December 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
Taste—bitter, aromatic, astringent, acrid, diffusive. Yarrow tastes very different depending on where it’s growing. This last spring I made two tinctures, one of yarrow grown in the city and one of yarrow I found growing in the high desert. They are vastly different! The city yarrow is much milder and more aromatic, while the desert yarrow is extremely strong in its bitter components.
Parts Used—whole flowering plant
Constituents—tannins, flavanoids, bitters, sterols, phenolic acid, coumarins, volatile oils
Tissue State—excitation, relaxation, depression. Culpeper classified this plant under Venus. He said it was “drying and binding” which bodes well for its reputation as a hemostatic.
Actions—diaphoretic, aromatic bitter, diuretic, tonic, hemostatic, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, emmenagogue
System Affinities—blood, stomach, reproductive system, skin, urinary tract
Description—Yarrow was first given to Achilles by his master Chiron and each leaf is said to offer one thousand subdivisions equal to one thousand uses, hence the name Achillea (from Achilles) millefolium(thousand-leaved). Perhaps yarrow’s best-known uses come from its affects on the blood and capillaries. Its flavanoid content soothes and tones the capillaries, allowing blood to flow efficiently. Yarrow regulates the flow of blood to and from the surface of the skin as a diaphoretic, assisting thermoregulation and productive fevers. This also explains yarrow’s reputation as a woudwort, either bringing blood to wounded areas to stimulate healing or carrying it away to prevent excessive inflammation. In The Earthwise Herbal Matthew Wood describes yarrow as “both cooling and warming, fluid generating and controlling. Remedies with contradictory but complementary properties are often of great utility since they are able to normalize opposing conditions. This is true for yarrow.” In terms of pelvic congestion, yarrow’s astringent properties improve uterine tone and can assist in cases of prolapse and amenorrhoea, menorrhagia, and vaginal leucorrhoea due to atonic conditions. As an aromatic bitter, yarrow is great for gas and bloating in the digestive tract as well as premenstrual bloating.
Specific Indications (via Matthew Wood and Deborah Frances)—This plant works well for robust people with ruddy complexions who are easily hurt. Deborah describes this type as”the wounded warrior” or “the wounded healer” and says yarrow is protective of women who are easily affected by the feelings of others. In general, yarrow is a protector and can help us set better boundaries and regulate what we let in energetically and what we allow out. It is well indicated physically in cases of hemorrhage with bright red bleeding. A yarrow tongue looks like it has a feather down the center, much like the leaf, exposing deep red or purple through the crack. It is often elongated and pointed. One of my favorite specific indications from Matthew is a sense of clumsiness prior to bleeding.
Preparation and Dose—The dried plant or infused oil is used topically to staunch bleeding. Internally, yarrow acts differently depending on whether it is ingested hot or cold. A hot infusion acts more as a diaphoretic, while cold infusions act more as a digestive bitter or tonic for reproductive tract. I prefer harvesting yarrow early in the season while the flower centers are still yellow rather than brown. I have read that yarrow harvested from sandy soil at higher elevations is best, and based on my experiment I’d say that these conditions certainly impart different results from yarrow growing in milder conditions. The tincture can be taken in doses of 3-60 drops (lower dose or flower essence for more of the energetic properties, higher doses can be taken for a physical response.) I’m sure someone would classify this herb as contraindicated in pregnancy…
This information is drawn largely from personal experience and the teachings and writings of Matthew Wood, Deborah Frances, Paul Bergner, Scott Kloos, and Johns Milton Scudder.
December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
It’s nice in these chilly, rainy days to take time to just not do. In the spring, I always feel like my life is bursting with potential almost to the point of chaos, and summer seems to be a time of going, moving, doing. Fall is a time for winding down, but always feels a bit strained because the little creature inside me is scrambling, harvesting roots and nuts, and making all of those last-minute preparations for hibernation. Winter is uniquely wonderful in that there’s nothing to prepare for; it’s simply a time to reflect, to look inward, and to be still.
