Friday, August 22, 2008

September 13 Minnesota Herb Fest

I had said in my last post that I was next going to write about Echinacea. Well, for two reasons I'm going to postpone that one. Number one, because it's not quite time to harvest roots yet. For that we'll wait till the flowers die back, later in the fall. You want to make a root medicine when the energy of the plant is strongest in the root. This is in the fall when its energy is going to the root and not the upper body of the plant. Then the root's "sugars" and therefore, its medicine, are strongest.

The second reason I'm going to wait is because of an herbal conference/festival I'm attending here in Minnesota in September. I think I will have an even better understanding of Echinacea after I take the following workshop class:

The Immune System: Not What you Think it is...with Lise
If you think "fighting off" a cold is the role of the immune system, think again! ( The immune system reflects our response to the world, both physically and emotionally). This provocative class will shake up your understanding of how the immune system functions and what foods, herbs and flower essences make it healthy. Away with Echinacea!

Lise Wolff was my herb teacher for the full year of 2005. From her, I already have a different understanding of Echinacea than the current popular notion of it as an "immune booster" or "virus fighter". But I think waiting for this class and brushing up on my understanding of the plant and its uses, as well as the immune system's role in our bodies, will help me present Echinacea in a more useful light.

In the meantime, if you want to nourish your body and help it to "fight off" (ha ha, not a kosher way to put it in Lise's book--I've got to figure out how to get my language right, obviously) viruses and flus, see my post on Elderberry.

And if you live near Minnesota and want to spend a day on a beautiful farm in Cannon Falls (SE Minn.) taking classes from a variety of top-notch herbalists, do come to the 3rd Annual Holistic Health and Herbal Education Festival. Click on the link for more information. The HerbFest is September 13, so hurry and register soon!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Testing...Testing...Is This Microphone Working?

That's how I'm feeling about this blog at the moment. It's apparent from you, my dear readers, leaving me comments that you are eagerly awaiting more posts by me on herbal remedies. I so, so appreciate your comments and I feel terrible being slow about this and letting you down! I fully intend to do more posts on these great plants, but let me explain a bit about my current slowness.

One, writing up each herb is a lot like writing a paper for school. It's a lot of work, with some research and a lot of thought on my part on how to best teach you about an herb. A lot of it I'm writing from my own head and personal experience, but I have to be careful on what I write. I take it so seriously because I take herbal medicine seriously. Herbs are potent medicine and if I screw up I run the risk of endangering someone's health. This is probably the main reason why I (and other herbal students I know) am/are slow at starting an herbal practice.

You see, there is very little in the way of herbal "degrees" or certification out there, and even if there is something like that, a student of herbal medicine can never know "enough". There's always room for study, for learning and experimenting and spending more time with the plants to know them better. I am trying to give some very basic information here, and to keep it fairly seasonal at least for now, but even into that basic information there enters a lot of thought and study.

Okay, for another reason, I've been working at my job at a natural foods co-op a lot this last part of the summer, and it's wearing me out. However, in two weeks I will be done with that job. Then it's time to take my herbalist practice even more seriuosly (along with homeschooling my kids). Expect more from me at that time!

In the meantime, I hope to write a short blurb about Echinacea in the next couple of days. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Elder: Sambucus canadensis

This is a post I wrote for my other blog, The Zahn Zone, last winter. It is almost time to harvest Elderberries in Minnesota (in September) and it may be even closer for you, so I thought I'd post it on this site for your "reading pleasure".

Reprinted from February 2, 2008:

George has been sick with a terrible cold this week. Due to having no voice, he actually missed three days of school, a record for him. Last night as he lay in bed, keeping us both awake with his coughing, I thought of my elderberry cordial. Fortunately, he was thinking the same thing as he went downstairs at about 12:30 a.m. to drink some. It definitely calmed his cough and we both slept better after that. (Okay, it also helped that he slept on the couch for the next four hours…he did say his cough calmed down, though.)

Elder (Sambucus canadensis here in N. America; S. nigra in Europe) is my favorite herbal remedy, and one of my favorite plants ever. The Elder tree or bush grows wild all over Minnesota, on our farmlands near damp places, along roadsides and on the edges of woods. I’ve also seen it near my in-laws’ place on the Ware River in the Tidewater region of Virginia--a damp, low place very different from Minnesota but still providing the conditions just right for wild Elder.

