May 31st, 2009 § § permalink
The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock Arctium lappa
Burdock's purple-lined stems
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Young echinacea with purple-red stems
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
Echinaceas in late summer
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Purple-hued wild indigo flower buds
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Emerging figwort leaves
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
March 20th, 2009 § § permalink
The spice rack is a wonderful place to explore the world of herbal medicine. Each has a story – some have made it into ancient mythology, other causing wars, yet more promoting travels to far away lands and cross-cultural trading.
Keep in mind that spices are medicinal herbs that have made it into the culinary pursuits of humans because of flavors, smells, and medicinal actions that improve digestion or some how benefit the body. Spices are simply plants that have captivated our taste buds and liven our diets.
Most, but not all spices are carminatives. I have written a post about carminatives, but they certainly warrant another mention. Carminatives could be generalized as herbs that act on easing uncomfortable digestion, especially gas and bloating. David Hoffmann describes:
“…the mode of action of carminative herbs appears to be related to the complex of volatile oils they contain. These terpene oils have local anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects upon the mucous lining and the muscle coats of the the alimentary canal.” (502).
As with action categories, an herb that is a carminative is not that and only that. They have most certainly have secondary actions on other parts of the body, due to their unique composition. Let’s take chamomile, for example. Matricaria recutita contains a number of volatile oils, some of which have “quite specific effects on other parts of the body”(503). Chamomile is also included in the following action categories: anticatarrhal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, bitter, nervine, tonic and vulnerary (503). Pay attention to action categories when learning about and using herbs; they are extremely helpful in finding a good herbal match for individual needs.
Here are three spices that caught my attention. Scattered around this blog are posts about other spices like mustard, thyme, mint, sage, dill, anise, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, coriander and ginger.
Asafoetida Ferula asafoetida
Actions: Digestant, aromatic, carminative, expectorant
Contains: Essential oils, ole0-gum resin
Ferula is Latin for carrier, as a related plant was mentioned in Greek mythology as a plant that helped Prometheus carry stolen fire to the earth from the sun. It has been suggested that stone-age nomad tribes might have indeed used the hollow stems to transport fire between their camps. Assa means resin, foetidus smelling, fetid.
It is in the Apiacea family, and looks a bit like fennel, dill, and cows parsnip to me. The powder that we use as a spice is the powdered resin from the root. Resins are quite antiseptic, which is why they make such good mouthwashes. Simon Mills says they “provoke a local release in white blood cell counts (leucocytosis). It is likely that a similar affect occurs further down the digestive tract at least as far as the stomach and duodenum”(305). Other oleo-gum resins include myrrh (Commiphora molmol) and frankincense (Boswellia spp.).
As a new employee in the Co-op kitchen, the other staff “initiated” me by making me smell and then taste the asafoetida. I had to prove myself so I tasted it; it was pretty rank. It was a mystery to me that it dishes it was cooked were actually edible, in fact they were good. Upon research, I read that asafoetida tastes much better when it is cooked, and smells much better when sautéed with ghee. It is used as an onion and garlic replacer among Brahmins who abstain from eating onions and garlic, which are considered too grounding for those of a spiritual disposition (among other reasons).
Asafoetida is of course, a digestive aid which reduces flatulence. It has been used as a folk remedy for childhood colds as it has antiseptic qualities. Other sources say it is useful for asthma and bronchitis and calming hysteria. Michael Tierra says it is “very helpful for damp cold spleen conditions associated with Candida albicans overgrowth”(216).
I do not use this spice often, only when making dal or cooking a big batch of beans. Here is a yummy recipe with asafoetida on Happy Burp. While you’re there, check some good info on her entry about asafoetida.
