September 1st, 2010 § § permalink
Here in the Western world, in addition to formal education, apprenticeship, and first-hand experience, reading books is still one of the main ways to accrue information and learn a particular subject. Luckily for those studying herbalism we have many valid opportunities to engage in all of these forms of learning. Home study courses, classes, conferences and books abound, and of course we can take a walk and meet some plants along the way.
There are many types of herbalism out there, and there are many corresponding books. When people ask for a book recommendation as they begin or expand their herbal education, I first ask a few prying questions to get a feel for their style of herbalism and learning. Matching an herb book to a person is not always transparent, though. For example, I knew one medical student who, contrary to my first impression, didn’t want any research-driven, phyto-chemistry heavy, plants as drugs resources (think Tyler’s Honest Herbal). Instead, it turned out she was craving the more New Age-y, mystical, plant spirit medicine type books as a break from the daily grind. The beauty of herbalism is that there are little rules – both ways are perfectly valid!
But when it comes down to it, most people that I talked to didn’t really care what they read, especially starting out. They were open to and thirsty for any decent herbal information. For pretty much everyone, Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal is a good starting place due to it’s beauty, wisdom, variety and practical bent. Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom was recommended often, as it dedicates many pages to a single herb to help the reader get to know the plant, it’s energetics, and plethora of uses. There are more similarities then differences within herbalism (at least I think so); if it works and promotes health, it’s medicine.
Back to the book. Last week I finished re-reading a well-known herbal, The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann. I choose to bring this book with me on vacation for a number of reasons. Mainly, it has a good herbal section, an alphabetical section of well over 200 herbs containing growing habitat, parts used, constituents, actions, dosage and of course indications. I am building an herbal reference notebook, so the book I brought with me had to have a decent herbal. The other reason I brought it with was simply to re-familiarize with a book I often recommend to as an introductory book (the last time I really sat down with it was in 2004). If I am telling others to read it, I better know well what’s in there!
In addition to the herbal, The New Holistic Herbal has information about preparation, chemistry, action categories, a small section on harvesting (the suggested harvest times are not for every bio-region, especially Minnesota!), self-care and prevention and a brief section on creating an herbal protocol for yourself. The uses of the herbs themselves and examples of formulas are in a body systems format. Basically, this book as a little bit of everything which is what makes it so useful for those discovering herbalism.
The edition in my possession was updated and printed in 1990, nearly 20 years ago, but it originally was published in 1983. Some ideas have changed with the times, and having read his much newer Medical Herbalism book, I know Hoffmann has updated some things, too. One example of this is seen in dietary recommendations. A healthy diet in the early 1990′s often emphasized whole grains, limited fats and lots of fruit. Nowa days, quality protein and veggies reign.
Details and dates aside, I’d still recommend this book as an introduction because of it’s underlining emphasis on holistic herbalism. Holistic in this sense emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life, within the earth and withing out bodies, and moves us to overcome “…centuries of conditioning to ‘apartness’ thinking”. The first page of the book says, “A herbal celebrating of the wholeness of life”.
Instead of listing all the herbs good for this or that, Hoffmann keeps reminding the reader of two underlining principles of herbalism. First assist the person, not the disease, and secondly, to learn the qualities of herbs (like action categories) – advice that is more pertinent now then ever.
July 22nd, 2010 § § permalink
It’s been a few weeks since my last blog entry, and it will most likely be a few more until the next because I am in transit. All my herbs books and field guides are packed away, as are my computer and cords to import photos; tinctures, dried herbs are put away, too. That leaves me to experience herbalism in the simple, joyous way of meeting plants along the road, field or woods and wondering about them.
I have met a bunch of plants for the first time recently this way, some of which I recognize from books or from seeing their cultivated varieties, others are plants that don’t grow around Duluth that I don’t get to see often. Here are a few that have piqued my interest…
- Lobelia inflata – I am pretty sure this is the variety that grows in my area. It must be, because one tiny bit of leaf left on the tongue for barely a minuet was quite stimulating and moving for the entirety of my body, and it’s seed pods have the characteristic inflated appearance.
