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I am excited to announce that the latest issue of Essential Herbal Magazine is out…..my first published article on herbalism has been contributed and published, to boot! I thank Tina Sams, Stephany Hoffelt and anyone else involved for the opportunity. Click picture or link above to visit website, in order to get a subscription, purchase the current single issue, or to get a free sample!
Here is a link to the expanded version of the article contributed to the magazine: Herbalism in Iowa.
“Relations with demons are a most important part of the Poison Path.” -Dale Pendell, Pharmakognosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path
“You must use poison to fight a poison.” -Charles Garcia
Poisonous plants in herbalism are a controversial subject. Among the best herbalists, there are some that avoid them, some that embrace and use them. In truth, we cannot deny that some of the most potent herbs are, in fact, so potent because they are somewhat poisonous. Poisons pose a huge challenge to our bodies, and thus when we take them in small amounts, they stimulate our body to perform some of its best- and most unexpected- healing capabilities. It is arguable (and debatable) that homeopathy originated from the concept of the Poison Path. Plants that best exemplify the poison path range from deadly herbs like Belladonna, Monkshood/Wolfsbane, and Foxglove to ones that are generally accepted, but need much care like Lobelia, Poke root and Chaparral.
When we think of “poisonous plants,” Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radacans) is probably the first one the average layman (or woman) thinks of. Little do most people know, Poison Ivy was one a very popular choice among the old herbalists of the United States. An old Appalachian folk-medicine use of Poison Ivy was to pick the first fresh leaf bud off a vine in the spring and eat it, one bud per day, until the leaves became mature. This helped build up an immunity to the rash the plant inflicted that year– some folks out there still do this. It was also believed to improve rheumatism in the whole body overall for awhile, especially for achy, cold joints. The thought of doing that terrifies me, but traditions are traditions!
Some argue, though, that even medicinal plants we consider harmless are in a way “poisonous” because of the way our bodies react to them. The reason why bitters work so well? Our digestive tract is stimulated in their presence, seeing them as a “foreign substance” needing to be processed and removed– kind of like a little poison. Why do antihistamine herbs work? Because they actually effectively help the work of histamines, inciting histamine reaction and removing the foreign substances quicker, because they react to the presence of the herb. In common lore these days, herbs that do such things are not considered poisons at all, and yet they do the same thing on a very miniscule level.
Again, it is a controversial topic in herbalism, and the line gets a bit fuzzy. What the standard should be, though, is that normally toxic herbs in the hands of skilled herbalists become medicines that are treated with respect. If misused, they become poisons. Regardless of perspective, caution should be exercised.
References: Pharmakognosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path by Dale Pendell. Charles Garcia. Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist. The Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase.
The notorious Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is making its first pushes up through the snow here in the Midwest! The emergence of this plant is one of the earliest heralds of spring. Reports of it appearing have been made in Wisconsin. As such, it is more than likely that the plant is blooming in the wild places of Iowa! However, it is quite rare and difficult to find in this state– while there are probably spots close by to Iowa City where it grows sparsely, its strongest range is no doubt up in the Driftless Region of northeastern Iowa.
Skunk Cabbage is also a useful medicinal herb, sought after by many herbalists for its anti-spasmodic and bronchiodilating action. It is full of salicylic acids, the same compounds found in Asprin and trees of the Willow family, that have fever-reducing and pain-relieving effect. In spring, the plant secretes these acids more so than at any other time, which creates a “thermogenerating” effect and melts the snow around it. Skunk Cabbage is not a true cabbage at all, but it does stink like a skunk.
Native Americans were the first to master its use as a medicine; the Micmac Indians would dry and powder the root as an inhalant for migraine headaches. This use has transformed into it being favored as an asthma remedy– inhaling the plant or taking the tincture opens up airways in the lungs. In this regard, it is very useful also for general respiratory infection, coughs, and colds. It was also used for general cramps and epilepsy. One should be careful using it medicinally, though, for too much may cause great sickness and nausea. Eating the leaves raw causes burning and inflammation, while the root is actually considered toxic. Small doses, in tincture form, are best for medicinal uses– although some say you can eat the young spring shoots if they are roasted.
