The Lost Art of the “Depurative Cure” – A Traditional View from Provence, France
It is 5 am on this cold Saturday morning of October 1983. My grandpa tiptoes into my bedroom and gently rubs my back. A whisper: « wake up kiddo, it’s time ». I groan and moan and whine, trying to shake-off that pre-teenage torpor. I get dressed in the dark – viper-proof hiking shoes, wool socks, thick corduroy pants. The smell of coffee is overpowering in the little village house, a smell that, to this day, reminds me of him.
The knifes and wicker baskets are lined-up on the table, along with a piece of bread with butter and lavender honey – my early breakfast. My grandma is ready too, wrapping a scarf around her head. She would not miss this outing for all the money in the world. She loves picking ceps (Boletus edulis).
My grandpa explains to me for the hundredth time : « you know how it goes with mushrooms. Once the sun is out, it’s almost too late to pick. The sun plays tricks on you. The shadows of the leaves create dark patches on the ground, and every patch will look like a cep to you. »
6:30 am. The car is parked at the bottom of the mountain chains of high Provence, near the village of Banon. We start the climb. We will walk for hours, at a very slow pace, on very steep hills of white and evergreen oaks.
My grandma expertly pokes around with her stick. How she knew where to probe under the leaves, I never knew. That stick mesmerized me. It had an intelligence of its own. She calls me. « Come over here, there is a bunch coming out! ». As usual, she gives me the privilege to pick the biggest ones, then she will clean-up behind me.
« Ah, that is what I was looking for! Look over here now. You see this plant ? C’est la marrube. Pick me a bunch will you? I will dry it for next April. » Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is reaching the end of its growing season, dried spiky seed buds, and sad looking leaves. It looks half-dead to me. « Why would you need that dead thing grandma?»
« Ah but la marrube, it is very good to cleanse the liver ».
« Why do you want to cleanse your liver grandma ? ». At age twelve, I am already influenced by the scientific skepticism of the 80’s. I love math and science. And I am not about to gobble-up everything at face value, even if it comes from my much beloved grandma.
« Well you see, during winter, people get lazy and they eat too much pork and sausage. They stay inside due to the cold weather. Too much going in, not enough going out. So the garbage accumulates around the liver, the liver gets big and dirty. Then the blood gets dirty. »
« The blood cannot get dirty grandma. Its inside our body. Dirt cannot get into our veins like that ».
She laughs. « Oh yes it can. If you have a tired liver, you get dirty blood. Now I cannot tell you why. I did not go to school and I don’t know much about how things work. But I know that spring calls for a clean liver and clean blood ».
How I regret not having picked her brain more, recorded her history, asked her about the plants she knew so well. The names still dance around in my head. Marrube, petit-chêne, scabieuse, immortelle.
But I know enough to revive that knowledge, to rebuild that history. This is why I moved back to Provence two years ago and restarted a clinic from scratch. To weave modern knowledge with the lost wisdom of my elders. To go back to my roots.
Dirty liver, dirty blood
As a clinical herbalist, I can finally explain why an overworked liver leads to dirty blood. Any doctor at that time, or even today, would dismiss that notion with a snort. But she knew better. We know better.
Old folks got dirty blood at the end of winter. Too much pork as she said, her way to express the overconsumption of preserved, salted meats. The under-consumption of locally grown fresh produce. The over-reliance on cereals and grains.
And then there was the “people staying inside” factor, something that only happened during winter months. In those hilly regions of Provence, there were still lots of shepherds, growers, lumberjacks, honey producers. And just like nature around them, they went through a slow and sleepy period in the colder months.
The spring awakening called for a cleansing. New energy could not be built on dirty foundations. The blood held the waste, the liver provided the spout into the outside world. Assuming that it got the appropriate stimulation to do so, the liver would open up that spout and evacuate as needed.
Around March or April, country folks would take a depurative plant for a duration of 2 to 3 weeks. All plants were taken as infusions or decoctions, two to three times a day. A batch of infusion was sometimes prepared in the morning for the whole day and the whole household.
I will not present to you the usual picks, because you know a lot about them already. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock (Arctium minor) were much used and much beloved. Instead, I am going to talk about some lesser known plants, those that fell into oblivion.
The Provence folks were very practical. And quite busy. They did not go on long hikes to pick plants from remote places. They picked whatever they needed around two locations: around the house, and along the path leading from home to work.
Just like in many other places, the women held the plant knowledge. They were the family herbalists and nurses. The knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter. The men had little exposure to that knowledge.
