The beautiful evening primrose, a roadside wildflower native to the Americas, has been used in traditional medicine for centuries by both Native Americans and Europeans. In the 1930s it was a popular remedy for eczema. Women commonly used it to relieve menstrual discomfort and breast pain.
In the 1980s, stories about evening primrose seed oil were everywhere. Claims about its amazing health properties led people to suppose it might cure everything from the common cold to cancer. Does evening primrose have any healthful properties? Is it worth trying?
Facts vs. Fiction
The more unlikely claims for evening primrose seed oil beginning in the early 1980s were based on research conducted by Dr. David Horrobin. He believed that many diseases were caused by a lack of essential fatty acids and their precursors. Precursors are chemicals which help your body to produce other chemicals. In this case, GLA is a precursor to linolenic acid and prostaglandin.
Dr. Horrobin believed that people who didn’t get enough of these were more prone to cardiovascular disorders. He thought they might be helped by taking increased amounts of essential fatty acid supplements. He especially cited evening primrose seed oil, which has high levels of gamma-linolenic acid or GLA. His research was controversial and led many to dismiss him as a snake oil salesman. Were they too hasty?
Evening Primrose in Traditional Medicine
Evening primrose has been used traditionally for many purposes for thousands of years. Native Americans use the leaves, flowers and roots in food. They make poultices and teas of evening primrose herb for minor injuries, skin irritations, diarrhea and hemorrhoids. The roots can be used to make a cough medicine. The Cherokee even have an evening primrose tea for weight loss, while Lakota people use it for incense. Evening primrose was among the hundreds of medicinal herbs sold in packets by the Shaker church.
When explorers brought evening primrose back to Europe, it became known as a popular remedy for PMS and breast pain as well as skin diseases and digestive troubles. Known as “The King’s Cure-All”, it was considered especially useful to relieve dysentery, cholera and diarrhea, and could be given to babies. The roots were used in salads.
Evening primrose seed oil really is high in GLA, similar to borage. Scientific tests are currently underway. The most promising study, at the University of Wales, revealed that evening primrose is as effective as commercial medication for treatment of PMS and breast pain. In Finland, researchers documented a reduction in symptoms of eczema among patients who took evening primrose seed oil supplements. A University of Pennsylvania study and two British studies concluded that GLA might reduce some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, but further study is necessary.
Clinical trials are in progress for evening primrose as a with diabetic neuropathy and symptoms of multiple sclerosis. As of 2011, there is not enough evidence to recommend for or against its use.
There is no evidence that evening primrose or GLA cure cancer. However, a 2000 study in Scotland indicated that GLA might reduce tumor size in some forms of breast cancer. It would not replace conventional chemotherapy but be used as an adjunct alongside it.
The consensus of medical opinion is that aside from the known fact of evening primrose’s high GLA content and the benefits thereof, there is not enough information yet. This does not mean that evening primrose oil is worthless, only that not enough scientific data has been collected. It is still being tested in clinical trials.
Try It For Yourself
You can test the efficacy of evening primrose for yourself. Seed oil extract capsules and dried herbs are easy to find in health food stores. The dried leaves, roots and flowers can be made into tea. Drink a cup or two every day for arthritis and fibromyalgia pain. For menstrual problems, drink the tea every day beginning a week or two before your period. For acne and eczema, you should both drink the tea and use it as a wash.
The seeds can be chewed and have a pleasant nutty flavor. You can cook with them, using them on bread as you would poppy seeds. The leaves, seed pods and roots can be steamed for a side dish at meals.
Evening primrose grows best in sunny areas with dry, sandy soil. You can buy the seeds or seedling plants from any nursery. Don’t use too much fertilizer. Sow seeds on top of the soil. Plant seedlings about a foot apart. Water lightly once every few days, being careful not to soak it. When the plants are established, you can water once a week. Take precautions as this plant grows quickly and might invade the rest of your garden. Collect the leaves in the summer. Harvest the seeds in late summer and early fall.
Be careful about ingesting primrose if you have epilepsy. Take a little at a time at first. Don’t use this if you are pregnant.