3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: WINTERGREEN

Wintergreen
(Gaultheria procumbens)

Wintergreen

Tiny Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) shrub is easy to overlook in the winter landscape.

Probably one of the tiniest shrubs, we generally think of Wintergreen as an evergreen ground cover. Although you can find this sweetly fragrant plant year round, I associate it with the coldest months of the year and winter woodland walks. I have delighted in leading each of our four children to discovering its tasty wonders at a time when the Earth seems to be sleeping and our taste buds have become dulled by stews and starchy meals.

If you have tasted Teaberry gum then you are familiar with the flavor of Wintergreen. Both the leaves and berries are edible and have this delicious flavor. Each plant produces two to five 1-2 inch long leaves that are thick, shiny, oval, and very slightly toothed. It spreads by underground runners so you will often find them in little lines or clusters of individual miniature shrubs. It’s fun to think of them as towering fairy trees if you like to engage in childlike imaginings. In July and August in our area tiny white, bell-shaped Wintergreen flowers can be found dangling beneath the leaves. Later the red berries often persist until the next flowering season. Wintergreen prefers acidic soils so I generally look for them around Pine trees in our woods and I am almost always rewarded. It likes to grow in the same places that wild Blueberries or Huckleberries like to grow.

Wintergreen 2

Nice little village of Wintergreen lining up.

Wintergreen can be eaten (leaves and berries) as is, which is my favorite way, or brewed into a sweet and delicious tea. Since it contains methyl salicylate, a compound similar in structure to the active ingredient in aspirin it would be contraindicated for those with aspirin allergies. I have found Wintergreen tea to be a wonderful headache tea for my own children along with some Chamomile flowers. I would like to point out that Wintergreen essential oil comes with many warnings about toxicity. This highlights the fact that the form in which an herb is used matters. Steam-distilled essential oils are highly concentrated products and should not be used interchangeably with fresh or dried herbs. I have read that a single drop of essential oil is equivalent to 28 cups of brewed tea from that same plant, which explains why what seems like a “small” dose like 1/4 tsp. can really be a huge one. Additionally, essential oils are structurally different from whole plants. Both are useful, each in its own appropriate application. Research, positively identify, and educate yourself before ingesting anything.

When gathering take only one or two leaves from each plant so they can continue to photosynthesize and flourish. Be conscious of the population of the Wintergreen tribe, taking from only 1 in every 5 or more plants. Sustainable and respectful wild-crafting practices will assure there is plenty of Wintergreen for generations to come. Sometimes, especially in winter, leaves become tinged a reddish color. Both red and green leaves are equally tasty.

Given the common name Teaberry, this plant was obviously used historically for tea. Author Ellen Zachos, in her book BACKYARD FORAGING: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, says she also likes to use it to flavor ice creams and liquors. She has several recipes but I think I may try this one: Fill a small jar with leaves, cover with good quality rum and allow to macerate for several weeks to produce a delicious winter aperitif.

According to Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, Wintergreen tea is traditionally used to treat colds, headaches, stomach aches, and fevers. Externally it is used as a wash for rheumatism, sore muscles, and lumbago. It is analgesic(pain relieving), carminative (flatulence relieving), anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation), and antiseptic (prevents the growth of disease-causing microorganisms).

Now that is a cup of tea worth brewing and a leaf worth chewing!

Wintergreen 3

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Wednesday’s Weeds: PINE

Pine (Pinus spp.)

Pine

Weed walks and wild herbal foods and medicines are not just activities for the warm months. There are wonderful plants and botanical virtues to be discovered on cold and frosty mornings, too. An easily recognized tree in many areas is the Pine. What is not so readily recognized are its many nutritional benefits and uses.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) is very common in Appalachia where I live. This cone-bearing evergreen has clusters of long, slender needles along the twigs and branches and each bundle contains 5 needles. Pine trees produce both male and female flowers. The latter matures into the familiar dry, woody cones and bears seeds. According to Thomas J. Elpel in his wonderful Botany in a Day, “the female cones briefly become elongated, exposing the ovules to the pollen in the wind. The shape of the cones causes air currents to swirl around them to help catch the pollen. After pollination the scales grow rapidly and again cover the ovules, allowing them to mature into seeds.” Isn’t Nature enchanting?

Pine Cone

Tender new (light green) shoots can be stripped of needles, peeled, and boiled in Maple syrup or even a simple sugar syrup to be candied. Save those needles and chop them up to brew into a tea that is rich in vitamins A & C. All parts of the Pine are edible including the seeds if you can manage to collect them before they are fully dry and dispersed. I am going to experiment with this next fall.

