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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After six weeks, strain, bottle and label.
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
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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!
Anyway, when I got home from foraging I used that magic goldenrod to mix up all sorts of things; honey, vinegar, elixir, tincture, teas.
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.
I hope everyone will give goldenrod a try! It’s a delicious, uplifting remedy that grows all around us.
The Book of Herbal Wisdom; Using Plants as Medicine by Matthew Wood
So a few days ago, during an evening walk, I came across a stand of beautiful white pine trees. Ian watched in semi-horror as I pulled a few needles off the tree and began to chew them.
What?? They taste really good! Go try it right now. RIGHT NOW.
See? They’re good.
Super astringent (they’ll make your mouth pucker and dry out like crazy), but they are packed with vitamin C. Ian eventually tried it and sort of I think liked them a little bit maybe. Whatever, I think they’re great.
But guess what’s EVEN BETTER than eating raw pine needles? Making a vinegar from them!! ‘Tis simple to do, and the finished product tastes quite a lot like balsamic vinegar (except more fresh and piney and exciting…like a balsamic that grew up in the mountains and had lots of adventures and a pet eagle and that kind of stuff).
Here are the super complicated instructions for making it:
1. FIND A WHITE PINE.
2. Stuff a jar full of the needles
3. Fill the jar with a good organic apple cider vinegar (be sure to cover the needles)
4. Cap. Use a plastic lid, as the vinegar will erode metal. If you don’t have a fancy plastic mason jar lid, just put a sheet of wax paper under the lid/around the rim and cap.
5. Label the jar and tuck it lovingly into a cool, dark place. Check it once in a while – just give it a quick shake and make sure all the needles are still covered.
6. After six weeks, strain out the needles and bottle the vinegar. I save old salad dressing bottles and put my home made vinegars in them, ’cause I’m classy like that.
7. ENJOY!! The vinegar makes an awesome, simple dressing for salads, especially when mixed with olive oil. Mmmm.
Recently, I met a mean person (actually, I had to spend the day with her…but that’s another story for another time).This person was lashing out at the drop of a hat and using hurtful and unnecessary language to hurt people’s feelings. Her actions cast a wide net of bad energy over everyone and everything that happened that day. She even made someone cry. Admittedly, this was an extreme case – most people are not that prone to anger over minor things. Or to act on it, either.
But the whole experience got me thinking more about compassion and the way we treat other humans. Most especially, it got me thinking about a story I heard a long time ago.
Oddly enough, this tale was told to me by the HR manager at one of my old jobs. It was during one of those boring conferences about workplace ethics. We were all bored, shooting each other sidelong looks to convey how much we wanted the session to end so we could get back to our desks/eat lunch/gossip in the kitchen. But when the manager began to tell this story, we started to pay attention. It really, really stuck out and got people listening and thinking. It’s been with me ever since, and always makes me think twice about how I approach a person who is upsetting me. And how I interact with people in general.
So, I thought I’d pass it along.
The Parable of the Man on the Train
One evening on the train, there was a father with three unruly young children. They were running up and down, yelling and laughing, and generally creating the distracting, annoying spectacle that little children are apt to make. Their father didn’t seem to care or notice that they were causing a disturbance, and did nothing to stop them.
An older woman near the back of the train was clearly simmering with annoyance that this stupid, inconsiderate person was letting his children run wild. How could he be so thoughtless? Didn’t she deserve a relaxing ride home after work? These kids were ruining her quiet time! Finally, she stood up, put her hands on her hips, and marched straight over to the man, her face flushed with anger.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!” she yelled loudly, “Can’t you control your children? Don’t you care that they’re acting like animals and annoying everyone on this car? What kind of a father are you? Your children are going to grow up to be undisciplined brats!”
The man’s shoulders slumped and he began to cry, and then weep, into his hands. Finally he looked up. His eyes were empty and sad. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Their mother died this morning. I still haven’t told them. I don’t know how.”
Ashamed at how she had lashed out, the woman didn’t know what to say.
Think about what you say to people and how you treat them. We’re all human. We all have baggage and shit going on and insecurities and dreams and fears. You never know what another person has been through, or is going through, or why they are acting the way they are.
