Shame on you, Etsy

etsy sweatshopsI have been thinking about leaving Etsy as a platform for my business (small though it is) since it went public in April, and now I am considering not shopping there either. That makes me sad, because there are so many awesome things available there, and it’s the best-known platform for handmade goods so as a seller, you have a better chance of having your products seen.

But Etsy ain’t what it used to be.

I first got concerned when I read this piece by April Winchell, the author of Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF. Regretsy is hilarious, but Winchell is dead serious when she writes,

“Etsy’s “handmade-only” rule went down the drain faster than a cold soy latte. For all its chest thumping about conscious consumerism and the handmade ethos, Etsy had to face the fact that it was never going to be a billion dollar company selling potholders and bedazzled tampon cozies. Especially since most of its “sellers” were not, in fact, selling. All they were contributing to Etsy’s coffers were 20¢ listing fees. That’s not going to take you from Williamsburg to Wall Street.

Clearly, Etsy had to add some other kind of merchandise to its marketplace. It couldn’t be handmade, but it had to jibe with the Etsy culture. In another masterstroke, it hit on the idea of allowing  crafting supplies and vintage goods on the site.

It was a smart move. But even with these additional revenue streams, Etsy wasn’t moving fast enough. It was going to have to show some spectacular growth to lure investors to the table.

And that’s when Etsy decided to allow factory-made goods into its vibrant handmade marketplace.”

Do you think actual handmade stuff can compete with stuff made in sweatshops in Southeast Asia and falsely marketed as handmade? Me neither. As Winchell puts it, nowadays “Etsy is Walmart with better fonts.”

I immediately looked into alternatives to Etsy, but to be honest, I got lazy. I had a lot of other stuff on my plate, I hadn’t made any new stuff to sell, and I was admittedly worried about losing potential customers if I went to some more obscure platform. I mean, I’m not making a living off selling a bottle of tincture every three months. I have made zero attempt at marketing at this point, in part because I’m more interested in ultimately becoming a clinical herbalist as opposed to an herbal products creator (not that those two are mutually exclusive). But being squeamish about marketing is one thing; voluntarily ditching your customers is actively shooting yourself in the foot. I’m not proud of that, I’m just being honest. (Too bad Etsy isn’t that scrupulous.)

But I think the time has finally come to make the break. Now comes news that Etsy is no longer allowing the sale of magical spells and metaphysical goods and services marketed as such. I don’t sell spells, nor do I buy them. (I don’t have a problem with them, I just like to DIY everything.) But I have browsed the offerings on Etsy because a lot of them are quite beautiful. There are some real artists out there putting some incredible creativity into making spell kits. Moreover, it seems that a lot of people do buy spells and spell equipment through Etsy, especially since eBay forbade the selling of spells back in 2012. In typical fashion, Etsy is not explaining the motivation behind this decision. But given that Etsy has shown itself more than willing to sell out their customers (the sellers) and investors for a few more bucks, I suspect that there is some financial reason underlying the ban on spells. But whatever the motivation, it’s an act of religious discrimination. Witches, pagans, and yes, even herbalists regularly have to tailor our wording to basically say that what we are offering is for “entertainment purposes” to conform to the prevailing worldview that what we do isn’t “real.” Now even that isn’t enough to protect our right to provide our goods and services. Note that the paraphernalia of dominant religions such as Christianity–your rosaries, crosses, angel statues, and whatnot–can still be sold on Etsy. One can sell a “prayer kit,” but not a “spell kit.” This reminds me of what Peter Grey of Scarlet Imprint publishers said in his essay “Rewilding Witchcraft”–the present toleration of witchcraft is not acceptance, it’s simply disdain:

“The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch. We have mistaken social and economic change for the result of our own advocacy.”

