Root Medicine: Solomon’s Seal

Helooooo.

So, let’s talk about Solomon’s Seal.

This is a plant that has really been on my mind lately, and now is actually a great time to harvest it. So here we go.

I first met Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum multiflorum, when I was just a wee little ruddy bairn poking around in the woods by my house. I was really enchanted by this elegant, bowing plant with small white flowers blooming all along the underside. It seemed very special to me.

Sadly, my field guides back then said it was toxic, so I just admired it from afar and refrained from eating its beautiful dark berries. I kept an eye out for it though, and was always happy to see it return in the spring.

When I started studying herbalism, I came across Solomon’s Seal in Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom.

Needless to say, I was excited.

It turns out that while the berries of Solomon’s Seal are rumored to be toxic (I’ve heard conflicting reports), the rest of the plant is not. In fact, it’s one of the most incredible medicines we have.

Solomon’s Seal is a herbaceous perennial that grows throughout most of North America (though not in the west). It has an arching stem with alternate leaves and produces white flowers that bloom all along the underside of the plant. In late summer and fall the flowers are replaced by juicy, almost black berries. It spreads by starchy rhizomes, and the leaves turn yellow in autumn. I always find it growing in the rich soil of deciduous forests.

When the stem of the plant dies and comes apart from the root in late fall, it leaves an intricate little mark that looks like a seal. It’s thought that this is in part where the plants gets its name; Solomon, the wise king from the Bible, became associated with magic over the years, and is said to have had his own divine seal for communicating and dealing with spirits.

The latin name, Polygonatum, means “many jointed”. When looking at the roots of this plant, it’s easy to see why; the white, knobby rhizomes strongly resemble joints or bones. This is perhaps the perfect example of the doctrine of signatures; Solomon’s Seal root is used primarily to treat issues regarding the muskuloskeletal system – bones, joints, ligaments and tendons.

 

When a ligament is too loose, this plant will help to tighten it up. If it is too tight and dry, it will lubricate and loosen it. When used in conjunction with other herbs, it can help to restore cartilage in painful, busted joints and aid in the healing of bones. If you have stiff, creaky joints, bone spurs, a tight, crackly back, hyperextended tendons, or even sprains and deep bruises, this is a plant you should make friends with.

The exact mechanism for how Solomon’s Seal works is still unknown, but jim mcdonald has a theory that it acts on the synovial, or spinal, fluid, and helps to regulate it throughout the body.

I’m not sure how it works either, but I do know that it helps with my creaky back, which was bent and bowed by many years of physics homework, stress, and being miserable and hunchy while sitting at various desks. Hm, the stem of the plant does sort of bend over and hunch…makes sense! I’ve also used the tincture topically on foot injuries (I’m a runner/hiker with long bony weirdo feet…issues tend to come up), and noticed an immediate lessening of the pain and increased flexibility.

This year, I spent a lot of time with Solomon’s Seal. I searched my property, and then the woods for it, and when I found patches of it, I would dig around and carefully harvest a part of the strange, gnarly rhizome. I was enchanted by it, honestly, and for days my mind kept drifting to the dark earthy world of those bone-white roots.

One night, as I was falling asleep, I had a half-dream. I saw the roots again very clearly in my mind. Each year, Solomon’s Seal grows a new section of rhizome, sends up a plant from it, and then leaves behind a seal. By midsummer, next year’s section is already beginning to grow, even as the plant is flowering. The old sections of the root remain connected to the plant and continue to nourish it all its life. I understood that this was a message this plant has for us; our past is always with us, nourishing us, and we are always actively creating our future by the decisions we make. I felt suspended between my ancestors and my descendants, a link in the chain. Time goes on and stretches out in both directions – we should honor our past and pay attention to the future we are making for ourselves and our children.

Anyway, enough of my weird musings.

When harvesting this plant, it’s extremely important to do it sustainably. Solomon’s Seal, while not endangered, isn’t a very abundant plant, and if it were to grow in popularity, it would be easy for it to become depleted. Always make sure you are harvesting in an area with a healthy population, and take only what you need. I was going to try to describe how exactly to harvest the root in writing, but instead I just decided to go out and make a quick video about it instead:

So yep there you go, awkward video.

ANYWAY.

I hope you’ll take the time to get to know this plant. It’s often overlooked in western herbalism, but I believe it’s a really wonderful, valuable, powerful ally.

References:

The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood

Solomon’s Seal by jim mcdonald

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sweet Leaf (Monarda)

I’ve come to believe that if you are open to it, plants will come into your life when they are needed. Or when you are ready to understand them. Most recently for me, this plant is Monarda fistulosa.

Until this summer, it was not an herb I was familiar with; we had just never crossed paths. I knew next to nothing about it until a muggy, rainy afternoon a few weeks ago.

