The new translation of the USSR’s State Pharmacopoeia gives English speakers insights into Russia’s traditional herbal remedies, while sparking pharmacological research into adaptogens, writes Larissa Fedunik.
There’s an old Russian proverb that goes something like this: “nettles are born stinging, but boil down in cabbage soup.”  It hints at the Russian ability to transform unexpected vegetation into a hearty meal — or a herbal remedy.
These wild plants form the bridge between food and traditional medicine, as documented in the USSR’s State Pharmacopoeia, an extensive compilation of medicinal drugs. Only recently translated into English, this previously untapped resource gives us a growing insight into Russia’s food and cultural heritage, a field of research known as ethnobotany. The Pharmacopoeia is even providing inspiration for ethnopharmaceuticals, in line with a renewed worldwide interest in traditional medicine. Several prominent Russian and English scientists, including Dr Andrey Tsitsilin of the All Russian Research Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants and Professor Michael Heinrich of the University of London’s School of Pharmacy, have recently authored a paper on the traditional and current use of wild plants in the Pharmacopoeia, their second collaboration on the topic.
A Russian Pharmacopoeia was first compiled in 1778 — one of the first of its kind in Europe — and is the culmination of centuries of wild plant usage. Russia’s unique positioning between the East and the West led to its rich tapestry of ethnobotanical and ethnopharmaceutical traditions and the development of what the authoring scientists refer to as a traditionally “herbophilious” society in the 2017 paper published in Frontiers of Pharmacology .
The first pharmacy (located near Kiev) dates all the way back to 1005. Greek herbal manuals made their way into Russia from the 10th century onwards, and the Hippocratic corpus (“let food be thy medicine”) was integrated into Russian pharmaceutical practices. The three hundred year Tatar occupation beginning in the 13th Century also brought with it Eastern herbal traditions. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Russian Empire expanded to gain many Asian-Arabic and Western European neighbours, imparting even more herbal and pharmaceutical knowledge .
The Russian people famously braved crop shortages due to harsh climatic conditions and times of war. Russian peasants historically survived on wild plants during hard times, such as the famine of 1892 (immortalised in print by both Tolstoy and Chekhov) and during the Siege of Leningrad by the armies of Nazi Germany (1941–1944), a special manual was distributed to the army and civilians as a handy guide to edible wild plants . These challenging times likely contributed to the prominent usage of wild plants throughout Russia, both in the daily diet and for self-medication .
Today, the Pharmacopoeia is used by pharmacologists exploring wild plants for medical research. Physicians also sometimes recommend the wild plants to their patients to treat a variety of ailments. “It is a legal document defining the quality of medicines and thus used in the pharmaceutical industry,” explains Professor Heinrich. “It also provides guidance to those who use it in terms of dosage.” The document describes 119 species of plants, which are either consumed (berries, fruits, roots and rhizomes) or infused into beverages (using the aerial parts, leaves or flowers).
Berries are a wild treat which often make an appearance in Russian cuisine, whether in baked goods or beverages such as tea, liquors, brandy or kvass. Russia is abundant with berries such as the ever-popular bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), and other species which have fallen out of favour due to their bitterness, such as bird cherry (Prunus padus) and rowanberries (Sorbus aucuparia) . A beloved way of using these berries was to make levashi, the Russian equivalent of a dried fruit roll-up. Catherine the Great was a big fan of levashi , which are even described in the renowned medieval housekeeping guide The Domostroi .
These berries make an appearance in their Pharmacopoeia because of their astringent properties. Astringency is a tactile taste which can be felt as a dry feeling in the mouth and contracting of the tongue tissue . This taste is caused by the presence of a myriad of chemical compounds in the food (such as tannins, polyphenols or proteins) which have a whole host of healthful properties, which can be antioxidant, antibacterial or antiviral . During WWII, Russian scientists devoted particular attention to the magnolia berry or limonnik (Schisandra chinensis). Traditionally used by the Nanai hunters, a Tungusic people of the Far East, limonnik was used as a herbal tonic to promote well-being. Consumption was said to impart “forces to follow a sable all the day without food” — the Soviets hoped to discover similar endurance-boosting benefits for their soldiers .
The best example of a substance which blurs the lines of refreshment and medicine is tea. The ritual of brewing tea in the samovar is engrained in Russian culture and tea is often referred to as Russia’s national drink (of the non-alcoholic variety). Although Russia’s first encounter with Chinese tea coincided with the eastern expansion in the 17th Century, herbal teas made from local species have been consumed for centuries .
