Evening primrose is yet another one of our beautiful healing herbs that has been somewhat forgotten and definitely pigeon-holed by the supplement industry and herbal commerce. Evening Primrose Seed Oil, well known in the stores, is a source of gamma linoleic acid (GLA), a fatty acid useful for skin problems, asthma, PMS and menopause. But Evening Primrose is so much more than that, and sadly, is extremely underused, while being abundant and widespread across climates and bioregions. It even grows here in the desert. There are many species of Oneothera that grow in my bioregion, some of which grow low to the ground in small mounds, but the ones I use medicinally, are the more upright variety, including O. biennis, the weedy species found anywhere the ground is moist and disturbed. I start noticing the large branching plants with yellow flowers around 4500 ft, on the sides of mountain roads, and into drainages and riparian areas. It grows easily as a perennial in the garden as well, but in the wild I most often find it near water (considering that water is the limiting factor in the desert environment). For years I’ve collected the root of the first year plants as a wild edible, boiled and eaten like a turnip. It has a peppery taste that some find unpleasant, but I rather enjoy. The leaves can also be eaten as a green, but I found them less palatable, considering they are slightly hairy, and also have a peppery taste. I’ve also spent time in the winter collecting the fibrous bark from the dead stems to make cordage, which is silky, fine and smooth. This is the first year I’ve really explored the uses of Oenothera as a medicine, but I am sure glad I have. It is proving to be invaluable, and a very good locally growing substitute for some common herbs that just aren’t that common round here.
Energetics: Moist, neutral temperature, taste: bitter, pungent, sweet, astringent
Reduces/pacifies Vata, Pitta
Actions: Relaxant, stimulant, nervine, tonic, vulnerary, demulcent, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, antispasmodic
Uses: Evening Primrose is a gentle and mild medicine, but despite its mild nature, it is extremely effective. These are the best kinds of plant medicines, in my opinion; safe, non toxic, abundant, nourishing and effective. The following information is based on the use of the whole plant; leaf, flower, bud, seed pod, root, stem, not the seed oil found in the health food stores. Being underused as it is, I highly suspect you won’t ever see an Evening Primrose tincture on the shelf, so gather your own, or get it from your local herbalist.
I use Evening Primrose as an antispasmodic for smooth muscle tension and spasm. It has been one of the most effective plant medicines I have used for lessening the pain of mild to moderate dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramping). It is not the strongest of antispasmodics, but so far, in my experience, much more reliable than some of the others I’ve used through the years. It is specifically useful when there is a sensation of pelvic fullness, with some congestion of the lymphatic or portal system. Along with the smooth muscles of the uterus, Evening Primrose’s antispasmodic action is exquisitely useful in the respiratory system, when there is a dry, spasmodic cough accompanying bronchial infection or irritation, or mild asthma and hay fever or seasonal allergies. While gently calming the spasmodic tendency of a cough and the respiratory musculature, the demulcent property of the leaves and flowers, soothes cools and moistens dry and irritated tissues. Likewise, it is useful the gastrointestinal tract for the same reasons, soothing and moistening to a hot, inflamed GI tract, while easing the spasmodic cramping associated with conditions like IBS, gall bladder spasm, colitis and general poor digestive function. Evening primrose is also a lovely vulnerary wound healing ally, useful both externally for bruises, swellings, burns, and venomous insect bites and stings, hemorrhoids and internally for healing that irritated GI tract that goes along with leaky gut, ulcers, colitis, and diverticulitis. According to King’s, Evening Primrose is also applicable to any condition in which the Peyer’s patches (gastrointestinal lymph glands) are inflamed, and gastrointestinal lymphatic congestion (in the spleen or mesentery). This leads me to believe it will be helpful in addressing the inflammation, lymphatic bloating, leaky gut, and general digestive malaise associated with undiagnosed or mismanaged food allergies, particularly to such foods as gluten containing grains (wheat, rye, spelt, barley, kamut etc), dairy products, corn or soy. It is specifically indicated when there is a tendency to nausea or vomiting after eating, digestive upset accompanied by restlessness, and a frequent desire to urinate. According to King’s Evening primrose is also of use in cases of watery diarrhea, dysentery and bloody stools, another plus for its use in conditions like ulcerative colitis, hemorrhoids, and diarrhea associated with food allergy, poor food choices, and deranged digestive function. Evening Primrose affects all the mucus membrane tissues, lungs, GI tract, skin and the bladder and kidneys. Traditional Hispanic use in the southwest is for spasm in the bladder and kidneys, and I find it to be useful as a demulcent, astringent tonic for irritated tissues of the urinary tract, either during an infection, or over sensitized tissues post infection.
