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The Dance of Plants and the Rhythms of Life

Every Tuesday, when my work day is finished, I head to our local town hall where a group of people gather to dance.  With an eclectic play list of music, we dance barefoot, free form, following our own rhythms and allowing our bodies to move however they feel.  We dance like no one is watching and it is immensely freeing.  It feels like one of the healthiest things I do for myself on a regular basis, and I’m continually grateful for the opportunity, week after week.  Recently, on one of these Tuesdays, as my body was letting itself go into movement, my mind reflected on the idea of movement and rhythm and the role it plays in our lives.  There is an ebb and flow, an inward and outward, expansive and contractive movement that creates and maintains life. Rhythm, I understood, is a basic underlying element of life.   Rhythm is life force.

We find this ebb and flow in the microcosms and macrocosms of everything we know.  From the rhythm of our breath, our heartbeat, the flapping of wings in flight, the ocean tides, the waxing and waning of the moon to the expansive wave and contracted particle formations of energy frequencies, the inward/outward flow prevails.

We see it also in the growth patterns of plants.  The contracted seed, closed to protect itself and store its nourishment eventually softens and expands, becoming a cotyledon.  As the cotyledon develops, consuming the seed’s stored nourishment, it soon gathers energy back inward, concentrating in the stem where it forms leaf axils.  Once there is enough “fuel” in the leaf axils, new leaves expand outwards from the stem.  Then the plant contracts to nourish the growth of future leaves.  As new leaves and stems keep growing, the plant prepares itself for flowering.  Eventually flower buds will emerge in tight contracted bundles.  Then later they’ll expand outward into flowers.  The pollinated flowers then eventually contract again, forming denser seeds.  These later fly off or fall off the plant in a final outward expression.  The fallen seeds remain in their contracted seed state until conditions allow expanion outwards again into new cotyledons.  

And so we see how the inward/outward rhythms guide and carry life along its course.

Our bodies and minds move through these same rhythms, along with the seasons of the earth.  Now we are in spring, and we emerge from the contracted, inward focused days of winter.  We leave our dwellings, spending more time outdoors rather than staying in, safe from the weather. 

Seedlings and leaves begin to sprout, exposing themselves to the elements and using whatever stores of energy they have to withstand the forces of nature and to grow stronger.  There is a sense of motivation here, and of expending of energy towards the goal of new life.  

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) flowers and buds. This plant gently but effectively helps to restore a run-down, over-extended system, encouraging a healthy balance between rest and work.

 

As our systems adjust to the various inward and outward rhythms of life, we can sometimes rely on the support of plant medicines and foods to help us find balance. 

When we remain too long in an inward, contracted state, our systems become more sluggish and we tend get a buildup of un-metabolized food and other substances in the body.  This buildup can lead to toxicity, weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, hormone imbalances and a whole host of other ailments.  You can read more ideas on this state of buildup in my former post Clearing the Pipes. 

Too much time spent in an outward, expansive state can use up our energy stores, depleting us of nutrients and leading to an overburdened nervous system, adrenal fatigue, high or low blood pressure and an eventual run-down condition.

Milky oat seeds (Avena sativa)

To nourish the inward, contracted rhythm, we could consider the use of seeds and roots–both being denser in nature, and serving the purpose of storing food for growth.  Oat seeds come to mind here.  Green (not fully developed) oat seeds, known as “milky oat seeds” act as a food for the nervous system, helping to restore the effects of over-stimulation which can come from too much exposure to the outside world and not enough “down time”.  Mature oat seeds (what we know of as oat groats or oatmeal) serve this purpose as well, when used as a daily food.  Green nettle  (Urtica dioica) seeds also fit this role, helping to nourish the kidneys and adrenal glands in cases of adrenal fatigue.  Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds help to calm spasms and cramping in the digestive tract, relaxing the gut and helping to restore the body’s proper reception of nourishment from food.  Roots can be appropriate cool weather herbs or foods that provide deep nourishment.  Burdock root (Artcium lappa), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) and jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosis) are mineral rich herbs that serve this purpose.  In the fall, these root develop the starch, inulin–a bitter substance that when consumed, contributes to efficient and effective digestion balancing proper nutrient absorption with detoxification.

Bee Balm (Monarda spp) flowers and leaves help to warm and stimulate a sluggish body into a renewed, energized state.

Herbs that nourish the expansive rhythm are often flowers and leaves.  They can work well to quickly fight infections, reduce inflammations and stimulate various organs into proper functioning.  Some good examples of early spring herbs that fit this rhythm are nettle leaf, dandelion leaf and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).  These greens help to stimulate the liver, allowing any stored or stagnant material remaining from the slower winter months to be sloughed off and released from the system.  By doing this, they give the body more energy and motivation, and often a more positive outlook.  Ideas we may have had over the winter can now manifest into reality, as we “come out of our shells”.  I’ve written more about the qualities of dandelion leaf as an aid towards motivation and mobilization in my post Dandelion, Clarity & Direction.

The more we look into these patterns of rhythm the more we find them on every level of existence.  The wisdom found in this perception helps us gain insight into our own state of health at any given moment.   

An inspiring way to tune into this wisdom each day is by watching the plants in their continual dance as they grow through the changing rhythms of life.

Clearing the Pipes: Wellness in the Vessels of the Body

CLEARING THE PIPES: Wellness in the vessels of the body

CLEARING THE PIPES

Wellness in the Vessels of the Body

My home and clinic are situated in an old farm house.  

