All I have left from my calendula harvest this year is caterpillar poop. And some golden calendula flower oil, probably with a caterpillar or two in it. For all the flowers I picked, all the times I tried to meticulously remove caterpillars, and all the ways I tried to harvest and dry them, not a one remains. Read More
This is a post I shared a few months ago at my friend’s Suzie’s inspiring blog, Key & Bones. I want to share it because I am reaping the benefits of this extremely simple little remedy. Last week my ear started to feel a little funky/gunky, swollen, itchy. Each day it got a little worse until my left ear was entirely clogged for two days. Garlic oil, just a drop or two in the ear canal, every other day, relieved the irritation and opened it right up.
In the past I have made more of an ‘ear formula’, with another fabulous standby, mullein flowers. Now that I live in a city, my mullein flower harvesting has diminished. There are still plenty of mullein around, but not in my back yard garden like it was before (so spoiled I was, sigh…). Willow bark, cayenne, eyebright, St. John’s wort and calendula are some other options (among many) to add to your herbal ear oil.
I do have to say, however, that just plain good old garlic does the job quite nicely.
Garlic has been hailed as a super-food for millennia, and rightfully so. Every year it seems that the powers of garlic expand as the scientific community catches on to folk uses of of garlic. Recently, there has been investigation around garlic and weight loss, but it has long been know for other benefits. It is widely accepted as having anticancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol reducing, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulating effects, in addition to being a nutrient-dense food.
One common folk use of garlic is an oil used topically and in the ear for infections. A 1995 University of New Mexico study looked at garlic oil’s effect:
“Aqueous garlic extract (AGE) and concentrated garlic oil (CGO) along with various commercial garlic supplements and pharmaceutical prescriptions were used in an in-vitro study. AGE and especially CGO were found to have antifungal activity. These agents showed similar or better inhibitory effects than the pharmaceutical preparations…” [emphasis added].
Garlic oil for medicinal purposes is easy to make and easy to use. It is essentially just like making culinary garlic oil, except that extra care is taken to strain all the garlic particulate out of the garlic before bottling. It smells delicious (in that garlic-y sort of way), and of course can be used for cooking, salad dressing and bread-dipping. Just store it away from the stove, so it doesn’t get the chance to raise its temperature. If you are making a large batch, use a wide-mouthed jar and store it in the fridge. Olive oil, being an unsaturated plant fat, will solidify in the fridge, so you’ll have to scoop it with a spoon and melt it before using in the ears.
Don’t waste any of that liquid gold, use a funnel.
Garlic Oil Recipe and Dosage:
Peel a few heads of garlic, trim the bottoms, rinse and air dry (or pat with a clean towel).
Lightly crush, chop well and let it chill out on your cutting board for a few minuets before adding it to the jar. Crushing the garlic opens the cells and allows health-benefiting alliinase enzymes (one of the multiple compounds in garlic) to become active. I don’t recommend using a garlic crusher, though, because it opens the cells too much, expressing a lot of the garlic’s water quickly. Introducing extra water to the oil to increase the likelihood of bacteria and mold growth, as well as promote oxidation and rancidity.
Add to a small jar, cover with extra virgin olive oil until a half inch of oil is over the top of the garlic.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid and let sit in a sunny window for 4-6 weeks, shaking every now and again (once a week or every-other day is good).
Occasionally, open the jar to check for extra moisture beads condensing along the lid. If there is moisture, simply wipe it off with a clean towel.
After steeping, strain the oil into a clean, dry bottle. This is the time to add other medicinal ingredients, if desired.
Label and date, store in a cool, dry place. Use within 18 months.
Use one drop for kids over 2 in each ear, and three to five drops for adults.
Drop the oil in, one drop at a time, while side laying. Drape a towel under your head, and adjust your head position so that the ear canal feels vertical. Play around with moving your head around to distribute the oil, lingering at any sweet spots, or tug on the ear and massage the area. Kids and dogs love that part.
Sit for a few minuets, maybe more if it feels good and you have the time. When you sit up, wipe the outside of your ear off with a clean towel. Yes, your ears will kind of smell like garlic. It should dissipate after an hour.
Administer twice daily for acute infections, once daily or every other day for a week for lingering problems (recovering from a cold, itchy ears, ect.) or once a week for maintenance (this is the best dosage for prevention).
A warm oil is a nice oil…
Warm the bottle in a cup of hot (almost boiled) water for a minute or two before dropping in the ear, making sure to test the temperature before using. Warmth thins the oil, so it can penetrate the ear canal, and provides comforting relief for infections. A warm oil makes all the difference. If you are in a pinch, wave the dropper over a candle flame, being mindful not to spill the oil from the dropper as it thins. I loosely fix the label on the bottle so I can take it off when it is warming.
Now that you have your lovely garlic oil, what can you do with it? If you are like I was when I first heard of garlic oil, you will be asking, why would I want to put it in my ears? It just so happens that oil is very soluble in the ears because its normal environment is oily (well, waxy, but close).
Uses for garlic oil:
To prevent swimmer’s ear, use a drop or two in each ear a few hours before swimming. Dry the ears extra well before swimming. Once swimmer’s ear has set in, it is best to avoid garlic oil.
