May 232012
 

It’s been quite some time since I’ve written a blog piece. Spring has kept me quite the busy bee! As I thought about what I wanted my next piece to be about I realized I have a lot (a lot) of posts about food. While I love food and will continue to post recipes galore, I wanted to scale back, choose something simple and yet elegant. Something powerful, practical and oh so very beautiful. So I decided on a simple single herb Materia Medica and to do it on a plant that has helped me in many personal ways as well as many others I’ve used her with: Motherwort. This is our relationship, our journey thus far. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy of 7Song

Motherwort-(Leonorus Cardiaca)- Lamiaceae 

Often pigeon holed as an herb for mothers, I prefer to think of her as a mother

Photo courtesy of 7Song

herb, a mothering herb. Her dissected leaves, covered with soft little hairs and her tiny yet striking pink flowers speak of gentle, loving mommey-ness. But one bite of her intensely bitter leaves or a touch of her sharp calyx, like a mother reacting to a child in danger, let’s you know she is no softy.

Heart Tonic and Nervine

Leonorus is a fantastic heart tonic, relaxing to not only smooth and skeletal muscle, but the cardiac muscle itself. As most bitters tend to be, she is a great mover of energy but especially so when ‘stuck energy’, specifically in the heart/chest region, accompany the symptom picture. She helps ease anxiety and tension by gently but powerfully relaxing and moving energy downwards. This downward shift in energy can be utilized for easing constipation, certain types of headaches and as a general way to clear tension in the body.

Mover of pain, Woman nourisher

Useful from menarche to menopause, motherwort is broadly acting and widely applicable. For women having painful periods with accompanying cramps, eased by cool or cold, will often find a cup of the strong infusion or a dropperful or two of the fresh plant tincture to soothe their pain and with time may find a gentle easing of their overall cycle pattern. The infused oil makes a great belly rub for uterine woes as well as a general pain reliever for overused muscles or for people who hold tension in their muscles.

As an ally for Women going through menopause, her cooling nature can often bring much needed relief to hot, anxious night sweats as well as heart palpitations and hot flashes. As mentioned earlier, I find Motherwort most helpful when anxiety and feelings of stagnant or stuck energy are accompanying the picture.

Yin balancer, Feminine essence

Photo courtesy of 7Song

While motherwort has been, and certainly still is, a wonderful ally for women of all ages, she can also be safely, and most importantly, effectively used by men. I have used her numerous times for anxiety in men, especially when the issues stem around the ‘heart’, be it the physical or emotional. When I had crushing pains, like a weight on my heart and chest, I found 20 drops of motherwort to unravel the tension and send the energy down and out of my body and this seems to be the case with a number of others. Bitter herbs are said to be cooling and to slow down metabolic processes and that’s exactly what she does. When your heart is racing, palpitating or you find yourself clutching your chest out of anxiety or fear, try motherwort.

When healthy we all carry with us masculine and feminine energies. In perpetual dance these energies balance our bodies and minds, yin and yang, soft and hard. Sometimes our energy gets out of balance, our feminine essence gets lost or suppressed. Here you will often find Motherwort excel at addressing these issues, raising our yinny feminine energy and most importantly, helping to balance it. When you need support but don’t know where to begin, try some motherwort. When you need a mother in a bottle, a stern protectrice, try some motherwort. When your inner woman, your feminine essence, has fallen on the dance floor, is being pushed down, beaten down or just can’t seem to support herself anymore, try a bit of motherwort. And when you want to experience a beautiful, abundant and bitterly mothering plant, try some motherwort.

 

 

Mar 082012
 

Today is a deep-gray-wet day. Tomorrow could be a dark-stormy-gray day or a light-misty-gray day or a low-brown-gray day; in Rochester, you never know.

Before moving to Rochester gray days were simple, they were gray. Winters in Rochester are filled with predominantly gray days, for days on end, seemingly unchanging. Or so it would seem, until you’ve been here for a while. But as days of gray continue for weeks on end little patterns begin to make themselves known and you learn that there are not just gray days but many shades of gray days. Some are easier to handle, others are worse and some just plain suck, but regardless all contribute towards the high prevalence of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) that occurs here in Rochester.

