**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
Pink Eye is a nasty thing to deal with. Especially if you’re someone with kids and then have to keep them home, those little hands find their way all over the place, getting into dirt, eyes, pet fur…you get the picture. Getting it as an adult is no more fun, because that means “quarantine” and missing who knows how many days of work or other matters, until it gets better. Some people brave it and forge their way to work, but I like to keep my goopy eyes well out of the way of others potentially contracting it.
As Pink Eye (also called Conjunctivitis) can be potentially either viral or bacterial, there are many different methods of helping treat it with the use of herbs. California Curandero and herbalist Charles Garcia has his famous pink eye tisane, featuring a motley crew of common antiviral and antimicrobial plants that can be found in the kitchen or the grocery store.
If you are more of the wild herb-gatherer like myself, I have found that White Pine (Pinus strobus) is an immensely helpful ally for pink eye. The tree is a native denizen of Iowa, although its natural numbers are disappearing with each year. You can see the last remaining “wild population” of White Pines out by White Pine Hollow State Preserve, south of Dubuque and near the towns of Colesburg and Luxemburg. Fortunately for herbalists and the species, though, it is common in yards and windbreaks within cities.
You can harvest fresh needles from the tree without harming it, which are incredibly medicinal and known in the world of herbalism as being among the most potent, powerful antimicrobials one can utilize in the plant world. It is the saps/resins that run through the White Pine and these needles that are notorious for such properties. Traditionally, White Pine was used for fighting respiratory infections (both bacterial and viral) and as a wound-wash. White Pine is not the only useful Pine– there are many others, such as Jack Pines, Red Pines and Ponderosa Pines, but the strength of their medicines vary widely. It is up to the herbalist to determine which one they prefer, as they are all each different, but very usable.
I recently worked with the tree for a case of pink eye, to find the infection on the run in just a couple days– goopiness gone, eyes less red and pain significantly less noticeable. White Pine helped clear up the issue in just a few days.
Here are a few methods for using Pine to combat pink eye:
WHITE PINE TISANE
The easiest thing you can make using White Pine is a tea or tisane. This is simple– throw a handful of freshly-picked needles into water on a metal pot on the stove, and simmer for about an hour, on medium-low. Turn the heat down of course, and wait for the tisane to cool. There you have your wash. The best tisane you could make would be from the tender needles that are present on the tree in Spring.
You can cup your hands in the water and wash it into your eyes, thoroughly rinsing your eyes out with plain cold water afterward.
WHITE PINE TINCTURE
A tincture of White Pine resins is what I have seen do wonders. Of course, I must emphasize– you absolutely must dilute about 5 drops of this tincture into one fluid ounce of cold water to use it as an eyewash. Any other method, whether plain tincture or other ratio, and you are going to hurt yourself. When you first add the incredibly minute amount of drops to the water, you may see the water turn a slightly milky color. This is normal.
I also find that Pine tinctures are among the most delightful to make. After collecting tons of sticky resin in the early Spring, when the sap is flowing, you can scrape it off and drop it into your own high-proof alcohol, and watch as days go by the resin slowly and perfectly dissolve into the menstruum. When the resin completely disappears you know the tincture is ready, and unlike most other tinctures you don’t have spent herbal matter to toil through, press, or strain out!
Note: if you are experiencing pink eye/conjunctivitis symptoms, please consult with a professional health care provider for the best results on how to take care of the issue.
**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
Properties: Tonic, Bitter Tonic, Aromatic, Carminative, Adaptogen, Stimulating Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-spasmodic, Immune Booster, Antimicrobial, Emmenagogue
Energetics: Damp and warming, Sweet
Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves
When first walking the woods of Iowa out by where I live, I came across swathes of forest that were completely carpeted with an interesting looking herb.
I turned to a few people I knew and asked them what it may be, describing it in detail. One of them was an ecologist, another a biologist, yet another a dedicated explorer of wilderness. I was surprised that they were each baffled, having not fully noticed the plant before, as it is not all that memorable. One of them suggested it was Greek Valerian, or Jacob’s Ladder, but it was a mis-match. One of them even brought up Poison Hemlock: “No, no, no- definitely not that!” A lot of time went by before thinking of the plant again, even though I continued to see it everywhere: while hiking, fishing, or gathering other herbs. It is quite ubiquitous but unremarkable in appearance. Nonetheless, it learned how to catch my eye.