Well, for the most part. In the stillness, there are still things to be done like personal work, study, and meditation. There are also plant friends who’s prime season for harvest is in these dormant times, especially certain weaving materials.
In many areas where they get a frost earlier than we do here in the Willamette Valley, as well as places where it snows more, some materials are dormant as early as November. Some sources I’ve read say you can harvest wild willow for weaving that early, though here we need to wait until January or February. Some other weavers to harvest at a similar time are birch and red osier dogwood.
About the same time of year we usually have a brief false-sprig in the valley, just a week or two of warmth and less rain, which is exactly what the little cottonwood buds need to develop. They are always my first medicine harvest of the new year, and the smell of them brings warmth and joy to my heart and a promise of growth to come after a long, sleepy winter.
Though the leaves have fallen and the coldest days are yet to come, there is plenty to look forward to and plenty of rainy days to stay in and weave and drink tea. What a wonderful season!
November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
“You are in a snug, dark place laying on your back. There is water all around you and it’s cool, refreshing, still. You can feel the earth beneath your back, a mother holding you in soft, embracing arms. Your body is one large root, your limbs are rootlets reaching out and down. Starting at your tailbone, your hips and back, your shoulder blades and the base of your skull, small rootlets sprout out and reach down into the soft mud. You can feel the mud and it’s your food and shelter. You can feel the earth supporting you and nurturing you as if you were lying in a cradle. All the tension leaves your muscles and travels down those rootlets to disperse in the soil, and, as if inhaling, nourishment returns, traveling up the rootlets and feeding your body with warmth and stability.
“All around you there is still water. It’s the perfect temperature. Looking up, you can see light playing off the gentle ripples on the surface of the water above. Every once in a while, something breaks the stillness of that surface, some leaf or twig or dust brought along with the breeze. As the surface is broken, the water welcome the foreign objects in. It clings to them, drawing them ever so slowly down to the bottom. As you watch them float downward, you have plenty of time to observe them, these new objects and experiences, and know that once they reach the bottom, the nurturing force of water and earth will combine, and they will gradually be decomposed, broken down, transformed, and they will join the rest of the muddy black soil that nourishes you. The water and earth protect you and provide for you.”
November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
I went to a spot I’ve never explored before and was surprised at the diversity of plants and how they differed from the valley, having only driven about an hour and a half. The spot was called Rowena Plateau and I stumbled upon it on a Portland hiker’s forum. It was beautiful! The sun was out, the wind was fierce, and the view of the gorge was impeccable. Coming out of sparse pine trees onto a high grassland, there were various types of desert parsley and other carrot family members scattered among the dead and dying balsam root. A short hike in and the grassland gave way to several ponds lush with beautiful cattails and a variety of rush and, SURPRISE! Pond Lily! A plant I have been meditating with weekly but had never met in the wild.
After sloshing around in the mud with Pond Lily for a bit, we hiked out into the grass near the edge of a cliff plummeting into the gorge. It was a beautiful sight and there were plenty of little Balsam Root plants about, so we dug in!
I’m always shocked by the soil that Balsam Root prefers. I’ve seen it growing on a cliff that looked to be pure rock, and those roots are not small. How they twist and wind in the rockiest ground is amazing to me. I feel like that is a good signature for the effect they have on out lungs, working deep into the toughest tissue.
Michael Moore described Balsam Root as a combination of Echinacea and Osha in that it stimulates immune function as well as respiration. The fresh root is sticky with resin, which delves deep into the lungs, breaking up mucus and aiding expectoration. Moore says, “It is indicated in any acute condition with heat, malaise, and a general sense of impending grunge, and the tea or syrup is a major herb for coughs, both acute and chronic.”
To make Balsam Root honey, first dry the shredded root out a bit, the immerse it in honey so that the roots have plenty of room to absorb as much as possible. Let it all soak for a few weeks then press it out. You can do part honey, part brandy to make a cordial (yum) or just alcohol for a tincture. This plant combines well with Red Cedar leaf tincture as an antibacterial for winter respiratory infections, especially when the body needs warmth and stimulation.