- Lamb’s quarters – Epazote’s cousin
Epazote Dysphania ambroioides
Actions: Antibacterial, antimalarial, vermifuge, insecticidal, (Rain tree Tropical Plant Database), antihelminthic, antispasmodic, abortifacient (US Pharmacopeia via Gernot Ketzer’s Spice pages) Contains: essential oils such as monoterpenes, asacaridole
Epazote is a a member of the Chenopodiacea family (beet, spinach, quinoa). I think it looks a lot like it’s relative that likes to grow in my garden, lamb’s quarters (or pig’s weed; are these the same thing?). This year I would like to get start some seeds of epazote, because it seems everyone loves it. Do plants ever remind you of a place? For some reason, epazote and Minneapolis are synonymous for me; I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Even when I was a kid I had a similar association of lamb’s quarters and and city, seeing it grow in empty lots, alleys, in cracks in the sidewalks. In 2006 a friend made some chilled epazote tea; it was so delicious on a very hot June evening. I commented that it tasted “culinary”, with hints of sage, oregano, tarragon,and licorice.
Epazote is native to the Americas, and used throughout Mexico and Central America. It is well known to be prepared with black and other beans, as it is carminative and reduces gas. traditional usage also includes it for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea and lessen the symptoms of malaria (Rain Tree). Try this recipe for Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black bean Tropical Fruit Sauce; all sounds delicious to me.
Black Pepper Piper nigrum
Contains: Essential oils with 80% monotrepenes, acrid resins
Actions: Stimulant, digestive
Pepper is native to the west coast of southern India but is now produced around the tropics in the old and new world alike. This common table spice was once more expensive than gold and the reason for expansive European sea exploration in the 1400’s. Pepper sure was one hot commodity, hehe… It looks like the word pepper is quite literal, simply coming from the word piper, latin for pepper. Again being quite literal, it represents the Piperaceae, or pepper family.
The use of peppercorns are vast; everyone uses it. What it does for food it does for the body, it warms it up! Yes, pepper is a wonderful stimulant for warming up cold, weak, sluggish digestion, coldness in general due to poor circulation, and it dries up mucus. It is part of a classic Ayurvedic formula Trikatu: pepper, pippli pepper and ginger ground then mixed with a bit of honey to form a paste. Three-fourths to 1 tablespoon of the mixture is taken with a bit of hot water three times a day to counteract cold, damp symptoms and to stimulate digestion and warmth. Tierra adds that it is said to “recirculate” nutrients, and is used when fasting to boost energy. It is a stimulant to gastric mucosa, use when a less irritating then cayenne is desired (242).
This is an interseting account of the history, production and stories about pepper. Also check out the Spice Pages photos of pepper.
October 29th, 2008 § § permalink
Plantain has done it again! This plant never ceases to amaze me in its ability to suck out splinters, dirt, bug venom and bee stingers. A few days ago, I got a nasty sliver in my index finger. It was deep under the skin, and in there so good I couldn’t see how it broke the skin. I tried the usual at-home surgical tools (sterilized nail clipper, pin, and tweezers), and after removing layer after painful layer of flesh, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere. I bandaged it up and went to bed. The next morning, I found a few succulent looking leaves in the yard, chewed them up and placed it on the sliver-laden finger. I used a fresh bandage to keep it in place for the afternoon. Three hours later, I took off the plantain band-aid to investigate; not only was the sliver gone, but the formally raw and bothered flesh was healing together quite nicely.
Plantain (Plantago major) can quickly pique the interest of a non-herb person when they see how easy it is to use the leaves and how effective they are (I think yarrow has this effect on herb novices, too). Just pick a leaf or two, chew, apply, wait and be amazed. Matthew Wood has a chapter about plantain in The Herbal Book of Wisdom, giving accounts of plantain as “the primary ‘herbal drawing agent'” throughout herbal history from the Greeks to the eclectics and phyisomedicalists, to Anishinabe herbalists. It is interesting to note that plantain was integrated into Native American herbalism after it was brought here by the colonists. It is often called “white man’s footprint”.
Count on plantain to draw out infectious material both topically and internally from the mouth, lungs and large intestine. “It is an excellent general tonic for the gums, pulling out infection and toning the tissues”, especially when there are infections here with mucus (392). For the lungs, it is cooling and moistening to irritated tissue. Wood says he uses it for coughs where it seems a like some particle is causing irritation (393). David Hoffmann says plantain “…acts as a gentle expectorant whilst soothing inflamed and sore membranes, making it ideal for coughs and mild bronchitis”(224 ). For internal use, it is best to prepare an infusion of dried leaves, drinking about 3 cups daily.
