Tender springtime growth of common weeds and herbs have been used for centuries as cleansing “spring tonics”. A few examples are nettle, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion greens, burdock, purslane, lamb’s quarters and violets. Most spring tonics are have at least two things in common; they’re bitter and nourishing.
The bitter taste stimulates and often improves digestion, as it promotes bile secretion (an earlier post about bitters is here). As the years go on and my taste repertoire expands, I find myself appreciating and even craving the bitter taste, especially if I’ve had too much fried or heavy food. The nutrition from some spring tonic herbs makes sense in the scheme of cleansing, too. Cleansing becomes counterproductive if what you are cleansing with is nutrient-devoid and does not support the body. Even strict fasts include something your body needs -pure water.
Below are a few lymphatic and/or alterative herbs that can be helpful during a cleanse to address your individual needs. Years ago when I first started taking herbs, the herbs I used during a period of cleansing were very different than what I use now. Echinacea, red root, figwort, blue flag and wild indigo were key players for me then, as I needed “cleanse the blood” and address chronic sore throats, infections, skin problems and tender, swollen lymph nodes. Now I like a yellow dock, licorice, ginger and cardamon decoction as well as an infusion of red clover to support digestion, liver and lymph.
It seems that many alteratives and lymphatics support digestion, assimilation and elimination, by promoting liver and gallbladder function, which increases bile, the main lubricant and promoter of the bowels. They also assisit the kidneys and lymph system in removing. Many promote healthy skin, and are useful in mild (acne) to chronic (eczema) skin conditions.
I like taking general liver/alteratives/lymphatic herbs first in a cleanse, then hone on the body system that presents itself as needing further assistance. Many body systems tie back to digestion, blood and lymph anyways and can be indirectly strengthened by alteratives. Take hormones and the endocrine system, for example. Alteratives support digestion, which in turn supports nutrient absorption and bowel motility, which reduces re-absorption of waste-product hormones. They also support the liver, and the healthier the liver is, the healthier our blood is and the better it can process the hormones that pass through it.
- Dandelion root – A bitter tonic, stimulates the liver and bile production making it useful for sluggish liver and digestion. Dandelion contains inulin and FOS, which stimulate the growth of beneficial bowel flora.
- Burdock root – Burdock also has inulin and FOS. Indicated in swollen lymph nodes, cystic breast disease and skin conditions. Supports the kidneys as well as the liver. The seed is also quite useful, especially for chronic skin problems like eczema, though a little more difficult to harvest (unless you like to sift through burdock burrs!).
- Yellow dock – Bitter and earthy yellow dock increases iron absorption and storage, often used as iron tonic. Use it similarly as dandelion and burdock: skin conditions (acne, eczema, ect…) and poor digestion (constipation, sluggish liver).
- Oregon grape root – Good liver tonic and cholagogue. Oregon grape supports digestive symptoms of PMS, especially constipation. Soothes the genito-urinary mucus membranes, useful for UTI. Specific for acne on back and chest (Winston).
- Sarsaparilla – Sarsaparilla is a noted anti-inflammatory and can be soothing to hot skin conditions like psoriasis, arthritis, inflammation of the connective tissue (Winston).
- Figwort – A great lymph, blood and skin tonic. I like figwort for times my lymph feels particularly overburdened with chronic swollen glands, sore throat, stiff neck or acne.
- Sillingia – A small dose (5-15 drops of tinctures) of stillingia alone or in a lymph formula has been used for assisting lymph, kidney, skin and liver.
- Echinacea – Echinacea is known as an immune modulator but is also as an alterative, blood cleanser and lympatic. Especially useful for skin infections and conditions; boils, hives, eczema, psoriasis and septicemia (Smith, 33).
- Red Clover – Red clover is in my first line of support for singular swollen lymph nodes (rather than a bunch of little swollen lymph nodes, which, according to Matthew Wood, calls for calendula). Also useful for chronic coughs and postnasal drip.