My grandma took the time to pass bits and pieces onto me. But she did not attempt to transfer her whole experience onto the next generations. She felt that this was the end of a era, that the modern medical world was bringing promises of instant cures and miracle drugs.
The 1800’s and 1900’s were terrible periods for French herbalism. We did not have our “Eclectics”. Cazin left us one of the best herbals in 1850. Then nothing. Modern medical knowledge was taking over, and plants were discarded as folklorism without scientific background.
Maurice Mességué was a genius. He just knew what to use for what person. But his style was so intuitive that in my opinion, he did not leave a framework that can be taught. In the 20th century, the work of doctors Leclerc, Valnet and their MD students was admirable, but limited to plant-symptoms matching. Constitutional herbalism: no more.
In the age of information and connectivity, we can rebuild herbalism and propagate the knowledge back into the hands of French people. This is, at least, my humble intention.
Germander (Teucrium chamaedris)
Germander was one of the top depurative plants of Provence, particularly in the higher-altitude areas. It was used more than dandelion and burdock combined. The local name was “petit chêne”, in English “small oak”. If you look at the leaves, they indeed look like miniature versions of the white oak leaves growing in the region.
The plants growing here are very small and creeping. They are very easy to miss. If I take you for a hike through the hills, you will spot wild thyme and savory, helichrysum and rosemary, but you will probably step on germander. Once you start to see it though, you realize it is everywhere, tiny patches of dark green on the white rocky limestone slopes.
The wild plant is quite bitter. It reminds me of skullcap, bitter but with a green, nourishing undertaste, cooling to the nerves. It was used to adulterate skullcap after all. The aerial parts were cut during the fall, dried, and consumed at the end of winter for the required period of two to three weeks.
I was recently talking about this plant with the old shepherd living near my village. I buy sheep and horse manure from him for my garden.
“Do you know a plant called petit-chêne ?”
“Course I do”
“What do you use it for?”
“For joint pains and gout, for arthritis. It makes you piss.”
“Why would you need to piss if you have joint pain?” (me playing naïve)
“You want to piss out the dirt that gets stuck in your joints a’course”
He looks at me with the “duh!” look implying that younger folks ain’t learning anything anymore. Germander, as a diuretic, has a strong affinity for joint pain and swelling around the joints.
We do know today that Germander contains a non-negligible amount of the infamous P.A.s (Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, as are found in Comfrey – ed.). I have consumed the plant myself for my personal experimentation. But I do not recommend this plant in my practice, due to its levels of P.A.s. People have enough liver stress today without adding another source.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Horehound was a popular bitter-depurative plant. Not for digestive issues specifically. Outside of the occasional digestive upsets, old folks in my region were not digestion-deficient from a constitutional perspective. These were strong “red in the face” folks with strong appetites, performing tough physical jobs with a life spent mostly outside. They had predictable futures and a low level of stress overall. How things have changed…
Horehound’s bitterness and harsh taste may have provided too much of a digestive stimulation for some folks. And I speculate that things like over-acidity and a little stomach cramping during the cure were ignored or discarded as part of the cleansing process. Some skin break-outs were also encountered, and even expected as part of the depurative process. In those cases, the treatment was stopped for a few days, then restarted at a lower dose.
F.J. Cazin, French countryside doctor of the 19th century, writes in his famous 1850’s herbal that “marrubium shall be used in all atonic states of the mucous membranes, particularly of the digestive and pulmonary tract, for the weakened, the old, and the enfeebled by long term diseases”.
Further, he said, “its strong taste is a warning of its significant power, not to be used in any case of irritation or inflammation”.
I will add to that “not to be used in cases of mucous membrane excess” (from a gut perspective, over-production of digestive juices leading to true stomach acidity, as opposed to today’s hypo-acidity/deficiency leading to acid reflux).
Old folks did not seem to make a difference between bitter-digestive plants and depurative plants. Bitter-digestives, of course, do provide a nice stimulation to the liver-gallbladder organs. They enable us to “open up the spout” and evacuate liver waste through increased bile production.
But they also come with their own digestive energy that cannot be ignored. For certain people with good functioning guts, dandelion or burdock roots provide, in my opinion, a straighter liver stimulation without being irritating to the gut.
Scabiosa (Scabiosa columbaria)
Scabiosa, just like many annuals, starts with a very unnoticeable rosette. The plant can cover entire fields. And when you know those rosettes, you can already imagine the pink pompom flowers of later spring, mini cotton-candies on a stick, giving prairies and roadsides a light, fluffy appearance.
Scabiosa was used as a bitter depurative. But here is the interesting part to me:
– adults used a decoction of the roots
– an infusion of the flowers was given to children
Kids were helping adults in the field at a very young age. They were precious labor for the parents, and apprentices for the skilled masters. Parents gave them plants to ensure they also started the new season on a clean foundation.
