3 Herb Mamas

HERBAL HALF-DOZEN FOR THE GARDEN

It’s that time of year again, Folks! Time to plan and soon, to plant your herb gardens. I am usually asked at this time of the year what to plant for a medicinal herb garden. It is really a difficult question to answer. Every herb garden is unique to the person tending and harvesting from it. There is no one size fits all. If you or your loved ones have frequent respiratory challenges then your healing garden would emphasize plants that support that system, like Comfrey, Elecampane, and Rosemary. If, on the other hand, digestive upsets are a frequent occurrence for you then you would want plants like Mallow, Mint, and Plantain. So you might have to put in a little research time before you make your plant and seed selections and begin designing your herb garden for health. Think first about what your top one or two health concerns are, google or search your herbals for appropriate plants, look up the cultivation requirements for those and make choices that suit your needs.

Below I’ve included a half dozen medicinal plants that are likely to be useful in every home. I’ve chosen them for ease of cultivation as well as their broad usefulness. I will describe my experiences growing them as well as how we use them in our home apothecary. I limited myself to half a dozen because that is both a sufficient  place to start…actually, starting with ONE plant you love or want to learn about in depth is perfectly fine…and less likely to overwhelm than planting dozens of must-have herbs that would be better grown gradually over a lifetime. So, here are a half-dozen medicinal plants that I always hope to have in my garden.

ECHINACEA

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Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustafolia) is also known as Purple Coneflower and is as lovely and welcome in the flower garden as the medicinal garden. Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies love it so it will attract pollinators to your garden. This is our go-to plant for boosting the immune system to fight off colds and flu. It is also reliable to improve lymphatic circulation and drainage. E. purpurea is the easiest variety to grow from seed. Other varieties might be more easily obtained by most home gardeners by purchasing plants either locally or by mail order. Once established in a nice dry, sunny place Echinacea is care free. Plants should be allowed to grow a minimum of 2-3 years before digging roots for medicine making. I prefer fresh root tincture over dried plant preparations. In my experience they have proven far more effective. We have lots of shale in the ground on our little mountain top ridge and Echinacea is happy with our maniacally good drainage. I never fertilize and yet the plants reseed freely and thrive. The enemy of Echinacea is “wet feet”, or their roots being in heavy wet soil. I have known people to lose Echinacea plants who planted a border against their house where the rain water running off their roof collected and soaked the plants regularly. Echinacea can be made into whole plant preparations or root only ones. Tinctures and syrups are my preferred preparations but many people dry, powder and encapsulate it as well. I have found dried Echinacea root to be far less effective than fresh tinctured and the dried and powdered preparations degrade very quickly. If I use dried root I like to dry it myself, powder it and then promptly store it in the freezer for use as needed.

CALENDULA

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Calendula officinalis is so sunny and bright and easy to grow that I want to encourage everyone to use it. When you discover its powerful healing properties you will welcome it to your garden year after year. The flowers have a sticky resin that makes for excellent skin preparations of all kinds from daily-use lotions and creams to healing salves. It is one of the essential triad of herbs I use in my Triple Healing Salve. The blossoms are the part used and they can be gathered and dried all summer for use as needed. I also like to steep fresh flowers in extra virgin olive oil for use in salves as needed. The dried blossoms are a beautiful addition to tea blends and offer a soothing, healing component for ulcers and digestive upsets. I have used Calendula as an eyewash as well as a gargle and mouth rinse thanks to its antiseptic qualities. It also makes an excellent hair rinse, especially for blonds. You can grow this plant easily from seeds, which are widely available at nurseries and garden centers. Left in place it will readily reseed year after year. Keep clipping off blossoms and drying them to encourage more to form all summer.

MINTS

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The Mint Family is comprised many and varied members and you are bound to find one especially suited to your needs. Spearmint and Peppermint are perhaps the best known but there are many others. Lemon Balm is a particular favorite of mine. This is a huge family of plants and I can’t possibly cover them all. All can be soothing and healing for the digestive and nervous systems and make an excellent addition to tea blends to improve flavor. Many mints prefer damp, shady soil. I gather wild Spearmint from along a nearby stream and I grow Lemon Balm in ordinary garden soil. Lemon Balm is fabulous fresh but loses its unique lemony flavor quickly upon drying. I generally preserve it by chopping and freezing in ice cube trays or by steeping in white wine instead. Spearmint and Peppermint dry well while retaining their distinctive flavors. Both of these are good for promoting good digestion and thus make an excellent after-dinner tea. Or simply place a sprig on dinner plates as a garnish to chew after your meal. All three of these make wonderfully refreshing, energizing iced teas in the summer. Peppermint combined with Elder blossoms and Yarrow from the wild makes a very effective tea or tincture for bringing down high fevers. All the mints are useful additions to baths, facial preparations and body lotions or creams.