Fighting a cold. The ears are closely connected with the nose and the throat, areas that first come into contact with microbes causing the common cold or influenza. A little garlic oil in the ears at the first feelings of a scratchy throat, drippy nose, itchy ears can sometimes kick the cold out before it sets in.
Excessive wax build-up, or gummy or closed ears. Use one drop daily in each ear.
Eat on food for the medicinal effects mentioned above, a teaspoon or more per day.
Good for four-legged friends, too.
Lett Appl Microbiol. 1995 Jan;20(1):14-8. Antifungal effects of Allium sativum (garlic) extract against the Aspergillus species involved in otomycosis. Pai, ST, Platt, MW. Department of Microbiology, University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, Albuquerque 87131
I don’t have any numbers, statistics, or reports, but I’d bet that chamomile is one of the most well-known herbs we use. It is sold in the most typical of grocery stores, served at restaurants and referenced in the media and literature. I remember reading about it as a child in Beatrix Potter stories.
How many people without an herbal background would recognize bupleurum, eleuthero, hyssop or damiana if they heard them? Not many. How many would recognize ‘chamomile’? Many more, even though they may not know how to pronounce it (cha-mole-y, anyone?).
Despite being commonly known, Chamomile is not just a benign little flower that tastes sweet in your cup, it packs a powerful medicinal punch. Chamomile should not be thought of in terms of what specific diseases it can be used for, because there are too many uses to list, nor is is helpful to only think of what herbs can ‘do’. After reading though my favorite herb books, I summarize the actions of chamomile as being:
Relaxing nervine for states of tension
Aromatic and bitter for regulating digestion
Anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy
Safe, tasty and suitable for everyone, including babies, children, pregnant women and the elderly
Matthew Wood says that “The fresh preparations preserve the oils, so they are more relaxing, the dried preparations are bitter and promote secretions to the stomach, G.I. and liver.”
Here are some of the chemical constituents present in chamomile and their generalized actions (mostly from Wood, but also from Simon Mills, David Hoffmann and Chanchal Cabrerra)
Volatile oils – antipyretic, anti-spasmodic, can reduce histamine-induced inflammation
Mucilage – soothing, nutritious and immuno-stimulating
Amino acids, fatty acids and many more
Cabrerra describes volatile oils as being helpful in allergic situations. These volatile oils reduces histamine-induced reactions mostly because Mills says they inhibit contractions provoked by histamine, acetylcholine, and bradykinin. Some, if not most, volatile oils have a counter-irritant effect on the body and cause local vasodilation, bringing fresh oxygenated blood to the area, and thus stimulating a healthy healing response. This explanation of inflammation makes me view anti-inflammatory herbs are actually pro-inflammatory. Inflammation is our body’s healing response. If we value inflammation as a positive, helpful and intelligent response from the body, then we would want a pro-inflammation response.
Chamomile isn’t my go-to herb for cold and flu, but after reading more about it, I will remember to add it in to steams, baths and teas the next time I catch a cold. Who doesn’t need a relaxing, tension reducing, and GI soothing and regulating herb when your sick in bed? Not to mention that it is used for people who are acting like babies, which I, for one, admit to feeling when I am sick. The gastrointestinal tract starts with the teeth well before it reaches stomach and intestines. Chamomile has been used in Europe for centuries for treating child complaints including teething, pain, whining and fussiness. One of the main indications for homeopathic chamomile is teething.
“Chamomile can be used for all sorts of tension, it can be used for menstrual cramps or people with a low tolerance for pain”, including “‘babies of any age’, petulant, self-centered, intolerant of pain or not having their way, inclined to pick quarrels, yet adverse to being touched, soothed or spoken to”.
I wish I would’ve had some chamomile candy to disperse when I was working with kids, because I have seen its effectiveness against babyish behavior. I have taken it for cramps, and although it didn’t decrease their severity, I did notice that the mental loop of negative, complaining thoughts ceased.
Aromatherapists Kathy Kevill and Mindy Green describe chamomile as an antidepressant, especially in individuals who are oversensitive, stressed out, anxious, hysterical, insomniacs or suppress anger. I think chamomile is indicated for people with a history of eating disorders, especially when digestive issues or sensitivity linger years after recovery.
Chamomile is a yellow, sunny, light herb with a depth to it. Flowers tend to ascend and disperse, but the bitterness weighs it down. It is a flower that has an affinity to the solar plexus, the middle jiao, and it is both dispersing to food stagnation and promotes coordinated movement of the digestive system due to its aromatic nature. It has been shown to speed up the healing of peptic ulcers, (Mills). The carminative properties of chamomile, with its volatile oils, helps relax the gut; at the same time, it has bitter properties that promote healthy bile flow, so that the system is not only relaxed, but keeps moving as it should (Mills).
My purely opinionated guess it that from a Chinese medical perspective, it enters the Spleen, Stomach and Liver meridians, possibly the Intestines or Lung. The Spleen and Stomach are the Earth organs, and are associated with our solar plexus, transformation and transportation of food, worry/over-thinking and with the flesh and muscles of the body – quite in alignment with the calming, relaxing and digestive properties of this herb, no? I think the Liver is involved because the Liver’s job is to circulate Qi freely around the body. When this isn’t happening efficiently, as can easily be caused by emotional upsets (especially pent-up anger or frustration), one can very easily feel stuck, tense and irritated, but luckily chamomile can release states of tension. A close cousin to chamomile and another white/yellow flower, chrysanthemum, helps calm the Liver, too.
