3 Herb Mamas

Herbal Medicine Making: ECHINACEA HARVEST

Echinacea

Echinacea purpurea

As the nights turn chilly and the mornings frosty, I know that it is time to turn my thoughts to harvesting medicinal roots before the ground freezes solid. Chief among my autumn digs is Echinacea, a flower much beloved by the winged pollinators during the summer. Although I often make whole plant tincture by steeping each plant part in turn, starting with leaves in spring, flowers in summer, and roots in fall, I have found the roots to be the most active. Since I have also found fresh root tincture of Echinacea to be much more active than dried (Huge understatement!) I always use freshly dug and scrubbed roots.

Native Americans used Echinacea for a variety of health needs but its use today is nearly synonymous with immune system support. Unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, Echinacea stimulates and strengthens our immune system to better defend against viruses and infections. Our family likes to use it both preventively as well as during active infections.

Echinacea root harvest

Quite a harvest of Echinacea ready for trimming off the small feeder roots and stems, scrubbing, and chopping.

Echinacea roots

Echinacea roots after an initial washing. They still need more feeder roots removed and a more thorough scrubbing.

Range of Echinacea root sizes

Top to bottom these are all harvestable Echinacea roots. The top one is an average sized root, the middle and above-average, and the bottom is what I generally refer to as a “Grandmother” which is conglomerate of third-, second-, and first-year roots along with some tiny buds that would have grown into new plants next year. These roots are often near and growing under large rocks and the alkaloids are very active and potent.

Small Echinacea root

An average sized Echinacea root with feeder roots removed and scrubbed up.

Sliced Echinacea root

Sliced Echinacea root. I consider tasting each Echinacea harvest to be an essential step. I learn so much about how the growth season affects the vigor and vitality of that year’s crop, the differences between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year roots, the most active parts of the plant. Chewing a slice of fresh Echinacea root is an experience not to be missed. The polysaccharides lend a subtle sweetness and the alkaloids leave my tongue and lips “buzzing”. 

Older hollow Echinacea root

In the third or fourth year Echinacea roots will become hollowed out in the center. Although the remaining root parts are still somewhat active the “daughters” and “granddaughters” that come after and around these hollow roots are often more potent. Clumps of mature roots often remind me of little villages and I like to read the “stories” of their history through the arrangement of the root crowns and sprouts.

Fresh Echinacea Tincture 2014

Fresh Echinacea root tincture 2014. I won’t go into all the details about water to alcohol ratios for optimum extraction of both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble components but if you are interested I would highly recommend Richo Cech’s (of Horizon Herbs) book MAKING PLANT MEDICINE. This is a very large batch of Echinacea tincture because I was cleaning out an old garden bed of all its plants in preparation for starting a fragrant Rose bed next spring. I will also need to start more Echinacea from seed this winter and begin a new bed, which means it will be three years before the next harvest. Good thing tinctures are fine for 10 years or longer.

One of my quirks in life is that I have a need to understand the true cost and value of things I use in every day life, as opposed to simply the current market rate for them. Growing Echinacea from seed to harvest, with all of the attendant care-taking and work involved, is part of the wholeness of its healing magic for me. This plant is easy to grow, a blessing to watch (especially when the butterflies are feeding on it), and an essential component of my herbal medicine chest. Maybe $10 for a tiny tincture bottle seems high in the glare of florescent-lit pharmacies, but waiting 3 years to harvest leaves me feeling like that is an amazing bargain…although it won’t hold a candle to what comes from my own garden at any price.

Echinacea tincture with inulin

A previous year’s Echinacea tincture with inulin settled to the bottom. When I strain the plant material out I try to include as much of this inulin as possible. Research indicates that naturally occurring inulin increases absorption of minerals like calcium and magnesium, benefits the immune system by enhancing the growth and activity of beneficial gut flora and inhibiting the growth of certain pathogenic bacteria, decreases cholesterol and triglycerides, improves kidney function (rehydration and re-mineralization), blood sugar regulation, and more. You won’t find the inulin in commercially available tinctures but you can grow it easily in your garden and make your own. I always shake up my tincture bottle before using in order to redistribute this water-soluble component. 

Dig deep for healing! ~Leenie

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Herbal Medicine Making: Gentle Health Care for Children During Colds & Flu Season

Rose Hips

Vitamin C-rich Rose Hips from my Rosa canina bush

The days, and certainly the nights, are cooling. The school buses are rolling. The leaves are changing, as are the winds. I am hearing more coughing, sneezing, and nose blowing. And my phone is ringing and message box filling with requests for herbs and herbal preparations to prevent and support healing from colds and viruses. Parents are looking for alternatives to antibiotics and I can hear the worry in their voices. Although I no longer have little ones, I remember that anxiety only too well.

Finding herbs that are gentle enough for children yet effective, and in a palatable form for sensitive taste buds, can be a real challenge. I’ve learned a few things caring for our four children over the past 25+ years and even a few things that I wish I had known when mine were small. I am including some recipes and ideas for remedies you can prepare and keep on hand for your own family. Obviously, I am not a doctor and, hence, cannot prescribe any herb or method for you or your family but I am happy to share things that have worked in our home to inspire you to research, experiment, and find what works best in your own situation.

Prevention is always preferable to treatments so look to a diet rich in plant foods, lots of dark, leafy greens, a wide variety of vegetables (Soups are delicious and warming on these cooler days!), whole grains, plenty of water, and warm herbal teas. Make sure to get some fresh air and sunshine daily. Get plenty of rest and add a daily immune system tonic such as Elderberry Syrup, like the one described below.