I had been feeling particularly wound up that day, my worries churning around in my head, and I had an unsettled feeling in my gut which was actually beginning to manifest as a sharp ache. After I finished my work for the day, I had come out to the fields hoping to calm my mind, get some fresh air, and be with the plants. Usually that works like a charm, but not this time.

I was in a bitch mood, frankly, and nothing could change that. I trudged broodingly down grassy lanes and around wide, open wetlands, glowering at the now-drooping heads of catnip, scowling at withered stalks of mullein.

But then, suddenly, I came upon a big patch of purple, raggedy headed flowers peering out from an overbearing stand of jewelweed and stopped in my tracks. Monarda! There were bees everywhere, zipping frantically from flower to flower. The strong, spicy scent of the blossoms filled the air.

I took a few snips from that first patch, and as I continued on my hike, I found more and more of it. It seemed to be everywhere; it had completely surrounded a small pond, where hummingbirds were flitting around in a freakout of joy. I easily filled up a small paper bag with the fragrant flowers, thinking I would make a tincture, a salve, and still have enough left to dry and use in tea.

Driving home, I saw it everywhere, dotting the green fields with patches of soft purple. I don’t know how I missed it at first; I must have been really caught up in my own thoughts.

By the time I got back to my house, I had again sunk into the depths of bitchery. The world was a shithole from my perspective that day. I could feel acid in my stomach.

This seems dramatic I’m sure, but understand that I’m an Irish-German redhead with a Physics degree and unresolved issues from my younger life. Just think about that a bit.

After storming pointlessly around my kitchen for a while, I went out to my porch to sort through the herbs I’d gathered and lay them out to dry. The monarda smelled so delicious and looked so appealing that I decided to make a tea from it. I popped two of the fresh flower heads into my cup and let them steep for a good 15-20 minutes.

After I finished up with the rest of the herbs, I took my cup of tea outside, sat down, and stared hatefully into the trees.

A few sips into that delicious brew, something happened. The world actually looked brighter. It was like my senses were sharper. The leaves were sooo pretty and green, and after the morning’s dark skies, I noticed that it had cleared up, and patches of blue were showing. There were birds singing in the grape vines. I felt the heat leaving my head, my stomach. The acid went away, the ache in my gut stopped, my muscles relaxed. I was like an overheated engine cooling down. The world was not shit after all.

Monarda had drawn all that heat of anger out of me and helped me to see clearly again.

After my great experience with monarda, I looked through all the herbals on my shelf to find out more about it. The only one in which I found monarda was Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom.

Honestly, his entry about Monarda is so fascinating and detailed that I encourage everyone to read it in his book (and indeed to invest in a copy of it if you’re studying herbalism). But I’ll attempt a much simplified summary of what I learned about it.

Monarda fistulosa, also commonly known as bee balm, Oswego tea, horsemint, or wild bergamot, is a gorgeous, richly scented member of the mint family. It has distinctive purple flowers and a rich, warm scent due to its high amount of volatile oils.

Wood refers to this plant as Sweet Leaf, the name given to it by Native American practitioners, who understand this plant deeply and have been using it since long before white men ever set foot on this continent. I too now think of that as it’s real name.

Not one of the more popular herbs, Sweet Leaf  is at times overlooked outside of Native American medicine. 

Sweet Leaf is indicated for drawing out all kinds of heat. When chewed (and therefore mixed with saliva), it can take the sting out of a sunburn and speed the healing of the skin.

Taken internally, it will draw out internal heat. Its diaphoretic action brings down fever and reduces internal inflammation, especially in the digestive tract, the kidneys and urinary tract, and the lungs.

Because of its antibacterial properties, it is useful in treating bladder and yeast infections. In fact, Wood reports success when using it against chronic candida overgrowth, which, among other things, could very well be a main cause of leaky gut. Wood explains that excess yeasts in the digestive tract could hold open the tiny pores in the walls of the intestines, allowing microscopic pathogens to escape and causing the associated symptoms.

Sweet Leaf is also deeply repairing and calming to the nerves, which can be an aid to the digestive system in itself. Indeed, Wood believes that this plant can help people on such a deep level that it allows them to appreciate their surroundings and the beauty of natural world much more.

When I had that first cup of Sweet Leaf infusion, I knew only that it was a great herb to try for relieving tension. The fact that I experienced many of the benefits discussed above, without knowing exactly what I should be experiencing, verifies for me that the assertions made about this herb are true.

It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life, and I’m so grateful to have it as part of my medicine cabinet now (well, technically it’s now an overflowing, semi-disorganized closet). Since that first harvest, I’ve used it a number times for tension, digestive upset, and as a general mood booster, and it’s never let me down.

So…you should go get some! Although it’s a bit late in the season, there are still many patches of Sweet Leaf blooming.

