Archive for the ‘Mean Plants’ Category

Elder Sambucus spp.

When you come across an Elder in the wild, it is difficult to tell if it is a tree or a bush. Its leggy, hollow branches bend and sway, sporting delicate sprays of flowers in early spring and laden with heavy clusters of fruit by fall (A bush! you’d think). Yet in maturity it towers over you with a rather commanding presence (A tree, perhaps?). In the literature and folklore discussing Elders, both terms are used. Though I can’t imagine that Elder actually prefers one to the other, I find ‘tree’ to be a little more flattering, and I will explain shortly why I strive to be polite in my dealings with this particular plant.

Elders grow all over the world and have been used medicinally for thousands of years. In Medieval times, nearly every part of the Elder tree was used for different medicinal properties (bark, leaf, flower, berries)*.  Perhaps because of this prodigious usefulness, clever Elder devised an ingenious strategy for protecting itself.  There is a persistent superstition throughout Europe and the British Isles that something terrible will befall you if you disrespect an Elder tree. Where did this idea spring from? I am not pointing fingers, but only the Elder tree itself stands to gain. This dark glamour is still effectively protecting Elders from abuse in the Old Country, where reportedly even loggers refuse to cut them down. (Well played, Elder!)Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)

Though I feel I’m on good terms with all the plants I pick, this is clearly not one to be trifled with.  I take great pains to gather the powder blue berries of our native Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) in late summer, snipping each cluster very precisely, so as not to snap one of the hollow supporting stems (and possibly become cursed). Note: The Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), native to Western Washington is not edible or medicinal (but still magical).

Elders command respect, and like another of my slightly standoffish plant friends, Stinging Nettle, they have earned it. We need their medicine.  Throughout our long history with Sambucus, it has evolved a unique set of chemicals that allow it to be as wicked as it wants and we’ll forgive. You see, Elder is a foe to the dreaded flu.

This is how it seems to go- chemicals in Elderberry disarm the spikes on viruses that allow the influenza virus to stab into your cell and inject it with viral babies. (If you aren’t scared of the flu yet, do a little research on viral infections and replication–it’s terrifying!) Anyway, Elder just snaps that little viral arm right off and it can’t do its evil viral business in your cells anymore! (It‘s a little more complicated than I am making it seem, it’s more of an enzymatically mediated arm breaking than a literal one).  Researchers have recently discovered that taking the syrup of Elderberry reduces the duration of the flu to just 3-4 days in most cases and promotes increased levels of antibody production. It has been shown in in-vitro studies to be effective at inhibiting ten different strains of the influenza virus!  I have made an Elder syrup that combines the immunostimulating, viral arm-disabling, antibody-boosting properties of Elderberry with the gentle but powerful diaphoretic** effects of the Elder flower.  Here at the Radicle lab, I make a Black Elderberry glycerite (Sambucus nigra) and a Blue Elderberry tincture (Sambucus cerulea) and they both taste lovely (Thanks, Elder!). With flu season in full swing, I recommend stocking your medicine cabinet full of fine preparations such as these. Most of us have lowered resistance this time of year after battling some of the more common viruses, and that’s when the dastardly flu attacks. This season- Fight Back with Elderberries!

Elder flower
*A word of caution: Though the medicinal properties of Elder leaf, root and bark are espoused in many ancient texts, I cannot recommend taking them internally for any reason. These plant structures contain tricky compounds that are violent purgatives, laxatives and emetics. There have even been cases of poisoning from the leaves and stems due to the presence of active cyanide-like compounds. Only the flowers and blue or black berries from a properly identified Elder plant are safe to ingest.
**A diaphoretic is a substance that reduces fever by causing you to sweat. While the standard practice is to suppress a fever,  herbalists tend to support the process, encouraging its quick resolution. Unless a fever becomes dangerously high, fevers are healthy response and play an important role in disrupting viral takeover.