COMFREY

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Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis) is a plant I have loved and loved to grow for 25 years now. I started a patch from a tiny pinkie-sized root cutting when our first child was a newborn and have continued to divide and use the plant for more than two decades, including a transplant to our new home 18 years ago. Comfrey is a cell regenerator and thus is useful for sprains, torn ligaments, bruises and other joint injuries. Many times we’ve made a fresh leaf poultice for someone in the family who has “turned” an ankle or wrist and every time we are all amazed and grateful for the rapid healing and soothing effects. This is another essential herbal ingredient in my Triple Healing Salve. I use both root and leaf preparations and have found them to be effective both fresh and dried. It grows easily but prefers shady, damp spots best of all. Goats love Comfrey and it is full of healthy minerals for both them and us. It is a bioactivator and speeds up composting so it is an essential in the biodynamic garden. In fact, you can make a most excellent garden and house plant fertilizer by brewing a strong “tea” from fresh leaves in a 5 gallon bucket and allowing it to ferment for a week or so before watering with it.

Tulsi

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Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum or O. sanctum) grows readily from seed and makes the most delicious tea. I like to use it alone as a tea or as the base for many blends. Its uses are broad and varied. It is an excellent tonic for nervous, respiratory and digestive systems. It really has far too many uses to list. I love that it is so easy to grow from seed and yet is tasty and serves so many uses. There is hardly a bodily system or organ that will not benefit from Tulsi and it has no known side-effects. It can be grown in pots for those living in tight quarters without access to a garden. Use it both internally and externally in teas, tinctures, vinegars, herbal wines, hair and dental rinses, eaten fresh, facial masks, toners and creams, and just about any other way you can imagine. Studies are showing positive effects on blood sugar regulation for diabetics and cholesterol levels for heart patients. Tulsi is truly amazing and you can grow it in your own home garden!

BERRIES

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Although you may not think of berries as herbs in the strict botanical sense of the word, they are powerful allies for health and healing that are generally easy to grow and productive. Since these are often available only at a premium price, people often neglect to include them in their daily fare. Once established they are easy to harvest and preserve. Raspberries and blueberries, for example, can simply be gathered and frozen. Eating a cup a day is an excellent habit and will provide flavonoids and anti-oxidants in abundance. Raspberries and blackberries are happy in borders and edging places that other plants would struggle to survive in. Some varieties of blueberries can be grown in pots if space limitations are an issue. Berries are rich in vitamin C and fiber, assisting with weight management (They’re 85% water!) and managing type 2 diabetes. In studies they have provided beneficial improvement for those suffering from arthritis. They improve age-related memory loss, cataracts and eye health, as well as skin and hair health. The leaves of both raspberries and blueberries are mineral rich and make beneficial teas. Raspberry leaves are particularly useful for uterine tone and reproductive health for women and blueberry leaves help regulate healthy blood sugar levels.

Check back soon for my Wild Herbal Half-Dozen!

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CHICKWEED…Harbinger of Spring

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Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed is the first wild green I eat every year. As soon as the snow cover recedes and I can look for it, I am all over it. Sometimes I can even find it under the snow in sheltered spots under the trees. This year the temperatures were so low and the snow and ice such constant companions that I never even bothered to look for it in February. I’ve been enjoying sprouted Alfalfa and Red Clover instead and they offer a similar taste and crunch but nothing beats that delicious, sweet green flavor after a long winter of heavier grains, roots and meat based meals.

Chickweed is the perfect palate and digestive “cleanser” to enjoy between “courses” of seasonal feasting, and it is at its tastiest in the cool days of early spring or the final ones of autumn. Seeds germinate in the fall and the leaves overwinter. It actually goes dormant during the high heat of summer when other greens and vegetables are abundant. Its flavor is sweet and green, somewhat reminiscent of Romaine and the texture is crunchy, rather like sprouts. Chickweed makes an excellent salad green or a perfect replacement for lettuce or sprouts in sandwiches, wraps, tacos, etc. You can replace some or all of the basil called for in pesto with Chickweed for a creamy, mild condiment, dip or pasta topping. I also like to mince a quart or more of fresh Chickweed along with wild onions, garlic or chives, finely chopped, to add to fold into omelettes or quiches.

