Poinsettia fun facts

poinsettia

Greetings all, and a happy midwinter holiday season to you!

Just to prove I am still alive–yes, I still have big plans for this little blog, and they are coming, but sometimes things just have to move in their own time no matter how much it drives us impatient people crazy–here’s a post about one of our favorite Christmas decorations here in the U.S., the beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

I was inspired by a link shared by Rosalee de la Foret about plant-based holiday rituals. I was a little disappointed, and this is no reflection on Rosalee, who by sharing this link gave me hours of entertainment, because there actually wasn’t much info on plants. However, in the section about poinsettia, the post says:

“The Aztec name was said to mean ‘mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.'”

I don’t know the original source of that etymology, but it is all over the internet. I’m a language nerd, and if you are too you might find this interesting. I’m hoping that even the non-language-nerd plantophiles among you will enjoy this; but if not you can skip to the tl;dr version at the end. Ok, so, although I know next to nothing about Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by the Aztecs), I thought that etymology up above sounded a little spurious. Then I thought, many plant names tell us something about how the plant works medicinally, I wonder if this could be one? And if so, what does its indigenous name actually mean?

So I did a little internet research.

I found that there are actually two versions of the Nahuatl name to be found on the interwebz: cuetlaxochitl and cuitlaxochitl. Now xochitl means flower, that’s easy enough. It’s the other part that’s tricky. If the original form was indeed cuitla-, it is apparently derived from cuitltatl, which means excrement, giving us a name that basically means “poop-flower”. Here’s the dictionary entry from the online Nahuatl Dictionary (click to embiggen):

cuitlatl

The dictionary also has an entry for cuitlaxochitl (none for cuetlaxochitl) which indeed translates it as poinsettia; however, they note that there was no text that contained the full word, only its component parts. They speculate the name derives from poinsettia’s growth habit. (I hope this isn’t ruining your enjoyment of the flower.)

cuitlaxochitlSince there apparently is no text containing the word cuitlaxochitl, it must come from oral tradition. So it’s not surprising the word would be transcribed in different ways, and there is a possibility that the correct form was indeed cuetlaxochitl, as reported in the post about plant-based holiday rituals and in many other places on the internet that don’t cite their sources. There are so-called “Aztec herbals” (cool!) such as the Codex Cruz-Badianus (a.k.a. Codex Barberini) and Florentine Codex, but they don’t have any recognizable illustrations of poinsettia.

Using the Nahuatl Dictionary, I found that cuetla- is a root in various verbs that describe a sort of floppy, back-and-forth wavering or wriggling motion. It can even describe shapes with a wavery outline, like a canyon winding through a landscape. Some examples involving cuetla- include the way a warrior shakes and thrusts a spear, the way a snake wriggles when caught, a person fainting, and the movement of leaping flames. It is also the root of a verb meaning to wither. So this is how we get to a translation that means a flower that withers, though the “mortal”, “perishes”, and “like all that is pure” parts seem to be complete nonsense as far as I can tell.

But which is it? Poop-flower or wavery-withering-flower?

Medicinal uses

The name question inspired me to dig deeper into poinsettia’s medicinal uses, with which I was not familiar. The genus Euphorbia belongs to the Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family. These often have irritating latex sap and some are poisonous. Poinsettia sap is only mildly irritating, but that seems to have garnered it an unearned reputation for toxicity.

I found next to no information on the ethnobotany of poinsettia. There is a reference to the sap being used as a galactagogue, although the author who mentions it claims it is not effective as such. All over the internet I find repeated the claim that the Aztecs used the sap to make a fever-reducing (antipyretic) medicine, but I can’t find the original source so must remain skeptical for the time being. Other members of the spurge family, however, are used medicinally in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere. Depending on species they may be used to treat skin diseases (including skin cancer), warts, cancerous tumors, “hair related problems”, respiratory complaints, diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections, venomous bites, wounds, rheumatism and arthritis, diabetes, jaundice, vomiting, “viral fever”, and as an antiseptic. But this is a diverse family including some quite toxic members (e.g., castor bean) so don’t assume that medicinal qualities are the same across all members of the family. In other words:

“The worldwide distribution of the family exposes its members, to all sorts of habitats to which they must adapt, therefore inducing a large variety of chemicals (secondary substances) that are employed for survival/defense….medicinal properties of some [Euphorbiaceae] species may be due to stress factors that characterize most habitats of the family.”

One recent study on E. pulcherrima found it to be very effective at inhibiting the growth of aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus mold (source); another found some indications that the leaves contain cytotoxic compounds that may be useful against cancerous tumors (source).

Tl;dr version

Poinsettia is native to Mexico, where its indigenous name probably translates to either “poop-flower” or “withering flower” (depending on whether the name is actually cuitlaxochitl or cuetlaxochitl). I looked for information on poinsettia’s medicinal and other botanical properties to see if they were reflected in either or both of these names.

My research was hampered by the fact that I don’t currently have any university affiliation and therefore can’t access the full text of professional/academic journals. I could find very little specifically about the medicinal uses of poinsettia, but other members of the spurge family are used medicinally around the world, for a variety of complaints of which skin diseases and digestive disorders may be the most common.

A name translating to “poop-flower” might make sense given that many Euphorbiaceae species are used to treat diarrhea and as laxatives. All over the internet I keep finding the word for excrement, cuitlatl, translated as “residue” and then making the poetic (if uninformative) leap to “soil,” making poinsettia the “flower that grows in soil”, but can’t find the original source, and the Nahuatl Dictionary is pretty firm that the word actually means feces. I cannot find any indication that poinsettia has any more of an affinity to dungheaps than any other plants do, so if this is the name of the plant I would speculate that the “poop” relates to its medicinal application.

Alternatively the plant’s name might be more like “withering flower” or “wavering flower.” The leaves do have a wavy sort of outline which might have been in accordance with the Aztec concept of the word root cueta-. Again though, this could have referred to a medicinal use–perhaps for fainting, another meaning of cueta-. Another possibility might be that it referred to a tendency for the plant to wilt. I would assume it wouldn’t wilt any more than any other plant, in its native habitat, but I must admit that in spite of my ministrations, every poinsettia I have brought home has wilted in pretty short order.