Here, we are often dealing with pipe maintenance.  From the wood stove pipe to the plumbing to the furnace ducts, I find myself concerned with keeping pipes clear continually throughout the seasons.  With this focus, along with my practice as an herbalist, I've come to find ongoing correlations between the maintenance of house pipes and the "pipes" in the body.

  The word "pipes" I use here does not refer to pumped up biceps of course, but rather to the body's various passageways that transport nutrients and carry out wastes, meeting many of our essential needs.  Vessels such as the wind pipe and bronchial tubes, arteries and veins, intestines and bladder all function as pipes within the body.

Like all pipes, they can get clogged with debris, affecting the movement of material through them, and potentially causing a wide range of problems (and sometimes crises!) from blocked or narrowed passageways.  

Depending on the location and severity of a blockage, it could mean high blood pressure, angina, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, leaky gut, asthma, or bladder infection, among a vast many other health issues.  

For this reason, regular maintenance of our own "pipes" is crucial to our health.

With this simple analogy, we can look at some of the common pipe troubles affecting the human body, and explore a few approaches to maintaining and repairing these issues.  Here I offer a few suggestions in this regard, using easily accessible foods and some wild herbs that are found locally here in Southeastern Ontario.

Organic Brooms for Our Internal Pipes

Chimneys are generally swept annually.  If this is neglected, built up creosote can reduce the efficiency of a wood stove or furnace, and potentially cause a chimney fire.  We can find creosote's equivalent in deposits of mucus on the membranes of our own various "pipes". Sticky mucus attracts debris which we've either inhaled, or it comes from food not fully digested.  This build-up irritates the linings (mucus membranes) of our respiratory, digestive and circulatory vessels.  This leads to inflammation in the vessels, and further increases blockage through the narrowed passageways.  

This is why regular sweeping is a most useful task!  Luckily, we happen to have a number of foods and herbs that can act as brooms in the vessels of the body.  

Fibrous foods like fruits and vegetables are excellent "brooms" which regularly help to "scrape up" and carry wastes out through the intestines.  Flax seeds, freshly ground or soaked in water overnight act similarly, cleaning the arterial and intestinal walls while leaving a clean, healthy layer of mucus to protect them.  About a tablespoon of flax per day would work well for this.  Thyme is one of my favourite herbal "brooms" for the respiratory tract.  It can grab onto excess mucus built up on the walls of the bronchial tubes and carry it out of the system, making it an excellent herb for bronchial congestion.  A teaspoon of crushed up thyme, dried or fresh, steeped with a lid in hot water for at least 10 minutes can work wonders in a "respiratory sweep".  Garlic is a useful cleanser of the blood vessels.  Not only does it "sweep out" fat and cholesterol build up, but it also reduces inflammation and kills off offending bacteria.  In addition to this, it is a marvelous immune booster.  Garlic can be added freely to daily meals.

Flax Seeds can be added to smoothies, sprinkled onto oatmeal or yogurt or blended with salads or grain dishes.  They should be either soaked, or freshly ground (they begin to go rancid quickly once they've been ground), and they are best uncooked. 

Thyme can clear mucus build-up in the bronchial passages and intestines.  It can be used as a culinary spice and added freely to salad dressings.  It can also be prepared as a medicinal tea.

Garlic (Alium sativum) can cleanse and disinfect like almost nothing else.  It is most effective when sliced and exposed to the air for 10-20 minutes before using, and is most potent when raw or just slightly cooked.

Plungers & Augers as Food & Medicine

When it comes to plumbing, we're all familiar with blocked pipes caused by various stuff like food, hair etc getting washed down the drain.  A build up of this stuff, along with congealed oil and soap, mixed with big fluctuations in temperature throughout the year can mean clogging, back flow, or in extreme cases of freezing weather, burst pipes. Plungers and drain augers are needed to push the build-up out before a plumbing crisis occurs.  We must also ensure to keep pipes warm on really cold days so that water continues to move through them and doesn't freeze.  

While plumbing pipes are maintained using air pressure (plungers), movement (augers) and heat, the same can be said about maintaining our own "plumbing".  

 Physical movement is one of the best agents in this regard.  Movement and exercise increase body temperature and access to oxygen.  They also raise metabolism. Increased air and movement act like a plunger in the system, pushing things through at faster rates as metabolism increases.  Faster metabolism means nutrients are absorbed faster and wastes are excreted faster, preventing toxic build-up.  Jumping or some form of bounce, as well as particular postures of stretching (yoga/pilates etc) encourage this process, and are particularly important in clearing out wastes through the lymphatic and digestive systems, alleviating swollen lymph nodes or constipation.

Credit: Photo by Enrico Romani

Elecampane (Inula helenium) is one of our local wild bitter herbs that acts as a digestive stimulant, detoxifying agent and respiratory decongestant.  The chopped up roots, fresh or dried can be brewed into a bitter tea or preserved as a tincture. 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.) is a warming herb that stimulates circulation throughout all the blood vessels in the body. One teaspoon of dried herb per cup of hot water, covered and steeped 10-15 minutes can be drank daily for this purpose.  A handful of rosemary steeped as a tea, and added to bath water can also increase the circulation.

Bitter herbs like the elecampane shown above help to stimulate peristalsis-- the muscular contraction involved in the digestive process.  Peristalsis propels material through the intestines and pushes out wastes.  

