October 12th, 2013 § § permalink
I have just returned from an Italian vacation. Oh, the sights, the food, the plants and the ruins to be seen! One particular plant seen all over the place happens to be one of utmost importance: the Olive tree. Olive trees are all over the place. From afar they are easy to identify because of their round, squat crown and their distinctive pale silvery-green foliage. » Read the rest of this entry «
July 22nd, 2013 § § permalink
When I worked at a co-op in the health and body care section, I noticed that every year around November, bottles and bottles of elderberry products would fly off the shelves. Elderberry has earned a reputation as a cold and flu herb, especially for the dreaded influenza, and rightfully so. It packs a powerful punch of anthocyanadins, helps the immune system do this. Studies have shown that it is effective at reducing the length of the flu by half.
Yet like most herbs, elderberry has depth and can be used in many situations. » Read the rest of this entry «
August 20th, 2011 § § permalink
This year, I am growing chamomile in my garden for the first time. The growing season on the West coast is longer, with more rain and milder springs and falls, so I have tried growing things I never grew in Minnesota. Actually, I tried growing chamomile in MN from a transplant, but it never took off. This is an into to this lovely herb; next week I’ll post some medicinal uses and properties.
Botanical info: Matricaria recutita is German chamomiles botanical name, an annual in the Asteraceae or aster/composite family. ‘Chamomile’ means something like “earth/ground melon/fruit/apple”, which I am guessing refers to its aromatic, apply-fruity smell and its height (about a foot or so). Anthemis nobilis or Roman chamomile is grown and used as well, sometimes interchangeably. Chamomile is an native to Europe and Eastern Asia, but it was introduced to North America and grows in temperate areas as long as it is a mostly sunny locale with decently draining soils. The flowers are small, with yellow centers surrounded by white petals. It seems that not all flowers on chamomile have petals or they fall off at some point, some are just disc flowers.
I thought that Matricaria alluded to the mat forming tendency of chamomile, but an University website says that Matricaria is from the Latin word matrix, meaning “womb”, indicating its use for women’s health, recutita meaning cut around (although I have no idea to what that is referring to).
Growth: The first thing I noticed about the chamomile was its vigorous growth. It was the first seed to sprout by almost a week; it quickly grew to about 24″, budded, flowered in a matter of weeks. It bloomed and bloomed some more after a number of harvesting. Another noticeable thing is the light but sweet aroma radiating from the patch when a breeze came through.
Harvesting: Collecting your chamomile is laborious, no doubt. There has to be another a better method than snipping every individual flower. How do big herb farms do it?! I tried giving the crop a hair cut and catching the trimmings, but that requires cleaning the herb later. The stems are thin and soft enough that I could pinch the flower heads off, but placing each individual flower in the basket got old. I ended up leaning the herb over the basket, which collected the flowers after snipping them with a scissors.
As the chamomile dries, the sunny yellow color darkens and the smell sweetens and intensifies. It is important to note that the yellow color concentrates, but the white of the petals is still present. This contrast of colors is NOT seen in chamomile that I buy by the pound, which is mostly yellowish-brown. Weeks after the first harvests, the smell of chamomile is actually getting stronger in my study/herb room. It is almost intoxicating – interfering my studying by making me sleepy, perhaps?
Chamomile has long been a favorite herb of mine for both medicine and beverage, for body and mind. It was probably the first herbal medicine I ever experienced, as my mom would make me herbal tea when I was sick with a cold. In truth, I didn’t like chamomile tea (or any tea for that matter) back then, and now I know why: it was stale. We lived in a basement apartment, and had a mold infestation. Anything that could absorb excess humidity did, herbal tea bags were a prime target. Still, there is something nice about getting tea made for you when you are in bed with a cold or sore throat, especially when that tea contains a liberal dose of honey.
April 9th, 2011 § § permalink
The first groups of herbs students learn in Chinese herb classes are the warm and cool herbs to release the exterior. These herbs are active on the surface of the body and useful in externally-contracted conditions, like colds or the flu. Many are diaphoretic and open the pores to promote sweating, vent rashes, treat red, itchy eyes and sore throat in the case of a wind-cold or heat invasion, treat headache of carious causes, or drain dampness by being diuretic.
One thing I love, love, love, love, love about learning Chinese herbs is the emphasis on the energetics of taste/flavor. I already mentioned this in my last post, but I can’t help but (over)state it again, because it has been so helpful in learning the herbs, and providing a bit of theory to base the use of these herbs in.
