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…

Vinegar – Medicine from the Pantry

September 20th, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

oxymelEven herbalists can get into a rut. We don’t see little bottles of vinegar extractions lining shelves at health food/herb stores, so we generally don’t make them at home, either. Vinegar, being made from and still containing plant matter, naturally decomposes over time. Vinegar tinctures last about 2 years, while alcohol preparations last almost indefinitely. As James Green reiterates, when we are making herbs at home, we generally do so in small batches so there is no particular reason we should not employ vinegar tinctures on a more regular basis.

For years, vinegar was the official menstrum in mainstream pharmacy. Then in the early 1900′s it was replaced by ethyl alcohol. At that time, medicine was quite heroic, and using the strongest, biggest and baddest (because they were sometimes toxic) medicines and treatments was the norm. It was all but goodbye to food-based menstrums like vinegar, alcohol, honey and sugar, and oils as medical knowledge was becoming possessed by the “official” medical community.

Green reminds us that when herbal medicine experienced a resurgence in the 1960′s – 1970′s, the budding herbalists took on where the 1920′s pharmacopoeia left off; that is with using strong alcohol extractions rather than using food-based menstrums. Not to say that alcoholic tinctures are a bad thing; just that herbalists may have overlooked viable options.

More non-alcoholic medicine-making appeals to me on many levels, least of not for the fact that grain alcohol is not widely available (I have to drive to Wisconsin to get it, as it is not sold in Minnesota) and is more costly than even the most expensive bottle of apple cider vinegar. Many households have vinegar on hand anyways, so it’s truly medicine from the pantry.

Back to vinegar. Look on the bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, and you will find a paragraph of vinegars’ health benefits and history of use. It has been along for, well, as long as anyone can remember. It was used by Hippocrates, Galen, and steeped in uses by common people though the ages.  Green sums up vinegar’s benefits (179):

  • Pure vinegar is non-toxic and can be tolerated by everyone, young and old
  • It is a digestive tonic, helps regulates the acid/alkaline balance
  • High in minerals (dilute or add honey to make it go down smoother for daily use)
  • Non-alcoholic, for those who want/need a break from traditional tinctures

Medicinally, vinegar is warming but still has an refridgerant effect as it evaporates off the skin, quells thirst and promotes saliva. Green says it has a quality that “alleviates restlessness”, as well as “promotes secretions of the kidneys and respiratory mucous membranes” (181). Topically, vinegar is antiseptic and astringent so use for deodorant, to relieve inflammation, itching, allergic rashes and sunburn. Rosemary Gladstar once joked that her grandfather said her grandmother smelled like a salad dressing from slathering olive oil on her skin and using vinegar hair rinses. Indeed, it is cleansing, toning and conditioning to the skin and hair.

Vinegar combines with other herbs that augment the medicinal attributes it already has. Add to it expectorant herbs, or astringents for internal or external use. A bit of cayenne makes vinegar a wonderful liniment for aches and pains. Where vinegar really shines as a menstrum is for extracting alkaloids, which water and alcohol do not do as well. When alkaloid-containing herbs (lobelia, goldenseal, bloodroot, black walnut are a few) are macerated in vinegar, the acetic acid from the vinegar causes an alkaloid salt to be formed, making it readily available (179).

Although I have tried oxymels, I figured it was high time to make one for my household. Oxymels are a mixture of vinegar and honey, combining sweet and sour to create an invigorating and balanced blend. The simplest type of oxymels is by stirring a tablespoon of vinegar in a tablespoon of honey, then diluted in a cup of warm water. This simple remedy is known to balance the acid-alkaline balance in the body and is employed as a daily tonic. Here is the oxymel that I made, from I recipe I wrote down from a 2006 lecture:

oxymel-herbsTeresa Broadwine’s Onion Thyme Oxymel (with my own addition of anise)

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 16 0z apple cider vinegar
  • 2 T thyme
  • 2 T fennel seeds
  • 2 T anise seeds
  • 2 T oregano
  • 2 cups honey

Bring all but the honey to a boil, then simmer covered for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, strain and press herbs, and add honey while it is still warm. When would one take this oxymel? You guessed it: cold and flu season, especially for chest colds of all kinds. I added the anise to assist the herbs in expectoration; it’s one of my favorites for thinning and bringing up congesting phlegm.

There are endless varieties of oxymels, so add in herbs that suit your individual needs. The above recipe could replace onions with garlic for extra anti-microbial action, or an addition of black peppercorns and mustard seeds for more warming actions (as vinegar is cooling, see ). James Green says that the basic ratio of vinegar to honey is roughly 1:3, or 1 cup vinegar to 3/4 pounds honey, although I have had some with equal parts honey to vinegar and they seemed to work just fine. Perhaps the larger amount of honey serves for added preservation.

Lobelia oxymel – from Dr. William Cook  for dry, irritable coughs, lung congestion

  • dried lobelia herb
  • apple cider vinegar
  • honey

Place lobelia (preferably dried) in a jar and cover with apple cider vinegar and steep for 2 weeks. Strain, mix with honey in the proportion of ¾ pound honey to 1 cup vinegar. Place in a water bath, until the mixture is like thin molasses, bottle and refrigerate (246). As you can see, there are no set measurements for materials, so adjust quantities to your needs. Dose as needed for coughs.

Jam’s Green’s Poison Oak Lotion

  • 1 part mugwort
  • 1 part horsetail
  • apple cider vinegar
  • salt

Make a strong decoction of 1 part mugwort and 1 part horsetail. To 2 parts of this liquid, add 1 part apple cider vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon salt per cup, bottle, label, and store in the fridge. Apply externally often (184).

For more info on oxymels, visit The Medicine Woman’s Roots, this site, and the Art of Drink, which give a recipe for switchel.

Referances:

Green, James.

Broadwine, Teresa.

Example Formulas for Dysmenorrhea

April 18th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

    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 wortSt. Johns 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
    • myrrh
    • skullcap
    • skunk cabbage
    • lobelia
    • cayenne

    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
    • skullcap
    • 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.

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