Rosemary brings warmth and stimulation through the circulatory system.  It supports the heart's pumping action by helping to move blood throughout the body, and send waste products out of the system.

Mineral Build-Up and Kidney Stones

Here at the farm we are lucky to have clean, delicious well water, full of trace minerals that the body can use. However, as many folks in these parts can attest to, the minerals in the hard water tend to stick to the pipes, creating a hard, crusty build-up that causes blockages.

I compare these mineral build-ups to stones that can form in the body, often in the kidneys, or bladder.  Stone formation can cause severe discomfort and serious blockages.  

While some people tend to form stones more easily than others, the potential for stones always increases in a chronically dehydrated body.  With insufficient water to dissolve and flush out mineral build up, it hardens and remains in place, eventually causing a painful blockage.  Water is our primary cleanser and universal solvent.   Keeping hydrated is crucial to keeping your pipes clear and preventing stone formation.  Avoiding certain oxalate-rich foods will also help to prevent calcium stone formation, but how can we dissolve stones once they are already there?  

In the case of plumbing build-up, we might try vinegar and baking soda, or maybe a stronger product like CLR.  In herbal medicine, we have other options.  Gravel Root, A.K.A Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum/maculatum) is a local, wild plant in our region that will often support safe, remarkably effective stone dissolution, making it an herbalist's "go-to" medicine for kidney and bladder stones.  Not only is it a good dissolver, it also has a soothing diuretic action that helps carry out the dissolved matter painlessly.  A small handful of chopped up roots can be simmered in water for about 10 minutes to yield a tea that can be taken daily until the stones have dissolved and passed through the urinary tract.  Gravel root tincture could also be used but if so, it should be accompanied by plenty of water to help send the debris out through the bladder in a timely manner.

Gravel Root or Joe Pye Weed grows along the banks of fresh water where its roots push their way through the stones, gradually breaking them down into sand, and eventually back into water. 

Whether we're looking to dissolve, flush, push or scrape, cleansing the pipes is an inevitable reality of good home and body maintenance and repair.  However, it is important to remember that the cleaner the materials passing through the pipes, the cleaner the pipes will be!  Eating a clean diet is a topic for another post, but I will mention here simply that being mindful of what we take into our bodies is the first, and arguably the most important step in proper pipe maintenance.

young green nettle seeds for core vitality and adrenal health

Green Seeds: Core Vitality

Lately I’ve been finding continual inspiration in the glowing green seeds of late summer. By green seeds, I mean the seeds that are formed and developing on plants, but are not quite ripe yet. Therefore they are green instead of brown, soft and yielding instead of hard, moist instead of dry.  I like to think of green seeds as developing embryos.  They carry the sacred information that makes up the blueprint for a plant or tree of the future.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

 There is something both precious and vulnerable about them.  They are building up the materials and knowledge needed to nourish themselves. Once fully mature, they will be ready to sprout independently into a new plant, abundant with life force.

The embryo holds the core.  The young spinal cord and its fluids, as well as its nearby organs, all tender and tiny, dwell in development within. Minerals and salts, proteins and oils comprise a rich fluid that surrounds it, providing it with essential food and protection.

Plantain (Plantago major) leaf with its green seed stalk strewn along the centre

Developing seeds have the ability to nourish us deeply, on a core level, reaching the most precious and vulnerable parts of us.  They also protect us by strengthening our immune systems.  And they do this largely by feeding our nervous systems.  A strong nervous system responds to stress with quick, resourceful agility as opposed to an uneasy sense of needing to escape.  There is an underlying calmness that comes from the sense that we have everything we need to survive and thrive.  We feel safe.

In herbal medicine, some green seeds have long been known for their effects on the nervous system.  Milky (or immature) oat seeds are a classic example.  They’re often given to people recovering from a long period of stress or illness.  People who need consistent, gentle support that restores deeply and gradually.  Oat seeds carry a nutrient rich, milk-like fluid that is easily absorbed and is considered a “trophorestorative” (an agent of deep, nutritive restoration) for the nervous system.  A delightful addition to tea blends, milky oats can also be very effective when preserved fresh as a milky-textured tincture. 

Milky oat seeds (Avena sativa)

Nettle seeds are remarkable agents of the kidneys and adrenal glands.  They are useful in cases of adrenal fatigue, which results from excessive stress–a challenge familiar to many these days.  In turn, they support hormone and immune function, as well as the nervous system when used as both a food and a medicine.  I’ve seen marked improvements in the vitality of pregnant women adding small amounts (a pinch to a 1/4 teaspoon) of nettle seeds daily to their diet.  

Even for those not in need of adrenal support, nettle seeds are a nutritious “super food”.  I dry them on the stalks, and then grind them over a sieve to remove the stinging nettle hairs.  Then I store them in jars for use throughout the winter.  I like to sprinkle them onto my hot cereal, or onto soups or stews.  Some people enjoy taking a small amount on a spoon with honey.

Nettle Seeds (Urtica spp)

Lambs quarters also bulge with rich green seeds at this time of year.  This summer has been an impressive growing year for lambs quarters in our gardens.  We’ve been enjoying eating the deep green, spinach-like leaves all summer long.  The leaves and seeds are high in vitamin C, minerals and proteins.    

Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album) seeds on the stalk.