SAD or winter blues is a common syndrome experienced by many people, particularly those in countries or areas with less than optimal winter light. It is characterized by feelings of fatigue, low energy, lack of concentration and tendencies to oversleep and over eat. While the medical community is worrying about differentiating between subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (what they term as mild SAD) and more serious or debilitative SAD, I think it’s safe to say that most everyone has felt, at one time or another, the winter blues. Living in Rochester has given me the opportunity to work with a few cases of SAD including my own feelings of winter blues that I am sometimes prone to. One of the least invasive and successful conventional treatments is light therapy. Light therapy is a great non-pharmaceutical approach that is often met with success. It involves exposure to artificial sunlight, or specific waves of light, that are designed to mimic sunlight exposure. As always, diet can play a crucial role in SAD and feelings of winter blues. Specifically associated are omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Lack of these two nutrients has been shown to increase symptoms of SAD and depression. Most Americans are particularly low in these nutrients and fail to obtain adequate amounts through their diet. Vitamin D can be manufactured by the body with adequate sun exposure, unfortunately that requires that the sun be shining and that naked skin be exposed to its rays, difficult to do when the sun doesn’t shine very often. Some statistics suggest that in winter, even when the sun is seemingly shining bright, if you live above Atlanta the sun is not able to get high enough for its UV rays to penetrate the atmosphere, thus making it impossible for you to manufacture vitamin D. Omega-3’s provide many building blocks that our body needs to manufacture hormones that can affect our moods and other bodily processes. Adequate omega-3 intake can go a long way in keeping our mood and energy up and our concentration strong during long winter months. While I don’t often recommend supplementation, preferring to obtain nutrients from the diet, this can sometimes be difficult due to lack of availability of these nutrients. For this reason I often recommend people take 5,000IU of vitamin D daily and a good dose of fish oil, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500mg daily.

There are as many herbs for treating symptoms of SAD and feelings of the blues as there are herbalists, not to mention all the combinations one can make. Here are a few of my favorite remedies, with some differentiation between them. These are formulas that I have had personal experience with and seen help both myself and others. Enjoy!

Goldenrod Joy

2 pt. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

1 pt. Rose (Rosa sp.)

½ pt. Citrus

Combine herbs, infuse 1-1.5 tsp per cup of water for 15 minutes. Add honey.

This delightful and bitter-sweet combination makes a wonderful tea as a general pick-me up when feeling sad, overwhelmed and emotional. It is best when sweetened with a bit of honey. When feelings of cold and lethargy are present I am fond of very heating and stimulating hemlock needle honey. When my anxiety is getting the best of me I reach for cherry bark, or better yet, cherry flower honey. Just a dab will do.

Mugwort-Basil Mover-Shaker

1 pt. Holy basil (Tulsi sp.)

1/2 pt. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

¼-1/8 pt. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Combine herbs, steep 1-2 tsp. per cup of hot water for 15-20 minutes. This blend is particularly useful for stagnant, stuck depression. The aromatics of the basil and lavender serve to move about energy and stuck emotion while mugwort helps to ground. If (like me), you find mugwort a bit too drying, add a bit of mallow leaf, root or some elm bark.

 

Traditional Tea

1 pt. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

A squirt of St. John’s Wort tincture (Hypericum perforatum)

1-3 tsp. of lemon balm per cup of water, infuse 10-15 minutes. Add a squirt or two of SJW tincture. This is a more classic combination for SAD and it is quite effective. I’m not very fond of SJW as a tea, I’ve read in numerous places that the dried herb doesn’t last long and is not very effective. I’ve made the tea and every time find that it is simply bitter and astringent, lacking the complex flavor of the tincture. Lemon balm, on the other hand, makes a delicious tea. These days, I find myself recommending people combine the tea with the tincture. Lemon balm has a particular affinity for the stomach. When anxiety/depression sets in causing gastric upset, try Lemon Balm with a little St. John’s Wort.

*Note* If you have found SJW tea to be more useful than an astringent-bitter tea, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

 

Jan 292012
 

January is all about alcohol. Alcohol and wild food. Is there any better combination? This post is going to cover a few of my favorite cordials as well as some tinctures and elixirs. First however, I want to cover alcohol; what it is and what it does.

