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!
*Note: the intention of this article is not to promote the use of any herbs in this matter, but to be purely educational.
“Dreams are the answers to questions we haven’t yet learned how to ask.” -Dana Scully
“Dreamers, Huila said, held great knowledge, and much medicine was worked in the dream time.” -The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“Dreams are revelation, the substrate of consciousness.” -Dale Pendell, Pharmakodynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft
For all you herbalists out there who love a little dose of the “plant magick” and herbal dream-time, well here’s the article for you.
Herbalism commonly deals with medicine of the physical realm, but in more ancient times, its uses both physical and spiritual once reached an inseparable blend. Nowadays, herbalism has an overall physical focus. But let’s not forget the less tangible effects of some of our favorite herbs and how they can expound upon our health in ways that, while being unconventional, were once considered integral and important to well-being.
One of these ways was through the Dreamtime. Besides these just being herbs that directly stimulate the mind and help us remember and enliven our dreams, they are much more subtle than all that. Some of them just help us get back in touch with the imagination, our impressions, our intuition and our subconscious. Some of them ease doubt, depression, sadness, restlessness, anxiety and dysphoria, and help us center ourselves and attune to our most powerful inner voice, while silencing others. Some, also, are believed to be spiritually purifying, cleansing, detoxifying, purgative.
But to put it more simply: they help us get back in touch with how we really feel at the bottom of all the daily events we experience. Being able to remember a dream and take apart its meaning can be of a great help or insight into our lives. Getting in touch with our most subconscious, deepest instincts on things can help us cut through all the excess nonsense we have to put up with in our lives– stress, drama, and the list goes on.
At that, these herbs were not just reserved for those needing to be healed. Herbalists and healers in ancient times used herbs not only to enact as plant medicine on others, but would form relationships with certain plants and use them for themselves; for aid in knowing more about a client, knowing more about a plant, or to find the ideal remedy or help for the person concerned. These plants throughout history in many cultures perhaps best served to bring one to a mind state where healing advice, ideas, and intuitions came to the healer the easiest. A lot of the following plants could be called “Dream Herbs.”
If you have more interest in dreams and dreaming, please visit my other page, “Dreamwork,” which goes deeper into a whole other level of the Dreamtime– Dream Interpretation. I provide services involving dreams and dream interpretation, and you are more than welcome to explore.
ANGELICA (Angelica archangelica)
Angelica is a traditional Eurasian shaman’s herb. In my mind, the image of Angelica is right there along with Fly Agaric as it was favored by more northern-dwelling peoples. The Celts, Sami and doubtless other Northern folk considered it a favorite.
Besides being the original material to craft the classical “magic wand,” Angelica’s internal effects are subtle and mind-changing. Herbalist Matthew Wood says of it that it “opens the sphincter of the mind,” helping us become more open and in tune to our imaginations. Its stalks are hollow, like a long tube, which evoke the thought of “journeying to the other side,” a state that shamans sought to achieve. Many shamans report that travel into the spirit world is like journeying through a long, dark tunnel, or tube.
Taking the plant could give that little “push” your dream-life needs. It also helps with issues that involve emptiness and feeling hollow, which often bring us to a dreamless, uninspired life. Iowa City herbalist Stephany Hoffelt says that the Celts used Angelica as an old remedy for grief. The seeds, roots, and sometimes stalks are the best for use. If you are into such things, the root smells wonderful burnt as an incense, and its subtlety can be felt that way as well.
Angelica should be avoided if you are pregnant or nursing, as it has been known to cause uterine contractions, but that is only if you are using it daily in high amounts.
BOLDO (Peumus boldus)
Boldo is a popular culinary spice in Hispanic cooking, used in place of Bay leaves. It has also been an upheld Native-Hispanic folk medicine herb, especially in South America– but if you wander into some little tiendas in the United States you will more than likely find it.
The Mapuche Indians of Chile were known to burn the leaves of this plant as an incense, in order to aid them in reaching a trance state. The powerful female shamans, called machi, were masters of its use. Some shamans took heavy internal doses in order to induce visions and a strong trance state– but seeing as Boldo contains boldine, a potentially dangerous alkaloid, this is absolutely not recommended.