When nobody believes what you do is any more than dress up, you have a fair amount of freedom to do it, but don’t think that means society has progressed to accepting your alternative religion as legitimate. When eBay banned spells, they said it was to “build trust in the marketplace,” implying that every witch with a shop is a con artist. This is the down side to having your religion, your worldview regarded as bullshit by the monoculture–if you make a dime off it, you are automatically legally a fraud. Still, Etsy has been willing to work with favored frauds in the past, even when they were exposed, indeed Etsy itself is being sued for fraud, so one can’t help but wonder what makes magic different?*

Herbalism is another activity that is tolerated because as long as we don’t claim to “cure,” “heal” or “treat” anything, as long as we take extreme pains not to even so much as imply that herbs are medicinal, it are seen as harmless nonsense. If you are an herbalist who happens to have a Ph.D., you cannot even be called by your proper, hard-earned title–“Doctor”–because that might suggest that what you are offering is “real” medicine. Heaven forbid. So I suspect that if Etsy is banning sales of magical or metaphysical goods and services, it’s only a matter of time until they crack down on herbal formulas and extracts. At the very least, I suspect they are going to get so restrictive about what wording is allowed that it will make it nearly impossible to sell herbal products.

If you are bothered by this and the potential it creates to limit our access to any and all non-mainstream goods and services, I urge you to sign this petition. And maybe consider taking your business elsewhere.

*UPDATE: In an article published yesterday in Quartz, an Etsy spokesperson is quoted as saying the rationale behind the ban is to “protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers—such as those seeking a treatment for cancer or infertility, or those with self-esteem issues who are seeking a spell for weight loss or beauty enhancement (think penis or breast enlargement).” Thank you, anonymous Etsy spokesperson, for making my point for me.

Here are some links with information on online handmade marketplaces you can use instead of Etsy: 12 Etsy alternatives, 5 other handcrafted marketplaces, Best Etsy alternatives, and of course, for herbal products, there is PoppySwap, which is entirely dedicated to herbal stuff.

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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.

Are you building a winter medicine chest?

winter medicine chest

If you haven’t already, now is the time to start stockpiling herbal medicines for winter. If you leave it too late, not only will you find you’re unprepared if/when you get sick, but you’ll also find that many purveyors of herbs are sold out of the ones you want (says the voice of bitter experience). I am actually getting around to this a bit too late, but where I live there really isn’t a proper winter so I can be a bit lazier here than when I used to live in Minnesota.

The selection of medicines for your winter medicine cabinet (and pantry!) is near infinite, and I may have a slight obsession with collecting them. In SAT terms, squirrel:nuts::me:herbal cold remedies. There are some essentials I wouldn’t be without during the winter:

  • Ginger (fresh and dried)
  • Elderberries (fresh or dried, whatever you can get)
  • Garlic
  • Licorice root
  • Echinacea

In case you are stumped for ideas, here are some of the recipes and remedies I’ve been making. There are more on my Pinterest board. Many of these are foods–herbs are arguably most effective when they are part of a varied and nutrient-dense diet, so they can help prevent you from getting sick in the first place. Plus, many of them are so yummy, and I love that as foods you can get really creative with them.

Sadly I forgot to take pictures of many of these things. Just imagine they look awesome. Because they totally did.

Blossoming elder in Wiltshire, 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Blossoming elder with the Alton Barnes white horse in the distance, Wiltshire, Summer 2010. (Photo credit: me.)

Elderberry tea

Steep equal parts dried elderberry, orange peel, and lavender for a few minutes in just-boiled water. Add a slice of lemon and a teaspoon of honey. I haven’t tried it yet, because I just thought of it, but this would probably also be good with some mild green tea in the blend.

Elderberry tincture

This is pretty self-explanatory: soak elderberries (crushed up if they’re fresh) in booze (minimum 80 proof) for a month. The “folk” method ratio is 1 part berries to 2 parts alcohol, but especially if you’re using dried berries, I think you could go as high as 4 parts alcohol. Give the mix a shake once a day and store in a dark place. At the end of the month, strain out the elderberries and bottle your tincture as desired.

Alternatively, you could steep the berries in glycerin, but it doesn’t extract the medicinal properties of dried plant material as well as alcohol does, so you’ll want to warm it gently in a double boiler for at least a couple of hours to help. If you’re using fresh berries this isn’t necessary (though you can still do it).

Elderberry syrup

There are a million and one recipes for elderberry syrup online. I was inspired by Rosalee de la Forêt, from whom I learned that black pepper–a spice I love anyway for it’s flavor–makes the nutrients in food more bioavailable. I change my recipe every year, just for the fun of experimenting. This year I modified this recipe from HerbMentor which contains licorice, and also took inspiration from this recipe at the Mountain Rose Blog. Licorice root, like elderberries, has antiviral properties.

I will give you the recipe in my next post.

