St. John's Wort

St. John’s wort

It started with his walking. I noticed our 14-month-old son Oscar was a little unsteady on his feet—well, more so than usual—sometimes veering off to one side or the other like he was dizzy.

Occasionally, he would stop whatever he was doing—laughing, talking, playing—and look up at nothing in particular, forehead wrinkled, and touch his cheek, distracted by some sensation.

Then he started to fuss. He clung. He became anxious, melting down if I went out of his sight for even a second. He was hungry but refused to eat his dinner. He ran a little warm now and then, but nothing high enough to classify as a “fever.” He seemed generally uncomfortable in his own skin and altogether not himself. He’s got some pretty daunting chompers coming in, so I kept hoping it was just teething.

Then, Oscar’s child care called me to pick him up because he’d thrown up his whole bottle, projectile style. When I pulled up out front, I could hear him crying. The second he saw me, he reached for me with unhappy desperation, tugging on his ear repeatedly. Hard to miss it at that point.

Ear infection.

Mullein

Mullein

I scheduled a doctor’s appointment to make sure there wasn’t more going on, but in the meantime, I hustled Oscar home. I warmed some ear oil in a cup of hot water, then leaned him over in my lap to put the drops in his ear. He squirmed and fussed at first, but as soon as the drops slid in, he relaxed. The relief just seemed to come that fast. He calmed and breathed easy, letting me massage the area around his ear gently.

There’s nothing worse than seeing your little one in pain. But there’s nothing better than being able to bring him some relief and comfort. The oil I currently use is Gaia Herbs Ear Oil, an herbal oil of garlic, mullein, St.John’s wort, etc. Once this runs out, I will keep on hand a homemade garlic mullein oil from the recipe in Aviva Romm’s book Naturally Healthy Babies and Children.

Pediatricians and parents alike are widely divided on ear infection treatment and prevention. Many doctors claim that there is no way to prevent ear infections, but others say it is entirely preventable with proper diet and care. Many resort immediately to antibiotics, while others prefer to treat herbally and/or with diet.

As with all things, I think it’s a matter of what’s right for your family. I personally found this blog on the subject very helpful.

What are your preferred ear infection remedies/preventions?

You know how much I like to eat. But right now, where I am in our pregnancy, my relationship with food is ambivalent at best.

But breakfast, at least, I’ve got tucked away. Each evening, I put in a small bowl some rolled (GF) oats, a pinch of sea salt, a drizzle of agave nectar, and a spoonful of astragalus powder. Over this, I spoon a moderate amount of plain whole milk yogurt. After sitting in the fridge overnight, the oats are softened and toothsome, and the astragalus and agave impart a sweet, slightly nutty and buttery flavor to the mix. The yogurt provides good fats and probiotics to help with that touch-and-go pregnancy digestion. The whole mix is highly nutritive and supportive.

oats with yogurt and astragalus

Oats with yogurt and astragalus – an easy breakfast before getting to work.

It occurred to me this morning that this is an herbal remedy for me right now.

For any of you dealing with morning (or all-day) sickness, you might give this a whirl. On really rough mornings, I pair it with some spicy chai to get the digestive tract warmed up. Often this is followed with a hot cup of nutritive herbal tea  mid-morning.

The rest of the day is still touch-and-go, but mornings I’ve got pinned down at least.

As a side note, all astragalus powders are not created equal, so you might try a small amount before committing to a one-pound bag of an unfamiliar brand. I’ve had the best luck with Mountain Rose’s astragalus. I’ve had other astragalus powders that tasted slightly (weirdly) bitter—no idea why, but I know I didn’t like it.

What’s your herbal morning regimen? Favorite morning sickness remedies?

Spring means many wonderful things, but it also means (sigh) spring cleaning. One of those jobs that I want to put off and put off, dreading the mess that will ensue before order is restored—even more so now that I have a toddler and must measure out my chores in naptimes (he’s not quite old enough that he can help yet, unless by “help” you mean throwing things at random, stuffing anything-not-nailed-down into his mouth, etc.).