Young Pine Bark Pine Bark Older

Just as with human skin, Pine bark shows considerable variation as it ages from smooth and youthful to ridged and aged.

Right now is an excellent time to study the bark of Pine trees, noticing the variations as it ages from young sapling to towering elder. In fact, studying other nearby trees using a good winter time key is a great way to hone identification skills.

My goats love Pine in the winter when there is so little fresh and green for them to eat. I am steeping Pine needles in both extra virgin Olive oil and in apple cider vinegar to compare the results. The inner bark can be dried and ground into a flour although it will have a pine-y flavor. Pine resin has a long history of use for treating sore throats and I can remember my Grandmother using it. As you would expect with a resin, it coats and soothes. However, I have read that it can be stressful to kidneys in excess. This resin has also traditionally been used as a drawing poultice for boils and abscesses.

White Pine Needle Bundles  Pine Needles

An identifying characteristic of White Pine (Pinus strobus) is that needles are arranged in bundles of five.

According to several of my field guides Pine enriches and improves poor and degraded soils. I think about that when I walk through the Pine-y woods with such thin soil on our rocky mountain top. And I smile gratefully at the variety of young and old Pines gracing the little patch of Earth we call home.

I love the total sensory approach that herbalist Matthew Wood takes to getting know plants. Here, from his book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, he explores the sound facet of Pine:

Not many plants have distinctive sounds. However, the sound of wind blowing through the tall White Pine has a peculiar relaxing effect, which this plant carries into its medicinal action. Pine is soothing and strengthening to the nerves, at the same time it is an expectorant and antiseptic (it brings up viscid, green, sap-like mucus), and a powerful drawing agent (think of the power it takes to draw that sap up the tall trunk).

A phenolic extract from pine bark (PEPB) from the species Pinus massoniana has been studied and found to be a stronger antioxidant than either vitamins E or C (90.38% for PEPB compared to 88.61% for vitamin E and 85.68% for vitamin C). In vitro studies have also shown that PEPB inhibits the growth of human breast cancer cells.* Stephen Harrod Buhner in HERBAL ANTIVIRALS: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections, suggests it is also effective for addressing herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, as well.

Pine tips with cone forming

Pine needle tips with cone forming.

During these closing days of winter, before the blizzard of spring sprouting greens and freshly scented blossoms vie for our attentions, remember to take some time to walk in woods that are dominated by Pine and other evergreens, breathing in the fresh, clean aroma.

In Mother Nature’s Herbal, author Judy Griffin, PhD says that the affirmation of encouragement that Pine offers is the following, which seems perfectly suited to the season:
I bury the past and look forward to the future.

*Yu, Limei, et. al., Antioxidant, immunomodulatory and anti-breast cancer activities of phenolic extract from pine (Pinus massoniana Lamb) bark (abstract).

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Wednesday’s Weeds: COMFREY

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Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Because I purposefully planted Comfrey in our first WV garden 25 years ago, I’ve never thought of it as a “weed.” Of course, by now it is probably clear that I don’t think of any plants as weeds in the commonly intended, negative sense of the word. I am frequently asked, “Is this an herb or a weed?” For me, that is like asking, “Is this a plant or a plant?” But I understand what is being asked. Essentially, the questioner wants to know if the plant might be of some use to them personally. And the answer 99% of the time is a resounding YES! I blame the 1% on my own lack of knowledge rather than on a plant’s lack of usefulness. Also, plants are sometimes useful in ways or to species not directly impacting humans. Poison Ivy effectively blankets and protects deforested land while Thistles defend compacted, over-grazed land…but that is a story for another time. Today I want to focus on the many gifts and talents of Comfrey.

When we bought our first home in the mountains I was fortunate to cross paths with an herbal hermit of sorts. He took me through his extensive terraced gardens that overflowed with herbal wonders and was a botanical Eden in miniature. His small lot was not well situated, nor was the soil optimum, yet hundreds of culinary and medicinal plants grew with verdant and lush enthusiasm. I’d been using herbs for at least a decade but I was about to put down roots and begin the marvelous adventure of growing and wildcrafting (reaping where no man has sown) my own. Before I left that day, this reclusive herbalist gave me a “slip” of Comfrey root no bigger than the tip of my pinkie. He told me to plant it and spread the roots by division every spring until I had the size bed I desired. From that tiny piece of root has come so much healing and hundreds of feet of Comfrey beds at two different homesteads.

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My first Comfrey patch started from a small root tip over 20 years ago and is pictured in its second season of growth.

