Flower Power

A look at the ancient art of transforming plants into medicines
By Robert A. Halberstein, PhD

Though most of us may not be aware of it, we are the beneficiaries of a long history of experimentation by healers and herbalists in different societies who have carefully selected and prepared specific parts of plants to maximize their desired curative properties. Long before the advent of modern synthetic drugs, traditional medical practitioners discovered that boiling certain plant materials and mixing them with natural additives could create a tea. In this tea bioactive botanical chemicals were concentrated for medicinal use and harmful ingredients were simultaneously removed or neutralized.

The chemical components of botanicals are some of the earliest known medicines, and continue to be the “treatment of choice” for many health problems across cultures. Aspirin was derived from the bark and leaves of the willow tree; morphine/codeine from the poppy flower; digoxin/digitalis from the foxglove plant; quinine from the cinchona tree; reserpine from the Indian Snakeroot plant; barbaloin from the aloe plant; and taxol from the Pacific yew tree.

Other plant derivatives have been successfully applied in the treatment of cancer (periwinkle plant), prostate gland disorders (saw palmetto), insomnia (valerian root), respiratory and other infections (echinacea), and high blood pressure (garlic). Additional species have been used in traditional medical systems as appetite stimulants, digestive aids, analgesics, abortifacients, sedatives, tranquilizers, aphrodisiacs, daily tonics, and so on.

In many cases the same plant species have a multitude of uses across different cultures. Yarrow is credited with over 150 chemical compounds and 359 separate therapeutic applications in North American Indian populations alone. It is also prescribed for a variety of additional curing purposes in the traditional medical systems of Korea, Kashmir, and Mexico.

Other multipurpose medicinal plants include copperleaf, which is used to treat kidney disease, diarrhea, ulcers, and dermatological disorders; air plant, which is used for hypertension, asthma, gonorrhea, ulcers, and bacterial infections; spearmint, used for hypertension, gastrointestinal disease, arthritis, and motion sickness; stinging nettle, used to treat hypertension, arthritis, urinary tract infections, and prostate cancer; and the pink trumpet tree, extracts of which have been applied in traditional medicine for cancer, gonorrhea, and a range of dental disorders. It has additionally been exploited as an aphrodisiac and poison antidote. Guava is also credited with multiple medicinal applications.

Flowers: the healing properties

Flowers have served as a major source of healing remedies in societies around the world. Whole flowers, component parts, or their phytochemical derivatives have been smothered on the skin or ingested for everything from heart disease to urinary incontinence. According to the ancient “doctrine of signatures” the shape, color, and other physical features of a plant can provide clues to its healing properties. One example is the choice of yellow dandelions in the traditional treatments of urinary disorders and jaundice. Extracts of the heart-shaped leaves of heart’s ease, the flowers and calyxes of the red hibiscus, and the bright red “hips” (fruits) of the rose have been recommended for cardiovascular and blood disorders.

Dr. Edward Bach and Bach Flower Remedies

An increasingly popular and serviceable set of flower-based medications, Bach Flower Remedies (BFRs) were originally developed in England in the 1920s by British physician Edward Bach. (BFRs continue to be produced and distributed by the Bach Centre in Oxfordshire.) In the Bach healing system, highly diluted extracts (essences) are derived from 37 species of wildflowers cultivated under specified conditions. The flower essences are homeopathically prepared by boiling various flower parts with natural spring water (the boiling method) or by exposing the heads of flowers to the sun while placed in spring water (the sun method). Sun-infused (solarized) spring water is also used by itself as an additional essence called rock water for a total of 38 individual remedies.

The resulting energetic healing products of each flower are used orally as a liquid or as a cream on the skin. This can be done individually or in combination for the treatment of particular disorders. Single remedies are generally recommended to target specific problems. Sometimes they are combined to create supercharged, synergistic cures for complex health problems.

BFRs are used for emotional health issues like managing fear and stress or controlling aggression as well as cognitive issues like enhancing learning skills, combatting memory loss, and improving stuttering and dyslexia. They are often recommended to “rebalance” disrupted or disarrayed emotions. BFRs are also used for physical health problems with a psychological component. These include sleep disorders, eczema, allergies, hypertension, dermatitis, asthma, bedwetting, eating/digestion disorders, and migraines. Bach claimed that BFRs can also help other healing modalities and medicines work more effectively.

