3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: WILD CHERRY

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WILD CHERRY (Prunus serotina)

This lovely wild tree is in bloom now at the edge of a wooded area near our home. I start looking for the beautiful wands of flowers draping themselves and waving in the spring breezes in May. Mine usually bloom later than the cultivated cherry trees we have planted. I don’t always gather because the bark is the medicinal part used and striping the bark from a tree effectively kills it. There are alternatives, however, if you choose to use this traditional wild medicine. Wild Cherry is still included in the official U.S. Pharmacopeia and is an ingredient in many commercial cough formulas even today.

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Close-up of Wild Cherry blossoms

Wild cherry bark is a traditional remedy for a persistent cough and thus has a place in preparations for bronchitis and chest colds. The inner bark just under the woody bark is the part used and should always be dried before use. Rather than stripping the outer bark from the main trunk of the tree, young twigs can be gathered from the tips or fallen branches after storms often provide some useful medicine. The inner bark is traditionally harvested in the fall.

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The inner bark of Wild Cherry is easily harvested by peeling away the outer bark and scraping with a knife or even a finger nail.

Some herbalists recommend doing a cold water extraction of dried cherry bark while others use a traditional boiled water infusion as you would for making a cup of tea. At any rate, long simmering, as you would for making a decoction with most roots and barks, is not recommended. Wild cherry bark is an excellent ingredient for a syrup to have on hand during cold and flu season. Other ingredients to consider might include Echinacea, Elderberry, Mullein, Cinnamon, and Elecampane. Research and customize your own formula.

The basic formula for making a syrup is to place 2 ounces of dried herbal blend into a stainless steel or other non-aluminum pot along with 1 quart of water, bring to a simmer, reducing heat and simmering until the liquid is reduced by half (usually around 20 minutes). If I were including Wild Cherry bark I would personally add that after removing the simmered herbs from the heat. I would cover the pot and allow it to steep with the dried Wild Cherry bark addition for about an hour. Next strain the plant material through cheese cloth, composting the herbs. To each pint of herbal liquid add 1 cup of raw honey or natural maple syrup. Sugar can be used in equal proportion to liquid to create a more shelf stable syrup but I prefer using natural sweeteners in lower concentrations and then simply refrigerating or freezing the syrup to preserve. Both honey and maple syrup bring healing qualities to the table in their own right. Some diabetics can use maple syrup in small quantities. Research and decide on the best option for you. I’ve used refrigerated syrups for months with no signs of mold or loss of quality. I also like to freeze syrups in ice cube trays, which can be soothing and refreshing for someone suffering with an inflamed sore throat and fever. You can also use the tea or syrup to make gelatin, which children are often happy to take when they are ill.

So even though harvest time is many months away this is an excellent time to find Wild Cherry. Tie a ribbon around a limb to mark it for later use and for watching through the seasons.

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Wild Cherry fruiting

Wishing you growing blessings & abundant harvests!

~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: WHAT’S THIS PLANT?

By far the most commonly asked question on weed walks, through e-mailed or Facebook-messaged photos, or even via phone calls is, “What’s this plant?” Over the years I have learned that the sooner I reveal the name of a plant the quicker people stop listening and noticing details about the plant. It’s as if the name is the sum total of what constitutes knowing an organism. Imagine if we approached knowing people or animals like that. Just a long series of  girls, boys, dogs, cats, lizards, women, grandfathers, infants, and so on. Maybe some would go a little further and be able to label them Ben Johnson, Michelle Winston, Gi-gi, Golden Retriever, Siamese, etc. But that would hardly scratch the surface of actually knowing them, wouldn’t it?

I feel the same thing can happen with plants. I like to point at a jagged toothed  leafy plant on weed walks and ask who knows what the plant is. Almost invariably every hand goes up and I hear shouts of: Dandelion! And everyone is ready to move on because we all know the name and like to assume that means we know the plant. (Sometimes I am ornery and point to a young Chicory plant, which looks very similar until you get down close and notice the differences.) Then we proceed to spend another 20 minutes or so noticing details about the Dandelion, tasting, talking about its value and strengths, how it helps the soil, plants around it, humans. In 20 minutes I still know I have only scratched the surface because in the 5+ decades I have been walking this good green Earth and delighting in and using this plant, I continue to learn something new about it every single year.