This spring, high on my to-do list is taking inventory, organizing, and relocating my medicinals. I keep a lot of my herbs in tincture form because it has a much longer shelf-life and takes up less space than bulk herbs. Having tinctured here and there since 2008, my medicinals have been kind of crammed in odd spaces as I finished them. Thank goodness I at least had the presence of mind to label them (herb, menstruum, date) so I could figure out what I was finding. I’ve also just begun Aviva Romm’s Herbal Medicine for Women course, so knowing what I have on hand in advance and getting it all in one place will be really helpful as I move through the course material.

After dredging bottles, bags, and boxes out of the bottom of the kitchen pantry, the back of a couple cabinets, and the upstairs closet (I hope I didn’t miss any hiding places!), I gathered all the herbies together, made a list of what they were, how much I had (by volume or weight, as appropriate), and date. I then stowed them all in roughly alphabetical order in one place in the kitchen where they will be kept dry and in the dark—and much more easy to access than their previous hiding places. The inventory list (with room for notes, additions, etc.) will be posted inside the door to the herb cabinet for quick reference.

herbal pantryAs you can see from the picture, my tinctures are stored in various and sundry glass jars. Some are the wonderful flip-top bottles, others in different sizes of canning jars, others in re-used glass juice bottles—a decidedly un-fancy hodge-podge, but whatever works. I fit my few bags of bulk herbs, oils, etc., in where I could. Doubtless I’ll need to find a bigger space for them down the road, but for now, this will suffice. As a special reward for my archeological dig herbal inventory, I unearthed a half-dozen bottles of homemade t’ej in assorted flavors—watermelon, lemon balm, mulberry, apricot, etc. YUM.

What are your spring herbal chores?

Za'atar seasoning

Za’atar seasoning

If you read this blog, you likely know that my favorite way of taking herbs is to eat them, and za’atar seasoning (or zaatar or zatar) is no exception. I first encountered za’atar several years ago at dinner at my friends Joe and Nan’s home. Joe is of Lebanese descent; as part of the meal, he had taken pita, drizzled it with good quality olive oil, sprinkled it liberally with za’atar, and then toasted it in the oven. It was divine.

That was before I even started studying herbalism—I didn’t even know what sumac was, nor that it had medicinal properties. Now I know, and if it’s possible, I enjoy this spice blend even more now with the understanding. Similar to a gomasio, this spice blend includes sea salt and sesame seeds but hails from the Middle East. We eat it sprinkled on gluten-free toast, on popcorn, and if you eat meat, it’s wonderful to roll a chicken breast in it before cooking. If you try it out (or if you already use it), I’d love to hear how you use this tasty seasoning!

Za’atar

  • 4 parts dried thyme leaves (if the pieces are large, you might want to grind it a little for optimal mixing)
  • 4 parts sumac powder
  • 4 parts toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 part sea salt

Mix all ingredients together. Store in a glass jar.

What are some of your favorite medicinal-and-tasty herbal seasoning blends?

This is a bit of a round-up post, with information about online resources, herbal education, a documentary, and a gardening tip.

First, I need your input. I am in the process of re-vamping the Links page—instead of the short list that you see now, I want to create here a more comprehensive list of online herbal education resources, organized into categories such as blogs, Web sites, courses, webinars, e-newsletters, forums, etc., along with descriptions. If you have favorite resources that you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments section of this post—provide a link as well as a short description.

Second, I finally signed up for Aviva Romm’s Herbal Medicine for Women course! I’m starting this weekend, and I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been hankering after this class pretty much since it was first made available (you know I’m a fan), and with all the ever-growing time constraints and competing priorities, I finally decided to stop making excuses and make it happen. I’ve already checked out the student web site and the student forum, and I’m on cloud nine. Doubtless, you will be hearing much more about this along the way.

Third, PBS made a documentary called What Plants Talk About, and it’s available for free viewing on their Web site (I love PBS). It’s about how plants communicate and interact with each other and with the world around them, their natural intelligence—pretty amazing stuff. If you watch it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Lastly, for the gardeners—I learned about this awesome low-tech setup for garden irrigation this week. This is definitely on my future project list. Any favorite gardening shortcuts/tips?

