3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: ST. JOHNSWORT

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”  ~A.A. Milne


St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)

“Wort” (not to be confused with wart) is an Old English word that means simply, plant. This plant has a long and interesting history in many folk traditions. I’ve often thought that an herbal that traced the cultural links of common names for plants over time would make an interesting read. This plant would top my list for research and exploration. Other common names include Goatweed (Love that one!), Klamath weed, Amber, Tipton weed, and some herbalists have mentioned to me the old pre-Christian name of Midsummer wort. Both St. John’s and Midsummer wort allude to the time of year when this plant flowers, at or around St. John’s Day or Midsummer’s Eve so this is a plant to seek out close to the summer solstice. I like reading stories of earthy folk jumping over Midsummer’s Eve fires with wands of this plant in hand for the purpose of aligning themselves with miraculous healings, although I am yet to try that out myself. Even the scientific name, Hypericum, is infused with mystery. Hypericum, with Greek roots, means ‘over an apparition’  and according to M. Grieve’s MODERN HERBAL, is a “reference to the belief that the herb was so obnoxious to evil spirits that a whiff of it would cause them to fly.”

It grows wild along roadside and pastures. It is not native to North America but some areas consider it invasive. Ironically, as with many other plants it is both planted and cultivated in some areas as a cash crop for its medicinal properties and sprayed in eradication programs in others. Thomas Elpel in BOTANY IN A DAY suggests that, “it would make more sense to stop both the spraying and the planting of St. Johnswort in favor of intensive wildcrafting to control its population…”


A gathering basket that has obviously seen better days filled with St. Johnswort.

Although the leaves are edible, I have to admit that I have never eaten them, gathering it mainly for its healing properties. The flowering tops (leaves and flowers) are the part that I use. St. Johnswort is antispasmodic, soothing, astringent, and a nervous system tonic. The leaves and flowers have little dots, or perforations, that contain hypercin, which lend a lovely jewel like reddish blush to oils, alcohol, or vinegar when you infuse them. This is considered the “active ingredient” in St. Johnswort, although I consider whole plants to play an active role in the same sense that whole foods are always more nourishing than individual nutrients, or whole people are more interesting that stereo-typed caricatures.

Front and back views of St. Johnswort flowers. Notice the little black dots and the torn edges of the petals rather like torn perforations.

You would need a good magnifying glass to see the dots this distinctly on a small St. Johnswort leaf but they are there.

St. Johnswort has been dried and used in  tea blends, or tinctured in alcohol for use addressing mild to moderate depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) for those who do not have the opportunity to get much sunlight during the short days of winter. It is contraindicated in cases of psychosis or schizophrenia, as well as those with bipolar disorder. Since research shows that it may decrease estrogen levels and speeds up metabolism, woman taking oral contraceptives may want to avoid it.

I always make an oil using St. Johnswort as one of the three essential ingredients in my Triple Healing Salve. This plant heals nerve damage, and the associated pain, like no other. I also use the oil for massaging achy muscles and for a base in a breast massage oil, especially for lumpy, fibrocystic breasts.

St. Johnswort steeping in extra virgin Olive oil the day of harvest and then 4 weeks later. Beautiful color!

St. Johnswort steeping in alcohol for tincture making.

Although St. Johnswort can sometimes be found in July and August depending upon weather patterns, this is the peak time to gather. The oil is beautiful and makes a great base for homemade creams and salves.

May your summer be sunny and blessed! ~Leenie

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Seasonal Living: Life is a Bowl of Cherries


It has been said that life is a bowl of cherries. And it is…at least if you live in our area right now. It looks like the local orchards and farms will be enjoying as good a year for cherries as it has been a bad one for strawberries. A late cold snap and heavy frost with a freeze at a vulnerable time when the strawberries were blooming resulted a dismal harvest for most farmers and gardeners. It was time to renew our strawberry bed so last fall I removed all of the older, depleted plants to the compost pile and started with fresh disease-free roots this spring. As many of you may know, you cannot harvest strawberries the first year from June-bearing types, which are my favorite kind. Instead, it is necessary to remove all of the blossoms the first year as they come on so that the energy will go into building strong root systems for a heavy second year crop of delicious berries. That task was made easier for me given the severe late weather. I wasn’t expecting to harvest this year so the loss was not as acute as it was for many area farmers. Although I was able to procure a small amount of strawberries to make a couple of scanty batches of jam, the 2014-2015 culinary year promises to have very few strawberry themed dishes.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the cherries are on now and crowding center stage as only those lovely, sweet (and tart!) luscious fruits can.