- White vervain – Verbena urticifolia looks just like blue vervain in the stem, leaf and flowers, except smaller and more delicate. This white variety grows in similar locals as blue vervain, along roads, in ditches, on shores of rives and lakes. What a beauty!
- Anise hyssop – I have seen this herbs cultivated in many an herb garden, and have cultivated it myself. It is one of my favorite herbs for children, as Agastache foeniculum is deliciously calming and carminative. When I grew it in Northern Minnesota, it never came back as a perennial, but a couple hours south it is a common weed in the country, growing in the much the same places as the white vervain. One thing that strikes me about the wild anise hyssop is that it seems even more aromatic than the ones in the garden, as if it’s qualities are augmented by wildness.
- Wild ginger – I love this plant. Asarum caudatum creates a shiny dark-green blanket under hardwoods and ceders along the steep bluffs of the St. Croix River valley. It’s rounded heart-shaped leaves mingle with another heart-shaped plant, violet. Maude Grieve says that wild ginger’s medicinal actions include “stimulant, carminative, diuretic, diaphoretic”, and that is is “used in chronic chest complaints, dropsy with albuminaria, painful spasms of bowels and stomach”.
- Bee balm – I am not sure exactly what Monarda species grows around here, but it doesn’t really matter because it is sooo freshly fragrant and spicy! I have one cup of honey from Cloquet, MN left that I have been wondering how to use; after tasting the local bee balm I was inspired by Kiva Rose’s blog to make a little Beebalm flower infused honey, with a few anise hyssop flowers added for good carminative and nervine measure. When I get to Oregon this fall, I’ll open up a jar of sweet Midwest summertime.
- One more mint – Catnip. Nothing too special here, as catnip grows just about anywhere, even in Duluth. None the less, it’s around and I love it. What can I say? The gentle and effective herbs used for children are some of my favorites, chamomile, elder flower, anise hyssop and of course catnip. Fresh Nepeta cataria tea tastes a little ‘green’ but is easily enhanced by lavender, lemon balm and a bit of honey. I can’t say for certain if it was the catnip or the OTC anti-prostaglandins, but after having a strong tea of it with the two other mints and two Aleves, a bad case of cramps were relived and I was able to get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
- Figwort – The mouth-watering delicious smelling (in my apparently singular opinion) figwort, Scrophularia nodosa, is already to seed but it doesn’t stop me from munching on it’s leaves. It grows in all over the country side as well as in abandoned lots and alleys in towns. Mullein and foxgloves are in the same Scrophulariaceae family, as can been seen in the snapdragon-like flowers.
- Speaking of mullein, there is plenty out right now in flower. I am not using the leaves or employing it as medicine in any way, just sticking my nose in it’s sparkly yellow flowers on a daily basis. Yum! Verbascum thapsus is one of my favorite smelling flowers, it is so unapologetically floral.
- Solomon’s seal – One of my first blog entries was about Polygonatum multiflorum, Solomon’s Seal, and it has captured my attention since although I haven’t had a lot of experience using it in practice. Whenever I find it in the woods it takes my breath away for a moment. Its’ line and drape is gracefully beautiful, and it’ particular shade of grayish-, blueish-green is soothing to look upon. What strikes me the most is it’s surprisingly large size; although I probubly think that because I am used to seeing the false Solomon’s seal everywhere, which is quite minscule in comparison.
- Collinsonia - C. canadensis is quite prolific around these parts. At first it resembels a stunted, rounded nettle more than a mint family member, as can be seen in these pictures. If you look closely, you can see their flowers are indeed little mint flowers. I have not used Collinsonia medicinally, but I have come across it in researching formulas for hernias and vericose veins. Here’s what Henriette’s Herbal has to say about it (actually, it is Harvey Wickes Felter from the Eclectic Materia Medica). What an awesome online resource!
