Posts Tagged ‘Herbal Medicine’

A Gentle Friend

Roses are easy to love. For some of us, smelling them is not enough. We need to eat them, drink them, imbibe them. I am one of these people. Allegedly, a rose was the first wild plant that enticed me to eat it, sealing my fate as an herbalist. The way my mother tells it, she was walking along with me in her baby backpack, and she saw my little hand reach out, clutch a rosehip and pop it right in my mouth before she could stop me. (I don’t remember this particular incident, but it sounds credible.) Alarmed that I had just eaten a wild plant with presumably limited botanical knowledge ( I was just under two), she asked one of her friends what I had eaten and if it was going to kill me. Her friend told her (correctly) that it was the fruit of the wild rose, and not only edible, but very high in vitamin C.  Perhaps “she just needed vitamin C”, they suggested helpfully.

Having thus averted infant scurvy,  rose and I are still BFF’s. The past few weeks have found me out collecting rose blossoms from these same rosebushes on my family’s land. I infuse their perfect petals in brandy to make my famous Wild Rose Cordial.  The substance produced tastes as good as roses smell (or better even, if you like brandy). You might want to try some.

Beyond the obvious virtues of the rose, there are very practical reasons to love them so much you want to eat them. Roses are medicinal and nutritious. Rosehips, (the cute red fruit of the rose plant) are an excellent alternative to vitamin C supplements, being extremely high in this nutrient, and conveniently packaged with all of the bioflavonoids that your body knows just what to do with. Vitamin C is highly soluble in water and makes an excellent tea, with a slight tartness and a hint of sweet.

The hips are collected after the first good frost of the fall, which “sets” the sugars therein, making their flavor slightly fruit-like. Their texture is a bit lacking (they are what you might call mushy, if you were being ungenerous). The core is filled with an abominable mixture of throat-irritating fluff and seeds, requiring you to eat them like a very small apple, just the flesh. Like many wild foods, it would be hard to stuff yourself on this alone, but if you happen to be in the woods, do try one. The flavor is delicate and perfect, the fruition of the rose.

That petals can be employed in tea, tincture or brandy cordial form with many beneficial effects. Possessed of a gentle cooling and astringent nature, rose is good in cases of tissue inflammation and poor tissue tone, such as gingivitis, sore throats, mouth ulcers, or heavy menses, spotting between periods or after miscarriage or abortion. Specific to the female reproductive system, rose is also indicated for PMS, menstrual cramping, hot flashes, absence of menses, vaginal dryness and infertility. With long standing associations to Venus and Aphrodite, we may infer that rose can help to increase romantic feelings and support healthy sexuality in both sexes.

And then there are the effects upon the mind. Rose softens grief, anxiety and self-doubt. Rose is a gentle friend, inviting you to open, relax and stay present with its disarmingly comforting smell and flavor, and the medicinal actions to back it up. But we must take the first step. Perhaps there is more wisdom in that “stop and smell the roses” bit than we had previously thought?


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There are only a few things that you need to know about the horsetail plant (Equisetum arvense):

It has sex
It has been around since the dinosaurs
It strengthens your bones

These outrageous statements clearly require an explanation, so I’ll begin with the first.

While it is technically true that many plants propagate themselves through sexual reproduction, I blushed when I learned that Horsetails, a spore producing plant,  actually produce eggs and sperm that SWIM to fertilize the eggs. Can you believe it? It is a rather complicated process (involving the release of spores into water that then germinate to form a separate plant whose only job is to produce the sperm and eggs which then grow into a little baby horsetail plant), but it gets the job done. Go to any moist area in the PNW and you will probably spot a fuzzy little forest of them, just mating away. Just a fun little fact to tuck away under your cap.

How about that dinosaur bit? That sounds a little far fetched.
Well it’s true, I swear to god! Horsetails are considered living fossils, meaning that genetically they have changed very little over hundreds of millions of years. They’ve actually been around since the Carboniferous period, which was millions of years BEFORE the dinosaurs, and they grew to towering heights like trees. While you may overlook our contemporary equisetums measuring just two feet tall at their peak, think of them in their heyday, making shade for a pale triceratops or a velociraptor with heat stroke.

