Meeting New (and old) Plants – Midsummers’ Wonder

July 22nd, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

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…

Four Purple Alteratives

May 31st, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The herbs in this entry share at least two commonalities, they are alteratives and they are purple-tinged. Coincidence?  I think not.

As I have mentioned earlier, I am enthralled with action categories. Alteratives were the first action category I learned, well before I even knew there were such things as herbal actions. We became aquatinted because I needed them; I had suffered from recurring bouts of strep throat and tonsillitis with an inflamed and sore throat and swollen glands for the better part of a year. To top it off, I had developed acne at the age of 19 after having a clear complexion up until then. The herbalist in my town made me a root tea with yellow dock, echinacea, oregon grape, burdock, dandelion, barberry and some others. After a while I was on the road to recovery.

“Although independent pharmacological activities in these areas [alteratives] have been observed, most the herbal remedies used for such problems almost certainly work to change the environment so as to depress such pathological disturbances as much as to directly attack pathogens or malignancy.” (Mills, 486).

In general, aleratives promotes elimination, detoxifying, cleansing, acting on the liver, lymph, blood used often to treat chronic and acute skin diseases, joint problems, and may work against infection and immune problems. Of course, not all alteratives are purple-tinged. Matthew Wood writes on the color’s significance:

“Purple, indigo, lavender, and purple-red usually indicate low-grade, septic toxic heat and fever. When the stalk is red or purple-red we often have a plant which will pull out toxic heat, detoxify the interior, perhaps working through the portal vein and often the liver.”

Burdock Arctium lappa

Burdock's purple-lined stems

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow figwort flowers on a purple-red stem

References:

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with figwort at Dandelion Revolution.