I have never worked with this plant, and I have yet to see it in the wild– but while I would be excited to, I am aware that it is a rare, endangered plant in the state of Iowa, so harvesting it is quite prohibited. Thank you Melissa Sharapova for alerting me to Skunk Cabbage’s spring arrival! Thankfully, Spring is not far off.
References: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs. A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve. Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist. Melissa Sharapova.
It has been my pleasure to purchase this locally-grown batch of Lion’s Mane mushrooms from friendly farmer Todd Mills down at Mushroom Mills, located near Oxford Junction, Iowa. During the summer, you can find these gourmet delights and others at the Iowa City Farmers Market. Mushroom Mills sells a variety of other mushrooms, most notably several beautiful strains of oyster mushrooms. I have been busy dehydrating them in preparation of making a Lion’s Mane double extraction. Thank you, Todd!
So here’s a little interval of time where I focus on medicinal fungi. While most probably wouldn’t consider them “medicinal herbs”– I do. What more, they blow most herbs out of the water with how potent they are. Lion’s Mane is no exception– studies these days are going crazy about medicinal mushrooms, Lion’s Mane being in that spotlight frequently. Lion’s Mane is also known by different names– Monkey Head, Satyr’s Beard, and Deer Tail being a few.
Studies have shown that daily (or frequent) consumption of Lion’s Mane improves general stress, anxiety, and depression, while touting “neuroregenerative” effects– that is, eating the mushroom over time strengthens, tonifies, repairs and improves function of the nerves in your body. In general, Lion’s Mane has notably and unmistakably improved cognitive capacity and memory in humans and animals. On a more exciting level, Lion’s Mane is looking very promising for the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, old age onset dementia, and senility. It has also been noticeably beneficial to nerve damage as the result of physical trauma or injury.
Very fittingly for its name, Lion’s Mane is a nerve tonic to the highest degree. As a signature, Lion’s Mane and its effects are all about “getting your courage back.” The bizarre-looking, leonine mushroom is perfect for those dry, brittle, spread-thin and nervous “Vata” people who can’t afford to lose a drop of nutrition, especially since most “herbal nervines” (passionflower, kava kava, motherwort, valerian etc.) also tend towards drying diuretic action. They do tend to soothe, but also increase output of nutrients in your urine. Lion’s Mane is high in protein (about 20%) and is not diuretic, so this does not pose a problem. Its effects are not immediate, and it is not an instant nervine like Motherwort or Lemon Balm. Since it is a tonic, it is to be taken daily or on a regular basis, improving overall function over time while not compromising nutrients at all– in fact, this mushroom is a nutritious food even for those who aren’t concerned about health.
So it is a bit like getting some “lion’s courage.” It steadies and improves the nerves over time, dispelling anxiety and stress. Studies have also shown that it increases “bravery” in some test subjects– stressed mice who were fed Lion’s Mane as part of their diet were more likely to recover, and then explore and investigate unknown or new territory of their environments. Talk about losing your nerve, and then getting it back!
You can eat and prepare Lion’s Mane like any other mushroom, but if you want to focus on its medicinal effects it may be a better idea (and save you money) to make a double extract. This is the general approach to crafting a tincture out of most medicinal mushrooms like Reishis and Shiitakes, as only some of the important constituents are alcohol-soluble– while others are hot-water soluble and sensitive to alcohol. So here I’ve provided this excellent medicinal mushroom extraction method from Guido Mase’s book The Wild Medicine Solution, and rhapsodized it as it applies to Lion’s Mane. (I would also recommend you buy the book; it is a treasure trove of information!)
Dried Lion’s Mane
High Proof Alcohol (I use 151 Everclear)
Glycerin (though I consider this optional)
-Take your dried mushrooms, divide the into two equal parts and chop them well. Using the first part, prepare a tincture by covering hte mushrooms with a solvent of 75 percent alcohol, 15 glycerin, and 10 percent water (if opting out on glycerin: 90 percent alcohol, 10 percent water. Glycerin is meant to help with the emulsion). Set tincture aside, and let it steep for four weeks, shaking it occasionally. Then strain it and measure its volume.
-After you’ve strained the tincture, take the second part of the dried mushrooms and simmer them for at least one hour, preferably two or more, in twice as much water as you used for the total solvent volume. Keep adding water, if necessary.
