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.