Have a beautiful and blessed weekend! I’ll let you know when I have the Links page up and running…

As March draws to a reluctant end, it seems a fitting time to look at one of our favorite fresh springtime herbs, chickweed. Along with the crocus and the courageous dandelion, chickweed is one of the first flowers to come blinking into the light early each spring here in Virginia, sometimes even between snowfalls, starry-eyed and full of fresh hope. Its Latin name Stellaria means “little star” and media means “in the midst of”—and when you look at a wide-eyed clump of chickweed flowers spilling over the walk, you can see the meaning; you are indeed in the midst of many little stars. I especially love Steve Brill’s description of this herb:

“If there was ever a plant whose personality I would like to emulate, it’s chickweed. When you look at it, it appears fragile and tender. Yet this plant also manages to be tough and hardy. It doesn’t wilt under the malevolent glare of murderous gardeners. It has the vitality to fight off weed killers, stand up to frigid weather, even snow, and hold its springy shape against oblivious tramplers,” (Brill 138).

chickweedStellaria media

Family:
Caryophyllaceae—carnation family

Other names:
Hen’s inheritance, as well as, “Starweed, tongue grass, winterweed, satinflower, white bird’s eye, adder’s mouth, starwort, stitchwort, clucken wort, skirt buttons, chick wittles, chickenyweed,” (Weed 115)

Parts used:
Aerial parts—stems, leaves, and flowers

Actions:
Chickweed is a soothing, cooling, emollient, and demulcent anti-inflammatory, as well as being a mild diuretic, anti-rheumatic, and vulnerary herb.  Deeply nutritive, it is often eaten as herbal food, especially for those who’ve been depleted by illness or malnutrition. It is considered an alterative and a normaliser. Juliette de Baraicli Levy points out, “Chickweed possesses remarkable drawing powers, absorbing quantities of impurities when applied to the skin,” (Levy 40), and James Duke adds, “Compounds in the plant also help you to digest food and cough up mucus,” (Duke II, 73)”

Indications:
Used both internally and externally for all kinds of inflammation, chickweed is especially indicated for inflammation of the skin (sores, carbuncles, abscesses, boils, itchiness), eyes (glaucoma, styes), and urinary system (UTI, cystitis, kidney issues). It is also used to help prevent osteoporosis and hot flashes in menopausal women. It helps relieve issues of water retention, as well as stomach ulcers and bronchitis. Internal and external applications can be used in tandem to treat yeast infections, arthritis,  and rheumatism. Levy adds, “Eaten as a salad, chickweed improves the eyesight,” (Levy 40).

chickweedConstituents:
A nutritional powerhouse, Stellaria media is an excellent source of calcium, potassium, iron, copper, beta carotene, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, sodium, and vitamins C, B6, B12, and D.  It also contains steroidal saponins, which “improve the absorption of topically applied substances and may even speed the internal absorption of medications,” (Duke II, 73) as well as relieving congestion.

Growing information:
This creeping annual is often considered a weed and can be found world-wide, especially in areas of cultivated, nutrient-rich, and or disturbed soil. In fact, it even helps the soil where it grows to retain nitrogen. It is most notably known for its “Many very small starry white flowers, with five petals so deeply divided they appear to be ten petals; growing in low, dense, vibrant green mats; single line of hairs on smooth stalk,” (Weed 115). Its flowers “open in the sun but often close on overcast or rainy days,” (Duke II, 73).  Steve Brill adds, “According to folklore, you can use chickweed to predict the weather. If the flowers are blooming robustly, it won’t rain for at least four hours. Otherwise, bring an umbrella,” (Brill 139). Its seeds, flowers, and greens alike are beloved of animal foragers, especially chickens and birds, hence the name “chickweed.”