Spiced elderberry vinegar

When I make elderberry syrup, I take the dried berries (which I’ve strained out of the liquid) and put them in  jar with some vinegar. I don’t know how much medicine is left in the berries after they’ve been used for syrup, but I figure there’s probably still a bit of goodness in there, and I mean to get it all. I add some other spices to the vinegar–my last batch included a few slices of raw onion, garlic, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. I don’t measure them out, just go with my gut according to how much vinegar and berries I have. I let this sit for about a month and then strain it. I use it as a marinade for beef, substitute it for balsamic vinegar in any recipes that call for that, or blend it with olive oil to make a delicious vinaigrette for salads or veggies. And, mixed with a spoonful of honey and a little water, it helps clear stubborn phlegm from the throat.

You can infuse a vinegar with any fruits you used to make a syrup or jam.

Chai

chai spices

I wrote about this previously. I like to think it bears repeating, because chai.

Pickled garlic

Garlic is an immune booster that is safe to consume in large quantities (very large quantities of raw garlic will nauseate), so I pound the stuff back when I start feeling sick. And also the rest of the time. I just really love garlic. I also love traveling to places full of garlic-loving people, like Korea, Spain, Sicily…because no one is bothered by my garlic breath since they all have it too. I use this Korean recipe for pickled garlic called maneul jangajji. It is very simple and only takes about 3 weeks to finish pickling. The garlic comes out mellowed and soy-sauce-infused and makes a delicious savory side dish. I love it with Japanese curry…and pretty much everything else.

Oh and by the way, fret not if your garlic turns blue-green. It’s caused by a chemical reaction of the sulphur compounds in the garlic forming something like chlorophyll, and it’s totally safe (here’s my source).

Garlic soup (sopa de ajo)

Garlic soup, or sopa de ajo, was one of my favorite dishes when I lived in Spain as a teenager. The recipe I linked to calls for chorizo, but when I make it at home I leave that out (mainly because it’s really hard to get proper chorizo here) but I put in a lot more paprika. I don’t measure it, I just do it to taste. The broth should be red (paprika-colored) and pungent. The paprika and garlic also have a warming effect which is lovely on a cold winter day.

Ginger salve

This is a remedy strictly for external use (although technically I guess you could eat it…but I don’t think it would be very rewarding). You can use either fresh or dried ginger for this–dried is hotter. I made mine with both fresh and dried, and even added some ginger essential oil. You can let oil infuse for a month or so, but since I wanted mine right away, I did it by warming the oil and ginger in a double boiler for a couple of hours. Then I strained out the solids and added beeswax, a little Vitamin E (an antioxidant that helps keep oils from going rancid), and essential oils. The golden rule is 1 part beeswax to 8 parts infused oil, though you can of course customize this.

Ginger salve is amazingly relaxing to tired, sore muscles and works wonders on sciatica (in my experience). When I’m sick and am feeling any congestion–such as congested lungs or swollen lymph nodes–I rub some of this salve over the area, externally, and it helps to loosen things up and stimulate circulation. That said, do not get it in contact with any mucus membranes, because ginger is hot.

Ginger tincture

Ginger is so awesome, I like to have as many different forms of it on hand as possible.  Ginger tincture is made the same way as elderberry and again can be made with either fresh or dried ginger, but dried will be hotter. Tinctures are lovely to keep because they last so long and are relatively compact to store.

Ginger syrup

Chop 2 cups of fresh ginger and add that plus 2 cups sugar, honey, maple syrup (or a combination thereof) to a pan. Pour in enough water to cover (approximately 4 cups). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer for an hour. Be careful to keep the fire low enough so as not to burn the sugar, and stir frequently. Strain out the ginger (or not, if you like to eat it) and refrigerate the syrup.

I like to put this in some seltzer water with a squeeze of lime juice to make homemade soda.

As with elderberry syrup, you can add complementary herbs.

Echinacea tincture

E. purpurea

E. purpurea

Echinacea is severely overharvested in the wild, so please don’t wildcraft it, and if you buy it, be sure to buy it cultivated. Incidentally, it’s pretty easy to grow your own in suitable climate zones (Zones 4-9), is beautiful, and loved by bees. You can use Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, or E. pallida, I’m not sure about the other species. With E. angustifolia, the root is usually used, but with E. purpurea it’s the aerial parts. Personally I prefer using aerial parts as this means I can cut-and-come-again and don’t have to destroy the plant to make my medicine. Make the tincture as with the elderberry tincture.