Boldo is also a popular admixture to some Hispanic teas, especially Mate. In small amounts, sporadically, it is perfectly safe and has been used internally in small culinary amounts for centuries, if not millenia. One uses it that way, or in small amounts in your home as an incense or in a dream-incense blend. Boldo is very sedative, has been used as a painkiller and anesthetic for surgery, as well as for epilepsy, so you can gather that this plant has a considerable effect on the nervous system and the mind.
If you have liver or gallbladder disease of any sort, you should avoid Boldo altogether. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take it or inhale it. Boldo is known to interact with certain medications. If you are taking any medications make sure to consult with a professional healthcare provider before using.
CALAMUS (SWEET FLAG) (Acorus calamus)
Calamus’ use for these such purposes has its roots adrift in many cultures. In Iowa and the Midwest, though, it is obviously owed to Native Americans, and in my opinion their mastery of it was the best and most interesting. In fact, both Native histories and ethnobotanists maintain that the presence of Calamus in vast, odd patches in the Midwest is owed to care, cultivation, and transplanting by Medicine People of the distant past. This attests to how important this plant medicine was considered in North American folklore.
Calamus root may be eaten, chewed, smoked or burnt as incense, or added to various preparations. Its flavor is unique and pleasant– sharp, sweet and clarifying. Various Plains Indian people would use the root for ceremonies. The Teton Dakotas put the root poultice on their faces to help them overcome fear when entering battle. It was also a favorite for singers during pow-wow performances requiring vocalizations for hours on end– the root helps numb tired vocal chords, as well as place the singer in the right mind state for spiritual song.
Overall, the effects of Calamus are attributed with calming you, but not in a sleepy way. It makes you more alert, centered, and even stimulated; in fact, the effects of Calamus have been compared to that of the traditional Coca leaf. It calms by increasing a sense of well-being. This is perfect for tapping into the subconscious and Dreamtime. It helps you slow down enough to be open to insights and remember your dreams, as well as stimulating them and lending more lucidity to those who seek it.
FDA regulates on internal use of Calamus. To be safe, its use as an incense or in an incense blend is preferable– doses of the plant, if overdone, have been known to cause undesirable effects. If you do choose to take it internally, make sure you are following dosage recommendations, not pregnant, breastfeeding, taking heavily sedative drugs and other herbs or using Calamus in considerable amounts on a daily basis.
CALEA ZACATECHICHI (BITTERGRASS) (Calea ternifolia)
This herb has many pseudonyms: Dog Grass, Leaf of God, Thle-pelakano. Zacatechichi is a more commonly used title, which is a Nahuatl word meaning Bitter Grass. Calea refers to its genus, of which most of the species are not even mind-altering in the least. Thus the most common name: Calea Zacatechichi. For me, the mere thought or sight of this plant’s name evokes imagery of Toltec gods, jungle shamans and copal incense.
Zacatechichi was used for divinatory and healing purposes, and still is today, in many parts of Mexico and Central America. Oaxacan villages used it for physical ails, but the shamans there would take it to answer elusive questions pertaining to health, or to find lost objects. It was both smoked and infused as a tea. Its taste is incredibly bitter, very comparable to Wormwood (Artemisia absinthiuum), but its cerebral effects are notably different. I very much love the tea, but some may consider it unpalatable– adding a tad bit of honey can fix that.
For some, a cup of Zacatechichi tea creates a sense of calm and well being, which can last for several days. For others, it is similar, but upon going to bed and waking up, the most meaningful and realistic dreams are recalled. If I were to point to any single herb with the most efficacy at generating dreams that actually convey strong messages, this one would be it. It also stimulates a great deal of lucidity for the average dreaming newcomer. If you have a great need to get in touch with yourself, then get to know Calea.
None known contraindications; however, the higher the dose, the more “hallucinogenic” this plant becomes, which is generally unpleasant for most people.
ESTAFIATE (WESTERN MUGWORT/WHITE SAGE) (Artemisia ludoviciana)
This is the classic White Sage of the Great Plains Indians, constantly adopted and co-opted for use as smudge for clearing negativity and depression. Because the plant looked and smelled somewhat similar to the Salvia sage of Europe, which was also used for purification, white culture picked up on this use too. Since it also aids with dreaming and is related to Mugwort, Western Mugwort became one sobriquet. Estafiate is the Spanish title, plucked from the Southwestern natives and integrated into Native-hispanic medicine as a key-player, honored for the same uses. In Iowa, this plant is actually not that uncommon. I see its silvery leaves quite often along roadsides and ditches, especially in late summer.
