Archive for the ‘Nature writing’ Category

Dear Radicles,
Well, your trusty herbalist is full of surprises. My husband and I just got word that his four year medical residency will carried out in Portland, OR. This means that Radicle will be changing locations as of June 1, 2013.  I am shocked, and a little heartbroken to be leaving, but I’m recovering.

You must have questions- here is a handy Q&A to set your mind at ease.

Q. What? You are MOVING!!?
A. I know. I just found out also. I thought we were staying.

Q. How will I get my Adrenal Tonic or my favorite tea!? I’m freaking out!
A. You will still be able to purchase your teas and tonics (even custom blends)- I will just pop them in the mail to you. Email me or call to place an order.

Q. I want to learn about herbs. Can I still take herbal classes?
A. I will still be teaching in Spokane occasionally, stay tuned on FB and the Radicle Review for details.

Q. I am interested in coming in for a consultation about my health, and this move of yours ruins my plans.
A. I will still be offering phone consultations and custom herbal formulas. Or you can make an appointment to come and see me in Spokane before May 8th.

Q.What will become of The Radicle Review, my favorite plog? (plant log)
A. The Radicle Review will remain an excellent source of cutting edge herbal information and innocent internet diversion. And thank you, faithful reader.

Here are my whereabouts for the next month- I encourage you sign up early for the Plant Walks, as I expect they will fill quickly. And please come visit me at the South Perry Market and stock up on herbs so I don’t have to move so many heavy bottles and bulky teas!
Spring 2013 Class Schedule
To accommodate our late spring, I’ve configured the two classes I will be teaching this spring on one weekend, though you don’t need to take both unless you want to. (It’s just because we are likely to see better looking plants later in May.)

Saturday May 18th, Plant Walk at the Finch Arboretum 12-2pm
Sunday May 19th, Plant Walk at Manito Park 12-2pm

The cost is $15 per class. Please email me at radicletea@gmail.com to RSVP.
Spokane Farmers Markets
The South Perry Market
May 2nd, 9th (indoors at the South Perry Yoga studio- 915 S Perry) from 3-6pm
May 16th, 23rd (outdoors at The Shop- 924 S Perry) from 3-7pm

On a personal note, though I am sad to leave this community, I am excited to see herbalism blossom in Spokane. I’ve dispensed a lot of herbs, brewed gallon after gallon of herbal iced tea, and taught a lot of eager plant lovers that can carry the torch. It has been truly wonderful.  Now in addition to missing all of the flora and fauna of my native place, I will miss all of you.

Here are some parting words from the brilliant poet, Gary Snyder:

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us. Learn the flowers
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Thanks for everything.  Yours truly, Sarah P.


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This spring violets are in! (In season, that is). You’ll see them sprouting up in yards, marshy places, stream-sides, and on the edges of moist forests. They are a must-have for your home medicine chest and oh, so seasonal.

Violet leaves and flowers are a spring delicacy. They are abundant in the most mundane areas (grass lawns), and are the perfect introduction to urban foraging.  Here are some tips on hunting the varied species of the Viola genus, and why you might want to, of course.

That said, the only way to spy a violet is to look down. Way down, just below the tips of grass in a lawn. Scan your yard (or any other moist, green collection of plants) and look for a slight purple hue. Then zoom in, ending up on your hands and knees, face to face with the cutest of flowers. Despite their reputation, violets are not shy, per se. They just prefer to grow amidst blades of grass or behind other plants. This isn’t due to insecurity, they’re just doing their own thing.

The beauty of the violet is that we have to stop, really see and come down close to the earth to spend time with them. They demonstrate that “living small” can be a powerful position. They are highly economical and efficient little flowers. There are over 80 species of wild and cultivated violets growing throughout North America. Apparently, as a genus, Violas are doing quite well for themselves. Their thrifty use of energy affords them the luxury of creating a sterile flower (and, in some wild varieties, a frivolously floral and girly scent). That’s right, in most species, the flower has no part in reproduction (which is done discretely under leaf cover by a plain-looking seed sac close to the ground), it seems they flower just because they know they‘re gorgeous. Hardly the move of a painfully shy plant, wouldn’t you say?