How have horsetails survived massive climate change to co-habitate with us? The key here is flexibility. The strength of the horsetail race lies in its unique chemical makeup. It contains the highest amount of silica in its tissues than any other plant on earth. Silica is an important element necessary for the growth and repair of bones, cartilage, teeth, skin, hair and connective tissue. It is also what allowed this non-woody spore-producing plant to stand tall like a tree. And horsetails have retained this essential element that gives them their rough, abrasive texture and their spindly, yet sturdy appearance. They are strong and supple. This is how we want our bones and skin to be- sturdy and protective, but also living and resilient, not brittle. Taking horsetail internally does just this. Elemental silica by nature is not soluble in water, but Horsetail has many handy forms of silica, such as silicin which IS soluble in water. It does take a bit of work, however, so for maximum benefit you need to simmer the dried horsetail in water or steep for quite a while (overnight oughta do it).

This is what I like to see all my menopausal and post menopausal women drinking to prevent osteoporosis. Mercifully, it also helps with preventing hormonal hair loss, and many women swear by it for thickening the hair and strengthening the nails. (Have you ever seen a horse’s tail? or its nails?) It is my favorite tea for mending broken bones, speeding recovery and strengthening your skeleton. Horsetail has a mild astringent and tonifying effect on lung tissue and the bladder and kidneys. I use it when there is constitutional weakness in these organs, such as a tendency to always get pneumonia when you have a chest cold, or a kidney infection from mild dietary transgressions. It pairs well with Stinging Nettle for all of the above uses.

To gather this genial little weed, you will need to find the tender young stalks of the infertile plant which look a lot like a bottle brush. Gather only from pristine areas, taking care not to collect from streams that are contaminated with agricultural runoff, as horsetails can concentrate these toxic substances. Take them home and lay them on a screen or in a shallow box in a well ventilated area. It just takes a couple of days for them to dry, as they are rather brittle little things. When they are bone dry, store in a glass jar and use a small handful in a quart of boiling water for each batch of tea. Try to drink a couple quarts a week for maximum resilience and flexibility. (Unfortunately, though convenient, the tincture is rather useless for delivering silica in any form.)

For the mane of a horse and the bones of a dinosaur, drink Horsetail tea today!

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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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Well folks, here’s the proof. Picking plants is as easy as it sounds.

Stalking the wild Oregon Grape

Firstly, you need a solid ID on the plant. Oregon Grape does have a distinctive look, but I still recommend consulting a trusted field guide just to be sure. (I use Pojar and McKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.) With OG we are looking for shiny evergreen leaves with needle-like points, arranged in a jaunty alternating leaf pattern.  Oregon grape pops out of the forest floor in little stands. I think it likes to be with friends.

Coaxing the gentle root to come with me

When you come upon a healthy looking stand that seems amenable to the idea-

Dig down below the duff at the base of a plant and grasp the root stalk. Oregon grape sends out horizontal “runner” type roots, so as you pull, you may have to follow it. I like to get my hands down in there and work it out gently, this causes less breakage, so you will end up with more root for your trouble. It will break off at some point whatever remains in the ground will sprout a new plant. Great design, huh?

Once the root is free, I clip the foliage off and place the roots in my bag. At home that night, I sort the roots and give them a bath and a good scrub down.

Nearly have it...


The spoils

Now they are ready to be chopped and tinctured or dried.

Bath time for rooties















Next week’s topic- Why would I want to pick Oregon Grape Root?

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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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A rather dreary 4th of July here in Seattle. It’s raining at present and we’ve got the heat on. I imagine patriots huddled around the warmth of small explosions, sparklers sputtering. I am off to gather St. John’s Wort this weekend, and with morale waning in the NW as the long days of “summer” are pissed away in a grey drizzle,  I thought it fitting to dredge up an article out of the Radicle Review’s printed archives to address the ennui of my people (and, obviously, the author). This writing on the use of St. John’s Wort will be discussed in two parts. (Hang in there!)