Sorry I couldn’t solve that little linguistic mystery, but I learned a lot in the effort. I hope it was interesting for you. If you have any experience using poinsettia medicinally, I’d love to hear about it!

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Aztec medicine, here is an article on the topic which you can actually read in its entirety online. Here is a book chapter looking at the pharmacological effect of Aztec medicinal herbs, also complete. Here is a page that even has a few recipes and images from the Codex Cruz-Badianus.

In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

Exploring Echinacea tincture

echinacea - courtesy Wikimedia CommonsThe best way to get to know an herbal medicine is to still yourself and feel its effects in your body. Pay excruciatingly close attention. Herbs work in mysterious and subtle ways, so distractions really will drown out the little sensations that are often a sign of big medicine. I thought I’d describe my most recent experience with this so you can see what it’s like if you’ve never done this before. Your mileage may vary but the general effects of an herb are consistent.

EchinaceaI recently made some Echinacea tincture and in a rare moment of peace and quiet I let it do its thing…

Echinacea is a diffusive lymphatic, so you know right out of the box that it is going to get stagnant fluids of the body moving. I wrote about stagnant waters previously. The taste of a diffusive herb is really a combination of taste and sensation–Echinacea is strongly diffusive and makes your tongue tingly and a little numb. That was the first thing I felt. Then I noticed extra tingling where I had bitten the inside of my cheek a day or two before.

I next began feeling little jabs–not really strong enough to call them painful, but just enough to get my attention–in the sinuses on the right side of my head, where I had some congestion. Meanwhile on the left side I felt a downward draining sensation and some little twinges in my left ear. I felt some moisture in both ears.

Next I started to feel some twinges around my liver. Again, not enough to call it pain, just minor sharpish sensations.

My intuition and what I know of Echinacea as a lymphatic tells me that two things were happening: First, as lymphatics do, Echinacea was stimulating the movement of fluids in the body. This was the cause of the downward draining feeling and the release of moisture in my ears. Clearly there was more dampness in my sinuses than I had realized. It also caused the twinges in my liver, as anything in the bodily water economy that needs purifying will ultimately be sent to the liver for detox.

Secondly, the Echinacea seemed to be especially active in areas where there was some infection–the place where I bit my cheek, my sinuses. At present this is just an early impression and I would like to experiment some more to see if it continues. Even though these were very mild infections if any, I found it striking that Echinacea “knew” right where to go. But it is not unexpected for Echinacea, which is the medicine for acute infections par excellence. According to Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom, Echinacea was called “toothache root” by Native Americans, signifying that they found it particularly useful for dental infections.

I took a half dropper of Echinacea each morning for a few days (only one dose per day). The next symptom I noticed was a very mild case of acne. I had teenage acne but other than the odd pimple now and again, I am not subject to skin eruptions. But I developed nearly invisible pinpoint size acne on my nose and forehead that lasted a couple of days. I think this was a result of internal heat clearing through the skin.

I had one day of not feeling so hot, and on that day I probably quadrupled my dose of Echinacea. To tell the truth I just wanted to see what would happen. I thought if I had actually caught a bug, the Echinacea would help, and if not, I would learn something.

Although I had previously been warned that lymphatic herbs can dredge up stuck emotions as well as stagnant fluids, I had totally forgotten that little piece of information. So I was rather surprised when, over the next few days–after I had stopped taking the tincture–repressed emotions that were so deeply buried that I didn’t even know they existed started bubbling to the surface. For a couple days I wanted to retreat to a dark room with a shotgun and blast anything that came near me. I felt so raw it was like not having any skin. Even now, more than a week later, I occasionally let loose an unexpected verbal volley, but I feel So. Much. Better. This emotional gunk had to come to light so it could be purified and released.

Another thing I noticed is that during this time, whenever I have felt frustrated, I get pain where my gallbladder used to be. In retrospect, this has happened before when I was particularly angry and pissy, but not as strongly, and I find it particularly interesting because according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, frustration and anger are precisely the emotions associated with gallbladder problems.

Now you may be thinking this is some hippy dippy shit and would I please concentrate on herbal medicine from a more scientific point of view. Well, no I will not. I do not claim to understand how herbs work the way they do or why, all I know is what I observe happening to my own body, and that it agrees with the observations of generations of far more knowledgeable and experienced herbalists than I. You either experience these things and accept them, or you don’t and you don’t. You know? If you are minded to do this sort of exploration, try comparing various lymphatics and see what happens.

Ashwagandha dreams

So I am taking ashwagandha tincture (because of reasons I may explain some other time but right now it’s not relevant) and prior to starting, I had read that ashwagandha can cause vivid dreams and even weird light effects when you close your eyes.

Unfortunately I haven’t had the weird light effects (and I was really looking forward to that too). But the dreams have been interesting, especially in comparison to valerian. Now something like 10% of people get no effect from valerian, I hear, but I am one of the ones it works on. Now and then I take it when I need some help falling asleep. The dreams it gives me are…intense.

Normally I would say I’m a semi-lucid dreamer–I’m almost always aware at some point in the dream that I am, in fact, dreaming. But not with valerian dreams. They feel totally real. Well, I don’t really like the dream/real dichotomy because what’s not real about a dream? It’s a real dream. But I mean my valerian dreams feel like I am awake.

ashwagandha berries

Ashwagandha berries. It’s a member of the tomato (i.e., nightshade) family, can you tell?

Now ashwagandha has a similar effect, in that in the dreams I feel like I’m awake and not dreaming. But the quality of the dreams has been very different from what I experience with valerian. In all my ashwagandha dreams, I have been striving or struggling for something, and usually frustrated by not quite getting it, or waking up before I could finish the story. They aren’t nightmares by any means, and I feel pretty refreshed when I wake up, but always very frustrated.

Smells like a teenager's gym socks soaked in horse urine, but looks lovely and gives wonderful dreams.

Valerian–smells like a teenager’s gym socks soaked in horse urine, but looks lovely and gives wonderful dreams.

Contrast this with my most recent valerian dreams, which were all about friends from far away clamoring to tell me how much they love me.