The Edible Violet

Both violet leaves and flowers are very palatable in salads or as a garnish. The flowers make a conversation-starting edible cake decoration (great for boring weddings and parties).  The leaves have a mucilaginous (slippery) quality when chewed and apparently can be used to thicken soups and stews (though I haven’t tried this one, personally). They have a mild, slightly sweet and grassy flavor, and the earlier in the season, the more tender they are (but wait until they flower to make a positive ID). I’m telling you, this common weedy volunteer that you can literally harvest in your yard will have you hailed as a culinary innovator at your next dinner party. The fact that violet blooms at the very end of winter- the most flower deprived, scurvy prone time of year- doesn’t hurt either. In any case, you are a star. Just gather both leaves and flowers from an organically grown lawn or a wild place and toss into salads as desired. For instant class, put one flower in each cell of an ice cube tray, fill with water and freeze, then toss into fancy beverages. Like I said, you’re a star!

The Medicinal Violet

Though cultivated species of Violas also produce edible flowers,  wild violets take all of that energy that could be spent on luxuriant growth and height, bigger blooms and a stronger scent (as some of its less thrifty ornamental cousins have done) and invest it in potent, effective medicinal compounds.
Nutritionally, violets supply ample amounts of vitamin C and bioflavonoids such as rutin, making it a useful tonic to those with venous insufficiency such as hemorrhoids, spider veins, varicose veins, broken capillaries and easy bruising. They are also loaded with carotenes, the precursor to Vitamin A. Both of these important vitamins are associated with increased immune function and wound healing. Violet’s a healer, you see. Violet roots reach way down into moist spring soil and pull up vital nutrients and minerals such as Calcium and Magnesium. The leaves become little green vitamin tablets.

Violet leaves also contain a good deal of mucilage, the slippery stuff that appears in your mouth as you chew. This has soothing, moistening effect in the body and is responsible for much of violet’s medicinal activity. Mucilage makes for easy bowel movements, moist, healthy lungs and mucus membranes and it helps soothe and heal abraded tissue externally and internally (g.i. tract, bladder irritations, etc.) Violet has been employed for such diverse conditions as: bronchitis, constipation, urinary tract irritation, and chronic skin conditions.

The presence of chemical compounds called saponins gives violet the ability to dissolve troublesome cysts, tumors and nodules, specifically those in the breasts. Violet has been used for centuries for dissolving both cancerous and benign lumps in the breast. I use it as a preventative for women who are worried about breast cancer and for women with benign lumps or fibrocystic breasts. When a woman has cancer, violet leaves can be a supportive therapy in addition to other treatments, though I wouldn’t rely on violet alone. For cysts, lumps and tumors, the tea or tincture is taken internally and warm compresses are applied externally to the breast and wrapped with a cloth. Susan Weed’s excellent book Breast Cancer? Breast Health! details the use of violet for various breast conditions. Violet is also a  gentle lymphatic tonic, aiding the body in removing waste products from the bloodstream. As such, it is an effective detoxifier and a specific remedy for treating chronic skin conditions such as eczema, dry skin, rashes- especially the oozing, weeping variety- and cradle cap in infants. Violet leaf and flower can be consumed as an infusion (tea), tincture, syrup, glycerite or used topically as an oil, compress or poultice for skin conditions. Caution- Plants with a high saponin content can cause nausea and vomiting if taken in excessive doses. I have yet to see this happen, so I imagine the upper limit is pretty high- just a warning to those of you who might try to subsist on violet leaves alone.

Lastly, another name for violet is Heartsease, which refers to its gentle strengthening effect upon the heart.  I feel like violet is a soothing friend that cools anger and irritation- like retreating into the shade of a forest on a hot day. (You may actually meet violet there in real life. She likes to keep things shady, moist and low-profile.) When I take violet, I feel restored and nourished, and somehow stronger overall.

The Violet of Lore

Folklore and myth surround this plant. Though the above mentioned, proven benefits were also known and have been employed for the last 2000 years or so, there many uses that may be, ahem, a bit more difficult to explain scientifically.  Here are a few gems as reported by Pojar and Mackinnon in the book Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast-

“If violets bloom in autumn, there is going to be a death or epidemic. It is unlucky to bring only a small number of flowers into the house; this may harm the laying capacity of hens;… spiteful neighbours might encourage children to take only one flower home. Violets worn as a wreath around the neck were said to prevent drunkenness.”

As your trusty herbal reporter, held to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, I vow to at least try out the last bit there. And soon. It’s basically my top priority right now.