You can buy Elder bushes at the nursery, too, and they’ll grow well in most yards. I have planted two (for pollination you need at least two) in the corner of my front yard, on our city lot, and they’re growing beautifully. My herb teacher, Matthew Wood, in his Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, writes that “planting an elder in the corner of an herb garden is considered to be beneficial to the medicinal plants growing there because the Elder serves as a sort of tutelary spirit to the herbs”. So of course, I decided to plant a couple near my garden!
I have two favorite things I love about Elder: one, it is steeped in legend and lore, something that thrills me in general and two, it is hands-down the best remedy for coughs, colds, flus, fevers, digestive upsets, colic, and more.

Matt Wood writes: “In northern Europe the Elder was associated with a powerful female being called the Elder Mother…It was considered a potentially fatal mistake to pick the plant without making an offering. The most common practice was to ask for some of the plant in exchange for notifying the Elder Mother that one‘s body would eventually be returned to the earth. In England, Elder wood crosses were placed on the new grave in hopes that it would bring the departed person peace.” (ibid.)

Elder was considered a door to the Underworld. It is featured in many fairy tales. “When Christianity appeared, Elder came to be associated with Jesus…After his crucifixion, Jesus went down into the Underworld to free the souls of the dead…The Elder, as tree-doorway to that realm was a natural addition when the story of Jesus reached Europe.” (ibid.)

Elder branches are tubular and tubular plants suggest open communication, even with other worlds. I always think of Elder as a “tubular remedy”, meaning it clears out the tubes of the body whether respiratory, digestive, circulatory, etc.

One of my Elder bushes in flower, in mid-July.
Everything is a bit late this year (2008) so their
flowering and berrying may be later than usual.

Elder flower tea is my first line of defense when we have a fever. The flowers made into a tea are good for sweating out a fever, and when I’ve drunk it I’ve experienced instant relief and a shortened duration to my fever. I can actually feel my skin “sweating” a bit, and tingling. I’ve had similar luck giving it to my kids. One teaspoon of dried flowers to one cup of boiling water, covered and steeped ten minutes, strained then sweetened with honey, is really tasty too. If my daughter will drink it, anyone can! You can buy dried flowers at any co-op or herb shop, which is what I do because I prefer to let my elder flowers turn into berries on my still-small plants.
Here is my Elder today, August 4. The berries are still green. In a month or so they'll be blackish-purple and drooping luxuriously from their branches. The flowers and berries form an "umbrel-type" flower, like an umbrella. Note the reddish-purple stems. When the berries are ripe, the umbrel part will just "pop off" the larger stem/branch at your touch.

The berries are super-nutritious. They’re not very sweet when fresh, but you can dry them for a sweeter flavor and put them in your cereal all winter. You can also make jam, chutney or cordial with them. I make an herbal tincture of them steeped with brandy or vodka for six weeks, then give my family members a dropper-full at the first sign of any illness. Some people take the a dropper-full of tincture every day during the winter. You can certainly buy the tincture at a health food store, too, and use that. I recommend everyone keep some Elderberry tincture in their home; it is more useful and better than the popular Echinacea, as I was taught by my herb teachers, and in my own experience as an herbalist. When the bird flu hits, this is one remedy you’ll want to use!

My husband in particular loves the Elderberry Cordial I made a couple of years ago. He’ll drink a shot glass full at night whenever he has a cold or flu. Here is the recipe:

4 c. fresh elderberries
2 c. sugar
1 t. lemon zest
2 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 c. water
3 c. 100 proof vodka (I think I used 80 proof)

Crush elderberries and sugar together in a bowl. Let stand for about an hour. Add lemon zest and lemon juice. Transfer to clean 2-quart container and add water and vodka. Cover and let stand in a cool dark place for one month, shaking occasionally.

Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain out the solids. Discard into your compost (and please do compost any herbal “waste”; find a way to return it to the earth and the plant will be happier to help you out). Transfer liqueur to a clean container. Cover and age for at least one month before serving. Yields about 1½ quarts.

This recipe came from my teacher, Lise Wolff, RH AHG, who got it from Cordials From Your Kitchen by P. Vargas and R. Gulling.

There are many other recipes out there using Elderberry. You can make an Elderberry Syrup which would be better for your children. Herbalists like Rosemary Gladstar have wonderful recipes for this.

I am so grateful to the Elder Mother plant for her contributions to my family’s health. If you’re interested in natural, herbal remedies, I can’t recommend this plant highly enough. Find some in the wild if you’re lucky, or plant your own as I have. And always give thanks for nature’s gifts!