Collection:
Chickweed can be collected year round for use in infusion, tincturing, or poultice; but for eating, it is best to collect fresh, young stems, leaves, and flowers when still young and tender, especially in the early spring, before the stems toughen.

chickweed2Preparation:
This herb is best used and prepared fresh, as it doesn’t dry or store well. Its fresh greens can be eaten in salads, pesto, or lightly sautéed or boiled (like spinach). It is a common ingredient in topical ointments and poultices for external application. A tea from the fresh herb is refreshing and nutritive, as is a tincture of the fresh herb (which can be taken internally or used topically).

Historical:
Originally native to Europe, but now can be found worldwide.

Warning:
Gentle chickweed is one of those happy herbs that is safe for use during pregnant and for young children, both internally or externally. Its pollen may contribute to hay fever (Weed 115).

Sources: Brill, Buchman, Duke II, Gladstar, Green, Hoffman, Hoffman II, Levy, Mabey, Romm, Romm II, Weed

More and more people are finding themselves drawn to herbalism, whether just for self use, family wellness, to complement another healing modality, or to serve their community. Recently, a reader lit a fire under me to start posting again (Thanks, Jillian!) Interested in pursuing her herbal studies, she quickly discovered that many of the distance learning courses are pretty pricey. There was no easy commute option for a course she could attend in person, either. She wanted to get more of a foundation in general herbal knowledge before picking out a specific area or modality to focus on and make that financial commitment. Sounds familiar.

I tried to offer some basic guidance on choosing a program and a teacher: be aware of how you learn best and what sorts of activities keep you mentally engaged, speak with the teacher beforehand, and definitely ask to speak with someone who has taken (and finished) the course. More on that here.

But it got me thinking—when a person, a potential student, is still trying to figure out what area they want to study, or even if they want to pursue it at all, there are a number of ways you can get some basic education in herbalism without spending any money.

Herbal Reference LibraryThe first: use your local library. I actually have two library cards, so I can really shop around! Libray Web sites now often allow you to check book availability, reserve books, place holds, and even request a transfer of books to your neighborhood branch. Some libraries are also now offering eBooks and audiobooks that you can check out for a couple weeks at a time, also for free. Used bookstores are also great for building an herbal reference library inexpensively.

If you are a social learner, find a study buddy or a group, online or with someone who lives near you. Set goals and challenges together. If you’re like me and don’t have a study group, set challenges for yourself and see them through. For example, I have challenged myself to post at least one piece related to herbalism each weekend. That guarantees that I will make time at least once a week to focus on my interest and stay engaged until schedule and finances allow me to get back to my more formal studies.

There are myriad free online resources in the forms of Web sites, blogs, forums, webinars, and videos. There are also herbalism e-newsletters and mailing lists for which you can sign up. Here are a few of my favorite resources:

  • American Herbalists Guild—offers recordings of past webinars.
  • Aviva Romm’s blog—an herbalist, midwife, and doctor. I would love to take her distance learning course someday…
  • LearningHerbs.com—some free and some paid courses, plus free lessons/e-newsletters that include some material medica, recipes, tips, and seasonal information.
  • YouTube—I ran a search on “herbalism” and was impressed with how many educational videos were available.
  • Susun Weed’s Web site—free online learning resources, tons of articles on a wide range of topics.
  • TED—if you haven’t yet discovered TED talks, this is your lucky day. Short presentations on every subject imaginable—even a few on herbalism, ayurveda, natural health, etc.—they’re always adding new material, so it’s worth checking occasionally.

There are also a number of free online resources for anatomy and physiology—I’ve seen some good ones on YouTube and on the Khan Academy Web site.

Those are just a few of my favorites. I’d love to add a few more to the list—what are some of your favorite resources?  What’s worked best for you in pursuing your herbalism education? What’s been your biggest challenge? Have you taken a formal study course that really worked for you?

When I was a freshman in college, I stopped eating, sometimes coasting on half a bowl of oatmeal a day. The smell of food made me ill. I lost a lot of weight, and my normally boundless energy was utterly deflated. Taking 21 credits at a time, exhaustion and frequent spells of dizziness and even fainting soon became a big issue. I had countless blood tests run, but no one could tell me what was wrong with me. But we knew what the symptom was: anorexia. I couldn’t eat.