Then, through a series of interesting events, I stumbled upon a picture of the plant in a plant guide. “Sweet Cicely” was what it was called, an obscure member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae. There was little information on it in herbals, so I didn’t focus on it too much. Then, I was shocked and pleased to discover that it was considered to be a very important cornerstone in Cherokee Herbal Medicine, via herbalist David Winston. With some study I came to understand that it was also important to many other Native American tribes in our history as well, collectively a stomach/bowel remedy and Woman’s Medicine. In the end, though, it was the word “adaptogen” that rang in my ears and started to get me excited!
This plant is not to be confused with the Sweet Cicely of European Herbalism fame, Myrrhis odorata. They do have some effects in common, but rather, this low-growing plant found in damp, intact woodlands is very much native to the United States, and here in Iowa particularly. To avoid mix-up with its cousin Myrrhis, I have opted to call it “Sweetroot” instead, and will refer to it as such throughout this article.
Belonging instead to the genus Osmorhiza, the species longistylis and claytonii are quite prevalent in the Midwest, with occidentalis being the denizen root of the Rocky Mountains and the West. As my beginning story foretells, this plant blends inconspicuously and expertly with the surrounding undergrowth. There is hardly anything remarkable about it, nothing suspicious in its humble appearance, as it grows undistinguished and modest among its fellows. It’s only when you read about it and learn to pick it out, like I did, and dig up your first plant at the root– taking a little nibble at its sweet, licorice-tasting skin– that you realize the wild medicine you’ve stumbled upon. Then, standing up and looking around at the sheer numbers of this plant surrounding you, it dawns on you exactly what wonderful prospects this plant may hold.
Smelling or taste-testing Sweetroot, in the process of its harvest, is quite important. Some roots are medicinal, and some are not. The most medicinal ones are those plants with roots having the strongest licorice aroma, a smell found also in some of Sweetroot’s relatives in the Carrot family. This smell indicates the presence of anethole, a camphor that is found in other herbs like Licorice, Anise Hyssop and Basil. Anethole spans across different plant families, but is most commonly found in the world’s favorite medicinal and culinary herbs.
The smell itself is a signal of Sweetroot’s remedy. You can usually tell with a few sniffs of the plant, or smelling your hand after handling the root. I personally like to take a few nibbles.
First of all, though, make absolutely, 100% sure that the plants you are looking at are indeed Sweetroot plants. Some people have been known to mis-identify Sweetroot with its dangerous cousin, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). A nibble of Poison Hemlock root will send you head-long into the beginnings of poisoning and symptoms of heart failure. If you are not confident with your plant identification skills, bring someone with you who is for the harvest of this medicine, whether that be a biologist, botanist or very experienced herbalist. For those who are confident, Poison Hemlock leaves have a stronger resemblance to Parsley (also a relative) while Sweetroot leaves have a softer, feathery look, more similar to Angelica (yet another relative, too!).
With so many mentions to its close relatives, Sweetroot shares in some of their attributes too. Southwestern herbalist Kiva Rose touches upon Sweetroot’s actions as a gastrointestinal aid. With roots that remind one of the tastes of Anise, Fennel and Tarragon, Sweetroot occupies a similar herbal niche, promoting and assisting with difficult or troubled digestion. Says Rose of the occidentalis species, “[Sweetroot is] very belly soothing for all kinds of nausea, infection and general belly out-of-whackness.” Its warming actions are perfect for cramps of the stomach, and the spasms of hiccups. A preparation of the herb would do well as an aperitif/digestif, and with its delicious taste, I can’t help but envision it as the perfect addition to an herbal beverage, swirling with cool cucumbers or a sprig of mint. My fiance and fellow wild-food enthusiast William Lorentzen, upon taste-testing the root along with me, commented on how awesome it would be stir-fried and thrown into Indian and Thai dishes.