Part one- A Real Saint

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of those plants that is easy to overlook.  Despite the fact that it grows almost anywhere (covering meadows, cheerfully assembled along roadsides, a lone plant catching the roof runoff in a parking lot), few know this plant by sight.  It often falls into the category of LYF’s, or Little Yellow Flowers.  Never mind that if you look at an individual flower among the profusion on each plant, you’ll find an absolutely charming specimen. Closer examination reveals cute red freckles adorning each blindingly yellow petal. The stamens sport a jaunty tuft of pollen atop their points. The leaves are diminutive, though they are many in number, and in overall effect the plant seems to say, “Go for the flowers”.  This is exactly what I do.
The flowers contains hypericin (once thought to be the “active constituent”, now known as one of many), which is responsible for the dramatic staining of your picking fingers.  A little yellow flower turns the tips of your fingers a dark purple red!  I suppose you could wear gloves, but I enjoy being marked by this plant (this differs somewhat from my position on the picking of Stinging Nettles).  You can gauge the quality of a St. John’s Wort product by the depth of the color.  The tincture should be beautiful- dark but transparent like a jewel, the oil should be a deep earthy red.
The most popular use of St. John’s Wort is of course, as an antidepressant. It exerts a demonstrable effect on seratonin levels and in early clinical trials was proven to be as effective as the popular antidepressants of the time, with far fewer side effects and a wide parameter of safe usage.  It continues to be one of the most widely used medicinal herbs despite all of the hullabaloo surrounding it.
St. John’s Wort’s specialty is transforming mildly obsessive negative states of mind in the blink of an eye.  I am not talking about serious mental illness here- I am talking about repetitive thought patterns that do nothing to improve your situation.  To my knowledge every one has these from time to time, though some of us are more prone than others.
Just a dropperful or two of the fresh plant tincture promotes a lifting of sadness and feelings of futility, especially during the winter months when sunlight deprivation causes grim emotional states.  I have employed it with success in those who have seasonal affective disorder or SAD.  I recommend taking it for a few weeks at a time.
Now, St. John’s Wort is not a powerful psychoactive drug that can cause dependence.  You don’t have to carefully wean yourself off of it. It doesn’t alter your brain chemistry in such a way as to paint a smile on your face while your spirit drifts away. While some antidepressant drugs can fracture your ability to understand yourself and what needs to be changed in your life, St. John’s Wort can support the emotional growth process*. (*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA).
Generally speaking, if St. John’s Wort is going to work for you, it is apparent almost immediately.  I have felt results from a very small dose (i.e. 5-10 drops of the fresh tincture) in a matter of minutes. Sometimes that is all it takes to set your head straight.  For those with long standing existential sadness, you may want to take it every day for a while. It is restorative to the nervous system after periods of intense stress, depression or depletion from illness or malnutrition.  When you are feeling burned out and weak and dark thoughts have invaded, St. John’s Wort can bolster your spirits.
One under-appreciated property of St John’s Wort (there are so many!)  is it’s ability to heal nerve damage from injury and tissue trauma.  St. John’s Wort can actually promote the re-growth of the myelin sheath in cases where the nerve has been completely severed!  The infused oil of this plant works great as a topical treatment for neuralgia and various neuropathies as well as general inflammation and pain. St. John’s Wort oil stars in my Sore Muscle Salve for its’ nerve-regenerating properties.  For those of you dealing with severe nerve pain (e.g sciatica, etc.), I usually recommend taking the tincture internally and applying the oil or salve externally.  St. John’s wort also demonstrates anti-viral properties. As you might imagine, it works really well for viruses that affect the nerves, like herpes for instance. A blend of equal parts St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, Lemonbalm and Burdock tinctures is my proven formula for recurrent herpes and shingles outbreaks.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of the Radicle Review. Stay tuned for part two of our examination of St. John’s Wort!  Next week we will tackle the overblown precautions in taking this fine herb (for the fair and balanced reporting you’ve come to expect from the RR), and I will dazzle you with photographs.

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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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