Estafiate is actually not a sage at all, it is an Artemisia, more closely related to Dandelion and Lettuce than any mint or sage. To hail respectfully to its native use, many tribes of the West used the plant to purify and cleanse things of negativity and bad influences. Leaves were lain on the soil around dwellings that needed protection; the burnt plant as an incense smudged the air within. It was also used in sweat ceremonies, not only for spiritual purification and renewal, but also because the plant’s oils in a steam were incredibly moving for the lungs. Estafiate cleared the mind and soul, but also the body, through the pores and lungs. No doubt this observation of physical, purgative effects led to a similar belief for the spiritual.
Smudge or smoke of this plant clears the air of “bad vibes,” “woo,” evil spirits, bad influences, witchcraft, sorcery, or negative thought forms. It also stimulates inspiration and the Dreamtime. Over any smoke or smudge, I prefer to make and drink a strong Estafiate infusion. A tea of it is alkaloidal-bitter, just like Zacatechichi, Wormwood or Mugwort, but still effective. If anything, this plant may increase the faculties of imagination, but more so, it may keep out most of the negative ones. if you specifically want to comb through the nightmares and get to something more pleasant, this would be your herb.
Large doses of Estafiate are known to be toxic. At one time or another, FDA classified all Artemisia species as an unsafe herb containing a “volatile oil, which is an active, narcotic poision.” I’m not certain if this is still in effect, but take care if using this herb, and make sure to avoid its use of you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
HAREBELLS (Campanula rotundifolia)
This is the “cliff spirit” plant of Iowa, the Kachina of the Midwest, the mischievous dweller of rocky slopes in isolated wildernesses. Harebells is an alpine plant found in every continent within Northern latitudes, wherever there is high elevation, craggy slopes, and open fields. In Iowa, that would be the magical Algific Talus Slopes in the Driftless Region, little pockets of faerie-world where the air and vegetation matches that of the Great Northern Woods. Odd plants that are usually native to the far north can live and grow there. When you tread into these spaces, you feel like you enter a different world.
Which is quite pertinent a place for a Harebells to grow, since this little bluebell-esque flower is shrouded with faerie lore from the British Isles and trickster tales from Native America. The herb was ascribed the ability to let mortals glimpse or cross into the faerie or spirit world, but to also risk being ensnared by traps and malevolent influences from the other side. Seeing its presence usually meant that you were entering territory where the boundaries to the spirit world were rubbed thin– you could get lost in the woods, the faeries could trap you, or worse. Scottish tales warn against pulling up the plant without fearing bad energy to follow you– likewise, in Native lore of the Haida Indians, pulling up Harebells was said to bring storms and make it rain. It’s interesting that beliefs across continents were similar.
The use of Harebells as a dream herb, unfortunately, can only be speculative today. This plant is not regarded or upheld in any modern herbalist practice, and its effects have not been clinically explored either. But ancient, traditional and empirical lore has plenty to suggest it was a dreaming ally of sorts, though its use has been lost. The name of the plant itself, “Harebells,” came from European witches who used the root for shape-shifting medicine: the juice of it allowed them to turn into hares, in order to go about some of their more “rabbit-oriented” tasks, I suppose. Harebells was also a purported ingredient for “Flying Ointment,” a witch’s brew for Dreamtime adventures, astral travel. Haida Indians used it as a purifying smudge for various ills. Navajo rubbed poultice of the root for protection from sorcery or enemies. The root was also purportedly sedative, being chewed for depression. So, obviously, our various ancestors were aware of its ability to help us reach a more intuitive state, or to attune with the beyond.
Harebell root and leaf are known to be edible. Its use in medicinal amounts and daily, long-term use are very much unexplored, so to avoid “malevolent interference by faeries” (so to speak), exercise great caution with its use.