Once again, I’m truly blown away by the subtle powers of plants. What chemical constituent could account for the difference between dreams of love and dreams of struggle? I’m reminded of the way that agrimony brings to my attention things in my life that are no longer working for me and that need attention. How does it do that? It’s nothing short of magic as far as I can tell.

Have you tried valerian or ashwagandha? I’d love to hear about your dreams! (Or any crazy light effects.)

Garden epiphany

Dear readers, there is something I am very excited about, and I hope that when I share it with you it doesn’t seem like a whole lotta so what. You ever have one of those moments where some little, seemingly inconsequential thing happens and, metaphorically speaking, you see a door opening behind it that is a portal to a new way of being? This was one of those moments for me. I hope I can do it justice here, but I probably won’t.

This is not where I live.

This is not where I live.

I’ve posted before about having a really hard time adjusting my local environment, which is hot and arid. It’s very different from every other place I’ve lived, and every place I’ve wanted to live. You cannot imagine how I long for something that looks like England’s green and pleasant land, where I can traipse amongst the hedgerows and commune with the forest critters I know from fairy tales of my youth. And as an herbalist, it can be an issue, because the herbs that form the materia medica of traditional Western herbalism come from Mediterranean and temperate Europe, and the North American herbs that have been incorporated are also mostly from temperate climate regions, especially the eastern woodlands. Even the literature that I found on medicinal plants of the southwestern US mainly seemed to focus on flora of the mountains in Arizona and New Mexico.

Where I live looks like this, except usually not this green.

Where I live looks like this, except usually not this green.

So my I had a twofold idea to learn more about the plants in my area: first, find out what plants grow in this ecoregion, and second, find out if any indigenous tradition has been preserved. But I hit all kinds of roadblocks.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything but the most general information about the ecology of this now densely urban region. I mean, you can describe almost all of Southern California as being a sage scrub zone, but anyone who has traveled around here can tell you there is a big difference between Santa Barbara and San Diego, or between Los Angeles and San Bernardino.  Where could I find information about my area? Many times I tried to visualize what it would have looked like here in the days before white settlers, but I just drew a blank.

The same thing happened with regard to the indigenous population. Most of the Native people here live modern city lives and don’t practice traditional ways. I mean, it’s almost impossible for anyone to live any other way, the region is so heavily developed. I’m not saying there’s no one left who knows about medicinal plants, but I don’t know where to look for them. I actually used to work as an assistant curator for a tribal museum down here, but I never heard word one about medicinal plants (sadly back then I didn’t know much about them myself). I got super excited when I found out there is an annual weekend workshop on indigenous traditional uses of plants, but my excitement cooled dramatically when I saw the price tag. For me it might as well cost a million dollars.

Then there’s the climate change. Before I moved here, I spent my summer and winter breaks here visiting my family. My mother moved here to be closer to her sister about 16 years ago. During that time, the climate has gotten markedly hotter and drier. I was never going to be growing rhododendrons, but our garden veggies did well and my mom grew a variety of typical annual flowers.But they just don’t work here anymore. Even if you shade them and water copiously–which you shouldn’t, because California is now at “exceptional” drought status, which is the worst category they recognize–you have to contend with bugs that temperate-climate plants just don’t have resistance to.

drought

And then I also struggled with my own petulance. I never wanted to move here to begin with. I know the futility of resistance to change. In fact up until this phase of my life, I have always been very adaptable (after a short period of grumbling anyway), but this time I guess I was just a lot more stubborn and resentful and childish about it. I guess it was my own form of bioregional denial.

Well, the other day I was inspired to have another go at researching native plants. And this time I found exactly what I was looking for.

Although there’s little undeveloped land left here, I discovered that the native flora is a mix of coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and valley grassland biomes, with a few scattered areas of riparian woods and marshland. It seems that one of the reasons I had so much difficulty finding info on the native ecology is that it’s been so heavily developed. Most of the available information had to do with the few remaining wildish lands, mostly state parks in the coastal mountains around LA. Another reason, I suspect, is the fact that the lowland areas tended to have mixed biomes–as proved to be the case here–and couldn’t easily be summed up in one sentence.

Knowing the names of the biomes gave me the search terms I needed. I then found the California Native Plant Link Exchange, which provides a list of nurseries that stock the plant or its seeds, what family it belongs to, what counties it grows in, and what biomes. You can can search by plant or by biome, and when you’re on a plant’s page you can click “What plants grow with [plant name]?” to find other members of its community.

I was able to come up with a list of native plants that would once have grown here, that belong together in a community, and that have medicinal and edible uses, and some of which happen to also be very beautiful. (Well, I think pretty much all plants are beautiful, but one’s neighbors tend to prefer flowers over, say, scrub.)

In case it’s not obvious, I am super excited by the prospect of growing these plants myself. Among them are a variety of sages: white (Salvia apiana), black (S. mellifera), and Cleveland (S. clevelandii); California sagebrush (Artemisia californica, basically a local type of wormwood or mugwort); coyote mint (Monardella villosa); sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiaca, a.k.a., Diplacus aurantiaca); California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); beautiful centaury (Zeltnera venusta); and California goldenrod (Solidago californica). I will need to refine this list for my particular conditions, but right now I feel spoiled for choice.

native plants

Goldenrod and the sages have their European counterparts, and as I understand it, work in much the same way–I look forward to investigating them in greater depth. Sagebrush (Artemisia sp.) is widely used by Mexican curandero/as (healers) for strengthening the immune system, reducing inflammation, and treating skin infections and irritations (much like European Artemisia). Mimulus is one of the Bach flower remedies. It is used to treat fearfulness, when there is a known source of fear. The FES brand of North American flower remedies has two monkeyflower essences, pink and red, both of which help to promote emotional courage and honesty. Monkeyflower is an edible bitter and vulnerary. Coyote mint was traditionally used as a stomachic tea. I can’t find anything about medicinal uses of Zeltnera venusta, but as its common name indicates it belongs to the centaury family. Culpepper recommended centauries for practically everything, from cleansing and healing wounds, to stimulating the liver and gallbladder, to sciatica. Of course California poppy has become well known as a sedative, diuretic, and analgesic.

