Archive for December, 2011

Ways I find the space for my herbs

Posted on December 30, 2011. Filed under: Urban Herbalism |

Sometimes I read the herbal blogs and see how folks store their herbs and realize that while I love what I see, it doesn’t really apply to me.   Many of them have houses with basements, spare rooms, places to build dedicated shelving.    And, sadly, I’m a city boy where rents are expensive and you have smaller spaces with roommates, landlords who won’t let you build, etc.

But I do find my work around ideas that I thought I would share.

The super cheap pine furniture works wonders.   CD racks work for smaller tinctures bottles,  while cheap DVD pine racks work beautifully for larger sizes.  Here’s a range of sizes in a DVD rack:

(Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

And the cheap pine bookcases work well for the dried herbs, which I store in half gallon mason jars:

(Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

And to cover them I installed a cheap curtain rod from a hardware store and scooped up an Indian print on sale from a Tibetan shop in the area:

(Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

Which actually looks way better in real life than in the photo.   I use a little velcro to hold the curtain in place on either sides of the case, which still makes it very easy to open and close the curtain for access.

I’ll be doing the same for the tincture units in the future for aesthetics.

When space is at a premium, like here in the city, things like this work really well and look fairly nice.

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Random Musings: Medicine Making

Posted on December 27, 2011. Filed under: Diagnosis, Random Musings |

A pair of In-N-Out cheeseburgers.

Image via Wikipedia

I haven’t been doing an herb of the week lately because I’ve been on vacation from my day job the past couple of weeks so I’ve been taking the time to make myself custom tea blends according to what I need each day. And because I’ve been making some custom medicinal tea blends for several folks and I like to spend time with them trying them out first.

All of which got me thinking about medicinal blending.

If I’m just deciding a blend for myself, I tend to be very free form – I’ll look over herbs and pause, then I’ll know what I need for the day. Once I’ve picked them I try to figure why I chose them and it almost always fits together beautifully. Today for example I was drinking a tea blend of nettles, burdock and lemon balm. The burdock was helpful for my liver still processing all the yummy Christmas treats, the lemon balm helped to uplift my spirits on this cloudy cold day, while the nettles helped nourish me in all I had to do today. There have been times when I wake up, and before even looking, I know what I need – like the week when I had wormwood and lavender which helped me work on some emotional and spiritual cleansing and change I needed at the time. This works because I not only know the herbs but also myself so I can almost instinctively choose. While when choosing for others, I would take a more careful process of considering the person’s condition, nature and situation to then make the best choices for them in the moment.

That’s a key point. Not every treatment, medicine, herb, etc. works for a 100% of the people 100% of the time. Even in scientific studies you’ll see that what is tested offers certain amount of improvement to certain number of people over some time but not everyone all the time. There are variations between individuals and types. There are different needs to be met according to their diet, physical activity and stress patterns in their life – which means the same individual will have differing needs over time. And what needs to be treated can vary with the same apparent symptom – consider the musing I had about diagnosis and the liver the other day or the different characteristics between types of headaches (future blog post to be sure) or even the contrast between a summer cold and a winter cold, just for some random examples.

Which brings me to a far too common reality – the generic medicinal tea and tincture blends for different conditions that you can buy almost any where nowadays. They tend to be a big mainstay of health food stores, herbal companies and some herbalists. There’s nothing terribly wrong about them, but I tend to think of them as being the fast food of the herbal world. Like fast food there can be things that make them food/medicine, but where fast food will often be loaded down with salt, fat, etc. in excessive combinations and quantities to cover up its failings as real food, some of the blends will have aromatics, pungent and other elements to give it the feel of “herbal” healing but the actual value can be debatable. But just like fast food can fill an empty stomach so can those generic blends help to a degree and in a pinch I go for them too! :-0

Just like having a well cooked meal, it is so much better to work with an herbalist to find what works best. They don’t have to rely of the flash/fast herbal elements, but instead can offer the real deal. But just like cooking, it is even better though learning to do it for yourself – which is what I like to do when I deal with folks. Help them out and teach them as well.