Before letting your anger loose on someone, stop and think about whether or not it’s really warranted. Should you really be angry, or is this a minor thing you can address calmly, or even just let go of? Will it really cost you more to be kind than it will to be harsh and mean?
Will yelling help the situation, or will it make everyone involved feel even more upset? Could you instead confront the situation with a compassionate mind and heart?
For example, the woman on the train could have approached that man calmly and let him know the disturbance his children were causing. She also might have noticed from his body language that he was upset and asked him if he was all right, but she was too busy thinking about herself and how offended she was. Instead of breaking him down into tears, she could have been the kind voice he needed to hear.
So all I’m saying is: the world can be a tough place, full of sadness and disappointment and fear. Let’s make it better by not being shitty to each other.
‘Tis the season. The season of running recklessly through the woods and lounging around outside on your porch.
These are fun things.
It is also the season of poison ivy and bug bites and bee stings.
These are not fun things.
Recently, Margaret had a serious case of poison ivy. It was all up her legs and arms – the worst. Her eyes were twitching from insanity. Nothing would make the itching stop. She tried baking soda, apple cider vinegar, commercially available super creams. And yet, the torment continued. I had gotten a small patch of PI myself, and although it was nothing compared to what M was dealing with, it was driving me nuts.
Thankfully, mother earth has given us some wonderful remedies for the ills of summer; jewelweed, plantain, violet, and mint. All of these are soothing, healing plants that can really take out the itch, or sting, that’s driving us crazy.
So I decided to pick all these nice wild plants (including some of my little domesticated catnip) and make a healing salve from them. And…it worked! Within a few minutes of putting it on, I didn’t want to rip my eyes out anymore from the itching! And M didn’t look like she was going to snap and murder the next person who spoke to her!
And thus was born the Summer Salve!!
AND THERE WAS MUCH REJOICING!!
Side note: I would still suggest cleansing the poison ivy rash with witch hazel (or apple cider vinegar) about once a day (or more if you feel inclined), as the astringent will keep the area clean and help to stop drainage.
Although I haven’t had occasion to use it for a sting yet, I think the salve should work pretty well – jewelweed should help with itchy bug bites, and plantain is an excellent remedy for bee stings.
Making salve is really easy if you have the right stuff – all you need for a basic salve is a carrier oil (olive, sunflower, grapeseed, sweet almond, jojoba…etc.), herbs, and beeswax. The ratio of beeswax to oil is typically about 1 oz wax to 1 cup oil, but you can play around with these proportions to get different consistencies. You can also mix different oils depending on what you like.
So anyway, here’s how I made the Summer Salve:
Ingredients (makes around 6oz…double this if you think you’ll need more!):
1/4 cup chopped jewelweed
1/8 cup chopped plantain
1/8 cup chopped mixed herbs (catnip, mint, violet leaf)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup beeswax
All of the plants in the salve are really abundant up here in the northeast – you can probably walk out your door and find all of them. If you really can’t find any mint or violet, don’t worry too much about it; the main actors in this salve are jewelweed (which has an anti-itch effect) and plantain (which has a cooling, drawing effect). So just sub in more jewelweed and plantain if you can’t find the others!
Next, pour the olive oil over the herbs.
If you have a bunch of time to wait for the oil to be ready, check out my post on sun brewed oils. If you need the salve LIKE RIGHT NOW TODAY, just set the jar into a pot of shallow water (or use a double boiler if you have one) and turn on the heat to LOW. Let the herbs infuse in the oil over very low heat for a few hours – I left mine for about 12, but I really think 6-8 is enough.
After the oil has steeped, line a mesh strainer with cheesecloth and strain out the herbs.
You should be left with a nice, green oil now.
Next, melt the beeswax (use a double boiler, or the ghetto jar-in-water thing that I do).
Add the oils. The beeswax will cool again and turn all weird for a second, so let it melt back down.
Once everything is all melted again, pour the salve into jars.
Ta-da! Now you have an awesome, itch and sting fighting Summer Salve!
So far in my (relatively) short life, I’ve logged a lot of time on the trails of our great country, especially up here in the Northeast. I’ve hiked up snowy mountains and across valleys, rivers and streams. Through old, gnarled pine forests and sunny groves of young oak.