So, for today’s wild plant (that turns out to be a traditional medicinal), I will save the name for the end (Please don’t scroll ahead!) and take you through a step-by-step process on how to identify a plant that you do not know. I always recommend using keys over field guides. Field guides can be wonderful tools and provide useful information. However, they can also make us lazy about our identification methods and can possibly result in mis-identifications. This is because most of us tend to flip through all those lovely color photos haphazardly hoping to come across one that matches the plant in front of us. The important information lies in the description and botanical terms, which all too often are ignored once a name/label has been found.

Two of my favorite keys are NEWCOMB’S WILDFLOWER GUIDE by Lawrence Newcomb and BOTANY IN A DAY by Thomas J. Elpel. Each one works slightly differently so I will stick to NEWCOMB’S today and save BOTANY IN A DAY for another plant on another day. NEWCOMB’S has no color photos so it often gets overlooked on book store shelves. You should read the introduction to understand fully how the key works  but you will see it in a nutshell here as we identify this plant:

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This lush, green vine with the lovely heart shaped leaves is the one I am interested in today. It is growing in the woods near my home.

My first step is to just sit down and enjoy the plant, notice where it is growing (in a shady woodland), the direction in which is it growing (away from rather than toward the sun), other plants around it that I might know, and so on. I also like to simply “listen” to the plant. This is maybe a more elusive concept…learning directly from the plants themselves…but it is something I like to take time out to do. I often jot down “inspirations” that come to me about how the plant might be useful and to whom, which parts or whether to use it whole, dried or fresh, whether it might be food or medicine, etc. I don’t worry about being right about any of it because I will do research later to confirm or refute my perceptions. It’s just a very affirming experience living in the Information Age to remember that not all knowledge needs to be obtained in a linear, print- or electronic-based format. If this idea intrigues you Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively on the topic in THE LOST LANGUAGE OF PLANTS, SECRET TEACHINGS OF PLANTS: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature as well as his new release, PLANT INTELLIGENCE AND THE IMAGINAL REALM:Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth. I haven’t read the last one but it is on my wish list. There is never anything derivative about Mr. Buhner’s work. Gotta love someone whose job title includes Earth Poet & Bardic Naturalist.

These steps completed, I am ready to open my NEWCOMB’S and get started on a positive identification. There are 5 questions to answer (pg. x) and they go something like this:

*The first two questions have to do with flower type. Botanical terms are used but you don’t have to study and memorize them before using the key. Handy line drawings and explanations of terms are only a couple of pages away (starting on pg. xiv). So the first question is Is the flower regular (radially symmetrical) or irregular, or are the flower parts indistinguishable? Here is a very close, tight shot of a single tiny opened flower on the vine, thanks to my daughter’s photography skills (Thanks, Morgan!):

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This flower is tiny, about the size of a peppercorn. A magnifying glass is a handy tool for noting details on such small blossoms.

For my second question NEWCOMB’S  asks, If regular, how many petals or similar parts does it have? If you don’t have a field guide, botany text, or other such book I am certain you can google these terms for now and find clear illustrations of the difference between regular and irregular flowers. I answered that the flower was regular with 6 petals. This resulted in me obtaining the first of three numbers that the book assigns in the keying out process. A flower with 6 regular parts (or petals) is given the number 6.

On to the next two questions that will help me determine the plant type. NEWCOMB’S asks Is the plant a wildflower or a shrub or a vine? If it is a wildflower, is it without leaves, or if it has leaves, are they all at the base of the plant, or are they arranged singly on the stem (alternate), or are they opposite one another in pairs or whorls? (There’s three new terms for you: alternate, opposite, and whorled…You’re learning to speak Botany!) Here are two more photos of my plant that can help answer these two questions:

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What plant type would you classify this one as?

