The best spas are a walk-in guidebook to local botanicals and healing lore.
For thousands of years, people have turned to hot mineral springs to soak in the restorative waters, but it wasn’t until the 17th Century that wealthy Europeans began traveling to spa towns that were built around thermal springs. Upon arriving at their destination, it wasn’t merely the benefits of the waters that were enjoyed—one reveled in the pleasures of natural resources, including gorgeous and grand landscaped gardens, home to numerous healing plants and herbs. A simple walk among the gardens, breathing in the fresh air and gentle aromas, was and is, pure magic—restorative, calming, and invigorating all at once… and of course, those healing botanicals worked their way into the treatments.
The treatment menu of a great spa is essentially a walk-in guidebook to healing botanicals. Here are a few of my favorites that really feature the local plants.
A favorite jaunt of mine is the thermal spa town of Bad Worishofen, the tiny Bavarian village where, beginning in the 1850s, Father Sebastian Kneipp practiced his world-renowned Kneipp Cure. His particular philosophy involved the use of hot- and cold-water therapies in combination with herbalism. Some of the herbs used included calendula, which acts as an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory; juniper to soothe sore muscles; and valerian to promote a good night’s sleep. To this day, the many resort hotels and inns in this spa town offer guests treatments that use the original methods of Kneipp. Today, Kneipp therapies are available at many spas worldwide (for a quick fix, Kneipp Herbal Bath Oils are sold at pharmacies and even come in handy travel sizes).
Not so far away and surrounded by the magnificent Alps, is the Stanglwirt Bio-hotel and Spa in Going, Austria. Boasting the largest hotel saltwater pool in Europe, as well as a newly designed spa, the menu here nicely reflects the rich Alpine region. For example, the soothing Marigold Bath uses the nurturing herbal essential oil extracts of organic marigold and chamomile—a wonderful treatment for stressed and sensitive skin. Marigold, explains Maria Hauser, daughter of the Hauser family who own the spa, contains soothing and pain-relieving properties and helps calm irritated skin (an ideal treatment if you’ve had too much sun or a long day hiking in the mountains or skiing). This common and colorful garden flower is found on many mountains, like those surrounding the Stanglwirt.
Another cherished treatment at this spa is the Stanglwirt Signature Alpine Herb Pouch Massage, a deeply relaxing massage (especially beneficial for those dealing with insomnia) that begins with a re-energizing foot bath and foot massage. The core of this treatment involves steam-heated herbal pouches that are gently used to massage. All of the herbs in the pouch come from the gardens of local farmers. There’s coltsfoot valued as a respiratory disinfectant and cough suppressant, used since the days of ancient Greece and Rome to relieve asthma and bronchial congestion; pepper-root, boasting antibacterial properties, in addition to having tonic, stimulant, analgesic and carminative (anti-gas) properties; sage, rich in antioxidants and important nutrients, such as vitamin K and valued throughout history for a wide range of uses in both cooking and medicine; peppermint, known to help digestion and relied upon for cold and flue relief; as well as a variety of blackberry, strawberry, and raspberry leaves—high in vitamin C and trace minerals and believed to have healing properties for many ailments, including colds and skin rashes. stanglwirt.com
At the Le Torri di Bagnara Castle-Villas, proprietess Zenaide Giunta, Napoleon’s great-great-grand-niece, infuses the property’s homemade extra-virgin olive oil with aromatic herbs from her botanical gardens. The one-of-a-kind oil is used in the Anti-Stress Massage. Guests may choose from oils infused with garden-fresh chamomile, lavender, peppermint, rosemary or sage. Guests who stay at this historic castle will find themselves blissfully situated amidst a 1,500-acre estate and working farm—which Zenaide refers to as “a private green heaven.” Manicured gardens designed by Mario Margheriti, a famous Tuscan landscape designer, include an herb garden with aromatic plants and a kitchen garden with fresh vegetables for guests to pick and enjoy—dotted by flowers , pomegranate and cherry trees, with laurel, rosemary and lavender bushes, and oak and olive trees that are continuously in flower. Letorridibagnara.it
Frangipani, lemongrass, aloe-vera, damascena rose, and coconut oil are just some of the luscious flowers and plants found in spa treatments at The Mulia Spa on the spectacular coastline of Nusa Dua in south-eastern Bali. The spa makes use of fifty percent of local indigenous ingredients in its treatments—the Purely Bali massage, the Mulia Mermaid treatment, the Bali Hair Crème Bath, and the Sun Lovers Delight, to name a few. A homemade “boreh,” a paste-like substance created from a mixture of natural ingredients such as roots, turmeric, ginger, galangal, various leaves and herbs and spices like clove and nutmeg is employed here, as well. Often, these ingredients are mixed with bark from various indigenous trees. themulia.com
Cape Town, South Africa
And speaking of trees, the baobab, moringa, and marula, all of which hail from Africa, have long been revered for their healing properties and make wonderful essential oils that are especially nourishing for the skin. The One&Only Cape Town, South Africa, offers a number of holistic experiences and spa treatments that pay homage to local African influences. For example, the Essence of Africa Journey, a stress-reducing signature ritual, uses ancient healing ingredients, including baobab tree oil (highly moisturizing, it is rich in vitamins A, D, E, and F, as well as Omega 3,6, and 9)—excellent when used on the hair, as well. Rooibus herbs from the African bush are also used in this treatment to help improve skin elasticity. Capetown.oneandonlyresorts.com
10 Healing Plants
Baobab: Often referred to as the upside-down tree or the monkey bread tree, the leaves are eaten fresh and also as a dry powder, and have been used medicinally. It is believed that the fruit contains more vitamin C than oranges.
Blackberry: Folk uses for this thorny vine include gout and minor cuts and bruises. It has also been used for diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and sore throats. The bark, leaves, and roots have the most healing potential.
Calendula: These cheerful yellow-orange flowers have long been used as treatment for skin issues such as acne, bee stings, bruises, cuts, eczema, and sunburn.
German Chamomile: Valued for its wide range of therapeutic benefits, this plant works as an antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-flammatory, and anti-fungal. Also used to calm the nerves and relax the muscles.
Juniper: Folk uses for this plant that produces blue-black berries range from belching and bronchitis to menstrual and muscle pain to sores and snakebite. Also believed to be a good diuretic and helpful against urinary tract infections.
Lavender: Ancient Egyptians used this pretty purple-flowered plant as a perfume, and ancient Romans scented their baths with lavender. Revered for its soothing and sedating properties, it has been known to reduce irritability and depression.
Peppermint: A hybrid of spearmint and watermint, this could be the most widely used essential oil of all, and is found in everything from antacids to toothpastes to salves. Popular folk uses for this plant include gingivitis, heartburn, insomnia, and nausea.
Rosemary: In ancient Greece, students wore sprigs of rosemary on their heads while they studied, believing the plant helped enhance their memory. Therapeutic and folk uses for rosemary over time have included arthritis, Alzheimer’s, lethargy, hair loss, and headaches.
Sage: Native to the Balkans and the Mediterranean, this perennial was believed, in the 1600s, to make one immortal. Used in folk medicine to combat acne, bug bites, coughing, dermatitis, infertility, night sweats, and sprains.
Valerian: Hippocrates used this plant as a sleep aid, and it has since long been used to combat insomnia, as well as anxiety, stress, and restlessness. It is also said to minimize muscle spasms.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the author’s wellness column in Quest magazine.