All of this, coupled with daily meanderings through our gardens, left me pondering seasonal eating. It seemed like a perfect time to kick off this facet of the 3 herb mamas blog. Grocery stores, modern food preservation methods, media and advertising have led most of us to assume that we can and should have access to everything from melons and berries to fresh cream and eggs (Yes, these do have seasons!) anytime we wish to indulge a whim for them, be it during a blizzard in February or the sultry dog days of summer. I would be the last person to suggest that we eschew all forms of food preservation for enjoying the bounty after their peak fresh eating season has passed. My pantry and freezers are always well-stocked before the first snows fly.

However, there are many good reasons to follow the seasons for the bulk of our diet as much as it is possible for each of us. These include:

*Optimum nutritional value 

*Optimum flavor and texture

*Reacquainting ourselves with natural rhythms and cycles of nature

*Either growing our own favorite vegetables and fruits or supporting others who do so locally


Until I had tasted a literally fresh-picked pea and shelled it directly into my mouth a second or two after it came off the vine, I never understood the term sweet peas. I quickly learned that my young children preferred these over candy and found that I needed to harvest alone if I wanted any shell peas to make it into the gathering basket. Both sweet corn and peas begin to convert their natural sugars into starch as soon as they are picked. I cherish the memories of my grandfather who refused to go pick the corn for our evening meal until the water in which it was going to be cooked was almost boiling. He would run back from the garden with his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn and my cousins and I would “shuck like the wind” and rush them over to the big pot of boiling water. A meal would be enjoyed that no king’s table could surpass!

It may take time and a whole new perspective to begin to eat and live seasonally, given our current temperature controlled, monotonous daily environments and schedules, but it is well worth the effort. I promise. If you don’t have time or space or inclination to garden, then frequent your local farms and farmer’s markets. This is a great site for finding pick-your-own farms (in the U.S.) near you: http://www.pickyourown.org . Also check you phone directory for area farms. Buying direct from the grower at the peak of season is often a rock bottom bargain that no couponing or sales can match. In my area right now there are still a wide variety of greens, cherries, squash, onions, garlic, broccoli and other cole crops available.

In our own garden the spinach and cilantro are bolting but the kale is still holding on, sweet peas are maturing and producing even with our family picking every evening. The blueberries are just starting to ripen although the crop does not look as heavy as it has been some years. Radishes are done but I have left some in the ground in some of the beds after reading that this repels pests that are attracted to cucumbers and squash. The Basil is getting serious now with the warmer days and I do believe it is officially Pesto Season! The Mint and Parsley are lush and fragrant, which means there is no holding back with a family favorite, Tabbouleh. (I just love ethnic recipes that would laugh at the more typical ingredient lists for herbs and spices that measure in teaspoons and tablespoons. My Tabbouleh recipe requires me to gather a big basket of Parsley and Mint. Delicious, refreshing, and satisfying!)



2 cups Bulgur (cracked wheat)

2 cups boiling water

3 cups Parsley, finely minced

1/2 cup Mint, finely minced

3 green Onions, chopped

1/4 tsp. freshly ground Black Pepper

1/4 tsp. ground Cumin seed

1/2 tsp. sea salt

2 medium Tomatoes, diced

2 Cucumbers, diced

3 Tbsp. fresh Lemon juice

3 Tbsp. Olive oil

Romaine Lettuce

Presoak the Bulgur by covering with the boiling water and allowing to stand for 1 hour. Combine all of the other ingredients except for the lemon juice and olive oil in a large bowl. When the Bulgur is ready add it to the large bowl along with the lemon juice and olive oil. Toss all to combine well. Chill for at least one hour before serving. Works fine to make it a day ahead. I love summer time foods like Tabbouleh because they are filling and satisfying while also being refreshing and light. Plus, there is no need to heat up the kitchen on a hot summer day. Serve rolled up in fresh, crispy Romaine leaves along with some fresh fruits or veggies from the garden.

Seasonal Living blog posts will appear the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month at least, although sometimes more often if an impending harvest warrants.

Happy Summer to All! ~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: PURSLANE


PURSLANE (Portulaca oleracea)

Purslane is the nutritional powerhouse that is a crunchy delight to eat and is a common food in Europe, especially the Mediterranean area, but sadly ignored in the U.S. Most people who attend my weed walks recognize the plant from weeding it out of their gardens and flower beds but few have tasted it. Nutritionally, this wild green is “pumping iron” with more than twice as many omega-3’s as kale and possibly more than any other green analyzed. Ditto for vitamin E, and watch out Popeye, this delicious wild edible has more iron than spinach. It also contains vitamins A and C, calcium, and phosphorus.