Overall, the flavor and energy of these herbs goes up and out. Some are aromatic, most are acrid, a few are bitter or sweet. Most but not all of these herbs enter the Bladder and/or the Lungs, since these are the organs most closely related to the exterior (Lungs in the upper body, the Bladder in the lower body). Below I have taken a few herbs from the texts and added a few Western herbs from Micheal Tierra’s The Way of the Herbs, for comparison.
Warm herbs to release the exterior/surface:
Ephedra – Ephedra sinica, Ephedracae family. This herb is classified as warm, acrid, and slightly bitter, and is known as a one of the best diaphoretics when there is no sweating as it opens the pores when it is blocked by wind-cold. It is also used for asthma or cough, as well as edema since it is a diuretic. It is no accident that it is the first herb often taught; it exemplifies the entire category in many ways even though it is somewhat of a controversial herb and not used often in the states.
There are many representatives from the Apiacea or carrot family, but I want to look at an herb from the Chinese materia medica that has a close relative in Western herbalism, angelica. Angelica dahurica or bai zhi is warm, acrid and aromatic, which makes it useful for dispersing, unblocking, warming and drying. These qualities are useful draining skin infections like boils, treating leukorrhea, frontal headaches and toothaches due to an attack of external cold-wind, and nasal congestion.
Every herb has at least on of the twelve channels that it enters into, but a few herbs actually guide into the organ itself. Bai zhi guides into the Yang Ming organs, in particular the Stomach. This makes sense because the paired organs of Spleen and Stomach often accumulate dampness and affect the appitite, assim diegstion, and bai zhi is great at expelling dampness.
Angelica archangelica is also in this category. It is native to Europe has similar energetics to bai zhi, and is known as being carminative, emmenagogue and diaphoretic. Taken during the start of a cold or the flu, it can promote sweating and spread warmth through the body. To me it is especially useful in either damp conditions or damp environments, because it is so aromatic and lifting. I recall a teacher commenting that it is suited to England, where it is cold and damp. I started using it after spending a weekend in southern Minnesota where it was dew-covered and growing abundantly along the steep roadsides during a very hot and very humid June. I was drawn to use it because of its drying and carminative properties, and found it worked incredibly well in this regard.
magenta hedge-nettle variety on the Oregon coast
Many aromatic, warming and spicy mints show up in this category from the Chinese tradition as well as Western. Hyssop, sage, hedge nettle, basil, thyme, oregano, savory, monarda, perilla and fang feng are a few examples. When I thought of the Western herbs in the category, I realized that many herbs in surface-releasing category are anti-microbial. Chinese medicine theory doesn’t include germ theory, but it does consider that exogenous pathogenic factors can invade the body when either it’s defenses are down (a deficiency situation) or the pathogen is very strong (an excess condition).
Mints are among my favorite herbs to take at the start of a cold or flu, or even when in chronic conditions when it has moved into the chest (thyme being my standby here). They have the ability to float and vent a congested head, increase circulation, promote circulation and sweating, and even soothe an upset stomach and promote a good appetite, which is often lacking when you are coming down with a cold or flu. I mentioned this to my herb study group a few weeks ago and they were taken aback by my use of thyme for a cold, saying it was awfully hot and caustic. I countered with explaining that I am used to below zero winters so I needed a lot of warming, but that still didn’t win them over. Finally it came up that they thought I was using the essential oil of thyme which is very hot, concentrated and often caustic. But I am a whole herb for my steam sort of gal.
A few other herbs in this category include sassafrass, fresh ginger, cinnamon cassia and two ligusticums: L. sinense and L. porteri. One of my favorite Chinese herbs in the category is qiang huo, Notopterygium incisum. The root of this aromatic Apiaceae is warm, acrid and bitter so it can disperse and raise to discharge wind, cold and damp pathogens from the exterior. Qiang huo enters the Bladder channel, which combined with its lifting and dispersing flavors, can release sore muscles, chills and headache. In particular, it relieves achy joints and bones along the back, the muscles along the sides of the spine (erector spinae), along the scapula, up the back of the neck into the head and across the forehead to the eyes.
I wish would’ve had some qiang huo on hand when I was a preschool teacher and came down with the achy flu from hell 4 times in 3 months. My bones felt like they were in a vice and I was chilled to the bone. I used a lot of diapohretics and warm herbs, but came to rely on boneset for the pain in my hips and femurs. Boneset is so bitter and cold, which brought it down to the lower burner, but it didn’t totally relieve the aches in my shoulders, arms and back – what qiang huo does so well.
Asarum canadense growing abundently in a Minnesota state park
January 27th, 2011 § § permalink
One thing I love about living in an urban area on the west coast is the shear quantity (and quality) of rosemary plants. Rosmarinus officinalis’ silvery green, upward reaching, linear leaves are in practically every other yard, growing to many feet across and high. When the breeze is just right, or when the air is cold and dry, you can be struck by its spicy smell. The flowers never stop – even now in the middle of January a few new blooms appear one after the other.