For the large intestine, the mucilaginous leaves of this cool temperature plant soothes and coats membranes. Plantain “stimulates the activity of the intestines, coats and soothes the walls, detoxifies the blood supply and assists elimination” (Wood, 394). Speaking of detoxifying the blood, Rosemary Gladstar states that she uses it both topically and internally for blood poisoning (106). The well-known fiber supplement psyllium is made from the ground seed husks of a species of plantain, which is employed as a soothing laxative.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Family Herbal.
July 7th, 2008 § § permalink
Practically everyday I find myself using mints for one reason or another. Here are a few of my current favorites.
Skullcap: Scutellaria lateriflora for mental exhaustion
I have been drinking infusions of this cooling bitter nervine, as I usually do after a mercury retrograde when thinking, communication, and information dissemination are often difficult and confusing. Though I have heard that the fresh tincture is best for acute burn-out conditions, I am using the tea is as a brain tonic to promote a clear mind. Skullcap can be a good ally for mental tension, nervous fear and even dread. Ah yes, this plant is very effective for tension of all sorts, even high blood pressure during pregnancy. Guido Mase of Vermont mentioned that skullcap is useful for acute drug withdrawal symptoms (use frequently) as well as breaking addictions in general, especially that of pain-killers and other receptor-site addictions. I hear that skullcap and motherwort are used to treat sunstroke; luckily I haven’t had to try it.
Sage: Salvia officinalis for a sore throat
Currently I am gargling with a strong sage tea right before bed and upon waking to treat a sore, scratchy throat. I like the spicy astringency of sage for sore throats because it seems to promote reduction on the soreness in a stimulating manner, almost as if it is gently scratching my irritated tonsils. During the winter I often opt for the soothing, coating, mucilaginous ways of slippery elm, especially when the sore throat is a cold or flu symptom, whereas currently I have an infection of the tonsils. Sage seems to prompts a healing response and tone up the rawness I see in the back of the throat. Helium.com has a sums up the common uses of sage. Phyllis Light and Matthew Wood mentioned sage for ‘male menopause’ when there are signs of wasting, premature aging, nervousness and shaking when a man passes mid-age, as it converts hormones to be used by the adrenals. They also cite sage for cystitis caused by mucus congestion in the bladder.
Thyme: Thymus vulgaris for a respiratory infection
About a week ago I awoke with an intense pain in my lungs, as if my chest and ribs were beaten to a bloody pulp. To my dismay, I had another respiratory infection. Feeling wiser since my last infection, I promptly took care of myself the best I could. Acupressure, deep breathing, saunas and steams, light soups and steamed veggies, gentle movement to circulate lymph, mustard plasters (you know it’s bad when you skip the onion plaster and go straight to mustard) followed with chest massage with essential oils, echinacea, goldenseal and osha tinctures, and lots and lots of thyme tea.
Spicy and warm thyme is an expectorant, antiseptic, and anti-infective, which makes it so useful in protecting the lungs from a worsening infection. I use it for both acute coughs and lung congestions, as well as for recovering from chronic infections. Looking back, I should’ve taken thyme for a longer duration after my last respiratory infection–I know I will now! Use it for pneumonia, tuberculosis, cold and flu, whooping cough, and sore throat. I read somewhere that it is not the best for chronic bronchitis where there are a lot of secretions, but rather indicated in dry coughs.
Pennyroyal: Mentha pulegium or Hedeoma pulegiodes as an emmenagogue
A few years at an herb conference in North Carolina, a complete stranger came over to me while I was making some tea. When she read the ingredients of the formula, she scoffed and said, “why are you using pennyroyal of all things? It’s a very dangerous herb best let to practitioners, young lady!” “Yes”, I told her, “I am well aware of the dangers of pennyroyal, and make sure to never ingest the essential oil” and continued on with my tea time. Common sense tells me it is always wise to employ caution when using herbs and essential oils. However, I am not about to be scared away from responsibly using pennyroyal herb after hearing a few stories. According to drugwarfacts.com, “Each year, use of NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) accounts for an estimated 7,600 deaths and 76,000 hospitalizations use of NSAIDs in the United States.” (NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, ketoprofen, and tiaprofenic acid). Would this woman have reacted in the same manner if I took out a bottle of aspirin?
