Inspiration from an herbalist-priest

This booklet derives its inspiration from the work of Johann Künzle, born in 1857 in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. His youth and much of his adult life was during a time of relative quiet and stability in this somewhat isolated alpine region of Europe, though there were the beginnings of tremendous change: rapid industrialization, contentious politics, and changing economies. Nearly all aspects of human endeavors were amidst massive transition that seeped slowly into the remote villages. His busy and fruitful life lasted until 1945, just as the civilization on the European continent was crashing down in the final throes of all out war. This was the second major war to wrack the heart of Europe in a generation (though Switzerland was largely immune to both of them due to its isolation and neutrality). Each of the wars greatly accelerated the transition from life as it had been lived for centuries to that of the modern world. When Künzle's life ended at the ripe age of 87, what was left of the old ways of European culture were about to finally give way to the new. The European medical practices were not immune to these sweeping changes, yielding rapidly to modern technologies that were accelerated by wartime necessity and the expansion during post-war recovery.

Künzle wrote a small book, Chrut und Uchrut (Herbs and Weeds), no bigger than this one, that was published in 1911. It captured the essence of the culture of natural living and natural healing that was still alive, but struggling, before these great wars began. His motto was "Back to Nature," and this shows that even a century ago the world was deviating from what was deemed natural towards an industrialized, more technological society, less concerned with nature. To a large extent, Künzle's book became an important mirror of the old world that one could view from the new world. Eventually, more than a million copies of the book were printed in the German language, distributed mainly in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and followed up with translations that were distributed to several other countries in Europe. The last edition of the work was published in 1975, at which point its original content was still considered up to date, though brief information about 30 additional herbs had to be inserted to give some background for the Künzle formulas that had become famous. The current work, Major European Herbs, is intended as an updated and revised rendition of Künzle's basic approach to natural health care and herbal medicine, taking into account the considerable changes that have occurred both in our surroundings and in the field of natural cures since that time.

Künzle was influenced by his father who had a fascination with plants, but he had been first exposed to the medicinal properties of herbs during his high school years by a professor who was a Catholic priest. Catholics, particularly orders that were devoted to worldly deeds like the Jesuits, had pushed forward the development of universities, libraries, hospitals, and the study of medicine. A significant part of the Western world's repository of medical information was to be found in Catholic institutions. During the 19th century, herbs were already being given a secondary place in medicine, though modern drugs as we known them were not yet firmly established. For example, Rudolf Buchheim (1820-1879) at Leipzig, Germany, produced the German language text Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, eliminating many of the previously used herbs, and reporting on several drugs, including inorganic salts, gaseous anesthetics, and a few isolated chemicals. Aspirin, which was to become the most widely used drug (after alcohol), first appeared more than 20 years after Buchheim's death, in 1899.

Soon after Künzle's early introduction to herbs, he attended the University of Lowen where he studied theology and philosophy, and entered the seminary at St. Gall, Switzerland. He was ordained a priest in 1881. He served the church at numerous locations in Switzerland during the following years. His learning of herbs took place in the context of Catholic theology and in a setting where natural health care was separated from modern medicine.

Künzle pursued herbalism as a practical matter in response to his experience of being a spiritual advisor to parents who were dying and about to leave behind young children. Utilizing the knowledge of herbs he had attained earlier, and studying further through books, and by thoughtful examination of his own experiences, he would sometimes restore the health of his wards by administering or recommending teas, herbal baths, and other preparations. This somewhat limited activity (because of the remote area where he lived) soon led to a reputation for a healing ability (a charism, as described in Catholic terminology; a special gift, a talent, conferred by the Holy Spirit), and people began seeking him out for assistance from an ever expanding region, as word of mouth passed on praise of him as the "Father Herbalist." Eventually, his work as herbalist took over his daily life and he devoted himself almost solely to this task, though never leaving behind his devotion to the Catholic faith.

He described his experiences in the introduction to Chrut and Uchrut:

A spiritual adviser, I often had to visit sick fathers and mothers who according to the reports of the local physicians, were dying, leaving behind their little children. In such cases, I gathered up all my knowledge of herbs and was often able to get them back on their feet again. Among others, I was thus able to help a poor Protestant who had been lying in his bed for two years, painfully afflicted with gout and swollen limbs. 'You must get this man out of bed again,' I told myself, and accomplished it after four weeks. Now people said, 'The parson can almost work miracles. He helps disregarding even the difference of faith!' Every evening, groups of working men and women came to me and implored me to help them and I did what I could. When someone reported me to the bishop, who at first did not want to hear anything about my doctoring activity, I sent some of the cured to him to tell the story. This satisfied the bishop, who then gave me permission to continue with my therapy.