Comfrey has a reputation of being invasive but in my own experience it does not spread unless I divide the roots purposefully. Otherwise, the individual plants simply grow up more lushly from each planted root year after year. The difference may be that if Comfrey is planted in a garden that is plowed or tilled each spring those roots are probably being chopped up and scattered around. All it takes is a tiny root hair to start a whole new plant. We have always used garden beds that are built and then left undisturbed after the initial preparation, simply adding compost and mulch as needed but not disturbing the layers of micro-organisms building up the soil. I use Comfrey so frequently and broadly that I encourage it to spread out and make itself at home. I never seem to have enough for all the ways that I like to use it.

Comfrey prefers a moist, shady spot with rich soil. It will do well elsewhere but that would be its first choice and you will find it grows most abundantly in that type of setting. We have planted Comfrey in at least three different spots but it is growing best in a Hugelkultur bed along the edge of a wooded area. In our old home it grew amazingly along a creek bed under a poplar tree.

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Freshly planted Comfrey bed this past spring the day of planting and one month later…already blooming!

As with any plant you bring home and include in your landscape or garden, you should research it first and decide if it is something that you want to have around and would find useful. Have a plan and know what your needs are. There are so many reasons to appreciate Comfrey but over the years of sharing root cuttings with others and then listening to complaints about its abundant health and growth, I’ve opted to simply grow and use it in our family.  A turning point was when someone who asked for roots from our garden and then never used it for any purpose applied an herbicide to kill the plant. 😦

Comfrey, in my experience, is unequaled at healing sprains and fractures. I would never suggest that anyone forego seeing a doctor to set a serious break but Comfrey can certainly speed up healing once that important step has been attended to. The Comfrey that I grow has the Latin name Symphytum officinale. The designation officinale means that it is included in the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia. That’s the tip-off that a plant has useful medicinal purposes. Although there is controversy over whether Comfrey should be used internally or not, most experts agree that it is an impressive cell tissue proliferater. That means that where there is damaged tissue, be it skin, ligament, or bone, using this plant will aid in the production of healthy new tissue. For open wounds that are not properly cleaned this can present problems as it can speed up the closing of the wound and seal in bacteria. Always clean open wounds well before applying Comfrey.

Over the years we have used Comfrey for everything from shin splints to sprained ankles to achy backs. Most recently we have been using it as a compress to speed the healing of a hip socket fracture my husband sustained in an auto accident. Although the orthopedic doctor told us that it will take 10-12 weeks for full recovery, at just over 2 weeks post-accident he has been released to work half days so long as he remains on crutches and bears no weight on his right leg. Although I am comfortable using Comfrey internally in the ways described below, you should ALWAYS do the research for any substance you ingest and decide if it is appropriate for your specific situation and circumstances.

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Comfrey Compress made simply by pureeing whole Comfrey leaves (Roots work great, too!) with a little hot water and some Bruise Juice (an oil based blend of herbs including Comfrey made by and available from Jeanne Rose). This is placed in a layer of cheese cloth or other fine fabric and folded up burrito style. Twice or more daily we apply this to the fracture, cover with a water proof layer, a tea towel, and then a heating pad on top. We try to keep this on for an hour each time and follow it up with a gentle massage using Bruise Juice. 

In a pinch I have simply dipped the large, somewhat fuzzy leaves of Comfrey into some boiling water and wrapped them directly on a sprain or pulled muscle area. While the leaves remain warm this works fine but as it cools off it can feel prickly from those fine hairs. So if I want to keep an application on longer I will often make a compress. A compress is simply prepared plant material wrapped in fine cloth (cheese cloth, silk, gauze, etc.) and applied to a wound. Poultices are similar except that the plant material is applied directly to the skin without a layer of cloth between the plant and the skin. These preparations are little used today in our hectic, pop-a-pill-&-keep-going culture. They require you to slow down and be still to rest the muscles and bones and allow the plant time to be in contact with the wounded area. Slowing down and being still is a medicine all its own. Adding the healing grace of a plant is the cream on top. You can use compresses for all sorts of situations: menstrual cramps, a sore back, a sprain, or just because. Use the time to read an inspiring book, hand write a letter to a loved one, meditate, or daydream.

Comfrey slurry

Comfrey Slurry can be quickly made by combining fresh Comfrey leaves and hot water and/or Comfrey oil, Bruise Juice, or other liquid and pureeing in a blender. I make a couple of days’ supply and refrigerate, then warm as needed and place it in fine gauze before applying as a compress.