I’ve also met many people out there, and over the years, a pattern has emerged – If you really pay attention, you’ll realize there are only a few types of people out there on the trails. Here’s a brief guide to help you quickly identify hikers while in the field and prepare for potential encounters:
Nylon Bag (nylonus baggus americanus)
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous United States. Wide, well traveled trails that have been made popular by social media. Sometimes ventures into more difficult terrain, but rarely seen above 4,000 ft. Often drawn to crowded areas with access to swimming and douchecanoeing.
Food source: Snickers protein bars, Nestle bottled water.
Description: Both male and female are totally Basic and completely unprepared for the hike they are attempting. Their most defining feature is a nylon string bag that seems to contain nothing more than a small flimsy plastic water bottle. Males favor sneakers or other footwear similarly inappropriate for hiking, often paired with long black cotton or acrylic socks. Females lack the long socks and prefer tiny, pastel colored shoes. Both sexes favor Under Armour, Adidas or Nike athletic clothes, typically in jarringly bright colors.
General information and precautions: Harmless along short trails and at lower elevations. Don’t worry about trying to say hello or make eye contact with a Nylon Bag; he will only look away and pretend not to see you as he sweeps confidently past in his glossy shorts.
On more difficult trails, encountering a Nylon Bag can sometimes present a problem. As the miles stretch on, Nylon Bags may become increasingly unstable. They may begin to realize that they are lost, have worn inadequate footwear, or are dangerously low on water. Many of them will have a desperate expression on their faces, which they will try to conceal by looking scornfully at your provision-filled pack and sturdy shoes. If you find yourself face to face with a Nylon Bag at a high elevation or deep in the woods, they may ask you for water, food, directions, or all three. Help them out if you can spare supplies, but stay mindful of your own needs.
When you hear about rescue crews or helicopters having to land on mountains, it’s usually these people.
Old Hippy Guy (antiquus hominum hippicus)
Range and Habitat: Northeastern US; NY to Coastal MA, north to Canada. Some populations in Eastern PA and Northern NJ. Brushy scrub, remote trails. Prefers camping in meadows or behind rocks.
Food Source: Stale granola, sardines, citrus fruits.
Description: bucket hat or old, graying black and white or faded rainbow sweatband on head, silvery-brown beard, age-inapropriate sunglasses, long wool socks, short shorts, mesh tank top from road race that took place in 1979. Small, faded rucksack. Grows anywhere from 6-8 ft tall. Hairy.
General Information and Precautions: This guy can outhike the shit out of you, so don’t even try. His experienced, spindly legs have more miles on them than a 1982 Ford pickup. He can survive on one sardine a day and can spring to the summit of the highest peak with more agility than a mountain goat. He drinks straight from the streams, because parasites are bullshit government lies and he doesn’t even care. He doesn’t use a tent on overnights and gently pushes bears out of his way with his hiking poles if he runs into them on the trail. He’s friendly and has wise, glinty, slightly crazed eyes that never quite meet yours, and is full of amazing, mostly true stories. He’s good company for a quick trail lunch, but don’t count on him for much else. He goes where the wind takes him and stops for no one.
The Invincibles (leonus imortalis)
Range and habitat: Georgia to Maine, west to Ohio. Any landscape or terrain, all levels of difficulty. Prefers elevations above 3,000 ft.
Food Source: They don’t eat.
Description: Always in pairs, male and female. Very boring, serviceable, monochrome clothes that seem more appropriate for lounging on a weekend than hiking. On the very cusp of being out of shape, pale. Netflix memberships. Often accompanied by a mild-mannered labrador with a name like “Emma”. Brown hair, female’s shoulder-length and tied into an unassuming ponytail. Male wears a dorky brown cap. Usually carrying no supplies, but on rare occasions may have one small water bottle between them.
General Information and Precautions: You will encounter Invincibles in almost any environment. It is rumored that they have been spotted even on the highest slopes of the Himalayas, wearing nothing but their dowdy gym clothes and without even the most basic supplies. As you huff and puff your way up a rugged mountainside, carrying a heavy pack filled with extra wool layers, food, water, rope, matches, maps, and space blankets, they will lightly float past in their brand-new looking low-top Merrells, pausing only to wait for their calm, friendly dog to finish saying hello to you. Climbing is as effortless for them as it is difficult for you. You will think to yourself, WTF, they look like they never leave their apartment or do anything athletic, and yet here I am sweating like a pig and struggling to breathe. And they only have one bottle of water between them, how are they not dead?!