This is a remedy to take during the first 24 hours of an illness, not for prevention and not for the duration, unless you have swollen lymph nodes. Echinacea gets the lymph flowing again. (A complementary medicine for the lymphatic system is calendula.) It is also energetically cooling, so if you have chills it’s good to mix the echinacea with something hot like ginger. You can also take echinacea as a tea.

A tea for cold colds and flus

You know you have a cold cold or flu when you feel chilled and clammy. I once got a flu so cold that it made my teeth chatter and it seemed impossible to get warm. But like an old-timey ague, it would alternate with bouts of fever. Between the shivering and how much my joints ached, I couldn’t sleep at all. So I ran myself a hot bath, put in some dried ginger powder to heat it even more, and made myself a tea of:

  • Echinacea leaf
  • cloves
  • cardamom
  • orange peel
  • dried ginger
  • cinnamon
  • rose hips

I used equal parts of each, except cardamom, of which I used about 1/2 part. After my bath I drank about 6 oz of this tea and before I even finished the cup the fever broke. I started sweating, the pain went away, I fell asleep and slept well all night. It was literally just a matter of minutes. The next day I was about 95% better. I’m not promising this kind of cure, I’m just sharing this anecdote to illustrate the way these warming spices work. Although echinacea and rose hips are somewhat cooling, the other ingredients are energetically hot. It also illustrates how you can take a combination internal-external approach to give your cold the one-two punch.

So, what are your favorite recipes for cold and flu season?

 

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.

Vernal equinox sale on now at Worts & All Etsy shop

spring sale

It feels like summer in my neck of the woods, and elsewhere in North America people are still in the throes of subzero winter. Yet the almanac people tell us it’s the beginning of spring. So in honor of the vernal equinox, take 10% off your purchase from the Worts & All Etsy shop this weekend. Enter coupon code SPRING14. (Valid till Monday 24 March.) There are several new tinctures: milk thistle, dandelion, goldenseal, agrimony, melissa, oatstraw, and burdock.

While we’re on the subject…sort of…  In theory, the equinoxes and solstices are supposed to divide the year into four equal quarters. But have you ever noticed that the solstices are, respectively, mid-winter and mid-summer, but we are told the equinoxes represent the beginning of spring and fall? Did I miss a memo or is that messed up? So does that mean we should think of the solstices as seasonal beginnings, or equinoxes as mid-season events?

New herbal tinctures for September 2013!

I’m really excited about my latest tinctures and the ones that are currently in preparation! (Can you tell by all the exclamation points?!)

I just finished two new ones, agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) and melissa, a.k.a. lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).

agrimony and melissaLet’s talk about stress, baby.

I consider myself a pretty easy-going person, but I live a high-stress life. I know you feel me here, because in this modern world, who doesn’t have a huge amount of stress in their lives? Stress relief is one of the most important aspects of self-care. I have learned the hard way the cost of not taking adequate care of myself. You might feel selfish thinking about your own care, but without it you cannot properly care for others. And it’s not as easy as it sounds, because self-care isn’t obvious–you have to learn how to do it, customize it for your own needs, and then (usually) force yourself to practice it.

Thankfully the botanical world offers us an astounding array of plants which can help reduce the negative impacts of stress. But they work in different ways, on different kinds of stress. If you have tried an herbal remedy for stress in the past, such as chamomile or St. John’s Wort, and found that it didn’t work very well, you probably had the wrong wort for the job. Here I discuss two excellent stress remedies, one fairly well known and one little recognized among the general herb-using public. One of my goals with this blog is to shine a little light on some great herbs that are often overlooked–not for the sake of being different or unusual, but because, let’s face it: conventional wisdom is pretty much an oxymoron. Type “herbal remedies” into Google or Pinterest and you’ll get a slew of the same ol’, same ol’–and inevitably, there will come times when the right remedy for you is not on that very limited list.

Agrimony

Agrimony is one of my desert-island herbs. Since discovering it, I will never, ever be without it. Although it was used back in Graeco-Roman days and continued in use to become one of the major herbs of the traditional German pharmacopeia, whence it made its way into English herbal medicine, it was largely ignored by homeopaths and Americans. Today you will not find it on any of those cute little Pinterest tips. Yet Matthew Wood considers it THE indispensable relaxant.