The seeds of Balsam Root were a staple food for folks in the Great Basin, and the young stalks are a bit salty and delicious eaten fresh and, though I haven’t tried it, apparently they are good steamed as well…
I am the jewel of the mountain
I am the jewel of the field
I am the joy of your heart
Water from the depths
Stretching toward the sun
I am the jewel of the mountain
I am the joy of your heart
October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
I love this season. The leaves are changing, it’s getting crisp outside, the rains are on their way, the plants are dying back and it’s almost time to hibernate. It’s root season! Here’s a brief overview of roots you can dig in the Willamette Valley for medicine* (also a few from the Gorge and east side of Mt Hood):
Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata)
This plant is a lovely combination of beautiful yellow sunshine and bitter, earthy resins. On the surface, it’s a bright cluster of yellow flowers and broad, arrow-like leaves (hence the latin name), but as soon as you start to dig the root, you’ll see that there’s much more to this plant. It often grows at higher altitudes and in rocky soil, difficult on the shovel, and the long, resinous root grows deep deep deep. It’s quite a process, but fully worth it. The stalks on the plant are edible and delicious, and the root medicine is best known as an expectorant. The spring and fall root can be tinctured or steeped in honey, a method of preparation I hope to try this year.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
I was gifted a tincture of this plant for the first time this year and am really excited to try it and report back. I was introduced to this plant as a child by my best friends’ mom who told me that the little people love it. I am curious to learn more about plants that are “pain killers” because I have been told over and over again not to treat the symptoms, and pain is a symptom, yet we definitely have a set of herbs that are used to help with pain. So what’s their proper function? I’ll report back once I figure it out. According to Michael Moore’s online materia medica, bleeding heart can be indicated as an analgesic when there is sharp, acute pain that’s difficult to bear. The root is used, but be sure of your identification. The leaves look fairly similar to those of Herb Robert, which I’ve see growing alongside it, and Herb Robert root won’t do the trick.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
This plant is widely known and widely used as a food and medicine. Jim MacDonald uses the root often and describes it as a truly nourishing, often slow-acting tonic. He has an article about it on his most excellent website here. It is a bitter, acting on the gastro-intestinal tract, a blood-purifier acting on the liver, and aromatic, it is normalizing to the sebaceous glands, improves overall metabolic function, and aids the kidneys and lymphatics by allowing them to not be overburdened in the act waste removal. Like nettle, burdock can probably be considered a food plant. It assists a wide range of physiological processes, far too many to even touch here, but is ultimately gentle and nourishing, a perfect bitter, sweet, oily root to keep you warm in the winter. I like roasting it with my potatoes.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The lowly dandelion, like burdock, is fairly well known and has many many uses. It is a gentle diuretic, a bitter promoting bile flow, a mild laxative, and a tonic full of wonderful minerals. Everyone says it’s a good coffee substitute, which I don’t really agree with because it doesn’t taste like coffee, but if you drink the roasted root for it’s own sake with a little bit of cream it’s delicious. You should probably harvest in the fall, though the flowers are constantly blooming and going to seed during the warmer months, so earlier may be fine. Just be careful where you harvest, as this plant thrives in questionable soil.
Devil’s Club (Opplopanax horridum)
This was traditionally warrior’s medicine. Deborah Frances, a Portland naturopath and Lakota herbalist gives a case history of it’s use in anxiety and panic attacks. It is definitely enboldening as a plant ally, providing strength in the face of trials. Medicinally, it is known as the northwest version of ginseng, though this is only partially accurate. It is in the ginseng family and is (arguably) an adaptogen as well as slightly bitter aromatic. It has also been used to treat diabetes. In order to harvest this plant mindfully, avoid digging the actual roots, but rather harvest the rhizomes that grow between plants, leaving the roots connecting to the ground intact.