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A few of Oregon Grapes’ many virtues shine more brightly than the rest in terms of absolute indispensibility. One- its broad antimicrobial activity,  Two- its liver tonifying functions and Three- its strengthening effect on digestion. For those of you who subscribe to germ theory, we might agree on the importance of having antibacterial agents in our milieu. Though we are host to an incomprehensible number of microorganisms, we may find our immune systems challenged from time to time and requiring of assistance from a seasoned veteran of microbial warfare,  the original OG. You see, Oregon Grape has been around the block a few times and has developed an effective, mutually beneficial defensive strategy. It creates a bitter, foul tasting alkaloid that animals (yes, including most of us) rather dislike the taste of. We refrain from  stuffing ourselves full of its woody stems and barbed leaves, and in exchange it provides us with berberine, a potent antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal agent, that we only need sparingly.  And nobody gets hurt.

Berberine is the stuff of legend. It is found in several other plants that have been revered/exploited/overharvested, such as Goldenseal. Oregon Grape, dear readers, is the West’s Goldenseal (with a different ending, I hope). It is effective for bacterial infections of various origins, including some difficult to treat staph and strep infections. Oregon Grape works well taken internally and/or applied topically depending on the location of the infection or irritation. Many simple gastrointestinal infections are quickly eradicated by treatment with a tincture of Oregon Grape root. It’s a key player in my Tri-Wizard formula based on the indications above, making that formula a particularly broad spectrum approach to infectious agents.

As a mild liver tonic and “blood purifier”, Oregon Grape has helped improve a number of complaints associated with poor liver function. These range from the more clinical sounding disorders such as jaundice and elevated bilirubin levels, to the very uneducated sounding (but no less relevant) diagnosis of “bad blood”.  A “blood purifier” is an adjective often used to describe herbs that improve the liver’s ability to detoxify waste products in the body and thus impact the health of the skin. This is most obvious in cases of eczema, psoriasis, acne (including cystic), in which the administration of Oregon Grape often causes noticeable improvement in just days or weeks.

As a bitter tonic and digestive stimulant, Oregon Grape stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder, aiding in the digestion of fats and oils. By some physiological quirk, a bitter taste in the mouth stimulates all digestive functions, from the production and release of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid to the physical stimulus of peristalsis which moves food through the digestive tract. For this reason, it is preferable to take Oregon Grape (or any bitter herbs) just prior to eating, as your digestive system will be primed and your meal will proceed without a hiccup.  This will have the predictable effect of less bloating, gas, malabsorption and constipation.

Oregon grape. Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Now available as a Radicle Excellent Extract in 3 sizes. (Also available in the wild in many states).

Worth the effort

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Dear Readers,
The days are growing slightly longer and the plants of Seattle are beginning to awaken. I thought it fitting that the Radicle Review should also come out of hibernation, to chronicle the first signs of spring. I promise not to gloat to all of you that are still icebound- just try to vicariously experience spring through this plog*, spring will come to you as well.
This weekend I am planning a foraging trip to hunt for the last deep winter roots of the season, those of the ubiquitous Oregon Grape. I use these bright yellow roots in my Tri-Wizard Tincture.  Tri-Wiz is Radicle’s top selling remedy for the common cold, a powerful combination of Oregon grape root (Mahonia nervosa), Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), and Red root (Ceonothus sp.). Yes, this tincture’s name is a Harry Potter reference, and yes, it works like magic. More on that later.  Stay tuned for next weeks instructional post- “How To Gather Oregon Grape Roots- a pictorial guide.”

p.s I missed you guys.

Hellebore, the proverbial early bloomer.

*Plant Log

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An attempt to clear the name of

Hypericum perforatum once and for all!

This little starlet is no stranger to the spotlight.  Once hailed as a wonder-herb for treating depression, the FDA (read: pharmaceutical companies) quickly mobilized a smear campaign to tarnish the herb’s image and create a dense fog of confusion around it’s use.  (This is easily and quickly done by employing our culture’s favorite scare tactic, the vague fear of nature.)  It was a setup from the beginning.  Trumped up claims about contraindications warned the public of the dangerous consequences of meddling with the affairs of the health professionals.  Soon after studies found it to be effective and safe in the treatment of depression, new studies were issued proving it to be ineffective and dangerous.  You have probably heard some of this libel.  Right now you may be subconsciously associating this plant with a feeling of mistrust.  They’ve gotten to you!  They’ve even gotten to a lot of herbalists and naturopaths afflicted with self doubt and/or plant doubt.  My aim is to restore St. John’s Wort to it’s rightful place as a safe and friendly herb, one that you might like to know.  You don’t detect a hint of fear in my writer’s voice, do you?  It is not because I am brave, or reckless (as it turns out, I am neither).  I just know that St. John’s Wort was framed.