Chickweed is emollient (soothing to external skin tissue) and demulcent (soothing to internal tissue) so it is a common ingredient in salves and creams as well as teas. It makes a soothing eye wash for tired, inflamed eyes as well. It is rich in vitamins A, D, B-complex, C, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, manganese and iron. Chickweed is a mild diuretic and is often included in “diet teas”, perhaps for this reason. But save your money. Chickweed has an extremely short shelf life once dried. Eat it fresh or use fresh herb for your tea or soup, sauce or dressing bases. If you want to preserve it, tincturing (steeping in alcohol) is probably the best method.

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Early in the spring you will find Chickweed in clumps or little leafy green bundles of deliciousness. As it produces flowers and eventually seeds, the stems will become elongated and leggy. Both the stems and the leaves are edible so I never waste time picking the leaves off. I chop both leaves and stems and the occasional flower to toss into my wild salads.

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That single row of hairs along the stems are an identifying characteristic I look for. You’ll find Chickweed prefers shady, damp places but it comes in almost anywhere the soil has been disturbed. Almost every gardener who attends my weed walks recognizes this plant from weeding it out of their gardens. I always encourage them to “weed” it into their salad bowls.

Happy Spring! ~Leenie

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Cottonwood Buds and Late Winter Wildcrafting

What a long, cold, and snowy winter this has been! We’re now in late winter with the promise of spring coming through on those occasional sunny, warm days that bring sap flow (maple-tapping time!) and the urge to get out to do some wildcrafting. For those not familiar with the term, wildcrafting is simply gathering herbs and plants that are growing wild to use for food, medicine, and making other herbal creations, and it is one of the most satisfying aspects of herbalism to me. After a long winter of missing my plant friends, I am eager to get out to find some signs of spring emergence, and head down to the grove of Cottonwood trees that  grow next to the run at the bottom of our holler.

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Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) is a large tree that often grows to 100 feet in height and has a broad, open crown of spreading branches. It is named for the soft, cottony seeds that float down like snow flurries in early summer. A member of the Willow family, it can be found bordering streams and growing in wet soils in valleys, often alongside Willows. Willows are well known for their analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties and actions, and Cottonwoods are no exception.  The bark is often used, but the unopened dormant leaf buds are the treasures I seek for making Cottonwood bud infused oil. Since the branches are way out of reach, I wait for a good wind storm to break off branches and provide “windfall” and a bounty of Cottonwood buds. It truly is like a treasure hunt as I scope around for fallen branches with green and glossy buds which are resinous and deliciously aromatic. The name ‘Balm of Gilead’ is sometimes used to describe Cottonwood and the infused oil made from the buds, as well as the Balsam Poplar tree (Populus balsamifera) which is a close relative. The term is referenced in the Bible, however the true source of the resinous Balm of Gilead is unclear and has been attributed to several different plants.

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Before heading back to the house, I notice a fallen heart-shaped Cottonwood leaf perfectly placed in the snow, and thank the grand trees for the gift of their medicine. Image

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Resins are best extracted by infusing in warm oil, and my favorite method of making infused oils is using an electric yogurt maker which keeps the oil at a perfect temperature. When I return home, I sort through the buds, brushing off dirt and discarding any that have rotted. I crush them slightly and place them in the container and cover with extra virgin olive oil. The oil will infuse for 2 weeks before I strain it. I stir it gently each day which gives me an opportunity to inhale the amazing aroma which is quite difficult to describe with words.

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I like to use the oil directly, but it can also be made into a salve by adding some beeswax to it to thicken it. The infused oil of Cottonwood is beneficial for relieving muscle aches, pains and inflammation, and as a chest or back rub for congestion or dry, hacking coughs. It also has antimicrobial properties and can be used on cuts and wounds, and for soothing dry, chapped skin. I keep the bottle of oil handy just so I can inhale the incredible aroma which I find calming and soothing when I am weary or stressed out.

If you want to learn more about identifying and using these wonderful trees, get yourself a good tree identification book and take a nice summer walk near a stream, river or other waterway sometime in June when the tree is releasing its cottony seeds.  Remember to go back to that place after a windy winter day and go on a treasure hunt of your own.