As a warming ally to the digestive tract, Sweetroot’s effects also extend to female complaints. Like another one of its close relatives, Angelica, a signature of bitter aromatics indicates a calming remedy for cramps and spasms of the uterus. A classic bit of herbal lore holds the use of candied Angelica root, on hand, for chewing during the worst of menstrual cramps. I have often thought that, to the same capabilities, Sweetroot may be excellent for the very same use– a candied root would be quite scrumptious. Finnish Herbalist Henriette Kress talks about keeping candied Angelica roots in her purse for chewing at the onset of “moon sickness,” in the first installment of her book, Practical Herbs. American Indian women from various tribes were apparently acquainted with its ability to ease difficult menses. The Chippewa particularly were cited to use a hot decoction of the root to bring on delayed periods.
In fact, we certainly have Native American tribes to thank for the knowledge of its use at all, even though it is not one of the most recognized herbs today. Predominantly Midwestern nations, who would have had access to the species Osmorhiza longistylis and claytonii, are mentioned as pioneering Sweetroot’s use as both a stomach and female remedy, but also as a “woundwort.” Among these are the Omaha, Meskwaki, and Ojibway peoples, but doubtless there are many more.
Through David Winston, practitioner of Cherokee Herbal Medicine, we have knowledge of its use by the Cherokee Indians. Thanks to him and Cherokee folk medicine people, a bit of recognition for the plant is slowly entering the consciousness of mainstream herbalism, and it’s about time! Winston says the root was, and still is, used to strengthen the weak and those with “depleted life force,” helping the frail put on weight. The root was decocted and drank as a tea, most likely. In Matthew Wood’s classification of herbs, this plant would likely to be designated a Bear Medicine for the very reasons of being nutritive, sweet, tasty, and restoring strength.
But what is probably of greatest interest to herbalists is Sweetroot’s ability to fulfill the role of an adaptogen– because it is an adaptogen! Strengthening and toning the body is only one thing it does. But Cherokee herbalism would have it that it is also tonifying to the lungs and mucus membranes, replenishing what is called “deficient lung qui” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and improving our overall abilities to cope with illnesses, stress, and other undesirable changes. Having the plant handy going into the winter and cold/flu season is another facet of its use. It can be categorized with other herbs like Ginseng, Reishi mushroom and Schizandra for having similar effects to some extent.
Winston goes so far as to say, with confidence, that one could replace the use of both Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) with Sweetroot in their herbal practice. Sweetroot was actually compared strongly to Licorice, having similar flavor, adaptogenic qualities and effects suited to colds, coughs and sore throats.
That, to me, isn’t even the most intriguing part of discovering Sweetroot’s capabilities as an adaptogen. Due to its availability, comparing it to other adaptogens, and being an herbalist who prefers the forage/use of wild native herbs, Sweetroot is perfect for someone who wants to keep their practice as ethical and sustainable as possible, and without having to think about the welfare of the entire species with more ecological concern than needed– populations of Osmorhiza, around that States, are considered federally stable.
One thinks of the examples of more widely-known adaptogens: plants which typically are known for being rare or endangered, as in the case of Ginseng; plants that are a challenge to fully cultivate and use as our own personal medicines, such as Ashwagandha or Reishi; or herbs that seem unethical or very distant, as they are sourced from other countries thousands of miles away, like Jiao-Gu-Lan. Many famous adaptogens are of Asian origin, and the native ones that we wish to feel close to here in the Midwest are herbs that we should leave alone: that includes the wild Ginseng and Licorice we take pride in. Of course, they can be cultivated, but experienced herbalists know firsthand that cultivation just isn’t the same. Neither is knowing a plant strictly through a capsule or imported tincture as satisfying as knowing and working with the plant personally.
Which is why I would urge any herbalist who relies on adaptogens to get acquainted with Sweetroot, whether it be just for themselves and their families or a clinical practice. If you wish to be an herbalist and fit seamlessly into an ecological or bioregional niche of herbalism, you’re not being practical leaning on a plant like Eleuthero to cover those bases (although, Eleuthero has its own wonderful virtues). Popular adaptogens are amazing and legendary for their effects on health, but can you form a wild relationship with the plant? Probably not. The best adaptogen you can form a personal rapport with, in the wild Midwest, would be Sweetroot.
If you live in the Midwest or Eastern United States, take a walk in damp woods near a creek or river, and you’ll probably find Sweetroot, growing with Wood Nettles, Virginia Snakeroot or Elder. Just like its common forest companions– there is plenty to spare. Not something that could be said for an admirable and unequivocal adaptogen like Ginseng, nor is it as strong, but it is amazing what the bond of herb and herbalist can do. If you do choose to harvest it for yourself or others, remember always to harvest responsibly.