If you remember from my previous entry about chamomile, I mentioned that Matricaria D genus name for German chamomile came from the word matrix referring to mother. Considering this, it is no surprise that chamomile is a gentle remedy for problems of the female reproductive system. I suppose it can be used in all sorts of situations, but I like to use it the best for morning sickness and nausea during pregnancy, tension during menstruation, menstrual cramps, and problems in appetite or digestion related to nervousness, your debility, or premenstrual tension. Aviva Rome, a midwife and an herbalist, also uses chamomile to relieve heartburn.
To get the most out of a simple cup of chamomile tea, steep it strong. 1 heaping tablespoon of herb for every one cup boiled water. Cover the vessel while it steeps and wait 10 to 20 min. before straining. If you wait longer, for the chamomile too cool from hot to room temperature, the bitter principals will strongly present themselves in your cup of tea; sweet gentle chamomile no more! I have heard of people steeping one handful dried herb to 2 cups water, steeped covered for an hour or home.
Cabrera, Chanchal. Lecture notes, Medicines from the Earth. 2006.
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.
Keville, Kathy and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art.
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Romm, Aviva. The Natural Pregnancy Book.
Wood. Matthew. Earthwise Herbal: Old World Plants.
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.
Who doesn’t love nervines? You know, that relaxing category of herbs, so effective at soothing the mind, emotions and body. Some herbs like lavender and chamomile invoke tranquility through their pleasing scents and flavor. Others like valerian, blue vervain or wood betony may not taste as good, but work well on releasing headaches or pent-up tension in the musculo-skeletal arena; or they may do the trick on liberating worrying thoughts and emotions from those worn to a frazzle, like skullcap, ashwaganda or holy basil.
As much as I love them, nervines are not the end-all-be-all for perfect health, but they can be a good place to start when you don’t know what else to do, or are too stressed to focus on figuring out what you need to do, but you know you have to do SOMEthing. Yes, that is where they come in for me more often than not (hello, chamomile!).
Botanicals are multi-dimensional; a nervine can be a digestive tonic, circulatory tonic, glactagouge, cardio tonic and more. Some are warming, cooling, drying, moistening, sweet, bitter, acrid – basically there’s one out there for everyone’s constitution and needs.
Here are a few quick notes about some of these wonderful nervines. As you can see, they all share the common thread of restoring proper tone (functional, healthy resting baseline) to a body system. Many times, the restoration needed leans in the direction of relaxing a tense state, but sometimes flaccid, lax, boggy or atonic tissue state needs some sort of increase of tone. See the sources below for more detailed information.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – Soothing diffusive, relaxing, stimulating nervine. Used with nervous irritation, atonic conditions, mental confusion. Use when both relaxing and stimulating effects are needed. Direct action on the smooth muscles, wonderfully anti-spasmodic.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – Stimulating and relaxing. Anxiety, restlessness, fear, hysteria. Bisobolol and chamaezulene are volatile oils that are spasmolytic to smooth muscles and nervous tissue. The bitterness is tonifying and stimulating. Nervous irritability and persistent low grade anxiety.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) – Anti—spasmodic, stimulating and cleansing in the nervous system. Aids relaxation, alertness, clarity from volatile oils. Convulsive disorders, as it regulates, balances, normalizes brain activity.
Melissa (Melissa officinalis) – Tonic and restorative for nervous function. A nerve remedy with a carminitive element. Depression, lethargy, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, headaches, hysteria, ADHD, nervous stomach. Inhalation of volatile oil very effective, sedative properties marked and rapid. Tincture more of a tonic and stimulating (with some bitters and resins). Paracelsus: “the elixir of life”. Culpepper: “…causeth the mind and the heart to become merry…and driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts out of the mind arising from melancholy”.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – Tonic nervine. Both sedative volatile oils and stimulating bitters, thus balancing. Depression, insomnia, hysteria. Mental exhaustion, hallucinations or delusions. The oil steadies the emotions, balances introverted and extroverted.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa) – Food for the nerves! Promotes myelin sheath integrity and growth. Wonderful for restoring the nerves. Amphoteric to the nervous system, as it is a stimulant (strengthening) and sedative. Nutritious. Epilepsy, nervous depression. Use to calm the mind without drowsiness.
Hops (Humulus lupus) – Hypnotic, permitting a deep sense of relaxation and tranquility, trophorestoritive to cerebrospinal fluid. Nervous digestive upsets, very bitter, strong anti-spasmodic effect on smooth muscle, presumably by mediating the nervous supply to the gut.
Scullcap – (Scutellaria laterifolia) – Calming and relaxing to the nervous system. Excellent nerve tonic where there is chronic anxiety. Nervous weakness, agitation, insomnia, nightmares, restless sleep, over-excitability, twitching.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia California) – Milder and non-addictive. Anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia, hyperactivity, fear, all sorts of pain. Well suited for children.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) – Energizing effect on the brain. Overcoming stress, fatigue and mental confusion. Mineral rich. Enhances cognitive abilities and increases memory. Calming and adaptogenic, cleanses the blood, promotes healthy connective tissue repair – good for excess scar tissue.