To harvest it, just look for a healthy patch and snip off the top third of the plant. I find it to be equally good fresh or dried as a tea, with just a couple of sprigs to a cup making a really tasty and relaxing drink. I have yet to test my tincture and oil, as they are still brewing, but I have high hopes!

Because of it’s similarity to oregano, Sweet Leaf can also be used in cooking. It would be excellent in soups, pastas and rolls. I’m going to try it on a homemade pizza next!

Sweet Leaf is such a gentle herb with so many uses that I believe no home should be without it. I hope you’ll gather some, spend time with it, and experience for yourself the gifts of this plant.

 

 

Lughnasadh (and Mooncakes Recipe!)

When I woke up this morning, I noticed right away the that light was a bit different. A little more slanted, shining a bit more from the south.

Today is Lughnasadh, the day that marks the end of the summer and the beginning of a new season. The light is indeed beginning to change. Soon the streets will be covered in yellow leaves, the sky will turn a deep cobalt October blue, and wood smoke will drift through the chilly mountain air.

Also known as Lammas, (old anglo-saxon for “loaf-mass”), Lughnasadh is a feast day, a celebration of the ripe fruits of summer and of the first harvest. It’s a day to pay homage to the sun god, Lugh, and the bounties brought by his bright summer light.

Soon.

But now, it’s  time to start contemplating the coming darkness, the approach of winter. It’s a time to be thankful for the long languid days we have left and to make plans for the dark months ahead. Just thinking of winter makes me that much more grateful for the sultry, warm, green summer life I’m currently living.

In many old Celtic and English traditions, a bread was baked on Lughnasadh to celebrate the grains of the first harvest. My interpretation of that tradition is to make honey cakes, or what I like to call Mooncakes.

My sister and I first started making these when we were but wee young druids; I’m not even sure where the original recipe came from, to be honest. We used to whip them up on full moons during the summer, or sometimes on Halloween.

These little cakes have a sweet, earthy flavor and a hearty texture. Really, they have quite an eldritch feel about them; whenever I make them, the rich scents of honey and cinnamon fill the kitchen and I like to imagine that this same recipe was once cooked up in a much older kitchen, in a time long, long ago. A little clay-walled kitchen, with all kinds of herbs drying and medicines brewing on little wooden shelves. Sigh. I need to make my kitchen more like that. Life goals!

Anyway, here is how to make these wonderful special enchanting cakes:

Mooncakes

Ingredients:

2 cups flour (I use whole wheat but white is just fine too)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

A little white sugar, for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a muffin tin.

Mix the flour, cinnamon, and baking soda together in a medium bowl; set aside.

Cream together the butter and brown sugar. Separate the egg, reserving the white in a small bowl, and mix the yolk into the butter and sugar mixture.

Gradually add the honey to the sugar mixture until well combined and smooth.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with a little milk, until everything is well combined.

Whisk the egg white into a stiff foam (it should hold soft peaks). Pro tip: this can be done by hand, but it takes approximately 37 years. Using an electric mixer will only take liiiike a minute. So I recommend putting on whisk attachments and doing that.

When the egg white has reached the desired consistency, gently fold it into the batter with a wooden spoon or spatula.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and sprinkle with a bit of white sugar.

Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Of course, if you have some kind of excellent awesome outdoor cooking situation, do that 100%. I feel like these won’t be at their full potential unless they are cooked on a flat rock or in some sort of super-rustic stone oven. They need to be slightly charred to feel really authentic, I think. Someday I’m going to achieve this. Sigh. More life goals!

Anyway, once the cakes are out of the oven, give them a few minutes to cool down.

Now all you have to do is take your bounty to a lovey spot, relax, and contemplate the blessings of summer while stuffing your face.

Oh, and these are great plain, but adding a little butter and jam is fantastic too!

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Mugwort

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, is an herb that grows widely in the northeast. To some, it’s a pesky weed, cropping up in gardens and clogging roadsides.

But, as with most weeds, if you get to know it you’ll realize how valuable it is to have around!

Mugwort is part of the asteracea family (the same as dandelion, chamomile, and many other familiar plants…it’s a big family!). The leaves are deeply lobed, alternate, and pale as moonlight underneath. Both the undersides of the leaves and the stem are covered in a soft fuzzy down. The stems can appear reddish.

In my experience, mugwort can grow up to about 8 feet tall. It blooms from July to the end of summer, producing tiny white flowers. The whole plant has a delicious, spicy scent, and the leaves are very tasty (and a tad bitter).

