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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

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.

Kudzu is one of those plants that everyone (at least in the southeastern states) knows, but few know how nutritious and helpful an herb it is. This is the trailing and climbing vine that has been known to scale rusted-out VW buses in a single bound, completely veiling trees and shrubs, boulders and buildings, all along America’s southern highways. But when you find out that a highly “invasive” species such as this is also highly edible, and nutritious, and a useful herbal medicine, well, that’s good news isn’t it? There is plenty for the herbalist or forager to harvest, and you’ll only be helping to restrain its growth—the other native plant species will thank you.

Pueraria montana

Family:
Fabaceae—Pea family

Kudzu

Parts used:
Root, flower, stem, leaf

Actions:
Kudzu is a diaphoretic, hypotensive, stimulant to the spleen, sobering, antitumor, antioxidant, cardotonic, and generally aids in stimulating body fluids.

Indications:
Pueraria montana has long been used to treat headache and fever, as well as drunkenness, alcoholism (by reducing the desire for alcohol), and hangover, and cirrhosis of the liver; in fact, “Kudzu extracts have also been found to stimulate regeneration of liver tissue while protecting against liver toxins,” (Foster, 193). It is also potent as a remedy for a number of digestive complaints, including diarrhea, dysentery, gastroenteritis, and digestive (and venous) obstruction. Used in a variety of types of cancer, kudzu is specifically indicated in cases of leukemia and breast cancer: “Genistein may prevent development of tumors by preventing the formation of new blood vessels that nourish the tumors.”  Additional uses include deafness, measles and to promote measles eruptions, psoriasis, osteoporosis, high blood sugar and diabetes, high blood pressure and symptoms of hypertension,  sore throat and other inflamed mucous membranes, allergies, cold and flu. Externally, “Stem poulticed for sores, swellings, mastitis,” (Foster, 192).

Constituents:
Kudzu contains the estrogenic isoflavones, genistein, daidzein, and daidzin.

Kudzu flower

Growing information:
Pueraria montana is an infamously invasive and hardy vine, originally native to China, but now found blanketing sections of the United States from Florida to Pennsylvania, as well as Texas and Kansas, and as I stated earlier, I love abundance of things that can be used and eaten: “The people of our southern communities could control the rampant spread of Kudzu vine through their countryside by eating it,” (Green, 15). Its leaves are palmate and grow in clusters of three. Shown in the picture above, kudzu’s beautiful reddish-purple flowers blossom between July and September, growing loosely in a raceme and smelling of grapes, (Foster, 192).

Collection:
Kudzu roots are generally a winter harvest—late fall through early spring. Flowers should be collected just as they fully open, and per usual, in morning after the dew has lifted.

Preparation:
Tea is made from both the roots and the blossoms, and a poultice is made from the stems. Leaves can be boiled and eaten like spinach, and root starch can also be eaten as food. In fact, the roots can grow to be the size of a man and were the primary food starch in China and Japan until the sweet potato came along, (Duke II, 136). The root starch makes a wonderful broth for cold, flu, and general congestion—I’ve recently had great (and tasty) luck with the “Garlic-Onion-Ginger-Kudzu Tea” from Aviva Romm’s The Natural Pregnancy Book, (Romm, 188).

Historical:
Kudzu has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. It was first introduced to the southeastern United States to help control erosion.

Warning:
None

Kudzu vines

I’m having a little love affair with astragalus of late. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’ve probably caught on to the fact that I prefer to be able to eat or drink my medicine, and astragalus is delightful in tea and in food, slightly sweet with an umami sort of buttery creaminess. I started craving it while recovering from surgery a couple weeks ago, and having done a little research now, I’m not at all surprised. Goes to show that our bodies often know what they need, even if our brain hasn’t sorted it out yet.