Wishing happy wildcrafting and blessings to all, Andrea

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Croany herbs

Nearly twenty years ago, now, I first read Susun Weed’s book called “Menopausal Years the Wise Woman Way”.  InImage that book she wrote about being crowned as a Croan.  Not until then had I ever read anything positive about being an “old Croan”.   I’m still not fond of the word, but I’ve become quite fond of the place.  No, I’ve never participated in a Croaning ceremony, but I’ve certainly paid the price of youth and the growing up years to come to this place of wisdom and peace.  I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and my interest in herbs was due to a class that a much younger herbalist gave in the 1990’s in her peaceful home.  Her great knowledge allowed me to swim through the meno years much easier than I otherwise might have.  From that I fed an interest in herbals and all things alternate.  I knew I’d had some influence on the younger generation when the simple use of a neti pot gave my 10 year old grandson the idea of describing my “coolness” to his peers.  “My grandma is so cool that she pours water into her nose and it comes out her eyes”.  Obviously he was looking from afar and rather than seeing the water come out of the other nostril, to him it was coming out of my eyes.  Regardless it seemed I was something magical to this young spirit.

All my grandsons live a few hours away from us, so my influence is only slight.  Nevertheless when the oldest had colic, I was quick to offer catnip and fennel tincture to help it along and then nourishing herbal teas to my daughter in law during her second pregnancy.

Then the granddaughter came to us last July, (2013).  She lives HERE, just ten minutes away.  Her parents were desirous that she have no non-organic foods or formula until it became absolutely necessary (if ever).  My son and daughter in law were adamant that they wanted to protect our Hannah from the harmful effects of chemicals, pesticides and all the offenders that are suspect in our food chain.  Thankfully in this time we live it is quite easy to find all things organic within the stores, no matter how far away out you live. Our daughter in law works full time so growing it all isn’t as easy just yet.  But we’ll get there.

Nevertheless, one vice we all share is that we are pretty heavy tea drinkers in our homes.  Our Son and his wife drink tea and we drink tea.  While I was raised on hot, black tea early on, no one wanted our Hannah to have caffeine.  But, still, when she saw me drinking hot or cold tea, it was obvious she wanted some.  So, hmmmm, what’s an herbal tea drinker to do?  Well, what DO I DO?   For the first thing, I have a pretty extensive library of books ~ all things herbal, so I started thinking which herbs were favorites of mine and which herbs did I have in my herb pantry. A quick research on what would be good for Hannah and still taste good to her new little tasty buds was first priority.   My favorite herb is Tulsi Basil and I love the taste of it in tea.  While it’s not generally used for very young children, I knew at the time that H1N1 had broken out here pretty heavily, so a bit in a tea wouldn’t hurt her and she hadn’t had her flu vaccine yet, so it was a good time to add just a bit to the mix.   Spearmint tastes and smells wonderful, so I added some to the mix thinking it would help with gas and reflux  along with a few Linden blossoms to do the same for her.  The fruit from the rose would be next…. a few rose hips to add vitamin C and a tarter taste to compliment the mint.  And tea is not complete with a bit of lemon, so I added some Melissa, (lemon balm), to the tea blend as an antiviral.  I knew I didn’t want too many ingredients just in case I had to eliminate some if the tea bothered her.  Because I was in a hurry I added the items by the handful except the Linden which was maybe 1/4 cup.  The smell of the tea was wonderful.  Now to see what Hannah thought!  After mixing the blend by hand I took a teaspoon and placed it into a small one cup pot.  Let it steep for 5 minutes and poured it into a sippy cup.  I also added an ice cube to cool it.  Hannah went berserk.  She loved the herbal tea and fussed every time I put the cup down.  It was a simple blend to tighten up her immune system and settle her tummy after lunch at the same time.  I don’t feed it to her every day, but I could, and I don’t give it to her at every meal, though I could.  I’m starting her off early and plan on having her with me to play in the dirt and herbs this summer.  She’ll learn to identify, gather,dry and store; then blend, tincture and all the other fun stuff with herbals as she grows, Lord willing.  What a great legacy for an old Croan to leave to her only (for now) granddaughter.  Thinking of Spring, Janet

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MAKING MAPLE SYRUP…AND MUSING

Back before Thanksgiving 2013 a chance meeting of a couple we have since become friends with led to an impromptu and animated discussion about maple sugaring. That is, gathering the sap from maple trees and cooking it down into syrup. It turned out that Larry and Christa have experience tapping maple trees and sugaring and they offered to return with the late winter sugar snows and show us how. True to their word, they came on a clear, relatively warm day in February and helped us get started. We didn’t want to invest in a lot in equipment until we found out if it was something that we would want to do again and again in the future. As you can see, our taps are hardly high-tech.