The answer lies in their name.
Speed Racer (agilis rapidus)
Range and Habitat: Extreme conditions and inclines. Rocky trails where the danger of tripping is great. Elevations above 2,000 ft.
Food source: Air, the determination to humiliate you.
Description: Muscular and wiry, tight-fitting athletic garments in grey or yellow. Carries a small, 6oz water bottle, sometimes holstered in a waist pack. Facial features weathered by time and excessive discipline.
General Information and Precautions: A Speed Racer sighting is rare, as they are often moving so quickly you may not even notice them. Interactions almost never occur. As they whiz past you in a blur of neon and stunning athleticism, you may need to pause for a moment to contemplate your own shortcomings as a human being. It has taken you 3 hours and most of your life-energy to reach this point on the mountain. You have eaten two granola bars and an orange, consumed two liters of water, and stopped to rest three times. And yet it took a Speed Racer only 30 minutes of continuous running to catch up to you. This can be hard to grapple with, but try not to be too hard on yourself as you continue to slog up the trail.
Clueless Family (familius stupidus)
Range and Habitat: Easy, family friendly trails they found on the internet. Sometimes spotted at higher elevations if the trail is popular and has a distinctive feature such as caves, waterfalls, or a nice view.
Description: Easily distinguished by their flushed faces and beady, sparkly eyes. Males typically overweight, fond of tube socks, ball caps and white clothes with black accents. Females have tight, pinched faces formed by years of living with the idiot males and appear to be dressed for a beginner yoga class. They may have a precocious child who wishes to pet your dog. Sometimes they have a pet of their own, often a haggard-looking golden retriever.
General Information and Precautions: For years, scientists have theorized that the Clueless Family is in fact simply older Nylon Bags who have reproduced, as they share many of the same attributes and tend to be obnoxious in similar ways. However, although many agree that this theory has merit, it has remained frustratingly unproven. Currently, the Clueless Family remains its own separate species.
The Clueless Family appears harmless, but it can pose an incredible risk to those who are unprepared. Statistically, the number one cause of death for hikers, after drowning of course, is an ill-fated encounter with a Clueless Family. Although the females may seem smallish and harmless, they have a poisonous bite if they feel their child has been offended/threatened or if they perceive something about you that they find offensive. Even if the Clueless Family seems very nice, don’t let your guard down. Conditions can rapidly deteriorate. In some cases, the Mom or Dad may take a shine to you and decide that you would make a good role model for their out of control, brainless asshole children. This is perhaps the most dangerous scenario. Therefore, a perfect balance must be found between aloofness and being overly friendly. I recommend Halstead’s Wilderness Guide to Clueless Families by Nicholas A. Halstead for further reading.
Birder (wingus aviatiens)
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous US. All habitats, but more common at wildlife refuges and in woodlands surrounding Korean churches. Roadsides.
Food Source: Wawa, Dunkin’ Donuts. Bagels, quick sandwiches, donut holes and assorted pastries, excessive amounts of coffee, pizza, beer, soup.
Description: Binoculars around the neck or strapped to the chest. Often clad in absurd garments; fishing vests, baggy field pants or unbecoming stonewashed jeans, boots, UPF 50 shirts or crew-neck sweatshirts, large hats. Typically carrying field guides, sometimes awkwardly hauling a spotting scope. May be mistaken for homeless or mentally ill people.
General Information and Precautions: Birders are generally friendly, and often may not even notice your presence, as they are typically staring upward into the canopy of the forest. They are happy to talk with you briefly, but may quickly become irritable if they are on a schedule or if you seem to be largely ignorant of birds. Don’t try to act like you know something; you’ll just make a fool of yourself. Also, try not to ask too many questions or make noise as you pass them, or you may be met with hateful glares and heavy, exasperated sighs.
Older Birders are typically seen in pairs, regularly indulge in nature cruises to Alaska, and shop exclusively at Woolrich, Orvis, and L.L. Bean.
Neature Hiker: See Birder. The Neature Hiker is a minor subspecies of Birder, the only difference being that a Neature Hiker will have a constant, infuriating grin plastered on his or her oblivious face. Often seen collecting acorns. They also have a distinctive call: Isn’t that neat, did you know that, isn’t that neat?