Astragalus membranaceus

Other names:
Astragalus, milk-vetch root, huang qi

Family:
Fabaceae – Pea Family

Astragalus

Parts used:
Root/rhizome

Actions:
Astragalus is one of the most well known tonic herbs in Chinese medicine and has been studied extensively by Asian scientists. Its long-held notoriety in Chinese medicine has engendered a fairly strong following in Western medicine as well. As well as being generally tonic to the entire body, astragalus is also considered a great adaptogen, stimulant to the immune system, energizing, diuretic, antibacterial and antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and hypotensive. It also  normalizes blood sugar levels, improves stamina, strengthens metabolism, and stimulates appetite. Overall, it acts to treat or prevent disease and infection by supporting and tonifying the entire body and the immune system. In China, astragalus, “is often called the ‘young people’s ginseng,’ as it is specifically indicated as an energizer for younger people,” (Gladstar, 39). In illustration of its adaptogenic action, it has been shown to stop, “debilitating sweating but… producing a therapeutic sweat if it is appropriate,” (Mabey, 77).

In regard to astragalus’s action as an immunostimulant, Gladstar comments, “It stimulates the rebuilding of the marrow reserve that supports and regenerates the body’s ‘protective shield,’ or immune system,” (Gladstar, 311). And not only does it increase, “the body’s production of interferon,” (Duke II, 32) which acts to promote the production of white blood cells to combat infection, it also enhances, “the particle ingestion capacity of white blood cells,” (Foster II, 7).

Indications:
Astragalus is used to strengthen and restore the body supportively to treat general fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, poor circulation, impotence and infertility, and autoimmune disorders such as AIDS. It is commonly employed in the treatment and prevention of a variety chronic ailments and recurring infections, such as cold, flu, candida infections, yeast infections, diarrhea, ulcers, and herpes. It has also been used in treatment of cancer, the Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  Its qi-promoting and diuretic actions aid in treatment of kidney complaints and edema.

Constituents:
Along with glycosides, choline, betaine, rumatakenin, beta-sitosterol, and vitamin A; astragalus also contains triterpenoid saponins, which behave in the same manner as animal steroid hormones; as well as polysaccharides,which imptove the function of NK and T-cells and also increase production of interferon, as noted in the Actions section above (Marti, 97).

Growing information:
This perennial herb normally grows one or two feet tall, with compound leaves of a dozen or so paired leaflets emanating from a hairy central stem. Its long clusters of yellow flowers bloom in early summer. It is cultivated in America and is easily grown from seed (the roots do not like to be disturbed through transplanting), but it needs well-drained, sandy soil and full sunlight. It is, “drought tolerant, but requires adequate moisture to grow well,” (Foster III, 29). A native to Mongolia and northeast China,  the root is there called huang qi, which means “yellow leader,” as it is one of the most important herbs in Chinese medicine for invigorating wei qi, or vital energy (Foster II, 6).

Astragalus root

Collection:
Dried astragalus root normally comes as long strips of rhizome, resembling tongue depressors, as shown in the above picture. They should be long and straight with creamy white color and a slightly yellow core. “The roots are not harvested until the autumn of a plant’s third to fifth year,” and are then partly dried, sliced, and dried further (Foster III, 29). Once the root has been fully dried, it can be used in this form or powdered. WARNING: “don’t pick your own out in the wild; some species are toxic,” (Duke II, 33).

Preparation:
Astragalus is often an ingredient in infusions, is also tinctured, and the root is commonly used in soups or chewed like a licorice stick. The powdered herb can also be mixed into a paste or added to cereal or yogurt.

Historical:
“Astragalus is first mentioned in the 2,000-year-old classic, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” and its use since then has been prevalent and well-studied. Among many of the findings regarding the herb’s effectiveness as an herbal medicine, “Since 1975, astragalus has been used in China in cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment and chemotherapy,” by strengthening the immune system after the treatments had depleted it. “In the early 1980s, researchers in Houston, Texas, studied the effects of astragalus on ninteen cancer patients and fifteen healthy individuals. A chemical fraction extract of astragalus was found to restore T-cell function in 90 percent of the cancer patients to levels observe in the healthy subjects,” (Foster II, 6).