Lore and Spiritual Uses 

Mugwort definitely has a rich history! An herb of protection, it was said to guard travelers, keeping them safe from illness, weariness, evil spirits and wild animals. It was believed that putting it in the soles of shoes kept one’s feet from getting sore and tired. Roman soldiers reportedly used it this way, and the Mongols rubbed it into their sore feet and legs after a long day in the saddle. The Saxons considered it one of the most important healing herbs, and there is an old Polish superstition that a woman wishing to conceive should gather mugwort from nine different fields to increase her fertility. Traditionally, wreaths and garlands of it were worn on Midsummer’s eve for protection and blessings during the coming seasons.

Native Americans burned mugwort as a smudge to clear the air of bad spirits, much in the same way sage is used (in fact many of the smudge sticks sold in stores are made of a variety of Artemesia that grows in the desert out west). To make a smudge stick, simply cut a few lengths from the tallest plants, hang them to dry, and then bind them with a cotton string. The smoke is bit more acrid and earthy than sage, but very pleasing.

Traditionally, mugwort has also been used in meditation and in scrying. It can help you connect to astral planes and get in touch with your subconscious. Placing a little pouch filled with dried mugwort under your pillow at night will give you lucid, even prophetic dreams.

Here’s my own weird story about mugwort:

When I first moved into my house a couple of autumns ago, I felt a dark, shadowy sort of energy hanging around. When I burned sage it would dissipate for a while, but eventually I would feel it return (especially when I would come back to the house after a few days away). In the spring, I went through a period where I was having terrible nightmares. I would wake up in a cold sweat and feel chilled to the bone. Finally, a man came to me in one of the dreams and told me very clearly to cut a sprig of mugwort and hang it over my bed for protection. When you get a straightforward message like that in a dream, it’s a good idea to listen! So, the next day I hung a bundle of mugwort from a hook over the head of my bed. The bad dreams stopped and I felt the energy lighten considerably. I have since taken to burning mugwort almost daily, and I let it grow wherever it wants around the outside of my house, like a protective ring.

Medicinal and Practical Uses

Medicinally, mugwort is an emmetic, a cholagogue, a hemostatic, a vermifuge, a diaphoretic, an anti-spasmodic and a mild narcotic.

Because of it’s bitter taste, it makes a great digestive aid. A few leaves sprinkled in a salad can get the digestive juices going  and give the liver a boost. I like to take the young plants and add them to a jar of apple cider vinegar. After letting that sit for about six weeks, I strain out the plants and use it as a delicious, mineral-rich dressing.

Young mugwort leaves like these are perfect for eating or adding to a vinegar.

Mugwort is an herb of the moon and of women. Artemesia is named for Artemis, after all, a protector of women and the goddess of herbalists. Medicinally, it is indicted in cases where a woman’s menses are scanty, irregular, and painful. Mugwort can alleviate cramps and allows blood to flow. Old midwives used it to ease labor and encourage the delivery of the placenta. It can even out a woman’s cycle and bring on a period which is late (for this reason, western herbalists do not usually recommend using mugwort during pregnancy).

A tea of the leaves can be taken before bed to help with insomnia and restlessness (and like the little pouch of dried herb, may induce some interesting dreams). It can also be smoked for this purpose. Because of its calming and anti-spasmodic effects, it has also been used in the treatment of epilepsy.

In Chinese medicine, dried mugwort is rolled into downy little cones called moxa and burned over acupuncture points (this is called moxabustion) to relax muscles, increase bloodflow, and ultimately ease pain.

Mugwort is also good at keeping bugs (especially moths) away. Throwing some in a campfire, or burning smudge bundles in an outdoor area can really help with the mosquito situation. I sometimes make a big pot of mugwort tea and use it to clean my counter tops and floors in order to deter ants and other little bugs from exploring my kitchen. Dried leaves made into a powder would make a great carpet and mattress sprinkle to discourage fleas, too.

Overall, you should think yourself lucky if you have mugwort growing around your house! It’s protective, tasty, medicinally useful, and even wards off pests. Go out and make friends with mugwort!

References:

The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra

A Druids Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year by Ellen Evert Hopman

Herbalpedia: Mugwort

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go to Sleep Tea

Sometimes the nicest way to come down from a stressful day is a hot cup of herbal tea. Sitting quietly with a warm mug, and maybe lighting a candle or two, makes it easy to pause, organize your thoughts, and settle your mind for sleep.

Usually, a nice cup of chamomile is all I need to completely relax (by the end of the cup, I’m falling asleep right where I’m sitting), but sometimes a stronger effort is needed. When my mind is particularly busy, my muscles are aching, or I’m just generally feeling out of sorts, I step up my evening tea blend by adding a few other calming herbs to the mix.

Here is my secret (but obviously not so secret) and most reliable blend to wind down and get a good night’s sleep:

Chamomile

Passionflower

Catnip or Lemon Balm

Lavender

Skullcap

Chamomile is a wonderfully soothing herb that promotes a general sense of calm and ease. It can also quiet an upset stomach (I’m looking at you, people who just ate an unacceptably huge bowl of pasta for dinner and did not hesitate to chase it with a chocolate bar).