From an herbalist perspective alcohol is almost indispensable; it acts to preserve herbs, capturing their essence and making them stable for years on end as well as being a powerful and effective way to give medicine. While all alcohols will differ somewhat, from beer and wine to straight up ethanol, it can generally be said that all alcohol is warm-hot in action and energetically dispersive, that is to say quick acting yet often short term in effect. Unlike water, which must pass through the digestive tract all the way to the large intestine to be absorbed (and thus absorbing the medicine therein), alcohol is absorbed by capillaries in the mouth as well as being absorbed in both the stomach and intestines. This is part of why alcohol makes such a good medium for delivering medicine to cells in a quick and efficient manner. Being composed of varying amounts of water and ethanol, alcohol also makes a superb solvent. Unlike water, ethanol is able to extract both fat-soluble and (depending on water content) water soluble molecules. It is not, however, a good solvent for extracting starches.

Amongst herbalist, the argument that herbs extracted in alcohol is a relatively new phenomenon is common and to a point, true. The use of tinctures and fluid extracts can only be traced back to the 1800’s, the time of Eclectic Medicine. However, consumption of ethanol can be traced back to at least 10,000 BC if not before. While the ingestion of tinctures as we know it today, that is to say the standard amber glass bottle with dropper tops made with high proof ethanol, is scarcely a few hundred years old, ingestion of herbs in alcohol is far older. Ancient alcohols were mostly either some form of wine or beer. Alcohol itself was often seen as medicine but there is no doubt that hundreds of cultures around the world added various herbs, roots and seeds to enhance and extend the medicinal properties of various alcoholic preparations.

Though there are both advantages and disadvantages to alcohol, its effectiveness and practicality make it one of the most common forms of medicine used by herbalists and everyday people alike. Tinctures, or alcohol extracted herbs are especially practical because they are easy to use and easily transportable. I find myself suggesting tinctures often because, well, frankly because it’s easy. Before I hear cries of outrage at suggesting ease let me explain. It’s all well and good to tell someone to take a handful of herbs, put them in a jar and cover with boiling water, strain…blah blah. Sometimes this is exactly what I think a person needs but it’s no good if they won’t do it. You see one thing I have realized over the past year is that despite me thinking I know best and coming up with the best (read complicated) treatment plan possible…none of it matters if they won’t do it. So that brings us back to tinctures: reliable, effective and easy. As mentioned above they are also easy to transport. You can tuck them into your purse or man bag or what have you. You can take them on planes in your carry on (yes you read that right, I do it all the time). So we have medicine that is both easy to use and transportable.

So with all that in mind how about we get to some recipes! Below are a few of my favorites in the moment. Some are medicinal, some for pure pleasure and some a little bit of both. Enjoy.

 

Spiced Brandy

½ cup dry fragrant wild rose petals

1 Tb. Cloves

Zest of 1-2 oranges

2 large knobs fresh ginger, chopped

3-4 sticks of cinnamon, crushed

2 vanilla bean pods, seeds scraped.

Fill a jar a little more than halfway with brandy. Add herbs and vanilla pods along with scraped seeds. Top off with honey and shake. Let sit for at least a month before bottling and then letting rest for another few months (if you can wait).

Goldenrod, Hemlock, Rose elixir and tincture

This delicious combination is both medicinal and pleasurable, especially as an elixir. It’s a great formula for mild UTI’s as well as symptoms of SAD. The goldenrod is antimicrobial, diuretic and astringent while the hemlock lends anti-inflammatory and more diuretic components. Rose is astringent and anti-inflammatory and overall cooling, balancing the warmth of the goldenrod and hemlock. I typically make formulas separate and then combine but I like this to infuse together. I like 2 parts goldenrod, 2 parts hemlock needle and 1 part rose, all dry and infused 1:5 in brandy for 2-4 weeks. Add honey if desired.

Rosehip-Ginger Elixir

Fill a jar half full of rose hips, add a bit of fresh grated ginger and fill ¾ full with brandy. Top with honey and let infuse 2-4 weeks. This tangy warm elixir is great in teas, cakes and by the spoonful J

Cherry-Spicebush Liquor

Spicebush, a member of the Lauraceae family, is a lesser known relative of the well known cinnamon and bay plants. It is said to have an allspice like taste but instead of comparing them, try them! This is a delicious combination of wild cherries, spicebush berries and leaves and calvados, an apple liquor. I think it would make a good mead as well but I haven’t yet gotten around to it. Fill a jar half and half with 2 parts cherries, 1 part spicebush berries and ½ part of spicebush leaves. Top with calvados and enjoy! Use in apple pies, cherry pies and coffee.

