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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).
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)
Aerial parts—stems, leaves, and flowers
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)”
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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).
Originally native to Europe, but now can be found worldwide.
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).
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.
The 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.
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. 🙂
Polygonaceae – buckwheat family
Medicinal rhubarb, Chinese rhubarb, Turkey rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, da-huang (meaning “great yellow” in reference to the color of its rhizome)
Root and rhizome
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).
Constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, hepatitis, high blood pressure, edema, nausea, anorexia
Anthraquinones, tannins, bitter aromatic principle
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).
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).
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).
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.
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:
Ah, March. In like a lion, true to fashion. Let’s see if it goes out like a lamb?
Stay warm everyone! And if you’re on the East coast, enjoy the snow and stay safe!
For most of my adult life, I was one of those lucky women who have no discernible “side effects” of menstruation. No PMS, no mood swings, no cramps, none of it.
Then I gave birth to Oscar, and nine months later, my cycle returned – I quickly learned that my smooth-sailing days of menstruation were over. My period lasts longer than before and is less consistent, and the first and second days of my period are marked by pronounced lower back pain and intense cramping, also known as dysmenorrhea. I have so much more sympathy now for women with severe PMS (pre menstrual syndrome). As an aside, it is much more common for women to stop having dysmenorrhea after having a child than to develop it is for them to develop it for the first time. Lucky me. In my case, it is most likely the result of scar tissue from having had a cesarean birth.
To make the best out of a not-so-pleasant thing, I’m embracing it as a learning opportunity. I’m getting acquainted with my new cycle, and I’m also learning about what can be done to relieve the discomfort of cramping. But let’s start by figuring out what dysmenorrhea is in the first place.
As we’ve mentioned already, dysmenorrhea is the word for the cramping pains that often accompany a woman’s period, and it affect over 50% of menstruating women. The cramps in question are actually the tightening of the uterine muscle. About 10% of those with dysmenorrhea experience cramps so intense as to be incapacitating, usually for a period of one to three days. More often, it’s just really uncomfortable. In fact the word dysmenorrhea comes from the Greek language and means “difficult monthly flow.” For those of you interested in fertility issues, “Dysmenorrhea occurs only in cycles where ovulation has occurred,” (Hudson 226).
As can be intuited above, hormonal shifts are one trigger for dysmenorrhea, and calcium also plays a role: “About 10 days before menstruation begins, calcium levels in the blood begin to drop, and they continue to drop until about 3 days into the cycle. Blood calcium deficiency is responsible for many of the symptoms of painful menstruation,” (Gladstar 218), so increasing your dietary calcium intake may help prevent symptoms.
In most cases, dysmenorrhea is just a normal side effect of menstruation. However, it’s worth noting that is some cases the cramps may be, “due to some specific pelvic or systemic condition such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, adhesions, ovarian cysts, celiac disease, thyroid conditions, congenital malformations, narrowing of the cervical opening, polyps, or uterine fibroids,” (Hudson 225). As always, you should discuss any symptoms and concerns you may have with your doctor.
To relieve these symptoms, there are a number of uterine tonics and anti-spasmodics that can help soothe and relax the uterine muscle, and nerviness to soothe the individual. Specific herbs include cramp bark (hence the name) and black haw bark, both anti-spasmodics specific to the uterus; and pasque flower, a “relaxing nervine for use in problems relating to nervous tension and spasm in the reproductive system,” (Hoffman 131). Black cohosh, false unicorn root, and wild yam may be considered, but please be sure that, with these three especially, you are using only sustainably harvested herbs (Hoffman 161, 235).
Other things that can help relieve or prevent dysmenorrhea include maintaining a normal, healthy weight, chiropractic treatments, exercise (abdominal crunches help me), healthy diet, not smoking, and my favorite: gentle heat applied to the lower back.
What are your favorite herbs or methods of relieving or preventing dysmenorrhea?
After a ridiculously long lapse in writing for this blog, I’m finally ready to start up again. For a full list of exuses for my not writing, click here.
I’ve spent the past month getting back in the habit of writing and posting for my other blog, and I’m starting to dip my toes back in the herbal waters too.
If there are any topics or types of posts you’d like to see, please let me know in the comments… And stay tuned!