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This past weekend when we visited Robbie Wooding’s farm, not only did we learn about native plants, preservation, water wheels, and inner bark harvesting, but Robbie also shared with us his technique for drying herbs.

When he was younger, the farm was used in part to grow tobacco (this is Virginia, after all). When the green tobacco leaves were harvested, they of course needed to be dried for sale. Leaves would be strung from wooden poles, which were then hoisted up into the tobacco barn to dry until the whole barn was full, top to bottom with tiers and rows of drying tobacco.

This same method can be applied to drying herbs. The traditional tools used were a drying horse (the wooden frame shown in the pictures) and some twine. Alternately you could use a broom handle or dowel laid across two stumps or sawhorses (I always seem to have a broken broom or shovel handle around—apparently I don’t know my own strength *grin*).

Robbie strings the drying horse

First, we harvested some mugwort. Then feed your twine through the eyehole of the drying horse. At the opposite end, start wrapping small bundles of your herb and laying them across the dowel, alternating sides. I’m not going to try to describe the wrapping in words, but the end result is that your alternating bundles are fastened together over the dowel using a chain stitch, which is easy to “unzip.”

Hang your dowel or stick of strung herbs to dry in a warm, dry, dark place, like an attic or the top of a barn.

That's me stringing some mugwort - we all had a turn :)

There are several trees that carry strong medicines. While visiting Robbie Wooding’s farm this past weekend, he demonstrated for us the process of harvesting the inner bark of slippery elm. Typically slippery elm should be harvested in spring when the sap is rising, but trust me, I chewed a bit of what we harvested and it was still very effective, not to mention delicious, in its softly sweet and subtle way.

When harvesting for bark, you want to strip the bark as soon after cutting as possible. Robbie cut a slippery elm limb the day before for our use, then cut it into manageable segments, 2 to 3 feet long.

The next step is called “rossing,” in which you use a rasp to scrape the outer bark away (pictured below), being careful not to scrape away any of the white inner bark. Leaving a little of the outer bark is okay, certainly preferable to losing good medicine.

Robbie demonstrates rossing the outer bark off

Once you’ve rossed the wood, you can use a drawing knife to peel the inner bark away from the wood. On a smaller piece of wood, I personally found it easier to use a pocket knife to score both sides of a strip and then peel it away. The inner bark when fresh is just slightly whiter than the wood, and once you find the layers, it seems to come pretty easily. Dry the strips of inner bark and chew it like gum, add pieces to your cooking, or powder it to mix into your food or digestive tonic of choice.

Using a draw knife to peel off the inner bark

NOTE: In harvesting bark, sustainability is key. Please take the time to look into sustainable harvesting techniques, endangered species information, etc. And it’s always good to plant for the future. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Robbie's farm

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be invited to camp out with a bunch of herbies (“herbies” is like “foodies,” but for herb enthusiasts *grin*) at Robbie Wooding’s farm. Robbie is as warm and welcoming as you could imagine, genuinely pleased to share his home with us for a couple days. He’s been practicing herbalism for a good long time, and between him and Kathleen Maier and all the other herbies in attendance, we had a wealth of information and wisdom at the table. A veritable summer solstice bounty.

Kathleen speaking about vitex

The farm has been in Robbie’s family since 1790—originally a land grant from the King of England—and his family have been there ever since.

The weekend was marked by lessons both formal and informal, long walks, plant ID, shared meals, new points of view, sustainable living alternatives, fireflies blinking long into the night. As a special treat, as if all this weren’t enough, we had a big potluck Saturday night and a wonderful bluegrass band—some of the best bluegrass I’ve heard in years.

Bluegrass in Halifax

I’ll be posting a couple more items this week related to the weekend on the farm, specifically on harvesting inner bark and drying herbs. For now, here’s a tour of some of the beautiful herbs we encountered.

Echinacea purpureaEchinacea, Purple coneflower. Echinacea purpurea.

SassafrasSassafras. Sassafras albidum.

MulleinMullein. Verbascum thapsus.