(pictures soon!)

Jul 212011
 

“Welcome home…” I can still hear it in my head. Hundreds of people welcoming me to a beautiful national forest. I just got back from the 2011 National Rainbow gathering in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest of Washington state and what an experience it was. This was my second year going and also my second year working at C.A.L.M., the medical area. Rainbow gatherings are a national gathering of as many as 20,000 people from all over the country all converging in one place (some national forest somewhere) for a week of camping, music and fun. As you can imagine, that number of people all in one place for a week provides plenty of first aid opportunities.

A welcome home sign, from beneficiofamily.com

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the gathering as a whole, I’m certainly glad that this space exists and happy to be there helping but I wonder how I would feel if I didn’t have C.A.L.M. to work at? Would I feel out of sorts? It’s hard to say. At Rainbow you can meet some of the most amazing, talented and sweet people you could ever imagine; you can also meet some of the most angry, sad and disparaging of people. I suppose that’s what you get when you have a completely free event and some 20,000 people show up. It’s definitely not the happiest place in the world and yet some part of it feels very home like, very comfortable. Regardless, it is the best place that I know of (actually, the only) where an aspiring herbalist like myself can go and practice first aid herbal medicine with such openness and essentially no regulation. The advantages of this are clear: a huge population of people all with varying maladies and injuries, receptive to alternative treatments provides one with experience and lots of it. People are generally open and willing to allow you to experiment and most everyone is just so grateful. Grateful to be there, grateful that you are there and grateful that someone is willing to take care of them and so many others.

This year was even better than last; there was virtually no police presence and having previously experienced a national Rainbow, my confidence was up and I felt more comfortable experimenting and treating than I did last year. Some of this year’s case highlights include an infected dog bite, a staph infected spider bite, a bad stomach bug and every kind of respiratory malady you could imagine all exacerbated by too much smoke inhalation from the hundreds of fires around the gathering burning wet wood in a low valley.

It’s a very intense experience requiring quick thinking, an ability to improvise and a general understanding that you are in the middle of a national forest and not necessarily able to get exactly what you may need. Working in an office or even out of one’s house is so comfortable, familiar it’s easy to get stuck in that mindset. When you need a pot for soaking a wound or boiling tea, chances are you have several to choose from. You also probably have tools galore, spoons for measuring herbs or mixing poultices, knives for chopping herbs and preparing medicines. In the woods you are limited to what you have around you. You need that soaking pot but so do 15 other people who are working right beside you; you need to stir that slippery elm powder but all the spoons are gone; you need to chop ginger for tea but there’s not a knife to be found. Working in the woods certainly takes some ingenuity, some improvisation but that’s also some of the fun of it. It keeps you thinking and allows for creativity to come through, maybe even more creativity than if you were in your office or home amongst what’s so familiar to you. It’s this ability to be creative that draws me so much to Rainbow, and it’s not just found at C.A.L.M. but throughout all of the gathering. From the many bridges built of fallen trees and tied with various cordage to the clay ovens built out of clay found right on site. Rainbow is a place to express oneself and one’s creativity. I used to think I wasn’t creative; I can’t draw or paint and I’m not especially gifted at sculpting. But then I found cooking. I’ve been cooking since I was 12 and since then I have experimented and experimented some more. Not all of my creations worked out and as I’ve grown older I understand more and more what works together and what doesn’t. But I am creative, my food and meals are my creations. As I’ve found herbalism, another side of my creativity comes out. I love to experiment, to try new things, to try things that aren’t common or maybe even a little bit weird and here I can do that, freely. I get to express myself and be free and help others at the same time. Maybe this is why Rainbow feels a little like home to me.

I am very grateful for this experience and I look forward to doing it again next year. I am thankful to my teachers: CoreyPine Shane, who took me for the first time last year and 7song who took not only me but 17 others so that we could have this first hand practice. It’s hard to put into words just how important this is and how unique of an opportunity it is and I am eternally grateful to be a part of it. I’m not sure what the future holds but I do hope to continue working Rainbow gatherings for the next coming years, improving my skills and helping as many people as I can.