-At the end of the simmering, strain the mushrooms out and reduce the volume of fluid you have left by boiling it down so that it equals the volume of strained tincture. Take this off the heat and allow it to cool completely.
-Combine the simmered broth and strained tincture, mixing well with a whisk. Make sure you are adding the tincture to the broth and not vice versa to reduce the amount of concentrated alcohol the constituents in the broth have to endure.
-Bottle and store, preferably in a dark-tinted glass bottle or container.
References: Paul Stamets/Huffington Post. Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase. PubMed.gov. Personal Experience.
Winter time does not just have to be about fighting off the sporadic illness with acute cold remedies. During cold and flu season, we can also focus on keeping our immune system on its toes. There are several immune-boosting tonic herbs out there you can turn to, like Reishi, Astragalus and Licorice being popular ones; while pulling out your plants high in Vitamin C like Elder, Rose hips and Sumac berry give you an added edge. But generally, and particularly for some of us, it is good to get as much nutrition in as you can, really. During winter some of us struggle with getting enough of any vitamins and minerals in our diet, especially Vitamin D, which we principally receive through sunlight. If you buy seasonally or grow your own vegetables, winter can be the doldrums when it comes to naturally vitamin-rich food. As someone of the above ilk, and also tending towards the more wan and iron-depleted “Vata” disposition (and also being pretty poor), this is something I have to think about seriously– or winter quickly becomes my least favorite season. For people like us, this also effects our immune systems and cold-fighting capabilities in turn. Really, we can take all that we can get.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens), the feared and overlooked super-food of our time, is an ethical and easy solution to this fix. There is indeed a big stigma on this plant because of its name and its sting, and yet there it is– one of the most nutritionally rich plants in North America. Nettle’s nutritional value has been compared to that of most seaweeds and kelps. It grows everywhere in thick clumps, and yet we struggle with poor diets in this country. Nettles are the highest land-bound source of protein from wild plants in the U.S., but also incredibly high in iron, calcium, vitamins A and B, and magnesium. This plant is arguably more nutritious than spinach, kale, or asparagus. It is prolific here in Iowa and I am happy and grateful for its presence in these sparse wild places!
The only obstacle is that they die back in winter. The tender tops are picked in spring until they flower, when the plant’s chemistry becomes more hostile and abrasive in the interest of producing and protecting its seeds. How do you manage to access this treasure trove of nutrition when the plant is dead?
For starters, you can turn to an herbalist’s methods of preparation and storage. I pick and dry nettle tops for storage throughout summer, saving them for their most important use in winter. Some herbalists keep it that way, using the dried herb for a big pot of infusion once in a while, but I have seen this as being somewhat inefficient myself. Plus, not everyone has the time (or palate) for heaping cups of Nettle tea. Tincture would seem like a more obvious choice for convenience of storage, even capsules too, and yet the doses are much smaller and less effective than you would think. Syrups come into play here as an appealing option; not all herbal syrups have to be cough syrups, and honey has been found to be one of the best mediums for holding and preserving vitamins and minerals. Not to mention– honey (raw or organic) in small tablespoon doses is high in its own mineral content. Think of it this way: instead of making your big pot of Nettle tea and trying to down the wonderful green sludge throughout your entire day, you instead make a more concentrated infusion and fix it into a syrup. Then you are just taking that amount as a tablespoon supplement, bit by bit, throughout your day. You can mix it into your coffee, or tea. Also– it is sweet!
This concept inspired in me the following recipe, Black Nettle Syrup, which involves crafting your own homemade Nettle syrup and mixing it with Black Strap Molasses for added nutritional benefit. If you are one of those folks that hungers for iron (or high iodine content) in the winter or anytime, you should really try this recipe. When you are done, you will have a beautiful, dark syrup that has just the right amount of sweet with molasses flavor, and actually tastes quite pleasant. It is chock full of nutrients– most notably iron, potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A and B, calcium, magnesium, folic acid, manganese, and iodine. This could come in handy as a supplement for just about anyone, but may also be of marked health benefit for those with moderate anemia or thyroid issues.
