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rosemary-flower

New Place, New Ally: Rosemary

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.

Resources:

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. mark.moss@unn.ac.uk

juniper-berries-close-up

Physician, heal thyself

I am at the end of a much-needed three week break from school. Of course, before the end of the term I was already plotting and planning all the wonderful super important and constructive things I would do with the immense amount of free time. Then break arrived. I spent the first three days still doing homework, since I came down with a weird 24-hour bug during finals and fell behind. After that, I threw away my list of things to accomplish and undertook a new plan: relax, rejuvenate and have fun.

This is an herbal blog, and yes, there are plenty of herbs for rejuvenation. In another entry, I’ll share my two allies of the moment for just that. But as I grow, so does my relationship with health and my thoughts on healing. All the herbs in the world can’t replace a decent night’s sleep, healthy relationships, creative expression, faith and optimism. Herbs are just one of the many tools we are able to graciously call upon for nutrition (literally and figuratively) and balance. My point here is that taking a break from engaging with herbalism on an educational level might just help me be a better herbalist later.

Some people from my school have studied over break. That simply amazes me; you couldn’t pay me to study right now! Before I got to school, I thought that I would be an incredible superwoman of productivity. I thought of all the things I wanted to do with every area of life. I took notes from Portland blogger Eric at Deepest Health about his year of sagely living in hopes that I could do it all, too.

Then I realized that we each have our own path and ways of doing things, and while I seek inspiration and insight from others, I have no need to try to be like anyone but myself. Things will unfold when they ought to, I need not push my way through the joy of working alongside plants and judge success on how many blog entries I write a day, how many clients I have, how many herb books I read or species I identify.

This is the start of my schooling, one term down eleven to go! I figure now is a good time set the tone for rejuvenation so when I return to intellectual zone, I’ll be ready. Rosemary Gladstar once commented that our society doesn’t take time for convalescence and that if we had our heads on straight we would do just that. Just think of all the people who don’t take their sick and vacation days off from work. And if people do take vacation time, it is sometimes spent doing work around the house rather than relaxing or doing something special.

“Physician, heal thyself” comes to mind, as does the saying that “the cobbler wears the worst shoes”. During the first weeks of school, I turned these phrases around and held them against the institution of education, thinking in a huff, “how am I supposed to be a good healer and take care of myself if I have to study all the time”? It took a while, but I changed that statement from an accusation to a point of reflection. Instead of getting angry about it, I answered my own question. I think we all know what we need to do to be healthy. They answer isn’t flashy, too time consuming or expensive; eat right, sleep, keep up with your tasks but don’t overdo it, recreate, exercise in ways that are a joy and value your family and friends, and so on.

We also are just as aware of the things we know we need to stop doing. You don’t need a doctor to tell you if something – whether it be a food or behavior – isn’t agreeing with your biology and life. Can it really be that simple? Do what what serves you, stop doing what is harmful? I say it’s a pretty solid start to being congruent or in alignment with your life.

Yes, it is difficult to stay balanced and healthy during school, but how is it any different with our future clientele and their lives? If I can do my best to learn to take care of my health now, then I can be like a physician who has taken her own good advice, or a cobbler who has taken the time to craft quality shoes

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back-to-eden

Back to Eden, Faries and Fuschia find

I admit that one of favorite things to do is go to estate sales. Yard sales are cool, too, but there is some sort of added interest by walking through someone’s house and property; it gives the material objects for sale a bit of perspective, place and meaning. A couple of weekends ago, I went to my first estate sales in Portland. One was in a sweet old three story Victorian triplex, with the sale on the top two floors. This sale was quite different than most sales, mainly the person having the sale was significantly younger than most estate sale-ers, a collector of beautiful things, and obviously downsizing before she moved into a new place. So instead of an apartment filled with of functional gadgets and wares accumulated over the decades, it was filled with objects chosen for their aesthetic value. Here’s what I left with:

Back to Eden, by Jethro Kloss

This is a classic herbal and health book that I have read a little of in the past, but never added to my collection. I am excited to read more of it. Jethro Kloss was born in April 1863 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and later lived in St. Peter, MN, where he died in 1946. Kloss was a Seventh Day Adventist, a religious denomination that is known (at least in the holistic health community) for it’s emphasis on holistic health, wellness, vegetarianism and ‘clean’ living (John Kellogg, also an Adventist, developed his breakfast cereals in the spirit of the religion).

