season of self care

It’s that time of year.  We’re making lists and checking them twice.  Waiting for 8 tiny reindeer to appear.  Wondering if 2 large dogs, 1 brother, 2 parents, brother’s new galfriend (who really has no idea what she is getting into), husband, and father-in-law are all going to be able to fit around the dinner table. Will the winter weather cooperate for driving hither and yon?  Is there enough money in the savings account to pay for the plumber who was here yesterday morning?  When we were talking about presents (husbeast and I) did we in the end agree that we are or we aren’t?  This is in addition to working, having a regular life, trying to decide if I drive into town later today will the called for freezing rain actually materialize, and writing this post.  Sigh.

On Saturday I had a bath that changed my life.  Yep – a bath.  45 minutes of paradise on this earth.  It was so profound that even though I had plans to write about something else (actually rant, who are we kidding) I am setting aside that idea to tell you instead about herb baths.  The rant can wait.

We sometimes take our skin for granted.  I know I do.  We don’t want it to wrinkle or get burned but otherwise it’s just there, covering our body.  The skin is actually the largest organ of our body.  If it were removed and laid out on the floor it would cover roughly 22 square feet.  We can administer herbs through the skin.  There was a famous French herbalist Maurice Mességué who worked almost entirely with foot and hand baths.  Depending on the person’s complaint he would make up a blend of different herbs for them.  His clients would then soak either their hands or feet in the bath.

 

Saturday night I wanted to relax.  I took 2 cups of damiana (Turnera diffusa) and added 4 cups boiling water.  I let this steep for about 45 minutes and then ran the bath.  When the tub was full I strained out the damiana and poured the herb infusion into the bath.  LISTEN – do not add herbs directly to the bath or you yourself will be needing a plumber.  The herb material can clog your pipes and all the bits and pieces can tuck into sensitive spots.  An infusion of a whole herb can often be safer and more  effective than just adding a few drops of essential oils.  Essential oils are only the volatile components of an herb.  Other constituents such as tannins, flavonoids, resins, and alkaloids can be useful as well. 

 

Damiana is a nervine, an antispasmodic, antidepressant, euphoric, relaxant, and tranquilizer.  It has a reputation as an aphrodisiac but I think this is due to its ability to calm/relax a person who is tense and stressed.  It is great for people who are uncomfortable in their own skin.  It doesn’t actually increase sexual desire.  Damiana acts differently depending on the emotional state of the individual. A person who is low energy will find it stimulating while a person who is agitated will find it more tranquilizing.  There is evidence of damiana being a good hormone balancer for both men and women.

 

I live very much in my head and I found that this bath put me right into my body.  I was luxuriating in being in physical form.  I was open and at peace.  Every muscle in my body was relaxed.  I had a candle, some music playing in the background, and I had a book.  To be honest I did not read the book; I was enjoying the whole bath experience too much.  I was completely 100% present in my body and in the moment.  If one wanted to be intimate this would be a great place to start from.  As an herbalist I love and work with plants every day.  I was totally caught off guard by how powerful the experience was.  Already I am thinking of other herbs that I might like to experiment with in the bath. Kava, mugwort, rose, lavender, and lemon balm are just a few that spring to mind.

Aside from the actions of the damiana itself I sent a message to my spirit when I chose to take time for myself.  I hate the cliche of the phrase “put on your own oxygen mask first before you assist others.”  It is, however, a great shorthand for what I want to say.  When life is getting jumbled and busy – dare to step off the merry go round.  If I don’t get around to making Fat Archies for my Dad – the world will not end.  I will get to see my Dad and fight over the crossword.  I will peel clementines for my Mom.  It’s the love we renew that makes the holidays special.  May you and yours be blessed with time together and may 2018 be full of dreams come true.

 

Fat Archies

 

1/2 cup white sugar                                         1/2 cup boiling water

1/2 cup brown sugar                                        2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup butter                                                   1 tsp ginger  

3-4 cups flour                                                   1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 egg                                                                1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 cup molasses

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Sift together 3 cups of the flour and the spices.  Cream the butter and the sugar together.  Add the egg and the molasses.  Dissolve the baking soda into the boiling water.  Mix the water/soda into the butter/sugar/molasses mix.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Mix together quickly to incorporate all the ingredients.  Add flour if needed.  Roll out the dough on a floured board.  These cookies are meant to be fat; do not roll dough too thin.  Cut circles with a glass dipped into flour. Bake in the oven for 15- 20 minutes.

 

 

those roots wont dig themselves

I always think of the flowers first when I think of elecampane (Inula helenium).  They can’t help but put a smile on your face.  They are quite similar to sunflowers only a shorter plant and a smaller flower. One of the common names for elecampane is wild sunflower. The ray flowers are narrow and long. This can give the flowers a bit of a scraggly appearance.  The leaves are alternate and clasp the stem quite closely.  The leaves are rough – like a kitten’s tongue scraping across your skin.  There is elecampane growing near my house but it is not in a spot conducive to harvesting – behind a fence accompanied by cows.  I have only a loose appreciation for private property – what if that beautiful field is just lying there?  I am not doing anything of ill intent and I always travel with a garbage bag to pick up and dispose of garbage.