While the bishop may have been agreeable, the medical authorities and physicians in the region were aghast at his practice of medicine without a license. This earned him the reputation, among that group, as a quack practitioner, and it was only because of the strong support of the people that he was able to continue to offer his consultations, which included advice about diet, life style, and use of herbal remedies. He took care not to step over the bounds of natural health care and into the realm of modern medical practice, recognizing that the latter had its place for situations where simple home remedies failed, or where there was a need for surgery. Thus, for example, under the heading appendicitis in his book, he claimed that the disease is often cured by a tea made from holly or blackberry leaves, and immediately followed the claim by this caution: "but call a physician without fail at once." He was not averse to the modern medical profession, but, instead, wanted people to stay healthy by following simple rules of natural living. He recommended the use of herbs for specific circumstances: to prevent an ailment from progressing to a stage so serious that the new medical treatments were needed; to treat persons who were not able to get to a doctor due to their remote location; and to try, sometimes successfully, to treat people who failed to respond to the available modern medical therapies.

Still, recognizing the increasing pressures being exerted by the medical community as his reputation as healer grew, he decided to pursue advanced medical studies. He did this as a 65-year-old student, and passed the test of the physician's examining board in 1922, thus granting him some acceptance by the medical profession (but, he did not go on to become a licensed medical doctor). Nonetheless, then as now, many physicians were highly critical of people viewed as mystical healers, a designation that was thrust on Künzle by his supporters and not self-proclaimed. It was as much his attitude as his use of herbs that had built up his reputation. In a Swiss newspaper, this appraisal of him was published:

The priest Johann Künzle set an example of unaffected and direct naturalness for the whole church and the whole Swiss people which perhaps hasn't existed since Francis of Assisi. Caring for neither popularity nor offence, throughout his whole life he exhibited the direct frankness and honesty on which the Kingdom of Heaven could have been built and by which all stupidity and evil on this earth could have been vanquished. He always loved the people, the simplest and the most modest, and every mountain peasant meant as much to him as a cardinal. His egalitarian beliefs were carried out in actions as he was quite capable of saying what he thought in the presence of the Eminence. The Protestant was as near to him as his co-religionist. For him, faith and honesty were healing herbs for human society and he didn't care in which meadow they were found. All this was his nature, his high morality of character. And to that, I take my hat off!

Still, with his passing of a medical exam and his recognition as a kind hearted healer, he could only visit with so many people. The demand for the herbal materials that he recommended to those people he saw locally, as well as those who had heard about him at a distance, expanded to such an extent that a factory was set up to produce his standard formulas: Krauterpfarrer Künzle AG (Father Herbalist Künzle Company) in Minusio, Switzerland.

His formulations, which eventually included teas, herbal tablets, liquids (syrups, wines, and elixirs), liniments, massage oils, ointments, and other preparations, became a major force in Swiss health care that has persisted to this day. Many of the products were exported to other European countries and sometimes overseas. In 2004, this company won the Swiss Gold Marketing Award for its successful efforts to promote domestic use of the natural products. The company currently relies on about 80 herb cultivators who primarily employ organic farming methods. For the prior eight years, sales of the products were declining, as a reflection of overall trends in Europe, but the Künzle Company rebounded through its marketing in drug stores. Since 2000, some of these products, selected items in the form of herbal teas, became available in America (see Chapter 7). They are manufactured in Germany, with a new style of labeling suited to the U.S. FDA regulations.

The book Herbs and Weeds was intended as a quick reference for people interested in his work. According to Künzle, the writing of it came about because of the demand conveyed to him by persons who read his short herb essays that had been published in a magazine and/or from attendance at lectures he gave from time to time on household remedies. He was not, by profession or bent, a writer of technical works: the resulting book was popular, in part, because of its casual style.

The charge that a priest should stick to his own profession and not get involved in medicine was one that had been addressed to him. In his introduction to the book, he commented that there was historical precedence: priests in the Middle Ages were medicine men; monks and even bishops wrote tracts about herbs. Further, he noted that while some medical doctors would suggest to patients-who could not be properly treated by their available methods-to go ahead and use home remedies, the art of preparing and using those remedies was not usually known either by the doctor or the patient. So, there was evidently a need for this kind of information and hence, his lectures, magazines articles, and the small book.