Back to Eden was published in 1939, and has been reprinted a number of times since then. The copy I bought (for one whole dollar) was printed in 1985. This particular copy contains extra chapters examining the life and works of Jethro Kloss, much in his or his daughters’ own words. Back to Eden covers just about every aspects of holistic health you can imagine, from talking about soil and gardening, to fresh air and exercise, to cooking methods, to hydrotherapy (aka ‘water cure’), massage, the eliminating diet (I assumed this was a modern idea; not so!), and a large section about how to use medicinal herbs.

I first heard about Jethro Kloss while reading Rosemary Gladstar’s herbals, as she talks about “Kloss’s Liniment” often and requires students of her Home Study Course to make one of their own. It has been a long time since I have made one, but I ought to soon since it is so effective as an antiseptic and sore muscle/joint rub. Here is the recipe from the book (216):

  • 2 oz. myrrh
  • 1 oz golden seal
  • 1/2 oz African red pepper [cayenne]

Add the powdered herbs to a quart of rubbing alcohol, or to a pint of raspberry vinegar and a pint of water. Let stand for 7-10 days, shaking daily. Use externally for healing wounds, bruises, burns, strains, sunburns, ect… I don’t see any reason why coptis, bayberry or even Oregon Grape couldn’t be substituted for the goldenseal.

Flower Fairies Miniature Library, by Cicely Mary Baker

Perhaps you have seen these beautifully illustrated children’s poetry books in gift shops, stores or libraries; you can even order Cicely Mary Baker checks. Baker was an English illustrator and, like Kloss, a devout Christian. According to Wikipedia, fairies were popularized in the beginning of the 20th century with the publication of books like Peter Pan, and The Coming of the Fairies (Sir Arthur Conan Boyle). Baker’s first book was Flower Fairies of the Spring, which features illustration of (you guessed it) flowers, fairies as well as poems about plants like crocus, scilla, forget-me-not, tulips and narcissus. You can see more of her fairy work at the “official’ Flower Fairies Website.

The night previous to finding these tiny books, I put many works of Cicely Mark Bakers on one of my online wish-lists, thinking I’d get them for gifts for little ones on my list, or perhaps even myself (I admit it, I am a softy for cutesy fairy stuff). After reading more of her poems and admiring the beautiful illustrations, it is clear that Baker was quite perceptive and in tune with nature – and fairies!

Here is a little excerpt about finding fairies in the wayside (from her book, Fairies of the Wayside, 1948)

To shop, and school, to work and play,
The busy people pass all day:
They hurry, hurry, to and fro,
And hardly notice as they go
The wayside flowers, known so well,
Whose names so few of them can tell.

They never think of fairy-folk
Who may be hiding for a joke!

O, if these people understood
What’s to be found by field and wood;
What fairy secrets are made plain
By any footpath, road, or lane –
They’d go with open eyes, and look,
(As you will, when you’ve read this book)
And then at least they’d learn to see
How pretty common things can be!

There is one more find from the estate sale adventure: a pot of fuchsias and creeping jennies. I had to get rid of about 45 house plants for the move from Minnesota to Oregon. I know that houseplants are easy to find, whether it be from greenhouses, grocery stores or cuttings from friends, but I still miss some of them. Needless to say, I was happy to add a new one to my collection, and one that is so ridiculously flashy as fuchsia (a friend likened them to ’80’s attire, and I have to agree), a bright antidote to the gray Portland winter.

References:

Kloss, Jethro. Back to Eden.

Baker, Cicely Mary. Flower Fairies Miniature Library.

calendula-3

Herbal Sitz Baths

Herbal sitz baths; here is one type of bath that I have seen work time and time again, particularity for genito-urinary purposes. Sitz baths are pretty much exactly like they sound – a bath that you sit in. Sitting in a bath is actually quite different than laying in a bath, however. A sitz bath covers the hips and pelvis, while the legs and torso are not immersed in the bath. This posture ensures that the blood flow of the body is concentrated around the area in the water.