MUGWORT (Artemisia vulgaris)
No article on classic Dreamtime herbs can go long without including the notorious Mugwort. In fact, the herb itself is synonymous with dreaming– back in the dark ages, its name was associated with witches and sorcery. “Witch’s Herb” was a telling nickname. This was another one of the favorite additions to “Flying Ointments,” the mysterious salve used for Dreamtime work and other esoteric pursuits. Today, Mugwort has many other reputed uses, but dreaming is definitely its trademark.
Mugwort is quite closely related to Wormwood, the famous admixture to Absinthe. They look rather similar, too, and both were more than likely used for trance states and journeying– however, Wormwood is arguably way more overbearing than Mugwort, even toxic if used too much or too often. For lighter, more casual use, I would very much recommend Mugwort. In those who struggle with dreams and remembering them, Mugwort reportedly helps. For some who already dream, they say it helps give them lucidity. However, some practitioners say that for those not usually accustomed to dreaming, Mugwort can create wild, uncontrollable, and very occasionally unpleasant dreams. One user of the plant I know said that you actually might need to practice with Mugwort to get to a lucid state. Thus, I would dub Mugwort the perfect “dream-teacher.”
Drinking a tea of it once in a while won’t hurt you, if you want your dream-life pushed a little. Mugwort as a salve or topical oil option is incredibly effective, too– I have made Mugwort salves of my own, rubbing a bit of it on my temples or major pressure points of my body before going to bed. It certainly does something. If it’s up your alley, Mugwort can be smoked as well. I like to throw it in with my smoking mixtures, typically made up of Mullein, Sumac leaf, Willow bark. There is strong traditional use of Mugwort in sachets or pillows too. The dried leaf is simply sewn up in a piece of cloth, and placed under your larger pillow in sleep.
Mugwort should not be taken or used if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as Mugwort is known to have a powerful effect on the uterus and menstruation. The plant can cause abortions, miscarriage, or premature labor. For some, Mugwort can cause allergic reactions. Be cautious with its use.
SWEET GALE (Myrica gale)
This is a wild plant from the Northern Great Lakes region, with relations to Myrtle, Allspice, Cloves and Eucalyptus. It grows and was used in Europe, likewise. Also called “Bog Myrtle,” the herb grows commonly by bodies of water, especially running water– typically, harvesting the plant requires one to access it by boat, most often a canoe or other small vessel. In Belgium and surrounding countries the plant was used to flavor beers, before the advent of Hops, as the plant is incredibly bitter. On the other hand, in America, various Native peoples found both medicinal and practical use for it. Lousiana Creole folk-medicine doctors had a place for it themselves, quite fitting for Sweet Gale’s “bayou” habitat.
In some lore maintained up until today, Sweet Gale was considered very useful for helping stimulate your dream life, or to obtain lucid dreaming. It is quite uncertain which cultures or traditions first used it in this way. But a tea or infusion, for some, has been known to do something to that extent. In comparison to other dream herbs, its effects are not as famous and, empirically, much less potent. For some, it could certainly be worth a try. Others have been known to smoke it if you happen to be the smoking type.
This herb should not be taken internally while pregnant or breastfeeding- may cause miscarriage.
YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is, perhaps, the most secret and overlooked of all dream herbs. That is because, in and of itself, it is sort of a secret. You won’t find much lore on it being a dream plant, except by word-of-mouth from some herb folks. The only official record of practiced, tried-and-true use, is in Traditional Hispanic Herbal medicine– but even then, the preparation of the plant is very much kept close, only passed down from practitioner to practitioner.
Yarrow has a strong tie to the I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes, which can make one wonder. Traditionally, yarrow stalks were used to cast the hexagrams through which the oracle gave a reading. Perhaps the herb was taken by the one giving the reading, in order to reach the correct mind state where one could receive impressions and intuitive advice more easily. This is only speculation, on my part. Yarrow contains thujone, a constituent found in Artemisias too– Mugwort, Wormwood, and Estafiate. It is also found in the common garden Sage, Salvia officinalis, as well as various Cedars and Junipers. The effects of thujone are said to calm, sedate, slow the heartbeat and alter the mind, if only barely– just enough to hear the voices of your subconscious, among others.
From empirical experience, those who have dreamed with Yarrow talk about some interesting brush-ins with lucidity. In fact, a sensation of feeling like you are “underwater” or “swimming” is reported among many. Above all else though, you are more aware of what is happening around you in the dream, and you take part of it more readily. Messages and clarity find their ways to you all the easier, and many have startling significance.