MotherwortMotherwort. Leonurus cardiaca.

ButterflyweedButterflyweed, Pleurisy-root. Asclepias tuberosa.

Red CloverRed clover. Trifolium pratense.

VitexVitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Monk’s Pepper. Vitex agnus-castus.

GoldensealGoldenseal. Hydrastis canadensis.

PokePoke, Pokeweed. Phytolacca americana.

AsparagusAsparagus. Asparagus officinalis.

PassionflowerPassionflower, Maypop. Passiflora incarnata.

OatsMilky oats. Avena sativa.

YarrowYarrow. Achillea millefolium.

GreenbrierGreenbrier, Catbrier. Smilax rotundifolia.

LizardThis lizard was just chillin’, hanging out on a tree in the middle of our motley group. Anyone know what kind of lizard this is?

BlackberryBlackberry. Rubus ursinus.

Black-eyed SusanBlack-eyed Susan. Rudbeckia hirta.

St. John's WortSt. John’s Wort. Hypericum perforatum.

Queen Anne's LaceQueen Anne’s Lace, Wild carrot. Daucus carota.

GinsengGinseng, American ginseng. Panax quinquefolius.

Robbie with American ginsengRobbie showing the ginseng root – look at that dancing root! What a beauty.

Lamb's QuartersLamb’s Quarters, Lamb quarters, Pigweed. Chenopodium album.

ComfreyComfrey. Symphytum officinale.

MilkweedMilkweed. Asclepias syriaca.

ElecampaneElecampane. Inula helenium.

Elecampane flowersAnd the fireworks finish? Elecampane in flower – something I’ve never seen in person before.

What a marvelous weekend. Time for sleep. Check back later this week for more posts on harvesting inner bark and drying herbs. Till then, sweet dreams.

I just recently completed my first year apprenticeship with Sacred Plant Traditions, and we were fortunate enough to be exposed to a variety of herbal/healing traditions. Of these, Ayurveda in particular resonated with me.

Now I’m not going to go into a whole huge discussion here of Ayurveda—I feel like I’ve only just gotten my toes wet—so I suggest finding a teacher such as Mary Michaud and taking a class, or Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra is a very easy-to-read book that explains simply this very complex subject. There are also some great resources online for learning about the forces that make up our constitutions—check out ayurveda.com or chopra.com.

These forces are called doshas, and there are three of them: Kapha, Pitta, and Vata. Everyone holds in his or her constitution all three of these doshas, but different doshas may be dominant in certain people, and your dominant dosha may change depending on whether you are in a state of balance or imbalance.

Your original state, your state of perfect balance, is called your prakruti. Your current or changing state (the result of outside forces, weather, experience, emotion, etc.) is called vikruti. Often in our lives, our balance will be thrown when one or more of our doshas are aggravated. For instance, my prakruti is Pitta-dominant, and one of its many traits is a hot constitution. Long hours in the sunshine on hot and humid summer days tend to aggravate my Pitta dosha, my already warm nature.

According to Ayurveda, when this happens, you can use diet, certain kinds of exercise, meditation, etc., to restore balance to the aggravated dosha. Again, this is much more complex than I’m making it for illustration purposes, but I have also found it to be very common-sense and intuitive.

One of the many ways of helping restore balance is through use of churnas, spice blends specifically chosen to balance the different doshas. There are a number of recipes for churnas available, but below are the ones Mary Michaud shared with us from the AyurBalance Web site. I love using them as you would a curry powder, sprinkling it over salad, mixing it with lentils and rice, pretty much anything. I’ve broken it down into a table for you, showing how many parts of an ingredient to use for each respective dosha’s churna. All the herbs and spices are powdered.

Churnas

Ingredient Kapha Pitta Vata
Fennel 6 3
Turmeric 2 1 1
Cumin 1 2 1
Ginger 2 1
Black pepper 2 1
Cardamom 1 1
Sea salt 1 1 1
Turbinado sugar 1 1 1
Fenugreek 1
Mango powder 1 1 1
Paprika 1

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