I attempted to make directions with specific quantities of water and herbal infusion, but had to stop because each sitz bath is a little different. That being said, here is a solid starting place:

  • Add 3 ounces of dried herbs to just boiled water in a large pot with a lid. Steep for 20-30 minuets, covered. Like with other herbal baths, straining is optional and is dependent upon personal preferences. Do you like bits of re-hydrated herbs floating among your bath water and possibly sticking to you when you leave the bath, or would that bother you?
  • Pour the herbal infusion into a bin/sitz bath. Add tap water to adjust water temperature. Hot water is generally used, but alternating between hot and cold is also recommended. A cold or room temperature sitz can be quite therapeutic as well, especially if there is a hot, itchy or inflammatory condition.
  • Lower yourself down in the bath carefully, and soak for 20-30 mins. It is a smart idea to try your sitz bath out before adding the water, to make sure it is possible to get in and out easily. Don’t hesitate to ask loved ones for a hand. Fold up a towel to sit in the sitz bath to make it as comfortable as possible.
  • If no infection present, the water may be reheated and used again – or use the bath at room temperature.
  • Use as frequently as needed, once a day during an acute situation, every other day or weekly for health maintenance.

When I started out as a doula, I read about sitz baths for healing the perineum after birth, but I never heard of anyone actually using one. At one of the birthing hospitals in Duluth, I noticed a locked door with a sign on it that said “Sitz Bath”. I inquired with a nurse about the “Sitz Bath” room, she said there was a indeed a special sitz bath tub in there, but she never heard of anyone using it. Here is the sitz bath that eventually came up with, it was the one I used most with doula clients, friends and sold to midwives:

Postpartum Sitz Bath

  • 3 tablespoons comfrey herb (root and leaf mixed)
  • 3 tablespoons yarrow
  • 3 tablespoons uva ursi

I chose comfery because of its soothing, tissue healing properties. I am in the works on writing a post about the constituents of time-honored Symphytum officinale, so more to come on that front. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), another ‘wound wort’, stops bleeding and is especially effective in healing stitches and tears. Even if there’s no tears, yarrow is still helpful because it moves the blood and disperses bruising and inflammation. Matthew Wood says it can “actually help the arteries suck up blood that has flowed out through a torn vessel into the tissues” (70). Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a creeping, evergreen, berry-bearing member of the Ericaeae family. The leaves are very antiseptic with an affinity for the genito-urinary system. I first became familiar with this plant while researching herbs for bladder infections. Tannin-rich uva ursi helps heal the skin by tightening the tissues and discouraging infections (75, Earthwise Herbal).

There are a variety of herbs that can be used to postpartum your sitz bath. Sea salt is a great addition, as are any astringent, tonifying herbs. If there is a lot of bleeding add a stiptic like Shepard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), or if there is a over-relaxed state, add astringents and tonics like Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) or cranesbill (Geranium maculatum).

Here is another herbal sitz bath I heard about from Mary Bove, ND from a 2009 lecture on herbs for pelvic congestion. Although I was familiar with and had good success with herbal steams for genitourinary complaints (particularly pelvic congestion and inflammation), for some reason I never thought to do a sitz bath for pelvic congestion. Bove says these herbs are particularly beneficial for labial varicosities.

  • Lady’s mantle
  • White or red oak bark (Quercus spp.)
  • Bayberry root (Myrica spp.)
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

For a while, I thought of sitz baths as a modality of delivering herbal medicine useful specifically to postpartum women. While postpartum sitz baths are indeed incredibly useful in that way, it is not the only application of sitz baths. There are so many genito-urinary complaints that sitz baths can be useful for, but what about the other areas of the body that are immersed in a sitz bath? Could digestive problems be comforted with sitz baths; what about the lower vertebrae and pelvic bones? Oh the possibilities…

mint-stomp

Herbal Foot Baths

When I talked about herbal baths a couple months back, I mentioned that you don’t need to have a bath tub to benefit from therapeutic baths. True to my word, here is a little bit about one of my favorite ways to administer botanicals, relax and ease symptoms: Herbal foot baths.

Have you ever had a therapeutic foot bath? If not, I highly recommend it. I found that they are saviors to ease symptoms of colds, especially when used in conjunction with a herbal steam to clear the sinuses. You may wonder how a foot bath can help alleviate the stuffiness, headache, chest tightness, itchy ears, coughing, or sore throat that comes along the common cold. Foot baths work simply: sticking your feet in a vat of aromatic tea directs your energy downwards, that is away from your aching head, stuffy throat, and whatever else is bothering you ‘up there’. It’s like a having a 20 minuet foot massage that smells divine, boosts circulation and lymph flow, and relaxes the nervous system…particularly useful if a stuffy nose or headache is keeping you awake at night.

