3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: BITTERS

Herbal Bitters

A variety of Herbal Bitters

This week’s Wednesday’s Weeds is a little different. It is not about just one specific plant, but rather a class of plants often referred to by herbalists as Bitters. As their name implies they are characterized by a bitter flavor. Although the word and taste of bitter is something most people shun we actually consume many bitter plants already in the form of coffee, chocolate, and various leafy greens. Some people have a higher tolerance for this flavor. I, for example, thoroughly enjoy a strong cup of tea (a decoction) containing Dandelion, Yellowdock, and Burdock roots unsweetened. One mug is enough to perk me up, lift my spirits, and put a spring back in my step. 

While the taste of something sweet slows our digestion, bitter stimulates it. Bitter plants need only be consumed in small quantities in order to be effective. They inhibit the growth of microbes, enhance immunity, protect against oxidation, and reduce inflammation as well as improving digestion. There is actually a beneficial reflex that occurs when the bitter receptors on our tongues are stimulated that tones our whole digestive tract. Stimulated regularly, this “bitter reflex” strengthens the structure and function of all digestive organs: liver, stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, and intestines.

Taking herbal bitters before a meal is a tradition of long-standing in many cultures. Doing so within 15-30 minutes before a meal stimulates the stomach to release gastrin, a hormone, and gives your body a wake up call to be ready to begin the process of digestion soon. There is a whole cascade of events that take place throughout the body once the bitter receptors on your tongue are stimulated and it is quite fascinating to read about if you are so inclined. Since low stomach acidity is often associated with allergies and immune-mediated disorders, things like allergies, asthma, eczema, or arthritis may improve with the regular use of bitter herbs. 

Cacao Dandelion

Left to right: Cacao nibs, Dandelion leaves, and Dandelion roots

There are a variety of bitter herbs that have been used traditionally all around the world. They include, but are not limited to:








Milk Thistle






Some, such as Goldenseal, are in danger of extinction and thus should be avoided for this purpose and reserved for situations when there is no better alternative herb. I have made a variety of herbal bitters over the years and all have proven effective. It is simple to make a bitter tincture simply by covering a variety of bitter herbs with 100 proof vodka and allowing it to steep (capped) for at least 4 weeks. Fill a jar at least half full with your chosen herbs then fill to the top with alcohol of choice, cap, label and date…and wait. You may shake it several times a day if you like but it is not essential. Once it is ready simply strain the plant material through cheesecloth, squeezing out as much as possible before composting the spent plant parts. Bottle and label your bitters and keep them in a handy spot for use before meals. I like to keep a 2 oz. or larger dropper bottle on my spice rack above the sink because it helps me to remember to take a dropper full while I am preparing a meal. 

Ingredients for simple bitters

Two simple ingredients for homemade bitters: Dandelion and Cacao

Taking bitters before meals is preventive medicine at its finest. Did you know that an aperitif served during the cocktail hour before a meal contained bitters and was served for the purpose of stimulating appetite and improving digestion? A digestif would have been served after a meal and could be as simple as a cup of Peppermint tea or Coffee with a touch of Orange.

You can find Herbal Bitters from a variety of sources including Avena Botanicals, Urban Moonshine, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Herb Pharm online, as well as from your’s truly. In addition to Digest-Aid Bitters and Chocolate Dandelion Bitters, I also make an Herban Iron Syrup that is full of bitter herbs as well as mineral rich ones. But you can also make your own like the one above using two simple ingredients. This recipe came from Mountain Rose Herbs and it already smells heavenly like a chocolate-y treat. I can’t wait to start using it and I am sure I won’t ever forget to take these bitters before meals! 

