Although most people associate hops with beer, the twining bine actually has a long history of use in herbal medicine, and the plant has a few surprising applications as well. The use of this ingredient in beer was actually eschewed across much of Europe until the medieval period, although the Romans used them in their beers centuries previously. In addition to being used in medicine, they also yield a potentially useful fiber, and they can be used as a food source.
Hops bines are rather distinctive. They tend to twist and curl around things, gripping them firmly with small, stiff hairs. The scientific name for the plant is Humulus lupulus. The "lupulus" in the name is a reference to the wolf-like nature of the plant, which grips and does not let go. The plants produce large lobed leaves and yellow cone-shaped flowers. The flowers are the most useful part of the plant, harvested for use in herbal remedies and beer, due to their distinctly bitter and aromatic natural oils.
In herbal medicine, hops have a long history of use as a relaxant and sleep aid. In many cultures, pillows stuffed with them are given to people who have difficulty sleeping, and they may be added to remedies and herbal teas which are designed to promote healthy sleep. In addition, they appear to have a beneficial effect on the digestion, and many people which chronic gastrointestinal complaints incorporate them into their diet as a result.
The flowers also have a natural antibacterial quality, which is one of the reasons they are added to beer. This property may help with some bacterial infections, and research has suggested that the plant may also be effective against some viruses. In traditional Chinese medicine, they may be used as an antibiotic, and some studies indicate they may help to fight cancer. Some cultures have historically used the flowers to treat tuberculosis, although this treatment may not be very effective.
The woody stalks of hops can be soaked and beaten to yield fibers that can be used in textile manufacture. In addition, these fibers may be pulped for paper making. The young shoots have also been used historically as a source of food, especially by impoverished individuals. Since the plant is naturally high in fiber, the shoots are actually a rather sound dietary choice when limited options are available.