Due to the twining nature of the plant I chose to label it a vine. This gave me the second digit in the three digit number that helps locate the specific plant I am identifying. Vines are the plant type labeled with the number 6. Thus, I have a two digit key number now of 66.

The last question is about the type of leaf on the plant. NEWCOMB’S asks Are the leaves entire (with even and unbroken margins), or are they toothed or lobed or divided? Entire, toothed, lobed, divided…four more botanical terms; you’re doing great. Look back at the leaves in the photos of our lovely plant. What type do you think they are?

I called these leaves entire because the edges were smooth and unbroken. This leaf type gets a number 2, which means my three digit locator number for using the locator key in NEWCOMB’S is 662. I flip to the locator key which begins on page 1 and thumb through to number 662. That number tells me to turn to page 356 where I should find a line drawing of the plant in the picture above if I have answered all of the questions correctly. I’m pretty excited at this point and I’ve learned a bunch of new terms without any studying, memorizing or quizzes. The line drawing matches (Giant, happy smile inserted here!) but it is important not to stop here. I look to the left of the drawing to read the description carefully to make sure that is a match as well. Here is what I read:

“Flowers in drooping racemes or spikes, leaves long-pointed, heart-shaped at the base. Flowers small, greenish-yellow, the staminate and pistillate in separate clusters. [You’ll learn those terms as you go along but you don’t need them to use this key.] Leaves entire and alternate, or the lower ones in whorls of 3. Stem twining 5-15 feet long. Moist thickets, s. New England to Minnesota and south…”

I double check all these features on the plant in front of me. (Is it driving you crazy yet that I haven’t told you the name?) But what’s this? I do, indeed, see both alternate and whorled leaves but the whorled ones have more than 3 leaf stems. Here are some photos of the two leaf attachment types on the same plant.

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Leaf stems are attached here in a staggered, or “alternate” manner.

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Clearly whorled leaf stem attachments but I count 5 here. 

But now I am armed with a name (which I will eventually reveal to you…I promise). I take this name and look up more information on the plant in my Peterson Field Guide EASTERN/CENTRAL MEDICINAL PLANTS by Steven Foster and James A. Duke and read:

“Perennial twining vine; stem smooth. Leaves alternate (lower ones in whorls of 3-8), heart-shaped, hairy beneath; veins conspicuous. Flowers not showy; male and female flowers separate…”

Bingo! Now I feel confident that I have correctly identified this plant. It matches the line drawings and descriptions in both books as well as the color photograph (the LAST thing I looked at) in Peterson’s. That book further tells me that:

“American Indians used the root tea to relieve labor pains. The freshly dried root (tea) formerly used by physicians for colic, gastrointestinal irritations, morning sickness, asthma, spasmodic hiccough, rheumatism, and ‘chronic gastritis of drunkards.’ Contains diosgenin, used to manufacture progesterone and other steroid drugs. Of all plant genera, there is perhaps none with greater impact on modern life but whose dramatic story is as little known as [this plant]. Most of the steroid hormones used in modern medicine, especially those in contraceptives, were developed from elaborately processed chemical components derived from [this plant]. Drugs made with…(diosgenins) relieve asthma, arthritis, eczema, regulate metabolism and control fertility. Synthetic products manufactured from diosgenins include human sex hormones (contraceptive pills), drugs to treat menopause, dysmenorrhea, premenstrual syndrome, testicular deficiency, impotency, prostate hypertrophy, and psycho-sexual problems, as well as high blood pressure, arterial spasms, migraines, and other ailments. Widely prescribed cortisones and hydrocortisones were indirect products of the genus Dioscorea. They are used for Addison’s disease, some allergies, bursitis, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, brown recluse spider bites, insect stings, and other diseases and ailments. Warning: Fresh plant may induce vomiting and other undesirable side effects.”