For my stress, chamomile just doesn’t cut it. It’s still great for stomach aches and hair rinses, but I honestly think the alcohol in my chamomile tincture does more to relieve my stress than the herb does (and no, I am not advocating self-medicating with alcohol!). Similarly, St. John’s Wort just never did much to help with my depression.

Agrimony tincture

Agrimony tincture

It turns out that’s because I’m an agrimony girl. Wood states that chamomile is particularly good for babies’ complaints, and for adults who act like (or feel like) babies. Chamomile-type stress tends to complain, to heave a big sigh, to ask for attention. (That’s cool–no judgments here. We’re all babies sometimes. And asking for help is one of the most important elements of self-care.) Agrimony stress, on the other hand, usually wears a calm and cheerful face. Dr. Bach (of flower essence fame) identified this as well. Here’s how he describes the agrimony person:

“The jovial, cheerful, humorous people who love peace and are distressed by argument or quarrel, to avoid which they will agree to give up much. Though generally they have troubles and are tormented and restless and worried in mind or in body, they hide their cares behind their humour and jesting and are considered very good friends to know. They often take alcohol or drugs in excess, to stimulate themselves and help themselves bear their trials with cheerfulness.”

An agrimony-type person doesn’t just hide their stress from others, but from themselves. Let me ask you this: Are you almost afraid to be without some kind of distraction from your thoughts? Have you tried to tell a friend about your anxiety or depression, only to have them stare at you blankly or even think you’re joking? Is a big chunk of your stress coming from the very knowledge that you are stressed out? Do you feel weak or ashamed if you let your calm demeanor slip–even to yourself? Do you get migraines from tension but try to “play through the pain”? Do you hold your breath when in pain, then blow it out under pressure?

If you answered yes to any of those, there’s a good chance the stress-reliever you need is agrimony. If you answered yes to more than one, you definitely need it.

My own experience with using agrimony tincture and infusions is that it offers immediate calming and grounding. Moreover, I find that within a few hours of taking agrimony, some aspect of my personality or behavior that has not been serving me well comes gently to my awareness. When this happens, I have no feelings of shame or self-blame, I simply notice that the pattern is not working for me and then it’s easy to either let it go or to own it as a part of myself and just stop feeling bad about it. Thus it’s hugely effective for letting go of old baggage. Wood says–although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to verify this–that agrimony produces noticeable change not only in yourself but in your environment, in particular preventing interference from busybodies and micromanagers (and if that wouldn’t relieve stress, what would?).

Another benefit is that it’s great for problems deriving from overly relaxed, “leaky” tissues, including oily skin and diarrhea. It literally and figuratively helps you keep it together.

Melissa (lemon balm)

Melissa is much better known than agrimony. Apparently it has even been profiled on the Dr. Oz show, where it was termed “herbal valium,” which has probably done a lot to popularize it. It is a delightful herb in the mint family, and like many of the mints it’s good for the nerves. Melissa is so nice and mellow, it’s even easy to grow. Seriously–I dare you to not be successful at growing this herb. You can harvest a lot of it, and it attracts bees (melissa is from the Greek word for honeybee) and butterflies to your garden.

Many people drink melissa tea simply because it has a nice sweet-lemony taste, and in the olden days it was hailed as a general tonic that would heal practically anything that ailed you. Mrs. Grieve says:

“John Hussey, of Sydenham, who lived to the age of 116, breakfasted for fifty years on Balm tea sweetened with honey, and herb teas were the usual breakfasts of Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan, who died in his 108th year.”

I can’t promise it’ll make you live more than a century, but one of the excellent things about melissa is that, in addition to being a sedative for overworked nerves, it is cooling for overheated types. It literally helps you keep your cool. This includes cases of fever as well as people who just generally run hot, such as those who would be classified as pitta dosha in Ayurvedic medicine. It is mood-lifting, relaxing, stomach-settling, migraine-relieving, and anti-histamine. Melissa improves the functioning of the nervous system generally, so it makes your brain work better.

I find that melissa is particularly good for stopping the obsessive rumination that keeps one from falling asleep. I also use it for any situation that gives me butterflies in my stomach.