But back to that metaphorical door I mentioned, there’s more to it than wanting plants in my garden that actually stay alive. I get very frustrated by the large number of non-native plants used in landscaping which are so patently unhappy here. I don’t claim to be the plant whisperer–it doesn’t take a genius to know that plants native to New England are not going to get the requisite amount of water here. And I just don’t see the point when there are such lovely plants native to the region. I wrote before that this landscape was like a nut I couldn’t seem to crack–and all of a sudden it’s become like a flower softly opening to me. Part of why I have been so uncomfortable here is that it feels to me like the land needs a lot of healing. I know that sounds like a corny New Age greeting card sentiment, but there’s no question that this land and all its resident tribes–be they human, plant, or microbe–extirpated to make room for things that don’t belong. It’s too big a task for little old me, and I regret that in the face of daunting enormities I tend to kind of shut down. That’s what happened–I shut down.

But now these little plants, that endure in spite of the destructive prejudices of humans, are showing me where I fit in all this. And in the gentle way of worts, they make it all seem not so scary, so that little by little, season by season, bare earth comes back to life.

More fun with post-cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS)

I received a great comment on my previous post about PCS (the suite of annoying symptoms that can result from not havaing a gallbladder) and decided that a follow-up was in order. I also wanted to include some more personal details (hopefully not TMI) to put the information in context.

This will make more sense if you read the previous post first. It’s here.

I continue to struggle with PCS everyday, and the reason I wanted to revisit the topic is that I am my main test subject when it comes to trying out potential remedies (cue mad scientist laugh). I thought it might be useful to others if I actually reported on my findings, such as they are.

First of all I want to say that I fit the classic symptom profile from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) really well. I can’t say for certain whether all these symptoms come from having no gallbladder, but they do post-date that time. For reference, I was 20 when I had it removed. Obviously I have aged since then, and I can’t be sure to what extent age and abuse through suboptimal diet may be influencing my symptoms. But they do correspond to exactly what you would predict for PCS. Also, I should point out that these symptoms did not appear immediately after I had my gallbladder removed–they have developed gradually over the years.

My PCS

Before having my gallbladder out, I tended to feel colder than other people. I did radiate heat–when riding in a car the window by my head would always get steamed up when nobody else’s was and people commented that I felt warm–but internally, I was usually cold. And I couldn’t stand any external cold at all. Since the gallbladder removal (I’m going to call it GBR to save my lazy fingers effort), I have excess heat (and dampness–I’ll get to that in a minute). I get heat stroke really easily and also the symptoms of what Chinese medicine calls “summer sickness”–dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, and diarrhea whenever it’s hot. Most days I have a feeling like there is a smoldering fire in my chest and solar plexus region that cannot be cooled. It’s not heartburn–it doesn’t have that acid burning feeling, just a sense of uncomfortable heat, as if I have been lying out in the sun on a hot day for a few hours.

Inflammation is supposed to be a sign of dampness, but I don’t happen to have that (at least not externally visible). I have, however, started to accumulate phlegm much more than ever before and I also have more skin tags. Not a huge amount, but I never used to have any. In TCM they are considered the result of heat coming from the liver and trying to emerge from the skin. I don’t have acne, but occasionally get small pimples in the liver zone (creases on either side of the nose). This is the only place I ever get zits.

furious bowels

Before my GBR, I had great digestion. There was pretty much nothing I couldn’t eat. I enjoyed all kinds of food, including spicy food and salads. Post-GBR, I am continually astonished at how pathetic my digestion is. Let us just say that these bowels? They are irritable. They are like one of those stereotypical crotchety old people, yelling “Get off my lawn!” at every dang thing I eat. I am now somewhat lactose intolerant where I never was before. I’m was never a big dairy-eater to begin with, but due to the hot feeling I mentioned above I like ice cream even more than I did before. My intestines do not like ice cream at all though. Yogurt and butter seem to be ok, but nothing else. I eat cultured butter, so the probiotics in the yogurt and butter may be having a beneficial effect even though I eat them in small quantities. I have recently discovered that raw leafy greens really piss my bowels off. Like I can’t even finish a salad without running for the bathroom (sorry, I know I promised this wouldn’t be TMI, but it won’t be useful if I’m not honest). I used to love eating salads all summer long–lettuces and such are cooling–but I now look at greens with mingled longing and trepidation. Other than these two, I haven’t yet been able to figure out exactly which things cause  digestive distress because that would require an elimination diet, which would be pretty much impossible in my circumstances, i.e., being my mom’s caregiver. (This issue is a long story and I don’t want to clutter the post up with it. I’m happy to explain if you really want to know, but for now suffice it to say that my dietary freedom is limited.)

My emotional states post-GBR have been exactly what TCM would predict: more anger, depression, and anxiety. Of course our emotions respond to many factors and I don’t want to oversimplify, but I have a lot more cranky, irritable days. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether an emotion is a cause or effect, but that’s one thing I like about TCM–it takes emotions into account and understands they can be both cause and effect. Fortunately I am managing my stress a lot better these days. As for depression, my opinion is that nowadays, it’s simply a reasonable response to the state of the world, not a mental illness. (Funnily enough, having come to that conclusion actually makes me feel much less depressed.)

Finally I have dull pain in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen, especially when I sit on airplanes. Something about that particular airplane posture and the immobility, I guess.

What I am doing about it

I have a plethora of different nutritional supplements and herbs–none has been a magic bullet, though most help a bit; but it can take time to find the right herbs and dosages. And sometimes it’s harder to get the mix right for yourself than for another person, for some reason. I take the following Standard Process supplements: Cholacol (bile salts), Drenamin (adrenal fatigue), and Livaplex (supports liver function). I also take the following herbs: dandelion and milk thistle (liver support) and bupleurum (liver and adrenal support) tinctures regularly, though I need to up my dosage, and agrimony. I also take melissa (lemon balm) and St. John’s Wort on an as-needed basis but need to make my melissa consumption more regular. I want to add rose to this list because my body seems to really like it and for its cooling effects.

cholacol

The results are that my energy levels are up a bit. I’m no ball of fire but at least I don’t have to take a nap after washing the dishes. My mood is much more stable with less depression and anger. My immune system seems to function pretty well–I get few colds and flus, maybe 1 per year, although the flu is more severe when I do get it than it used to be. There is still room for improvement here. My digestion is still suboptimal but I also need to work on that more, especially in terms of dietary change–on which more below.