Warning:
No adverse effects have been observed. See the Collection section above for a warning about harvesting from the wild.

We are going to be planting red clover along with buckwheat in our baby orchard this year to help improve the soil. I was prompted to research this herb due to its beneficial role as a cover crop, its nutritional strength, its pleasant taste, and the fact that it can be found growing just about anywhere in America. All of which makes me want to get better acquainted with this plant ally. And I’m so glad I did!

Trifolium pratense

Other names:
Red clover, honeysuckle trefoil, king’s crown, sleeping maggie, bee-bread

Family:
Fabaceae—Pea Family

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Parts used:
Aerial parts—most commonly the flowering tops are used, but the leaves are sometimes used as well.

Actions:
Trifolium pratense is a tonic herb, especially for the skin, and especially for children. Its other actions are nervine, diuretic, antitumor/chemopreventive, blood purifying and blood building, expectorant, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary Gladstar says red clover is, “One of the best detoxification herbs and respiratory tonics,” (Gladstar, 358).

Indications:
Red clover has been used historically and today as a treatment for a bevy chronic chest complaints, including colds, coughs, congestion, and bronchitis. As mentioned above, it has also been used for treatment of skin problems, especially for children but also for adults, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Additionally, red clover has been long used for tumors/cancer, as well as cysts and fibroids in the body. In fact, it was one of the ingredients in the controversial Hoxsey formula, and anticancer formula developed by herbalist Harry Hoxsey. Other indications include  prostate enlargement, AIDS, and osteoporosis. Herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm also suggests its use as part of formulas for liver strengthening and nourishment and recovery after miscarriage (Romm).

Trifolium pratense is also a noteworthy herb for women’s hormone issues, such as menopause or PMS, and is recommended for protection against some of the detrimental side effects of the use of hormone replacement therapy (see the Constituents section below for more information). Naturopath Tori Hudson adds, “red clover isoflavones may reduce the risk of coronary vascular disease by increasing arterial elasticity, although… not improve cholesterol levels. Red clover isoflavones may also slow bone loss of the spine,” (Hudson, 196).

Constituents:
Red clover is a nutritional and herbal medicine powerhouse, “rich in minerals, most notably calcium, nitrogen, and iron,” (Gladstar, 359), phenolic glycosides, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, and salicylates. Among its isoflavones are genistein, diadzen, biochanin A, and formononetin, which may act nutritionally to prevent cancer (Foster II, 76). These isoflavones are natural estrogens, similar to human female hormones. “Phytoestrogens perform functions in the body similar to those of natural and synthetic estrogens, relieving menopause- and menstruation-related problems and perhaps protecting against osteoporosis and cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate… If you’re taking prescription female hormones, which have been linked to breast cancer, the milder phytoestrogens again step in and prevent the synthetics from interacting with tissue cells,” (Duke II, 183).

Nutritionally, red clover is a good source of protein, similar to the protein found in whole grains, and also provides, “beta carotene, vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12… It’s a good source of the minerals magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, and selenium,” (Brill, 25).

Red Clover, dried

Growing information:
Red clover is a perennial and grows up to three feet tall, with clusters of three round leaflets, each often marked with a whitish V-shape, and a tender, hairy stem. The flowering tops of Trifolium pratense can be pink, purple, red. It tends to grow well in temperate climates, commonly found in meadows, along edges of forests, in bordering areas such as along roads or fences, and in areas where the ground has been disturbed. Naturalized to America, it is a native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia.

Collection:
Red clover flowers should be gathered just when fully opened; the flowers should not be at all dried out or moldering. It can be harvested between late spring and early fall (Hoffman, 154). Per usual, although the herb grows plentifully along roadsides, one should not collect in areas where there is any significant amount of traffic due to potential pollutant contamination.