The symptom anorexia (with a lower-case “a”) simply describes the often extreme loss of appetite in an individual, and is most often as a symptom of a larger disease or condition. The symptom anorexia is not to be confused with Anorexia nervosa—commonly referred to, confusingly, as Anorexia for short—which is a psychological disorder characterized by an intense fear of being or becoming obese, often marked by extreme diet and exercise and/or binge-and-purge eating patterns.

I remember being horrified by the weight I lost and the difficulty I had just navigating my day-to-day; it’s hard to even imagine it now. Looking back now, I think it’s very likely that my anorexia was a symptom of celiac disease, though I didn’t figure out I had celiac until ten years later. Unfortunately, anorexia is a common symptom of many diseases and infections,  including tuberculosis, cancer, AIDS, kidney failure, liver failure, dehydration, and countless others; and as a symptom, the best long-range treatment for anorexia is to find the underlying cause—in my case, celiac disease—which is not always easy for doctors to diagnose. Anorexia was not my only symptom of celiac disease, but it was certainly the most frightening.

In addition to needing to find the underlying cause of the symptom, there are herbs that can help relieve anorexia symptoms, especially those that act as appetite stimulants. Because people who have been struggling with anorexia are often malnourished as a result, it is also important to consider adaptogenic and deeply nourishing herbs and foods to help build back their vitality.

Herbs specifically recommended for treatment of anorexia include dandelion roots and leaves, oats, oatstraw, and seaweed (Weed 144, 147, 201, 227); as well as ashwagandha and medicinal rhubarb (Foster III, 23, 105).

If you or someone you know is experiencing anorexia, please see a doctor and get help.

Not to be confused with the delicious common garden rhubarb that brightens up many a pie here in America, medicinal rhubarb, or Rheum palmatum, has a much more specific and potent effect on the body. Although parts of it can be eaten, best to be aware of its actions and contraindications beforehand (see “Warnings” at the bottom of this post), lest you be unpleasantly surprised by… ahem… unwanted bowel stimulation. :)

Medicinal rhubarb - Rheum palmatum

Medicinal rhubarb – Rheum palmatum

Rheum palmatum

Family:
Polygonaceae – buckwheat family

Other names:
Medicinal rhubarb, Chinese rhubarb, Turkey rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, da-huang (meaning “great yellow” in reference to the color of its rhizome)

Parts used:
Root and rhizome

Actions:
A cold and bitter stomachic, medicinal rhubarb is at once astringent and laxative, a digestive and appetite stimulant, cathartic, antibacterial, and aperients. Specifically regarding its laxative effect, Hoffman describes it as having, “purgative actions for use in the treatment of constipation, but [it] also has an astringent effect following this. It therefore has a truly cleansing action upon the gut, removing debris and then astringing with antiseptic properties as well,” (Hoffman 134). Much of its actions in regards to digestion have to do with the dosage used. “In small doses, the astringent tannins in the root make it effective for diarrhea and also tonic to the digestive system,” (Mabey 98), whereas, “in larger amounts, the anthraquinones react with bacteria in the digestive tract to create compounds that trigger intestinal contractions for a bowel movement. (The high fiber contact of medicinal rhubarb helps somewhat, too.),” (Duke II, 186).

Indications:
Constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, hepatitis, high blood pressure, edema, nausea, anorexia

Constituents:
Anthraquinones, tannins, bitter aromatic principle

Growing information:
Rheum palmatum’s native habitat is the wastelands of western China, northern Tibet, Turkey, and Mongolia. It can easily be distinguished from the common edible garden rhubarb by its sheer size. Although garden rhubarb is known to be a large plant, its size pales in comparison to that of medicinal rhubarb, which, “has thick, deep roots, a six- to ten-foot jointed stalk, and loose panicles of flowers along the top that bloom yellow or white and turn red. Around it fall tapering branches that hold out large, jagged, hand-shaped leaves two to three feet wide,” (Foster III, 104).