I like to blend them into pesto, along with our garden basil.  The young seeds, with sunflower or pumpkin seeds make a pleasant (and more affordable!) replacement for pine nuts.

Plantain’s seed head somewhat resembles a spinal cord.  I like the energy I get from chewing on the seeds, fresh from the stalk. I imagine their oils and minerals feeding the fluids between my vertebrae, and flowing along the nerve channels from there.  One of my favourite teachers and authors, Matthew Wood, talks about the signature (resemblance) of a nervous system that can be seen in a plantain leaf’s vein structure.  

Plantain reduces inflammation throughout the body.  It boosts immunity and reduces allergic response.  It’s a classic support for the core organs (the ones that develop first in the embryo) such as the kidneys, lungs and bladder, clearing infections, soothing irritations and restoring tone and function.  I consider plantain to be among the safest and most reliably effective herbal medicines available.

Plantain (Plantago major) stalk & leaf

Thus here I am in early September, finding myself drawn in to view up close the green, plump little clusters on the wild leafy plants. Miraculously storing sunlight, water and gifts of the soil, each in its own tiny package, green seeds are the bearers of light and hope.  The care packages for the next leg of the journey, supporting a safe and vibrant future.  With allies like them, I move forward with confidence and joy.

 

GATHER: A Wild Foods Tour & Dinner in PEC

As luck would have it, I’m married to a fabulous plant based chef!  As I’ve learned about wild edibles over the years, he has learned about cooking with them.  Now we are excited to collaborate on this new event, celebrating the wild harvests of autumn in PEC…

Here’s a chance not only to identify some of our wild edible plants, but also to taste them, featured in a delectable five course plant based dinner!

Dandelion Heart–a wild delicacy

DETAILS

We’ll meet 4:30 pm at the Hillier Hall (18560 Loyalist Parkway, Prince Edward County)

We’ll embark on a wild foods walk through a nearby trail, stopping to identify and discuss the various wild edible plants encountered along the way.  

 

Then we’ll return to the Hall for a wild appetizer, prepared by stellar chef, Chris Byrne.  You can view some of Chris’ beautiful cuisine on Instagram at chefchris2112 . Here’s one photo of a wild foods dish he made in the spring time, using the young shoots of three local wild plants..

Shoots of cattail, burdock and sumac on nori and black rice, with avocado sauce and heartsease flowers

Chris will offer an overview of a few techniques for wild food cooking over appetizers and perhaps a glass of wine, provided by Stanners Vineyard (neighbours of the Hillier Hall).  Herbal tea, crafted by yours truly will also be available.

Following this, a full dinner will be served.  It will be plant based and infused with local wild edibles.  Dessert will be included of course, along with wild herbal tea and coffee.  Wines will be available by the glass or bottle throughout the evening.

This unique event has limited space, and registration is required.  Cost is $75.  

**PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS EVENT IS SOLD OUT.  STAY TUNED FOR OUR NEXT WILD WALK/MEAL***

 

On Sleep & Dreams, Rest & Relaxation

Sleep issues are rampant these days.  I’ve been hearing about it everywhere–from folks in the clinic to random conversations in town.  Whether it be an inability to fall asleep, waking in the middle of the night, dreams disturbing restful sleep, or simply not getting enough of it, it seems we’re experiencing a collective “unrest”, so to speak.

 

With sensory and info overload, an ever-quickening pace, economic and environmental stresses and the increasing electromagnetic frequencies in our atmosphere, one can easily become overwhelmed.  Anxiety and restlessness can ensue, and this can affect both dreaming and waking life.

(Illustration by Murat Yukselir/The Globe & Mail)

Meanwhile, research is proving the age-old wisdom that rest and sleep are irrefutable cornerstones of health.  (A friend recently sent me this worthwhile article & pod cast that demonstrates this point)

Also, I believe that if we allow ourselves ample opportunity for dreaming and we pay attention to our dreams, we can access part of our minds that will not only help us to heal, but to creatively solve problems and discover new ideas that we may not find in waking life.

Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca

Catnip Nepeta cataria

 So I’d like to bring up two local wild plants that offer remarkable support for the rest/sleep/dream process.  Glowing vibrant green from mid to late spring when they’re at their peak, they can be easily found all throughout our area, providing many of us with just what we need.  I’m referring to none other than catnip (Nepeta cataria) and motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca).

A soothing herb for an overburdened nervous system, catnip supports peaceful sleep and dreaming, and reliably eases nightmares.  It also acts as an emotional balm, calming anxieties and toning down responses to stressful situations.  If catnip could speak directly to us, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it might say something like this:  

“There now, beautiful soul… You’re going to be just fine.  Take a nice long deep breath, and look around…  Remember all that you’re grateful for… All is well…. All is well…”  

Catnip is known among herbalists as a safe, effective children’s herb,  particularly helping to prevent bed-wetting (which is often associated with fears and anxieties). It addresses the child in all of us.  The part that yearns for a soothing lullaby, and to be safely held by a loving parent. 

The topic of loving parenthood brings to mind our other featured plant, motherwort. In true mother form, motherwort helps to ease, soothe and nourish.  A heart tonic, it regulates the pulse and rhythm of the body.  It supports digestive function so that we’re nourished by what we eat.  It is also well-suited to women from childbearing age, through pregnancy all the way past menopause.  Motherwort can regulate and harmonize various systems throughout the body and mind.  She’ll regulate and harmonize our sleep cycles, and work/rest patterns as well.  Like catnip, motherwort also eases anxiety and relaxes tension.  