Foot baths are useful in a variety of situations, however, not just when you caught the latest bug that’s going around. Here are a few situations when I use or recommend herbal foot baths:

  • Colds and flu
  • Respiratory infections
  • Insomnia
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Local pain or inflammation of the foot, ankle or leg (alternating between cold and warm foot baths during an acute sprained ankle is akin to hot and cold packs and can assist the healing process)
  • Topical irritations of the foot or skin, like athlete’s foot, cracks, dry skin, calluses, ingrown nails, ect…

So here another question to consider: what makes a herbal foot bath more special than a water bath? (Note to self: quit asking rhetorical questions that don’t have a pat answer). Hot baths (and cool baths) are therapeutic and pretty awesome in and of themselves, but the addition of aromatic herbs takes the baths up a notch. For example, ginger and mustard make warming baths even warmer, peppermint and eucalyptus make a cooling bath even cooler.

What herbs are good for a foot bath? Many herbs will do for a foot bath, and often you can take them right out of the kitchen cupboard. Thyme, rosemary, oregano, ginger and mustard are a few herbs great for colds and flus. Catnip, elder flowers, hibiscus and lavender are fine choices for kids (and adults!). I find a simple ginger and peppermint foot bath is balancing in the evening to help one fall asleep in times of stress or insomnia. For dry and cracked feet, comfrey root or leaf and calendula make a great pair; add a drop or two or tea tree essential oil for fungal infections.

Directions for a foot bath:

  • Bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Turn off heat.
  • Add 3 – 4 tablespoons of your herb or herbs of choice to pot, cover. Let steep for 20 minuets.
  • Pour your ‘tea’ into a big pot or a tub (like a dish tub, basin, ice bucket – whatever you can find that will accommodate your feet comfortably). Straining the foot bath ‘tea’ is optional.
  • Adjust the water temperature to your desired temperature.
  • Set your feet in the water, soak and enjoy.

I have a habit of making my foot baths a little too hot to sink my feet in right away, so I skim the rough part of my soles over the surface of the water as much as I can stand. Just touching your feet ever so slightly on the steaming water for a second or two sets the body’s circulatory and nervous systems in motion and feels amazing to your feet, legs, and all over, actually. Immediately you are drawn into your senses. Foot baths are best followed with a lotion or oil foot massage of to lock in moisture, pair of comfy socks, a cup of tea and bed time…

manwomanherb

Herbal Miscellany from Europe

A collection of Berlin Botanical Garden’s marker tags from the past 100 years.

“A folio from a translation of Dioscuride’s work on Medical Herbs. Three seated men intensely discuss the question of how the quick use of medication can accelerate the healing process.” 1224, showcase in Islamic art, Berlin History Museum.

Over a hundred varieties of herbal tea on display at large department store in Berlin. In the foreground is a Chocolate Tea, yum…

Three super cute kids DVD’s in a gift shop: “Blossom Zoo”, “Blossom Apothecary” and “Blossom Games”.

Plant man and woman.

This large book was a handwritten log of botanical research and knowledge, until the Berlin Botanical Garden was fire-bombed in WWII. Years of information and thousands of rare, old and endangered plants were destroyed. Yet another reason why war sucks.

“Discover the mystery of nature in through the fertilization of flowers”. A plaque in honor of pollinators.

Plants organized by families (or order, it’s been a long time since Biology). It’s a little dated, yet still interesting. Karlsruhe University, Germany.

A display of old Danish “Good and Effective” pharmaceuticals, including glycerin, bronchial tincture and good old turpentine.

A vintage jar of a sort of pine-cone (Tannen-zaphel) used for medicine.

roses-in-elixir

Spiced Rose Elixir

Before I left Minnesota in June, I wanted to immortalize the fragrant roses from my neighborhood. I still have a few ounces of delicious and handy rose elixir from last season, so I decided to mix it up a bit and make an elixir version of one of my favorite love teas. ‘Love tea’ features a favorite combination of mine, rose petals and damiana, and just about any other herbs that strike my fancy. Hawthorn berries, milky oats, ashwaganda, shatavari, eleuthero are some of my regular additions.

To a non-herb person, it may seem unlikely that botanicals could ever have anything to do with love. I would beg to differ. First of all, there is no doubt that plants can effect our emotions, and I would bet that most of us have had experiences with food that has altered our emotions. Chocolate and champagne are almost cliche ‘romance’ foods. I don’t want to go so far as to say that rose and damiana are cliche romance herbs, but they do play a little on the heart-stings.

