The usefulness of medicinal plants is more than folktales

Ain Raal, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the UT Institute of Pharmacy, is the co-author of the recently published Estonian-language book, “Medicinal plants of Estonia”. The book is more than a treatise of folk medicine, as the authors provide a mythological and historical overview of plants, along with science-backed knowledge. The book describes the medicinal effect of many plants you can find in Estonian nature.

A juniper tree with its berry-like cones. Image credit: Alina Miroshnichenko, Unsplash

People being skeptical of modern medicine and looking for folk remedies is very topical in Estonia. The book might therefore be regarded as a step in the right direction by explaining scientifically why and how the plants can be useful. Here are some examples from the 80 plants described in the book.


This plant is mostly seen near seashores in Estonia. It might look like a bush as well as a tree by its size and shape. Juniper is regarded as a magical plant because of the cross sign on the top of its berry-like cones, not to mention that one should use this conifer in the sauna for “whisking” oneself. Its health benefits are also recognized by the European Medicines Agency.

In Estonia, the smoke of juniper has been considered to be helpful in treating many diseases, and it turns out that this is for a good reason. Due to its essential oils, the smoke from juniper has a considerable amount of pinenes in it and is antibacterial, which makes it a natural antiseptic. A treatment of juniper cones can help with constipation as well as with minor problems with the urinary tract.


Another useful plant first described by Carl Linnaeus is peppermint. This is the plant of choice if you have a huge feast coming up. Infuse the peppermint in hot water for five minutes and drink it three times a day. It helps the body with producing bile and therefore eases digestion.

Peppermint is more than a mouth freshener. Image credit: Sten Porse, Wikimedia

Birch leaves

This might sound like a strange medicine: tree (not tea) leaves. Although birch is often used in the same way as juniper – in the sauna – its real usefulness comes from the flavonoids in it. Flavonoids have a diuretic effect, as they help water to exit the body. It is useful against edemas (oedemas), which are an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin in the cavities of the body.

Birch tree leaves are useful against an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin. Image credit: Tiia Monto, Wikimedia

Linden tree blossoms

Linden trees are not only known for their smell, but also for medicinal properties. Namely, the blossoms of linden trees are one of the most well-known folk remedies in Estonia. Its effects are more than a topic of folklore, as its use against fever has been scientifically studied. Tea from linden tree blossoms stimulates sweating and therefore reduces the body temperature.

Tilia, or linden tree, as it is known in Europe. Image credit: NP Holmes, Wikimedia

Furthermore, perhaps a less-known fact is that the infused linden tree blossoms have a stress-reducing effect, as acknowledged by the European Medicine Agency. For that, you need to keep the blossoms in hot water for 10 minutes before consuming the drink

To sum up, folk medicine has deep roots in nature and mystical thinking, but this book is a good reminder that the field of pharmaceuticals also has roots in nature and plant products. A modern pharmaceutical research-backed approach helps to remind us of the link between nature and medicine, whilst bringing existing knowledge to its best use.

A herbal tea might give you some extra help in surviving the mildly cold Estonian January and February. But remember to check if and how the herb is really useful and if the story behind it is bigger than its effects. It is indeed interesting to discover why it is good to always keep some herbal tea from linden tree blossoms at hand or the other uses for juniper, apart from fragrant woodwork or a tickling sauna treatment.

This story is based on the article “Enne uut aastat kuluvad marjaks ära tarkused kadakast, piparmündist ja pärnaõiest“, published in Tartu Postimees on 30.12.2018.

Mark Mets is an intern at the UT Marketing and Communication Office.

This entry was posted in Estonia, Medical sciences, Research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.