 

 

 

Elecampane grows freely near my favourite provincial park and this year I was able to get myself organized to harvest some.  I spent the day hiking in the park and then stopped on the way home to dig.  Digging roots is a fall activity.  The trick is to wait as long as possible while still having enough plant material to correctly identify the plant.  Like a game of chicken with the frost. Usually I worry about being too cold, layers are needed.  This year because of our unusually warm Sept weather it was 40 degrees with the humidex and the sweat was rolling down my back as I hefted the shovel.  I had thought I would be thrilled at the chance to visit the park an extra time but to be honest it felt wrong.  Floating in a Canadian lake with the trees ablaze all around me.  Not normal.

 

Elecampane fights lung grunges.  It helps a stuck cough move to resolution.  Elecampane is what we call a stimulating expectorant.  Its success is in moving mucus and phlegm up and out of the lungs. The root is the part usually used in today’s herbalism and it contains a lot of volatile oils. These volatile oils stimulate the mucociliary escalator.  This escalator controls the cilia that line the bronchi and is one of the main counters the lungs have against infection.  Expectorants fall into one of three categories.  Relaxing expectorants – primarily antispasmodics that relax muscles and calm a cough. Secretolytic expectorants  – help to loosen and liquefy mucus and secretions.  Stimulating expectorants activate the cough reflex so you can cough mucus up and out of the lungs.  As an herbalist I always want to include all three kinds of expectorants in a formula.  Depending on the nature of the cough the person is experiencing you balance the levels of the three different kinds of expectorants accordingly.  A person with a loose open cough needs more stimulating expectorant than secretolytic.  Giving a person with a dry hacking cough a blend with a lot of stimulating expectorant will only serve to irritate their lungs and worsen their cough.

 

I have a special place in my heart for herbs that are what I call 2 for 1 herbs.  These are those herbs that provide symptom relief while simultaneously also addressing the underlying condition. Elecampane is actually a triple threat.  Aside from the action as an expectorant elecampane is also an immune stimulant.  It marshals the forces of the immune system to fight infection.  Add on top of this the fact that elecampane is antibacterial and antiviral and it is easy to see why it is one of the first herbs I reach for when confronted by a lower respiratory tract condition.  I am often frustrated by views of herbs that are one dimensional.  Herbs do not have slots that fit into tabs.  They have preponderances, but they often have more than one preponderance.  Elecampane is also a fantastic herb for digestion.  It is bitter and an appetite stimulant.  Useful for gas, bloating, poor appetite, indigestion, and helps to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract.

The root I harvested this year I am trying out three ways.  I have some infusing in honey – to use in tea when a person has a cough.  I am also making an elecampane elixir in brandy and an elecampane bitters (recipe courtesy of Rosalee de la Foret). I did a quick taste test yesterday and I think they could all sit for a bit longer.  

I find making medicine satisfying.  Even with plants I’ve worked with before I invariably learn something.  The whole time I was scrubbing the roots I could smell them.  I could feel their action on my lungs.  Another lesson in the difference between fresh herb and dried.  When winter does its worst this year (and here in Ottawa meterologists are predicting a tough winter) this elecampane will be a bit of sunshine in a bottle.  I have a client struggling with lung issues and the elecampane elixir might be just the tonic for her.

 

 

swooning in a botanical garden

A gal recently asked me if I garden.  Garden?  If you count me letting our 2.5 acres pretty much do what it wants then yes I garden.  Otherwise no, not so much.  I mostly like my plants wild – untouched and untamed.  Despite this affection for the weedy I am an ardent lover of botanical gardens.  Anytime I am planning a trip to a new city the first thing I do is find out if they have a botanical garden.  To me it seems perfectly reasonable that an herbalist would geek out over a botanical garden.  In truth though not every herbalist is as turned on by live plants as I am.  Even as I write this I am sitting in a local Ottawa gem – the Unitarian Garden.  This peaceful oasis is tucked in behind the Unitarian Church on Cleary Avenue.   Perched on my bench in the Saturday morning sunshine I can see elder, rose, yarrow, yellow dock, agrimony, woodland sunflower, solomon’s seal, and ox-eye daisy.  I’m not even craning my neck.  This is one of my favourite spots to just sit and be.  There is a spirit here that speaks my soul.  Plus – rabbits.