Preparation:
Preparations include infusion of fresh or dried flowers (which also makes a wonderful, soothing bath), tincture, or flowers eaten fresh on salads, etc. If using dried blossoms, make sure it still has its color and is not pale or brown, which indicates it was dried at too high a heat or for too long. Refer to the picture above as to what is good color retention in dried red clover.

Historical:
Trifolium pratense has long been used as food for livestock as well as a cover crop—in fact it was originally brought to America from Europe as a hay crop (Brill, 24). Past folk medicine use has been primarily for chest complaints, tumors, skin problems, not to mention warding off evil spirits (Duke II, 183). This more spiritual protection makes more sense when you consider its symbolic nature: “For the ancient priesthood of Druids, clovers were symbols of Earth, sea, and heaven, and for Christians, a symbol of the trinity,” (Foster III, 304).

Warning:
Generally, red clover is very safe, with no significant side effects—however, it is perhaps best not to take very large amounts while nursing or pregnant. “Pregnant animals have had miscarriages after grazing heavily on the clover,” (Duke II, 184). Also, “Hemophiliacs or people with ‘thin’ blood should not use red clover regularly, as the herb can exacerbate the condition,” (Gladstar, 359).

Red Clover - Trifolium pratense

Artemisia vulgaris

Other names:
Mugwort, Moxa, St. John’s Herb

Family:
Compositae – wormwood family

Mugwort, June 2010

Parts used:
Aerial parts – leaves, flowering stalks; or root

Actions:
Warming and bitter – digestive stimulant, liver stimulant, carminative, anti-depressant, nerve tonic, emmenagogue, anti-rheumatic, anti-bilious. Also, mugwort is known to promote highly vivid dreaming, which I can confirm through personal experience – I normally have pretty active dreams, but the ones I had after taking mugwort right before bedtime were off the charts. On that note, if you have trouble getting a good night’s restful sleep, try to avoid taking this late in the day.

Indications:
Stagnant digestion, irregular menstruation, menstrual cramps or pain, depression, rheumatism, sciatica, gout, tension – both physical and nervous, diuretic, colds, bronchitis, and other cold or damp conditions.

Constituents:
Volatile oils: cineole and thujone, absinthin (bitter), flavonoids, tannins, resin, insulin

Mugwort, dried whole

Growing information:
Appearing in early spring and lasting right up until the first frosts of fall, mugwort is a small-town kind of plant friend: once you get to know it, you’ll be running into it everywhere, and yes, in urban areas, too! It seems to thrive in borderlands and “waste” places, the edges of constructions sites, on the border between field and forest, along roadsides (although I don’t recommend you collect anything that grows close to roadsides). We learned about drying mugwort a couple weeks ago, and the very next day found a lovely patch along the field near my house in Richmond, VA. Mugwort will grow anywhere between two and twelve feet tall and seems to have a communal energy, growing in large clusters – a soft, bushy, wonderfully scented patch of feathery herb that is very enticing for those inclined toward napping outdoors. Apparently many consider it to be an invasive weed, as it spreads easily, “aggressively displacing other species, even secreting an herbicide from its roots to create a monoculture,” but I’m with Steve Brill on this one: “I appreciate any vigorous plant that thrives in the city,” (Brill 240).

Collection:
Collect leaves and stalks just when the blossoms begin to appear, “which is between mid-summer and early Fall,” (Hoffman 65).

Preparation:
Artmesia vulgaris is the herb used in moxabustion, practiced by many acupuncturists, a therapy in which moxa is burnt on or close to the skin along acupuncture points. Mugwort is often used in infusions (steep covered so as not to lose the volatile oils – 15 minutes) or use an infusion in a bath, especially for menstrual cramps, arthritis, etc. It can also be tinctured in alcohol or vinegar. And since I’m only somewhat food-obsessed, “In mid-spring, when it’s only 6 inches tall, Asian people collect it to deep-fry. Other people use it like parsley,” (Brill 240). Yum.