Although it contains herbs with well-known actions, I see it as being broad in usage. For example, it can be calming to the emotions and nervous system, relaxing yet stimulating in times of stress (it has adaptogenic qualities), as well as potentially being an aphrodisiac. Damiana is warm and spicy and tones Yang (Lesley Tierra, 75). Rose petals are both cooling and relaxing, and have a special affinity for the heart and heart chakra. Ashwaganda also tonifies Yang, as Tierra describes:

“[It] is one of the best rejuvenation herbs because it tonifies without being overly stimulating and, in fact, calms and strenghtens the nervous system. Thus, it can be widely used in all conditions of weakness, chronic debilitation due to over work, stress, insomnia, or nervous exhaustion, in other words for all of you burned-out Type A folks.” (60).

Spiced Rose Elixir

  • Rose petals – pick highly fragrant ones, chop a few times, add to fill jar more then half full.
  • Damiana – 3 tablespoons
  • Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) – tablespoon
  • Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) – tablespoon
  • Clove – teaspoon
  • Allspice – teaspoon
  • Star anise – 2 pieces
  • Cinnamon – 2 sticks

Elixirs are so easy to make, and easy to use. Please check out Kiva Rose’s blog for lots of info about the medicinal uses of roses and elixirs.  Elixirs are part alcohol and part honey (or glycerine), I like equal parts of each, or more alcohol to honey. As far as alcohol goes, my normal preference is grain alcohol (especially with resinous herbs that need a high percentage of alcohol to fully extract) or brandy.

Back to the directions: fill a jar with herbs, pour over the alcohol of choice to fill the jar halfway, then top off with local, unheated honey. Let sit for 4-6 weeks, give it an occasional shake to add the maceration process, strain to a new bottle, label and enjoy 1-2 tablespoons as needed.

Reference: Tierra, Lesley. Healing with the Herbs of Life.

Plant part actions, Chinese medicine view.

Actions/Directions of Plant Parts

One of the first books I read on herbalism and health was Elson Haas’ Staying Healthy with the Seasons. There were many interesting little bits of knowledge and graphics in that book, including one relating parts of herbs to actions in the body systems. Here is how I remember it:

Plant parts along a surface-deep continuum from a Western view.

A week ago, I checked out a neat book to help me learn more about Chinese herbal formulations. Traditional Chinese Medicine Formula Study Guide by Qiao Yi walks the reader through all angles of formulating and a bit about pathology. The more I read about Chinese herbalism, the more I see similarities with what I’ve learned studying Western herbalism. Take this categorization about plant parts and actions from the study guide:

Plant part actions, Chinese medicine view.

I have looked in a few other sources in attempt to find more information about plant part and action/direction for both Western and Chinese herbalism, to no avail. (If you know of a resource, let me know!) One aspect in particular I’d like to get more information about is the Chinese medicine view about seeds, nuts and fruits. Why were they not mentioned along with flowers, roots and the rest? Are they included in flowers (which is where they originate)? There are a plethora of fruits and seeds in the pharmacopoeia, which is why I am confused.

Speaking of seeds…

Over the years there have been times when I relied on aromatic herbs and seeds/fruits. Kitchen spices like coriander, fennel, anise, dill, cardamom were my go-to’s for abdominal distention, gas and lack of appetite, ect.  It seems to me that many seeds are very centering and assist the digestive process. The aromatic qualities of many seeds seem to be earthy, grounding, spicy, musty, as opposed to pungent roots like ginger, floral high notes like lavender, or bitter, stinging goldenseal. Of course not all seeds are aromatic, and not all aromatics are seeds, but perhaps there happens to be a digestive quality to them. Hmmm… Milk thistle seeds support the liver and detoxification (important for digestion) and even hawthorn berries are used to help ease the effects of over-eating or eating too much fatty food. Seeds, nuts and beans are a good source of fiber, too. Yet another good reason to eat your herbs!

When I first saw Haas’ continuum of cleansing herb part-deeper acting one, I felt there were important exceptions. I have to remember that models are just that, models, not rules. That’s one thing I like about herbalism – the lack of rules!

detox-bath-herbs-spilling

Juniper Berry Bath

Sometimes your favorite herbal concoctions come out of nowhere. One day a woman came into the herb shop with an ambiguous book under her arm called something like “Herbal Cleansing” and a list of about twenty herbs she needed for a such a cleanse. Hours after I helped this person with her herbs, I found a little scrap of paper with a formula called simply “Detox Bath”. It sounded so yummy I made it up right then and tried it out that evening. I call it “Refreshing Bath”, because I feel renewed after a soak in its freshness.