- Cleavers – Gentle but effective lymphatic and diuretic. Can be soothing to the nerves, too.
- Chickweed – Chickweed can be used externally for inflammation and itching, but is also a mild diuretic, vulnerary and anti-inflammatory. Not the strongest acting herb, but it is very prolific and quite tasty as a salad green.
- Calendula – A bit bitter, calendula is a liver tonic, anti-inflammatory and lymphatic. Externally, it is renowned for disinfecting and soothing cuts, rashes and infections.
- Poke – Poke oil is externally stimulating and soothing to areas of lymph stagnation, especially breast tissue.
- Red root – This herb is specific for the mucosa and lymphatic congestion.
- Alder – Alterative and cholagogue called for in cases of skin conditions and infections and chronic constipation or sluggish digestion.
Finding herbs to use as part of a cleanse can seem complicated, especially when you consider the many “herbal detox” products that line the shelves at a health foods store. I suggest herbs be kept simple and individualized. “Treat the person, not the disease”.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Smith, Ed. Therapeutic Herb Manual.
The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence? I think not.
As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.
“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).
In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:
“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”
Burdock Arctium lappa
Burdock's purple-lined stems
There are many uses for this common, wide-spread biennial weed in the aster family. The tap root, either fresh (called gobo at the grocery store) or dried, is what I use the most, although the seeds and leaf are also used. The seeds are exceedingly useful in acute or chronic skin conditions, and I have witnessed cases of eczema and alopecia (used topically) lessen in severity after at least a month of use. To harvest burdock seeds, gather some burrs in the autumn, place in a grocery bag, and back over it with a car a few times to aid in the separation of burr and seed. In addition to being helpful in cases of heavy perspiration, inflammation and fever. The seeds are indicated for “dry, crusty, itchy, itchy, flaky skin conditions” (Winston, 68). Wood also says:
“…the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste product towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” (144)
Back to the roots. Like most roots, harvest the first year plant after the first frost. From there I either eat them, decoct them, cut and dry them, or make a fresh tincture in brandy. Slightly sweet and earthy in taste, this root makes it a lot of tinctures and teas around my house. Burdock is a classic “blood and liver cleaner”, thus it is helpful in skin conditions including acne, itchy or dry skin, eczema and psoriasis (143). It is also used for increasing kidney and bladder function, as it is a “non-irritating diuretic for cystitis and scalding urine” (Winston, 68).
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia
Young echinacea with purple-red stems
Here in another member of the Asteraceae family, not as wide spread as burdock but certainly more popular by the masses as an “immune booster”. I cannot bear to dig up my echinaceas for the roots, so I make tinctures from the leaves and flowers.
The test for a high quality echinacea product, whether it be a home-made tincture, dried root or store-bough capsule is to hold it on your tongue and wait for the tingling (open dried capsules and puncture gel caps). This tingling sensation is a little numbing (drop the tincture down the back of the throat for easing the pain of a sore, raw throat) and means it is diffusive. The diffusives are all tingly on the tongue and act quickly through the nervous system, concentrating on certain areas. They include lobelia (muscles), prickly ash (nerves), bayberry (mucosa), cayenne (cardiovascular) (Wood, 247).
Echinacea diffusive action works on the blood and the lymphatics. Like burdock, echinacea assists skin conditions, septic fevers. Echinacea’s purple-redness on the stem is darker then the violet purple of burdock, which indicates it is for more infected, hot and inflamed states. For instance, echinacea may be used topically for boils, pimples, infected old bug bites, dark and swollen veins (248), when the blood seems to be infected or “toxic”.