Evening Primrose is also a fine relaxant nervine, especially useful with muscle tension secondary to emotional tension. A hot cup of evening primrose infusion, for me personally, is akin to taking a hot bath. I feel completely relaxed. It strongly affects the musculoskeletal tissues; I sat on the bed after my cup of infusion, not really having the desire to move. Tension had left, muscles were relaxed, and a gentle diaphoresis resulted from the relaxation of the tissues, allowing circulation to flow towards the surface. This is excellent for folks who are stressed out, hold the tension in their body and look like they might flip their lid, or in the stages of fever where tension is preventing a good sweat. Unlike Vervain which tends to relax the area around the shoulders and neck, Evening Primrose relaxes the musculature of the entire body.
I also found it quite useful for the pre-menstrual emotional moodiness that comes a day or so before my menses. I get particularly reclusive, not wanting to talk, or interact with people much; and if forced to, it makes me quite cranky, irritable and bordering on weepy at times. This month, a public talk I had scheduled months in advance, happened to fall on that day I was feeling especially unable to communicate effectively or interact with others in a sensible fashion. Uh oh. A few doses of Evening Primrose tincture several times before leaving the house, and a few minutes before the actual event seemed to calm my nerves enough that I was able to put a smile on my face and speak clearly and engagingly to a room of strangers. It certainly didn’t make me chatty and extra friendly, but allowed me to perform the duty necessary without too much inner turmoil or crankiness. Thank goodness for that! As I have a tendency to social anxiety, I’m going give this a whirl for the anxiety I experience around those situations, and see if I can’t work through some of my fears by facing them with the support of a friendly plant ally.
Kiva Rose equates evening primrose with the nourishing nervine properties of Avena, and suggests it be added to our list of nourishing infusions, as the nervine effects are cumulative and especially effective used over time, as most tonic herbs are. Also in its favor are its mild energetics, neither too heating nor cooling, and moistening, it is suitable for most constitutions over a long period of time, unlike nettles which can be too drying for some folks when used over time.
Preparations: My favorite way to use Evening Primrose, so far, is as an infusion in hot water. My personally physiology responds much better to the large quantities of herbal medicines administered in tea form, and the long steeped infusion of Evening Primrose leaf, flower, bud, and stalk is distinctly demulcent, which is primarily extracted in water based preparations. Water is also superior at extracting the nourishing mineral and vitamin content of herbs in general. A long infusion (4 hrs or more) of Evening Primrose is most effective when dealing with the mucous membrane tissues of the GI tract, respiratory tract, urinary tract. I also find the infusion effective for menstrual cramping, more so than the tincture. Use the infusion for longer term nerve nourishing/tonifying. The hot infusion is also suitable for use in a tense, hot, dry fever.
Tinctures are useful medicines as well, though my personal work with the herbs is centering more and more on non alcohol preparations. Fresh plant Evening Primrose tincture is perhaps a stronger antispasmodic for cramping, spasm and asthma attacks than the tea, and has very nicely effective and quick results for nervous tension, anxiety, and PMS grouchies. Use the tincture as well, if on the go, traveling or otherwise unable to use the infusion/tea.
Use either the tincture or the infusion as a wash, compress, or liniment topically for burns, insect bites and stings, bruises, swellings, hemorrhoids and the like.
A fresh plant poultice of the leaves and flowers is also an excellent way to use the herb topically, if you happen to be standing near the Primrose patch when you get stung by a bee, a spider, a caterpillar or have been outside too long with sunburn.
You can also make infused oil with the flowers, buds, leaves, root and stem for topical use, and I suspect it would make a very nice addition to massage oils for tense, spastic muscles, and would use it profusely for bruises and injuries with swelling, or for irritated hemorrhoids. I caution against using oils and salves on burns, especially fresh burns. If you get burned, first remove heat from the area with cool soaks, compresses, liniments, and then as the burn ages and you want to encourage healing, reduce peeling, and pain, then turn to the oils, applied lightly.
You can also collect the tiny black seeds from the seed pods in the fall and use them as a GLA supplement by grinding and storing in another EFA type oil (fish, flax etc). Or storing whole (preferably cool) and grinding as needed on a daily basis and adding the seed meal to foods; smoothies, hot cereal, fruit salads, nut butter etc.
Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West
Blog posts by Kiva Rose at Bear Medicine Herbals
personal correspondence with Kiva Rose
Felter and Lloyd's Kings American Dspensatory