Black Nettle Syrup
What You’ll Need:
- Dried (or Fresh) Stinging Nettles (at least 1 cup OK)
- 20-30 oz. honey (preferably organic; raw is ok)
- 15-20 oz. Black Strap Molasses
- A few hours of your time
-Fill a small to medium pot with water on stove top. Bring water to a gentle simmer, then add your nettles to create initial “infusion”. Cover. Let this go for a time, until water is a very dark green. You can leave it to simmer, or just leave it on low heat. The sludgier looking the better (more vitamins/minerals). You may add more water if too much evaporates, and infuse as long as you prefer. It may take a while.
-Once you have created your desired infusion, strain out herb from the infusion and put in a new clean pot. Add your honey and bring up to a simmer again.
-At this point, you are “simmering down” your syrup to the consistency you like. This may also take a while. Stir a bit here and there if you want. Some syrups can be runnier with more water content, others can be simmered down more to be a bit thicker. It just depends up on the length of simmering. A couple notes: syrups are runnier at a higher temperature, so it will be a bit thicker when it is cooled down. Also, y0u have yet to add Black Strap Molasses, which may also add thickness.
-Final step: once you have simmered down to your desired syrup consistency, add the Molasses to the mixture and stir while it is still hot. Let cool.
-Add cooled Black Nettle Syrup to desired container, preferably glass and amber-tinted. Make sure to store syrup in fridge when not in use.
References: NutritionData.com. The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood. Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism. Personal experience and knowledge.
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“The Herbal Resistance is a group dedicated to preserving the use of herbs regardless of outside interference. Our goal is to be a clearing house of information on how to practice herbalism in difficult or illegal situations. This includes the growing of gardens, the making of medicines and the care of those in need.”
Artwork by Adrian White
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In my mind, Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) has often struck me as a “Swan Medicine.” Like a Swan, it is elegant, found near the edges of fresh waters, practically always with its roots at least partially submerged. Both living things share the same marshy ecosystems. It evokes sweetness and gentleness; and yet, it is a plant that needs respect and should not be taken too far out of context. Think of the calmness and beauty most people associate with Swans– and then how nasty they can be if they feel threatened. It is the same with Sweet Flag, also called Calamus– a really calming ally, if you approach it carefully. That is why I paired Sweet Flag with the Whistling Swan, since both animal and plant are also native to Iowa and they seem to “fit” with each other.
“Calming” is the most prominent action of Calamus, but it is not a “sleepy” kind of calming. It is more so an enhancing effect on one’s sense of well-being and it does not make one feel tired. That is why it is hard to categorize it as a sedative, because its effects can also be seen as stimulating (chewing on Calamus leaves has been compared to chewing on the Coca leaf). Either way, Calamus has amazing sway over the nervous and neuro-endocrine systems. It is a popular alleviation for depression, stress, trauma, even PTSD. Among herbalists it is one of the favored herbs for treating tobacco withdrawal, as it seems to take that harsh edge of the worst nic-fit, and reduces cravings. Traditionally, the root was favored and typically chewed on its own, imparting a pungent spicy-sweet flavor.
But as stated before, Calamus can be taken too far and one should be careful using it; in fact, there are FDA regulations on Calamus, as it is a prohibited substance and cannot be sold as food or additive of any kind. Internal use of it has been misused by some, giving this beautiful plant a bad rap. If enough of the root is chewed, it could induce hallucinations, an effect commonly considered unpleasant. The root has also been known to amplify the effects of other powerful sedatives, so use of Calamus combined with such medications is really not a good idea. Calamus has also been pegged as containing carcinogens– which is true, yet the amounts of them are so small that if kept within the bounds of the herbalist’s recommended dose, they should really pose no harm in the short-term. Last, of course: avoid use of this plant if you are pregnant or breastfeeding! You can’t be sure of how a little undeveloped human’s physiology will tolerate something compared to ours.
While herbal medicine can be an amazing medium to tap into for bettering your health, it is important to know your herbs and what they do! It is just like with wildlife. If we see an animal we like, especially a wild one, we don’t just barrel towards it without thinking. The same goes for plants. Respect your herbs, know your herbs!
References: Herbal/Medical Contraindications by Michael Moore. Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech. FDA.gov. Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist. Personal experience.
Artwork by Adrian White