Passionflower helps to quiet the mind, ease minor anxiety, and slow those revolving, nagging thoughts (I have to find that paperwork tomorrow! What did Linda mean when she said my ankles looked different? Maybe I’ll start a subsistence farm in Argentina, yeah, that’s how I’m going to really get my life started!! Ankles paperwork Argentina ankles ankles ankles…)

I use catnip when I primarily need to calm down and stop caring so much. It’s a very chillaxing, soothing herb. I add lemon balm when I need to chill out and need a bit of a mood boost – it’s legendary for bringing on a better state of mind.

Lavender is a matter of taste – some people love it, others can’t stand it! I find it very calming. I add it when I want to feel kind of fancy/pretend I’m in the French countryside, with like little white ducks roaming around and ornate wrought iron garden tables and grapes growing everywhere and stuff.

Skullcap is a very relaxing nervine that is also useful for pain relief. I like to add it in when I’m feeling a little irritable from a headache or tight muscles.

Hops or milky oats would be a nice addition as well – I would use these in cases where there is a feeling of being so overtired that your nerves are completely frayed and you feel like you need a long, deep sleep or your heart is just GOING TO STOP BEATING.

Mix about a teaspoon of each herb together in a bowl (you can skip this step of course…I just happen to have a really beautiful bowl and it feels special to mix the herbs in it).

Add the herbs to your infuser/mug, cover with boiling water and let steep for at least 15 minutes.

It might seem a little silly to give actual instructions for making a cup of tea, but hear me out.

Most tea packets or bags contain a small about of herb and will tell you to steep for 5-10 minutes. While this is great if you just want a tasty drink, you won’t get the full benefit of the medicine in the herbs.

I like to use at least a tablespoon of herbs to a mug (a whole big handful to a pot!), and I let it sit at least 20-30 minutes. Depending on the herb and what I need it for, I may let it sit an hour or four.

After you’ve let your infusion steep and cool down a bit, strain the herbs, head to the couch or your favorite chair, wrap your hands around the warm mug, and let yourself relax!

Wild Multiflora Rose

A few weeks ago, I started noticing the white blossoms of Multiflora rose everywhere. Lining streets, standing alone in meadows, dipping down over lakes, in my dreams…EVERYWHERE. Multiflora is a scrappy, persistent invasive, so it’s not at all surprising for it to be so prolific.

Multiflora is definitely not the most popular rose to use for medicine. The eye-catching Rugosa, for one, outshines the tiny white petals of Multiflora with its deep pink flowers and intoxicating scent. And yet, although it isn’t as showy and popular as its wild sisters, Multiflora still has medicine to offer. Because they are so plentiful and easily accessible, I think it’s a great idea to work more with these roses.

Energetically, roses are cooling and astringent. They’re a good choice for hot, damp conditions and will help to tone and tighten lax tissues (this is what makes rosewater and rose creams such lovely skin potions). They are great at helping wounds heal, getting the blood moving, cooling inflammation (especially in the gut), fighting infection, and last but definitely not least, they are a relaxing nervine and tonic for both the physical and emotional heart.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? Think of how you feel when you see a rose. It’s really uplifting, and a little comforting, right? And the smell…how could that not cheer you up and make you feel little calmer? Just being around the flowers, harvesting them and making medicines with them has a healing value in itself.

After traipsing around my neighborhood one pretty evening last week to gather them, I spread my big bag of rose flowers, leaves and stems out on my table and got a few jars and ingredients ready.

I decided to make a glycerite, an elixir, and a few oils. To make all of these, you simply fill a jar with rose flowers, leaves and stems, and then cover with the menstruum. For the glycerite, I added around 12 oz of vegetable glycerine and 3 oz of water to a pint jar (about 80% to 20%).

Rose glycerite.

I used the same ratio to make the elixir (12-13 oz brandy, 3-4oz honey… you can tweak the ratios depending on how sweet you want it to be). To make the oils, you simply fill the jar to the brim with the oil of your choice. I made three jars of oil: sweet almond, olive, and apricot. The olive will be great to use in a healing salve, and I plan to make super-luxurious face creams with the almond and apricot!

Keep the glycerite and elixir in a cool place out of direct sunlight for 6 weeks, shaking around about once a day, before straining and bottling. Put the oils out in the warm sun for the same amount of time, shaking often to prevent mold (check out my post about sun brewing oils here).

In just a few weeks you’ll have a variety of useful, beautiful medicines to heal your wounds and strengthen your heart!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Litha

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Today is Litha, also called Alban Hefin in the Druid tradition, the day when the sun is at it’s most powerful, riding right through the center of the sky and combing its golden fingers through the trees.