European Power Couple (potentia europeans)
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous US. Difficult but well-known trails. Prefer rugged inclines. Will always take the longest route.
Food Source: European protein bars you’ve never head of, fruit, seeds.
Description: Male and female both muscular, thin, smallish. Females typically blonde. Dress is similar to Speed Racer. Prone to harsh whispering and judgmental looks. They do not carry maps, relying solely on trail signs and their razor sharp intellect for navigation.
General Information and Precautions: The European Power Couple is not interested in you. The best you can expect is a severe and dismissive look as they stride past, no doubt contemplating the ridiculous, clownish cesspool of fatties and imbeciles with whom they are forced to associate.
Asshole with Dogs (Blowharidies Americanus)
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous US. Well traveled trails where their visibility and the potential to terrorize other hikers is maximized.
Food Source: Hot dogs from road side stands, anything with “BBQ” in the name, the blood of mature American Bald Eagles.
Description: Almost overwhelmingly males, 6-7 ft tall, muscular in a beefy, fatish sort of way. Will sometimes have young family members with them who are training to become the Assholes with Dogs of tomorrow. Most defining feature is anywhere from 1-3 big, somewhat aggressive dogs who are off-leash and completely untrained. Champion brand athletic clothes from Target, white shoes, occasionally a ball cap. Stupid yet superior look on their broad, rosy, all-American faces. Aggression and uncertainty lurking behind the eyes, fueled by the haunting, secret knowledge that they are too afraid to ride a motorcycle or walk through a rough neighborhood after 7 pm.
General Information and Precautions: Assholes with Dogs are among the most common dangers you will face on the trail. They have a complete disregard for the trail etiquette of keeping dogs on a leash. They don’t give a damn if you are unsettled by gigantic, hollow-eyed, slavering hounds charging down a mountain at you. What are you, some kind of sissy? Worried your little canine companion will be attacked and/or completely terrified by these out of control bully dogs? GET OVER IT, THIS IS AMERICA AND MY DOGS SHOULD ROAM FREE IN THE WOODS LIKE THE WILD SYMBOLS OF ANIMALISTIC, TESTOSTERONE-FILLED FREEDOM THEY ARE.
The best thing you can do when you encounter Assholes with Dogs is pull over to the side of the path, stay calm, and wait for them to thunder past in a cloud of Old Spice and liberty.
Also, don’t be afraid to take those dogs down with your bare hands in a stunning act of psychotic, adrenaline-fueled self-defense. At the end of the day they’re a bunch of pansies, just like their owners.
College Guys (Collegiensis Hominum)
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous US, though more prevalent in the mountainous regions of the Northeast. Prefer high elevations and places where they can stage extreme selfies, bro.
Food Source: Cliff bars, buffalo jerky
Description: Clad in loose-fitting, high-end outdoor clothing and packs from brands such as Marmot, Patagonia, and Mammut. Muscular, especially in the legs, and typically tall. Confident brown eyes with long, doe-like lashes. Very proud of themselves. Privileged, winner of several frisbee tournaments. Sometimes a bandana on the head. Often accompanied by a ridiculously cute and athletic dog. Females are very rare, and tend to be quiet and possessed of a great deal of certitude and self-confidence. Usually wearing clingy racer-back tank tops.
General Information and Precautions: College Guys are mostly harmless. They’re always in a good mood because they’re doing something cool with their friends. They may make frequent stops to take pictures of themselves or to eat Cliff Shot Bloks (which are really just delicious energy gummies). They’ll usually say a quick hello or stop for a few seconds to talk about the trail before continuing to bound up the mountain.
The only thing to be aware of is that when College Guys are in a group larger than 4, the antics can escalate. They can easily overtake a lean-to shelter and turn it into a mini woodland frat house, complete with constant yelling and excessive displays of bravado. They may begin to mimic the behavior of insecure boys approaching the brink of puberty. In these scenarios, the females become very quiet and fade into the background, no doubt in an attempt to avoid being hit in the face by a flagellating bro.
Range and Habitat: Throughout the contiguous US. Popular trails which they believe are difficult but are often similar to a gentle walk in the park.
