BAADARAN, Lebanon: An onion a day keeps the doctor away, according to herbalist Nazih Baz, who learned to treat ailments using traditional means from his own grandfather, a healer from the Chouf village of Baadaran who lived to be 106 years old. So highly revered are onions for their medicinal properties that the Prophet Mohammad is said to have declared: “If you enter a country stricken by plague and fear contagion, eat of its onions.”
Lebanon is witnessing a revived interest in traditional herbal medicines, a trend Baz and others like him hope will save a dying tradition and raise awareness about the importance of protecting native species of plants.
Baz sees no contradiction between modern and traditional medicine, pointing out that the study of plants – now deemed “alternative” – gave birth to modern pharmaceuticals.
“Every person should be treated with the plants of his land,” Baz said. “God made plants to treat the diseases found in humans.”
“Some people call me a doctor, but I absolutely reject this term. I consider us [herbalists] a bridge” between traditional and modern medicine, the herbalist said.
Baz sees himself as the carrier of an ancient Mediterranean tradition passed down from Hippocrates and Galen to Abu Bakr al-Razi, from generation to generation till the present day.
Baz emphasized that while many people take a flippant approach to herbal remedies, some plants, if taken in the wrong dosage or prepared incorrectly, can harm or even kill, and should be treated as seriously as any other medicine.
But with flu season approaching, Baz agreed to share a few simple recipes anyone can try at home:
Baz says the changing of the seasons leaves our immune systems particularly vulnerable to infection. As such, he recommends making an infusion of dried – not fresh – ginger, to which anise can also be added, and drinking it once a day for a week at the start of fall and winter. Simply boil water and add the ginger and anise and brew as one would tea.
Rosemary, called ikleel al-jabal or ramoran, is also a good herb to take for a week at the beginning of each season for “internal rejuvenation ” Take a small piece between 5 and 7 centimeters and drop into boiling water and turn off the heat immediately for the best results.
Qasayeen or mariamia, known as Lebanese or eastern sage, is commonly used to treat colds, coughs and the flu. Add four to five leaves of fresh sage to boiling water, then turn off the heat immediately. With a few exceptions, Baz recommends always using fresh or dried herbs rather than extracts when possible.
Also known locally as arbanast or otr, woodruff has antibiotic properties and acts as an expectorant and mild sedative. Simply boil a few leaves in water. Woodruff, Baz warns, is one of Lebanon’s native herbs that is becoming increasingly rare.
In addition to its well-known calming properties, chamomile, or babunaj in Arabic, can also be used as a beautifying treatment by putting one’s face over a steaming bowl of tea and allowing the vapor to open pores and draw out impurities.
Baz recommends lettuce for treating hangovers, adding: “the greener the better.” Drinking a shot of olive oil before the night begins can help prevent them, he adds.
A quarter teaspoon of dried ground cinnamon taken orally can help relieve menstrual cramps.
Baz’s No. 1 natural remedy for staying healthy, especially in polluted urban environments, is onion. He suggests grilling the onion whole but says red or white, onions eaten any way will keep the immune system strong.
Rabiha Sfeir, a researcher specializing the Lebanon’s native flora, has studied the scientific basis for many of Lebanon’s traditional medicines. Most notably, she conducted a study showing that essential oil from Lebanese sage was as effective for treating fungal infections as harsh chemical treatments.
“For thousands of years Lebanese have been using these plants in herbal teas and folk medicine,” Sfeir says. “Now there is a whole pharmaceutical industry and no one is interested in this type of thing.”
Although Sfeir does not recommend anyone eschew modern medicine entirely for herbs, she says natural remedies can be used to treat minor aches and ailments.
“We can’t say ‘go treat your cancer with a sage,” she says. “You have to leave that to the doctors.”
Although she does not generally prescribe remedies, Sfeir offered a few recommendations of her own using plants native to Lebanon:
Boiled in water, valerian or nadarine induces sleep for restless minds.
Better known as shirsh al-zallouh, ferula is native to the eastern Mediterranean and has traditionally been used as an aphrodisiac. According to Sfeir, it has a strong reputation as a general stimulant, nervous activator against neurasthenia, general weakness, stress and fatigue.
Sfeir, who won the Green Mind Award in 2012 in the category of “Green Individual,” is currently preparing to launch an initiative along with Yola Noujaim called La Tisanerie. La Tisanerie aims to teach women living in rural areas how to grow and harvest indigenous plants, which will be made into extracts and teas to be sold on the market, providing an additional source of income for the women and their families.
If the Lebanese wish to continue living off the land as their ancestors did, they must learn to respect the indigenous biodiversity, Sfeir says, lamenting the preference in Lebanon for non-native flowers like European roses.
“This is not Europe. For them to survive we need to pulverize them with pesticides,” she complains. “Why not grow native plants instead?”