It is a testimony to the deteriorating status of herbal medicine in Europe at the time that it was necessary for Künzle to present basic information about herbs for the lay public. Indeed, the last herbal guide in German that was widely accepted had been published four hundred years earlier. The rapid development of modern medicine during the 20th century-without much regard to herbal medicine and other healing techniques of earlier times-was made possible by this deterioration. Contrary to some popular views, modern medicine did not need to suppress a vigorous natural health care system; it filled what had become a virtual vacuum.

What differentiated Künzle's book from both the academic as well as several of the popular herbals that had been published previously was his inclusion of general health advice (non-herbal suggestions) and the description of the procedures for using herbs (collection, preparation, applications, duration of use, where appropriate). Most herb books austerely present the individual herbs with information about their characteristics and indications, but little or nothing more about the actual context of using them. In that sense, they are not practical, but simply a reservoir of information.

Today, it is common for many people, even those with very limited experience with herbs, to write books that give all kinds of health advice and recommended formulas. Unfortunately, many of these books quickly reveal the limited wisdom and experience of the writer, leaving one with a despairing sense of isolation from a viable tradition. Therefore, we are fortunate to have as inspiration such a well-respected herbalist as Künzle to guide us through European herbalism of the 20th century. At the time of this writing, his manufactured formulas have been in widespread use for 80 years and retain the respect of European consumers. Based on the information now available about herbs, these formulas can be seen to deserve continued admiration. The recommended uses of the herbal combinations appear appropriate from the modern perspective of active constituents and their pharmacology as well as from the herb properties attributed to the ingredients over the centuries. Further, several of the recommendations for healthy living that Künzle emphasized still seem worth following even though most people have long ignored such common sense suggestions.

One of the things that has changed over the years since Künzle's passing is the improved quality control over herb product manufacturing and the greatly increased knowledge of herbal active constituents and their pharmacology. In Herbs and Weeds, Künzle was only able to mention the existence of general groups of ingredients (such as aromatic components) and only one chemical compound, salicylic acid (the basis of aspirin, found in the European herbs willow bark and meadowsweet). The chemical components in herbs were believed to be responsible for their medicinal effects then as now, but today we can identify many thousands of individual chemical compounds and provide detailed mechanisms of action by which they affect the body.

There has been some change in the context in which herbs are taken. There is greater emphasis on use of manufactured products rather than items collected by the consumer (or an herbal prescriber). Thus, for example, after describing the use of willow bark, Künzle mentions that this material is relatively easy to get from basket weavers. That may well have been so then, but not now. Today, there are a growing number of vaccines to prevent diseases that make some of the hundred-year-old therapies virtually obsolete, at least for those applications, such as treating measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough. Herbs that were previously regarded as safe to use have become restricted or banned from use due to rare instances of adverse reactions, usually from prolonged consumption of the herbs (compared to shorter term use that was characteristic of earlier herbal practice) and from use of the herbs by persons with unusual medical conditions. These and other differences between the current situation and the world that was depicted by Künzle in his book have made portions of his original text outdated and in need of revision: hence, the potential value of the current work. Since most individuals do not have easy access to all the individual herbs, and would not be satisfied with purchasing them individually and blending them according to imprecisely reported formulas, the presentation of Künzle-inspired formulations in convenient tea bag form (as described in Chapter 7) makes the information about the medicinal properties of the herbs, rather than their appearance and collection methods, that much more useful.

While an effort has been made here to preserve the content and flavor of Künzle's presentation, there are some concepts he held that have been deleted. He believed that a group of five herbs included in his 9-herb formula called Professor's Tea, are "slightly radioactive, which probably explains their healing power." For one of the herbs, Benedict's Herb (Geum urbanum), he states that "it contains radium." I don't know the origins of the idea that the plants contain radium and are radioactive, but it may have been based on the use of indicator plants for finding mineral resources (some plants are better than others at absorbing certain minerals from the soil; examining the plants can suggest what minerals lie beneath). Regardless, in the modern context, radium content and radioactivity wouldn't be considered a benefit, but a distinct detriment. Apparently, soon after the discovery of radioactivity (in 1896 by Henri Becquerel) and radium as a source of radioactivity (in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie), this property was thought by some to be responsible for healing virtues of several plants, and Künzle accepted this notion. In fact, at the same time as he was writing Herbs and Weeds, a popular fountain, pouring forth water rich in radioactive radon, was set-up at the hotel Disentiserhof, in Switzerland, to serve as a medicinal therapy. Radon had been discovered in 1900 by Friedrich Dorn, who called it "radium emanation." Künzle also applied the concept of the healing potential of radiation, somewhat haltingly, to crane's bill (Geranium robertianum), for which he said: "This plant possesses the power of eradication [of inflammatory and febrile diseases] because it is radioactive or because the Creator has endowed it with this virtue." Without contradicting the idea of endowment by the Creator, the modern developments of pharmacology have revealed active constituents and mechanisms of action other than radioactivity to explain the purported effects.