Some plants were too strong for them. A horehound infusion would have made a lot of kids gag or even vomit. Scabiosa roots were considered too bitter. The flowers of scabiosa on the other hand were considered one of the gentlest of depuratives. They were used to get kids as young as 7 prepared for stronger-tasting plants later on in life.
The first time I drank a strong infusion of the flowers, I thought “wow, this is bitter!”. How could a kid drink that? But then you have put things back in context. Those kids were not living in an everything-sugary-sweet world. They were used to marked flavors. They could bite into a garlic clove without a blink. They were dewormed with artemisia infusions. So a scabiosa tea was probably palatable.
Good habits: light meals and sleep
During the depurative cure, folks ate lighter meals. They allowed their digestive tract to rest, and they let their liver focus on depuration and not digestion.
The liver gets two major inflows of blood. One from general circulation, one from the portal vein. Both mix before entering the liver lobules. The load from the portal vein, with its charge of unprocessed nutrients, takes lots of energy away from the blood-filtering function. Reducing the amount of food ingested during the depurative cure ensures that you give the liver most of its processing power to filter the blood.
The winter season was a period of rest and sleep, continuing into the early days of spring. The liver filters the blood best during “rest and repair” periods, the night being a significant one. Lots of sleep and an early light dinner means lots of opportunity for the liver to cleanse the blood.
This simple lifestyle advice is of course very much ignored today. Here in France, people eat dinner quite late, often around 8 or 9 pm. They go to bed late, and wake up early to go to work. They wake up toxic already, and they haven’t even started the day.
Every January and February, my dad, my uncle and I go dandelion picking at least twice a week. We pick bags of dandelion greens. Every evening, we eat a dandelion salad. This habit has been passed from generation to generation.
My grandma taught me this: you cut the whole rosette along with a tiny piece of the root. This enables you to (1) get the liver benefits from the roots and (2) allow the plant to regrow from the mostly intact root. I love it because it gives a nice crunchy feel to the salad.
Eating dandelion greens in the early months of the year is an integral part of the depurative cure. I personally crave it. But I am Pitta, always hot, always on the move. And definitely liver-hot, with my occasional outbursts and explosions. Dandelion, with its liver-cooling effect, is perfect for me. Just preparing the salad makes my mouth water. My wife, who has more of a Vata tendency, eats it in small quantities.
We know the leaves can be cold and drying. So how can we counter-balance that effect? Let us see the type of salad dressing Provence folks use for their dandelion greens:
– olive oil (warming)
– mustard (warming)
– several crushed garlic cloves (warming)
– lots of crushed anchovies
Olive oil, garlic, mustard – all interesting. But the most interesting part to me is the anchovies. They are very salty. And water follows salt. Anchovies create a water retention effect at the kidney level, countering the salt-leaching diuretic effect of dandelion.
No more peeing your brains out after the meal? Well, give it a try and let me know what you think.
Application in today’s world
These days, the body still goes through the rhythms of the seasons at a very deep animal level. But the body is also flogged into new patterns of abuse. It goes through “micro-seasons”, be it summer vacation with copious eating and drinking, periods of business travel, long-term chronic pathologies that create a tremendous recycling weight on the liver, or the regular toxic loads we ingest (food, pollution, cosmetics, perfume, etc).
So depurative cures are still very much needed. They just need to be tailored to the person, lifestyle and constitution. They can and, for certain individuals, should be used on a regular basis throughout the year, definitely more than once.
Old plants need to be revived, so that we have more than dandelion and burdock in our tool chests. During the cure, people have to reduce eating and increase rest. Who knows, maybe they will even start to enjoy that healthier way of living.
More and more kids can benefit from gentle depurative cures. They, too, get stuck into their own vicious and destructive circles: living in a sunless cave (bedroom with computer), eating dead food (cookies, chips and coke), and being sleep deprived. The liver gets hit hard. Asthma, eczema, allergies, pimples are all accepted as common children’s conditions now.
On the other hand, depurative plants need to be used with care. In today’s world of mostly cold, dry and deficient people, a depurative cure may aggravate the deficiency. They sometimes need to be used in low doses, or be combined with the appropriate warming and moistening plants.
But informed reader, you probably know all of this already. My goal, through this article, was simply to share a bit of my history with you, and to remind you that old herbal wisdom should not be allowed die. Depurative cures have a bright future in front of them! They just need to be woven into new protocols that fit today’s complex world.
(This article first appeared in Plant Healer – www.PlantHealerMagazine.com)