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My husband cut lengths of copper tubing (about 4 inches long) to use as spiles. Then he used a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the tubing to drill a couple of inches into the tree. These are not deeply drilled, no more than 2 inches at a slightly upward angle 2-4 feet from the ground on the south facing side of the tree. As long as all the spiles are removed at the end of the season the tree will heal itself and form a little scar at the site of the tap. This spot or another above it should not be used again in subsequent years. We tapped two trees that were more than 12 inches in diameter. One was a soft maple and the other a hard, Sugar Maple. The Sugar Maple was much older and bigger and we were able to place three taps on this tree while placing only one on the soft maple.

Ideally, you want cold nights with freezing followed by relatively warm (above freezing but not much above 40 degrees), sunny days to promote the flow of sap. The amount of sap gathered daily varied widely ranging from half a gallon on the slowest, coldest day to 4 gallons on our best day so far. This is what we collected on that day:

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Once we had a total of 10 gallons of sap we decided to begin boiling it down to make syrup. We did end up drinking some sap along the way (YUMM!), brewing some dark, French roast coffee with sap (DOUBLE YUMM!), and, as you will see, I used some to make an herbal mineral preparation. So we actually only started out with 9 gallons of sap for cooking down. We built up the fires in our two wood stoves in our home. We were told that sugaring is a steamy affair, which is why it is most often not done inside the home. (I just re-read that sentence and it does sound a bit sordid, doesn’t it?) But since we were starting with a relatively small amount of sap and there was a deep freeze and winter storm predicted for that evening we thought it would be a good day to get the house really warm while cooking down our sap. Since the sap was icy cold, some even frozen, I opted to bring it to a boil on our electric stove in a soup pot 2 gallons at a time and then pour it all into two large roasting pans set on the wood stove on the main floor. We ended up not needing to use the second wood stove in the basement and I was thankful because I had not been looking forward to schlepping hot sap and syrup up and down the stairs.

Boiling sap foams a little. This was skimmed off and discarded.

The goal in cooking down your sap is to keep it boiling and create as much surface area as possible to aid evaporation. Commercial operations often have pans that are 4 feet wide and 6 feet long or larger, although they may only be about 4 inches deep. These large roasting pans were all I had on hand so we made do. I will be scouring flea markets and second hand shops for suitable receptacles for future sugaring. We ended up evaporating more than 8.5 gallons of water into the air during the 10 hours of cooking down. Yes, our home was moist and warm but that felt pretty nice on a cold, winter day and a refreshing change from the dry air we’ve become accustomed to.

While the sap was boiling down I did a little experimenting with some of it. First, I brewed a small French press pot using freshly ground French roast coffee and hot maple sap. It made, hands-down, the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Just a splash of real cream and it was unbeatable by even the finest coffee bar. I did a little research on the nutritional value and benefits of maple syrup and decided it was a shoe-in for my Herban Iron & Mineral Syrup. Maple syrup is high in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, and potassium. I thought this would perfectly complement the mineral rich herbs like Yellowdock, Dandelion, Red Clover, Nettles, Red Raspberry leaf, Alfalfa, Hawthorn berries, and Eleuthero root that I use for my daily mineral supplement.

     

In a medium sized, deep sauce pan I placed 4 oz. of my Herban Iron Syrup dry herb blend along with half a gallon of Maple sap. I brought this to a boil, covered, and then set the lid askew and simmered until it was reduced to about 1 quart. In case you are wondering just how amazing our house was smelling at this point, I can sum it up in one word: SWEET! All the sap was bubbling along so I turned my attention to finishing the syrup. I strained the cooked down decoction of Herban Iron herbs through a cloth lined sieve into a glass measuring cup and indeed discovered I had just over a quart of strong tea. To this I added 2 cups of raw, local honey and stirred to dissolve thoroughly. I allowed it to cool a little more before pouring it into labeled glass bottles, which I store in the refrigerator. These will keep for several months but we generally use them up long before any possible expiration. My teen-aged daughter and I use these as a daily mineral supplement, taking from 2-6 oz. throughout the day as needed. This keeps our iron and calcium levels high and helps regulate healthy menstrual cycles and keep us on an even keel emotionally.

