Surviving the Urban Jungle, with Help from Herbs
There’s a mural not far from my naturopathy clinic that depicts the busy street it’s on – only it’s been overrun by wild animals. Elephants, monkeys, rhinos and a roaring lion all appear to be charging towards us as we pass by. Above the scene are the words: It’s a jungle sometimes. This beloved mural first appeared more than 20 years ago and has become a Sydney landmark. When an advertising company painted over the original last year, outraged locals demanded they restore it.
The message was clear – don’t mess with our mural. But why do we love it so much? Why does that image speak to us? What is it about these fierce animals battling it out for survival that reminds us of our own hectic existence in this big city? Traffic, work, cost of living, childcare, pollution… I’ve lived in Sydney my whole life, and as a herbalist I help people manage their physical and mental reactions to the city. I see it every day. Surviving in Sydney can really feel like living in a jungle.
But it doesn’t need to feel this way. Instead of succumbing to our most primal instincts and fears in the urban jungle, we need to have a relationship with nature in its most nurturing forms. I often find myself giving frazzled clients the same advice – wake up without looking at a screen and simply go outside and look into nature, to the sky. It’s one small change in our routine that can reset our stress response system. It can calm the rush of adrenalin that may be pumping our veins, and the “to-do” lists racing through our minds, and let us just be – even for a moment.
Plants too have always been our allies. The medicinal properties of plants have been used by humankind for centuries. The power and influence of herbal medicine is to heal, ground and support. It’s time we reconnected to this ancient knowledge. There are some herbs that I turn to time and time again when I am blending medicines in my clinic.
The healing, nurturing properties of these plants have been known for centuries, but their applications are as relevant today as ever.”
The first one is Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), which comes from the Greek word khami meaning on the ground. Used as a “cure all”, it was known as one of the nine sacred herbs of the early Saxons.
To me Chamomile is still the most important of all herbal medicine to help us adapt, survive, remain vital and thrive in the jungle we call Sydney. Chamomile relieves insomnia, nervous tension, headaches and hyperactivity. Traditionally it was used for colic in babies, and it is still used today for the same gentle, soothing and calming effect on the gastrointestinal tract of not only babies, but adults too. It’s important for menopausal tension as well as morning sickness in pregnancy, and can be used as a poultice for inflammation of wounds, nappy rash, eczema, acne, cracked nipples from breastfeeding, as well as mastitis.
Chamomile can be easily grown in your backyard. It loves warm weather and will grow in abundance. It also works well as a neighbouring plant to cabbage and onion increasing their growth and vitality. If you’re not into growing your own, it can also easily been found in most health food stores in loose leaf or tea bags and even in an oil form. Chamomile is versatile too. It can be served warm or cold and consumed at any part of the day.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is another really useful herb. Native to the Americas, this delicate purple flower is beautiful and worth growing for its looks alone. It’s a fast-growing vine that will need a trellis or fence to support it.
The Houma, Cherokee and other Native American tribes used the plant for both food and medicine, including as a sedative as well as to treat inflammation and burns. Passionflower can be used for sleep maintenance and insomnia, anxiety, irritability and tension headache. Make a tea from the dried leaves to release tension and get a better night’s sleep. Take care with passionflower though, it shouldn’t be used if you’re pregnant or if you’re on other sedatives.
Another herb I like to use is Ziziphus (Ziziphus Jujuba), which is found in subtropical regions around the world from Africa to India and even Brazil. Its modern use comes from its ability to help us stay calm, and centre the nervous system. Ziziphus can be used to treat emotional stress, irritability, anxiety that causes sweating and insomnia. It can be really good for night sweats in menopause in particular.
The part we use of this plant is the seed. Which makes sense, as the seed is grounded, connected to the earth, whole – and we mix this plant tincture for humans to feel centred, grounded, even tempered and whole. This synergy between humans and botanicals is what helps makes herbal medicine so powerful.
There are many botanicals out there that have been used by cultures all over the world to promote calm, wellbeing and groundedness. These are just three of them. But it gives us a glimpse of how the natural world can provide an antidote to the stresses and strains of living in a huge, sprawling city. The next time you feel yourself lost in the urban jungle, take a moment, look up to the sky and ask nature for some help.