It is astonishing the no reference was ever made to arnica by the Graeco-Roman doctors and authors of herbal books as it can be found at the southern foot of the Pyrenees, in northern Portugal and northern Italy, Croatia and Moldova. The first written records on Arnica montana go back to the Middle Ages. The earliest known illustrations of Arnica montana can be found in Matthiolus’s herbal book in the year 1558, albeit described as ‘alisma’.
Subsequent herbals referred to the plant under the aforementioned synonym. The comment, ‘called arnica by the Medici’ first appeared in 1625 in the version of Johann Jakob von Bergzabern’s herbal edited by Casper Bauhin. Johann Jakob von Bergzabern was known as Tabernaemontanus and was personal physician to the Electoral Palatine. In this book, reference was made to the modern conventional medicinal use of the plant. ‘It is used for those who have fallen down or have hurt themselves while at work.’
Arnica was at its most popular in the 18th century when it became the subject of numerous dissertations in the developing world of scientific medicine. It was pointed out in this literature ‘that care should be taken in the use of arnica, that the arnica remedy takes effect quickly in small doses and that great caution must always be taken in its use’. Thus arnica belongs to that group of plants which had a decisive influence on Hahnemann turning to small doses and therefore to the development of homoeopathy.
To this day, the whole plant is widely used in the field of homoeopathy. Goethe also held this plant in high esteem and made himself an arnica tea whenever he felt stenocardiac pain due to his coronary sclerosis brought on by old age. The origin and significance of both the Latin and German names has not been explained to this day and is the subject of speculation. The name ‘arnich’ is mentioned for the first time by Matthiolus in the 14th century. ‘Arnich’ may have come from the French, meaning to ‘protect oneself, forearm oneself’ (compare harnisch). Perhaps this word is of Arabic origin as are many words beginning with ‘a’ or ‘al’. It could also be a derivation of the Greek word, ptarmica, meaning ‘to bring on a sneeze’. After all, the plant powder was formerly often used as snuff and was also smoked. Not without good reason then that the plant is called mountain tobacco in English and in Spanish, tabaco de Montana, tobacco borde, flor de tabaco, estabaco or tabaco-dos-vosges. The meaning of the epithet ‘montana’, adopted by Linnaeus is clear. It relates to mons, the mountain and refers to its habitat.
The plant appeared for the first time as Arnica montana in his work ‘Spectrum Plantarum’ which saw the start of taxonomy. It is interesting that this plant is better known internationally under its scientific description of ‘arnica’ than under the name in its national language. The German description, ‘Bergwohlverleih’ is the least well known and its origin is unclear. Whether ‘Wohlverleih’ has something to do with ‘wolf’ or ‘prosperity for all sorts’ is uncertain. The first of the two would make more sense since it is known to this day as ‘wolferley’ or ‘wolf murderer’. In old German mythology, Fenris wolf threatened to obscure the radiance in us. Whether the arnica is capable of killing a wolf, we can no longer prove. Animals that graze on pasture, with the exception of the goat, do not tolerate the plant and many poisonings have been noted.
Arnica is a herbaceous, perennial plant. The base rosette with 4-6 oval, lancet-shaped, non petiolate, sessile leaves which are hairy on the upperside and have pronounced longitudinal veins, develops from the creeping rhizome in the first year. This is followed in the second year by an up to 50cm in height, glandular, hairy stem with one – often up to three – opposite pairs of lancet shaped leaves. The flowercup with a diameter of 6-8cm is always positioned at the end so that sometimes only one flower develops, often forming in the axles of the flower-bearing side shoot of the upper pair of leaves. The flowers are bright yellow to orange yellow in colour and have a characteristically pleasant perfume. The tubular flowers are hermaphroditic and 15-25 female, tongued shaped flowers are bent backwards in an irregular fashion, giving the plant a windswept appearance. The fruits form a bristly, hairy yellowish pappus which aids their dispersal. The plant also reproduces vegetatively by means of short offshoots. Confusion with other yellow flowering composite flowers can be avoided if attention is paid to the size of the flowers, the perfume and the position of the leaves. There are two subspecies of Arnica montana, ssp. Montana and ssp. Atlantica A.BOLOS. Both subspecies can be identified by the size and shape of the leaves. They blossom from June to July.
Perennial arnica thrives in acid soil, deficient in lime, in light coniferous forests, in moorland, heathland and also in unfertilised mountain meadows at a height of between 600 and 2700 metres. It is to be found in Europe, in Scandinavia, in northern Portugal, northern and eastern Spain, northern Italy and the Balkan countries, in eastern and southern Russia and Central Asia. In southern latitudes it only grows at high altitude. Large stocks of wild growing arnica are seldom seen due to intensive gathering and over fertilisation. As a result it is on the list of endangered species of plants and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Washington in 1981, is under special protection. In the Alpine region, the commercial gathering of Arnica flowers is not allowed. The remedy comes mainly from wild gathering in Yugoslavia, Spain and Italy. Earlier attempts to cultivate it were not lucrative enough and for pharmaceutical use even the north American Meadow Arnica, Arnica chamissonis which has a positive monograph and can be easily cultivated, was avoided. Besides, Meadow Arnica contains much less effective active agents. After numerous failed attempts, Bioforce AG succeeded, in conjunction with specialists, in cultivating arnica in Germany. The success was due mainly to good aeration of the soil, good drainage and reduced content of free lime. Bioforce’s requirement for arnica flowers is met by field cultivation.
Bioforce uses the flowerheads of Arnica montana organically grown by contract farmers. The fresh flowers are macerated in alcohol from which A.Vogel arnica mother tincture and, with the addition of other excipients, A.Vogel Rheuma gel is produced.