The mel– root of melissa means honey, which seems especially appropriate when you see its color in the sun:

Melissa

Melissa tincture

Why I use pisco in my tinctures

The thing that–if I do say so myself–makes my tinctures awesome is that I use pisco as the menstruum (the solvent in which the herbs are extracted).

What is pisco? It’s a Peruvian brandy made from grapes. The variety I use is 82 proof (41% alcohol), more than sufficient for extracting herbs and preserving their properties, but it tastes good. I mean really good. I first had it in Peru in 1998, and back then it was virtually nonexistent in the U.S., but it got trendy for a while and happily nowadays it’s a bit more widely available.

Ok, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, I know. I have a sensitive, alcohol-intolerant liver (cheap drunk) and I’m a super-taster. That fun combination means that getting poisoned drunk is no fun for me and most alcohol tastes like poison really bad. In particular, the grain alcohol and cheap vodka that are used to make many tinctures are quite disgusting. Brandy is not so bad, as long as it’s sufficiently pricey (not so cheap drunk?), but look, the point is the alcohol used for tincturing isn’t usually very nice. It’s there for its solvent and preservative properties, not for fun.

Even if you’re not as persnickety about alcoholic beverages as I am, I think you’ll agree that pisco makes a nice menstruum for herbal tinctures, because it has a sweet, fruity, floral taste that blends beautifully with plant flavors, and little aftertaste.

I mean, just because you’re taking a tincture for medicinal reasons doesn’t mean it can’t taste good, right?

Coming soon

I have a bunch more tinctures macerating as we speak, including but not limited to dandelion, goldenseal, St. John’s Wort, lamb’s ears, and oatstraw. I am so excited to try these remedies, some of which I have never made before. In the meantime I’m enjoying the beautiful jewel tones the herbs are imparting to the liquid.

Dandelion & arnica salve–what’s that all about?

dandelion label

Not long ago I made a dandelion and arnica salve which I’ve been very happy with. I had extra that I will not likely be able to use myself, so I am offering a few tins over at the Worts & All etsy shop. Etsy’s rules won’t allow sellers to discuss the medicinal virtues of herbs, so this seemed like a good place to do so.

Also it seemed like a good place to sing the praises of dandelion and arnica generally.

Why dandelion & arnica?

I’ve discussed dandelion before as a liver and gallbladder support, but I wanted to experiment with using dandelion topically. I had long heard that dandelion had pain relieving properties and that dandelion-infused oil was great for massages. When spring rolled around I had lots of dandelions available (not as many as I’d like though), and decided to try it out for myself; but I thought an oil could get sort of messy, especially if I were trying to apply it to myself, since I’m exceptionally clumsy even when my hands aren’t all slippery.

Actually I love salves, because they are easy to make, easy to store, easy to apply, and last a long time.

Arnica and dandelion. They aren't just joyful-looking, they're strong.

Arnica and dandelion. They aren’t just joyful-looking, they’re strong.

As I worked with the dandelions–harvesting them, cleaning them, adding them to the oil, meditating on their growth habits, and admiring the gorgeous yellow color as it developed–I came to understand the way they work on a spiritual/emotional level. Just looking at them is delightful. At this point it occurred to me that arnica would be a natural partner for dandelion. I had already used arnica for a long time for bumps, bruises, and strains–it reduces the pain and speeds healing–and I figured that adding it would make the salve more multi-purpose. Finally, both plants are members of the Asteraceae (daisy, sunflower) family, which gave me further reason to believe this would be the case. By the way, I’m not alleging I’m the first person to come up with this idea; just that I came up with it independently based on what the dandelions themselves taught me. I will focus more on dandelion since it is the dominant ingredient in the salve, with arnica providing a supporting harmony.

How the salve works

As I use this salve, I continue to learn more about these plants. First, I found that when I use it on sore, tense muscles, the pain relief is immediate. In and of itself, the pain relief doesn’t last long–however, what dandelion does is to help the muscles relax and release their knots. And that, of course, relieves the pain. Although dandelion is considered a “temperate” herb, meaning it is neither warming nor cooling, I find that the salve has the same effect as the application of heat in unwinding tight muscles. It has been particularly nice during this hot summer not to have to apply heat.

Look at that gorgeous golden color!

Look at that gorgeous golden color!