While catnip supports the child in us, motherwort supports the parent in us.  She makes us more cognizant of our own emotions, and thus able to handle them more practically.  She is like a mother who might calmly recognize her cranky child’s over-emotional behaviour as the temporary result of lack of sleep.  When our emotional stress gets the best of us, she might say to us something like this:

“There you go again with all that fret & worry.  This can’t possibly be helpful, can it? There are many ways to solve your problems but first you’re going to have to take care of yourself.  How about if, instead of worrying, you do something really nourishing for yourself right now?  Then later, you’ll probably find the answer you’re looking for with ease.”

 

 

Catnip and motherwort will infuse in harmony together, either fresh or dried, as an herbal tea.  We use the leaves (sometimes with the tiny flowers) of both plants.  Motherwort is quite bitter, so many people can not tolerate a tea of plain motherwort.  However, the aromatic leaves of catnip help to balance out the flavour. Lemon balm, bee balm or lemon verbena could also make good flavour additions to this tea.  A bit of honey or maple syrup would counter the bitterness too.

(However you may want to experience some of the bitter flavour for its many digestive benefits—but that’s a discussion for another post)…

…Nowadays we’re seeing a resurgence of primitive skills being learned and shared, as people recognize the wisdom in these old practices.  Perhaps the most primitive of these skills is in the fact the most important.  We must re-learn how to nourish ourselves with rest.  The plants can help to teach us this if we are open to the offer.  The way I see it, the more we embrace this opportunity the more fit we will become to take on the various challenges of our day, turning breakdowns into breakthroughs, and thriving as we go.

Dandelion, Clarity & Direction

 In the realm of plant medicine, we sometimes refer to the main characteristics & details of a plant as its “signature”.  This indicates a plant’s key aspects, easily detected with our senses, such as its appearance or scent.  Its signature offers us insight into the way the plant has adapted itself in order to thrive, giving us clues as to how it might benefit our health when used as food or medicine.   Dandelion, like all plants, has its own signature.  This is largely seen in its ability to cut through stuff, keeping what is necessary and clearing away what is not needed, yielding lightness, clarity and a sense of direction on many levels–physical, mental & emotional.

  We can see this signature in its leaf shape, which looks to me like an arrow, continually pointing the way along the mid-rib, part by part, from stem to tip.  The leaf shape is also referenced in one of dandelion’s common French names, “Dent de Lion” or “Lion’s Tooth” which it resembles with its sharply-toothed edges.

 

Like the lion’s tooth, which cuts through flesh to make it into usable sustenance for a large, active creature, dandelion helps the body to break down the foods we eat.  It helps us extract the nutrients we need while carrying out waste.  As such, it supports our energy, strength, awareness and agility as we move through our day. 

This cutting, cleaning property manifests in the body in various ways when we ingest dandelion.  The edible & medicinal leaf, root and flowers of the plant all work to this effect, supporting the body’s organs of elimination and absorption.  

We can detect this by tasting any part of the dandelion plant.  We will find a bitter flavour.  In my workshops, I often mention the benefits of the bitter flavour on the digestive system.   When our taste buds detect something bitter, they trigger our salivary glands to secrete more saliva.  This sets off a domino effect throughout our entire digestive system.  Important digestive enzymes are released and peristalsis is triggered (muscular movement through the intestines) allowing food to move through and be broken down into nutrients while carrying out unwanted waste.  

When we ingest dandelion leaf, it works on a couple of our important organs of detoxification: the kidneys and bladder.  Dandelion leaf is a classic herbal diuretic, removing waste and toxic elements through the urine.  But this cleansing action is particularly wise and directed.  Many diuretics tend to clear out important minerals (especially potassium) along with our unneeded waste.  Dandelion leaf however, is so mineral rich (particularly with potassium) that we do not lose the minerals we need.  

When we ingest the root, other organs of elimination & absorption are affected:  primarily the liver, gall bladder and colon.  Dandelion root supports the production and secretion of bile in the liver and gall bladder.  Bile is a key element in nutrient absorption, particularly of fats, which feed our brain, nerves and endocrine system.  Bile also helps to carry out waste through the colon.  

 The liver is responsible for creating and recycling many of the body’s hormones and blood cells.  Dandelion root supports these processes, helping the liver to hold onto the necessary building blocks for hormone and blood cell production, while giving it space to do its work by clearing out wastes in a timely manner.  Hormone balance means reproductive health, mental and emotional health, a balanced metabolism and strong immune response, among other things.  Blood cell production increases vitality and energy.

Dandelion root also provides a source of nourishment for our gut flora. It acts as a pre-biotic by providing inulin, a starch that feeds the healthy bacteria in our lower gut, helping the good bacteria to reproduce and thrive.  This in turn supports our nutrient absorption.  It also benefits our immune system which is aided by healthy gut bacteria to fight off pathogens and prevent illness.

Dandelion’s long taproot directs itself deeply into the earth, where it takes up the minerals needed to thrive, and brings them towards the topsoil, thus helping to feed other plants growing around it.

Dandelion flowers benefit another organ of elimination: the skin.  Infused in oil and applied topically, dandelion flowers will help to clear away rashes, boils, eczema and other itchy or inflamed skin conditions remarkably well.  Often we see skin conditions erupt when the liver is overburdened and therefore unable to clear out waste fast enough.  The body’s healthy response to this situation is to clear out those excess toxins through the skin, manifesting as rashes, boils, etc.  Taking dandelion root or leaf internally, while using the infused flower oil topically can provide a simple, elegant solution to this problem.