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Book Review: The Medicinal Herb Grower Volume 1 by Richo Cech

Posted on December 23, 2011. Filed under: Book Reviews, Herbal Gardening |

This is the first of the collection of books I’ve gathered to help plan my medicinal herb garden that I read. By the title I had thought it would be one of the most key books in my new collection. And in many respects it is a good book, and while worth reading, not quite in the way I expected.

Richo Cech possesses great expertise at growing medicinal herbs born from years of experience in the field. This book is a delightful collection of his wisdom and is filled with illustrative stories grown from that experience. For that, it is very much worth reading, especially for anyone beginning their journey growing such plants, like myself.

But it is primarily a narrative organized by broad topics rather than encyclopedic or the sort of traditional reference you would expect to find with such books. There is no bibliography, index, endnotes or footnotes (well there is a footnote!) It has a wealth of information you just have to actually read the book to find it all. For example, if you want to know about growing a particular herb there will be quite a bit of useful information, it will just be scattered throughout many sections of the book. (The book is fairly short at 160 pages so it is hardly a chore to read through it all.)

All of which is antithetical to the way our internet age of hypertext, google searches and wikipedia works nowadays. But in a perverse way I like that. It harkens back, in a pleasant way, to a time where you read for knowledge and gained a broader understanding, rather than just look up facts stripped from context. And that I find wonderfully parallel to the path of the herbalist and healer, where we emphasize the context and wisdom, rather than isolated examinations and quick fixes.

I do think that that for me, one of the weaknesses of the book is that it probably more based on the concept of having “land” to grow on or yards big enough that they are practically like that. Not quite what I’m really likely to have in Boston. And the book is more generally about growing in an area like the pacific northwest (like the author) than folks dealing with the climes of New England. He does talk about such things but only in the broadest of strokes.

That said, will this be the book I refer to most in planning and research for growing medicinal herbs? Probably not. However it was a good place to start to begin my journey and somewhere I will return to from time to time to re-think things as I learn more and start the actual work growing.

I would tend to recommend it, but it may not be essential for everyone especially if you’re looking just for a reference book. But if you are starting out and want to think a bit more about things it is decent place to start.

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Random Musings: Diagnosis in a Connected Systemic View

Posted on December 20, 2011. Filed under: Diagnosis, Path of the Healer, Random Musings |

After exploring some of my own healing, I was thinking about connections in the body, illness and diagnosis of them. But let’s start with a riddle – so what can:

  • Ringing in an ear
  • Itch in one particular part of the foot
  • Waking up regularly between 1- 3 AM
  • Tendency to collapse on the left side in some asanas

have in common?

One answer is the liver.

Depending on the system of alternative medicine they can all be associated with the liver. But where you go from there is the interesting part to me.

There are those who see disparate symptoms like these and make a connection to a single cause and then treat that cause. And conversely others who would go after the individual symptoms while not looking at a possible connection.

I tend to think (keeping to the example above) that both are really needed. The liver may need help say through supporting and regulating herbs, but the liver’s need expressed itself in those ways because other systems had things that needed support and should be worked on too. (Like tight tendons in the foot needing massage, etc.)

That’s why I like reading a variety of healing arts perspectives (including contemporary Western medicine) I think it helps keep one’s perspective flexible and gives multiple approaches to a problem or set of problems.

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Book Review: Weeds by Richard Mabey

Posted on December 16, 2011. Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , |

I immensely enjoyed reading Weeds by Richard Mabey and completely recommend it. Truly a delightful look at humanity’s love/hate relationship for these oft misunderstood, haphazardly and sometimes wrongly judged members of plant world.

 “PLANTS BECOME WEEDS when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world. If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame.”

That quote really sums up Mabey’s approach to the topic. And it is such a refreshing one in a more mainstream book (members of the herbalist community get it – even if we can tend to love some while being troubled by others.) By taking the long term view he highlights the complexity of our relationship with these plants that can be disturbingly a reflection of us – where many of these so called intrusive plants are only here and thriving because of our own actions.

He does a great historical overview, including an excellent summary of the early herbals (listing of plants and their medicinal uses), herbalists, and more. He charts the shortsighted attempts to get rid of unwanted plants that only served to entrench them more firmly. The even more comical, deliberate efforts to introduce and cultivate plants that ended running a muck and becoming our more infamous “weeds.” And plants that were loved and welcomed, then classified as weeds and unwelcome, only to become loved and welcomed again in succeeding generations – illustrating that often our attitudes can be more capricious than rational in these matters. Or plants classified as “exotic” invaders that have been existing in the area longer than protected “natives.”