Back to our maple sap, which had been boiling down for 9 hours, it was time to pay a little more attention. We were down  to about a gallon so my husband poured it all back into the soup pot to monitor more closely on the top of the kitchen stove. I stayed close by and kept it at a rolling boil. A drop of pure cream on the surface ensured that it would not boil over and when the pot was reduced by half I began monitoring the temperature. At this stage we were not so exact. I kept finding conflicting guidelines for the correct temperature at which the syrup should be when it is ready. We tested the temperature at which water boiled on this low barometric pressure day (207 degrees F) and added 7 degrees to that. It took another hour but it finally hit 214 degrees F briefly and we removed it from the heat, strained it, and poured it into hot, sterilized jars almost to the rims, capped with hot, sterilized lids and  turned them upside down to seal. We had a little extra that we poured into a bottle and reserved for our next pancake breakfast.

FUN MAPLE SYRUP FACTS:

Maple syrup in rich in iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium.

Maple syrup, like honey, has natural anti-oxidants, which fight cancer-causing free radicals and slow aging. 

Maple syrup is a healthier sugar because it is complex and has less fructose than honey. (A diet high in fructose is detrimental to heart and liver health.)

MAPLE MUSINGS

There is plenty of time for pondering while making maple syrup…hours and hours of it. We took our time each day as we went out to check the tapped trees, noticing little details like the hawk we saw each time and named Herc Hawkins, or the owl pellets, or the fat groundhog scurrying around. After a week of tromping back and forth from our trees to the house to collect sap, we finally had enough to make a little syrup. Then it was a full day of tending fires, watching boiling sap so it didn’t boil over, the final temperature taking and syrup testing, and the nerve-wracking (for newbies like us) decision making about whether or not it was ready, the straining, and the final canning. I was awed by the way I had always considered real maple syrup to be crazy expensive. After one week of sugaring I am awed by how cheaply it is sold.

I love making real things with my own hands. It doesn’t have to be something we will always do. Nor does it have to be the only way we procure the things we have in our lives. But it is enlightening to participate in the process and come to a fuller understanding of what is involved. Making an article of clothing from gathering fiber to weaving cloth to finished garment or a piece of furniture from a harvested tree all the way to completed table or chair… anything, really…is a humbling process. I will never forget the first quilt I ever completed on my own. It was a scrap quilt called Flying Geese and it was fashioned from scraps and bits of fabric and old clothing. The batting was a well worn wool blanket. It took over 300 hours to complete over the first year of our first-born’s life. I remember placing him for naps on blankets under the quilt frame and I would stitch until he woke up. I have sweet memories of him playing under my quilt frame, which he called his “apart-a-ment”, over the years. One day shortly after I had finished this quilt I walked into a big box store in a neighboring city and saw “handmade quilts” on sale for $35. I looked closely and they were indeed hand-stitched, even if poorly, and the fabric was of a poor quality as well that would probably not stand up to many washings. I stood for awhile pondering the conditions under which someone would hand sew large blankets for even a fraction of the number of hours that I had spent on my first quilt and then have it shipped to our country and sold for this pittance. I felt like I was peeking into a slave hut and glimpsing misery at its worst. Tears began to stream down my face and, of course, I had to leave. That day was an important turning point for me as a young mother and homemaker. I realized it was essential to me to understand the real cost and value of the things in my life, to participate enough in their making to never miss the deep appreciation that transcends themes and color schemes and fashions that come and go.

All these thoughts came to me over the course of that week of sugaring. As I visited these trees and thought about all the hidden work they do during a season that we often consider “dead” and “lifeless”, I began to notice variations in bark and the swaying of the branches in the wind. I loved their sounds and scents. I thought about the needs of the tree and was careful not to take too much sap. I thought about the Little House in the Big Woods stories of their sugar snows and sugar camps and how this and a little sorghum they grew were their only sources for sweetening. The average person today consumes 150 pounds of sugar per year compared to just 7-1/2 pounds in 1700.  Why is sugar so easy and cheap? How would my life be different if I consumed only the sugar or sweetener that I could produce?

We took 9 gallons of sap gathered over the course of a week and cooked it down for 10 hours to make 5.5 cups of maple syrup. I would estimate that we spent a total of close to 20 hours on all aspects of making this maple syrup. How much would you expect to earn for 20 hours of work? Even at a minimum wage rate of $7.25 that would be $145 and make my syrup cost over $26 per cup. We had almost no up-front investment in equipment, and although we did use our electric stove for parts of the process, we could have done it all on an outdoor wood fire. Still, wood must be either cut, split, and stacked or purchased so it is an expense in one way or another that would need to be factored in. I have no intention of selling maple syrup the same as I would not hand make quilts for sale. I understand too much about the process now. Instead I will practice daily gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy and try harder not to waste.

Sugar Maple Glory

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