Echinaceas in late summer
When I was a child my mother was bitten by a poisonous spider. Over the course of a few days, a vein running from the bite up the side of her torso, over the armpit, down the underside of the arm, wrapping around the hand and up the top of her arm swelled and turned purple-red. At this point she went into the hospital and had intravenous antibiotics, where she was informed that if the swelling of the vein would’ve reached her head she could’ve died. This story makes me think of echinacea and the its early reputation along the prairie as being a cure for snake bites. From Dr. Harvey Felter in 1927:
“Echinacea is a remedy for auto-infection, and where the bloodstream becomes slowly infected from within or without the blood, elimination is imperfect, the body tissues become altered, and there is developed within the fluids and tissues septic action…” (244)
Wood also says that echinacea is indicated for prostrated, exhausted and tired people, with or without poor work habits like working too hard then being exhausted (249). This makes sense, especially when I think of all the people who work hard and play hard, get sick, and then reach for the echinacea bottle.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Purple-hued wild indigo flower buds
A member of the pea family, wild indigo contains immuno- stimulating polysaccharides like echinacea (Mills, 273). I had a difficult time finding info about this herb in my references. Years ago, I tried it out after reading about it in the Herb Pharm herbal book. It seemed to align with what I was dealing with (skin problems, swollen lymph nodes, sluggish digestion). There was a little disclaimer on the bottom of the page, something to the tune of, “use sparingly and gradually increase dose, as it can cause headaches due to its strong alterative properties.”
It did help with the congestion, and I did develop headaches until I combined it with other gentler alternatives (burdock and dandelion).
“Wild indigo has beautiful green leaves and pods, which on ripening or injury, turn completely black. This plant was used for necrosis, gangrene, typhoid, putrid deterioration.” (Wood, p 26).
Wild indigo has been mentioned as useful as other alteratives are, in abscess, auto-immune disease, glandular fever, mumps, pelvic inflammation, pleurisy, and tonsillitis (Mills).
Figwort Scrophularia nodosa
Emerging figwort leaves
Figwort is an distinctive smelling member of the snapdragon family with delicate little purple-tinged yellow flowers. The purple-red color is seen on the stem, newly emerged leaves, and leaf tips. I have found it growing tall and lush in a big stand by a dirt road in a damp ditch. I first met it at Sage Mountain in Vermont. I liked it so much that I brought seeds home to spread in the garden, and now I have my own ankle-high stand of about six plants.
It is not a widely used herb; in fact it is barely mentioned in any herbals that I have. Nicholas Shnerr spoke highly of it as an alterative in his herbs for cleansing lecture at the Mid-America Herb Symposium of 2008, used with buckthorn, alder and echinacea as lymphatics. It is in what is know as Scudder’s Alterative, along with corydalis, yellow dock, black alder, and mayapple. He asked us if any of us have used figwort. I raised my hand and blurted, “I do! It smells so yummy”. The whole class stated to laugh; it turns out most everyone hates the smell of figwort but me; it was liked to “rotting meat” and a “dead skunk”. Personally, I think it smells delicious like buffalo meatloaf, or some other tender, wild meat.
I took my liking the supposedly un-likable smell as a sign and started to take a few drops of the tincture morning at night. Nothing notable changed, except a slight improvement in my digestion. Perhaps I’ll try it again.
Sometimes we need to follow our senses. One of the tasks at the herb shop was stocking bulk herbs. I was new to herbalism and didn’t know a lot of the plants or their uses. When I opened the shepherd’s purse jar to top it off, I fell in love with the smell, sticking my nose and inhaling long and deep as if it were the most exquisite, heavenly perfume. The herbalist laughed and said, “looks like someone needs to take some shepherd’s purse”. At the time I was experiencing a bout of heavy bleeding and spotting, which disappeared after a cups of shepherd’s purse tea. Incidentally, now I despise the sour, cabbage-like smell and taste of shepherd’s purse.
Mills says figwort is useful in cold-dampness of digestion as a warming eliminiative herb. It also conains saponins that are anti-inflammatory. Like it’s cousin foxglove, it contains a cardiac glycoside, but unlike foxglove, it’s glycoside is not potenitally toxic (139). As an alterative, it is decongesting to the glands and used for liver diseases, skin problems espeically eruptions with heat, and lymphatic stagnation with heat like hemorrhoids (Tierra, 187, Winston, 77). Winston combines figwort with self heal and red root to use for lipomas; which I’d like to try since I’ve only used chickweed for this.
Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem
Mills, Simon. The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine.
Scalzo, Richard and Michael Cronin. Traditional Medicines from the Earth.
Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology.
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom.
One thing I love about herbalism is that every herbalist has different herbs, practices and tactics that they favor. There is so many varieties and examples to learn from! Some seem to be more into tonics, others use simples (single herbs) in almost homeopathic dosages, but most all have specific remedies for symptoms while reiterating the need to support the body systems over the long term.
No matter how you look at it, suggested herbal formulas from trusted herbalists are a good place to start. They can also be used as guidelines when formulating for the individual. After going over a few examples from a few different herbalists, the beginning herbalist gains knowledge through researching the materia medica and action categories mentioned.
Let’s look at a few formulas to get some ideas, starting with some from Rosemary Gladstar. She reiterates that you should stick to an herbal program at least four months. Here is a “Hormonal Regulator Tea” from Herbal Healing for Woman, p 117. Decoct, and drink 3-4 cups for 3 weeks out of the month. As you can see, it is not simply herbs for the reproductive system. It offers much support for the liver, which has to process all the hormones circulating in the body, and supports the digestive system, inflammation, and enriches the blood.
- 1 part wild yam
- 1 part ginger
- 2 parts dandelion root (raw)
- 2 parts burdock root (raw)
- 2 parts licorice
- 2 parts sassafras
- 1 part yellow dock
- 1/4 vitex
It is also important to include sufficient calcium, as a low amount has been linked to cramping, as blood levels of calcium drop off 10 days before menstruation. Again, there are more than just calcium-rich herbs in here! There are nervines, blood and uterine tonics and emmenagogues. “High Calcium Tea” (p 118):
- 2 parts oatstraw
- 1 part horsetail
- 2 parts comfrey
- 2 parts nettle
- 4 parts peppermint
- 2 parts pennyroyal
- 4 parts raspberry leaf
For acute cramping, she recommends the following “Cramp-T”
- 1 part cramp bark or black haw
- 1 part pennyroyal
- 1 part valerian
- 1/2 part ginger
A tincture of valerian, about 1/2 teaspoon every twenty minuets until the pain decreases. Another handy remedy to have around is pennyroyal essential oil, to rub a few diluted drops on the abdomen during cramping. Please be cautions with pennyroyal essential oil and never take it internally, because it is extremely toxic internally.
Now let’s take a look at David Winston’s recommendations. In my last entry, I asked, “…I don’t know if all anodyne work on the same parts of the body…”. Well, Winston has cleared that up for me. Here is “Aspirea Compound” (32)
- willow bark
- meadowsweet herb
- St. John’s wort
- Jamaica dogwood
- indian pipe
It has anti-inflammatory herbs (willow, meadowsweet, St. John’s wort), Jamaica dogwood which is analgesic and antispasmodic which Winston says is “especially for dysmenorrhea…”, and indian pipe which “…creates a feeling of separation from the pain” (32). I have tried this formula for other types of pain with great success (tooth ache, back spasm), but have yet to use it for cramps. It is very relaxing.
“Full Moon – Woman’s Antispasmodic Compound”
- PA-Free Petasites root
- Black haw
- wild yam
- Jamaica dogwood
- cyperus root
- Roman chamomile flowers
Winston’s notes: for mild to severe dysmenorrhea and some of the accompanying symptoms, take acutely, not daily. Here we see lots of antispasmodics at work.
“J. Kloss Anti-spasmodic Compound” (p4 6)
- black cohosh
- skunk cabbage
This is an example of a classic formula that works well as is, or can be adapted to suit individual needs. I have seen and used a couple variations of this formula (Dr. Christopher has one), one with blue vervain, blue cohosh instead of myrrh and skunk cabbage for treating epilepsy in a dog (2 drops a day for 3 months) and a severe tension headache (1/4 teaspoon every hour), both times it worked great. In the later, I sipped miso soup to quell the nausea that came with the lobelia and vervain.