There’s one wonderful section where he lists the various plants given “devil” names in medieval times including some of my (and other herbalists) favorites:

  • Mullein: Devil’s Blanket
  • Ground-Ivy: Devil’s Candlestick
  • Nettle: Devil’s Leaf
  • Dandelion: Devil’s Milk-Pail

But, as Mabey states, less likely because they were thought to be truly satanic but more out of sheer frustration trying to control them.

Overall, a really welcome read and interesting complement to the book Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Scott. Interesting enough, I found Mabey’s arguments far more persuasive than Scott’s because of the better historical overview and more balanced approach (I liked Scott’s book but found it often felt like he was leaving things out to that should have been discussed.) – his discussion of Japanese Knotweed for example, I found to be far more valuable in many ways than Scott’s by pointing out how the appearance of things may not actually be the full reality.

Is Mabey calling for a Kent Brockman-like “welcome our weedy overlords?” Not so much, but he does make a reasoned call for more careful examination of the context, how we’re too narrowly defining plants as useful/not, etc. And to recognize that our own invasiveness as really sowing the seeds and creating the opportunities for many of these plants.

Or as that ever lovin’ possum Pogo put it: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us!”

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Adventures in Urban Herbalism: Gardening – Starting the Research

Posted on December 13, 2011. Filed under: Herbal Gardening | Tags: , |

English: Herbal garden at monastery of Reichen...

Unlike some herbalists, I’m an apartment dwelling city boy and car-free.   After talking with the landlord I’ve secured some space in the yard (how much is to be decided) of our building, which is very exciting. And I’ve begun researching things which got me thinking a whole lot more flexibly than just plots in the ground

Things like:

  • Container gardening
  • Working vertically with containers rather than just horizontally
  • What could I grow in my room in my apartment by window light and strategic grow lamps
  • and more!

Here are some of the books, magazines and links I’ve started gathering as I launch into this. I’m not quite vetting these yet, just gathering, but after I go through them more thoroughly I’ll put together a page dedicated to resources I found useful to folks like me looking to grow medicinal herbs in the urban environment.


  • The Medicinal Herb Grower, Volume 1 by Richo Cech:  The very first book I’ve bought and I’ve just started reading it.  Since I’m primarily interested in growing medicinal herbs it seemed a great place to start.  But it does seem a bit more oriented to folks with more substantial yard space than I or most city dwellers will really have.  Still a good start.
  • Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World by Thomas Fox:  the second book I bought and have just started reading as well.  Not focused on medicinal herbs, but focused on farming in an urban setting so it covers a broader range and things I’ll not do (yet!) but all interesting.
  • Herbal Remedies in Pots by Effie Romain:  Tragically out of print, but I managed order a used copy on-line which I’m eagerly awaiting in the mail each day!  I read excepts from this in an old issue of Herb Quarterly from the mid-90s and thought it brilliant.  Very much about both growing medicinal herbs and growing them in more space conscious urban like environs.  I suspect it will be amazing!

The next couple of books I’ve ordered and haven’t received but they round out things by focusing more generally on growing herbs in a more classic gardening sense or gardening specifically in Massachusetts and New England.  So they should round off things nicely for filling in some gaps that the others might not cover.

There are three magazines I’ve been checking out and will continue reading:

  • The Herb Quarterly: I’d heard of it before, but not once was this mentioned in any of the herbal classes, workshops, etc. that I’ve been in.  Which is a shame because I would have been reading it a long time ago had it been on my radar.  Covers medicinal and non-medicinal herbs.  Growing, cooking, history, etc.   I’m now a subscriber and it will help immensely in planning my mad gardening schemes.
  • Urban Farm :  I’d never heard of it and it is apparently new.  The first issue I’d grabbed had a new column on beekeeping and articles on container gardening and on seed catalogs and how to choose where you want to order – just right for me.  It covers other things that don’t apply to me now but are both interesting and may someday.  So a subscriber now!
  • Mother Earth News: A classic which covers stuff that may never apply to me but really interesting nonetheless.  The first issue I grabbed had some eye opening articles on fertilizers that in fact were killing plants.  I’ll continuing check it out even though it won’t probably be as central as the other two.