What we all should be doing

I’m looking to both Chinese and Western herbal medicine for recommendations, and where they overlap I think we are really on to something. TCM offers dietary/nutritional remedies, which complement the herbs. Both camps advocate strengthening the digestion so we can extract the full nutrition out of what we eat (difficult without a gallbladder) and the use of foods and herbs with a bitter taste and cooling properties. The Taste of Herbs Flavor Wheel is extremely useful here (follow link to see a bigger version):

taste of herbsThis chart groups herbs by flavor, tells you their energetics, and correlates them with TCM and Ayurveda. All three systems are agreed that you want to seek out herbs in the red section. Astringents (the green section) can also help by toning weakened tissues. Because of the interconnectedness of the digestive system with every other system in the body, one seldom has only one issue going on. But the great thing about this chart is that you can classify foods and herbs that aren’t listed, simply by tasting them. By the way, if you’re wondering why I mention TCM so much it’s because it is so hard to find anything in the Western herbal literature specifically devoted to PCS/gallbladder problems.

Chinese medicine views the development of gallbladder symptoms and PCS as both being due to excess damp heat. The dietary guidelines for reducing dampness and heat recommend avoiding alcohol, sugar, greasy/fried foods, and dairy (except yogurt), refined flours, raw foods, chilled foods/drinks, coffee, meat, and spicy foods. I have not been doing so well with this, even though I know better. The hardest part, especially in summer, is avoiding the cold food and drinks. They do give a brief cooling feeling, and I’ve always preferred cold drinks even back when I felt cold all the time. That’s why I mostly take my herbs as tinctures instead of teas, because I just really don’t like hot drinks. But I should be taking things room temperature to warm.

PCS remedies part 1 graphic

Foods that are said to relieve heat and dampness include: onions and their relatives (garlic, chives, scallions, leeks), cinnamon, aromatic herbs (parsley, basil, dill, rosemary, oregano, etc.),  raw honey (like I need an excuse!), alfalfa, celery, lettuce, spinach, bamboo shoots, eggplant, potatoes (with skins), Chinese cabbage, dandelion greens, mustard greens, barley, buckwheat, strawberries, lemon, kiwi, hawthorn berry, fennel, mustard seed, ginger, turmeric, saffron, radish, asparagus, broccoli, turnip, radish, quinoa, amaranth, adzuki beans, and cucumber. This ain’t no paleo diet. You’ll notice there are items here that fit in the pungent (grey) and sour (green) categories on the flavor wheel, as well as bitters.

From a Western herbalism perspective, we need foods that will cool, move the dampness, and tone the tissues that get weak from poor nutrition. For advice on applying traditional Western energetics my go-to book is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. According to Western energetics, there are two types of dampness: flowing and stagnant. Flowing, or leaky, dampness is a tissue state called “relaxation;” damp stagnation is “torpor.”

“[Relaxation] would include excessive sweating, salivation, digestive secretion, diarrhea, menstrual bleeding, and urination. … One of the ironies of the relaxed tissue state is that it tends to create a deep tension, which can be either psychological or physical, or both.” (Wood, pp. 199-200)

“[Torpor] is not only associated with a buildup of unneeded fluids, but with their precipitation into thickened phlegm–mucopolysaccharides, actually–which were called ‘humors’ in the old literature. In addition to the thickening of fluids, waste products build up because of the stuck state of transportation in the body. Indeed, even unused food becomes a waste product. Meanwhile, the tissues are not getting enough nutrition and they tend to become flabby and weak. The thickening fluids cause pain in muscles. It would be called fibromyalgia today, or rheumatism (dampness) as per the old books. The single most characteristic symptom is said to be skin lesions. Another typical symptom is hangover. The digestion and liver functions are backed up. Lymphatic stagnation and sluggishness is also typical. The channels of elimination may be taxed. Some cases of hypothyroidism would fit here.” (Wood, pp. 221-222)

Recommended herbs for tissue relaxation are all astringents and include blackberry (excellent for diarrhea, especially where the mucosal lining of the bowels is impaired, as is often the case due to weak bile dripping directly into the intestine from the liver–the fruit, leaf, and root may all be used; you can substitute raspberry leaf), sumac (not the poison kind–sumac is commonly available as a condiment in Middle Eastern groceries), black walnut (leaf, bark, black hulls; also helps with hypothyroidism but the hulls can be laxative so use these with caution), white oak bark (small doses of tincture), and sage.  The traditional recommendations for torpor are alteratives (“blood purifiers”) and laxatives. If you don’t have a gallbladder, there is a good chance you do NOT need laxatives. Recommended herbs for torpor include dandelion, burdock, and Oregon grape root. Sage and burdock particularly seem to help with digestion and metabolization of fats. I also just came across this wonderful piece on Cauldrons & Crockpots about ocotillo and how it helps move stagnant fluids in the body.   PCS remedies part 2 graphicFor cooling, Western herbalism recognizes that heat can be a secondary effect due to “sepsis and deterioration,” as Wood puts it, or primary, due to irritation and excitation, which is essentially acceleration of cellular function. With PCS there may be both types but I think the secondary heat arising from an under-performing gut and liver is the main issue. Recommended herbs include rose (all parts; cooling, astringent, and drying), yellow dock root (cooling, bitter, alterative), and yarrow (cooling and stimulating).

And of course, exercise. We’re not talking here about weight loss or get-fit exercise, we’re just talking about moving the qi and fluids around. I am a big fan of the website Katy Says which is all about the importance of proper body alignment. Working out, running, cycling, dance–all are fine but do not replace time spent simply sitting, walking, and carrying things in correct alignment. If you’ve been out of alignment, as most of us in the modern world are, at the beginning just standing in proper alignment will be a workout for the back of your legs, pelvic floor, and shoulders.