To make your own Chocolate Dandelion Bitters simply dig several (3-5) large Dandelion roots including the green tops. Scrub them well and chop them all up. Mix half and half with Cacao nibs  or, in a pinch, you could use dark cocoa powder, combine and place in a jar, filling at least half to three quarters full. Cover with alcohol (80-100 proof), label and allow to steep for at least 4 weeks. Once it is ready strain out and compost the plant material and your bitters are ready to use. You can use a dropper bottle but it is not essential. Any bottle will do. One quarter to one half teaspoon is enough to be effective before meals. It can be taken directly on the tongue or added to a little water. Even if you stir it into juice or an aperitif the receptors on your tongue will pick up the bitterness. You can take the bitter principle a step further by adding a variety of bitter greens to your meals. Dandelion greens, Arugula, Watercress, Radicchio, and Endive are all excellent choices. Combine them with milder green like lettuces and dress with a tasty vinaigrette. 

If your summer meals have seen a few too many heavy bar-b-ques and starchy and fat-drenched salads, herbal bitters may be just what the doctor ordered for a jump-start on improved digestion. 

Bon appetit! ~Leenie


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Wednesday’s Weeds: WINEBERRY

Wine berry plant

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)

I am writing this post at the start of Wineberry season in our area and we will have many more weeks to harvest. I should probably say at the outset that I will often insert, “…like raspberries” into the information I share. That is because Wineberries are not only another member of the Rubus tribe along with Raspberries and Blackberries, but one of their common names is Asian Raspberry. Their scientific name, Rubus phoenicuolasius, means raspberry with purple hairs and that name makes perfect sense if you have seen them growing throughout our woodland edges. The stems are covered in purplish-red, prickly hairs. The berries taste very similar to cultivated Raspberries with a little extra tartness that lends itself to making everything from jams to pies to ice cream. Wonderful good!

Along with other Rubus species, Wineberries were brought to this country in the 1800’s to use as breeding stock for developing new Raspberry varieties. Both Wineberries and Blackberries are not native to this country and have “escaped” and flourished here. Both are highly nutritious as well as medicinal and thus, it makes sense (at least to me) to make use of them rather than pursue eradication programs. 

Flat of Wineberries

Picking a flat of Wineberries with several friends and kids along was the work-play of a pleasant hour. These were turned into a large batch of jam before the sun set.


Leaves are in groups of 3, or sometimes 5, leaflets and are whitish underneath just like Raspberries. These leaves can be dried and used to make a mineral rich tea that is also pleasant. Maybe making a batch of vitamin C- and antioxidant-rich Wineberry syrup would be a nice way to sweeten this tasty tea that contains plenty of calcium. 

I will get my nerdy botanical geek self on here and point out that what we call the berry is not actually a berry strictly speaking. As with Blackberries and Raspberries, it is an “aggregate of druplets” (Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?) with each juicy, delicious drupe containing a seed all clustered around a central receptacle. When you pick Wineberries or Raspberries the “aggregate of druplets” (Okay, I’ll stop.) comes away, leaving the receptacle on the cane, while it remains with the picked Blackberry. 

Wineberry Jam

Wineberry Jam

Wineberries can go anywhere, in the culinary sense, that Raspberries can go. Your imagination is the only limit. Wineberry jam, cake, pie, juice, jelly, sauce, syrup, and wine as well. I want to try that last one this year.

Make your own juice by placing 2 quarts of Wineberries in a saucepan, cooking for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Crush the berries well using a potato masher. Add one cup of water and simmer for 5 more minutes. Strain through cheesecloth and, voila, you have Wineberry Juice. You can sweeten this, add it to apple juice, proceed to make it into jelly or syrup or try this Wineberry Vinaigrette to dress up a salad: 

2 Cups Wineberry juice

2 Tbsp. whole Wineberries

1 tsp. Lemon juice

pinch Nutmeg

1/2 Cup local, raw Honey

1/2 Cup Red Wine or Red Wine Vinegar

2 Tbsp. Olive Oil

Warm the Wineberry juice up and add everything else, stirring to combine. Bottle, label, and use freely. Adjust all ingredients to suit your tastes. Refrigerate any portions not being used right away.