St. John’s Wort didn’t have an inkling of what was being said about his character by the powerful forces in medicine.  He was just kindly growing and minding his own business.  But beginning in the 1990’s, all manner of insults were directed at the innocent wort. (Wort means “plant” in Olde English). To demonstrate his good nature, St. Johns Wort is as agreeable as ever and has maintained potent medicinal properties despite all of the slander.  Really, St. John’s Wort wonders what all the fuss is about.  And, seeing us get so worked up about anything, offers to let us have a chew on its’ flowers. “It might help” he says.
It’s true!  Taking St. Johns Wort raises the spirits and inspires confidence as it tames self-doubt and fear.

The Rub

In the previous post, we spoke at length about the virtues of St. John’s Wort. Here is where we come to the issue of safety.   What we’ve got here is a pharmacologically active and complex plant that has been used safely all over the globe for centuries.  It’s first documented reference appears in Gaelic in 600 AD.  Since then it has been made into tea and wine and poured down gullets; it has been made into oils and ungents and slathered on skin. So what is so dangerous about St. John’s Wort?  Well, nothing, inherently.  St. John’s Wort’s primary fault seems to be that it wasn’t designed to be used with modern day pharmaceuticals.
As you may have heard, St. John’s Wort is contraindicated with some medications, and studies come out all the time indicting it for producing herb-drug interactions.  These studies generally rehash the same information, but the sheer volume of the literature assures that when you do a search on St. John’s Wort safety on the internet, you will come away convinced not to take it.  Here’s the scoop from a pro-herb point of view.  Do not take St. John’s Wort when you are taking anti-depressant drugs because THEY PROBABLY WORK IN MUCH THE SAME WAY.  Not because St. John’s Wort causes an unpredictable reaction if you have taken Prozac recently, just that you DON’T NEED BOTH!  The FDA also doesn’t recommend doubling up on your dose of Prozac for the same reason.  So, St. John’s Wort and antidepressants?  It’s a simple case of one or the other, folks. Both can work, both can be dangerous when taken together, and one can be dangerous on it’s own. (That’s the drugs.)
Another important feature of this common plant that has been misunderstood is it’s unique action upon the liver.  St John’s Wort affects the pathway in the liver that is dedicated to the clearance of certain toxins.  Most notably it increases the metabolism of hormones and drugs, speeding their removal from the body.  This has important clinical ramifications, as it can be used for those wishing to rid their bodies of unwanted substances.  Examples might be clearing excess estrogen in women at risk of breast cancer, or breaking down pharmaceuticals that damage the liver or kidneys. The problem is that St. John’s Wort is really good at this, so if you are on a life saving medication or are putting excess hormones into your body on purpose (i.e. birth control pills), taking St John’s Wort can cause the rapid breakdown of these substances.  So, DON’T TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT IF YOU ARE TAKING A LIFE SAVING MEDICATION, OR DRUGS THAT YOU LIKE.  DO TAKE ST. JOHN’S WORT TO CLEAR ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS, HORMONES AND DRUGS THAT YOU DON’T LIKE FROM YOUR BODY.  This would seem easy enough to explain to consumers in plain terms, if the intention was education rather than obfuscation.  Instilling the populace with the mistrust of herbs has the predictable and desired effect of discouraging their use.  In actuality, the whole issue of herb/drug interactions should be considered another adventure in polypharmacy, not any more complicated than managing the care of the  patients who are taking multiple drugs at a time.  Herb/drug interactions are not only extremely rare, they are far less dangerous than drug/drug interactions or even drug/body interactions, for that matter.  So, in closing, if St. John’s Wort’s only crime is that it doesn’t play nice with a few pharmaceuticals, who can blame it?  Plants evolve new traits very slowly over thousands of years and new drugs are developed every day.  Back when St. John’s Wort differentiated itself from its’ ancestors, pharmaceuticals didn’t even exist.  I find it interesting, though, that it would be so well equipped for removing futuristic drug compounds in the body… Sorry, pharmies, but it’s survival of the fittest!

NOTE: For those of you wishing to experiment with St. John’s Wort, I must insist that you use only the fresh plant tincture or infused oil (for topical use). Nothing else will do.