Pennyroyal is one of my favorite herbs to have around to use both premenstrually during the first few days of bleeding. It is a well-know emmenagogue, antispasmodic and sedative, while calming nervous tension that settles in the stomach . I can feel its warm, diaphoretic action almost immediately; pelvic congestion and fullness with a bit of coldness or stagnation is allayed. A few drops of the essential oil in a spray bottle with plain water is one of my favorite mosquito repellent.
Lemon Balm – Melissa Offinalis as a calmative
Volatile oil-rich Melissa is hands down one of my favorite herbs. It is so sweet yet tart, cooling yet uplifting! Could there be a more tasty herb? During the long Minnesota winter, melissa is a melancholy sun-mourners best friend (along with Saint John’s Wort, calendula and rosemary), as it seems to dry up the dreariness and cheer one out of any funk. In true Scandinavian style, the winter darkness doesn’t seem to bother me. In fact, I thrive off of the most yin time of the year. Rather, I like to drink lemon balm tea in the summer to healthfully align myself to the yangness of the long sunny days. I say healthfully align because I have a tendency to be overstimulated in the expansiveness of summer, so much so that I drain my adrenals with too much all-day physical activities and late-night projects. Melissa helps me stay calm in the face of nervousness and insomnia, so I can be more appropriately active. I appreciate its carminative and somatic properties after eating too many raw and cool foods.
Peppermint – Menta piperita as a cooling beverage
I inherited a community garden plot that is chock full of gobs of healthy peppermint. When I initially laid out my garden beds, I transplanted all the peppermint to its own designated spot. With a little bit of conscious planting and watering, this former weed is now the prime example of health and vitality in my garden. Every time I come back from the garden, I take a hand full of peppermint with me to make into a deliciously aromatic sun tea. What says summer like fresh mint tea? To my roommates requests, we will probably be making mojitos soon.
May 26th, 2008 § § permalink
Do you see the motherwort in this picture? Hint: its vertical. Mmmm…Motherwort! I have been craving the bitter herb for a steady week running – and as a tea! Who in their right mind drinks motherwort infusion? Someone who needs it, or who likes the bitter zing. Have you ever eaten a motherwort flower? Try it, I dare you. I have been drinking motherwort infusion to calm my critical and exacting PMS self to a down to a low roar; its working quite well. It is also nourishing, stockpiling nutrients that will soon be shed; for this purpose I add a bit of nettle or oat straw. At this time in my cycle I tend to see things very clearly, which can either enrich my life with wise insight or keep me up at night ruminating. Motherwort, along with hops, eases my mind.
In the middle of winter, I dream of a sunny day and a garden full of motherwort. There is something very awakening and attracting about the upright member of the mint family. A friend once became very aquatinted with a particular motherwort plant and described her as juicy. I have yet to have a garden full of motherwort, as my seeds never seem to germinate. This year I am trying really hard to get my seeds sprouted…so wish me luck.
Motherwort promotes menstruation, reduces nervous tension and cramps, and is regulating to stress and anxiety caused heart problems, racing and/or irregular heartbeat (tachycardia). Culpepper says about motherwort, “Venus owns this herb and it is under Leo. There is no better herb to drive melancholy vapors from the heart, to strengthen it and make the mind cheerful, blithe and merry”. Yes, motherwort is warming in taste and even color with the sweet downy pink with white whorls of flowers, soothing to the heart and demanding emotions, and a wonderful ally for women of all ages and at all times of their cycles. The way it stands in the garden, attracting bees like mad, reminds me of an seemingly innocent attention-seeking amorous Leo. Well, not that innocent, if you have ever been tangled amongst their sharp seed pods at the end of the season!
It is called Ectes Herzgespann in German, which in an excruciatingly literal translation is “common heart team”; luckily a German woman described it to me as meaning “it pulls the heart forward, as one would lead a team of yoked oxen”. What a wonderful way to visualize this herb’s actions. Like many herbs, motherwort contains a myriad of chemical compounds that give rise to its unique uses. From its taste we know that it works on the digestion; Tierra says it is specifically a carminative. The tannins make it astringent to the uterus, and according to Wikipedia, “the herb contains the alkaloid leonurine, which is a mild vasodilator and has a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles. For this reason, it has long been used as a cardiac tonic, nervine, and as an emmenagogue.”