Historical:
The name mugwort comes from the old English word “wort” meaning plant and “mug” indicating how the herb was used to flavor a mug of beer. “Hippocrates noticed mugwort’s ability to stimulate uterine contractions,” (Brill 240). “Used by women since ancient times… to provoke delayed or absent periods, and is therefore said to be contra-indicated during pregnancy. In China however, it has been used to prevent miscarriage… like wormwood was used externally as a compress to speed up the birth process and to help expel the afterbirth,” (Mabey 44).

Warning:
Contra-indicated while pregnant, prolonged use and/or high doses are not recommended. Thujone is known to be toxic in exceedingly high doses, but I would be impressed if anyone were capable to take enough at one time for this to become an issue. Apparently sage, a common culinary herb and commonly used for smudging, has higher concentration of thujone, if that gives you an idea (Duke II, 15).

Some of my favorite memories from my youth are of going out on long walks with my mother in late fall or winter, collecting items for a wintry bouquet or wreath. The luminescent money plant, nandina and holly berries, pine cones, cattails, twisted bits of vine-strangled boughs, beautyberry, and at the center of it all—the center of all this after-splendor—was always sumac. At that time of year, long straight grayish stalk, any memories of its leaves now fallen away, with a flame-shaped plume of strangely fuzzy and blood-red berries. Even on the coldest days, the very sight of those berries made me think home. hearth. safety. comfort…

Other names:
Sumac, Sumach, Smooth Sumac

Family:
Anacardiaceae—Cashew family

Sumac berries from last fall

Parts used:
Bark, roots, berries, leaves

Actions:
Astringent, antiseptic, tonic, antibiotic, and amphoteric. The bark is sometimes considered a galactagogue, and the root tea is emetic and diuretic (Foster, 281). “Of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, this species was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate,” (Foster, 281).

Indications:
The most common indication is ulcers, both internal and external. In Cherokee tradition, sumac is used to treat sunburn and skin ulcers (Garrett, 141), specifically, a tea is poured “over sunburn blisters; bark tea drunk to make human milk flow abundantly; chew red berries to stop bedwetting; eat to stop vomiting,” (Hamel, 57). American Indians also smoked sumac leaves for asthma, and “leaf tea used for asthma, diarrhea, stomatosis (mouth diseases), dysentery,” (Foster, 281), as well as chronic cases of inflammation, irritation, and ulcers on both internal and external mucous membranes (Ellingwood). Steven Foster also recommends sumac for scrofula, “leukorrhea, and anal and uterine prolapse,” (Foster, 281). Matthew Wood concurs with the anxiety-related indications and ulcers, but also adds the mental indications of low self-esteem or cowardice, fearfulness or impatience, as well as diarrhea or constipation, poor appetite or excessive appetite, “weakness of attention and memory,” (Wood, 304), all of which makes me think that this is good Vata medicine (referring to the Vata dosha in Ayurveda), what with the mental indications and the systemic polar extremes.

Constituents:
Volatile oils, tannins, resin, “gallic acid, albumen, gum, starch. The berries contain malic acid in combination with lime,” (Ellingwood).

Sumac - Rhus glabra

Growing information:
Native shrub that grows in fields or woodland clearings throughout America’s Eastern states, smooth, toothed leaves and branches with tight flame-like clusters of slightly fuzzy red berries.

Collection:
“The bark is collected in the spring, when the sap is running… The outer bark, though easily peeled, should be kept attached to the inner bark. The berries are collected as soon as they are ripe and are tinctured fresh to prevent growth of worms,” (Wood, 303).

Preparation:
Tincture for berries, tincture or decoction for bark, dried powdered berries as seasoning for food

Historical:
Sumac has been used as a food source and herbal medicine in Native American tradition (Eastern) for hundreds of years, some of which is related in the “Indications” section above. It has also been used for black and red dyes in North America (Wood, 297).

