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.

Root Medicine – Barberry

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Barberry (berberis vulgaris) roots.

Why hello.

I haven’t posted in a long time. Things have been busy. It was an election year. The holidays. Etc.

But now I’m back and (mostly) recovered, so let’s talk about BARBERRY! Specifically, the Japanese Barberry which is taking over our lands here in north America, and especially on the east coast. Like garlic mustard, it’s kind of a bully plant; it pushes natives out and generally creates a hostile work environment for them with it’s imposing personality, prickly branches, and tendency to add cinnamon to the office coffee pot even though certain people have complained about this many times.

A barberry bush in fall.
A barberry bush in fall.
A barberry berry. Lots of vitamin C, but I think the taste is kind of meh.
A barberry berry. Lots of vitamin C, but I think the taste is kind of meh. I do like the leaves though, they have a nice citrusy flavor. One time I was in the woods for like 8 hours, barefoot, with no water and super thirsty, so I ate some barberry leaves and they really made me feel way better. Sometimes my life is weird.

Like many oft-maligned invasives, barberry has something valuable to offer when we look more deeply at it.

If you peel back the outer layer of it’s bark, you’ll see the bright yellow-gold insides of barberry. The vivid color comes from an alkaloid called berberine. 

If berberine were captured in a Martha Stewart paint color I bet it would be called Sun Gold. Oooh I would buy that!
If berberine were captured in a Martha Stewart paint color I bet it would be called Sun Gold. Oooh I would buy that!

So what’s the deal with berberine? (Aside from being an excellent dye. Seriously my hands were yellow for days.)

Well my darlings, I’ll tell you. It may provide an answer to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections, such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). Without getting too technical, berberine may be able to force MRSA to respond to antibiotics. So, it’s very possible it could be used in concurrence with antibiotics on infections that just aren’t responding to treatment. To which I say OH THANK GOD!

Berberine is also found in oregon grape root, goldenseal and goldenthread. These plants are often referred to as “natural antibiotics”. To a certain extent this is true, but it’s a little bit of an oversimplification. While they do have significant antimicrobial properties and are used to treat infection, thinking of them as just straight antibiotics might mean you miss the bigger picture of what these plants can do.

So let’s talk a bit more about barberry as a whole plant. The root, the part used most often to make medicine, is cooling, drying, astringent and bitter. According to Matthew Wood, people with damp, warm, stagnant conditions may respond best to barberry.

Overall I would say that it is clearing and purifying. It gets the juices flowing, if you will. It increases bile production, clears the liver, cleanses the blood, and aids in digestion. I’ve also read that it can be effective in clearing up minor infections in the bladder, kidneys, and urinary tract. In my own personal experience, the tincture helped me with a troublesome, intense stomach ache. It also made me really hungry. I think it really kickstarted my digestion after literally weeks of stuffing my face with sugary, carby, super fatty Christmas foods.

Thankfully, I haven’t had the chance to test it on any infections.

Ok, so how do we make medicine with this plant?

You could do a bark decoction and drink it, and that’d work great, I’m sure. But barberry is seriously bitter, so I decided to go straight to a tincture (which is still really bitter, but you don’t have to take as much at once. You can take it straight if you’re a badass like me, or you can be lame and mask the taste with a nice fruit juice if you want).

I have a few barberry plants in my yard, including a big family of them down near the end of my driveway. The best time to harvest barberry (or any root) is late in the fall, when the plant goes to sleep for the winter and all it’s energy and medicine return to the roots. So I waited. And Stalked. And waited. And then when they were asleep…I asked them nicely if I could use some of their roots to make medicine.

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Just cut…

I dug a big piece of root and part of a lower branch, took them to the house and rinsed the dirt off of them. Note: use super cold water for this – berberine is water soluble and warm water will leech away some of the medicine faster.

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And after a nice washing!

Next, I carefully shaved the roots into little slices and filled a mason jar with them. I covered them with a mixture of 50% 80 proof vodka and 50% Everclear to really make sure I got everything I could out of the bark.

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Success! Already turning a nice golden color.
Success! Already turning a nice golden color.

After six weeks, strain, bottle and label.

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I think you only need a few drops at a time (I take small doses of about 5 drops), but up to 30 should be fine. Of course, this really depends on the condition being addressed, as well as your constitution, tolerance, etc.

Barberry is a really wonderful and incredibly valuable plant. And the best part is, unlike oregon grape, goldenthread, and especially goldenseal, barberry is readily available and in no danger of dying out from high-demand and irresponsible harvesting. So we should use it instead whenever we can!

In conclusion, that prickly asshole of a bush that snags your pants and rips your jacket when you’re walking through the woods or trying to clean up your yard is actually a pretty nice gift from nature and an great plant ally to have.

Note: I’m not a doctor! I’m really just sharing what I know, and I’m still learning. Definitely ask a doctor and do your own research if you have concerns about trying out any herbal remedies!

References and further reading:

The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra

Oregon Grape Herb by Rosalee de la Foret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mabon Blessings

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Mabon, or Alban Elfed in the Druid tradition, is a time of balance. The equinox, when day equals night. Tomorrow begins the earth’s slow transition into the darkness of winter.

Today is a day for thankfulness; the harvest is in, and as we prepare for the days to grow longer and colder we reflect on the fruitfulness and abundance of summer.

Blessings to you on this day of balance and gratitude. Take time to reflect on the good things you have received, and to look forward to a new season.

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A small offering of herbs – gratitude for a successful season of foraging and medicine making!

 

 

 

Goldenrod

 

goldenrod

 

A couple of weeks ago, I was having sort of a rough time. It was one of those weeks where things aren’t going right and the future seems uncertain, where you just question your path and every decision you ever made, you know? Ok, that’s really dramatic, but you get it.

