**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!
*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.