 

We are fortunate in Ottawa that we live in a city with massive amounts of green-space.  To learn to identify those plants that are native or naturalized to our land-base a person would only be limited by the time one had at hand available to tramp through the trails.  In theory.  In reality though, unless you happen by on the right day, in the right place, and you are looking in the right direction you might easily miss a plant friend that you are longing to learn from.  One of my favourite woodland spots has blue flag growing in it.  In 10 years of woods-walking I’ve seen it in flower a single time.

 

A botanical garden is a great opportunity to see plants up close.  Plants that are perhaps not as common as burdock.  I’ve spent many hours with a particular jack in the pulpit at the Montreal Botanical Garden.

 

I could visit the plant throughout the growing season.  I could touch the leaves, I could smell it, I could taste it.  I am a locavore herbalist.  The majority of my dispensary is made up of plants that I have personally harvested within 100 km of my home.  I’m crazy about the world of plants though and sometimes I want to see, learn about a plant that does not grow around here.

 

I was lucky to spend time in Edinburgh this summer.  I spent several of my days at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh.  Over 70 acres of plant goodness – plus glasshouses.  That’s the UK word for greenhouses.  The garden was founded in 1670 to specialize in medicinal plants. Today (more than 300 years later) they are engaged in research and education in plant biodiversity and conservation.  I have been before but this year I particularly enjoyed the specimen tress that dot the grounds.  Common practice in botanical gardens sees the plants labelled with the common and latin name.

At the RBGE they have gone a step further and for some of the trees with a particular history in Scotland given more depth information about the tree, the history, and uses.  As well as the numerous gardens they have a large research library that is open to the public.  Want to take a peek at a medieval herbal?  The actual original manuscript?  This is the place.  A collection focused on plants, botany, and herbalism.  Admittedly I haven’t yet had a chance to devote any time to the library but that is because I was busy being entranced by the woodland garden (among others).

This purple loosestrife is being lovingly tended in  bed at the RBGE.  I was entertained by the presence in the garden of a plant I would just have to walk out my back door to harvest easily.  Purple loosestrife is making a comeback as a medicinal plant.  It had fallen out of favour amongst screams of how it was invading wetlands.  More careful observation has shown this to not be the case.  Purple loosestrife is an excellent lymphatic and also a plant that is useful for working with folks with blood sugar problems.  The plant has a reputation at being useful at remediation of polluted sites so careful where you harvest.

 

In no way related to herbalism and plants but if you are ever in Edinburgh do check out El Cartel.  A teeny bustling Mexican restaurant that should be pictured in the dictionary opposite the term “right livelihood”.  They don’t take reservations but give them your #, head on down the street to the pub for a pint and they’ll give you a shout when there is a table.  Always inspiring to see folks who have found their calling and are making it happen.  May it be so for you.

 

easy DIY herb vinegar project

Part of my calling is encouraging/empowering people to use herbs for themselves.  Herbs as an essential component to our daily life.  We don’t need to “save” them for when we are ill.   When we incorporate herbs into our regular everyday we increase the nutritional density of our diet and lay the groundwork for better health (I would also say happiness) overall.  Our best health happens in the tiny decisions we make every day.  It’s the unbroken chain of whole food each day/every day.  It’s week after week of hitting the gym – even when we don’t feel like it.  Perhaps especially when we don’t feel like it!  Think of it as saving for retirement.  You start when you’re young and save a bit each year – over many years.  You don’t decide (or at least we don’t if we hope to succeed) to start saving at age 64 to retire at 65.  Making herbs a regular part of our lives builds in us resiliency that helps us to resist poor health.  Puts more snap in the rubber band.

 

Vinegar is an excellent extractor of minerals.  Making a fresh herb vinegar gives us an easy way to increase our mineral intake.  Herbs can be used to make a culinary vinegar – great for adding flavour.  I am instead talking about something we can use more as a mineral supplement.  A much higher amount of herb material used.  Fresh herbs are everywhere in summertime.  The investment of time is minimal and then you have your own homemade mineral supplement.  Personally I like to make a variety of herb vinegars and then mix them together to use as 1.  I most of the time favour the team approach when working with herbs.   I think of it as the difference between playing a middle C on the piano and playing a chord.  I have nothing against middle C but there is often a greater depth and resonance to the chord.

 

Nettles, chickweed, garlic mustard, horsetail, raspberry, dandelion leaves (and roots), you really are only limited by what is freely available where you live.  You will need a jar – a nice glass jar with a wide mouth will get the job done.  If there is any metal on the lid make sure you use wax paper or something else to prevent contact between the vinegar and the metal.

vinegar – I usually use apple cider vinegar.  You can use pasteurized or unpasteurized.  Fresh herbs and unpasteurized vinegar can sometimes result in goopey unfortunate messes.  If you can accept that then using unpasteurized vinegar is no problem.  If you want to reduce the chances of things going awry then work with pasteurized vinegar.

