I was eager to accept it as truth. After all, I heard it from gardeners, people who have been working the land longer than I’ve been alive so I’d think they know a thing or two. It would certainly benefit me if the claims were, indeed, accurate. But just wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so, nor does hearing it from a perceived authority. This is something I gave little though until I considered another kind of plant use claim, on that I doubt, that being medicinal plants.

I’ve always found the effects certain plants are said to have for humans very interesting. Some flowers and herbs, I am told, have medicinal properties and can cure things like headaches and stomach upset, can promote healing, or can help you lose weight. I’ve even heard such lofty claims as this or that plant can prevent or cure cancer.

Do some plants really have the medicinal effects claimed? Maybe. I mean, it’s known that some plants can have an effect on animals. I mean, as an example right off the top of my head, the effects (medicinal and otherwise) of cannabis on humans are well known. And if I’m not mistaken, the developers of pharmaceutical have been known to look to plants, on occasion, in the development of new drugs. Plants can affect people as more than just a source of nutrition, and sometimes do so in some pretty strange ways.

I’m not questioning whether or not plants can possibly have medicinal uses. It’s whether or not the specific plants claimed really work as claimed, and whether or not they are really more effective and safer than commercial drugs. I’m not one to just believe whatever I’m told. Not without proof.

Sadly, I’m finding research on the matter a bit difficult. Actual scientific studies on such matters are hard to come by, and definitive conclusions harder still. Meanwhile, there remain so many claims out there, and it seems like more are sprouting up all the time as the “alternative medicine” movement gains steam online. It is therefore difficult for me to determine which claims are true, or at least plausible, and which are just “alternative medicine” hogwash. Honestly, I’m inclined to doubt “alternative medicine.” I doubt that any plant is medicinal until I can verify that it is.

It would be nice if I could grow my own personal pharmacy. However, until I can find proof that the herbs and flowers I’ve been told can do this or that really do as advertized, I will have the lingering and uncomfortable suspicion that I’d just be doing the gardening equivalent of superstitiously throwing salt over my shoulder, getting, at best, a placebo effect.

This doubt in herbal medicine makes me also wonder about the pest-control claims of companion plants. These claims too would be nice if true, but are they really? I don’t know.

This feels like an odd post to write because I’ve basically proposed a problem and then didn’t follow with a solution, making this post seem somewhat incomplete. The truth is, as of right now, I don’t have an answer.

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Posted on 2013/02/05, in Atheism, Diary, Green, Lessons Learned, Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Don’t feel bad about not having an answer. Being a skeptic means having to accept “I don’t know” as an response to a problem. At least temporarily.

    • Julie Was Here

      Yes, for now I accept “I don’t know.” I just really wish that I did know. I haven’t the means run experiments to find out.

  2. shooguhlipz

    AltMed is a crock. One of the biggest issues is that these therapies can’t stand up to the same tests and standards that real medicine is held to.
    If you want some good information, on altmed, check go to edgydoc dot com and check out Dr. Crislip’s Quackcast (on iTunes). He’s pretty funny.

    There are quite a few medicinal plants which are sourced for the manufacture of prescription medications. A few are: digoxin for the heart from foxglove, vinca alkaloids from periwinkle and taxanes from yew trees both of which are chemotherapeutic agents; caffeine, cocaine (yes, it’s still used in some places!) and of course morphine and its derivatives from the opium poppy.

    As for over-the-counter (OTC) herbals and supplements, they are not standardized or controlled by any regulatory body like prescription drugs or OTC drugs are. The problem with this is that one tablet’s contents may vary from one to another. Essentially, you could get too much or nothing in the dose, and there’s not much lit on what the correct dosage is for what condition. There are no definitive studies on what species and part of the plant(s) should be used. In the case of echinacea, some manufacturers use Echinacea purpurea and some use Echinacea angustifolia, but it’s not always easy to determine if the roots, stems or flowers (or a combination) is used. One brand may label 30mg, another 1200mg.

    So you’re right to question whether they are as effective or safer. Until there is standardization of herbs and supplements across the board, it will be impossible to really know.

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