St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – Depression, raises the spirit and lifts the mood. Amphoteric, tonic to the brain. reportedly as effective as SSRI’s.
Blue Vervain (Verbena officinalis) – Nervine and stomachic, as it is bitter and stimulates appetite, production of digestive enzymes, HCL and more. Blends well in formulas for women’s health. Epilepsy and convulsions. Very balancing.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – Increases cerebral circulation, anti-oxidant rich. Affinity to blood vessels. Normalizes acetylcholine receptors in the hippocampus – the area most affected by Alzheimer’s.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) – Gentle, stimulating tonic for the brain. Hysteria, persistent unwanted thoughts, nervous debility, anxiety, chronic headaches, lack of energy, poor memory, dizziness, disordered thoughts. Bitter digestive tonic, adjusts the autonomic regulation of the digestive system. Anxiety with digestive upsets.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – Brain and adrenal tonic. Increases tolerance to emotional, chemical, and other stressors. Anti-depressant effect, libido lifter for exhausted states.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal.
Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications
Wood, Matthew. Earth-Wise Herbal: New World Plants, and Old World Plants.
During my interview for Chinese Medicine school, one of the interviewers asked if I had ever had acupuncture or taken Chinese herbs. “Of course! Why else would I be here?” was my response. I thought they were either joking or patronizing, but they looked dead serious. They didn’t respond. I asked if people actually went to school for acupuncture without ever having it, and they replied with, “some people go through school, pass their boards and start practicing without ever having it.”
I was shocked. Chinese medicine isn’t the sort of field that people pick with the mentality, “I need a job, so why not do acupuncture?”. As I worked in the herbal dispensary and took Herbology classes, I found that its not entirely rare for students to have never taken the herbs they prescribe.
It hit me when I asked my provider if they could make my bulk formula taste a little better. In truth, it tasted a lot like rotten stomach acid mixed with a side of fermented garbage juice – it was very difficult to swallow, literally. He had no idea what was so bad about it, and said something like: “I don’t know how to do that. This is the formula, and it tastes the way it tastes”. Well, this particular formula had 15 grams of Ai Ye (Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris) per dose, in addition to several other incredibly bitter herbs, that were boiled for 50 minuets in just over a quart of water, making for some very concentrated tea.
In prescribing individuated formulas, it is difficult and indeed impossible to try every formula you give to others. However, making and tasting some classic formulas and as many individual herbs as possible is not only doable, but required (in my humble opinion) to fully grasp the medicine. I am happy to report that we are doing just that in the lab portion of Herbology classes this summer. Bring it on, Gui Pi Wan!
This got me thinking of ways to engage with plant medicine to deepen our understanding of them and the gifts they have to offer. Luckily, there are a plethora of classes, workshops, study courses, books and blogs out there that explore medicinal plants in depth. For starters, check out the information on Dancing in a Field of Tansy‘s blog and join her in discovering an Herbal Ally. Here you can learn just about every way to both prepare your herb (teas, slaves, tinctures, ect…) and learn about its properties, energetics, and personality.
When I come across a new herb on the intellectual plane (from a book or class) I tend to ask myself these questions:
What is this herb’s botanical name and family?
Where does it grow, where is it cultivated and where is it native?
What does this plant look like?
What part or parts are used for medicine?
What unique features does it have?
Who are the closest relatives to this plant in my environment?
What does it smell like, how does it taste? Why does it have these attributes?
What are its energetics, actions and constituents?
What formulas feature this herb and why?
Is it endangered, commonly adulterated or heavily chemically sprayed?
Is this plant mentioned in folk lore, ancient texts or old herbals?
What, if any, research surrounds this plant?
Learning herbs in a school setting is an incredibly time consuming task as it is, so I can’t imagine that I will be able to to do this type of investigation for more than a few herbs at a time. But I can’t NOT do some digging to find answers and information – I am much too curious, or obsessed with herbs, or both (probably the later). I am going to do my best to sift through these questions and find some answers, busy as I am.
Portland calls itself the City of Roses and I must agree that it lives up to its name. Rose bushes adorn meridians and lawns, whole parks are dedicated to hybrid roses. The Rose Test Garden has over 500 variates of roses in just about any color you could imagine. The Shakespeare Garden is my favorite part of the Test Garden, which only contains plants mentioned in his plays (which makes for lots and lots of culinary and medicinal herbs). Unfortunately, the majority of these test, hybrid roses are lacking the most transcendent, beautiful and impactful quality of roses: scent.
What the hybrid roses lack, the wild and forgotten roses more than compensate. They are teeming with the heady, rich, intoxicating and lingering scent. So much so that sometimes I catch a whiff of rose before I actually see them. That is precisely how I stumbled across roses growing in some trees on the far edge in the park adjacent to where I live. Pink, butter-cream and white roses where each in a tree which where, incedently, climbing in a hawthrone, wild cherry and a Japanese maple – all members of the rose family themselves. Coincidental?