False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacena recemosa)
This wonderful member of the lily family is related to the eastern True Solomon’s Seal. My teachers Scott Kloos and Matthew Wood have taken to calling it Dragon Root, which is nice because if I was a plant I wouldn’t like to be called “false”. This plant has been used as a cough remedy, but I use it mainly for musculoskeletal issues and joint problems, as it seems to work on the interstitial fluids and lubricate dry and atrophic conditions.
Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycerrhiza)
This little plant is tasty and nice to chew while harvesting other things. I have used it as tea but have no experience with it medicinally, though various ethnobotanical texts allude to it’s use by several groups on the west coast for coughs and colds as well as cases of worms, as a laxative, and as an appetite stimulant . I’d really like to learn more about it.
Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa/Berberis nervosa)
Our state flower! Oregon grape is a powerful bitter and antibacterial. Eugene herbalist Howie Brownstein of the Columbine’s School of Botanical Studies has worked with this herb extensively. He recommends it for everything from abscessed teeth, otitis media, staph, strep, and (it seems) pretty much any upper respiratory or skin ailment of bacterial origin. It is a delicious bitter, great to take with meals, and absolutely abundant in this region. The part used is the root bark harvested in the fall.
Red Root (Ceanothus velutinus)
There are many different species on Ceanothus, all apparently medicinal. The variety I’ve worked with is Ceanothus velutinus, which I like because you don’t have to actually dig the root to get the medicine. By breaking a branch off at it’s base, you can scrape the bark off and achieve the beautiful red-colored tincture that root preparations yield. So, I guess this isn’t actually a root and I’m cheating, but that’s okay. It is extremely astringent and specific for the lymphatic system and spleen. Matthew Wood in The Book of Herbal Wisdom talks about its uses as a spleen remedy in a metaphorical sense for folks caught in a funk or trapped in their own cycles of negative thought.
Valerian (Valeriana sitchensis)
Lovely, stinky valerian. This plant is is so graceful and delicate in the springtime with its delicate white flowers. It’s a really popular sedative at the moment, but I tend to think it’s a bit overdone. Not that it wont help some folks sleep, but there are different types of insomnia and some of them are aggravated by valerian. Michael Moore has a great description of it’s different potential affects in his book Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Based on how I felt as I harvested the fresh root, it’s extremely calming and grounding. Personally, I can take the fresh root tincture in smaller doses for anxiety, nervous tension, and sometimes cramping and muscle spasms, but larger doses are aggravating. Honestly, this plant doesn’t really help me sleep, but that’s just me.
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)
So delicious and beautiful! That’s all I really know about it.
Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar polysepalum)
Portland naturopath Deborah Francis introduced me to this plant at a class I took with her about pelvic congestion. I am just getting to know it and am attending a meditation group where we will be working with it for about 6 weeks, so hopefully I will have more to say about it soon. There’s a good monograph on the plant available online in Paul Bergner’s Medical Herbalism Journal. Needless to say, it works on the waters of the body, especially the pelvic bowl. It’s interesting in its action because it’s cooling and both astringent and mucilaginous.
Other medicinal roots in the Oregon area include yellow dock, western peony, sweet root, baneberry, california spikenard, california bayberry, and spreading dogbane.
In terms of edible roots, folks in this region ate species of Lomatium called “Biscuit Root” (Lomatium cous) as well as Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) and Camas (Camassia quamash), among others.
*I chose not to include members of the carrot family, though I adore them. Osha/kishwoof was one of the first plants I ever met and has a special place with me. This region has a lot of wonderful carrot family members, from Queen Anne’s Lace to Poison Hemlock, but I’m still learning to use and identify this wonderful and potentially dangerous group of plants, so I’m saving them for another time. Here are some common names of local carrot family members for further research: Lomatium, Ligusticum, Queen Anne’s Lace, Angelica, Osha, Cow Parsnip, and Bare-stem Desert Parsley.