Wineberry Centerpiece

Still Life with Wineberries


Wineberry Upside-Down Cake

Wineberry Upside-Down Cake is easily made by simply sweetening a quart of Wineberries with a little sugar or honey and placing them in the bottom of a well oiled cake pan, topping with your favorite cake batter, baking 35-45 minutes and then inverting onto a cake plate. 

Although Wineberries have not been studied scientifically to the same extent as other Rubus species, Blackberries have. Some findings for Blackberries include that it excels at accumulating zinc and other minerals from the soil, thus making these available through the leaves, fruits, twigs and roots. Studies support the traditional uses (Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic, and Western Botanical Medicine) to tone kidneys and liver, improve vision, to treat dysentery, and as a female tonic. You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to take this medicine because it is naturally delicious. 

Dig into the bounty of summertime! ~Leenie


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Wednesday’s Weeds: JEWELWEED

Jewelweed Flower

JEWELWEED (Impatiens biflora)

One of the toughest parts of writing a Wednesday’s Weeds post this time of year is choosing only one plant. I think I go through at least half a dozen options daily. I had Nettles slated for this week but then a timely harvest of Jewelweed had me thinking that it might prove more useful right now. 

There are several species of Jewwelweed that you might encounter including Impatiens biflora (shown above), I. capensis, and I. pallida, all of which are useful medicinally. There are quite a few common names, many of which can lead to confusion as common names often can. Spotted-Touch-Me-Not, Wild Balsam, Wild Impatiens, Wild Lady’s Slipper, Speckled Jewels, Wild Celandine, and Quick-in-the-Hand are all names, in some form or variation, that I have heard applied to completely different plants. This is an excellent example of why it is important to learn scientific names and develop good botanical identification skills. 


Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.) can reach several feet in height with sparsely branching leaves which are tender and delicate. The stems are succulent and somewhat translucent with swollen joints and when split open reveal a juicy clear liquid that is a balm to poison ivy rash (or other itchy rashes) sufferers. The above ground parts are what is wanted and since the plants are easily uprooted, you will want to use scissors for gathering. The ovate leaves are lightly toothed and will appear bright and silvery when immersed in water. Water droplets bead up on the foliage like tiny jewels, hence the name. Jewelweed likes moist, shady areas and will wilt and dry out quickly in direct sun and dry conditions. When the seed pods ripen in oblong capsules they explode and scatter seeds with the slightest touch, thus the name Touch-Me-Not. 



Dew and rain bead up in droplets, or “jewels”, on Jewelweed leaves.

Although there are some historical references to internal use, the main way I use Jewelweed is to treat poison ivy, nettle stings, and other other itchy rashes. The juice is found predominantly in the stems but also the leaves and flowers have wonderful healing properties. However it is rather like Aloe gel and resistant to drying methods. The relief from these uncomfortable conditions is almost instantaneous when the juice is applied. The simplest method is to “bruise” or crush up the stems and flowering tops and rub them all over the affected skin. Ahhhhhhh…

However, Jewelweed is not always available when needed. For example, sometimes folks are exposed to poison ivy without knowing it when hauling firewood or handling animals who brushed up against the oil of the poison ivy plant at times of the year when Jewelweed is not growing. I tried many methods of preserving Jewelweed, some of which were moderately successful and some which were not effective at all. Drying, for example, completely destroys its medicinal virtues. By far, the easiest and most effective one has been making a Jewelweed Slurry. Two or three ingredients and a blender or food processor and a freezer are all that is needed. I simply fill my blender with some Aloe gel, sometimes a little distilled water, and a lot of Jewelweed and puree. That’s it. 



Jewelweed Slurry

Two simple ingredients for Jewelweed Slurry: Jewelweed & Aloe Vera Gel

This can be applied fresh to treat a rash or it can be frozen in ice cube trays or small containers for use as needed. It is sloppy and gloppy but so cooling and relieving. If you need the slurry to stay in place you can mix it with a little clay powder before applying. 


Jewelweed Slurry to freeze

Ice cube trays are fine for freezing Jewelweed Slurry but I use small containers to make it easier to share with others as needed. 