Refreshing Bath

  • 1 part Juniper berries, ground coarsely
  • 1 part Rosemary, coarsely cut
  • 1 part Calendula or comfrey
  • 2 parts Peppermint

Directions: Steep 3/4 cup herbs in 6 cups just boiled water, covered, for 30 mins. Strain. Add to bath and adjust water temp.

Alternate directions: Tie 3/4 cup herbs in a thin cotton flour sack towel or place in a muslin bag, position under the faucet, and run hot water through to “steep”. Adjust water temperature, soak and enjoy.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) is an antiseptic diuretic rich in volatile oils and tannins. By itself, juniper is quite strong, but luckily it blends well with other cooler aromatic herbs. And no, it does NOT smell like gin, gin smells like juniper! Juniper is not recommended for internal use during pregnancy or severe kidney infections or disease (you don’t want to over-stimulate delicate kidneys) and I would extend those basic guidelines to external use.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) are great herbs to add to just about any bath because of their topical healing properties. Pick one, or both. I often choose calendula because it adds color to the mix (quite beautiful with dark purple juniper berries!) and is a gentle lymphatic. The other herbs in the recipe, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) are wonderfully aromatic and stimulating members of the mint family that add to the experience.

romanbath

Medicine Making – Herbal Baths Overview

Labor Day is over, and for most of us in the States that means summer is winding down to a close. The shorter days carry cool breezes, overnight frosts threatens almost-ripe tomatoes, and sweaters and scarfs come out of their hiding spot. Now is the perfect time for enjoying a … herbal bath.

I have to pause here for a momentary rant. Perhaps you though I was going to say, “Now is the perfect time for enjoying a … hot cup of spiced chai”. Go ahead, have your chai, or any other warming and comforting teas for that matter. But let us not forget about good old fashioned baths. Let’s expand our herbal protocols to include the inside our physical bodies as well as the outside. Why not have both? Drink your tea while soaking in a bath. You don’t even need an actual bathtub to take one.

There are many different types of herbal baths, but in essence it is like immersing your body (or at least a part of it) in a giant cup of tea. Just like tea that we drink, this tea for the bath can be relaxing, ritualistic, pain-relieving, energizing, nutritive, cleansing and can be used for skin therapy or acute infections. Have your pick based on your mood, physical state, or both.

Herbal baths have a few qualities that make them a valuable menstrum (vehicle for delivery). First, baths posses the virtues of hydrotherapy. Put simply, hydrotherapy uses water temperature to affect the body’s circulation by either dilating or contracting the tiny capillaries, which in turn affects our body and mind. Warm water has a sedative action, cool or cold water can be a febrifuge (lower elevated body temperatures), and both cold and warm water can direct blood flow (especially handy in sitz baths to heal stressed genito-urinary tissues).

Secondly, herbal baths are great for topical treatments and soothing, healing and simply bringing vital life force into the skin. The skin, the largest organ of the body, absorbs herbal constituents while the senses are also engaged via volatile oils if aromatic herbs are used. The energetic uses of herbal baths are marked; there is no doubt that for most of us a hot bath is a relaxing experience, a time when we physically and emotionally cleanse.

Here are a few types of and methods for herbal baths:

  • Basic herbal bath – Steep about 1 cup of herbs in 6 cups boiled water, covered, for 30 mins.
    Strain carefully, add to bath water. Soak and enjoy!
  • Steep in the tub bath – Tie the herbs in a thin cotton cloth. Hang the herbs over the faucet, so the water flows through the herbs.
  • Herbs right in the bath – Pick two handfuls of herbs (whole flowers or sprigs work are the easiest to clean out of the tub later), throw them in the bathtub.
  • Foot baths – Similar qualities and directions to the basic herbal baths, but with a conscientious focus on warming (or cooling) the feet and directing energy downward. Useful for colds, insomnia, anxiety, sore feet, skin infections, ritual. Hand baths are good, too, especially if there are sore joints.
  • Sitz baths – Similar directions as basic herbal bath, but pour the steeped tea into a sitz bath (Rubbermaid storage bins work great) and immerse the pelvis, with the knees and feet hanging over the rim of the tub. Great for healing the genito-urinary area, especially during the postpartum.
  • Herbal rinses – Prepare a big pot of strong herbal tea as described in basic herbal bath, but pour or rinse an isolated area or the whole body. Great for skin conditions and for time when a full bath is undesirable or not available (works great in the shower).
  • The non-herbal bath – No herbs handy? Take a salt or oil bath, with or without a few drops of essential oils (do be careful with potent essential oils, start with literally a few drops to avoid mucus membrane irritation).
David Hoff