 

To make the herb vinegar in the picture I took the jar, went outside, and started harvesting.  I didn’t bother with a knife, I just ripped up the herb as I went and put it in the jar.  The pieces are a bit on the large side but I was in a quick and dirty kind of mood.  When extracting herbs you want as much surface area as possible.  I could have taken the dandelion leaves inside and chopped them up on the cutting board but I just wanted to get the vinegar made.  You want the jar to be packed with the herb.  You are looking for the Goldilocks point.  You don’t want the herbs jammed in there so much that you can barely get any vinegar into the jar but you want enough herb material to actually have something for the vinegar to extract.  When I look at the photo I think that I could have put more herb material in the jar.  When the jar is full of herb, pour in the vinegar.  Make sure that all the herb material is completely covered by vinegar.  This is crucial.  Close the jar.  Leave for 6 weeks.  If you can remember to shake it daily for the first 2 weeks that would be great.  If you can’t – shrug – moving on.

After 6 weeks maceration, strain out the herb material.  I don’t mind a few bits and bobs of herb material floating around in the vinegar but if you want your vinegar to be herb bit free you can strain it again through an unbleached coffee filter.  You can keep the vinegar in the fridge to extend it’s shelf life but you don’t have to.  If you want to use it as a mineral supplement take 2-3 tablespoons a day.  Or you can just keep the vinegar and if you make your own salad dressings use the vinegar for that.  A good starting ratio for a nice vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar.  Experiment – what do you like?  You can also add some to soups, stews, a splash over your vegetables before you eat them.

Herbs for everyday!!!

 

Flowering of the elders

It’s the Canada day weekend  – we Canadians here in the Ottawa valley celebrated by imitating drowned rats.  Only out in the country will people go out in the pouring rain at midnight to set off fireworks.

Everywhere I look I see elder trees (Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis) dressed up in their white lace finery.  I like elders because they are scrappy.  They are feisty trees, break off a twig and stick it into the ground – they are likely to grow.  One of my favourite harvesting spots was “improved” several years ago by having everything cut back.  Now, 3 years later, the elders are reasserting themselves.

Elders are trees who enjoy having their feet wet so I am sure they are satisfied with the surplus of rain we have been getting recently.  I feel sorry for the farmers.  An unusually wet spring meant a late start on their planting and now I see lakes where their fields should be.  Despite the lack of a stretch of warm sunny days I can see the effects of climate change overall in the flowering of the elders.  They ordinarily would not (I guess I should say in years past because who knows what is ordinary anymore) traditionally they would bloom the 2nd or third week in July.  Today is the 2nd of July and they have been in full flower this past week.

Elderflowers and elderberries are both used medicinally.  As it is the flowers that I am at the moment enchanted by I want to focus on their uses.  Many folks know about the blessing of elderberries and their uses while the flower wisdom is not quite as well known.

Elderflowers are great for conditions of both the upper and lower respiratory system. Elderflowers are exceptionally good anti-catarrhals.  They excel when the symptoms are caused by allergies.  Runny nose and itchy watery eyes?  Elderflowers can help.  Great for feverish conditions elderflowers can be combined with other good diaphoretics/febrifuges like yarrow (Achillea millefolium), boneset (Eupatorium perforatum), joe pye (Eupatorium purpureum) or wild bergamot (Mondara fistulosa).  When used for fevers the remedy should always be taken hot.  I sometimes like to give folks a tincture blend and then have them take it in a cup of tea.  Its success in increasing peripheral circulation means that elderflowers can be helpful when there is poor peripheral circulation or when we want to increase elimination via the skin.

Elderflowers are not often one of the herbs we first think of when we think about herbs for conditions of the nervous system but they do have a gentle action that can work on states of emotional distress.  I find that they are soothing and that the very gentleness of their effect is part of how they heal.  I feel they help us to integrate our feelings – particularly feelings of loss and grief.  I was talking to a man recently who was concerned because he was losing weight and could not sleep.  His father had died just a month previous.  While I could understand his concern and his desire for a solution I did not see these “problems” as “problems”  He was a son who had lost his father.  To be lost and bereft was …..human. Elderflowers would have been a good support for him.

I haven’t yet tried this myself but I have read that the flowers/leaves can be used in an infused oil for salves for sprains and strains.  I think I might give that a try this summer.

A person would never harvest anything from an elder tree without first asking permission of the Hylde-moer.  This is the Elder-mother, a guardian spirit who watches over the tree.  To harvest without her permission is to bring about bad luck.  If you were by the tree on Midsummer’s eve it is said you can see the Faery king ride by.  Elder wood crosses used to be placed on graves to help the newly dead to find peace and elder wood crosses hung over doors and windows so as to disappoint the charms of witches.  Burning elder is said to bring death to the family while a pregnant woman who kisses an elder tree will bring luck to the baby.

“If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark, and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge for sickness and wounds.”       John Evelyn, 17th century