Tag Archive for ‘Herbs’

Wild medicinal herbs during the polar vortex? Yup!


As any seasoned herbalist knows, the majority of wild medicinals are predominantly available during the growing seasons, spring through fall.  When winter approaches, herbalists in temperate climate zones begin to collect and stock up on their most useful herbs before the onset of winter.  Why?  Because most plants are herbaceous; meaning everything above the soil withers away as the plants pull all remaining energy and nutrients into their roots, before dormancy, a form of plant “hibernation”, rendering the aerial parts inert.  As the leaves and stems whither and fall, spotting and proper identification become much more difficult.  Though the roots of many herbs can be used during this time, good luck finding them with no tops and a foot or more of snow everywhere!  Even if you have their spots marked, you may not be able to dig their roots up if the ground is frozen.

Yet even in the “dead” of a harsh northern winter there are old earth plant medicines to be easily accessed if you don’t mind braving the cold to get them.  Often overlooked or underrated, it’s the trees and woody shrubs that are the unsung heroes of the medicinal plant world.  Not only do many provide food and/or medicine while actively growing, but many still contain their medicines and nutrients in their stems or bark, as well as their roots.  Like everything botanical, the key is in identification.  Most herbalists are pretty adept at identifying a tree by its leaves.  But if you are familiar with their growth habits and can identify them by their bark and/or buds, then you have access to a medicinal resource where many herbalist and naturalists fall short.

Let’s face it; sometimes sh*t happens.  You never know the circumstances that might require you to refer back to old earth knowledge, and forage for medicinals off season.  Perhaps you’re snowed in and can’t get to a doctor?  Or as a practicing herbalist, maybe you moved to a new home during winter and didn’t get a chance to collect any surplus herbs before you left.  Or perhaps your cat knocked over your entire shelf of glass apothecary jars, spilling and soiling what you’ve collected.  Anything can happen.  But if you know your trees and shrubs well enough, you’ll never be caught off guard and still be able to remedy many complaints or replenish your storage with a winter walk in the woods.

(Actually, I’d recommend a winter walk in the woods either way.  There is a silent magic about the woods during winter…. a kind of calm, disarming serenity as nature slumbers with one eye open… listless, yet still aware of your presence.  Try it sometime.)

Since I’m from the eastern woodlands, I’ll select two of the most common from my turf as examples.  To represent the trees, let’s talk about the ‘wild’ or ‘black” cherry.  But first, let’s find it….

foliage escarpment black cherry buds 2-13-10

Black Cherry buds


Black Cherry flowers


Black Cherry berries


Black Cherry bark


The wild cherry (Prunus serotina), is a tall (50-80ft), native, deciduous tree that’s most at home in the Eastern US, though it can be found in the Southwest as well.  It’s not picky about where it grows, and can be found in dense woods, open fields, or along roadsides.  It blooms late in the spring with fragrant white flowers that hang in elongated clusters that give way to black berries in the summer.  Because the berries are a favorite of birds, the seeds are carried and scattered over great distances, contributing to the trees extensive range.  Fortunately, for winter identification, this is an easy one because it has a very distinctive bark.  A mature tree develops are very rough, scaly, dark grey bark that easily peels or flakes off.  It looks like the trunk is covered in burnt cornflakes.  Identifying younger trees in the winter gets a little trickier though, since the bark resembles that of a birch for the first years of its life.

Wild cherry is not only a very common and wide-spread tree, but it’s a very multipurpose one as well.  Tiny black “cherries” that hang in long clusters, ripen in early to mid summer and are not only edible, but make great jams, preserves, or jellies.  The wood, which is a striking reddish brown, is a very strong hardwood that makes beautiful furniture.  It also adds a great smoky flavor to whatever you’re cooking on the grill.

As for its medicinal value, you’re mainly looking at making an infusion (hot tea) or syrup of the inner bark (the young brown bark just under the outer grey bark), which contains a reasonably strong cough suppressant.  Therefore it has relevance in the treatment of cold, flu, asthma, and bronchitis where coughing persists.  It also contains substances that aid digestion.  Keep in mind though, that this herb only suppresses the cough reflex itself and does not address the cause.  All in all, this is a very handy tree to know inside and out.   Wild cherry stands thick and tall, a stark contrast against the snow during cold and flu season!

Representing today’s shrub category of helpful winter medicinals is the ‘black haw’ bush.  Though not quite as multipurpose as the wild cherry, black haw has some great uses, especially for women.


Black Haw flowers


Black Haw buds


Black Haw berries


Black Haw bark

Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), another native of Northeastern woodlands, is a deciduous shrub that averages 6 – 15ft in height and spread.  Flat-topped clusters of non-fragrant, white flowers appear in spring and develop into dark, blue-purple berries in autumn.  Like wild cherries, black haw berries are also edible, making a great jam or jelly.  Furthermore, these berry clusters hang on well into the colder months after all the leaves have fallen, making them an important identifier in the winter (If the birds have not finished them off).  The stem/trunk tends to be short, thick and gnarled with arching branches.  Black haw’s bark is not the strongest distinguishing factor, as it takes a trained eye to do so.  However, it can be described as grayish-brown, and has a “blocky” texture like dinosaur or alligator skin.  An important identifying factor as spring approaches is in the outermost dormant buds.  Because the black haw blooms first thing in the spring, the dormant flower buds begin to swell, giving the outermost tips of the branches a bulbous shape.  Also make note of the bud placement on the stems.