Purslane loves hot weather and stands up to drought like a champ. A 100+ degree day like we have forecast for our area today will find this lovely low-growing green cool as a cucumber and a welcome addition to our cold salads buffet on the dinner table tonight. The stems of Purslane are generally reddish and look somewhat like a network of pipes or tubes. The stems are just as delicious as the leaves and both are juicy, sweet and crunchy. This is a succulent plant with thick leaves and stems, which is one of the reasons it can retain moisture during dry spells and heat waves.

The flowers on Purslane are tiny (less than 1/4 inch) and yellow and each individual blossom lasts just one day. They eventually produce a small pod of shiny black seeds, which you can collect to spread into other dry, sunny areas to use as an edible ground cover.


Purslane flower


Purslane seeds

Since we are experimenting with many new permaculture techniques in order to deal with climate changes in our area, I’ve been observing the way that nature arranges plants into “guilds”, or mutually beneficial groupings, and following her lead. When I planted new strawberry beds this spring I included some Borage seedlings, which are said to improve plant vigor, disease-resistance and flavor in strawberries (and tomatoes). There were still bare spaces between the new plants and I planned to mulch after a few weeks. But before I did so Purslane began to pop up in the openings. It makes a lovely ground cover/living mulch that is also delicious and nutritious. In permaculture an important principle is that every plant must serve multiple functions for the ecosystem to thrive.


Happy plant guild of Purslane, Borage, Strawberries & Lamb’s Quarters


Newly planted permaculture bed filling in with Strawberries, Borage & Purslane

Purslane can be enjoyed in salads, cooked in a stir-fry, steamed or added to other cooked dishes. The older stems can be pickled just as you would green beans or cucumbers. The tiny black seeds are nutritious as well and can be added to baked good or ground into a flour.  If you are feeling adventurous you can try a traditional Mexican dish called Verdolagas con Queso, a sort of Purslane soft taco. Simply saute (some people steam the Purslane first) Purslane with Garlic, onion, chopped tomatoes and chilies. Add some eggs and scramble a bit along with some crumbled salty white cheese like feta or queso blanco. Fold into a warm tortilla and serve. Yes, it’s on the evening menu for us!

            Munch! Munch! ~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: MULLEIN


MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus)

With common names like King’s Candle, Torches, Candlewick Plant, and Hag’s Taper you can probably guess one of the uses for Mullein that enjoys a long history. Later in the post I will share how to gather and transform this common (in our area) plant to use for making beautiful and useful torches for your next camp-out or evening outdoor activity. Other common names include Aaron’s Rod (or Staff), Our Lady’s Flannel, Velvet Dock, Jupiter’s-, Jacob’s-, Peter’s-, or Shepherd’s-Staff, Adam’s Flannel, Beggar’s Blanket, and Cowboy’s Toilet Paper. There are more and an exploration of common names can be an enjoyable research project. Suffice it to say, a plethora of folk names for one plant indicates a close association between people and the plant. Many of them even reveal the manner in which it was used, as in the case of Cowboy’s Toilet Paper.

Mullein is a biennial, which means it has a two year cycle of growth from germination to flowering and production of new seeds. The first year the plant forms a basal rosette of softy furry leaves that remain fairly close to the ground. All parts of the Mullein plant are useful medicinally and the leaves and flowers are edible. However, the leaves being covered in fine down would not be very enjoyable to eat since most of us lack a taste for fuzzy salad greens. One friend did tell me that she makes a great Mullein leaf vinegar to use in salad dressings and marinades. I am going to try some this summer. It would make an excellent vinegar given its high mineral content profile. It contains calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorous, potassium, selenium as well as some B vitamins, and vinegar is an excellent vehicle for extracting minerals from plants.


First year rosette of Mullein leaves

In the second year the Mullein plant will return in early spring as a rosette again but then quickly send up a tall stalk that will flower sometime between June and September. The flowers gathered and infused in olive oil, with or without the addition of garlic, are a traditional remedy for ear aches. You could also use it with your Mullein leaf vinegar for making a healing salad dressing.


Sunny blossoms along a Mullein stalk…edible and medicinal!