Anyway, I hope this helps somebody. As I said previously, I’m not a doctor, but this is the best information I’ve been able to glean on the subject. I have not found a lot of useful information, and much of what I have found doesn’t have any contextual information. I gave you all far more detail about my health than probably any of us are comfortable with, but I am hoping I have given you a clearer picture of how it all fits together to affect not only your body, but your mind and emotions too.

EDIT: I have revised my views on this topic somewhat, so please also read my latest post on herbal remedies for PCS.

St. John’s Wort

St. John's Wort tincture

St. John’s Wort tincture

I finally was able to get some more dropper bottles so I could bottle up my St. John’s Wort tincture and catnip tincture. In the end it had brewed for so long, the extract was crazy strong and I actually added a little water to dilute it.

This seemed like a good time to delve into St. John’s Wort. I talked about it briefly a while back, when I was making Mrs. Corlyon’s Red Oil (Part 1 and Part 2). That recipe specified that, ideally, if one were going to add SJW to make the oil more medicinal, one should harvest the SJW at Midsummer (a.k.a., St. John’s Day).

My first, indirect, encounter with St. John’s Wort was as an herbal supplement that my friend Greg used to take in college. He had a box for his supplements–which the rest of us dubbed The Little Yellow Pillbox–and it would faithfully make its appearance each night at dinner. We came to associate it so closely with him that when another friend and I went on a graduation trip we took TLYP with us and photographed it having fun all over Rome. It was the next best thing to having Greg on the trip. What was in The Little Yellow Pillbox? Of its various contents the only one I ever knew was St. John’s Wort. In retrospect that was probably a good supplement for my friend because he is the moodiest person I have ever met and St. John’s Wort is used for promoting more stable mood.

And that was the end of it until I started my herbal explorations.

St. John's Wort flowers

St. John’s Wort flowers

I did a little research into the folklore of the plant and its association with Midsummer. Traditioanlly on St. John’s Eve, starting at sunset, people would light bonfires. There were feats of strength (like Festivus!) and prayers to ensure the health of crops. (Read more about the celebration of St. John’s Day in Ireland here.) In other words it was very similar to Beltaine (literally “Bel’s Fire”), the beginning of summer in the Irish and Scottish Celtic calendar, but Beltaine was celebrated on 1 May.  It seems that the plant received its name from the holiday, St. John’s Day–when the plant started flowering–which in turn was a pagan festival that was co-opted/absorbed by Christianity. Matthew Wood (in The Book of Herbal Wisdom) describes St. John in the context of the translation from pagan to Christian:

“In the Biblical account, St. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, born six months before him, so naturally his feast day fell at the summer solstice. Just as Jesus took over the functions of the dying and resurrecting pagan god of winter, St. John was associated with the pagan god of summer vegetation and life. The Bible recounts that St. John went off to live by himself in the wilderness, dressed like a ‘wild man,’ feeding on wild plants. The medieval Catholics recognized a resemblance to the ‘Wild Man’ or ‘Green Man’ associated with the blooming fertility of summer.”

However, Dorothy Hall (in Creating Your Herbal Profile) points out that a lot of plants were identified with St. John the Baptist–a very popular saint–so in reading medieval texts we can never quite be sure which species they are referring to. Rest assured that I am referring to Hypericum perforatum here.

The flowers look like little sunbursts. Any surprise SJW is used for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The flowers look like little sunbursts. Any surprise SJW is used for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Going back to Greek and Roman times, it seems SJW was used for relieving various types of pain, for treating depression, and for warding off evil generally. Mrs. Grieve indicates it is useful in treating all pulmonary complaints, diarrhea, hemmorhages, worms, jaundice, and bedwetting. Back to Wood:

“Homeopathy has shown that Hypericum is specific for wounds to parts rich in nerves, attended with sharp, shooting pains, inflammation along the course of a nerve, pinched nerves, injuries from sharp, penetrating instruments, etc….It is used for blows to the coccyx, from falling on the ice, down stairs, or delivering a baby. It is especially indicated for pinched nerves or injuries which occur as a result of sudden movements, as when people catch at something to stop themselves from falling….Very often, when we have a medicine which acts this strongly on nerve trauma, we find that it will also act on the nervous sytems. St. John’s Wort has a particular affinity to the solar plexus and the nerves of digestion.”

Topically it may be used as a soothing anti-inflammatory for treating burns, abrasions, boils, excema, and sores, or as a massage oil for spasms, cramps, sprains, bruises, stiffness, etc. Hall states that the disease pattern to which SJW is suited is “an over-stimulated nervous condition with its evidence on the skin.” This can include everything from shingles to measles, heat rash, and bug bites. People with especially sensitive nervous systems, including sensitive skin and low pain tolerance are “Hypericum types.” These people have acute senses, especially that of touch, and I suspect many would nowadays be classed as having sensory defensiveness. Hall associates these characteristics with a tendency to be quick, restless, easily bored, often to the extent that they are clumsy and injure themselves. Except for this last characteristic, I notice that all the other ones given by Hall are common among empaths (some of whom are quick and clumsy but by no means all).

Scientific studies show SJW is as effective against depression as pharmaceuticals, without the horrendous side effects–though weirdly, the studies performed so far show SJW being more effective on German-speakers (source). No one has offered a convincing reason for this. It’s yellow color is traditionally considered a signature indicating its mood-lifting and its beneficial effect on the liver and digestive tract.

According to an article cited by Wikipedia, SJW has also been shown to speed up the metabolism of estrogens, so it can interfere with birth control pills. (Unfortunately, the footnote is vague and the link to the article broken, so don’t take Wikipedia’s word for it.) If that is accurate, it would seem to be a good treatment for estrogen dominance, right? Except my internet research doesn’t turn up any indication of that. SJW has been used, however, to successfully treat the emotional symptoms of PMS.

Concerns have been raised about the safety of SJW because it causes photosensitivity in cattle, but so far this has rarely occurred in humans. In general reported negative effects are similar to those reported with a placebo (source).