Once again, the medicinal value of black haw is in its bark.  A decoction of the inner bark reveals a powerful relaxant effect for the uterus and is very helpful in treating/relieving false labor pains.

(A decoction is a hot tea where the herb is brought to a boil in water before simmering, as opposed to normal tea preparation, where already heated water is poured over the herb.  The extra heat of a decoction is required of some roots and barks to get them to release their medicines. )

Black haw has been used successfully to prevent miscarriages as well, though it should not be used within the first 2 trimesters (Obviously, this is last resort medicine, and expert medical advice should be sought before using this, or any herb).  But its most common use is in the relief of menstrual cramping.  Part of its pain relieving effect can be attributed to its salicin content, the chemical in which aspirin is derived.  Though the salicin content is much lower than that of willow bark, anyone allergic to aspirin should not take this herb.  Black haw bark will also lower blood pressure.  This is quite a useful shrub that’s still available to you, even in the middle of winter, IF you know it well enough!

Even in a “polar vortex” the forest can still be your herbal pharmacy.  These are just a couple of useful and common examples.  Other common trees/shrubs with medicinal properties include willow, slippery elm, sassafras, witch hazel, oak, poplar, white pine, dogwood, silver birch, bearberry and many more.  Of course, you must do your research.  Use extreme caution and be 100% sure of what you’re collecting, how to prepare it, and how much to use.  There are many great herbal medicine books out there, as well as trained/certified herbalists and herbalism schools to learn from.  If you’re learning on your own, research, research, research, and cross-reference before you experiment.  Some medicinal plants are safer than others.

As for tree and shrub identification, try to get a field guide with excellent color pictures of all features, including bark.  Most of them don’t have good pictures of the bark or winter characteristics, but there are ways around that.  In the growing season, while the trees and shrubs do have their leaves, take the time to examine the bark closely and commit it to memory, even marking certain trees to help you remember if you have to.  Just make sure that whatever you’re marking them with is not going to harm or cut into the tree should you forget about it.

You never know when old earth knowledge may be needed, but always be conscious and respectful of the woods even in winter when things seem lifeless.  I assure you things are quite alive.  Life is just beneath the surface of the bark or peeking out at you from the hole in that tree trunk over your head!

Journey well and in good health out there, people!  Stay warm!

~ Steve & Ashley

Preparing your body….

I knew it the first time I heard it…. the telltale customer’s persistent cough and dreary expression…the season had begun….

As with every cold & flu season, as soon as I hear the first few people coming down with symptoms, it’s only a matter of time before it spreads quickly.  For me, I almost always get sick when the season hits, but how long it lasts, and how bad it is, is all up to me. If I take the precautions as soon as I know it’s coming; I can always lessen my sentence and make the process easier.  Or if you’re someone like Steve, who rarely gets sick, the extra defense is just a plus 😉

The key to this is to know your vitamins, and your herbs…

Step 1: Break out the Echinacea!

Echinacea is a lifesaver for me when it comes to boosting my immune system, and it works for so many different types of sicknesses. If you start taking Echinacea daily when you know the season is coming; you can even avoid getting sick all together (or at least up your defense against it).

Echinacea or Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) (This is the most commonly used variety of Echinacea) is a lovely purple flower that you will often see used in people’s flowerbeds. Often times people use this lovely bloom as a colorful accent flower without even realizing what a treasure they have.


(Parts used include: Roots, leaves, and flowers)

If you’re going to use Echinacea I recommend either growing it yourself or buying the dried herb and making your own tea, tincture, or capsules (MountainRoseHerbs.com has good prices on it). While you can buy the capsules from the vitamin section at most pharmacy-containing stores; the quality is not guaranteed. You have no idea of the concentration, how old the herb is (because it is stored, manufactured, and then shipped out on a large-scale), or what methods of over-processing and preservation may have depleted the potency. Growing your own is, of course, the best option because you know where it came from, and you know it’s fresh. The next option is to get it from a good herbal supplier that is guaranteed to give you quality stock (not too old, and not grown with chemicals). Having it dried and stored up also gives you a bit of control over the dosage. Echinacea is considered a very safe herb, but of course…do your research, try a small amount the first time to check for allergies, and talk to your doctor or do your research if you’re afraid it might conflict with medication. I can say that I have been taking Echinacea since I was a child with no ill effects, however, everyone is different.  I like to take my Echinacea as a tea. Place a couple teaspoons (I usually do a couple tsp, but I tend to mix mine with other herbs) of the dried herb into either a tea-ball or tea screen and place in a hot cup of water, let sit for 5-10 min, press excess water out of the herbs, add honey and drink! I would recommend taking it 3 times a day, and continue taking it even if you get sick. I like the tea because the hot water is soothing to your throat and it is a fast way to introduce the herb into your system. Making a tincture requires more time compared to the first two methods, but you don’t need to use as much, and you can add it to your regular drinks (Put a few drops into your morning orange juice, etc…).  http://adelightfulhome.com/how-to-make-echinacea-tincture-its-easy/ is a good website for learning to make the tincture. The tincture itself is VERY easy to make, but it takes time because it will have to sit in a dark closet/area for 4-6 weeks.