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Everything has reached its peak; the flowers are fully bloomed, the grass is growing tall, and the baby birds of spring have fledged their nests. It’s hard to believe that from this point onward, the days will begin to shorten and we will begin our long journey into the dark part of the year.

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Even if you’re not planning to go full-Druid and put on a white robe and dance around a fire doing complex rituals to celebrate the crowning of the Sun King by the Goddess, take a moment to bask in the glow of summer. (I would totally do the white robe thing if I had one! Or if I knew what I was doing…)

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The solstices are a time to pause and reflect on where we are in the circle of the year, to reconnect with the earth and with ourselves and feel gratitude for what we have. Drink some iced tea on your porch, harvest your herbs, cook a beautiful summer meal. Look around at all the green, drink it in, let your heart expand in the long light of the sun, and enjoy being alive!

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Nettle Spanakopita

Here in the Northeast, it’s been raining a LOT. We’ve had only a few clear days in the past couple of months. The forests are cloaked in an ever-present fog, the trees half-shrouded and bowing under the weight of the clinging mist.

The ferns are especially happy in the rain.

It’s been like a long, intensive training session for people who are thinking of moving to a rain forest.

A native elderberry, sambucus canadensis, soaking up the mist.

After a brief spell of frustration and sadness at not seeing the sun EVER, I decided to just embrace the rain and be outside anyway. The cool, wet forest has is it’s own kind of charm after a while. The leaves shine with water droplets and the whole landscape takes on an ancient, dreamlike quality. It’s easier to melt into the green world. You can feel it humming and drinking and growing, its gratitude for rain.

Water droplets on a jewelweed leaf.

That said, I was really excited when the sun came out one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Margaret was visiting and we decided to take advantage of the brief moment of clear skies and go out to harvest nettle.

Some clouds still lingering…

The birds and tree frogs were taking advantage of the break in the weather too – everything was singing.

This Grey Tree Frog was singing in a Honeysuckle bush.

The nettles had grown really fast from all the rain – we easily filled up my backpack with the fresh greens.

Luna was so happy to be out in the sun!

We had no plans for dinner that night, so we decided to try making nettle spanakopita. Spanakopita is is essentially leafy greens, cheese, and seasoning wrapped up and baked into phyllo dough triangles. They’re really easy to make and a great way to get in a serving or two of greens. Nettle is especially high in vitamins and minerals – eating them can give you a major energy boost. Plus, they’re really tasty!

I’d seen a few recipes for Spanakopita that used nettle before and we had a pretty good idea of how to make them, so we sort of came up with our own version – they turned out really well, so I decided to share our recipe!

Nettle Spanakopita

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked nettle greens (this is about 6 cups uncooked)

2 tbsp + 1 tsp olive oil

12 oz feta cheese

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 can sliced olives (we used black, but I think either green or kalamata would be delicious too!)

1 roll phyllo pastry, thawed

1 tbsp lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 F.

After washing the nettle, give it a rough chop. Add it to a pan of boiling water and cook until very tender, about 5 minutes. Strain, and add the nettle to a bowl. Let it cool a bit.

Meanwhile, mince the garlic and saute over medium-high heat in 1 tsp of olive oil until fragrant and slightly browned, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic, feta, olive oil, lemon juice, olives, salt and pepper to the nettle and mix well.

On a clean surface, lay out a single sheet of phyllo dough, brush lightly with olive oil, and add another sheet on top. Slice the dough into three long rectangles.

Next, add about 1/4 cup of the nettle mixture to a lower corner of the pastry. Fold in repeating triangles all the way to the top of the dough, then seal with a little more oil. Repeat until all the filling is used up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Place triangles on a lined baking sheet and cook for 15-20 minutes until the phyllo is golden brown.

Let cool slightly and serve. Enjoy!

 

Wild Spring Edibles

The other day, as Ian and I were driving over to the next town, we saw a man wading through the weeds on the side of the road. He stood with his hands on his hips and looked down absently at the greenery around his feet. His clothes were a little dirty, his hair longish and curly. His truck was parked crookedly on the other side of the road. He seemed a bit mental.

“Probably a herbalist. Or a forager,” I said. Because that’s sort of the only two types of people who will abruptly pull over on the side of the road to investigate a plant they thought they saw while speeding past.

Foragers, herbalists and birders are extremely dangerous to drive behind. We’re not really ever looking at the road and we might get excited and make bad decisions.  Spring is the most high-risk, because the plants and birds are just starting to return and everything is so shiny and new.

So be careful out there.

In all seriousness though, I think a lot of people are fascinated by foraging and want to try it, but aren’t sure what to start with. So, I’ve put together a short list of my favorite spring plants. All of these are tasty, nourishing, and easy to find and identify. They’re a great way to try your hand at harvesting your food from the wild.

