Inspiration. Is there such a thing? From whence? Etymologically, “inspiration” means a “breathing in.”

You have to wonder, when you learn that Australians for years have been using the milky sap from the weed Petty Surge for the treatment of skin lesions, why on earth it ever occured to them to do such a thing.

Folklore is filled with plant remedies for one thing or another. Some of them work. We know aspirin was derived from willowbark, digitalis from foxglove, morphine from poppies. Ginger is good for nausea. Cannabis (marijuana) has well-known medical and psychological effects.

Hippocrates is said to have left historical records of pain relief treatments, including the use of powder made from the bark and leaves of the willow tree to help heal headaches, pains and fevers.

Researchers have also suggested that white willow bark is more effective than aspirin because of other active compounds that are found in the bark but not the drug. Animal research at Cairo University compared a willow bark extract to ASA and found that a willow bark extract was as effective as aspirin in reducing inflammation, even though the salicin content was lower than an equivalent dose of ASA.


It is not surprising that when a particular plant is shown to have desirable effects that the news would spread by word of mouth.   What surprises me – what causes my wonderment – is how these benefits were discovered in the first place.  Willow bark, for example, is apparently subjected to  decoction, i.e., the extraction of the effective element by hot water treatment.   Why would it occur to  anyone do such a thing?   Why not oak bark, maple bark, cedar bark, poplar bark?  Why not the leaves?  Whatever prompted someone to boil up willow bark?

And those petty spurge treatments for skin lesions in Australia.   When someone first discovered that the stems would ooze a milky sap, how did it occur to him/her to apply it to a skin cancer?  Is there such a thing as inspiration?

Inspiration?   I’ve written about the gift of prophecy before.   I’ve known people to come out with things they never expected to say.  I’ve had words just drop into my mind myself.  And what I’m wondering is whether people are actually “inspired” to use particular plants or unusual concoctions for various illnesses.   Is that how it all got started?

I am reminded of a story told about George Washington Carver:

The story is told that George Washington Carver had a sincere desire to help southern farmers rebound from the ravages of the Civil War and years of the soil being depleted by the planting of cotton. He couldn’t get away from the idea that the answer could be found in peanuts and sweet potatoes. Being a godly man, he prayed that God would reveal to him the secrets of the universe. He told his friends that God replied, “Little man, you’re too small to grasp the secrets of the universe. But I will show you the secret of the peanut.”

What a fascinating biography!

Carver set about enlarging the commercial possibilities of the peanut and sweet potato through a long and ingenious program of laboratory research. He ultimately developed 300 derivative products from peanuts—among them cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils, and cosmetics—and 118 from sweet potatoes, including flour, vinegar, molasses, rubber, ink, a synthetic rubber, and postage stamp glue.

Artists of one sort or another will say that a particular song, invention,  idea, whatever – “just came to me.”  The idea has to be welcomed, and oftentimes has to be worked on, enhanced, shaped, but the original thought “just came.”

I am quite fond of a quote from Pascal which says,” There is enough light for those who want to see and enough darkness for those who are otherwise inclined.”   Or, to put it another way, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Are we the happy recipients of input from an “inspirer”?   Or are our happy insights the results of the purposeless random rearrangement of molecules in our brains?

Just wondering.


Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowlege him and he will direct your path. — Proverbs 3:5-6

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. — James 1:5

I never have to grope for methods. The method is revealed at the moment I am inspired to create something new… Without God to draw aside the curtain I would be helpless. — George Washington Carver



For those who would like to read about phytotherapy, The WHO monographs on selected medicinal plants, Volumes 1 and 2 make fascinating browsing.  Herbalism has quite a history.