Wow! What a plant and it is growing just outside my door and was not even planted or cultivated by any human. I hope you are as blown away by this as I am. Aren’t you glad that I didn’t just tell you the name of the plant right off? But I guess it is time, if you haven’t already guessed it…drum roll, please…

WILD YAM (Dioscorea villosa)

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Handy identification tool kit. The magnifying glass is not essential but it can prove useful. I don’t usually write down my number results as I’ve done here but I wanted to be able to show the process clearly. The printed page is from NEWCOMB’S WILDFLOWER GUIDE and is the question page used to determine your three digit number for using the locator key and identifying the plant in question. The whole process took a little over 10 minutes, most of which was spent taking pictures. I had the plant identified in about 2 minutes. It certainly took far less time that writing about it did! It might be good to start with a couple of plants you actually already know, such as Dandelion, until you are comfortable using a key to identify. 

I have lost track of the precise quote or even the writer  (I think it was educational innovator, John Holt.) but I read a wonderful definition of intelligence many decades ago. It went something like this:

Intelligence is not defined by how many facts you know and can recall but, rather, by what you do when you don’t know the answer. 

I love that and try to keep it foremost in my mind as I go about my life. If we choose not to learn to use tools for finding answers we do not currently know, we will always be limited by what the one teaching us knows and what we can retain. But if we take the explorer’s approach, packing an abundant supply or curiosity and wonder, and take useful tools in hand…the sky’s the limit. Or is it?

Hoping all your discoveries are happy ones! ~Leenie

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21-Day Real Wild Food Challenge & Ponderings

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A generous gallon-sized  colander serves as my gathering basket three times a day and returns to the kitchen loaded with both organically cultivated and wild-crafted foods.

I have a penchant for challenging myself to look at my own assumptions, perceptions, and perspectives. When I reach that jaded, all-too-familiar point where I think I know what comes next or how things work…every time…I like to shake things up and turn my world on its head so I can look at it with new eyes and come to it with a beginner’s mind. So, a few days ago I decided to challenge myself to 21 days of eating only real (mostly from our garden and farm) and wild foods. The goal is not to lose weight or even “clean up my diet.” Rather, it is an exercise in awareness.

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Blueberry and Red Raspberry leaves, Nettles tops, and Lemon Balm destined for the teapot 

Like many of these “games of awareness” I like to play, this one was designed and embraced in a flash of a moment of insight, seemingly out of the blue, and was led by a cluster of little “What if…?” questions. Because I said yes to the inspiration, I spent almost no time in planning or setting up parameters. I am figuring those out as I go along and questions arise. I’ll describe the beginning phase of my challenge below but first here are some of my “What if’s…”:

What if…

…I look to the Earth and its provision daily instead of the weekly sale flyers, my budget, or coupon circulars to decide what to eat?

…the seasonal abundance informs my food choices rather than diet plans or nutritional philosophies?

…I trust that real food, just as it is, is really good for me?

…I belong here and my life, health, and vitality are supported by the Earth, the sun, the atmosphere (creating all these weather patterns and seasons), and beyond? 

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What if…tea doesn’t come from a bag with a string on it, or a box or a tin? What if…it comes from my yard and garden? 

We have a fair amount of early greens, herbs and edibles in our permaculture beds now so I qualify this as “real” food. I know some wild food plants and I know that they are available and easy to obtain right outside my door so I qualify these as “real wild” foods that nourish parts of me beyond RDA’s, food pyramids or My Plate analysis and assessments. I don’t want this to be laborious or tedious so I allow things like olive oil, butter, grains, etc. When I purchase or obtain these from our pantry I simply ask myself, “Is this real?” If I can picture someone(s) gathering in a harvest of olives and pressing them, dairying that involves milking, culturing or churning, harvesting wheat or rice and minimally processing, then I deem it “real”. Just try to envision how that can of spray cheese comes to be and you get the idea of what my mind cannot wrap itself around as “real” although its existence is a pretty wild concept to me. Remember, this is a self-created challenge on the order of playmates deciding to “pretend we’re Robinhood and his Merry Men living in Sherwood Forest” so it is about the romp and the discoveries more than the science and theory.