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With Sarah P, Your trusty plant guide

Are you taking hawthorne tincture, nettle capsules, or dandelion tea? Have you ever wanted to meet these plants face to flower? It’s exhilarating to meet herbs growing wild and free where you can see who they are! (They’re Alive!). I lead Plant Walks in Seattle parks to unite you with the living beings that you might be popping every morning in capsule form. My last Plant Walk in Discovery Park was a success! and it strengthened my resolve to spread the gospel of plant recognition.

There are a number of reasons why learning about your local plants is a good idea. From a philosophical standpoint, I consider botanical literacy to be a basic life skill. Having a basic knowledge of the plants that you can eat and use as medicine and how to pick, prepare, and administer them is just being a good cub scout.

From an herbalist’s perspective, it really changes the way you think about herbal medicine when you know the plants you are using. Just to be able to conjure up an image of the plant- perhaps as it’s growing in its favorite habitat, in its particular fashion, or how its flower smells-  these details are part of the healing.  Plants are complicated polypharmacy, yes. They are a dizzying cocktail of potent chemicals. Most of our original medicines came from these compounds due to their profound effect upon our physiology. But the real power of herbal medicine lies in the fact that plants are alive! You can have a relationship with them. And I believe you already do. They have been responding to our needs and desires for millions of years, adapting to and with us. Plants and humans are friends! Just being in their company relaxes our nervous system and lowers our blood pressure.  Being on familiar terms with the plants you take as medicine taps into these other mechanisms of healing that operate beyond the physical level.

It doesn’t take much to rekindle our millions-of-years-old direct relationship with plants- just noticing the plants around you is a great start. Spend some time with them. Being able to see a plant growing right in front of you, sucking up nutrients with its mysterious pumping mechanism, sending down sugars that it manufactured from solar energy, waving in the breeze (and all while smelling great!).  This is all that it usually takes to change your mindset from regarding herbs as weak drugs to living, breathing partners in our lives on this earth. It’s easy to overlook their importance, but not only do plants provide us with food and medicine, every second of the day they are quietly completing the other half of our respiration.
Dare I say, our better half?

Now, to insert myself into this process, having a plant guide is crucial to learning your plants. It really helps to have someone who loves them point out their riveting beauty, distinctive botanical characteristics, and medicinal properties.  On my plant walks we also discuss how to pick them, what part is used medicinally and proper dosing patterns, should you decide to gather and prepare you own herbal medicines. Or the cautious among you may just want to see me eat a bit of the plant before you go out there and try it on your own (perfectly reasonable).

If you are interested in attending a plant walk in Seattle in the future, send me an email at radicletea@gmail.com. Classes are on-going throughout the spring and summer. I hope to see you out there!

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Here in Seattle, Spring comes early.

I am always surprised that when all is still frozen stiff and dormant on the Eastern side of the state (my other haunt), the plants here are waking up to birdsong in January, of all months.  Currently the bulbs in my yard are sprouting enthusiastically, prompted by the 3 or 4 dim rays of sunlight that fell on them last week.

Every spring  I start to worry about Nature. Although in every other way, I exalt it’s perfect sense of timing,  (in fact, I study it to learn timing) for some reason when the first buds appear in spring I fear that it might be a tad confused. As I look out upon my Japanese cherry tree that stands shivering in the icy rain, a few delicate small pink blossoms clinging bravely to its’ branches, I can’t help but urge caution.  I speak in worried tones to the delicate baby leaves sprouting under the dead stalks of last years Lemonbalm.

In truth, I can’t wait for the arrival of Spring. And my concern is blasphemous, condescending, in a way.  This is Nature’s strategy, this mix of devil may care risk-taking and perfect punctuality.  Many will not survive, they will bloom too early and die in the next frost before setting seed. But to the intrepid few that venture out first and get a break, go the spoils. More nutrients, more sunlight, a longer growing season and a leg up on the competition. The early bee is fattened on virginal pollen and nectar from eager young blossoms. Or it dies tragically out in the cold. Nature will unsentimentally exploit any advantage and innovation is rewarded, though not always on the individual level. The species that end up on top stand on the corpses of all of their daring ancestors.

It is heartening to see the innate yearning of Life, absolutely hell bent on survival. Nature expresses this through every channel, every living thing pulses with this desire. Each species will risk individual lives for the continuation of the whole, it will evolve and morph, change tactics, try new things.  We can all see the bravery of Spring. It is in us, it is what we are made of, this is our strategy as well. We can feel the urgency to Live! quickening in ourselves as the Sun and plants appear again. Another year to advance the common cause of Life on Earth.

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