As an emmenagogue, I view it as enriching the blood and circulating it, rather than starting delayed menstruation, as the latter has never worked for me. It still has an important pre-menstrual use of allying stress, anger and rage, worrying that keeps you up at night, and anxious palpitations. Stress and anxiety keeping your period away? Try motherwort. Motherwort may be helpful include during the last few weeks of pregnancy to promote uterine tone. Ruth Trickey states in Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle that motherwort “is one of the many herbs which posses the apparently contradictory actions of relieving spasm and stimulating uterine activity–an effect which seems to be brought about by a reduction in the irritability (spasticity) of the uterine muscle. This allows contractions to be followed by an adequate rest period when blood can circulate through the muscle again”(470). Of course, motherwort is useful for peri-menopausal women, adressing palpitations, night sweats and worrying keeping you up at night, Trickey combines hops, motherwort and black cohosh for this reason with “excellent results”.
Tierra, Micheal. Planetary Herbology.
Culpepper’s Complete Herbal. http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html
Trickey, Ruth. Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal.
March 13th, 2008 § § permalink
One of the first herbs I used was dang gui. Still, I have a hard time understanding this herb so here is my attempt at gaining clarity. Any comments about indications for or experience with this herb would be much appreciated!
Its botanical name is Angelica sinensis (a common species name, meaning “of China”). Dang gui is one of them many members of the volatile oil containing Apiaceae (parsley) family. It is one of the most popular Chinese herbs in the US. Foster and Chongxi state that dang gui is the most used herb in China, for “it is used more frequently and in larger amounts that ginseng and licorice, often considered the most widely used Chinese herbs”.
Its flavor is sweet with an earthy bitterness. The taste can be strong for some, but I have witnessed that those who need it crave it and love its distinctive smell. I have a entirely non-technical and strange way to associate herbs with colors; to me dang qui conjures a dusty lavender taupe color. Every time I smell it I think of chalk and afternoon recess in 5th grade and I feel as if I am smelling it with my jaw. Don’t ask me why! Weird, I know, but it happens every time so I feel it is worth noting although they are very individual. I digress…
Dang gui has quite the reputation as a woman’s herb, mostly because it is warming and tonifying to the blood, and can regulate menstruation. It has emmenagogue, mild laxitive and analgesic properties. Also, it Harmonizes vital chi, nourishes the blood and returns them both to proper order, like for headaches due to blood deficiency or traumatic injury. Of course, men and non-menstruating women can use this herb for Blood Deficiency; in fact my dog will walk over to where I keep my powdered Chinese herbs and whine until I give her some. She has skin problems, and is dry and flaky half the time. Within my references, these are some indications for dang qui:
- building blood, anemia
- menstrual complaints of all kinds: dysmenorrhea, irregularity, amenorrhea
- menopausal complaints
- fibroids (most likely does not contain phytoestrogens)
- some vaginal infections
- abdominal pain
- circulatory problems such as angina, thromboses, coronary heart problems
- “Damp Wind” conditions with joint and muscle pain and inflammation
- injury, arthritis, rheumatism
- dry skin and skin eruptions
- promoting circulation (it moistens the intestines)
- sores and abscesses
- blurred vision and headaches due to Deficient Blood
As mentioned, dang gui is a well known emmenagogue, so it generally not to be taken during the heaviest days of menstruation if you are a heavy bleeder, nor during the first trimester. However, it can be quite helpful during scanty menses and amenorrhea. This leads me to think that dang gui would be of good use for pain towards the end of the period, not necessarily for pain at the start of the period (possibly due to Stagnant Blood). Michael Tierra precautions to avoid use if there is abdominal bloating and congestion (damp Spleen), as well as in Deficient Yin with heat symptoms (since dang gui is heating itself).
We see in the above list many of the tell-tale signs of Deficient Blood. In Chinese medicine, the blood nourishes and moistens the cells and organs, which warms the body. “Deficient Blood arises when there isn’t enough Blood in the body to preform its nourishing and moistening functions” (Tierra, 148). Let’s not forget that patterns of imbalance do not manifest on their own but relates to other organs and functions in our body. For instance, Blood is related to the Heart (directs the blood), the Liver (which stores it and works to renew it while we sleep) and the Spleen (holds blood in the vessels, and builds it through digestion). Bleeding, over-exertion, yin deficency or spleen chi deficiency (resulting in poor digestion and lack of assimilated nutrients) can lead to Blood Deficiency.
