The summer solstice was a beautiful day this year – clear blue skies and GREEN everywhere you looked. It was one of those days when the world seems lush and cool, when the plants are happy to be growing, and when all you want to do is lie down in the grass somewhere and look up at the clouds and maybe take a nap.
But we had no time for such nonsense.
I had it in my head that the solstice was the day I should gather herbs to make my tinctures. I mean, it was the solstice AND the Strawberry moon – when would there be more magic and medicine in the plants? (Yes, this is the way my mind works and the way I live my life…).
So, Margaret and I spent the day picking herbs.
Our first stop was a meadow where I knew yarrow and cleavers were growing…
*Ok full disclosure, this was not the first stop. It was hot out, so we had to go get some kombucha from the health food store where they have it fresh on tap…along with some sea salt truffle quinoa puffs and almond butter sesame granola bars. Shit, sometimes we are such hipstery little white people I can’t even handle us.*
But anyway…we collected a bunch of yarrow in the meadow!
So what is the deal with yarrow?
Yarrow gets part of its name, achillea, from Achilles; it’s an herb that was so highly valued on the battlefield that it earned the name of the legendary warrior. According to myth, he used it regularly to heal his wounds, as well as those of his warriors.
Millefolium means “thousand leaved,” a reference to its beautiful feathery foliage.
Some of its folk names are: Soldier’s woundwort, Milfoil, and Cure All.
It prefers to grow in sunny meadows and pastures, but it does all right in the shade too. It’s astringent, antispasmodic, aids digestion, eases cramps, and stanches the flow of blood. It’s definitely a herb to reach for when confronted with the cold and flu, fevers, stomach aches, wounds, and delayed, painful or heavy menstrual periods.
Yarrow is best harvested when in full flower, right in the middle of a sunny day.
The leaf and flower can be dried and used as a tea or tinctured in alcohol. You can also make an excellent styptic powder: just dry the plant and then powder it and store it in a jar for when you need it. If you’re out in the woods, just crushing up the leaves and flowers into a poultice and applying it to a cut will help to stop the bleeding and speed healing.
One of my favorite herbalists, Mathew Wood, theorizes that yarrow tincture could even be helpful during a brain aneurism and could lessen its effects due to its ability to slow bleeding.
This was interesting to me because ANEURISMS ARE MY WORST FEAR. IF I’M HAVING ONE, PLEASE POUR ALL THE YARROW TINCTURES AND/OR PRODUCTS YOU CAN FIND ONTO MY FACE. AND ALSO PLEASE CALL 911.
So anyway, back to the herb gathering and stuff.
Up at the edge of the meadow, just inside the treeline, we found a few little patches of cleavers. If you’ve ever touched cleavers, you’ll understand immediately how they got their name. They have tiny little hooked hairs that feel a little like velcro and easily snag on things.
Here is some stuff that is great about cleavers:
They are soothing to swollen glands, especially around the ears and throat, and can help with urinary difficulties such as painful or slow urination and irritation in the bladder. They can also be effective on skin lesions, burns and rashes. Cleavers are cooling and clearing, having a positive cleansing effect on the lymphatic system. Susun Weed recommends cleavers for PMS symptoms – think swelling and tenderness.
Although it hasn’t been backed up by modern scientific studies, many herbalists and homeopaths consider cleavers to be effective against cancer, especially that of the skin.
The aerial parts of the plants should be gathered while flowering. Because this plant doesn’t retain its medicinal qualities very well when dried, it’s best to make either a tea or a tincture with the macerated parts right away. Because I knew I wouldn’t be going straight home after picking them, I preserved mine by putting them in a cup of water – that seemed to work well.
After gathering a sufficient amount of cleavers, we were beginning to feel sweaty and disheveled, so we staggered back to the car to rest and sip our beloved kombucha.
On the way to get the stinging nettle, we got kind of a little bit lost for a minute. You would think by now we can get from one point to another in our town, but there are a million (yes, a million) twisty little back roads to get lost on. I got cocky and thought surely I could find my way there. I was like hey, I know whereish this place is relative to the sun, we have to go west, we can do this. But soon, as the unfamiliar roads wound on, my confidence began to wane.
As did the quinoa puffs, sadly.