Catnip tincture

I started a catnip tincture and it is such a pretty color I had to put up pictures. I was rather surprised at how vividly green the tincture is after only a day.

catnip 1

Catnip is one of the few things I’ve planted that is still flourishing. The bees love its purple flowers and, like other members of the mint family, it spreads rapidly. Interestingly, it seems none of the kitties who live around here are into the ‘nip, because they don’t bother it at all. Just as well for me and my medicine cupboard!

Before I go any further let me state that catnip is not recommended for pregnant women.

The officinal species is Nepeta cataria, but the garden store is probably more likely to stock a hybrid, Nepeta x faasenii. I can’t find any systematic comparison of the two varieties, but this site claims that Nepeta x faasenii is actually more strongly medicinal. As with all internet information, use with common sense and caution! (That goes for this blog too, I guess!) Matthew Wood, in his Book of Herbal Wisdom, points out the affinity many mint-family plants (Lamiaceae or Labiatae) have for the nervous system. And sure enough, catnip is no exception. It is commonly used to ease headaches and colic and to soothe anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares, especially in children. Mrs. Grieve (p. 174) discusses in particular its diaphoretic properties:

“Catnep tea is a valuable drink in every case of fever, because of its action in inducing sleep and producing perspiration without increasing the heat of the system.”

One of the most interesting things about the mints, in my mind, is that they can be simultaneously stimulating and relaxant. Catnip is also used to soothe skin sores, including hives and hemorrhoids, and the essential oil repels bugs, including mosquitoes.

What kind of person needs catnip? (Besides feline persons, that is.) Back to Wood again (this time in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, pp. 167-168):

“Catnip is the mint nervine to give ‘when in doubt,’ i.e., when there is a nervous problem that can’t be differentiated enough to indicate a more specific medicine. The action of catnip centers on the stomach, with anxiety, energy, and pain rising upwards, rather than downwards, as is the case with chamomile. Unlike the chamomile person or child, catnip tends to internalize the stress and goes to the stomach. Think of it as ‘visceral over-stimulation from the mind.’… Not for sinking diarrheal anxiety (see chamomile). ‘Burpitis.’ …

“Catnip has a long reputation in the treatment of children’s diseases. It is an old specific for colic in babies at the breast.”

catnip 2

As my catnip has only recently grown mature enough to start making into herbal preparations, this is my first time working with it (hence why I am offering information from more expert witnesses rather than my own experiences). I decided to make a tincture because although it has traditionally mostly been used in tea form (though Culpepper says some people smoked it for mild hallucinogenic effects–if you try this do let me know how it goes), the short growing season means that I might not be able to harvest for long. Therefore I’d like to have a preserved catnip medicine on hand. I am using the fresh plant in flower and once again using pisco (Peruvian high-proof liquor) as the solvent. Wood recommends that the tincture be taken diluted in water, a few drops at a time, “enough to tint it light green”–two or three doses should produce relief. I am looking forward to trying this as I suffer perpetually from anxiety. Chamomile isn’t a good fit for me, but I have great results with melissa (lemon balm) and agrimony–all of which is further proof of the fact that no herbal medicine is one-size-fits-all, and the goal is to treat the person, not the disease. If you are a “catnip type,” I think you’ll find it very easy to grow in all but the most inhospitable conditions.

Umami medicinal mushroom powder

umami

Everybody–well, everybody who has a cooking blog anyway–seems to be making “magic mushroom powder” these days. (Spoiler–not actually made from magic mushrooms. Sorry.) I never met a mushroom I didn’t love, so when I ran across a recipe for mushroom powder I decided I had to make my own version. I drew inspiration from this recipe and this one. The second version comes from the Nom Nom Paleo cookbook by Michelle Tam and Henry Fong. The first version uses shiitake mushrooms and oregano, the second one (which confusingly is chronologically first) uses porcini (also known as ceps) and thyme. Both also include salt, pepper, and chili flakes.

But not to be outdone, I came up with my own mushroom powder using what I had on hand. And here it is:

  • 1 oz dried mushrooms (I used 0.5 oz porcini, 0.4 oz shiitake, and 0.1 oz oyster mushrooms–measured by weight)
  • 3 tsp salt (I used Celtic sea salt)
  • 1 tsp sage
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp marjoram
  • 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp fennel

Put into a spice grinder or food processor and turn into powder. And done! Now put it on everything!

Why these ingredients?

I’m not quite sure why I added marjoram and sage, something just told me it would taste good if I did. I debated on the marjoram because the dried mushrooms have a powerful umami flavor (who needs MSG when you’ve got this stuff?) and I wanted to enhance that and thought the marjoram might be a little too aromatic. I actually get quite strong gut feelings sometimes when it comes to herbs, and usually it works out well when I obey. Having tasted the result in this case at least I’m convinced it was the way to go. As for the fennel, I’m actually not a big fan of fennel but I think that in small quantities it adds a certain extra deliciousness to spice blends, so in it went.

If you check out the linked recipes you will note that I kept the amounts of mushrooms and herbs the same. But those recipes call for a whopping 2/3 cup of salt. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some salt. As a little kid I could often be found in the barn licking the horses’ salt licks. (True story.) But I’d rather start with too little salt and add a bit more to the food on the plate than to run the risk of oversalting the whole dish. So I started with only 3 tsp. And what do you know? That was actually plenty.

Any of these mushroom powders will add a powerful punch of umami (“pleasant savory taste”) to your food. The cool thing about it is that if you use a lot, you get a rich mushroom flavor; use a little and you get a subtle umami boost without being quite sure what that delicious mystery flavor is. So I’m not kidding when I say you can put it in/on everything.

Let food be thy medicine…

I believe the best way to regard food is not as a troublesome necessity that makes us fat and full of toxins, but as wholesome medicine that nourishes us and gives us pleasure. Obviously some kinds of  food are more nourishing and medicinal than others, though in general I think it’s a good idea to call a truce and make food our friend. But it’s always best when your food packs a real medicinal punch, and mushrooms, it turns out, are very good medicine.