Here are some patterns of Blood Deficiency. Does anyone else see a relation to the Kidneys, adrenal glands, and Shen? Can you see how dang gui would help?
- blurry vision
- restlessness, insomnia, anxiety, sometimes irritability
- scanty menses
- tendency towards thinness
- dark spots in visual field
- dry skin, hair, eyes
- lack of luster, pale face and lips
- tiredness or overwhelmed
- easily startled
- poor memory (Tierra, 148)
Lesley Tierra, “Healing With the Herbs of Life”
Michael Tierra, “Planetary Herbology”
Simon Mills, “The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine”
January 18th, 2008 § § permalink
Safflower, Cathamus Tinctorius, is an herb I know little about. Even when I taste a simple of it, the taste and properties still flee my senses and intuition. Upon a single sip of a Safflower infusion, the center back of my tongue is stimulated, with a production of saliva following seconds later. Next the stimulation/saliva production moves from the center back tongue to the edges. When I open my mouth and move my tongue around, I feel a slight tingle in the tip of my tongue. The taste and smell are similar, light and flowery with a bit of oily coating. One thing I can definitely say about it is that it is warm in temperature. hen I can’t get a feel for the herb on my own, I hit the books. But alas! hardly any of my references mention this yellow-red member of the aster family.
The Spring 1996 issue of The Protocol Journal of Botanical Medicine includes a brief listing of Safflower in the botanical materia medica for ovarian cysts. This listing is scientifically orientated:
Theraputic Class: Hemokinetic, analgesic
Compounds Present: Carthamin, safflor yellow A, safflor yellow B, carboxylic acid, and a polysaccharide that has demonstrated immune stimulation in vitro (144)
Considering this is the only bit of information I have about Safflower in my available references, let’s decipher this chemistry jargon. Hemokinetic must refer to blood flow mechanics, since hemo means blood and kinetic means to move. We know that analgesics are used to reduce pain through a number of different mechanisms. The compound carthamin is a pigment found in Safflower, and has been used as a natural dye since ancient times. Wikipedia states that carthamin “…was used extensively in the past for dyeing wool for the carpet industry in European countries and to create cosmetics for Geisha and Kabuki artists in Japan”. I found many titles of research articles and a few abstracts concerning safflor yellow A and B compounds online, but little substance about the nature of these compounds. Here is a quote from an abstract (available at http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=18603193) “…SYB [safflor yellow B] might act as a potential neuroprotective agent against the cerebral ischemia-induced injury in rat brain through reducing lipid peroxides, scavenging free radicals, and improving the energy metabolism”. Carboxylic acids are organinc acids, and are present in many food stuff. Citric acid from citrus fruits, malic acid from apples, acetic acid from vinegar, oxalic acid from many foods stuff like spinich, beets, buckwheat and sorrel, as well as fatty acids and amino acids (protein building blocks) are forms of carboxylic acids; but I don’t know what type of carboxylic acids are present in Safflower.
Some internet research led me to learn that it is used in Chinese Medicine (pin yin: Hong Hua) to promote blood circulation, clear up blood stasis (which can relieve pain). It lends itself to the uterus, perhaps because of its blood circulating nature, so it is used for amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea and abdominal masses. Likewise safflower can be used topically for traumatic injuries and swellings. Western herbalists have also used hot safflower infusion to encourage sweating during cold and flu. According to herbplace.com, safflower is antiseptic, expectorant, diaphoretic, promotes to onset of menstruation and is sooting to the lungs. I originally purchased this herb to try on a bad case of conjunctivitis (pink eye). An eye wash of the strong infusion soothed the itching and gooey-ness, it did not reduce the redness in my bloodshot eyes (I am going to try goldenseal diluted in saline next, on recommendation). Henriette’s Herbal (http://www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/carthamus.html) has an informative entry about Safflower.