Finally, we had to admit that we suck and retrace our steps and check google maps to figure out where the hell we were. Sigh. But we got to see a lot of cows and pretty pastures and stuff while we were lost, so it was ok.
And lo at long last, we did behold woundrous ACRES of stabby green nettle! The best part was, I wan’t wearing long sleeves and I still didn’t get stung once. That’s kind of amazing considering I was carelessly flailing my white, freckly arms around in the nettle patches. If I was a nettle plant I’d totally try to sting me.
So here are some deets about nettle:
There is so much to say about nettle…where do I start?
It’s the number one herb everybody should be using all the time. It’s like a super food (although I sort of hate that term). It has the highest concentration of chlorophyll, iron, calcium, other trace minerals, fats, vitamins and protein of just about any plant. It’s gentle and harmless, but has a powerful beneficial affect on pretty much every system of the body.
Just a handful of situations that could be improved by nettle: eczema, anemia, allergies, lack of energy, slowness or decreased organ function, menstrual cramps, infertility, growing pains in small children, fevers, menopausal discomforts, prostate issues, problems with digestion, stones and gravel, as a compress to quickly heal burns….and the list really just goes on FOREVER.
Nettle has a strong, intense spirit (it’s a plant of Mars), which makes it a good choice for people who need a little boost in vigor – think pale, cold natured, low energy.
The top thirds of the nettle plant should be gathered in the spring and early summer when the plant is young, and before it has flowered. Unless you want to be stung, you should definitely wear long sleeves and gloves – the tiny hairs of the plant contain formic acid (the same thing that makes bee strings hurt so much). Don’t worry – they don’t sting once dried or cooked.
Some people swear by urtification (flogging the skin with fresh nettles) as a way to clear away the pain of arthritis, clear up skin rashes, and get weak or damaged muscles working again. This is something I think I’ll skip unless I’m really desperate!
Side note: if you get stung, look around for yellowdock, plantain, or jewelweed. Chew up a leaf and put it on the sting – the pain should subside pretty quickly.
The best way to get the benefits of nettle is probably to cook and eat the fresh greens. If you can’t get any fresh, you can make a nourishing infusion – pour a quart of boiling water over an ounce of the dried herb, let it sit overnight, strain and drink the next day (I like mine over ice in the summer!). A simple tea of the dried leaves or a tincture made from the fresh leaves are great options as well.
After our adventures with the nettles, we returned to the car and realized that we…had parked right under a MULBERRY TREE!!!!!!!!!! So we picked some of the berries. The Catbirds were NOT HAPPY about this shit. They were yelling at us like WTF do you fatties really need those berries or can you LEAVE SOMETHING FOR US SOMETIMES?? We didn’t take that many though.
And then, just as we were leaving, just when I thought the day could not get any more exciting…I saw a patch of MOTHERWORT!! It was growing right under the mulberry tree, but I hadn’t noticed it in my greedy berry picking frenzy. It was beautiful. In full flower. I almost passed out.
Here are some things about Motherwort:
Motherwort is a member of the mint family. It has distinctly shaped leaves (I think they look a little bit like hands) and beautiful purple flowers that bloom towards the end of June (in these parts at least). In my experience, it likes to grow at the base of trees. Motherwort is a plant of venus, a herb with a special affinity for women and for the heart.
It relaxes muscles (especially the uterus), calms the nervous system and quells anxiety, helps to bring sleep, aids the digestions, calms headaches, and releases fever.
It’s very well regarded as a heart tonic, improving blood pressure and helping to regulate the heartbeat.
Motherwort is a wonderful ally for women who are anxious and generally freaked out, prone to racing thoughts, or have painful periods. Susun Weed has said that taking motherwort tincture with you (especially to stressful events – say maybe family gatherings?) is like keeping a kind, loving little mother in your pocket. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Motherwort should be gathered when it is flowering – take only the flowers and top few leaves of the plant. Watch out – motherwort can be a bit prickly at this stage!
Motherwort can be dried and taken as a tea, but it’s EXTREMELY BITTER. So probably the best way to preserve it is to tincture it fresh – it’s easier to take it with you that way, too.
And so ended our herbal journey!
I’ll do another post soon about what we did with all the lovely herbs when we got home. 🙂