During a walk through the woods, I saw a fine, delicate set of leaves arranged in a rose-like fashion. One frond could fit in my hand. Upon closer examination, I saw teeny, tiny little roses smaller than my pinky finger nail (and I have small hands). Sure enough, there were rose blossoms that were silver dollar to quarter size, with a larger-than-life fragrance.
This dwarf rose may very well be the Baldhip rose, Rosa gymnocarpa, but the confirm this I will have to check the hips out too see if they are indeed “bald” (no sepal remnants on the tip of the hip, or hip tip if you prefer). I made a tea from the fresh leaves and it was deliciously delicate and soothing.
I’d like to share one of my favorite tea blends featuring skullcap and milky oats, two of my favorite herbs for reviving the nervous system. I like them individually as simples and do most of the time, but I also think they work well as a pair. Just the two of them, skullcap and milky oats, isn’t the best tasting tea I have ever had. I don’t mind them separately, but together? They need some depth, some warmth, some support and some flavor. Before I say more, take a look at the ingredients:
2 milky oats
1 lemon balm
1 rose hips
1 orange peel
I still struggle with what to call this tea. I first blended a variety of it for a friend of a friend, a new mom who was getting a little frazzled with the demands (and joys!) of a newborn on just a few hours of sleep each day. This mom’s birth was on the long side (40 hours or so), so she was exhausted from the get-go. Plus, she was selling her house, moving and remodeling the new one. Basically, this woman needed some nervous system support, with manifestations of feeling wired and tired simultaneously. For her I called it “De-Stress Tea”, and she reported in after about 2 weeks that her stress and exhaustion was declining, and she was starting to feel like her old self.
This tea also typifies a student burning the candle at both ends, so I have called it simply “Students Tea”. There’s a lot of mental energy being used as a student, not to mention late nights of studying (and/or partying). It is a delicate act to balance school, a social life, family, work and self-care.
Now I call it “Skullcap Om”, because of the chilled-out feeling I get from drinking skullcap. Buddhists monks use skullcap to prepare for mediation, and it has the ability to stimulate and relax at the same time. Skullcap clears the mind from circular thoughts – which become especially apparent when you are trying to fall asleep. Sometimes, this over-thinking is the only thing that prevents sleep; my body may be totally heavy and relaxed, ready for sleep, but the mind races on. I say that it stimulates because I become more aware of my senses, and my body wakes up and comes into present time. Here’s a little something I wrote about skullcap a while back.
The four members of the mint family featured in this tea, skullcap, lemon balm, spearmint and rosemary, are well-known nervines. I love bringing mints together in a tea, especially picked fresh from the garden. That being said, I don’t want to drink only mints all the time, since as a group they are light, airy and cool. I happen to be light, airy and cool myself, so I need a little ginger, cinnamon, licorice, fennel and the like to anchor that dispersing mint nature. Combining them with the sunny sweetness of another nervine, chamomile, adds a little variety to the aromatic mints and directs the tea towards the middle burner/digestion.
Rose hips , ginger and orange peel are added for flavor, but they also direct the tea around the body a bit, orange peel and ginger again with affinities for the belly. I am not sure where rose hips would ‘go’ in the body, the heart maybe, blood vessels? I hesitate because I haven’t figured rose hips out yet. They are a bit sour and sweet, and thus astringe and tone, they are chock-full of nutrients in true red berry style, add color to an otherwise plain green tea, and they taste delicious. What don’t they do?
Milky oats (the tops of the oat (Avena sativa) plant harvested while in the “milky” stage) is a great restorative, for the brain, emotions and body alike. I love, love, love oats. When I was interning at an herbal retreat center, I bought a half pound of locally grown milky oats and drank a quart of the tea every day. The milky oats (combined with the luxury of working in a herb garden at the top of a mountain for three months) completely revived my energy, body and emotions.
I bring this tea up because I need it right now! My brain is on overload, so much that I can’t seem to muster the energy to make this tea for myself. With doing this post, I am reminded of the strengthening these herbs bring to a worn-out system.
It seems that there are a lot of cooling herbs in comparison to warming herbs, at least regarding what we need to know of Chinese herbs for class. There are cool herbs to release toxicity, cool herbs to clear deficient heat, cool herbs to resolve damp-heat and phlegm, and of course, cool herbs to release the exterior.
Again, these are known diaphoretics and diuretics. And also again, they are working from a Chinese perspective to get some sort of invading pathogenic factor out of the body. We mostly think of pathogens as being microbes of some sort, in this case the common cold and influenza. But really, pathogenic factors can be all sorts of things – it just has to come from outside and make its way inside.
An example of this is seen in people who are sensitive to eating a lot a sugar or drinking alcohol. They may start off feeling a scratchy, sore throat, drippy nose, gummed up ears, low energy, and if they continue to eat sugar over the next few days or so, perhaps their lowered immune response will develop into a full-blown cold. I have seen this happen to people – something lowers their immunity, making them susceptible to a cold, rather than the cold making its way in by itself. This is also an example of a deficient condition rather than an excess one. In an excess condition, the individual will have strong, normal defenses, but the pathogen will be relatively stronger, as opposed to a deficient, run down individual whos wei qi will be weaker than simple run-of-the-mill illnesses.