Medicinal rhubarb - Rheum palmatum

Medicinal rhubarb – Rheum palmatum

Collection:
The roots of plants three-plus years old are collected in areas of China and Turkey in September and October. They are then cleaned and dried. Foster points out, “Traditionally in China, the root is wild harvested, but wild supplies have been depleted. In the past 30 years it has been extensively cultivated in China,” (Foster III, 105).

Preparation:
Most commonly taken as a decoction, tincture, or syrup, David Hoffman suggests that medicinal rhubarb, “should be combined with carminative herbs to relieve any griping that may occur,” (Hoffman 134). Juliette de Bairacli Levy also recommends its being eaten if you have access to the fresh plant, saying, “Eat a few of the raw young stems frequently as a bowel tonic and mild laxative. Take as much as desire of the lightly cooked stems and hearts, flavored with lemon juice, sweetened with honey or sugar,” (Levy 132).

Historical:
With a 5,000-year-old legacy of medicinal use in Chinese medicine, even written about by Marco Polo in his travels in the 13th century, “In 1731, the imperial Russian  state began a monopoly in rhubarb trade from China via the Asian steppes to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the root was shipped to the rest of Europe. The ‘Rhubarb Office’ controlled European imports of rhubarb for more than 125 years until Chinese ports opened to the West allowing direct export of the roots,” (Foster III, 104). Surprisingly, it was relatively unknown in the West until the 18th century, despite its having been used in medicines in Europe for hundreds of years previous, and its trade was one of great import (pun intended) – in China,“Rhubarb export was so common by the mid-19th century that when the emperor of China could not stop the import of British opium, he threatened to stop exporting rhubarb to Britain,” (Foster III, 105). That’s a powerful plant.

Warning:
Do not use while pregnant or nursing or if you have any of the following conditions: arthritis, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, intestinal obstruction, or urinary problems. Only use root and rhizome, as the leaves are poisonous. As with any laxative, do not take for more than several days to this end. Also note: Usage may result in yellow or red colored urine.

Early March and spring is right around the corner. I thought it would be good to take some pictures, check in with the herbies as they venture out into the chill. Imagine my surprise when, four days after taking pictures for this post, this happened:

Crocuses in a March snow

Crocuses in a March snow

Ah, March. In like a lion, true to fashion. Let’s see if it goes out like a lamb?

Elderberry

Elderberry, budding out from where we cut it back this past fall (our dog Rowan in the background). My husband was so worried we would kill it. Now he knows *grin*

Black Cherry

Part of our dwarf fruit tree plantings, this black cherry is now three years old and budding out all over the place!

Lavender

New growth on the lavender bush. We finally found a spot where it could winter over. Hurrah for south-facing walls!

rosemary2013-03_2

Rosemary. Isn’t she gorgeous?

Rosemary

All abloom – just beautiful

Garden rhubarb

Garden variety rhubarb (not the medicinal variety) busting out ready for pies…

Tansy

The tansy is starting to reach out for another year of trying to escape its pot…

St. John's wort

and the St. John’s wort, so eager for the returning sun

Marjoram

Our marjoram is a bit singed from the frost, but weathered yet another winter, the old girl

Lemon Balm

The lemon balm is creeping up between the fallen leaves

Feverfew

and the feverfew as well

Grapes

The muscadine grapes are starting to bud out – these guys are three years old, too, and soooo tasty…

Hyssop

Hyssop is interplanted with the grapes…

Vitex

The vitex still looks pretty barren, but soon enough it’ll be busting out in beautiful blooms

Vitex berries

Damon holding some of the dried vitex berries

Echinacea

The echinacea is starting to peek out in clumps here and there

Daffodil and santolina

Daffodil and santolina cuddling up close for warmth…

Daffodil

so lovely…

Crocus

and of course, the crocus, flagbearer of spring.

Stay warm everyone! And if you’re on the East coast, enjoy the snow and stay safe!

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