Also deleted are some proposed therapeutic regimens in Künzle's original work that did not reflect actual cases he had observed. He presented a treatment for bubonic plague (should it ever arise again), using so-called pestilence roots (coltsfoot and the related herb petasites, also known as butterbur or sweet coltsfoot), with the statement that "after being administered, the powder causes strong perspiration and only persons able to perspire freely can be cured." This concept of perspiration curing a feverish disease is an old idea passed on over the centuries (and mentioned in many healing traditions). There is probably no viable evidence of efficacy for either the pestilence roots themselves, or for induction of perspiration, as a method of therapy for bubonic plague. These herbs are no longer relied on to treat infectious or epidemic diseases, nor is induction of perspiration any longer so assuredly believed to be a treatment for deadly infections as it was in his day. Nonetheless, proponents of natural healing often propose that "cleansing" of the body by eliminating toxins through diuresis, laxative effects, or perspiration will resolve many symptoms and diseases (see the Appendix for Künzle's applications of these methods). Petasites remains a popular herb, but mainly for treating pain, and has been researched as a potentially useful remedy migraine therapy. Both coltsfoot and petasites contain small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which carry a minimal but potentially serious risk for liver damage; petasites extracts without this component are now marketed.

Künzle had learned from another priest (whom he did not name in his book) about the treatment of children's diseases and had passed on the concept he learned: many of these diseases were due to insufficient urination. Among the diseases he mentioned were eczema, skin eruptions, and measles as the main cases, but also eye and ear troubles and epilepsy as possible cases. He pointed out that "the urine must be forced," meaning that urination had to be attained in order to get the cure. One of his favored herbs for this purpose was rhizomes of quickgrass (Triticum repens). This, and other diuretic herbs used at the time, may prove of some benefit to these diseases, even if the mechanism of action involves anti-inflammatory or anti-infection properties rather than solely the diuretic actions of the herbs. Naturopathic doctors today also give diuretic herbs as part of the natural therapy for these conditions, following the concept that the disease is due to accumulations of toxins that can be eliminated, in part, by stimulating urination. In China, the doctors indicate that many of these disorders are said to be due to "damp" syndromes and are treated also with diuretic herbs. Modern knowledge of these diseases does not seem to imply a relationship between their occurrence or resolution and urinary excretion, but we don't know if that is simply a missed observation.

For the reasons cited above, some editing of the original approach to healing presented by Künzle is now in order under the bright lights of progress in medical diagnosis and the understanding of pathogenesis and disease progression. If these questionable aspects of his writing had dominated his approach to herbs, Künzle might well be written off-as a few critics have done-as no more than a popular figure who offered ill-tasting placebos to desperate people. However, the above-cited transgressions are characteristic of the thinking in Europe at this time, differing not much in quality from some of the standard medical ideas of that era that are similarly rejected today. One only need read the section of the modern Journal of the American Medical Association devoted to what was published in this respected journal a century ago to see that numerous concepts of "modern medicine" simply had to be scrapped. The disputable contentions, presented as facts by Künzle, are by no means the central theme of his teaching. Instead, what we now see as erroneous claims and misunderstandings are the weaknesses in the herbal tradition that repeatedly need to be ferreted out over time, to reveal the strong heart of natural medicine. The effectiveness of the major herbs continues to stand the test of time, as will be revealed in the presentations about each of the herbs, and many of his recommendations for natural lifestyle are recognized to be of value today.

Künzle's small booklet was augmented in the last edition with brief descriptions of 30 herbs that were used in manufacture of his formulas but not included in the original Herbs and Weeds (many of those formulas had been designed by Künzle after his original book was published); 10 of those herbs are reviewed here, in Chapter 8. Also, a few illustrations were added, some corrections were made in the original text, and a listing was attached of all the preparations then being manufactured with brief description of their uses. This amended version was edited by staff members of PfafferKünzle AG, thirty years after Künzle's death. Thus, the practice of preserving but amending the original book is already a tradition.

In the current work, some of the herbs used by Künzle in Herbs and Weeds, especially those used topically, those applied as veterinary remedies (many of the people he tended to owned animals that also had various ailments), and those having some toxicity that makes them unsuited to widespread use, have not been included. Taking their place is an extended description of each of the major herbs that are available in the tea products.