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


“Thinking is skilled work.  It is not true that we are naturally endowed with the ability to think clearly and logically – without learning how, or without practicing.”  A.E. Mander

I was listening to Susun Weed’s podcast (Tuesday nights at 7:30 pm) when I heard her say that she wished “people who wanted to learn about herbs would get off the internet.”  I laughed out loud.  Long and hard.  Partly because irony and partly because – truth.

There is a lot we can learn on and from the internet.  Herbalists of all levels of experience can come together to share info and swap ideas and best practices.  When I first started studying herbs and herbalism books were the main source of info.  Books!  Can you believe it?  The only herbalists I could interact with were those who lived in the same city as I or those who, if I were lucky, I got to meet at conferences.  Actual bricks and mortar places to study herbalism are few and far between.  What if you are not lucky enough to have one in your city, town, or village.  The internet is a great place to start if you have an interest or passion for herbalism.  The problem (in some case the danger) is that there is no quality control.  No curation or vetting of the reams and reams of information out there.  Add to the mix commercial interests and the internet can easily become a breeding ground for dis/misinformation.  What is the expression – like drinking from a fire hose?

Don’t trust the internet.

I read a blog post that told me that mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is not used medicinally.  This person also helpfully informed me that they had been an herbalist for over 30 years so they would know.  I have no way of knowing how long they have been an herbalist but I can categorically state that mugwort is used medicinally.  It shares some qualities with its sister wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but has a more profound action on the nervous system.

On a different site I saw a lovely photo (truly representative of the plant) of boneset (Eupatorium perforatum) misidentified as Gravel Root (Eupatorium nosensum) aka Joe Pye aka Queen of the Meadow.  Don’t even get me started on the use of latin names vs common names.  Should I have made the effort to contact the content providers and inform them of their error?  Maybe.  Shrug.  I am not the internet police.  I have my own work.

I’d rather urge anyone trying to learn via the internet to sign up for a heaping dose of caution.  Check and recheck any info that you find online.  No one knows everything.  Many people know nothing.  An experienced herbalist has a depth and breadth of information that cannot be accessed via a facebook post.  A good rule of thumb is to seek out a minimum of 3 separate references.  Ensure that they actually are 3 separate and distinct sources.  If herbalist A and herbalist B say the same thing but they both got their info from herbalist C then you only have 1 source – herbalist C.  Think critically.

I vacillate between thinking I am the most cynical person alive and also thinking I am not cynical enough.  You inform me via your website that these 6 herbs are the best herbs for elimination and no others will do and what do you know – you just happen to sell a product that is a blend of those 6 herbs.  Well they must be the best.  Please immediately ship to me your product.  On the other hand I was fall off my chair shocked when I read pages and pages of material I knew for a fact had been plagiarized from a well known and respected herbalist.  Who does that?  Sigh.

It is great that on a cold winter’s day I can stay in my footie pajamas and learn about ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens).  But seeing as it grows nowhere near the Ottawa valley where I live, harvest, and heal perhaps I would be better served by layering up, getting out the snowshoes and spending time live and in person with the white pines (Pinus strobus) that line the back edge of our property.


One of the latin names in this post is made up.  Do not believe everything you read.