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Dale Pendell, Pharmakopeoia: Power Plants, Poisons and Herbcraft; Pharmakodynamis: Stimulating Plants, Poisons and Herbcraft; Pharmakognosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path. Kelly Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: an Ethnobotanical Guide. Matthew Wood, Herbalist. Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist. Charlies Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism. WebMD. Personal Experience/Observation.
Read more about the medicinal herbs of the Talus Slope, and Iowa Herbalism in general by clicking here.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). A pretty integral respiratory remedy in herbalism, this plant tackles ailments of the lungs like no other. Suited for both dry and damp coughs, the root preparation (full of flavor akin to cream soda) will help thin stubborn mucus in the lungs to make a dry cough easier to expel. For damp coughs, it is killer in combination with more stimulating expectorants like Angelica, Elecempane or its forest-floor companion in Iowa: Bloodroot.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was a favorite medicine among the American Indians of our area. Used in incredibly small doses, it is very stimulating to the lungs for respiratory ailments. Today it is being eyed for anti-cancer and anti-tumor effects, and is one of the favored ingredients of the “Black Salve,” a folk remedy still being used today to remove cancerous and non-cancerous superficial skin-growths, tumors, warts and others.
Warning: Incredibly toxic, use is not recommended without supervision or recommendation of an herbalist.
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) looks a bit like Bleeding Heart, and that is because the two are actually closely related. However, this wild cousin of the beautiful ornamental plant is much less used. Native Americans used the root as a strong love charm, the leaves as a poultice for skin issues, and bits of the root were thought to be blood-cleansing, as they promoted a strong sweat. The plant contains alkaloids that, like Bleeding Heart, may be intensely sedative on the central nervous system.
Warning: Fairly toxic. Personal and unprofessional use is not recommended.
Mayapples, or “American Mandrake” (Podophyllum paltatum). The fruits of this plant are edible, but the rest of the plant is greatly toxic in even the smallest amounts. It’s use, in incredibly small doses, is being studied for anti-cancer, anti-viral, and powerful cleansing and diuretic effects.
Warning: Use not recommended at all! Very toxic, except for fruits.
Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum), or “Ramps” as they are called traditionally. Patches of Ramps in Iowa are very rare and threatened these days! It was a thrill to find one intact. Quite a shame, as they are completely safe to eat and delicious, as well as medicinal. Ramp is similar to Garlic, but less potent. In the Appalachian Mountains, where their consumption and use is very popular, the Cherokee used to remedy coughs, colds, and flus with the tasty root.
Read more about the medicinal herbs of the Talus Slope, and Iowa Herbalism in general by clicking here.
~Photos taken by Adrian White. The information in this article is not intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe or promise cure. It’s purpose is to be purely educational.
**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.
I should also note, this article deals with my TMJ which is, on a scale, probably more mild . I cannot guarantee that the remedies I recommend will help with a more severe case.
It starts with headaches in the morning. Your sinuses feel crushed, your eyes feel like they’ve been punched as far back into your skull as they can go, and you definitely don’t feel well rested. Your teeth hurt, your jaw is tense. Your ears are ringing, or feel full of pressure. It’s easy to lop this off to the average morning headache, except they begin happening more and more frequently. Sometimes it’s accompanied with staying up really late, being unable to sleep, feeling tense, mind racing. You wake up in the middle of the night with your jaw clenched shut like a steel trap. Your partner, spouse, or others in your house say they hear a loud creaking noise at night– the sound of your teeth grinding intensely in your sleep.
Sometimes teeth grinding (also called Bruxism) is transitory, but others have to deal with it much longer as the result of a larger system of problems. When it gets that way, it is called Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, or TMJ.
It’s an amazingly minor issue. But that’s where half of the agony of it comes from– even I think calling it a “disorder” makes it seem much worse than it actually is. But I can tell you, though, that as I started to develop the symptoms myself, they were NOT pleasant. They are hampering, day-ruining, and difficult to alleviate. When you describe what you are going through to someone, and say that you have a “disorder”, their tendency is to say “Hey– doesn’t sound so bad, for a disorder.”
