Medicinal Herbs: Arnica

Arnica {Arnica montana}

Arnica has been an important topical healing herb since the 15th century. It is a member of the large and varied Asteraceae, or Composite family, along with sunflowers, daisies, lettuce, and chicory. This perennial herb originated in the mountains of Europe and Siberia and is now widely cultivated in North America.

The plant’s genus name derives from arna, Greek for “lamb,” because of the soft, fleecy hair on its green leaves. It reaches an average height of one to two feet and produces daisy-like yellow-orange flowers that begin to bloom in May.

Healing Properties

Arnica’s flower heads, either fresh or dried, are the base of creams, salves, ointments, liniments, or tinctures that are applied to the skin to treat muscle aches, sprains, strains, and bruises. Arnica can also be useful in treating superficial phlebitis, inflamed insect bites, and swelling from broken bones. There are studies that suggest it might be useful in treating burns. It is not recommended for use on any open wounds.

In a high-profile testimonial on the herb’s effectiveness, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center states: “A few clinical trials suggest benefits of topical arnica for osteoarthritis and for affecting the significant reduction of bruising compared to placebo or low-concentration vitamin K ointments.” On the other hand, a small study reported that topical arnica increased pain in subjects 24 hours after calf exercises.

Several species of arnica, including A. Montana, contain two sesquiterpene lactones: helenalin and dihydrohelenanin, which help reduce inflammations and ease pain. Arnica also contains inulin, a compound somewhere between sugar and starch, that plants store underground as a source of energy and that diabetics can use as a natural sweetener.

Arnica has several uses outside the realm of sprains and bruises. Swiss mountain guides chewed the herb to avoid fatigue while climbing. The dried leaves can be used like tobacco – the herb is even sometimes referred to as mountain tobacco – while the dried flowers mimic snuff and produce sneezing.

Minerals found in arnica include selenium and manganese, both powerful antioxidants. Manganese is important for maintaining healthy bones, healing wounds, and metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates, and cholesterol.

Arnica is a favorite medication of homoeopathic practitioners, and it is widely marketed and praised for its healing powers. Yet, clinical trials indicate that when heavily diluted homoeopathic arnica – typically at a strength of one part per million – is prescribed, it is no more effective than a placebo. {Arnica can be toxic in high doses, and diluted extracts should never be taken by mouth.}

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Aromatic Qualities

Arnica is not a heavily scented herb, and most arnica products are very lightly fragranced or fairly scent neutral. Arnica is a sub-alpine plant; it is used to growing in nutrient-poor soil and thrives in sunlit mountain meadows ten thousand feet up or higher. Although the flowers normally do have a light grassy or dusty scent, the higher the altitude the plants reach, the more intense their aroma becomes.

History and Lore

  • With popularity comes problems. Over-harvesting has depleted wild arnica populations in many areas. The World Wildlife Fund {WWF} and other conservative groups publicized this issue, resulting in protective legislation in most of Europe.
  • Arnica Montana is sometimes called leopard’s bane or wolfsbane, although the latter name is more often applied to aconite, a European flowering herb with a poisonous root.
  • Arnica flowers mixed with safflower oil makes an anti-inflammatory massage oil that may ease the pain of sports injuries.
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