Many of the cool herbs to release the exterior are acrid or bitter like the warm exterior-releasing herbs, which either lift and disperse, or collect and drain downwards. Some, like kudzu (ge gan), mulberry (sang ya), soy bean (dan dou zhi) and chrysanthemum (ju hua) are sweet. Kudzu and blue vervain help to release tension in the muscle layer to expel pathogens before they penetrate deeper, particularly in the upper back, shoulders and neck. Classic western diaporetics fit in here, yarrow and elderflower. Add mint to those last two herbs and you have the Gypsy Cold remedy.
Mints – lots of mints – are fitted to release the exterior, whether they are warm or cool in temperature. Catnip, lemon balm, peppermint (bo he) a few of the cooler ones. Catnip is excellent at releasing the exterior, it is quite gentle but effective for bringing on and releasing a fever. Again, like most mints, it is also a nervine sedative and a carminative, a perfect pair of action to add comfort and support during a cold or flu. Melissa is one of my favorite plants, it has so many actions, is easy to grow, and it tastes divine and combines well with other herbs. It is known to be anti-viral and vasodilating, and is an effective carminative and nervine as well. It differs from some of the Chinese herbs in this category because it is sour in flavor.
Bo he, Mentha haplocalix, is the Chinese mint we are learning. To me, it is fairly similar to both peppermint and spearmint, with a little wild, earthy mint undertone. It is indicated for attack of win-heat invasion (as all herbs in this category are), slow skin eruption, headache, sore eyes and sore throat (because it is light and dispersing, mint can ascend to and treat the head), and for liver qi stagnation manifesting in distention of the chest.
Burdock seed (Artica lappa, Nui bang zi) is used in Chinese medicine for treating a sore throat and skin problems caused by toxic heat (think measles, mumps, carbuncles, boils, eczema, acne, ect…). Being a seed, it also moistens the intestines. The lungs and large intestine are paired organs in Chinese medicine, so it is no surprise when an herb (or acupuncture point) acts on both organ systems. Sure enough, cooling and moistening burdock seed is used for cough with sticky, hard to expectorate phlegm. David Hoffmann quotes Priest and Priest on burdock (529):
“…General alterative: influences skin, kidneys, mucous and serous membranes, to remove accumulated waste products. It is specific for eruptions on the head, face and neck, and for acute irritable and inflammatory conditions.”
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) and chrysanthemum (C. morifolium, Ju Hua) are closely related herbs that fit well into this category. Both are slightly cold, acrid and bitter and enter the Liver and the Lungs (Tierra, 83). Ju Hua is well-known in Chinese medicine and beyond as an excellent remedy for eye complaints like red, sore eyes or vision problems (often combined with Goji berries/lycii berries/go qi zi for this). It calms Liver yang, which can raise heat and excess activity to the head causing dizziness, vertigo, headache, sore eyes and hypertension. To paraphrase from Bensky, “All flowers lift and dissipate – only Ju Hua can contain, accept and drain downwards”. This is because it is bitter and sweet in addition to being acrid and aromatic.
Given the Chinese medicine understanding or Ju Hua, the common used feverfew makes a lot of sense even though it is a different herb from a different place and medical system. It has been used as a specific for migraines, and much research has been done to explore its chemical properties and action (which are many – good idea for another post!). Besides certain types of migraines, feverfew has been used for pain, especially joint pain, as an emmenogogue, bitter and diaphoretic.
One last note…
It is sometimes difficult to make connections between my Chinese herb class and what I know about Western herbs. I sometimes wish I could marry the energetic understanding of Chinese herbalism with the scientific world of chemical constituents and botany from the West. Attempts have been made, and really good ones at that. Chen, for one, included modern research, drug interactions and chemical constituents in his book on Chinese herbalism. But he has little information about the classic Chinese texts, comparisons between the herbs and notes on energetics (which is present in Bensky’s book).
Even with all the knowledge coming together, East and West, there is still the whole issue of context and clinical usage. It’s not just an issue of translating Liver Yang rising to migraines, and visa versa, it’s about understanding a particular plant in a multifaceted way.
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
I am in 2 of 12 terms in school. The pace at which we learn things is incredible. Study a subject for one week and bam! you are expected to know everything (yes, this is an overstatement) about the muscles of the thigh, the Spleen meridian, the integument system, and (as luck would have it) certain categories of herbs. Tomorrow is out first herb test, which will consist of answering questions about the 14 herbs we learned in the “Warm Herbs that Release the Exterior” category.
Starting in 2002, I regularly studied herbs in earnest. That meant that on most day of the week, I read about, tasted, looked at, sat with, thought of, gardened, identified and wildcrafted, and took notes about the herbs that I was studying. Since I was in a self-education situation, I tended to migrate towards herbs that myself or my friends and family needed. There is the time to sit and digest (literally and figuratively) all the information and subtleties about the plants.
With all the ways I studied herbs, I never though to add memorization to my ways of understanding herbs.
But now I have to.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t seek to be centered and connected to the plants I am learning about. We have samples of the herbs to gaze at, nibble, and smell. The texts that we have are amazing at describing the energetic nature of the herb, comparing and contrasting similar herbs, and using references from the classics. I do work study in the clinic’s herbal dispensary, where I fill bulk and granule formulas, so I get to further familiarize with the herbs as I see them in formulas, and I did some gardening in the herbal garden in the beginning of the year.