David Hoffmann’s New Holistic Herbal

Here in the Western world, in addition to formal education, apprenticeship, and first-hand experience, reading books is still one of the main ways to accrue information and learn a particular subject. Luckily for those studying herbalism we have many valid opportunities to engage in all of these forms of learning. Home study courses, classes, conferences and books abound, and of course we can take a walk and meet some plants along the way.

There are many types of herbalism out there, and there are many corresponding books. When people ask for a book recommendation as they begin or expand their herbal education, I first ask a few prying questions to get a feel for their style of herbalism and learning. Matching an herb book to a person is not always transparent, though. For example, I knew one medical student who, contrary to my first impression, didn’t want any research-driven, phyto-chemistry heavy, plants as drugs resources (think Tyler’s Honest Herbal). Instead, it turned out she was craving the more New Age-y, mystical, plant spirit medicine type books as a break from the daily grind. The beauty of herbalism is that there are little rules – both ways are perfectly valid!

But when it comes down to it, most people that I talked to didn’t really care what they read, especially starting out. They were open to and thirsty for any decent herbal information. For pretty much everyone, Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal is a good starting place due to it’s beauty, wisdom, variety and practical bent. Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom was recommended often, as it dedicates many pages to a single herb to help the reader get to know the plant, it’s energetics, and plethora of uses. There are more similarities then differences within herbalism (at least I think so); if it works and promotes health, it’s medicine.

Back to the book. Last week I finished re-reading a well-known herbal, The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann. I choose to bring this book with me on vacation for a number of reasons. Mainly, it has a good herbal section, an alphabetical section of well over 200 herbs containing growing habitat, parts used, constituents, actions, dosage and of course indications. I am building an herbal reference notebook, so the book I brought with me had to have a decent herbal. The other reason I brought it with was simply to re-familiarize with a book I often recommend to as an introductory book (the last time I really sat down with it was in 2004). If I am telling others to read it, I better know well what’s in there!

In addition to the herbal, The New Holistic Herbal has information about preparation, chemistry, action categories, a small section on harvesting (the suggested harvest times are not for every bio-region, especially Minnesota!), self-care and prevention and a brief section on creating an herbal protocol for yourself. The uses of the herbs themselves and examples of formulas are in a body systems format. Basically, this book as a little bit of everything which is what makes it so useful for those discovering herbalism.

The edition in my possession was updated and printed in 1990, nearly 20 years ago, but it originally was published in 1983. Some ideas have changed with the times, and having read his much newer Medical Herbalism book, I know Hoffmann has updated some things, too. One example of this is seen in dietary recommendations. A healthy diet in the early 1990’s often emphasized whole grains, limited fats and lots of fruit. Nowa days, quality protein and veggies reign.

Details and dates aside, I’d still recommend this book as an introduction because of it’s underlining emphasis on holistic herbalism. Holistic in this sense emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life, within the earth and withing out bodies, and moves us to overcome “…centuries of conditioning to ‘apartness’ thinking”. The first page of the book says, “A herbal celebrating of the wholeness of life”.

Instead of listing all the herbs good for this or that, Hoffmann keeps reminding the reader of two underlining principles of herbalism. First assist the person, not the disease, and secondly, to learn the qualities of herbs (like action categories) – advice that is more pertinent now then ever.

st-johns-wort

Meeting New (and old) Plants – Midsummers’ Wonder

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog entry, and it will most likely be a few more until the next because I am in transit. All my herbs books and field guides are packed away, as are my computer and cords to import photos; tinctures, dried herbs are put away, too. That leaves me to experience herbalism in the simple, joyous way of meeting plants along the road, field or woods and wondering about them.