October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
The rain let up just enough on Monday for a trip up to Mt Hood. Visiting a spot that we discovered last fall, my friends and I were delighted to find the devil’s club berrying and the shrimp mushrooms popping up all over the place. We harvested the biggest root portion I’ve seen, taller than I am, still managing to leave the big grandpa devil’s club plant in tact and firm in the soil.
I was also pleased to find that it was a great spot for cedar root. For the first time, the trees were sparse enough for a few of the roots to go straight and shallow for many feet away from the tree. There were even a few where the root-harvesting left the undergrowth largely undisturbed.I’m pretty sure I accidentally harvested a few hemlock roots in the process, but they seem to be working as well as the cedar, so we’ll see how it all turns out.
I’m looking forward to making some devil’s club oil from the roots we gathered. I’ve been learning a lot about its power in supporting survivors of sexual trauma and in other cases of pelvic congestion. Perhaps some lower back and pelvic work with the help of devil’s club oil could be beneficial…
October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
My palms and fingers are currently a bright shade of magenta. I’ve been waiting for the last month, eyeing immature poke plants in anticipation, and decided that this weekend is finally the time to harvest.
Poke is a beautiful plant that apparently grows all over in the southeast, and is fairly prolific in the Portland area. Some texts tell me that it’s poisonous, some that it’s just a low-dose medicine, but folks in the south boil the leaves and eat them in salad, so it seems to be a matter of perspective and preparation.
I have used the root as an extremely stimulating lymphatic. My lymphatic system has run pretty slow and damp since I had mono back in highschool; ever since then I’ve had strep almost yearly and been prone to viral infections settling into the glands around my throat. The medicines that have really helped me warm things up and get them flowing, especially as the seasons change and my body is trying to adapt, include calendula, cleavers, red root, and poke root. While I’m on it, plants specifically beneficial when facing streptococcus bacteria include thyme, myrrh, and usnea, especially if they can come into direct contact with the affected area. This would mean gargling and slowly sipping tea or tincture when dealing with strep in the throat very frequently.
Aaaaaanyway, poke root is low dose. Matthew Wood recommends using about a dropperfull of poke root for every ounce of formula. But be careful! It’s really really stimulating and can be emetic in material doses. It’s also best to tincture the root fresh because it gets harsher as it dries.
So the root is really great and I’ve been using it a lot already this year as I feel the cold creeping in, but today I harvested the berries. There’s a really sweet documentary called Tommie Bass: A Life in the Ridge and Valley Country (you can watch it at folkstreams.net) with a great clip of Tommie talking about poke berries as a cleansing medicine. He says you only eat a few at a time. I don’t think they taste very good fresh, but they are really good dried. Almost too good, considering you shouldn’t eat too many.
Some other indications for poke medicinally: cold, rheumatic pain due to build up in the joints and tissues, septic conditions, lymphatic stagnation (this is first and foremost a glandular remedy), lumps in the breast associated with the lymph nodes, hormonal changes, purple features (purple on the tongue, rashes and eczema, etc), and a mental state of apathy, indifference, and disregard for surroundings.
Aside from being wonderful medicines, poke berries are a great dye plant, and that’s why I’ve been so excited to harvest them this season. Right now I have a batch of weavers in a dyebath of poke and they are a beautiful magenta. The great thing about poke is that all you need for a mordant is vinegar. Pre-soak your material in warm vinegar and water (1/4c vinegar for every 4oz water) for about an hour. Heat fresh, mashed poke berries (20:1 in weight to the material being dyed) in enough water to cover them as well as your material, plus 1/2c vinegar per gallon. You’ve got to keep it on low heat for about an hour (some folks strain out the berries at this point, but I’m not very picky), then you can add your premordanted material and keep it on low heat for another two hours or overnight. Strain, rinse, dry. Regardless of the vinegar, your material will come out a really beautiful redish-pink, but the vinegar helps keep it light-fast. Ta-da!