With its astringent and antiseptic properties, the aerial parts of the yellow-flowered plant known as zveroboy (Hypericum perforatum, commonly known as spotted St. Johnswort) were brewed to treat kidney and gastrointestinal diseases . In the 17th Century, it was frequently prescribed by physicians and an edict by Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov mentioned Siberian supplies of zveroboy for the Tsar’s court . Its history is far older in folk traditions: the Cossacks used the tincture for treating wounds and cuts, and its historical name “dzherrabai” translates to “wound healer” .
One of the most popular components of herbal tea in Russia today is made of the leaves of the lingonberry or brusnika (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) . Lingonberry leaves, which have diuretic properties and are high in arbutin, vitamin C, group B vitamins and several minerals, are a popular supplement sold in Russian pharmacies. The medicinal properties of brusnika, an evergreen shrub, are poignantly illustrated in a Slavic legend. According to the legend, a swallow pitied the death and disease amongst humans. To impart the gift of immortality, it collected some water from a health-giving freshwater spring in its beak. However, while flying home it was bitten by a wasp and opened its beak in pain. Droplets of the water splashed over the forest and soaked the lingonberry bushes, which are said to have remained green ever since .
The leaves of common nettles (Urtica dioica) can also be used in tea, but they also have a variety of other culinary uses. Soaking the leaves of nettles in water or cooking neutralises the plant’s stinging chemicals, and they are often used in salads, soups, omelettes and various baked goods. Easily found in the countryside (even when crops were scarce), nettles are a typical component of rural Russian cuisine. During WWII, nettles were part of the daily rations for many Soviet soldiers . Nettles are extremely high in vitamin C and have haemostatic properties, hence they were historically used to treat gallstones and heavy bleeding . A surging interest in foraging for wild food plants has also put nettles firmly back on the menu — not only in Russia, but more widely across the Northern Hemisphere .
Beyond just food and medicine, nettle has a long history of being used as skin treatment. Ironically, despite stinging nettles causing rashes, nettle broth was used to treat skin rashes and sores in several Siberian provinces . Nettle extracts are used in cosmetics to this day, with Russian hairdressers advising their clients that nettle hair tonics will prevent hair loss and improve shine .
The active role of wild plants in the everyday Russia diet diminished after the Second World War, but never completely disappeared, particularly in rural areas . Dr Tsitsilin recalls being taught about the uses of wild plants by his childhood teacher in the 1970s. She was a doctor and an expert on medicinal plants of the Kamchatka region, in the Russian Far East. “We took multi-day trips and made soups from the bulbs of Lilium and Fritillaria [flowering plants, sometimes known as Kamchatka lilies] and dishes from Pteridium aquilinum [a type of fern]. If necessary, we were treated with medicinal plants from spring until autumn. In the spring and summer, vitamin tea was made from leaves of Betula ermanii [Erman’s birch] and Rosa canina [dog rose] or needles of Pinus pumila [an evergreen shrub commonly called creeping pine].”
Agritourism, wild food workshops and foraging manuals mean that wild food plants are enjoying a resurgence, not only across Russia but globally. Russian bakeries are producing breads and buns with wild ingredients such as nettle and dog rose . Renowned chef Maksim Syrnikov travels the country, instructing chefs on the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen (he is also working on a database for folk recipes) .
A hot topic in nutrition right now is the use of adaptogens, herbal substances which are claimed to stabilize physiological processes such as metabolism, blood sugar levels, body temperature and fluid balance . The term was actually coined back in 1947 by Soviet scientist N.V. Lazarev  and they are currently enjoying renewed interest in the wellness sphere.
Dr Tsitsilin has noticed a revived contemporary interest in Russian wild medicinal plants, particularly for export. These include Rhodiola rosea (golden root) and Panax ginseng root, which are documented as tonic treatments in the Pharmacopoeia. Today, they are most commonly taken as a dietary supplement for symptoms of stress or fatigue and as immunity boosters, although all of these claims are unproven.
While the European Medicines Agency states that the adaptogens require further clinical research before their effects are proven, researchers are examining the use of Russian wild plants in reducing biological stressors, using the Pharmacopoeia as a starting point.
Professor Heinrich, who is himself partial to lemon verbena tea from his own garden, believes that aspiring pharmacological foragers should however exercise caution with wild plants. “I want to highlight that they should only be used for minor, self-limiting conditions.”
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