Second, I found that the relaxation of physical tension extended to mental and emotional tension. So I often end up using the salve before bed, when any mental tension I’m experiencing would otherwise tend to get loud and persistent.

Third, since minor traumas of the sort that cause bruises and strains also can cause us to tense up, either in direct response to pain or in compensation for favoring the painful spot, dandelion’s relaxing effect complements arnica’s bruise-healing abilities.

Do you need dandelion and arnica?

There are lots of products for sore muscles, e.g., camphor, menthol, peppermint, cayenne, etc. How do you know which is right for you? One consideration is odor, of course–camphor, menthol, and peppermint are very strongly scented, which may or may not appeal to you. These scents can be aromatherapeutic in certain cases but at other times you may not want to overwhelm everyone else in the elevator.

But as is so often the case, psychological traits often clinch the diagnosis. The person who would benefit from dandelion (or a “dandelion person” for short) is someone who is likely to have a lot of mental, emotional, and physical tension which often results from scattered energies (too many irons in the fire), overwork, and/or ego expression problems resulting in anger and resentment (which, remember, are associated with the liver and gallbladder).

If tension is accompanied by strained muscles, the dandelion-arnica partnership is definitely going to be useful for you.

Dandelion for the breasts

When you break the stem, dandelion oozes a milky-looking white sap. Plants with white sap are often galactagogues (they stimulate lactation) and are felt to have an affinity with the breasts even for non-lactating women. Susun Weed recommends dandelion infused oil for breast massage, and Lucinda Warner at Whispering Earth says that “the greens were used in the past as a poultice for swollen breasts and breast cancers.” Dandelion-arnica salve can therefore also be used to soothe sore breasts.

What’s your story?

I have had great results with my dandelion and arnica salve, but dandelions are widely available and as I mentioned, salves and infused oil are easy for anyone to make. I’d love to hear your experiences with dandelion and/or arnica as topical remedies! Have you ever tried the two herbs together?

Pet-safe tummy soother

The Tummy Soother is made from vegetable glycerine infused with slippery elm, ginger, and anise–all ingredients which are safe for cats, dogs, and people.

Who's got no thumbs and eats anything that will fit in his mouth? This guy!

Who’s got no thumbs and eats anything that will fit in his mouth? This guy!

My darling dog Shermie gets frequent upset stomach, and I have cast around for all kinds of things to treat it. I’ve spent beaucoup bucks at the vet. We (the vet and I) discovered that at some point before I adopted Shermie from a rescue, he had surgery on his belly–probably because of something he ate. This dog doesn’t just chew his toys, he rips them apart and devours the pieces. Of course over time I purged the house of everything he could fit in his mouth, but he still gets a sore tummy.

I wanted a remedy that would work for stomach irritation (in case he swallowed something he shouldn’t have), diarrhea, gas, and nausea. I have a part-time cat too (well, he’s a cat full-time, but he’s only mine part-time), and although his stomach seems fine, I wanted something that would be safe to use with him if necessary. Cats have notoriously finicky systems, but I finally found a combination of herbs that are safe and effective.

Anise eases gas pains and also calms intestinal spasms that can result in diarrhea. It also helps rev up sluggish digestion and since the oil is said by Mrs. Grieve to be antiseptic, I suspect it would be of some help in cases of food poisoning.

Ginger helps prevent and relieve nausea and vomiting. It is also antiseptic and has definitely been used traditionally to treat food poisoning. It stimulates the GI tract. Ginger is heating, and dried ginger more so than fresh. I used dried ginger in making this glycerite, so if one has excessive heat in the GI tract they wouldn’t want to use this in large doses. But for treatment of short-term, acute tummy ache/nausea it’s grand.

The inner bark of the slippery elm is, as its name indicates, mucilaginous. It soothes irritated and inflamed tissues and coats them so they can begin to heal. It is also nourishing and nutritive.

Shermie and I have both tried this remedy out, in a half-dropperful dose, and we found it very effective. It’s sweet and syrupy, quite pleasant tasting unless you are one of those people that really hates anise. The ginger gives it a hot quality that you can feel in your throat and belly for a little while.

I ended up with more than Shermie and I need, which is for sale in the Worts & All shop (www.etsy.com/shop/WortsnAll).

Worts& All Tummy Soother glycerite

Worts & All Tummy Soother glycerite