A few years ago, a fellow gardener introduced me to the idea of eating mint flowers. The only mint flowers I had ever thought of eating fresh were bee balm. Spearmint and peppermint flowers are (expectantly) divine, with a hit of a warm honey-nectar sweetness combined with the cool minty flavor present in the leaves. Motherwort flowers are (expectantly) incredibly bitter with a aftertaste of, well, more bitter. The first few seconds of eating the motherwort flower justifies the whole experience, because they too are deliciously nectary-sweet. Thyme, lavender, oregano, marjoram, anise hyssop, catnip (another favorite) and melissa follow suit. Rosemary is no exception. One little flower is so flavorful that I can still taste it an hour later. Who knows, maybe I have distorted taste buds. Try it for yourself. Matthew Wood quotes Dr. John Quincy from 1736 about rosemary flowers; [they] “abound with a subtle detergent oil, which makes them universally deobstruent and opening.”
As I walk to school, I have a habit of picking a spring or a few flowers to munch on or to crush in my fingertips while I am ruminating about the upcoming day. Usually I don’t pick other peoples herbs without permission, but this place looks like a rental and there are three huge rosemary shrubs in the yard…and I don’t think anyone would really mind.
Fast forward to this weekend. The fourth week of the term is about to start, and around this time the onslaught of information starts to pick up and don’t stop until finals. One night before bed I started reading my text for anatomy, and my mind wandered to thoughts of, “how am I gonna remember all of this stuff?” That night, rosemary popped up in a dream. Of course! Rosemary is there to help us with our memory, among other things.
David Winston talks about rosemary as a ‘nootropic’ in Adpatogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina ans Stress Relief. Winston describes nootropics as “…enhancing emotional and mental well-being and promoting cerebral circulation(222).” From what I can gather, nootropics are like a subgroup of nervines, but with more emphasis on circulation and reducing oxidative stress. They include ginkgo, gotu kola, lavender, rosemary, bacopa, bhringaraj (Eclipta alba), yuan zhi (Polygala tenuifolia), and bai shao (white peony, Paeonia lactiflora, P. albiflora) (223). Overall, it is easy to generalize that these herbs have been used through the ages by different cultures to improve mood and the mind, among other things.
Throughout the years, rosemary has been associated with memory. Nicholas Culpepper says it is for all diseases associated with the head and that “it helps a week memory, and quickens the senses.” Ophelia said in Hamlet “There’s rosemary that’s for remembrance. Pray. you love, remember.” It is often included in so-called memory formulas with herbs like ginkgo and gotu kola, for mild brain-fogginess (with melissa, St. John’s wort), headaches (feverfew, lavender) and general feeling-down (with damiana, tulsi) (Winston, 22 ). Maude Grieve gives a number of interesting historical uses of rosemary, including burning rosemary in hospitals and sick rooms along with juniper to clear the air and prevent infection. She also says that “A sprig of Rosemary was carried in the hand at funerals, being distributed to the mourners before they left the house, to be cast on the coffin when it had be lowered into the grave.” I am not sure if the folk use of rosemary was intended to chiefly lift the depressed spirits of the sick and the mourning through it’s warm aromatic scent, to remember the deceased, or to act as a powerful antioxidant and antiseptic to prevent to spread of disease through its antiseptic volatile essential oils. Probably both, and more.
I became curious to see if smelling a rosemary sprig each day while I walk to school would enhance my memory. It’s hard to tell its effect, since I am judging it upon my own subjective hunches. I am also a very poor participant in my own ‘study’, I don’t walk to school everyday and I have so many things going on with school that I can’t really notice any improvement. Once thing is for sure, it smells soooo good and I am sure it makes me happy, even if for a few minuets.
There are a few studies out there about rosemary’s affect on memory/cognition. One from the International Journal of Neuroscience that was particularly interesting involved testing the recall and mood of 144 participants in three groups: rosemary or lavender essential oil and a control (no smell). The study found that “rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors” although the rosemary group memory was not as fast as the control group. Not surprisingly, both the lavender and rosemary group reported better moods than the control group.
This isn’t surprising, since rosemary “warms, clears, and oxidized throughout the body (Matthew Wood, 427). It’s energetic qualities obviously include warming and drying (like it’s homeland, the Mediterranean) as well as being oily, diffusive and stimulating (Wood, 430). These energetics lend themselves to correct depressed tissue states, where things are bogged down through dampness, coldness or stagnation. Its name is derived from ros and marinus, which mean dew and sea, since it need no more watering then the morning dew from the seacoast.