A Modern Herbal by M. Maude Grieve. Randall Scheiner, Federal Ecologist. Lisa Maas, Federal Biologist. David Winston, Cherokee Herbalist/CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, James A. Duke and other editors. Kiva Rose/The Medicine Woman’s Roots. Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress.
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This article is a version of an expanded one to be featured in the Essential Herbal fall issue, which will include a foray into not only Oxymel-making but the art of herbal Kombuchas!
The word “Oxymel” comes from ancient Greek, literally meaning “Acid and Honey,” being an herbal preparation made with vinegar and honey. It was a medicinal libation back in the old days that has lost consideration and familiarity with the passing of time, but creeps back into popular herbalism today, slowly but surely. Further along in the article, I will happily provide my own take on Oxymels in a recipe, as there are many ways to create them.
Oxymels really drew me when I first heard of them from local Iowa City Herbalist Mandy Garner Dickerson, owner, operator, and curator of Moon in June Herbs. Being that sour is my most favorite flavor, and sweet a close second (although I’d say it ties with bitter), the mixture of sweet and sour sounded so delicious I was instantly tantalized into making an Oxymel myself; especially after tasting one of Mandy’s delicious homemade blends. I am, admittedly, a sucker for sweet and sour dishes at practically any Asian restaurant, ordering them without so much as a glance at the rest of the menu. So there you go– anything involving sweet and sour, and you have my immediate, undivided attention.
What is the virtue of an Oxymel? Well, besides the wonderful combination of sweet and sour, it functions as an alternative to tinctures for specific herbs. Taste-wise, certain flavors that may be eclipsed in a tincture, tea, or elixir are emphasized in an Oxymel. It also brings together blends of individual herbs that, otherwise, may not be as compatible with each other in other mediums. In short, it is a new way of exploring herbal preparations; it’s like switching from sketching paper to a canvas palette, bringing out each herb differently like each medium brings out individual colors and textures. Particular liquid extracts enhance the value of herbs in varying, but equally important, ways.
But along the lines of herbal syrups and vinegars, Oxymels coax out the medicinal constituents of herbs in a much different way than tincture or tea. In fact, an Oxymel will bring out medicine and properties that alcohol cannot in any tincture, at least not as well. Certain herbs lend themselves much more readily to vinegars and honeys than to anything else, especially high-content food herbs like Nettle, Chickweed, or Horsetail. The most practical aspect to an Oxymel is its ability to render important nutritive minerals that alcohol can’t: silica, iron, potassium, zinc. On the other hand, more medicinally potent properties need alcohol to emerge (triterpenes, volatile oils, etc.). Vinegar preparations particularly have less potency with dosage than tinctures. One must use more to have the same effect.
Ideally, though, you can capture the entire portrait of an herb’s effects with a mixture of vinegar, water, and alcohol. In Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine, he notes that it is a good idea to not only preserve your vinegars with some alcohol, but to have it accompany the preparation for the sake of letting other constituents be drawn out, making the creation more complete. Remedial use with an Oxymel is warranted, of course, but many herbalists also find joy in it more recreationally (including myself).
Various herbalism blogs on the web have written about Oxymels, and in some ways, it is a bit of a frontier for a lot of herbalists as a preparation– not as popular as tinctures, salves, or other crafts, but it is getting there. The most renowned Oxymel is Rosemary Gladstar’s famous Fire Cider. This is a pungent medley, arguably one of the best cold-fighting herbal remedies out there. If you want a recipe on how to make your own homemade Fire Cider, please visit the Mountain Rose Blog’s excellent recipe that pays all due respects and homage to the lovely herbalist who introduced it to the rest of the world.
As many herbalists and herb-lovers well know, the freedom to make and sell Fire Cider is being threatened by a very corporate-minded, non-herbalist company called Shire City Herbals who trademarked the term “Fire Cider.” This company is currently making the rounds and finding satisfaction in bullying any herbalist or establishment that sells or hitherto has sold Fire Cider to support themselves and make a living. Many people have compared this to trademarking the word “Tea” and then being litigious against anyone who sells tea. Furthermore, the company itself has no ownership rights over the idea itself, having not invented the concoction at all. If you wish to petition Shire City Herbals I would recommend you do so by following the link. This conflict with Fire Cider easily defines the current era of struggles the herbalist has to face against corporations, and their fear of plant medicine at large. This is a prime example of our rights to our own personal medicines being threatened, and if it matters to you– please sign and participate.