Who knows, maybe someday it will be you staring at weeds on the side of the road like a psycho.

Before we get started, here’s a quick note about ethical harvesting and not getting poisoned and stuff:

So rule one of foraging is to be sure you have a really really really positive ID on a plant before you even think of eating it. Always take a field guide with you, and if you’re not 100% sure what the plant is, get an expert to confirm it for you. Most plants are pretty friendly, and the ones I’ve put in the list below are safe and easy to identify, but there are a few out there, (like this one and this one), that will kill you in 15 minutes flat. This sounds scary, but please don’t let it stop you. Before you start foraging, just make sure you can identify dangerous plants so you can safely avoid them.

Also, be sure you’re only harvesting from areas where a plant is growing plentifully. The plants in my list are very common and not under threat, but there are several plants that are losing ground (no pun intended, damnit), and need to be left alone. A good rule of thumb is to make sure there are at least five successful plants nearby. Personally, I prefer to make sure there are at least ten, and I only take what I need and know I’m going to use.

So anyway…

Nettle

Stinging Nettle

I feel like I talk about nettle a lot, both in this blog and in real life. But I think it deserves the attention. Urtica dioica a is a perennial that grows everywhere in North America. They like moist areas near water and grow in big, spreading families. They have a beautiful bright green color and opposite, toothed compound leaves. The whole plant is covered in tiny hairs that contain formic acid (if you’re not sure what you’re looking at is stinging nettle, just touch it…).

When I first started foraging nettle, I always wore gloves to avoid getting stung, but over time I’ve found that if you ask them nicely and handle them carefully, they won’t sting you. But hey, there’s no shame in wearing gloves while harvesting them if you want to avoid a sting here and there. Thankfully, the formic acid dies away shorty after they’re cut.

Nettles are really high in vitamins, minerals, and even protein. They are much more nourishing than anything you’ll find in the grocery store and taste just as good (if not better). They’re an excellent source of energy.

Nettles are also pretty easy to prep and eat. I find them the most delicious when blanched and sauteed in a little olive oil and sea salt. I’ve also made them into a pesto and dried them to use as a nourishing tea.

Dandelion

A weed, yes, but also a powerful medicine…

People often cast aspersions on Taraxacum oficinale. Some consider it a blight, a stubborn weed they try to eradicate from their lawns. This is really sad, because they are destroying a delicious treasure. This one plant offers a lot, both as a food source and a medicine.

All parts of this widespread perennial are edible. The main flower grows on a smooth stem that shoots up from a basal rosette of toothed leaves (dan de lion comes from the French for tooth of the lion). The roots can be cooked like a vegetable or dried and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute or medicinal decoction. The leaves are delicious in a salad or lightly sauteed in butter. The flower heads can be plucked and added to salads, made into a vinegar, or even brewed in mead or wine.

Medicinally, dandelions are great for the digestion. They can help cleanse the blood and provide support to the liver. They’re a really nice thing to eat in spring to help cleanse after a long winter of heavy foods!

Garlic Mustard

So I’ve done a post before about garlic mustard. It’s considered an invasive, spreading like wildfire wherever it takes hold. But thankfully, it’s a super nutritious plant. I keep it under control in my yard by eating the heck out of it.

Alliaria petiolata is actually a member of the brassicaceae, or cabbage, family. It’s a perennial that grows up into a tall stalk with toothed, alternating leaves. You could think of it as a wild lettuce, really. The leaves have a peppery, slightly bitter taste, and the roots are similar to horseradish. It can be sauteed, tossed in a salad, turned into pesto, used as a pizza topping, thrown into a soup…anything really!

It grows so abundantly and is so tasty and nutritious that you really can’t go wrong. Just snip the green tops, or if you want something a bit more spicy, dig up the whole plant and use the roots, too!

Wild Garlic 

Allium vineale are the chives of the forest…imo, anyway. These guys are the first thing I see (and eat!) in the spring. They poke up through the leaves as soon as it’s warm, dotting the drab surroundings with little sprays of hollow, dark green shoots.

When you pull them up from the ground, they look like mini onions. I trim the green tops and add them to rice, biscuits, salads, dips, or really anything where chives or scallions would be used.

Also, I haven’t tried it, but the bulbs can be pickled and eaten as a nice appetizer.

Wild Violet

Viola papilionacea pop up in little clusters of dark, spade-shaped leaves in spring. By the first week of May (up here in the northeast, anyway) the delicate purple flowers have bloomed.

Both the leaves and flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads. The leaves have a really nice taste, are very cooling and soothing, and are packed with vitamin A. Like dandelion, they make a great blood cleanser.

The leaves can also be dried and then drunk as a tea when you need something demulcent for a sore throat or dry cough.