So, I forced myself to get outside and headed to my favorite place to forage, a beautiful open space of mixed wetlands and meadow.

About halfway down the path that circles the meadow, I looked up to my right, and as far as the eye could see there were giant, sunny, bobbing heads of goldenrod swaying happily in the breeze. They were at the absolute peak of blooming. The sight of them snapped me right out of my negative thoughts, and filled me with gratitude for being alive. All the concerns I’d been ruminating over seemed suddenly irrelevant and distant.

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There are around 100 different species of goldenrod! This one is Solidago canadensis.

I harvested as many of the sweet-scented plants as I could fit in my backpack and finished my hike feeling a milllion times better about life.

Luna was chillin amidst the mugwort while I got the goldenrod.
Luna was chillin amidst the mugwort and enjoying all the sunlight.

By now you might be thinking, wtf, doesn’t goldenrod cause terrible allergies? Shouldn’t you stay away from it? It’s the plant that makes your eyes water and itch and you’re just sneezing everywhere and coughing and stuff, right?

That...is a LIE. (If you don't get this reference...I can't help you.)
Goldenrod is bad and you will sneeze? That…is a LIE. (If you don’t get this reference…I can’t help you.)

It’s not true I tell you!

The plant that causes many hayfever/fall allergies is RAGWEED (which like, don’t hate ragweed, it’s a pretty cool plant, but another time for that…).

Ragweed has really potent pollen that is easily carried on the breeze… and straight up your tiny, defenseless nostrils.

Goldenrod, on the other hand, is pollinated by insects – its pollen is too sticky to be carried on the breeze, so the likelihood of it causing a reaction is probably slim. It just gets blamed because it usually happens to grow right near allergy-inducing plants. So at some point, somebody was probably standing around in a field and started sneezing and saw the goldenrod and said IT’S THAT ONE, IT’S THAT PLANT THERE!

Goldenrod, thou hast been greatly slandered. But this beetle still like you though.
Goldenrod, thou hast been greatly slandered. But this beetle still likes you though.

And so, sadly, people have been casting aspersions on goldenrod ever since.

The truth is, goldenrod is used as a natural antidote to seasonal allergies. Funny, right? (This is typical in the plant world; you can usually find the antidote to a plant within 20 feet of it. Nature might be a harsh, scary mistress who will often try to kill you by throwing you down mountains and shit, but sometimes she also has your back.)

Matthew Wood says that goldenrod is effective against cat allergies in particular. I would really like to test this theory! Someone pass me a kitten!

What, no one has a kitten on hand? Well why the hell not? This is unacceptable.

Sigh.

This is what Gerard, acclaimed medieval herbalist/bff to VIP Lords and Ladies, had to say about goldenrod:

It is extolled above all other herbes for the stopping of bloud in bleeding wounds; and hath in times past beene had in greater estimation and regard than in these daies: for in my rememberance I have known the dry herbe which came from beyond the sea sold in Bucklerbury in London for half a crowne an ounce.

-Gerard’s Herball (1597)

Indeed, Gerard, indeed. Along with yarrow, goldenrod was an extremely valuable herb on the battlefield during the middle ages. Matthew Wood says that the Saracens were so fond of it that it was once called Consolidae saraciniae (Saracen healer, roughly translated). My guess is that they used it to clean and poultice wounds, and maybe even ground up the dried plants as a styptic powder.

Goldenrod is also a great ally for the kidneys, improving their function, keeping them healthy and clearing up many different ailments and minor infections/inflammation. For example, it has antiseptic, astringent properties that are helpful in clearing up urinary tract infections. It’s also sometimes used in the treatment of kidney stones.

Goldenrod oil is also said to be excellent for stiff and sore/injured muscles. I’ll have to test this out when my oil is finished brewing…

What else? Goldenrod has so many virtues…digestive aid, cold and flu soother, antifungal…in other words, just good to have around. I can confirm that a cup of goldenrod tea (especially if it’s fresh!) really seems to help with a bad mood. Some herbalists use it to fend off winter sadness, which makes sense to me – such a sunny plant is bound to cheer you up in the dark of winter. Plus, it’s really high in antioxidants!

Fresh goldenrod tea - so sweet you don't even need honey.
Fresh goldenrod tea – so sweet you don’t even need honey, imo.

Anyway, when I got home from foraging I used that magic goldenrod to mix up all sorts of things; honey, vinegar, elixir, tincture, teas.

Goldenrod tincture, honey, vinegar, elixir, and tea!
Goldenrod tincture, honey, vinegar, elixir, and tea!

I’ve covered how to make a basic tincture here. Making herbal honey (great for sore throats!), vinegar (salad dressing!) or oil is the same concept; just fill the jar around 3/4 full of fresh herb (1/2 full dry), cover with honey, vinegar (raw apple cider vinegar is the best) or oil, and let sit at least six weeks (maybe even longer for honey…mmm…), flipping the jar occasionally.

As for elixir, I made it two ways. For one, I mixed honey and brandy (about 1/4 honey and 3/4 brandy, but you can play with ratios).

For the other, I mixed vodka and vegetable glycerine (veggie glycerine extracts herbal properties, much like honey, alcohol and oil…I thought it might take the edge off a vodka tincture and I’m curious how it will taste! I used a ratio of about 1/4 glycerine to 3/4 vodka).

For tea, well…all you do there is hang the herb to dry, then chop up and store in brown paper bags.

Drying goldenrod.
Drying goldenrod.

I hope everyone will give goldenrod a try! It’s a delicious, uplifting remedy that grows all around us. img_20160902_130927

References:

The Book of Herbal Wisdom; Using Plants as Medicine by Matthew Wood

Leaves from Gerard’s Herbal by Michael Woodward