December 27th, 2007 § § permalink
It was the last day of a two-month long internship at an herbal retreat center in Vermont. Between the sadness at leaving the enchantedly beautiful mountain-top and the wonderful plant people I met, and the excitement of being in New York the next afternoon, I felt one last hike through the woods would allow me a chance to say goodbye and collect my thoughts. Against my better judgement, I was taking pictures of the plethora of the blooming fungi while walking. I know it may not sound dangerous to some, walking plus camera equals and accident waiting to happen for me. Sure enough, after returning my camera to its bag, I tripped over a tree root and sprained my ankle for the second time in five weeks.
I surrendered to the pain; and laid down on the exceedingly soft forest floor to rest until I could walk (hobble) on it more confidently. It was there that I met Solomon’s Seal, growing in a pair underneath the maple and birches. He was such a beautiful sight, with ripe blue berries where were once a pair of flowers dangled, weighing down its delicately curved stalk. The slightly fall-faded leaves were translucent in a bit of afternoon sun that made its way through the forrest canopy. Look at the interesting way the leaves bend in the picture below; some reach to the sky, some twist to show the underside of the leaf, others hang parallel to the earth or make hairpin folds to point both up and down. If I were to dig to expose the roots, we would see how Solomon’s Seal got it’s name. Here is Matthew Wood’s description:
“The name Polygonatum means ‘many-jointed’, referring to the nodes on the stems and on the jointed roots (or actually, rhizomes), which look like a gnarled mass of knuckles in some instances, and like a series of vertebra in others. When the stem dies back at the end of the season, it detached from the root leaving behind a round mark that looks like a little ‘seal'(397).
The apparent seal on the rhizome has long been associated with King Solomon. Maude Grieve cites evidence that it was thought Solomon himself was aware of the plants virtues and named it after himself. Wikipedia states that “[i]n Medieval…legends, the Seal of Solomon was a magical signet ring said to have been possessed by King Solomon, which variously gave him the power to command demons (or jinni), or to speak with animals”. Yet others believe the seal has less to do with Solomon and more to do with its affinity to “seal up” (mend) broken bones, fresh wounds, too tight or loose “tendons, ligaments, attachments, joints…making the muscular and skeletal system stronger and more harmonious in its actions”(399).
Wood is the only resource I have on Solomon’s Seal; all of the below information can be cited to him. He says Solomon’s Seal, along with Mullein, has the rare ability to set a broken bone in the correct place; use with Comfrey and Boneset for that purpose. It can be used for weak joints (particularly the hips), weak and irritated digestion, vaginitis, fever recovery, and as a “mild cardiac tonic” since it contains a small amount of convallarin, the cardiac glycoside found in Lily of the Valley. It can calcify or decalcify when needed, thus useful in bone spurs. To rebuild cartilage, use with Horsetail, as they will “often cure joints damaged by torn ligaments and deteriorated cartilage” (400). These nutritive and bone/attachment actions may be due to the sweet, cooling, mucilaginous, tonic and astringent qualities of the root.
I have used Solomon’s Seal only once, in a formula for a broken hand, along with horsetail, boneset and other mineral-rich herbs. The person’s doctor was pleasantly surprised after a few weeks of taking the formula; he’d never seen such strong and fast healing of a bone before. Since the broken bone was the middle bone in the palm of the hand, I guessed there may of been some damage to the ligaments and tendons in the hand (not a far off guess since they are plentiful in the hand) and included Solomon’s Seal specifically to “harmonize” the healing of the bone and tendons. I would like to have it on hand, but I am not sure how freely it grows here in Minnesota and thus don’t feel comfortable digging it up. In fact, I have never seen it here, just false Solomon’s Seal! But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it is not around…every year I discover “new” plants I never thought were in Duluth. This spring I’d like to plant it behind the garage in a shade garden, so I’ll have it around regardless.
December 7th, 2007 § § permalink
Annual native to southern Europe, growing wild in stony, uncultivated areas with lots of warm sun. Cultivated throughout Europe as a beautiful plant to add texture to gardens as well as for its medicinal uses. Grieve’s historical research led her to say that “it is said to have obtained its name from its high reputation as a heal-all, being supposed even to cure the plague”. The plant was recorded as medicine definitely by the late 1500’s (probably earlier), and even Shakespeare wrote in Much Ado about Nothing, says: “Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus and lay it to your heart; it is the only thing for a qualm…. I mean plain Holy Thistle” (Grieve, A Modern Herbal).