 My standard protocol for poison ivy prevention/treatment is to wash the affected (or suspected) area of skin with COLD water and a strong natural soap like Fels Naptha or other castile soap. We never use warm or hot water because that simply spreads the poison ivy oil around on the skin, worsening exposure. Then we follow with a nice slathering of Jewelweed slurry, with or without clay added. Clay has drying qualities to it  as well but isn’t necessary unless you need to get up and be moving about and you don’t want Jewelweed slurry running down your legs and arms. Some people add some Plantain and/or Comfrey leaves to their slurry. Those are nice additions but also not essential. 

Sometimes if I am doing weed walks with a group of people I will brew a big wash tub of Jewelweed “tea” and invite anyone who thinks they may have brushed by or through poison ivy to dip their arms, feet, legs into it to rinse off any potential rash causing oils. I will close with a wonderful quote about this plant from Philip Fritchey’s PRACTICAL HERBALISM: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Powers.

“Little is known of the chemistry of this neglected plant. Science has only recently uncovered a few of its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory compounds, i.e. kaempferol 3-rutinoside; 2-hydroxy-1; 4-naphthoquinone; and lawsone. For the most part, though, the secrets of Jewelweed’s nearly magical mode of action remain a mystery.”

Avail yourself of the magic this summer as needed! ~Leenie

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Wednesday’s Weeds: GOT MILKWEED?

MILKWEED Inflorescence (Asclepias syriaca)

First, I want to apologize for being late with Wednesday’s Weeds this week. We had a huge storm that knocked out our power for a day and threw my week off. When I was able to get back on my computer it turned out that wordpress had changed the formatting for the blog and I am back at square one learning how to write, edit and post. Naturally, gardens both wild and cultivated are tugging me outside so I am struggling. I appreciate your patience.

Usually my focus in Wednesday’s Weeds is more on the practical uses, both culinary and medicinal, for wild plants but this week my approach is a little different. Some parts of the Milkweed plant are indeed edible when gathered at the right time and properly prepared. However, the reason I am choosing to highlight this plant is with a different perspective in mind. There is a very good reason to avoid gathering and consuming this plant right now because it serves other beings besides human and their needs are more pressing at the moment than our own.

Milkweed in the wild. (Photo credit: Missouri State Extension)

Although there are a number of factors involved in the diminishing populations of Monarach butterflies, habitat loss and climate change are two biggies. In Mexico, where they overwinter, deforestation of Fir forests is seriously threatening their survival. During their semi-dormant period in the winter Monarchs need dense tree cover. During breeding season they need abundant Milkweed on which to lay their eggs and to provide food for the larva when they emerge.

Monarch butterfly1-femaile-monarch

Monarch Butterfly: male on left and female on right (Image from Wikimedia Commons)


Monarch in the larva stage feeding on Milkweed leaves (Photo credit: Richard Orr , Maryland Land Insects)

You can help this highly protected species (Monarchs) by planting Milkweed (and other Asclepias species) and allowing it to flower profusely. I assure you that the pollinator show will be gorgeous. If you would like to learn more about Monarchs and their plight Barbara Kingsolver has written a fabulous novel that is set in Appalachia called FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. You can also learn more here:


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Today’s blog post is somewhat of a two-for-one special. I will write about two plants in response to the many questions I get every summer starting around this time. There is a lot of confusion about the prolific red berried plants showing up now and continuing through the summer into fall. Some say it’s toxic and some say it’s delicious. In a sense, both are correct because there are actually two plants that are frequently confused. Both have shiny red berries, both have similarly shaped smooth-edged leaves, but there are easy to spot differences that can help in identification.


Asian Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii and other L. spp.)