Due to their diluted composition and record of safety, BFRs are listed as nontoxic, over-the-counter medicinal products by the FDA and medicine regulating boards in the United Kingdom. While they may be purchased and used without a prescription, guidance from a certified practitioner or official texts is recommended. BFR literature says overdosing is not harmful and negative side effects are rare, so BFRs are suitable for children, animals, and plants. Bach says BFRs do not lose their potency over time or interact with other medicines or food.

Rescue Remedy

Rescue Remedy is a BFR combination liquid formula comprised of the diluted essences of five flowers: cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose (Helianthimum ummularium—there are two other plants called rock rose), and star of Bethlehem. Rescue Remedy is given orally by Bach specialists for management of acute emotional stress from a sudden traumatic event like the death of a loved one or an automobile accident. Rescue Remedy can also serve as a “preventive medicine” to help one retain composure prior to taking a school examination, visiting the dentist, going on a job interview, air travel, or public speaking.

The Rescue Remedy 20 ml bottle indicates a recommended dosage of four drops in a glass of water or directly on or underneath the tongue. The 20 ml spray container says to apply two sprays on the tongue, with dosages repeated as necessary. Bach classifies the essences as active ingredients and identifies Rescue Remedy as a homeopathic remedy and natural stress relief. Grape alcohol (27 percent) is listed as an inactive ingredient and acts as a preservative. Pregnant women and those with alcohol sensitivity should use caution. Rescue Cream is applied to pulse points or other surfaces of the body for stress relief and the treatment of burns, insect bites, and other minor injuries.

Rescue Remedy put to the test

A randomized double-blind clinical trial of Rescue Remedy against a placebo was conducted in Miami with 111 adults experiencing high levels of test-taking stress. A statistically significant reduction in anxiety was seen in the group taking Rescue Remedy. Other experimental studies have produced mixed results on the possible stress-lowering effects of Rescue Remedy, so more research is recommended.

Components of Rescue Remedy

Bach essences derived from the five flower species in Rescue Remedy are also used individually for specific emotional stresses or mental conditions. The diverse applications for those flowers are listed below.

BFR products illustrate how plants can have multiple medicinal uses just as many synthetic drugs have several applications. Aspirin is used for headaches and other mild pains, but is also prescribed to reduce fevers and as a blood thinner in the treatment of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. The overuse of aspirin, however, can lead to disruptive fluctuations in body temperature or ineffective blood clotting following an injury. Broad spectrum antibiotics like penicillin and tetracycline help control or eliminate a wide range of harmful bacterial infections, but the extended intake of a high dose could lead to unintended loss of helpful bacteria and/or rapid proliferation of drug-resistant strains of the target bacteria.

On the other side of the coin the homeopathic BFR medications are considered safe and free of side effects even when recommended dosages are exceeded. Thus they are increasingly considered an attractive alternative to prescription tranquilizers, sedatives, and stimulants.

If you’d like to do further research, several books are available with technical information on the many facets and applications of BFRs. You can find them at bachflowerbooks.com/bach.htm.

The current resurgence of interest in botanical medicine will likely lead to more connections between flowers and health enhancement in the future. These discoveries will help people heal, as well as safely control and manage life’s many pressures and challenges.


Robert A. Halberstein, PhD, is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Miami.



Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera)

Applications in Bach BFR System: Lack of trust and courage, uncontrolled anger, suicidal thoughts, lack of self-control

Applications in other systems: Respiratory system stimulant, improves digestion; poisonous in large quantities


Clematis (Clematis vitalba)

Applications in Bach BFR System: Lack of focus; absentmindedness; indifference; low energy; improves creativity, motivation, alertness, and concentration

Applications in other systems: Analgesic (dental), diuretic, anti-inflammatory, purgative, migraine, rheumatism, cancer, skin disorders, ulcers, kidney disorders, arthritis; can cause sweating, blistering, and redness of skin


Impatiens (Impatiens glandulifera)

Applications in Bach BFR System: Impatience; irritability; restlessness; frustration; enhances empathy and reduces stress

Applications in other systems: Soothes skin irritations and chronic dermatitis; seed oil for cooking


Rock rose (Helianthimum ummularium)

Applications in Bach BFR System: Hysteria, nightmares, fear, panic, terror, trepidation; restores strength and courage

Applications in other systems: Primarily ornamental (two other flowers are named rock rose—Pavonia lasiopetala and Cistus albidus)


Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

Applications in Bach BFR SystemPast or present trauma, shock, fright, grief, bereavement, significant loss, following an accident

Applications in other systems: Diuretic, soothing, cancer, lymphatic ailments, gastric ulcers, gout, cardiovascular disease; bulb is poisonous