Dandelion flower oil also makes an excellent topical anti-inflammatory rub for sore muscles and joints.  It can help clear out wastes that are sometimes stored in joints or tight muscles, relieving pain and supporting mobility.

 In the realm of the mind and spirit, the flower essence of dandelion can be used to support clarity and direction.  Dandelion flower essence is known to clear away lingering anger and rage, both towards others and towards oneself.  It supports the clearance of emotional patterns (including addictions) that impede the process of putting plans into action and moving forward in a positive way on the path of life.  With this clearance and direction, there is the opportunity to begin and follow through with new plans, accompanied by a vibrant energy like that of a spring day!

In the early spring time, when we’re often eager for the freshly harvested food we’ve missed throughout the winter, dandelion is a big provider.  The leaves can be eaten fresh in salads or added to cooked veggie dishes for tasty bitter green nourishment.  They can be infused in apple cider vinegar to extract their minerals, and this can then be used as a salad dressing.  On a simpler note, a few fresh leaves can be picked and eaten before a meal to stimulate the bitter principle and support digestion.  They are tastiest, and also most effective before flowering.

With the upsurge into spring, the upwards arrow of the dandelion leaf promises us gentle but ever present support, nourishment, clarity and guidance.  All that’s required of us for this is to clear away excess thought and direct some attention towards it.  In this way we won’t miss out on its humble offerings and we will have the chance to harvest and use it appropriately.  With this, we will surely find an upsurge of gratitude for the many gifts of most a reliable plant that we often find growing nearby when we need it.

Tree Bark: Wise Old Medicine

 

As spring life awakens from its winter dormancy, all the nutrients held deep in soil and perennial roots begin to rise, preparing to feed emerging buds and leaves.

Vitamins, minerals and agents of healing & defense make their way through the sap, moving up trunks, branches and stems, and we find ourselves in the optimal season for harvesting tree bark.

Bark can offer us bold healing and nourishment.  As the tree’s tough outer skin, bark provides weathered strength and stoic protection.  To survive harsh climate extremes, pests and pathogens, trees have developed sophisticated metabolites, some of which can be found in their bark, offering resilience to those who ingest them.

Also, bark carries within it the tree’s wisdom, which is rooted deep in the earth.

 Lately, I have been working with the inner bark of Trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides)…

…and Apple (Malus spp.)

I will describe here the way that I’ve harvested and processed the bark of these trees, as well as some of the healing benefits these particular trees have to offer.

 In this season, many people prune trees, as we have learned that when awakening from dormancy, they are well-equipped to successfully repair and regenerate from minor damage.  Selective pruning can encourage healthy tree growth and abundant fruiting.  Pruned branches can provide an accessible source of useable bark, which doesn’t require harvesting from (or damaging) the magnificent bark of the main trunk.

 

I am very selective and sparing when I prune trees.  I check in with the tree through a visual survey, as well as spending some quiet meditative time with it before deciding to prune, and choosing where to do so.  Once decided, with an offering of gratitude to the tree, and wishing it well, I very carefully begin to prune.  I use clean, sharp pruning shears, and prune off suckers and low-growing branches.  Once they’re cut, I carry them back to a comfortable spot where I can sit and shave the bark off the branches.  Using a small, sharp knife, I shave off the bark in strips, letting it land in a bowl or basket.  It can then either be used fresh or dried, made into a tea or a tincture.  To dry it, I lay it on a cotton sheet or in a basket in a warm place, out of direct light until it snaps when broken.  Then I know it is dry and I can store it in a jar.

Pruned apple branches

Trembling aspen is in the poplar family.  Trees in this family have a constituent known as salicin, which is the active ingredient used in aspirin for its pain relieving, anti-inflammatory properties.  It can be used to soothe arthritic and rheumatic pain as well as muscle aches, headaches and many types of inflammation.  Its bitter flavour makes it a useful digestive tonic, helping the body to absorb nutrients and supporting gentle detoxification.  It can be used to prevent and aid bladder and/or kidney infections.  It is also a rejuvenating tonic that can be safely taken to revitalize an aging or convalescing body.

A cluster of Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

 Apple bark has pleasant cooling and astringent properties.  It can help to cleanse the blood vessels of plaque and fatty deposits, supporting healthy circulation.  It’s helpful in moving lymph fluid and reducing swollen lymph glands, and has benefits as a digestive tonic as well.  It is also a notable remedy for the relief of heartburn, or acid reflux.  By cooling the burning sensation, and toning the esophageal sphincter to prevent leakage of irritating stomach acid into the esophagus, apple bark can treat both the symptom and the cause of this condition.

The photo above shows a bowl of shaven apple bark.  On the left are the fresh cut branches before they’ve been shaved.  On the right are the white cores of the branches, post shaving.  These beautiful auburn shavings can be made into a medicinal tea, fresh or dried, by simmering about 1 teaspoon per cup of water on the stove for at least 10 minutes.  1-2 cups of the tea can be drunk daily, or as needed.  