And– they’re right. But it sure doesn’t make the situation any better. It’s a non-serious “illness” that is still really painful, and can easily ruin an entire day. I would put it in the same category as migraines, cluster headaches, etc. since it impairs you quite similarly.
When you find out you have the disorder and start researching ways to make it better, you only find that there really isn’t a permanent fix or “cure” for TMJ. There is only palliative care to prevent the pain from reaching intolerable levels. As of yet, there is still no single, determined cause for TMJ, although there are pinpointed factors that lead up to developing its symptoms. It would appear that the disorder tends to be a “network” of issues, stemming from many different sources. There is also no determined cure– save for surgeries and operations costing people thousands of dollars at a time, which sometimes make the symptoms and condition worse, rather than helping it at all.
I didn’t receive an official diagnosis of TMJ from a doctor or dentist because I was terrified of going in to get help. I learned of the disorder by going through all the symptoms I was having, putting them together, and going from there. When TMJ popped up, it fit the puzzle perfectly; I immediately knew this was the problem I was having. However, upon doing further research on TMJ and case studies of people going in to get diagnosed, there were so many instances of patients having products, operations, and surgeries pushed very forcefully upon them. Some of them were horror stories, with people coming out with permanently disfigured faces and no relief from their pain. I knew I had TMJ, but did not want a dentist to confirm it for me and then badger me for going against their advice for useless surgery, expensive mouth guards, or even getting braces. Still, the pain of TMJ continued to haunt me, as many of those who suffer it can also relate.
The symptoms for Temperomandibular Joint Disorder are as follows: jaw, neck, and shoulder pain; grinding teeth at night, popping jaw, sometimes lock jaw; ear pain, tinnitus, sinus headaches, difficulty chewing, and spine issues. They really aren’t limited to all that– sometimes other issues may develop. This is all due to the fact that some sort of problem has developed within the delicate, highly mobile joint of the jaw, where it meets the skull. It is amazing how, through the association of muscles inter-connected through our bodies, the pain of TMJ can spread elsewhere. There are a variety of supposed reasons why these symptoms develop. Of note, the vast majority of TMJ sufferers are women, which at this point is just a statistic with no determined reason why this is the case.
The leading determined cause of TMJ is stress, but other reasons have been surmised– such as jaw/face/neck injury, poor bite, or even the result of recent major dental work. Excessive caffeine and alcohol use are definite factors too. If I were to apply basic Energetics to TMJ, I would say it is a cold, dry issue of the musculoskeletal system, although sometimes it can seem like more of a hot or warm condition with inflammation getting involved.
I am no doctor– but I am certainly an herbalist with empirical knowledge. I managed to, without seeing a doctor or dentist, turn to an arsenal of herbs and other support to help rid myself of symptoms of this heel-nipping disorder, and with some pretty lovely results.
REMEDIES- HERBS AND OTHERWISE
First things first– herbal medicine aside, get yourself a mouth guard. Not just any mouth guard, but the Smart Guard Elite. Wear it at night and you will find the symptoms of your TMJ about 80% obliterated. It has worked wonders for me, and is (literally) 100 times cheaper than some of the “front-line” mouth guards a dentist will tell you that you “need.” Not only does it help with the symptoms, but can help prevent a lot of the inherent damage that comes to your jaw or teeth when dealing with either Bruxism or TMJ– especially enamel wear.
While the mouth guard does help considerably, probably more so than anything, sometimes problems flare up for one reason or another. When that happens, I turn to certain herbs or other methods. The plants I find useful against TMJ after some experimentation with my apothecary were all quite interesting and versatile– in general, damp herbs work best, whether heating or cooling. It seems to depend on the needs, moment to moment.
-Hot/Damp Treatments. From a Western Herbalism perspective, it is hard to slap energetics on TMJ. But there is one thing I have found: hot and damp feels wonderful, and provides the quickest relief to that joint as well as you sinuses and ears. As such, you could classify TMJ as “Cold and Dry”– and definitely a constriction or tension issue.
Steams. Anything involving hot water helps. A simmering pot of water on the stove (not boiling!) is a great way to relieve the pain, placing your face and even each ear (if you have earaches) over the steam that rises. Certain herbs, especially mucilaginous and bronchio-dilating ones, put in the simmer can be of great help, too, and I will get to those later.