Warning:
Not to be confused with its cousin, the Poison Sumac, “which has white fruits and toothless leaves and grows in or near swamps,” (Foster, 281).

Other names:
Motherwort

Family:
Labiatae—Mint family

Motherwort

Actions:
As its Latin name cardiaca indicates, Motherwort is primarily used for cardiac issues, but as its common name indicates, it has also been used widely for women’s health. “Chinese research shows that it promotes a better volume of blood throughout the body and can slow a rapid heart rate,” (Duke II, 152), while other scientists “have found extracts to have antispasmodic, hypotensive, sedative, cardiotonic, diuretic, antioxidant, immuno-stimulating, and cancer-preventative activity,” (Foster, 182). Motherwort is also widely known as a sedative, nervine, emmenagogue, and hepatic. Specifically regarding its cardiotonic qualities, Leonurus cardiaca is “strengthening without straining. It is specific for over-rapid heart beat where this is brought about by anxiety…” (Hoffman, 108).

And that’s really the key: to aid in healing diseases caused by anxiety, tension and fear. As my teacher Kathleen Maier shared with me (and here I’ll paraphrase while mixing in my own interpretations), think “lion heart”—a sense of courage, an easing of fear and anxiety, the stalwart strength of a mother’s embrace, comforting when you need it, but never clinging, always urging you forward.

Indications:
Motherwort is used in treatment of delayed or absent menses, anxiety, tension, transition into menopause, to aid in childbirth, heart and circulatory disorders, heart palpitations, insomnia, stroke, asthma, especially when these ailments are caused or exacerbated by anxiety. Furthermore, “Extracts approved in Germany for nervous heart conditions and in the supportive treatment of hyperthyroidism,” (Foster, 182).

Constituents:
Leonurus cardiaca most notably contains volatile oils, tannins, the bitter glycosides leonurine and leonuridine, and the alkaloids leonuinine and stachydrene. “Experimentally, leonurine… is a uterine tonic,” (Foster, 182).

Motherwort flowers

Parts used:
Aerial parts—stems, leaves, flowers

Growing information:
Motherwort is a perennial with whitish-pink flower clusters close to the stem, similar to basil or mint. It is “native to Europe but naturalized across much of North America, features a tall single stem from which grow three-fingered leaves in an arrangement said to resemble a lion’s tale,” (Duke II, 152).

Collection:
Collect aerial parts when in flower, May—August.

Preparation:
Tincture or infusion

Historical:
Motherwort has been used for centuries in both Europe and China for cardiac and circulatory ailments (Duke II, 152).

Warning:
Motherwort is contra-indicated while a woman is pregnant or lactating. Very rarely, persons with extremely sensitive skin may experience contact dermatitis. Regarding dosage precautions, “Dosages larger than 3 grams might cause diarrhea, indigestion, or uterine bleeding,” (Duke II, 152).

Other names:
Vitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Monk’s Pepper

Family:
Verbenaceae – Verbena family

Vitex agnus-castus in bloom

Parts used:
Berries primarily, sometimes leaf and flower.

Actions:
Vitex is an adaptogen to the reproductive system, best known for its effectiveness in treating  a variety of hormone-related issues in women by normalizing the menstrual and hormonal cycles. Specifically, it is reputedly used as an emmenagogue, galactagogue, possibly aphrodisiac (although historically reputed to be an anaphrodisiac), and to prevent miscarriage.  In explanation, Dr. James Duke explains that it has a progesterone-like action, “decreasing the estrogen to progesterone ratio, thereby benefiting in premenstrual syndrome [PMS], which may result from excessive estrogen,” (Duke 194). “Research suggests that chasteberry works primarily on the pituitary gland to stabilize and balance the hormonal fluctuations women experience every month. By increasing the body’s secretion of luteinizing hormone [LH], it reduces prolactin and increases both progesterone and follicle-stimulating hormone [FSH],” (Duke II, 72).