Shaved bark of trembling aspen, drying on a sheet of cotton in a basket

Trembling aspen, and all other tree bark can be simmered in the same way.  Simmering helps to extract more of the nutrients and medicinal components bound up in the bark, compared with steeping as we do with leaf and flower teas.  The bitter flavour of poplar might make it less palatable for some, but it can be combined with tasty nutritious herbs like cinnamon, spruce, rosehips, orange peel and/or peppermint to make a delicious tea.  For optimal digestive health however, a strong bitter brew may well be your best medicine.

The tree barks I’ve mentioned here are just two, among many trees which bear various gifts throughout our landscape.  I haven’t touched on willow, alder or pine, for example…and these are just a few examples of trees that I’ll be sure to discuss in a different post.

What I most want to convey, however, is that we truly are surrounded by helpful, restorative and nutritive beings in the form of plants, fungi and trees.  In our cold climate, we can harvest medicine such as tree bark throughout the year.  (I am writing about bark now because late winter is arguably the optimal time for its harvest, but if it’s needed in December, or even July, it’s available then too).  

The more we appreciate what our trees have to offer us, in the way of healing abilities, deep, aged wisdom as well as majestic beauty, the more motivation we will have to ensure their health and safety for generations to come.

Ethereal Medicine, Herbal Medicine, Permeating Love and a Magic Cat

 

This week I lost my best friend, my companion and a very important teacher.  She came into my life 17 years ago, a tiny kitten who could snuggle into the palm of my hand.  

Black, with auburn highlights, she had faint tabby stripes in the summer sunlight that sometimes gave her an aubergine glow.  She spoke with a rich vocabulary of tones, and a deep permeating purr that sent love vibrating to the far corners of the room.  She taught me to move with grace and to strongly focus my intentions. 

Her name was Cassandra Bones, but she developed various names throughout her life.  Her dark colour inspired one of her names: New Moon.  When we moved to our farm, we named it New Moon Farm in her honour.  

Cass was by my side as I learned the craft of herbalism.  She was, it could be said, my familiar.  She had a fine ethereal perception, as I believe many cats do.  As my knowledge of herbs developed, I noticed that Cass was already quite tuned into which herbs she needed for her own health, and where to find them. 

 One of my favourite stories about her took place in the drought of August 2012.  Cass had developed a bladder infection–something to which she was prone.  Whenever this happened, I would put together a medicinal tea for her, made of any herbs growing nearby, or that I had on hand, that I knew would soothe and disinfect the bladder.  One herb I liked to use was horsetail (Equisetum arvensis)–a really effective anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and diuretic herb that tones the bladder and strengthens the kidneys.  It works just as effectively for humans as it does for cats.

Dried horsetail

This medicine is available for harvest in our area in the late spring, while the ground is still somewhat moist.  Its leaves grow upward (vertically) when it’s young, and as the season progresses, they reach outwards (diagonally and horizontally) like a fan.  As the plant ages, its silica content increases, making it too tough and abrasive to be used for medicine.  So, the rule of thumb is to harvest horsetail in spring, when the leaves are still mainly pointing upwards, not outwards.  By August, and particularly during a drought, horsetail is normally growing outwards in its lanky fan-like habit, making it long past its harvest period.

Horsetail, Equisetum arvensis, growing outwards instead of upwards, passed its prime for harvesting

    On this August day, when I stepped outside, I found what looked like chewed-up grass, left by Cass on the doorstep.  She occasionally chewed and spit out grass (as most cats do, especially when feeling under the weather) so this was not unusual. However this particular grass looked a bit odd to me.  I examined it more closely, only to find that it was not grass at all, but actually horsetail!  Cass had apparently realized that horsetail was what she needed.  She had ventured out in the heat, traversing about 10 acres to the horsetail patch beside an underground spring, and bit off some horsetail to chew on!

 I didn’t know that Cass knew what horsetail was, nor where to find it, let alone that it was what she needed at that time! And she hardly ever travelled such a big distance from the house.  Aside from all this, the horsetail should have been tough and irritating in the mouth, and difficult to harvest at that time of year.  Yet she had harvested it.  I was compelled to head down to the spring and check it out myself.  There I saw with my own eyes, a glowing patch of healthy young horsetail.  It was at a perfect stage for harvest!  I guessed it must have come up late in the season for some reason, and was being kept alive by the underground spring, despite the drought.  Inspired with awe, I snipped a bit of the horsetail for harvest, giving thanks for this miraculous gift. 

Cass and her magic horsetail

I brought it back to the house and simmered  a teaspoon of chopped up horsetail for about 10 minutes in 1/3 cup of water. I then poured that brew over a blend of dandelion leaf, mallow, yarrow and corn silk (about 1 teaspoon of the whole blend), steeping that for about 15 minutes.  This created a soothing bladder antiseptic.  Once it cooled to room temperature, I gave it to Cass in a dropper (about 10 drops), and continued to give it to her 3 times per day for about a week.  Her infection cleared over the next couple days.  I dried the rest of that horsetail for future use.  I labelled it “Cass’s Magic Horsetail”–for it truly was magic, just like the cat who had found it!

Cass was not only a mysterious knower of herbs, but she was also a giver and receiver of ethereal medicine.  Some folks who have visited the Hawthorn Herbals clinic have come to know the sweet comfort of her presence.  She often knew just where to place her paw on your body so that it soothed pain or discomfort.  She would cuddle beside me and purr when I felt under the weather, staying close by until I began to feel better.  She taught me about the potency of healing touch, when given with intention.  Later in her life, I would lay my hands on her arthritic hips or her lower back, and I’d sense an easing in her discomfort as I willed her healing with my gentle touch, just as she had taught me.