Mullein leaves have traditionally been used in teas, for steaming one’s stuffy head and breathing in deeply to break up lung congestion, and smoked as a tobacco for the same purpose. It is an expectorant so expect some coughing but it will be a productive cough…I promise. I sort of have to be ready for my coughing fit, which lasts about 10-15 minutes for me. The rest of my family does not seem to react quite as strongly and violently as I do but I have used it for myself in cases of severe lung congestion and bronchitis with excellent results, succeeding where two rounds of antibiotics had failed. I have actually learned that using honeyed Elecampane roots is my preferred lung ally but that is a plant and a story for another blog post. If I make a tea from the leaves for children with a chest cold I like to combine it with Chamomile, Calendula, Lemon Balm, and/or Catnip for the soothing/calming benefits they provide. Adding a little raw, local honey to this would further add benefits. Both honey and warm tea thin mucous secretions.

To make wonderful torches for using outdoors at night you will need to gather well-dried stalks from last year’s flowering. They are often standing in fields and dry places and are easily spotted along roadsides and waste places. I often gather them in the winter or early in the spring and allow them to dry completely before coating with wax.


Several dozen well-dried Mullein stalks ready to be made into torches.


Melt down old broken crayons (remove the paper) and candle stubs to coat the Mullein stalks. One recycled can per color.


Brushing on a base layer of wax. Any color is fine, just seal up the whole flower stalk where there are old seed heads. You can decorate with other colors afterward. I use old paintbrushes that I leave in each can. I never clean the brushes, just melt the wax off the next time I melt it down for the next batch of torches. 



Every Mullein stalk torch is unique. This is a very fun activity to do with kids and a good, practically free craft. I cover a table outdoors with newspaper to make clean up easy. When you are ready to use your torch simply “plant” them in the ground or a pot filled with sand. Scrap or break a small spot off the tip of your torch so you can light the “wick”. Once it is burning it is actually a little hard to extinguish. It will even continue to burn in the rain. If you do need to extinguish it before it finishes burning all the way down to the end of the wax, simply bury the burning tip in a bucket of sand. Depending upon how thickly the wax is coated on your torch it burns for a little over an hour per foot. The stalk that is left over can be composted or used for some other purpose like staking a tall flower in the garden.

Hoping you are scheduling some fun into your summer days! ~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: RED CLOVER


Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) watercolor painted in the field by a student while participating in a weed walk and now gracing one of my many herbal experiments diaries.

Red Clover speaks volumes about the value of common…and commonly overlooked…plants. I admit that I use it so commonly in my daily tea blends that I nearly overlooked including here myself. I sometimes forget what a powerhouse this herb has been for me. It is readily available in many open fields and lawns in my community but the season is generally relatively short since it likes the cool days of late spring and early summer. Once the intense heat of summer gets started Red Clover goes dormant. It will spring back in the fall once the days cool down a bit again and you can fit in a few more harvests before the frosts hit.

Red clover is very rich in minerals, especially calcium, nitrogen, magnesium, and iron. It also provides many B vitamins and C. You might see why it is in almost every pot of daily tea blend I make. What a great foundational herb since the flavor is mild and delicious. Since it is a detoxifying herb it is often included in formulas for addressing skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. It is one of the herbs used in the famous Essiac anti-cancer formula as well as traditionally addressing issues with tumors, cysts and fibroids. I have had excellent success with Red Clover (1 quart of tea consumed daily) when an PAP smear result showed atypical cell growth after only one month of use. It is also used as a respiratory tonic and would combine well with Mullein leaves and your favorite Mint family plants for this purpose. It can be tinctured as well, although I most enjoy it as a tea.


Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) in the field. Note the whitish chevrons on the leaves, an identifying characteristic.

Red Clover is a common seed added to pasture grasses for pastures where cattle and other livestock graze because it makes an excellent companion for grasses due to its nitrogen-fixing abilities. It performs better in acid soils and establishes more quickly than Alfalfa, and Red Clover is more drought tolerant than White Clover. It is easy to seed along with any cover crops you might grow in your gardens to help it establish near your home. I like Red Clover and Oats together.

Finding good quality dried Red Clover blossoms commercially is no easy matter. Additionally, it is quite expensive, over $30 per pound from most sources. Many years ago I neglected to dry enough Red Clover for the year and I purchased some from what I considered a reputable source. Below is a photo of that commercial Red Clover alongside my own wild-crafted and home dried. I am sure you can tell which is which and you can be sure that I’ve taken care to gather plenty in subsequent years.


Rosemary Gladstar has taught that a dried plant should look, smell, and taste like the fresh version, lacking nothing except the water it contained. I try to hold that standard for my cultivated or wild-crafted, home-prepared herbs. I dry Red Clover at low heat and store it in glass jars in a closed cupboard away from light and heat.


Freshly gathered Red Clover. I can gather for drying about half a gallon on my morning walks.


On the left is the last of the 2013 harvest and on the right is the first of the 2014 harvest. 

Carpe diem! ~Leenie

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