Food Source: Fad fitness snacks they got at REI, pre-made sandwiches from the grocery store.
Description: Gear and clothing appears band new, very expensive. In some cases, may still have tags attached. They will often have an excessive amount of gear, completely unnecessary for the hike they are attempting. Black diamond hiking poles, Osprey day packs with hydration reservoir, Smartwool socks. Females wear PrAna hats. Oakley, Smith, or Native sunglasses. They will have actually Googled how to use trekking poles, navigate with a compass, and the best things to eat for energy on the trail.
General Information and Precautions: Posers will often be so loaded down with gear that they move very slowly and are easily overtaken on the trail. Even the most beginner level hike will wear them out. If you stop to chat with them, they will often ask you what sort of backpack you have, if you like it, and why you chose it, and then they will proceed to tell you all about their gear. If you get to talking about hiking, don’t be surprised if they haven’t hiked anywhere outside a 20 miles radius of where they live. In the end, it’s best to give a quick hello and pretend you’re out of breath and in a hurry when you see them on the trail.
If you do have to interact, try not to be too hard on them. They’re simply following the trend, and the trend right now happens to be hiking. Outdoorsy is cool these days. They were lured to this place by glossy adds showing athletic young people jumping from one rock to another on the top of a mountain. Their heads were filled with the promise that if they just buy the best hiking shoes available, they will find happiness and immediate acceptance into the glamorous world of adventurers.
Soul Searchers (anima quaererus)
Range and Habitat: Northeastern US; PA to Coastal MA, north to Canada. Migratory: sometimes spotted in Northern NJ. Prefers uncrowded but well known trails, deep forests, landscapes with lots of rocks and logs to sit on. Prevalent near college towns.
Food Source: The beauty of their unique, complicated dreams that no one understands but them, Japanese noodles.
Description: Both male and female are thin, with very little muscle to be found. Always wearing blue denim jeans, converse or Birkinstock shoes, and a t-shirt with a pocket on the chest. They often appear unprepared for a hike, carrying a small, flimsy canvas rucksak containing only a journal that has been decorated with stickers and a small glass water bottle. May have a flimsy paper map of the trail in hand, which they printed out from their Mac before saying goodbye to Aristotle, their cat, and leaving the apartment. Usually wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Males have longish, dark curly hair, unkempt, unshaven faces with scraggly stubble that they hope will someday become a beard. Females have straight hair, always with bangs, usually in need of a wash.
General Information and Precautions: Soul Searchers came to the trail for a reason: to connect with how they’re feeling and to write in their journals about how difficult and harsh the modern world can be. They may say hello, but it will only be in the form of a sagacious nod and dreamy half smile in your direction. They are lost in their own precious thoughts, you see, so it’s best to return the gesture without making any sounds. If you speak to them, you may shatter the connection they have to their inner thoughts and darken their mood with your harsh, mindless, barking voice, and they will have to accept that an ignorant, sheep-like, mainstream consumer is in their midst.
In their mind, they are the first and only person to appreciate the power of nature and philosophical thought.
Good luck, Soul Searcher – I hope you find what you’re looking for.
As promised, here’s the follow-up to my post about the herbs I gathered on the solstice. In that post I described what herbs I picked, how, and why. So, here’s a quick post on what I did with them!
I believe time is of the essence when tincturing plants – the fresher the better. If we hadn’t been hiking around on public lands, I would have tinctured my herbs on the spot. But, I felt like lugging around giant bottles of brandy and vodka might be a little disconcerting to some of the hikers and bird watchers we encountered (trust me, we got plenty of strange looks just by wandering through the meadows with gloves, a big backpack, and pruning shears).
Also it’s a little bit not that legal to be flaunting alcohol in public. So, I erred on the side of caution and did the next best thing – raced home with the plants in little cups of water. Which worked well – none of them were wilted when we got back to the house. They seemed happy, and so was I.
I only needed a small amount of nettle to make a tincture – the rest I hung up to air dry so that I can use it to make infusions and teas.
Tincturing plants is very simple, and you only need a few supplies to get going.
Stuff you need:
Clean, dry glass jars
Alcohol (between 80 and 100 proof is best)
After you’ve gathered your herbs, give them a rough chop. All the aerial parts of the motherwort and cleavers can be chopped and tinctured; for yarrow and nettle, I stripped off just the flowers and leaves.