I’ve used the leaves in my summer salve, too, as they’re great for calming and cooling the skin.

Dead Nettle, Ground Ivy, and Henbit

Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum). Notice the square stem – an identifying characteristic of the mint family.

I’m grouping all of these guys together because I tend to use them in very similar ways. As they are all part of the lamiacea, or mint, family, they’re very aromatic and, well, minty. Not really like a peppermint, exactly, but…well, taste one and you’ll see what I mean!

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
MORE ground ivy!

They can all be added to salads, used as a garnish, or dried and drunk as a refreshing tea. Like pretty much everyone else in the mint family, they’re cooling and clearing – great for congestion and respiratory issues.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Ground ivy, especially, seems to like people, and can usually be found growing in yards and around houses. The others are a bit more wild in my experience, but can also be found even in very suburban places.

SO!

I hope you’ll go out, look for these plants, and enjoy them. Gathering your own food and tasty herbs from the wild is really fun, honestly. Anything you find growing wild will undoubtedly have more nutrients, potency, and life force than produce from the grocery store.

Taking the time to learn even a few plants, taste them, and take them home with you is a great way to connect with the earth and remember all the wonderful gifts she offers us.

Happy spring, and happy foraging!

Nettle Pesto Pasta with Goat Cheese…and Wild Garlic Biscuits!

In one of my past lives, I was a wise old Italian lady who grew herbs and had a lot of rosemary around her house and a mysterious garden and lots of olive trees and everything. I think that’s where my extreme love of pesto, olives, lemons, and rosemary comes from. So…here is another post about pesto (remember the Garlic Mustard Pesto post from liiiike a year ago? No? That’s ok. Here it is).

One of the best things about pesto is you can make it out of almost any fresh, tasty green plant. So, when I saw the first tiiiny little nettle babies coming up last week, I thought OMG, I SHALL PUT YOU IN A PESTO! A wonderful pesto full of nourishing vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Pro-tip: nettles like to have wet feet. Look for them around lakes and marshy areas.

– Me

Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica)

The initial plan was to make the pesto on Easter Sunday and serve it on crackers or crostini as an appetizer. But like many of the plans I make, this did not actually happen. We were cooking so many other things that day that the nettles fell by the wayside and were forgotten…

Until a few days later when I was trying to come up with something for dinner. It was one of those lazy days where I didn’t feel like cooking anything elaborate, so I was like, What is the least amount of effort I can put in here? I decided to make the pesto and just toss it with some pasta. I also threw in some goat cheese I happened to have on hand.

Now, feeling a little more motivated, I decided some biscuits would be really great on the side. I have a ton of wild garlic growing in my front yard, so I decided to go trim some of the green tops and throw them into the mix. They have a taste very similar to chives, so they were a perfect addition to the biscuits!

Wild garlic (Allium vineale), is super tasty. They can be used in place of chives or green onions.

In the end it was a really delicious meal that took minimal effort – perfect for those spring nights when you want to spend more time outside and less time in the kitchen!

Nettle Pesto:

Ingredients:

2 cups roughly chopped nettle

2 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup of shredded parmesan cheese

1/2 cup toasted walnuts (or pine nuts)

Salt and pepper to taste.

To make the pesto:

First, blanch the nettles. Add them to boiling water and cook for about a minute and a half, then scoop them out into a bowl of cold water. Drain.

This is not a normal pesto-making step, but nettles contain a lot of formic acid than can get you if you touch one of the prickly hairs on the leaf or stem. Usually, the acid dies away after they’ve been picked, but if you keep them super fresh in the refrigerator, they might still have a little sting. A quick hot water bath takes care of that.

Next, add the nettles to a food processor with the toasted walnuts, garlic, and grated cheese. Pulse to combine. Add the cheese and pulse again.

With the food processor running on low, slowly drizzle in the oil until everything is combined.

Ta-da! Pesto done.

Now just cook the pasta according to instructions and toss with the pesto and about 4 oz of soft goat cheese. Simple and sooo tasty!

Wild Garlic Biscuits:

Ingredients: 

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1/4 cup chopped wild garlic greens

6 tbsp butter*

3/4 cup buttermilk**

To Make the biscuits:

Heat over to 425. Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and work it into the flour mixture, using your hands or a pastry cutter, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the wild garlic greens.

Next, make a well in the center of the mixture and add the buttermilk. Mix everything together until you have a sticky dough, then drop by large spoonfuls onto a foil lined baking sheet and drizzle with a little melted butter. Bake in oven for about ten minutes, or until tops are golden. Serve warm with butter.

*A butter substitute like earth balance works in place of real butter.

**To make a dairy free buttermilk, simply combine plain almond or soy milk with lemon juice (1 tbsp juice to 1 cup milk) and let sit for ten minutes before using.