One thing I like to do that I don’t really have a chance to do is taste the herbs. I could find a way to get some, but the school won’t let you but herbs unless a faculty has signed off on a formula, like a prescription. Apparently it’s a liability issue. This is probably my biggest frustration: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN ABOUT THE HERBS IF I CAN”T PREPARE AND USE THEM? There, I am done ranting.
Here is a sample of the information we need to know:
Headache, fever, aversion to cold with no sweating, for either wind-cold or wind-heat.
Itchy skin, urticaria, slow skin eruption in measles.
Epitaxis, hemafecia, urinary bleeding due to various causes.
Early stage of carbuncles or boils with exterior syndrome.
Deficiency of exterior (wei qi, yin, or deficient heat).
Absence of pathogenic wind.
Fully erupted measles.
Jing Jie or Schizonepata is very aromatic. A classmate asked if it is related to lavender, because the spikes resemble lavender tops and also because of it’s smell. Indeed, they are in the same family! I think the dried herb smells like a cross between a wild mint that grew next to stream in Minnesota and sweet pennyroyal, but I bet there are similar species like that all over the world.
I find it odd that Jing Jie is said to be slightly warm, because as a minty-mint I expect it to be slightly cool, like spearmint (although I can see how peppermint is sometimes considered warm, cool and sometimes both). It is considered to be antipyretic, diaphoretic, antibiotic (the decoction is effective against staph, strep-B, salmonella, Bacillus tubercuili), hemostatic (according to Chen, charred Jing Jie speeds coagulation time by 77%, while regular Jing Jie does by 30%), analgesic, and a bronchiodialator that relieves spasm and wheezing. As you may of guessed, it is full of volatile oils, along with flavanoids, phenolic acids, and monoterpine glycosides.
Since it is slightly warm, it can be used for both heat and cold situations. It is relatively mild all-around, so it doesn’t damage yin, and is not as drying as the other herbs in this category, but it still is drying. According to the texts, the important factor for it’s effectiveness is that wind must be present. Wind is one of the six exogenous (outside) pathogenic factors and is characterized with sudden, acute situations (like colds and flu), aversion to wind, itching, convulsions, spasms, trembling,as well as stiffness or paralysis (where wind is internal and not moving).
It can be used with spasms in general, especially muscle spasms. The texts say it is useful for postpartum spasm and muscle cramps. It is featured in many topical formulas for itching or wind attacking the skin like with rashes or eczema.
I able to get an intern to sign off on a 10 gram order of this herb for me to try on my dog. She has been very itchy, with pretty bad eczema. I made a wrapped Jing Jie and calendula in a thin cotton towel, poured some boiling water over it, and let it steep, covered, for about 30 minuets. Isis (my dog) seemed to like it, but she pretty much always likes compresses. I did notice she was much less itchy for the rest of the night, and the inflammation decreased. I would combine it with comfrey next time, because it was more drying to her than the calendula alone (which is not a particularly demulcent plant itself). I think it might be a good herb to add into a dry, itchy skin salve… and it has been such a long time since I’ve made a salve…
One more thing about Jing Jie. The tea was quite tasty, very aromatic with sweet, warm mint undertones. I am actually surprised that it is not considered “sweet”, because it strikes me as very sweet in both smell and taste. The flavor has a touch of licorice or stevia sweetness to it. Now that I think about it, the flavor reminds me of many herbs, but anise hyssop, pennyroyal and wild mint come up the most in my mind. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I did experience a little nervine effect, not as pronounced as lavender or lemon balm, more similar to that of spearmint.
Herb Books, mmmm… I buy them, read them, and re-read them as often as I can. For every herb book I have, there are three more that I desire. So many amazing herbalists have published books, on just about every topic imaginable.
It was tough to narrow my favorite herb book selection. I sat in front of my bookshelf and paged through title after title; after 20 minuets of “this one is my favorite”, “this one is my other favorite”, I realized that all of them are valuable, useful, inspirational and informative (other wise I would not have shipped three boxes of them from Minnesota to Oregon). Some are sentimental, like Susun Weed’s Healing Wise. That was one of the first herb books I bought, and it significantly shaped both my view of plants and healing philosophy.
Here is the semi-narrowed down list.
#1 Most used, referenced, practical, favorite:
“Medicines From the Earth” Conference Notes
These ‘books’ aren’t really books at all, they are a compilation of lecture notes to a botanical medicine conference. Many conferences have these sorts of publications, and even more conferences have recordings for sale. I find them truly, truly indispensable. Almost every day I engage with either the notes or the recordings (my iPod is full of Jill Stansbury, Donnie Yance and Mary Bove, among others). This particular conference is not unique in that there is a variety of herbal practitioners, from wild crafters, TCM practitioners to naturopaths. For a specific condition, and practical applications for practice, these are my absolute favorite.
Books for Understanding The Essence of Herbs:
Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom
Micheal Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
The Book of Herbal Wisdom is the herbal that I have read the most. The stories, the history, the energetic details of the plants are enthralling and help the medicinal uses of the plants stick in my head. This book held even more relevance for me because much of it took place in my ‘backyard’ of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I had seen many of the plants in the specific places mentioned in the book, like yarrow on the rocky, windswept north shore of Lake Superior.