Goldenrod Tea

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) Tea

A simple pot  or mug of tea is a wonderful healing ritual that just takes a few minutes to do each day. Not only is it health-promoting but it makes it easier to administer herbal teas to children when they catch a cold than it would be if it was a completely new approach. Many herbs are suited to children such as Chamomile, Lemonbalm, Tulsi, and Goldenrod, which is blooming abundantly in my area right now. Add some raw local Honey for added benefits, like its ability to thin mucus and fend off viruses. It’s also a nice way to pause and listen to your child. I have cherished memories of many a “moonlight tea party” shared with my oldest daughter who is a lovely young woman out adventuring on her own independent life now. But she gifted me with those sweet blue teacups pictured and I think of her every time I use one.

Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry Syrup is just one immune system supporting tonic we like to use daily starting in the fall through the winter. It’s sweet and spicy and delicious. 

Although I have a preference for Fire Cider, a hot and spicy Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) based tonic, I realize that not everyone likes such a kick-in-the-pants as a daily tonic. For children especially, I like to keep Elderberry Syrup on hand. I generally make mine using fresh or frozen whole Elderberries, Elderberry concentrate, Cinnamon bark, fresh Ginger root, Cloves, distilled water, and raw local Honey. Recently, however, I had a need to make an even more potent syrup for an active “bug” so I added fresh Rose Hips, which are super rich in vitamin C, and fresh Echinacea roots, one of my favorite go-to plants for the immune system.

Elderberry Syrup Plus Ingredients

Some of the ingredients for my Elderberry Plus Syrup: Rose Hips, Echinacea roots, Ginger root, Cloves, Cinnamon, along with Elderberry, raw local Honey, and distilled water.  

Syrups are easily made by combining your herbs with distilled water, simmering until reduced by half and then straining and stirring in Honey to thicken and sweeten. I like to add the Honey once the herbal base has cooled a bit to preserve the natural healing qualities of the raw Honey. It only needs to be warm enough to dissolve the honey. Although lots of sugar is conventionally added to make syrups very thick and shelf-stable, I prefer a thinner syrup with a natural sweetener such as Honey or Maple syrup. Sugar only increases mucus production and complicates healing. These are the general ratios of ingredients in Elderberry Syrup:

1 cup fresh or 1/2 cup dried Elderberries

1 Cinnamon stick

5 Cloves

About 1 generous Tbsp. minced fresh Ginger root

2 cups distilled water

1 cup local, raw Honey

1/4 cup Elderberry concentrate (optional)

Combine everything except the Honey in a non-reactive pot. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer until reduced by half, generally 15 to 20 minutes. Cover with a lid and allow to steep for several hours. Very slightly re-warm this and strain through cheesecloth, squeezing out all the juice you can. Add the Honey and stir to dissolve. Bottle, cap, and label. Store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least 2 months.

For my Elderberry Plus Syrup I added 1 cup of crushed Rose Hips and a healthy handful of scrubbed and minced fresh Echinacea roots.

In our family, we take 1 Tbsp. daily as prevention or that amount hourly for active colds or flu. This is also delicious over pancakes, in smoothies, or on ice cream.

Elderberry Syrup simmering

Elderberry Syrup simmering is so lovely and it always makes the kitchen fragrant in the most beautiful way.

One other use for your Elderberry Syrup is in making an herbal gelatin, which is an easy way to administer herbs to children. It is cooling, light, delicious, and soothing to sore throats. I use organic gelatin but you can substitute agar flakes, a sea algae, if you are vegetarian. My ratios for Herbal Gelatin are:

3 cups brewed herbal tea or juice (or a combination)

1/4 Lemon (or other) juice

1/4 cup pure Maple syrup

Heat this to a simmer and then stir in 3 Tbsp. gelatin (for a firm set) or 3 tsp. gelatin (for a soft set). You will need to use an immersion blender to dissolve the gelatin into the liquid but it only takes a couple of minutes. Pour into a glass dish and chill in the refrigerator until firm.

I recently made an Orange Elderberry Gelatin using 1 cup Elderberry Syrup, 2-1/4 cups Orange juice, and 1/4 cup Maple Syrup along with 3 Tbsp. gelatin. YUMM! What a fun way to take a daily tonic!

Herbal Gelatin

Herbal Fruit Juice Gelatin is a tonic many children will enjoy…and grown-ups, too!

Elderberry/Orange Gelatin

Elderberry/Orange Gelatin is a fun herbal medicine. The foamy whipped top comes from whipping the gelatin in but tastes as delicious as the rest.

Another simple way to administer herbs to children is by brewing them as you would for tea, although stronger, and then adding them to a warm bath. You can use a variety of herbs and add a few drops of essential oils for added healing. Ginger root baths are very warming and help when experiencing chills. Eucalyptus, Mints, and Rosemary are good for clearing sinuses and giving a generally uplifting outlook. Lavender and Chamomile are relaxing and help a restless child. You can use many of these same herbs as a “steam” to clear congestion by simply having the child lean over the bowl with a towel draped over their heads and breathing in deeply. Keep a box of tissues handy and stay nearby to avoid hot spills.

Herbal Steams/Baths

Herbs for Steams or Baths

Happy, healthy Autumn! ~Leenie

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HERBAL HALF-DOZEN FOR THE GARDEN

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

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

ECHINACEA

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

CALENDULA

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

MINTS

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

COMFREY

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

Tulsi

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

BERRIES

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

Check back soon for my Wild Herbal Half-Dozen!

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