Indications:
Vitex is used anytime hormonal levels/rhythm have become imbalanced, such as following usage of birth control medication or trauma to the reproductive system; in recuperating from cervical issues; PMS; heavy menstrual bleeding; irregular, too frequent, suppressed, or absent (amenorrhea) menstrual cycles; dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation); endometriosis; menopausal difficulties; infertility; insufficient lactation; breast pain (mastalgia); acne (especially as a result of hormonal balance issues, as in teenagers); yeast infections; and even candida imbalance. Regarding its use in treating PMS and its symptoms, Steven Foster says the following in illustration of chasteberry’s efficacy, “A 1992 survey of German gynecologists evaluated the effect of a vitex preparation on 1,542 woman diagnosed with PMS. Both physicians and patients assessed effectiveness, with 90 percent reporting relief of symptoms after treatment averaging 25.3 days,” (Foster II, 98).

Constituents:
Vitex does contain flavonoids and alkaloids, “However, no single component is apparently responsible for the herb’s activity; various compounds are most likely acting together to bring about its effects,” (Foster III, 99). A little evidence suggests that chasteberry flowers contain the plant world’s equivalent of human testosterone, which would theoretically stimulate, rather than deter, sexual desire,” (Duke II, 72).

Vitex agnus-castus with young berries

Growing Information:
A deciduous shrub (often pruned into a small tree), Vitex is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe and Asia and has been widely naturalized to areas of the southern United States. It is a beautiful ornamental, growing upright clusters of aromatic purple flowers that bloom between April and October, then developing small hard berries that ripen to a dark color and look like peppercorns. Drought tolerant, chaste tree enjoys full sun and thrives in dry to moist soils, especially along streambeds, riverbanks, or coastal areas (Foster 270).

Collection:
Berries should be collected in autumn when fully ripe – they will be dark in hue; use them fresh or dry them for later use.

Preparation:
It’s best to take vitex in the morning when progsterone levels are naturally the highest in order to work within a woman’s circadian rhythms. Most commonly, a tincture of the berries is used.

Historical:
Steven Foster writes:

“…the goddess Hera, a champion and protector of marriage and married couples, was said to have been born in the shade of a chaste tree… When the Greeks held festivals honoring Demeter, the goddess of fertility, women who remained ‘pure’ during the festival adorned themselves with chaste tree blossoms… In Rome, vestal virgins often carried chaste tree twigs as a sign of their self-imposedd chastity. Later, this symbolic link between herb and chaste behavior was adopted by the Christian church in much of Europe… the dried fruits were ground and used as a pepper substitute in monasteries, fostering one of the herb’s common names: ‘monk’s pepper,'” (Foster III, 99).

The name “vitex” is derived from virilium, which means plaiting, referring to the historical use of its branches in building wattle fences and weaving baskets (Duke 193).

Chaste tree berries have been, “used for more than 2,500 years for menstrual difficulties. In medieval Europe, seeds were thought to allay sexual desire, hence the names Chaste Tree and Monk’s Pepper,” (Foster 270). Furthermore, “Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, ‘If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the vitex have been steeped.'” And Pliny (A.D. 23-79) wrote, “‘The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation,'” (Foster II, 98).

In other cultures and traditions, vitex was used for epilepsy and insanity in Arab tradition, and in Ayurvedic medicine, it was considered to be abortifacient, diuretic, heating, and  alexiteric (Duke 194).

WARNING:
Vitex is contra-indicated for use during pregnancy or any kind of hormone replacement therapy. “Rare side effects include early menstruation following delivery (resulting from activation of the pituitary), as well as rare cases of itching, rashes, and gastrointestinal symptoms. In clinical trials, side effects have been reported in fewer than 2 percent of patients,” (Foster II, 99).

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