 Here, at New Moon Farm we are preparing to sow the seeds of a new season, growing food and medicine to support vitality for another year.  As the plants grow, I will remember that sometimes, against all odds, the herb you need is available for you right when you need it–you just have to go and look.  I will also remember that ethereal and subtle as it seems, sometimes the best medicine comes with with a focused, loving, healing touch, delivered with presence & grace.

For these teachings, as well as all the love and magic,  I will always be grateful.  

“New Moon” the cat, at New Moon Farm

 

 

Circulatory Stimulants: Keep the Blood Flowing While the Cold Wind is Blowing….

While out skating on a pond the other day, I found myself in a familiar predicament: cold, numb and slightly painful toes!  In the cold weather, my peripheral circulation is easily reduced, bringing pain or discomfort to my fingers and toes.  In my practice, I've met a number of people who face the same issue to varying degrees.  Fortunately there are herbal helpers which safely and effectively encourage peripheral circulation.  For this chilly January post, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the best ways to use these herbs for this purpose....

Hot peppers of any kind will quickly stimulate circulation.  A good trick for keeping hands and feet warm in cold places is to put a pinch of chilli powder (cayenne or other) in between two pairs of gloves or socks.  Wearing one pair, then placing the powder in the second pair and wearing it on top of the first ensures that your skin is protected from being burned on direct contact with the chilli powder (which can be extremely painful).  Meanwhile, you still benefit from the heat it gives. 

Adding chillies or hot sauce to your meals will help increase your circulation very quickly as well.  However, circulatory stimulation from chilli peppers will be relatively short-lived.

Longer term warmth and circulatory stimulation can come from cooking with other herbs such as thyme, ginger, rosemary, garlic and turmeric.  These herbs will also help to keep bacteria and pathogens away, keeping us healthy throughout the winter.  Added to slow-cooked soups or stews, they will yield optimally lasting warmth.

Another warming circulatory stimulant is cinnamon.  This herb is particularly helpful for diabetics or those wanting to balance blood sugar.  It helps to reduce sugar cravings while also encouraging peripheral circulation.  Cinnamon sticks cooked into hot cereal or simmered into tea work well for this.  Simmer the cinnamon with ginger, nutmeg, cardomom and coriander and you've got a delicious, warming herbal chai tea.

One of my favourite therapeutic herbs to use in my practice is the wild Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum spp).   A member of the citrus family, prickly ash grows in treelines of pasture land and at forest edges throughout our region.  Both the bark and berries of this tree effectively encourage cirulation, while also reducing the pain and inflammation that sometimes come with blocked blood flow.  This herb, taken over time can help to normalize blood vessel dilation so that healthy blood flow is maintained.

With a bit of conscious effort, and the help of some easily accessible herbs, we can easily encourage circulation and reduce the pain and numbness brought on by the cold weather.   This lets us get outdoors and enjoy the glory of winter, until the planting & harvesting season begins again...

 

 

 

Of Shedding & Nourishment: Some Wild Herbs & Foods of Late Autumn

In the cycle of the seasons, autumn represents a period of death.  Foliage and flowers abandon us, offering themselves back to the earth..

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leaving only the tougher parts of plants and trees to endure the winter–the fruits, seeds, bark and roots.

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Everything contracts, conserving nutrients and warmth.  Energy previously expressed outwardly now hides beneath thicker skins, or in roots and rhizomes under the earth’s surface.

…And we contract as well, staying close to the warm places, and interacting a little less with the world outside.

008Where, in this barren season can we best find our nourishment and vitality when we need it most? …

….Where all the energy and nourishment have gathered.  In wild roots…and seeds…and fruits. And so those are the herbs and foods that I gather in the late fall.  Here are a few of my favourites…

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Burdock roots (Arctium lappa)

Taproots, such as those found on burdock, dandelion, wild carrot and thistle, reach deep into the soil, gathering up nutrients for storage.  Rich in prebiotic starches like inulin, they nourish our gut flora, strengthening our digestion and our immunity.

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Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) fresh out of the ground

Cooked into soups and stews, these roots make nutritious vegetables, providing potassium, iron, calcium and magnesium among other trace minerals.  Infused in apple cider vinegar, they yield a wild “Root Tonic” that can be taken daily, or can be added to salad dressings for a wild-infused nutty flavour.  While offering nourishment, also help detoxify the system, shedding what we no longer need.

Nettle Seeds (Urtica spp)

Nettle Seeds (Urtica spp)

Nettle seeds are another gift of autumn.  I sprinkle them onto cereal or other dishes for a boost of protein, silica, potassium and vitamins A & C.  Gently restorative to kidneys and adrenal glands, they can be particularly helpful during or after periods of increased stress or illness.  

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Hawthorn Berries (Crataegus spp)

Hawthorn berries make a safe and gentle tonic for the heart and circulatory system.  They help to calm and centre the mind, and reduce the effects of stress on the body.  They make a lovely addition to herbal tea, combining particularly well with vitamin C-rich spruce needles–which are available for winter harvest.

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A simple, well-infused pot of tea will carry many of the benefits of our late autumn herbs, and may just be the perfect thing to nourish us through the winter months…

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…Helping us to keep a strong earth connection, even under the snow & ice. 

Here’s to winter warmth and wellness!

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