Here is one more set of examples from David Hoffmann’s Medical Herbalism from page 387 -8.
- black haw
- black cohosh
This is a basic formula that covers the many of the action categories mentioned in the last entry. All are antispasmodic, al are nervine, and black cohosh is uterine tonic. The dosage is 5mL of tincture as needed, so when pain is approaching and in full swing. If a woman has secondary dysmenorrhea caused by pelvic lesions (from endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease) the dosage is 5 mL of the following tincture taken three times a day, rather than just symptomatically:
- cramp bark
- wild yam
- black cohosh
Again, all herbs are antispasmodic, cramp bark and black cohosh are nervines with black cohosh being the uterine tonic.
One of my favorite things to do as a child was to scrounge for Blackberries. Even though I lived in smack dab in the middle of town, it was easy enough to find the thimble-sized deep purple berries in the patches of woods scattered around the river town. Once I wrote in my diary in the summer after 4th grade, “Today I had Blackberries for lunch and Honeysuckle [Columbine] for desert”. Ah, the sweet life of a 10 year old…
Blackberries are still my favorite berry, though I am also partial to Blueberries. While I was reading over my notes from my internship in Vermont this fall, I came across a tidbit about Blackberry. It was from a wonderfully informative Saturday class taught by Micki called “Using Plants to Heal the Earth.”
“Blackberries keep people back! Brambles are seen in area of development; warrior plants that protect the impeded ecosystem from more mindless invasion. They are pioneers, creating fungal soil as woody plants do, making the soil hospitable to forests if they ever grow back.”
A good friends noted that Portland, OR is full of extremely thorny Blackberries, making it impossible to navigate through the woody areas. Now I know why they are there. I love it that more and more I am seeing plants as keepers of the earth. Each has a purpose or few. They can tell us about the ecosystem and the soil. We can stop fighting them in our gardens and lawns and start thanking them for their hard work.
There are few plants that I don’t welcome into my backyard garden now, especially since my beds are very new. One exception: I am not too crazy about brassicas in my garden, they grow too well and crowd out other plants. The plants that naturally grow in my beds that were sod for decades prior help me in two ways. First they tell me about the quality of my soil. Second, the “weeds” work to make the soil more hospitable. I wonder what the mustard says about my soil…any ideas?
The Dandelions, Burdocks and Mulleins break up the compacted soil, calling in nutrients from deep down with their taproots. I have heard that Daikon radishes also can do the same trick as Burdock, both send roots down around 15 feet. If I feel the Dandelions are getting out of hand, I cut off their flower heads before they can spread. I am so excited to have a second-year Mullein to watch over my garden this summer and provide food (their seeds) for the birds in the fall. Quack Grass metabolizes Calcium that may be in my soil by tied up (chemically unavailable). Upon Micki’s suggestion, to aid in getting rid of the rhizomeous grass, I have mulched with Comfrey (a great source of Calcium) gathered from the neighborhood patch.
In my back yard, Ground Ivy (or as Minnesotans say, “Creeping Charlie”) has proliferated into a stunning carpet of purple when it flowers. Ground Ivy is wonderful at absorbing lead and other heavy metals in our body and in our yards; funny how the more my neighbor sprays chemical pesticides in his lawn the more Ground Ivy grows in my lawn! At the end of the season, I pull it out and put it in the trash; I suspect it is full of toxic chemicals and can’t muster up the nerve to compost it.
Some of the volunteers in my garden beds are great edibles: crunchy Purslane and Lambs Quarters, one of my favorite steamed greens. Chickweed grows under the shade of the red maple in the front yard, and Forget-me-nots line the cracks in the pavement. Even Plantains growing in the cracks are trying to their job of breaking up soil. I don’t use a lot of the plants in my yard for eating and medicine because of they grow too close to the driveway (or in the driveway), I value them because I feel that part of their life is creating a healthier environment. I have realized my role as a gardener is to facilitate.