Because I want to keep Comfrey and other healing herbs in contact with the skin in the area of my husband’s fractured hip, I apply Bruise Juice or Arnica oil frequently throughout the day and night in addition to the compresses. He is also eating a mineral rich diet emphasizing calcium and silica in particular. That means lots of leafy greens, especially kale from our garden along with other wild greens, salmon, home made yogurt, a variety of nuts and seeds (especially Chia), and flavonoid-rich fruits (especially berries). Thankfully I have some mineral-rich herbal vinegars handy. I combined Red Raspberry leaf, Nettles, and Comfrey leaf apple cider vinegars (ACV) and use them freely. Although many are unfamiliar with it. a tablespoon of ACV in a tall glass of water is refreshing and delicious. Much tastier and hydrating that soda. My husband was skeptical but has come to love this drink. I also use the herbal vinegar freely in salad dressings and marinades.

Bruise Juice is a Jeanne Rose creation based on a recipe from 1490 and prepared by the Grand Dame of Herbalism and Aromatherapy herself since 1969. Effective, healing, and fragrant. You can read about it in her book, HERBS & THINGS, read a testimonial here: http://www.jeannerose.net/articles/Bruise_Juice.html , or order it here: http://www.jeannerose.net/articles/Bruise_Juice.html

According to traditional herbalists, Comfrey speeds healing of cuts, ulcerations, bruises, broken bones, pulled muscles and ligaments, and sprains. Comfrey contains Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (or PA’s), which can be toxic to the liver used improperly. The PA’s are more concentrated in the roots than in leaves. Comfrey gained a lot of attention in the 1970’s for its healing abilities and, hence, attracted the attention of researchers. Sadly, as such research goes, “active ingredients” were isolated and synthesized and the resulting experimental “medicine” was injected directly into the bloodstreams of lab rodents. Not surprisingly, the animals developed tumors and other undesirable damage. Lots of warnings came out about the dangers of using Comfrey and, to this day, some refrain from using it even externally. That is unfortunate since most of us do not isloate one alkaloid from a whole plant, synthesize it, and inject it. At least I know I don’t do that. According to Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs in his book MAKING PLANT MEDICINE, “Taken internally, a 3-week course of Comfrey root extract [preparation directions available in his book] or Comfrey leaf tea is considered harmless to the liver of a healthy, non-pregnant person.” He also warns that Comfrey should not be applied externally to “new puncture wounds or deep cuts, due to the likelihood that the outer skin layer will be stimulated to close up and heal prior to the draining and regeneration of deeper tissues.”  I clean all wounds thoroughly using a variety of methods from epsom salt soaks to Calendula tincture or Kloss’ Linament before applying  my Triple Healing Salve, which contains Comfrey root and leaf.  As with ANYTHING you ingest, whether prescribed by a doctor or gathered from your garden, thorough research should be done and consideration of your specific health conditions and unique needs before making an decision that is best for you. 

As a point of reference and for some perspective, here is a government publication listing, in order of toxicity, cancer hazard risk from a variety of sources. Note that both beer and breathing in mobile home air (14 hours per day) rank higher than 1.8 mg. of Comfrey pepsin in 9 tablets!

http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cpdb/pdfs/herp.pdf

Comfrey is also rich in allantoin and mucilage, two powerful agents for healing wounds and damaged tissue. Because it has the lowest concentration of PA’s I only use Symphytum officinale and never the hybrids or Russian Comfrey. Comfrey will become slimy when you work with it but it is slime that heals! Although I am personally comfortable using Comfrey internally and appropriately, I never include it in tea blends, capsules, or tinctures for others. However, I will continue to be an advocate for this wonderful plant that helps in so many ways around the home, barn, garden, and in life. Other ways I use Comfrey include:

*Added to compost piles to improve and speed up decomposition.

*As a houseplant and garden fertilizer (Comfrey Tea).

*To feed to my lactating goats to improve milk production and their calcium levels.

*Tons of permaculture uses for health of fruit trees, soft fruits and other plants that benefit from a living mulch of this “Doctor Plant”.

*In skin creams and salves for extra healing, skin softening ability.

*To attract bees and other pollinators.

*To admire and appreciate the beauty. 

Edible Herbal Bouquet for Goats

An edible herbal bouquet bucket for my goats that includes Comfrey among other delights!

~Leenie

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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:

Angelica

Chamomile

Chicory

Dandelion

Gentian

Goldenseal

Horehound

Milk Thistle

Rhubarb

Rue

Wormwood

Yarrow

Yellowdock

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. 

 

Jewelweed

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.

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

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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:

http://www.monarchwatch.org/

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Wednesday’s Weeds: ASIAN BUSH HONEYSUCKLE & AUTUMN OLIVE

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.

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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.

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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.

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AUTUMN OLIVE*

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:

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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:

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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.

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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

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Wednesday’s Weeds: ST. JOHNSWORT

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

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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…”

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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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Wednesday’s Weeds: PURSLANE

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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.

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Purslane flower

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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.

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

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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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