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As if to tragically illustrate the importance of botanical literacy, a Washingtonian died recently as a result of not learning her local flora.  Last month a Seattle news station ran as story about a woman from Tacoma that died after eating Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) thinking that it was “something else”.  Now, you know that I don’t like to inspire fear about plants- in fact my whole mission is to promote people- plant relations. However, this relationship requires KNOWING who you are dealing with and I’m not going to lie, the Hemlocks are the bad seeds of the plant world.

Here’s the rub- We’ve got three different species called hemlock here in Western Washington. One is the benevolent Western Hemlock, a coniferous tree that doesn’t bother nobody. The other two, Poison Hemlock and Water Hemlock are famously toxic and not to be trifled with.
Water Hemlock is the deadliest plant in North America. All parts of it are toxic and can be fatal if ingested, but the root is the most potent, eating just a 1/4 inch piece of the root can cause convulsions, paralysis, foaming at the mouth and death. Poison Hemlock causes severe respiratory distress, paralysis and will cause your lungs to collapse, bringing about your demise within a few hours.
Don’t f–k with Hemlock, seriously.

The problem with Hemlock is:
1. They grow everywhere! Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) grows by water, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) grows everywhere else.
2. To the untrained eye, they look like a bunch of things that we can eat. The Hemlocks are in the same botanical family as popular favorites like carrots, parsley, anise, lovage, angelica, and parsnips to name a few. The Apiaceae family (formerly the Umbelliferae family, a name which is a bit more illustrative of the defining characteristic) has flower heads that look a bit like the skeleton of an umbrella. They share many other characteristics such as hollow stems, lacy leaves and a penchant for being either delicious, medicinal or deadly.
If you have even a cursory interest in gathering plants from the wild, this is one to know. Perhaps the one to know, as there are few others that will as swiftly end your time on earth. I counsel my students to just avoid gathering any plants in this family until they are very comfortable definitively identifying the hemlocks.  A cavalier attitude with this plant can be fatal, so don’t be a hippie about this.
Here are some photos of Poison Hemlock (please conduct an image search of Water Hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) after reading this text.) I urge you to stare at them until they are burned into your retinas and then avoid gathering anything remotely resembling them unless you have a confirmed ID on the plant. I do encourage you take a class or guide book and go out looking for the Hemlocks just to familiarize yourself and pay your respects.  Here are some key points to remember:
Poison Hemlock- (Conium maculatum) This one has leaves that look a bit like a carrot. “Lacy” we call them, which means the leaves are very finely divided and innocent looking. Like a nice delicate fern even, but DO NOT BE FOOLED! The flowers are born on umbels in little clusters, they are white and cute and also do not appear menacing in any way. This one has hollow stems which are commonly (but not always!) mottled with purple spots, which does give you a clue about it’s less wholesome qualities, I think.  It can grow up to 10 feet tall! (See it towering above me in the photo for scale.)

Water Hemlock- (Cicuta douglasii) This one looks more like a nice Italian Parsley crossed with Marijuana. It has flat compound leaves that are sharply toothed. Water Hemlocks like the murky places, on the edges of streams and wet ditches. It has a green or purple tinged stalk that is thicker at the base, and if you were to cut it open it would reveal chambers (of doom) inside. The flowers are similar to the Poison Hemlock, but a more densely clustered. The arrangement of the leaf veins is the key characteristic. The leaf veins end IN BETWEEN the teeth on the leaves, rather than at the tip. BUT- many plants look like this one, so don’t mess around.

Discalimer:  Reading this in no way prepares you to pick plants that resemble these guys, okay? You are not checked out on the Apiaceae family until you’ve had further training in basic botany and are in possession of a good field guide.

To recap: Not knowing your local plants can be dangerous.  There are plants that are harmful or poisonous if ingested, but those that have gone before us have bravely mapped out which ones (oftentimes giving them handy names like “POISON” hemlock). So, there’s really nothing to fear.

This Public Service Announcement has been brought to you by the Radicle Community Herb School. * Just to brag here, none of my students have EVER died by fatal plant poisoning!

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