A few weeks before moving from Minnesota, a friend gave me her copy of Micheal Moore’s book. I have enjoyed reading it since, a herb or two at a time, as a way to get to know the herbs out here in Portland. Both of these books are very much infused with a sense of place, which I love. Wood seems to connect with the herb’s being or essence, while Moore has a deep understanding on what the herbs do in the physical body, or at lease that is what I take out of them.
Books for the Inner Goddess/Healer:
Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women
Earth Mother Herbal by Shatoiya De La Tour
Anything by Rosmary Gladstar, could be on this list, really. She gets you to touch, taste, dream, sing and tell stories about the herbs, as a way of learning. Her work is infused with wisdom and ‘beautility’, inspiring her readers and students to be stewards of the earth and protectors of the plants. I have to wonder: just how many people have learned about herbal medicine because of her? Rosemary’s body care recipes are my staple, they are are so simple yet revolutionary.
The Earth Mother Herbal is a sweet, succinct and surprisingly diverse book. There is information about growing herbs, harvesting, making products, and for each herb in the herbal section an unique recipe or two follows. What struck me about this book is the encouragement of De La Tour to permeate your life with herbs, and not just for medicine. One section that I particularly love outlines examples of herbal gatherings for different seasons, with food, drinks, favors and activities all related to herbs.
Books for Women’s Health:
Ruth Tricky’s Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle
Aviva Jill Romm’s The Natural Pregnancy Book
The Core Balance Diet by Marcell Pick (one book that are not really an herbal)
When I said there are many herb book that I desire, most of those book are on the topic of women’s health. Australian practitioner Tricky’s book covers in great detail hormones and the menstrual cycle (as the title implies) with sound advice on herbs and supplements. The herbal entries are based both on historical and folk use and on modern research – a blend that not everyone can pull off as well as Tricky. I use this book as a reference constantly for both physiology and herbs. Reading this book helped me further differentiate herbs that may seem similar on the outside (like adaptogens or uterine tonics) through her specific examples based on the herbs themselves and as well as the intricacy of the body.
Romm’s pregnancy book made the list because it is the book that I lend out the most. It is at a beginner level as far as herbs are concerned, but that is a fine place to be at in a pregnancy book; you don’t want to be overwhelmed with herbal details when you have pregnancy, birth and postpartum to focus on.
The Core Balance Diet is indeed not an herbal, but it does have a good deal of herbal information in it. It made the list because I have found that applying the concepts in the book can greatly enhance the way I use herbs in everyday life. Don’t be put off my the word Diet in the title. It is about understanding six different ways our body interacts with the world (adrenal, hormonal, neurotransmitter, digestive, detoxification and inflammation) and how we can get our trouble areas back on track to lead a more balance life, inside and out. Very pertinent information for herbalists, I believe.
Best quick reference:
Micheal Tierra’s Planetary Herbology
Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine
Just the other day I was reading in Planetary Herbology‘s “herbs that release the exterior” category and gained some insight about the relationship and differentiation between diuretics and diaphoretics. Little thing like that happen whenever I open this book. When I want to know some basic information about an herb, this book clearly lays out the energetics (taste and temperature), constituents, actions, organs entered (this Chinese concept is useful for western herbs, too) and so on.
Making Plant Medicine seems to get opened in acute situations. Need a direction as to which herbs to use topically like right NOW? Cech has it. After making my much needed remedy, I go back to the book and read some more. I love Cech’s writing style and information. If it’s useful, it’s in this book.
Books for the Chinese Medicine (or the Books I Wish I’d Gotten Sooner):
Dan Bensky’s Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica
Dan Chen Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology
Before going to Chinese medicine school, I had an interest in Chinese herbs, but my first love was Western herbalism and I stayed away from the heady, theory-laden tomes of Chinese medicine. What a mistake! You don’t have to know Chinese medicine theory, Yin and Yang, or the 5 elements to benefit from these texts. Both books have the same information about the indications of the herbs, but Chen’s has a more western feel, with medicinal actions (diaphoretic, antimicrobial, brochiodialtor, ect..), chemical constituents and modern research, while Bensky is the standard herbology text and draws more from classical texts.
There are a few reasons I say this. First, because of the incredible organization of the material that is very conducive to learning. The herbs are grouped in ways that make exquisite sense, with explanations to why they are groups that way.
Another reason I love these texts is because of the importance of energetics. After reading one single entry (Ma Huang, ephedra), I understood more about energetics than after 8 years of studying Western herbalism and 4 months of formal Chinese medicine education, combined. What really helped me ‘get’ it was both the comparisons between herbs in the same category and sample herbal combination. Reading things in the line of “this herb does this to release the exterior, while herb #2, with a different flavor, does more of this action” is so helpful.
This book has been a catalyst that has lead many people to herbalism. It may seem strange, because it talks a lot about natural health, nutrition, and emotions but not necessarily herbs. I mention it because I have lost count of the number of people I ran into that said this was the book that started their healing journey – myself included, this I consider it a ‘gateway’ book.