This plant is fruiting all over our property and in our area right now and birds will be distributing their seeds through droppings all summer. It is considered invasive and is mildly toxic to humans. It was planted extensively in the 1950’s as part of an erosion prevention program as highway systems expanded into our state as well as others. It was also heavily promoted as an ornamental for home gardens and landscaping. I have known of one case personally of a young child consuming an unknown, but likely a large, quantity and experiencing symptoms consistent with poisoning. The child’s mother called me for identification purposes and then called the Center for Disease Control to confirm toxicity, which they did. Since her child was vomiting and experiencing diarrhea they directed her to not go to the hospital to have her stomach pumped since she was already purging but to monitor her temperature and for signs of dehydration. Thankfully, the child was completely recovered within 24 hours. Although the flowers are considered edible the berries are not. To be clear: THESE BERRIES ARE TOXIC TO HUMANS AND SHOULD NOT BE EATEN!

On the other hand, Autumn Olive berries are not only edible but delicious and nutritious. Read on to learn the important identification differences.


AUTUMN OLIVE (Elaeagnus umbellate)*

In late summer and early autumn this plant will produce lots of juicy red berries that are tart and sweet. Originally brought to the United States in the 1800’s for useful purposes, it has escaped into the wild and established itself.



Note the silvery backs of the leaves and the speckled scales covering the berries. These are identifying characteristics.

Although the fruiting times for these two plants overlaps some and they both have red berries and similar (although not identical) leaves there are simple ways to identify positively and you can practice applying botanical terminology in the field. Asian Bush Honeysuckle has opposite and entire leaves. Opposite leaves means that for every leaf that appears along the stem there is another leaf exactly opposite it. Entire leaves  are ones that are smooth along the edges rather than toothed or lobed. Here is a graphic to help differentiate the various types of leaf margins:


The leaves on Autumn Olive are alternate and entire. Alternate leaves are arranged along the stem in a staggered or alternate pattern. This is known as the leaf arrangement and here is another graphic to help note the differences:


Using appropriate botanical terminology assists tremendously in accurate identification. Although I get many phone calls and e-mails asking me to identify a “real green plant that’s pretty big with medium sized leaves” obviously it is not possible to do so. Practicing using these terms along with a field guide or key is a self-teaching tool that will serve you for a life time. Stepping off soap box now and getting back to a wonderful wild edible…

Additionally, the leaves on Autumn Olives are notably silvery, whereas they are not on Asian Bush Honeysuckle. Although both species are considered invasives, Autumn Olive is highly beneficial to humans in many ways if we chose to avail ourselves of them. One of my main references (and favorite resources) for information on Autumn Olive is INVASIVE PLANT MEDICINE: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott. Scott says that it is, “…full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-cancer components, the fruits of this tree are a deeply nourishing, plentiful food source…is a most appropriate addition to supportive chelation therapy [therapy to remove heavy metals, such as lead, from the body]…In addition, Elaeagnus berry is strongly active against many pathogenic influences, including cancer and many multi-drug resistant strains of microorganisms.” Scott is always thorough and exhaustive in his research and provides the scientific study references for these claims. I will happily send anyone interested a photocopy of the list of references upon request. Or better yet, invest in this fabulous book and read about this potent healing plant along with others. My favorite quote from his book in regard to Elaeagnus is this:

“[this plant] in the landscape sends us messages of renewal and strength to continue on in a devastated world. The tree’s presence rejuvenates soil with its nitrogen-fixing capability, and it nourishes wildlife with abundant fruit. There may come a time when humans will be thankful for Elaeagnus, the sacred olive tree [which is what Elaeagnus means in Greek], and its widespread presence on our lands. Then the tree will be recognized, just as it was in ancient times, as a healer of disease and restorer of health, lifting the spirit with the sweet fruit it provides.” 

The non-edible berries of Asian Bush Honeysuckle are bright red, smooth and semi-translucent. They contain numerous small seeds. The edible berries of Autumn Olive, which will appear in late summer or early fall, are speckled with whitish scales and contain only one seed. These berries can be made into syrups, jam, or butters.


Autumn Olive Butter sweetened with a little local honey and a touch of low-sweetener pectin.*

*Photo credit for all Autumn Olive plant and Autumn Olive Butter photos: Andrea Koutras Lay of Hidden Hollow Farm

May your summer be abundantly botanical! ~Leenie