If you’re always on the go and you don’t have time for tea, then use capsules (you can also use capsules as a filler, and drink the tea when you have time). MountainRoseHerbs.com also sells capsule makers and capsules (though I believe you can also get those at vitamin and herb shops), I found the price was good online, however.  This is a simple matter of grinding down the dried herb that you have (just a bit, you’re just trying to make it more fine so it’s a better fit for the capsule). I have several different mortars and pestles in my herb cupboard (different sizes and types work better for different things). Dried Echinacea is easy to grind down, so a basic mortar and pestle is fine (I’m sure you could use a food processor, but I enjoy using the mortar and pestle). You will then use the capsule maker to fill the capsules with the ground up herbs. Viola! They are now ready to be stored and taken at your convenience!

Step 2: Find your Immune Health Herbs

There are tons of immune boosting herbs out there! I know when I make my Echinacea tea, I am often adding additional herbs into the mix depending on what my body is telling me (I wouldn’t recommend going above 4 different herbs at one time because it can distort the effects and potency). There are really too many out there to go into details, but I recommend getting some good herb books or utilizing the internet and doing some research of your own. Certain herbs may even be available for you to gather personally (As always however, if you are wild gathering NEVER take more than you need or can be spared. The rule of thirds – 1/3rd for you, 1/3rd for the animals, leaving 1/3rd for plant itself to reproduce. If there is not enough for you, then don’t take it.) I will give you a list of some of the other herbs that I use for immune system health (click the names for more information!).

Note: Also if you partake in wild gathering, be sure you know where you are getting the herbs from. Dandelions are chalk full of nutrients, but if you fertilize, weed + feed, or spray your yard then I wouldn’t recommend using the plants in your yard. You want fresh and all natural 😉   OK! On the the herbs! –> 

Stinging Nettle – This is a great one!

Garlic – Delicious!

Goldenseal – This works AWESOME when you couple it with Echinacea! The dynamic duo of cold control! I will note however, that Goldenseal is VERY bitter; so while it’s great as a tea, it tastes terrible!! Many prefer to make capsules or tinctures with this one.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

And some extra links to get you started!

Top 10 Immune Boosting Herbs

Immune Boosting Herbs

This should give you a good start! In addition to this it always helps to drink plenty of water and gets lots of vitamin C. These herbs are a great and natural way to care for your body without the use of antibiotics like NyQuil that only MASK the problem. If you already have the flu there are thousands of herbs at your disposal to help with symptoms as well. Boneset and Willow Bark are great for relieving aches and pains associated with flu. Osha root is great for breathing and respiratory issues. Yarrow is excellent for fevers. These are just a few examples and you will be amazed at just how well these natural remedies work!! The use of natural herbs to help and heal the body is ancient in practice, and the clinical/prescription medications of today have roots in, and derive ingredients from these very same herbs.

Step 3: Be consistent

Many herbs have a gentle action on the body that can take some time to be metabolized to their full effect.  For this reason, many people give up on herbs when they don’t get instant results.  For herbs and natural dietary supplements to have a real effect you should be consistent in taking/drinking them. Make sure you create a schedule for yourself and follow it daily where applicable. Also, be sure to do research based on the particular herbs you choose to use. While I can generally take Echinacea daily with no issues; it is not recommended to take Goldenseal regularly for more than 2 weeks. Mix it up, and work out a schedule that works for you and the herbs that you’re using. Research is key, some people assume that herbs are all safe and mild, this is NOT true. Many herbs can have potent results. For example: Poke Root has a lot of valuable health benefits, including helping rheumatism, skin diseases, and as an alternative cancer treatment (as well as many, many others), however, it is meant to be used as a lotion, tincture, or infusion. If you were to make too much of this  say, as a tea, you would find yourself vomiting consistently for the rest of day on the floor. Not pleasant right? What I’m trying to say is that I did extensive research before using my herbs. I can give you recommendations but I am not a doctor or master herbalist, make sure you know what you’re doing before you do it.  Now that I’ve gotten the warnings out of the way; I hope you take the time to explore more into this world of natural healing. Despite all the warnings I just gave; I use herbs regularly and I love the way they make me feel and lack of side-effects. Everything in balance, and knowledge is key 🙂

“The art of healing comes from nature and not from the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind.” -Paracelsus

Slàinte mhor a h-uile là a chi ‘s nach fhaic (Great health to you every day that I see you and every day that I don’t) 😉

                                                                                                                                           – Ashley S.