- One more, actually two more: an uni-dentified pea family member with tiny pink flowers and transluscent green seed pods, as well as a smaller than dime-sized wild orchid growing on a long (1-3 feet) thin stalk, having pinkish white flowers. I have looked online in an attempt to identify these pretty plants to no avail. Sigh. Sometimes the internet just doesn’t cut it…
June 14th, 2010 § § permalink
The reflections continues.
This fall I will be starting a program in Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. I am excited to start a new adventure down the healing path, but I also have a few points of concern.
The main concern I have is a common one for me: local versus global. Western herbalism is present in my backyard and spice rack. I can walk three steps out my front door and harvest nettles (yes, I stupidly planted nettle right in front of my house), chickweed, plantain, yarrow and more.
My family is of European descent, I live in the USA, I grew up acculturated in Western linear, rational thought, and have been studying Western herbalism for over eight years. My roots lie here.
Chinese medicine is present around me too, but more in theory and than practice. Acupuncture needles don’t grow on pine trees, and even if I did have Chinese herbs growing around (which I do, actually), I don’t know a lot about harvesting or preparing them. How do you make ‘raw’ versus ‘cooked’ rehmannia? What herbs have to be aged? Soaked in wine? Boiled for days? How do they make those little teapills I see everywhere?
Like most (all?) medical and healing traditions, Chinese medicine has within its roots legends of how people met certain plants. But by and large, there isn’t a whole lot of green vitality present in Chinese medicine. Growing and gazing at plants has helped me learn and appreciate the medicine and beauty they offer. Will a lack of live plants influence my appreciation for and understanding of Chinese herbalism?
When I was taking a tour of the gardens at the school I’ll be attending, someone pointed to little plantain and asked the typical question, “what’s this one good for?”. The tour guide said, “Oh that? It’s just a weed. The seeds of a related species are the source of psyllium”. To me, plantain is one of those plants that scream green, fresh, juicy aliveness. I haven’t heard of any herbs being used fresh in Chinese medicine (I could be very wrong, though).
The process of writing this has cleared the air! I feel a lot better already…
First, as if I have grown or met every single herb that I have taken. Ha!
Point in case: right now I am loving ashwaganda. It kept coming up in books, intuition and conversation, and seemed like a good herb to try. Just because I don’t have ashwaganda plants around me doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it’s healing power nor have some sort of connection with it.
Secondly, it’s no shock that I am interested in a “global” modality. My BA is in anthropology, and I have always been seeking to learn about the people and their ways of life on this planet we all call home.
And so what if my ancestors would’ve used Western herbs in their homelands? They also ate rotten cod soaked in lye and drank horrendous coffee that sure isn’t native to Sweden. There’s no harm expanding the palate, of food, medicines or philosophy, especially if done so consciously and sustainably.
Another thing that just resolved itself is that I can’t try to make three and a half years studying Chinese medicine anything it is not. I am not doing this to learn a ton about growing herbs or Western herbalism. It’s not the point. It’s not called “Western Medicine School with a dash of Plant Spirit Medicine”.
Instead, let me recall all the fun reasons I have pursued this in the first place; to take pulses, look at tongues, learn the organ systems, five element theory, energetics, acupuncture (I’m a body person, of course I’d be attracted to a modality that incorporates working with my hands with a manual yet energetic form of healing), and on and on.
Most of all, I pursued this to help people. I wish to develop skills to assisting others on their healing path. This is just one of many ways to do so.
May 31st, 2010 § § permalink
I have two plants I cannot identify. I have looked online, to no avail. The lily-ish one looks very familiar, I know it is in a field guide (but I have packed all of my field guides, so I am flying blind here). Anyone know?
I love this purple one. It was a vine of some sort, growing close to the ground at one spot and up a shrub in another.