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Real & Wild Breakfast: a variety of braised garden-grown and wild-crafted greens (kale, spinach, dandelion, mallow, lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, nettles, wild onion) with curried free-range eggs and a light crumbling of goat cheese; home canned peaches and fresh grapefruit; homemade corn crepe.

As I said, I am only a few days into my challenge. I am recording what I gather and eat, how I feel, and my reflections on the process. At the end of 21 days I will share some of these and welcome feedback and any ideas it might spark for others. I am taking pictures of many of the meals, plants, nature treks, and other inspired adventures beyond food…like making goat milk soap or cheese.

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When a spring cold threatened in the family I asked, what if…pots of fresh herbal teas and rich Garlic soup (and rest) can address it as well as antihistamines and pain relievers? 

Lots of ‘What if’s…?” to explore and many discoveries lie ahead in the next few weeks. Wishing you a season of growth, abundance, and an awareness of your place in the grand scheme of life. ~Leenie

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Wednesdays Weeds: LAMB’S QUARTERS

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Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

Lamb’s Quarters is one of my favorite all-purpose greens for a variety of reasons, not least of which includes its wide and long availability through the summer. It’s popping up all over the garden and yard now and is under six inches tall but certainly big enough to toss into salads or other wild green mixes for cooking. Other common names include Goosefoot (Cheno=goose + podium=foot), Wild Spinach (spinach used to be classified in the Chenopodiaceae family but is now an Amaranthaceae member), Fat Hen, and Pigweed.

John Kallas, PhD in his book EDIBLE WILD PLANTS: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, calls Lamb’s Quarters, along with Chickweed, Mallow, and Purslane, a foundation green for its mild taste, which makes it suitable to use raw in salads or pesto, cooked in almost any dish calling for greens. Lamb’s Quarters is crazy good nutrition. Several sources, including BOTANY IN A DAY by Thomas J. Elpel say that it contains more calcium than any other plant ever analyzed. How much? One cup cooked contains 46% of the RDA for calcium but it doesn’t stop there. It also contains 281% of vitamin A, 111% of vitamin C, and 7% of the iron needed. It is also low in saturated fat, and very low in cholesterol and is a good source of niacin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, potassium, copper and manganese. Basically, it is a wild super food!

When I first learned to identify, gather, and enjoy Lamb’s Quarters decades ago I didn’t have all the resources in book form and online that are available today. But I did come across an Euell Gibbons book (STALKING THE WILD ASPARAGUS) that contained a wonderful little chart comparing the nutritional analysis of wild verses cultivated vegetables and fruits. When I saw the difference between Lamb’s Quarters and garden Spinach, and I gave the wild version a taste, I was completely sold. Spinach registers 56% of the RDA for vitamin A, 3% for calcium, 14% for vitamin C, and 4% for iron. That is when I first started using the term, which I think I invented, primary wild foods instead of “weeds”. We all know that commercial agriculture focuses on ship-ability and shelf-life over nutritional value and flavor. No where is this more apparent than in the difference between Lamb’s Quarters and Spinach. I do grow and enjoy Spinach but I probably eat even more of the wild version.

If you’ve eaten pesto, spinach lasagna, or spanakopita at my home you’re likely to have tasted the wild cousin of Spinach since I use that more often. It grows all summer and keeps me busy blanching and freezing it as well as eating it fresh. The fine crystalline powder on the upper leaves, which also appears on garden Spinach, is an identifying characteristic. This white, waxy ‘bloom’ is not present on the otherwise similar looking Hairy Nightshade and Ground Cherry Nightshade (Solanum physalifolium, S. sarracoides, S. villosum).

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Lamb’s Quarters in the Elecampane Patch

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Hairy Nightshade 

This plant has similarly shaped leaves but never a white ‘bloom’ and the flowers, of course, are drastically different.