Teas. Even something as simple as a hot, steaming tea could help. Breathe in the steam before you drink.
Baths and Showers. Taking a hot shower can really help; but especially a hot bath filled with useful herbs, soaking straight through the skin!
Warm Compress. Something as simple as a warm- or hot-water soaked rag placed against the joint can be relieving. You may add some topical herbs to it if you like, which could help a bit more.
Neti Pot. This is usually my last-resort method in this vein. The salt and warmth itself can really help the most directly, making your ears “pop” nicely, providing relief for the time being. Herbs (especially tinctures) can be added for additional relief.
-Staying hydrated. Quite basic, but drink lots of water, all the time. This especially helps with the sinus headaches and earaches, which can feel “inflamed” pretty quick. Being hydrated helps this, helping your body produce a thinner mucus in your sinuses, keeping discomfort down.
-Herbs for Relief. Again, energetically, damp works best, warming is good too. But I have found that if it is first and foremost a mucilaginous herb, it will help in some way. So sometimes it can be a cooling herb.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Your archetypal warming, damp herb. 5 drop doses, every five minutes or so, can help with ear or sinus pain. Tincture is especially wonderful put in a Neti Pot (5-15 drops) for a quick rinse.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) When it comes to sinus stuff, especially when sinuses are dry and crackly, Wild Ginger can be used in place of Ginger, and can actually work better. Ginger is more heating, while Wild Ginger just warms and helps the body create sweat and lubricate. This one is actually perfect in a Neti Pot, tincture form, combined with other herbs such as Dandelion, Plantain, Goldenrod flower or Ragweed flowers as tinctures too. It soothes the sinuses and can be the best thing for hurting ears, when nothing else works.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). In a variety of ways, Mullein is the herb you want around if you have TMJ because of how it helps with the symptoms– which is wonderful, because it grows practically everywhere. If you are harvesting this medicine, take care to do so in a site where Mullein is not crowded or in a disturbed urban area; it usually means that the Mullein will contain a high level of pollutants. The more rural and alone Mullein is, the more potent and clean it will be. Either the first year leaves, or yellow blossoms are what you want. I have not worked with Mullein root as of yet, but I can make some assumptions on how it could be applicable. Root tincture would probably be perfect in a Neti rinse!
Either steep the blossoms in a pure, organic oil base, or find some way to get your hand on Mullein Blossom Oil. A few drops in each ear while laying on your side helps. Once you wait for the oil to get deep in there, lay on you back so the oil can go further into the eustachian tubes. The relief is quite quick and immediate. Using Mullein Blossom Oil works especially well right after doing a steam, bath, or shower, since the hot helps open up your sinuses, tubes, and relaxes the muscles, helping the oil get in where it needs to be.
-Herbs for Anxiety/Stress/Tension. The leading medical knowledge on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder and bruxism points to anxiety, stressful lifestyle, and lack of stability and relaxation in one’s life as the number one culprit and cause. So incorporating nervines, sedatives, tension-reducing and calming herbs overall is absolutely called for, and can really help to alleviate the source of the problem. Certain ones are better than others, I have found, but everyone is different. I would recommend you elect your favorite tension-tamer and use it on a daily basis. Here are the ones that helped me:
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). This brilliant plant is native to Iowa and easy to pinpoint and harvest. It is useful in more ways than one for TMJ, one of them being tension relief and anxiety issues. Daily doses of a tincture of the flowers, leaves, or root (1 dropper, up to 3x/day) helps relieve tension that is associated with and leads up to the muscle in your jaw being pulled so tight, resulting in a clenched bite. It can also help with the headaches, both sinus and muscular, that occur so often with TMJ if taken daily over time. I find that I prefer a flower tincture the most, as the root can be a bit too strong in these cases and can cause some unwanted hormonal side effects. Other Verbenas, like Verbena officinalis and Verbena stricta, can be helpful.
Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, gryposepala, parviflora). This plant was perhaps the most useful herb for the type of tension that my TMJ stemmed from. It eases tension without being too drying, which can exacerbate the dry inflammation of the sinuses and the stiff jaw joint. It has a gentle and yet noticeable effect over time, and it tastes great! The tincture I used featured a blend of European and Native Agrimony and it tasted like a subtle, soft raspberry leaf. Within just a few weeks I noticed tension starting to release. One night, the muscles of my jaw became so relaxed, I couldn’t find my mouth guard in the morning! The usual pressure of my bite did not keep the mouth guard in properly, and I didn’t wake up with a headache of any sort, or felt my teeth had been grinding or clenching. If kept up regularly, Agrimony is of great help.
-Herbs for the Musculoskeletal Aspect. Temperomandibular Joint Disorder is an issue that arises from tension usually, but the way it manifests is plainly in the muscles. Especially if you have TMJ as the result of injury, not tension, you need herbs that more directly help that part of it, and taking nervines or sedatives won’t help you as much. You need something to help you with those muscles. As the picture shows, the way our muscles interconnect and overlap is quite complex. Pain and tension in one muscle can cause a chain reaction through the rest of our musculature, creating pains in weird places. TMJ, while it is an issue of the jaw, is easily a problem that spreads to the neck, shoulder, and back, as all of those muscles are in some way connected. Some of us who suffer TMJ have shoulder, back, or neck pain. Something like a back, neck, or even spine injury can lead up to TMJ, as a muscle out of place there pulls down on others and finally pulling down on the jaw muscle, making it tense and tight. Such tightness contributes to the jaw joint eventually popping out of place. I like to think of it like closing the blinds– if you pull one muscle down, it may cause others higher up to contract, which is basically what TMJ experts describe.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp). This wonderful herb does wonders for the joints and muscles, both problems to which TMJ is subject. Some experts say that TMJ may be just as simple as an arthritic problem of the jaw joint, so in that case, Solomon’s Seal is exceptional. Traditionally, the plant has been used to “re-lubricate” joints, making them less painful. It has also been noted this plant helps muscles achieve the right amount of tightness or looseness, and since part of TMJ is a jaw muscle that is clinched way too tight, it is certainly worth a try. Internal tincture may be used, but a salve of the root, applied directly to the Temperomandibular Joint, would probably be most direct.
Blue Vervain. Besides being a nervine for easing tension, Blue Vervain comes in handy for some of the muscular complaints, too. If you are having neck, back, or shoulder pain accompanied with TMJ, give this one a try (flower tincture preferably). Especially if you have that little “stitch” of pain right behind your shoulder, at the tip of your scapula? Take Blue Vervain and the pain will subside in a matter of days. One client of mine had the pain disappearing in a day. For both tension and muscular pain, Blue Vervain is definitely an herb you want on your side!
Pleurisy Root/Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). I did not try this one firsthand, but I would certainly recommend TMJ sufferers try it, if they can get their hands on it. Similarly to Solomon’s Seal, this plant helps the joints produce more synovial fluid, thus easing pain on the joints. Typically, Butterfly Weed is used in cases of osteoarthritis. Tincture or salve, in the same manner of Solomon’s Seal, can be used.
Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides). This is not a remedy I myself have worked with, but an herbalist named Christine with whom I have talked with from up in the Pontiac area of Quebec, Canada recommends an infused oil of the young bark of the Trembling Aspen tree. It can be turned likewise into a salve, and placed on achy, inflamed areas, especially the jaw joint; she also says it is exceptional at keeping the tension at bay. As such, if you do not have access to the Trembling Aspen, one could turn to other members of the Willow/Poplar family: White Willow, Balsam Poplar, Cottonwood, perhaps even the Birch or other Aspens.
If you have any questions about using herbs to help with TMJ, feel free to contact me by email ~ Adrian White, Deer Nation Herbalist ~ email@example.com
For some good sources on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, and what it is all about, here are some links from professionals, experts, doctors and dentists who deal with the issue. These also number among some of my resources:
Jaw-Dropping Facts about TMJ/TMD Disorders ~ Delta Dental
TMJ Disorders ~ National Institute of Dental and Craniofascial Research
Smart Guard Night Guard ~ Relief from Bruxism/TMJ
An Aching Jaw Leads to a World of Medical Uncertainty ~ The New York Times
Best Treatment of TMJ May Be Nothing ~ The New York Times
Personal Observation, Empirical Experience. A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology: 4th Edition by Ruth Werner. The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood. Christine L., Quebec Herbalist.