All three species of mushrooms used here have been shown to lower cholesterol, boost the immune system when needed and calm it when it’s going crazy, prevent clogging of arteries, fight cancer by “activating” cancer destroying macrophages (especially breast and colon cancers), are full of bioavailable iron, copper, B vitamins, zinc, protein, fiber, and antioxidants, help your body produce Vitamin D, fight chronic inflammation, help stabilize blood sugar and metabolize fat, and support the adrenals  (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4). Oyster mushrooms are also antibacterial.

NOTE: I keep seeing that oyster mushrooms (or a blend containing them such as this one) should be cooked at temps above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) in order to destroy a protein they contain called ostreolysin, which can be toxic. However, almost every case where I see this warning it is the exact same wording, cut and pasted from an unknown source. My opinion is, better safe than sorry, so I’ll add the powder before cooking; but I’ll need to see more evidence (or at least a proper citation) before I get my knickers in a twist over it, especially in the tiny quantities of oyster mushroom used in this powder.

ALSO NOTE: Most studies on the medicinal actions of these mushrooms were performed using extracts rather than whole mushrooms, and on lab rats rather than humans. The exact doses necessary to get a medicinal effect are not known (to me anyway), but whole food herbs are often effective in very small doses, especially when taken regularly.

Meanwhile, marjoram, sage, and thyme are all members of the mint family, possessing abundant stimulating aromatic oils which aid the digestion. Fennel and pepper are carminatives, and fennel in paricular reduces flatulence and stomach cramps.

So taken all together, this umami medicinal mushroom powder is not only savory but warming, nourishing, and immune boosting.

Next time I’ll give you a suggestion for how to use this mushroom powder (other than “put it on all the things”).

Roots and buds–Balm of Gilead

roots and buds

Every spring I make Balm of Gilead bud salve. Of all the stuff I do with herbs, I think this one has the most meaning for me–it’s a reconstituted family tradition as well as a mainstay of traditional North American plant medicine.

My great-grandmother Carrie and my great-great-aunt Maggie (Carrie’s sister-in-law) were what is sometimes known as “granny women” or “herb doctors” in Appalachia. No one in our family ever used these terms–what these women did was part of daily life, but they had certain specialist skills. In small Appalachian communities a century ago, kin was central to life, and family ties had everything to do with Carrie and Maggie’s skills. Both women came from working-class coal mining families that prized education, intelligence, and a quick wit. After elementary school, education was pretty much a self-directed affair in which libraries–traveling libraries in that part of the country–played a huge role. These were people who, though poor, truly loved learning. Carrie had even considered not marrying at all and becoming a school teacher, though life had other plans for her. (I’ve seen school textbooks such as Carrie would have used and believe me when I say the elementary education included things I never learned in 30 years of school, including at an elite private university. What?! I just realized I spent three decades of my life in school.)

Several members of Carrie’s family were known for having the “second sight” and were consulted as seers. In those days such “wise men” and “wise women” were respected members of the community, provided they used their abilities for good. And it seems everyone was an eccentric and passionate character that deserves to be the protagonist of a novel.

Anyway, first aid and basic medical care was women’s work in a community where the men and boys worked in an incredibly dangerous field and specialized medical care was often many miles distant. My grandmother told me that there are fires still raging underground that started in my great-grandparents’ day. Mines collapsed. Strikers and scabs murdered each other. Men’s veins and lungs grew permanently black with coal dust. And all the while, life went on, with women giving birth and kids and animals getting sick. Life was a near-death experience.

Every spring Carrie and Maggie would get together with a neighbor, a Native American lady called Mrs. Luckadoo, to make Balm of Gilead bud salve. I’m happy to see that this tradition has survived, and has even been picked up by survivalists and preppers, which should be indication enough of the salve’s effectiveness. Unfortunately in my family, as in so many, plant medicines were abandoned in the mid-20th century in favor of modern pharmaceuticals. WWII took many young men out of Appalachia to corners of the world they would never have dreamed of seeing, and afterwards my family jumped at the new educational opportunities that appeared. Today only one aunt and an uncle remain in Appalachia. So Balm of Gilead bud salve was something I had to learn for myself.

“Balm of Gilead” refers to the aromatic resin inside the buds of poplar and cottonwood trees (Populus sp.). The exact species used depended on what was locally available and what was considered “best” according to local tradition. Fortunately there is some species of Populus to be found nearly everywhere in North America south of the arctic, even in cities. The trees put out their buds at the end of winter, and often sufficient can be collected from fallen branches and twigs after the winter storms. The resin is orange and sticky and has a lovely, warm smell that reminds me of vanilla and amber. It is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and contains the same painkilling salicilin from which aspirin was originally made. Back in my great-grandparents’ day, the salve was used for just about everything, from cuts and bruises to arthritis to boils, burns, and chapped lips. In my house we use it for all those things (except the arthritis which we have mercifully so far been spared).*

Buds floating in coconut and olive oils.

Buds floating in coconut and olive oils.

It’s a very simple concoction–buds are added to oil and the resin allowed to infuse into it, either by the heating method or by letting the oil sit for two months to a year. Add beeswax (about 1 part for every 8 parts oil), and if desired some Vitamin E, pour into containers and you’re done. Of course you could add essential oils but I think the smell of Balm of Gilead is perfect and healing all by itself. (Note: I’ve seen some webpages referring to BoG salve as “black salve,” but they are two different things. What makes a black salve black is the addition of carbon, so you could make your BoG salve into a black salve if you want. It’s not the traditional form but the great things about salves and what makes them so fun to play around with is that you can tinker with the ingredients.) Because this is a resin, remember that it will leave a residue that’s very difficult to remove from the vessel used to infuse the oil and especially whatever stirring implement you use.

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Beginning to melt the wax.

I've strained the buds out and added the oil to the wax.

I’ve strained the buds out and added the oil to the wax.

Poured into tins...

Poured into tins…

...and all done!

…and all done!

Even though I had to revive a lost salve-making family tradition, whenever I make Balm of Gilead bud salve I think of the deep Appalachian woods, of Carrie, Maggie, and Mrs. Luckadoo, and feel how deep my roots go.

*As usual I’ll have more than my little family can use so the extra will be available at the Worts & All Etsy shop, in case you don’t feel like making your own.