I first met blessed thistle in an English style hedged garden at Perennial Pleasures, in East Hardwick, Vermont (perennialpleasures.net). I was immediately struck by the coexisting softness and sharpness evident in this plant. It’s almost feathery yet sharp, radial flower center are surrounded by the long downy leaves capped in irregular teeth, the whole plant seemed dense but only grew about 2 feet high. The multifaceted texture was complimented in this garden as it was growing amongst globe amaranth, double-headed echinacea, mugwort, nasturtium and holy basil.
Perhaps the best known ways in which blessed thistle is medicinally used is a galactagogue (a group of plants that can increase the flow of breast milk) and a bitter (bitters stimulate the digestive system). As I learn more about this plant I will post some specific info on how it works to promote milk production. Do any of you know?
According to asklenore.info, a combination of blessed thistle and fenugreek taken for increasing milk flow is more effective than taking either of the herbs alone. Lenore also says (which I have heard from nursing mothers) that it takes the herbs increase milk flow by the 3rd or 4th day of taking them.
Fenugreek: 3 capsules 3x a day
Blessed thistle: 3 capsules 3x a day, or 20 drops of the tincture 3x a day
Here is another formula to ensure a healthy milk production. Use as a strong cup of tea of the following 3x a day:
Rosemary Gladstar’s formula
1 part Fenugreek
2 parts Blessed thistle
3 parts Fennel
Remember I mentioned it is also known as a bitter. As you may have guessed, it tastes, well, bitter. The main bitter principle of blessed thistle is a 15-carbon compound called sespuiterpenes, which is also the bitter compound in the Artemisia (wormwood) family and ginkgo. Bitters are an important and interesting group which warrant further entries, so for now I will say that blessed thistle’s bitter properties are useful in increasing appetite (thus helpful for anorexia), and soothing dyspepsia and indigestion, (Mills, Essential Book of Herbal Medicine). Because it is known to “increase the flow of
gastric and bile secretions” blessed thistle can be helpful in any digestive disorder where there is sluggishness, gas, colic, or where a toning effect is needed (diarrhea or hemorrhage) (Hoffmann, A Holistic Herbal).
Matthew Wood has said medicinal plants have about 30 uses, 5 or 6 of those uses are pretty effective, and usually it was 1 use at which it excels. What are some of the other, less common uses for blessed thistle? Grieve says, “In large doses, Blessed Thistle acts as a strong emetic, producing vomiting with little pain and inconvenience” and calls it a “most useful diaphoretic” (a group of plants that promote perspiration) for intermittent fevers. There is also some mention of it used to help circulation and memory (Grieve) (by circulating blood to the brain); perhaps this action is related to its diaphoretic action. In 1652, Culpeper mentions that blessed thistle (then know as Carduus Benedictus) is a herb of Mars (because of the sharpness) in Aries, and used for jaundice, gallbladder problems, clearing the blood among other uses (see www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html for Culpeper’s complete herbal).
A note about dried capsules:
As a matter of personal preference and general herbalist’s convention, I almost never take dried herb capsules. A strong medicinal tea or alcoholic extract (tincture) have proved more effective to me time and time again. Once I bought echinacea capsules at Wal-Mart (stupid, I know, but I was new to the herbal thing). The local herbalist told me to open up the capsule and taste the herb on my tongue. I did; it tasted pretty bland. She then gave me a drop of echinacea tincture on my tongue to compare, and the difference was astronomical. The tincture made my whole mouth tingle-as is common with echinacea. The dried capsule had none of that buzzing effect. However, it is entirely up to you as to what method you take herbs in, and there are times when capsules are helpful. Lenore (above) prefers capsules to tea, but perhaps that is because she is not familiar with medicinal strength teas. A medicinal tea is much stronger than beverage teas (the way most people make tea) and purposefully acts to ensure the highest amount of medicinal activity. That may be a topic for a future post (if anyone needs instructions on how to make a medicinal tea please email me dandelionrevolution @gmail.com).