Winston, David. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: Vol. I, Old World Herbs.
Int J Neurosci. 2003 Jan;113(1):15-38. “Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults”. Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P. Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit, Division of Psychology, Northumberland Building, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
October 5th, 2009 § § permalink
Milk thistle seeds, Silybum marianum, are known as a supreme herbal tonic for the liver. It is traditionally used for supporting the liver and gallbladder as it increases the production of bile, and has hepatic, demulcent, choloagogue, antihepatoxic, and galactagogue actions. From David Winston, “It is indicated for cirrhosis of the liver as well as nephrotoxity, psoriasis and Hepatitis A, B, and C. It combines well with Burdock seed for dry, scaly skin conditions (87)”.
Silymarin was isolated by German researchers as the most important active ingredient of milk thistle seeds. Later on it was discovered that silymarin is actually a group of chemicals, flavanolignans, not just one single chemical constituent (Wikipedia). From Matthew Wood, “laboratory and clinical research has demonstrated that silymarin prevented the destruction of liver cells, increased the production of new liver cells, and increased the level of glutathione, an amino acid which helps to detoxify poisons and process hormones” (448).
Wood states that “milk thistle is an excellent liver and abdominal medicine in serious cases” (449), like death cap mushroom poising. It is not perhaps the first herb to reach for in everyday liver support like burdock, dandelion or yellow dock. But for those who are in need of more specific and stronger liver support in cases of liver complications or to conteract hepatotoxic pharmacueticals, David Hoffmann states that the theraputic dose from Commission E is 12 to 15 grams of the seeds or 200 to 400 miligrams per day of standardized silymarin.
Milk thistle condiment - This tasty and easy-to-make condiment is a wonderful way to get the liver rejuvenating effects of milk thistle in your daily diet. Sprinkle on eggs, rice dishes, soups and stews, practically any kinds of ethnic foods, and stir into mayo and mustard to eat on sandwiches and dips. I partically love it with seafood, like on Spanish paella.
• 1/2 cup milk thistle seeds
• 1 T ginger powder
• 1 T garlic powder
• 1 t paprika
• Grind seeds well in a coffee grinder. Mix with the other herbs, put in a shaker and use daily.
February 10th, 2009 § § permalink
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) was one of the reasons I discovered herbalism. As a 19 year old pre-med student, I searched the universities Pub Med database in search for the best proven medication for the awful cold I was having. The doctors were sure it was either strep throat and mono, but both tests came back negative. So I searched for some magic cough syrup, or antibiotic from heaven, but every study that came up said that over-the-counter cough syrups were actually ineffective. I noticed page after page of studies in German that had Holunderbeere (German for elderberry) in the title. I refined my search and found out that Elderberry was an effective treatment for the flu and other winter ailments. I was still skeptical, but the seeds had been planted.
As if we needed any more reasons to drink our elderberry syrup, Matthew Wood adds that “[the berries] have a property not found in the other parts of the plant; they are used as a tonic to the build up the blood and combat anemia. For this purpose they may be combined with blackberries” (434). Dark berries = yum. Cancer-fighting anthocyanins, anybody?
I first saw elder’s creamy white flowers on the slopes of the Blue Mountains in North Carolina, and didn’t see it again until I was at Sage Mountain in Vermont. The last time I saw it was last June in southern Minnesota, on the sides of bluffs and hills outside Winona. Is that just a coincidence that all the places I have seen the black elder growing were either mountains or hillsides? Although I have seen elder growing in Northern Minnesota, it is not the right kind to harvest (it may be red elder). Typical of the elder of fairy tales and folk lore, whenever I find an elder tree in the woods up here, I can never find it again! For you Duluthians, there are a few in Hartley park, in the deer-proofed area.
I have come across many elderberry syrup recipes over the years. This recipe from Rosemary Gladstar is the one I like the most because 1) it is alcohol free, 2) it can be made with fresh or dried berries, and 3) storing it in the refrigerator reminds me to use it was a food and medicine. It is seriously delicious with baked garnet yams, waffles, or mixed with mineral water.
- 1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup dried elderberries
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup honey
1. Heat the berries and water to a boil, then reduce to simmer for 30-45 minuets.
2. Mash the berries, strain, and add 1 cup of honey. I add a half cup of the purple liquid to a measuring cup, then pour in honey until the total volume is 1 1/2 cups. Then stir to mix well, and add to the rest of the reserved liquid.
3. Bottle and store, refrigerated. for 2-3 months.
4. Enjoy a tablespoon daily to keep the immune system strong, use more often when afflicted with the flu.
Refereance: Gladstar, Rosemary. The Family Herbal.