COOL & SOUR DETOXYMEL – ADRIAN WHITE, HERBALIST
Here is an Oxymel recipe using cool and damp herbs, perfect for the upcoming hottest of summer months. One sip of it hydrates deeply and opens the pores. It is also a little detoxifying so as to help you kick any lingering winter stagnation.
This particular Oxymel has an array of virtues: firstly it is cooling to the organs, most notably the liver and lower digestive system, helping regulate things down there. As an alterative, it may help with lingering viruses or other issues trapped in the lymph, without losing your body much needed moisture. The herbs in this blend will soothe and bring down most fevers, allowing the pores to open and sweat heat out gently. It’s also a relaxing expectorant helpful with dry, hacking coughs and colds. Finally, it acts quite a bit like an electrolyte solution and helps your body maintain and regain moisture incredibly well!
- 2-4 Cups chopped Rhubarb (fresh)
- 2 Cups Violet flowers (dried of fresh)
- 1 Cup Wild Cherry Bark
- 4-5 Cups Honey (preferably raw/organic)
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 Beet (optional, for color)
- High-Proof Alcohol (Everclear/Brandy; optional, for preservation)
-Place chopped Rhubarb and Violet flowers in a jar, preferably in an amber-tinted glass jar that can be sealed tight. Pour Apple Cider Vinegar over herbs until evenly covered, and all herbs appear to float but touch one another. Cover tightly. Let steep (or “macerate”) for 2 weeks or longer in a cool, dark place.
*Optional* Add a tad bit of alcohol to aid with maceration process, as it will help draw out some constituents that vinegar will miss. If you like, chop or grate one Beet into the mixture too, for added color and detoxifying effect.
-Once you have macerated your vinegar the full time length, infuse an herbal syrup with the honey and Wild Cherry bark. For a basic herbal syrup recipe, click here; substitute Nettle for Wild Cherry bark instead, and refrain from adding black strap molasses. Follow your intuition.
Note: This is where my recipe is a bit more original, with a stronger focus on being a remedy as most recipes will call that you combine vinegar and honey with all the herbs together, and either cold steep all of them, or simmer all of them. However, if you are looking for strong medicinal actions from all combined herbs, they will need to be prepared separately (bark with a hot decoction/syrup, and damp herbs like rhubarb and violets lose their virtues in heat, and thus need cold-steeping).
-When done making the honey, strain out or press out all herbs from your vinegar preparation and pour the liquid into desired glass container for storage. Then add cooled herbal honey into container with vinegar, to mix. If you so like, you can add small amounts of the Wild Cherry bark syrup to the vinegar to taste so you get just the right blend of sweet and sour.
-Drink and enjoy. When I use an Oxymel, I pour about 1 inch of the mixture in the bottom of a glass and then dilute it with water for a cool, refreshing drink.
A Bushel and a Peck: Oxymel Tutorial. Wicktionary.org. The Mountain Rose Blog. Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech.
Essential Herbal’s new issue is out, and with such an amazing, eye-popping cover this month. I don’t think I have ever seen a pile of herbs that make me want to just jump in and devour them all at once, even though we all know that would be dangerous (especially considering the juicy-looking Poke berries sitting right there on top).
Plenty of wonderful articles to start Summer’s foray into wildcrafting, gathering, and preparations: an amazingly thorough article on Herbal Skin Care by herbalist Suzan Tobias Scholl, deliciously cool Herbal Syrup Beverages by Iowa City Herbalist Stephany Hoffelt, and much more intriguing lore. My full length article on nutritious Black Strap Syrups is featured this month, basically an expanded version of my Black Nettle syrup article here but which also explores other high-nutrient, nourishing additions to a black strap molasses/honey medium. So you want to know what else you can put into a Black Strap Syrup that could be an allergy-relieving supplement? Well, you’re going to have to get your hands on an issue to find out!
Visit the Essential Herbal Website either to subscribe or purchase this month’s issue alone! Thank you again Tina Sams for including my work!