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Lamb’s Quarters flower buds, which will later produce dark, shiny seeds

The seeds and the flower buds of Lamb’s Quarters are both edible but they need to be gathered at just the right stage and handled with care. The green leaves are the main way we enjoy this wild green. The possibilities for use are limited only by your culinary imagination but here are some images to spark ideas.

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Fillo pastry is a favorite way to make Wild Spinach Pies (Spanakopita or Hortopita), whether as one large pie or small individual ones.

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Wild Spinach/Lamb’s Quarters are a natural for summer salads

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We like to make pesto using wild greens like Lamb’s Quarters and use that in place of tomato sauce for a unique summer time wild green pizza.

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Sauteed as a green, a wild filling for burritos or crepes, added to fried rice…the possibilities abound. 

Enjoy! ~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: MOTHERWORT

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Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) in early to mid spring

“Wort” is an Old English term that simply means plant. Thus, Motherwort can be thought of as mother’s plant. It is found throughout our area and at this time of year will most likely look like a low bushy clump as in the picture above. Later it will grow anywhere from 2-5 feet tall, as in this picture:

Mature Motherwort

Mature Motherwort in flower

Motherwort’s square stems readily reveal its membership in the Mint family. Leaves are opposite, 3-lobed, and toothed. The pinkish flowers are whorled and form in the axils of the leaf stems. The upper lip of the flower is furry but they are small so you will have to pause and take time to get a close up look to notice this.

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Motherwort flowers

Motherwort has a long traditional use as a regulator, whether of hormones or heartbeats. It helps establish regular menstrual cycles and to tame the wild mood swings that can accompany them. Traditional midwives use Motherwort to regulate childbirth contractions and it can be a wonderful ally when heart palpitations during menopause become a concern. Scientific studies confirm its use as an antispasmodic, hypotensive, and mild sedative. Many Chinese studies have well documented laboratory and clinical reports of these uses as well as confirming its effectiveness as a uterine tonic.

I always enjoy botanical Latin for all that it reveals about a plant with just a word or two. Motherwort’s Latin binomial is Leonurus (lion) cardiaca (heart), hence lion-hearted. Motherwort has definitely helped me to “take heart” and face the challenges of daily life with greater fortitude, courage, and resilience. Rosemary Gladstar in her wonderful FAMILY HERBAL: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality says of it: “Motherwort is a superb tonic for nourishing and strengthening the heart muscle and its blood vessels. It is a remedy for most heart disease, neuralgia, and an over-rapid heartbeat. It is valued for many women’s health issues, including delayed menstruation, uterine cramps associated with scanty menses, water retention, and hot flashes and mood swings during menopause.” 

Flowering stem of Motherwort

The regularity and symmetry of Motherwort in flower hints at her charms and effects. She is erect and balanced. Leaves are opposite, uniform and evenly spaced. Flowers form in perfect whorls like crowns atop the leaf stems. When life feels chaotic, all-over-the-place, and demands seem to pull in every direction, Motherwort teaches our hearts to find a natural rhythm again and helps us return to a natural cadence.

I like to make a tincture from the plant using the leaves and flowering tops just as it begins to come into flower and the individual blooms are not quite open. Certainly gather it before it flowers fully. The leaves are the main part used medicinally so anytime that the leaves are looking vital and vibrantly alive they can be gathered. It can be dried and used in a tea along with other herbs for a flavor you like, or it can be steeped in alcohol (brandy, vodka, or pure grain alcohol) for 4-6 weeks before straining. It is traditionally used in a rhythmic way for regulating menses and typical PMS symptoms. That is, taken in doses of 10-15 drops in a little water or juice (or directly under the tongue straight-up) 2-3 times per day for the two weeks prior to the start of the period. If that is not known, simply start using it when PMS symptoms begin and continue for two weeks, then take a two week break. Two weeks on, two weeks off. Everything in balance, says Motherwort. As above, so below.

Leonurus cardiaca

Take heart, Good Mother, there’s a weed right outside your doorstep waiting to help. 

~Leenie

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