I have met a bunch of  plants for the first time recently this way, some of which I recognize from books or from seeing their cultivated varieties, others are plants that don’t grow around Duluth that I don’t get to see often. Here are a few that have piqued my interest…

  • Lobelia inflata – I am pretty sure this is the variety that grows in my area. It must be, because one tiny bit of leaf left on the tongue for barely a minuet was quite stimulating and moving for the entirety of my body, and it’s seed pods have the characteristic inflated appearance.
  • White vervain – Verbena urticifolia looks just like blue vervain in the stem, leaf and flowers, except smaller and more delicate. This white variety grows in similar locals as blue vervain, along roads, in ditches, on shores of rives and lakes. What a beauty!
  • Anise hyssop – I have seen this herbs cultivated in many an herb garden, and have cultivated it myself. It is one of my favorite herbs for children, as Agastache foeniculum is deliciously calming and carminative. When I grew it in Northern Minnesota, it never came back as a perennial, but a couple hours south it is a common weed in the country, growing in the much the same places as the white vervain. One thing that strikes me about the wild anise hyssop is that it seems even more aromatic than the ones in the garden, as if it’s qualities are augmented by wildness.
  • Wild ginger – I love this plant. Asarum caudatum creates a shiny dark-green blanket under hardwoods and ceders along the steep bluffs of the St. Croix River valley. It’s rounded heart-shaped leaves mingle with another heart-shaped plant, violet. Maude Grieve says that wild ginger’s medicinal actions include “stimulant, carminative, diuretic, diaphoretic”, and that is is “used in chronic chest complaints, dropsy with albuminaria, painful spasms of bowels and stomach”.
  • Bee balm – I am not sure exactly what Monarda species grows around here, but it doesn’t really matter because it is sooo freshly fragrant and spicy! I have one cup of honey from Cloquet, MN left that I have been wondering how to use; after tasting the local bee balm I was inspired by Kiva Rose’s blog to make a little Beebalm flower infused honey, with a few anise hyssop flowers added for good carminative and nervine measure. When I get to Oregon this fall, I’ll open up a jar of sweet Midwest summertime.
  • One more mint – Catnip. Nothing too special here, as catnip grows just about anywhere, even in Duluth. None the less, it’s around and I love it. What can I say? The gentle and effective herbs used for children are some of my favorites, chamomile, elder flower, anise hyssop and of course catnip. Fresh Nepeta cataria tea tastes a little ‘green’  but is easily enhanced by lavender, lemon balm and a bit of honey. I can’t say for certain if it was the catnip or the OTC anti-prostaglandins, but after having a strong tea of it with the two other mints and two Aleves, a bad case of cramps were relived and I was able to get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months.
  • Figwort – The mouth-watering delicious smelling (in my apparently singular opinion) figwort, Scrophularia nodosa, is already to seed but it doesn’t stop me from munching on it’s leaves. It grows in all over the country side as well as in abandoned lots and alleys in towns. Mullein and foxgloves are in the same Scrophulariaceae family, as can been seen in the snapdragon-like flowers.
  • Speaking of mullein, there is plenty out right now in flower. I am not using the leaves or employing it as medicine in any way, just sticking my nose in it’s sparkly yellow flowers on a daily basis. Yum! Verbascum thapsus is one of my favorite smelling flowers, it is so unapologetically floral.
  • Solomon’s seal – One of my first blog entries was about Polygonatum multiflorum, Solomon’s Seal, and it has captured my attention since although I haven’t had a lot of experience using it in practice. Whenever I find it in the woods it takes my breath away for a moment. Its’ line and drape is gracefully beautiful, and it’ particular shade of grayish-, blueish-green is soothing to look upon. What strikes me the most is it’s surprisingly large size; although I probubly think that because I am used to seeing the false Solomon’s seal everywhere, which is quite minscule in comparison.
  • Collinsonia C. canadensis is quite prolific around these parts. At first it resembels a stunted, rounded nettle more than a mint family member, as can be seen in these pictures. If you look closely, you can see their flowers are indeed little mint flowers. I have not used Collinsonia medicinally, but I have come across it in researching formulas for hernias and vericose veins. Here’s what Henriette’s Herbal has to say about it (actually, it is Harvey Wickes Felter from the Eclectic Materia Medica). What an awesome online resource!
  • One more, actually two more: an uni-dentified pea family member with tiny pink flowers and transluscent green seed pods, as well as a smaller than dime-sized wild orchid growing on a long (1-3 feet) thin stalk, having pinkish white flowers. I have looked online in an attempt to identify these pretty plants to no avail. Sigh. Sometimes the internet just doesn’t cut it…