Next, fill your jar almost to the top with herb (if you’re using dried herb, fill it about half way).
Next, simply pour in the alcohol until the herbs are covered, then screw the lid on tightly. I used brandy for my yarrow and motherwort – I think that will be a yummy match! I went with vodka for the cleavers and gin for the nettle, because…well just because I FELT LIKE IT, OK?
Next, label. Labeling is important. You might think to yourself, Pfft, I’ll remember what everything is, it’s only like four jars.
DO NOT BE LED ASTRAY BY YOUR PRIDE.
In about a week you will have no idea what plant is in what jar or what it’s in or how long it’s been in there. Or maybe that’s just me and my feeble, overwrought mind. But listen, pouring a vodka tincture of cleavers on your salad because you thought it was the vinegar dressing you made = NO THANK YOU SIR.*
*That never happened. This is merely a fictional, cautionary tale that I made up to scare you.
Anyway, Let the tincture sit for six weeks in a cool, dark place.
For the first week or so, It’s a good idea to give your tincture a shake and keep an eye on it to make sure you don’t need to add a bit more alcohol – it’s important to make sure the herbs are completely covered.
After the six weeks have passed, strain out the herbs and bottle the liquid (little dropper bottles work best…I have access to many of these thanks to Ian’s experimentation with scented beard oils. Yes, that is as fantastic as it sounds. I’ll explain another time…).
Don’t forget to label the little bottles as well! Yay! That’s it – medicine made. Your tinctures should last years and years.
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. 🙂
It grows along the roadsides. It spreads through forests, fields, meadows…and even your backyard.
Once you recognize it, you will realize that Garlic Mustard is EVERYWHERE YOU TURN. It wants to take over the world. It has an agenda.
A non-native garden escape, Garlic Mustard is a huge threat to our ecosystem here in North America. It spreads like wildfire, pushing out other plants and monopolizing entire landscapes. It’s incredibly persistent; to get rid of it, the entire plant must be pulled from the ground and destroyed. Just leaving it in a compost heap isn’t good enough – it can still take root and continue to spread.
It’s a terrible, no good, asshole of a plant.
But it is also tasty.
It’s nice and light and garlicky and wonderful. So, before we rid it forever from our lands… Let’s eat it!
There are lots of ways to prepare Garlic Mustard – add some fresh leaves to a salad, throw it on top of your pizza before you put it in the oven, or saute the greens in butter or olive oil with a little salt and pepper as a side dish. The possibilities are AS LIMITLESS AS YOUR DREAMS.
Recently, I decided to try making it into a pesto. The result: fantastic. It was zingy and fresh and delicious and perfect for spring. I kind of went off of a bunch of pesto recipes, but this awesome one was my main guideline. You can tweak it and adjust the amounts of the ingredients to your liking – it’s hard to get it wrong.
Garlic Mustard Pesto
2 cups (packed) of Garlic Mustard leaves
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup olive oil (or oil of choice)
1/2-3/4 cup of shredded parmesan or romano cheese (I used a mixture…about 50/50 each)
1/2 cup walnuts or pine nuts (I toasted mine…mmm)
Salt and pepper to taste.
To make the pesto:
First, collect your greens. We have so much in our yard that this didn’t take long at all. Be careful to choose healthy looking plants – don’t use any leaves that look damaged or like they were nibbled on by insects (during this process, we may have nibbled on some leaves ourselves…shhh).
Next, let them hang out in some water to loosen any dirt, then give them a quick rinse in a colander before patting dry.
While the leaves were still soaking, we toasted the walnuts to bring out even more nutty wonderfulness.
Next, put the leaves, garlic cloves, and nuts into the food processor and pulse to chop. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until everything is combined.
And then…add the cheese. The lovely, amazing cheese…
Process until (relatively) smooth.
If you like, you can add in a little salt and pepper and pulse again to combine.
We tossed our pesto with rice pasta (this recipe makes enough to coat about 1 lb of pasta). And then we ate dinner watching the sunset, surrounded by candles and drinking a fine wine while having meaningful conversation.
In reality, we sat on the couch and stuffed our faces and freaked out between mouthfuls about how great the pesto was while watching Game of Thrones.