Lastly, here are a couple of blogs and on-line resources that I’m finding useful and even fun:

Wow, that’s a whole lot of info-dumping!  Down the line as I gather more info and check things out,  I may just turn this into a resource page.

But, as you can tell, I tend to dive deep into learning, especially when there’s herbalism afoot!  Plus, I’m both really excited and finding this stuff just fascinating.

As I start doing things and experiment, there will be pictures and descriptions but less link madness! 🙂


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Herb(s) of the Week: Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Posted on December 11, 2011. Filed under: Herb(s) of the Week | Tags: , , |

Oh, no! I almost forgot to mention my herb(s) of the week! Actually I didn’t. I wasn’t waiting to make a point, because the herb I spent some special time with this week was Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) and it is too easy to take it for granted.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

You know in those stock romantic comedies where there is the long suffering character who is always overlooked while the main character is mooning over someone else? That’s the way I think of lemon balm. It’s great for so many things. It’s gentle and supportive and you can rely on it. But while all herbalists know it, it is far too easy to get all excited about some other herb and pass by it.

I’ll quote from Adaptogens by David Winston and Steven Maimes because even though lemon balm is not an adaptogen in the supplemental section about nervines (which it is a member of that group) they have one of the most appreciative write ups I’ve seen:

Lemon balm makes for a delightful-tasting tea that can be drunk simply for pleasure or for its mood-elevating and nervine effects. Human studies have indicated that this lemony-smelling member of the mint family can enhance cognitive function, improve mood, and relieve some of the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, especially irritability and forgetfulness. It also can be take for stress headaches, to promote better sleep quality (used with chamomile and linden flower), for nervous stomach, for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and most importantly, for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Which gives a nice overview of some of the things it is good for while talking about the sheer pleasure and delight in drinking it. And it alludes to one of the great things about lemon balm. It is not only good unto itself but it blends with and supports the work of other herbs wonderfully. I’d be hard pressed to think of a blend of herbs it wouldn’t go well with to some degree.

References of Note: Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier is the best overview, while as referenced above Winston’s and Maimes’ book Adaptogens has a very nice write up. You’ll find it referenced my many herbals but often the older ones will list it as simply Balm rather than Lemon Balm.

My Own Take: Tasty and nourishing to the soul and spirit. Calming to the mind and digestion. It is like that nice exhalation after a hard day is done and you just finally sit and are at ease.

So lemon balm, you’re awesome! I really appreciate you being part of my herbal life. It just wouldn’t be the same without you around!

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Musings on bees, humanity and connections to plants

Posted on December 9, 2011. Filed under: Random Musings | Tags: , , , , , |

Bees drinking

I wanted to share some random and still in process thinking that arose from the first two books I read about bees and honey. I chose to separate these from the book review because they really aren’t relevant to a review but did arise in reaction to it and my own unusual thought processes, so bear with me…. or not.

Both of the books discussed the massive bee die off (known as CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder) that occurred fairly recently. The triggering mechanism for this was a confluence of different factors including:

  • The use rampant use of poisons in agriculture
  • Poor nutrition where the bees were given high-fructose corn syrup mixture for the bulk of their diet (by agribusinesses who gave it to them because they were taking too much of their honey to sell) which was devoid of nutrients and essentially junk food
  • Climate change
  • Stress by the constant movement of hives to ensure profits
  • Disease introduced from around the world

I could only think of what a bellwether this is for us in the USA and too much of the rest of the world since these are all things that humanity is doing to itself as well.

I also was thinking that how the bees relationships to plants is what herbalists (or good herbalists) should truly be aspiring to. As well as being a example truly worth exploring in how the bee’s form and very being (no pun intended really) is aligned to connecting with the plants. And the mutually beneficial relationship flowering plants and bees have co-evolved into.

The better herbalists do think of that energy exchange with plants (we gain food and healing from them and should repay it somehow) to a degree but mostly seem to teach it being satisfied by symbolic offerings and asking rather than taking. Somehow, I’m feeling more needs to be done for it to truly feel that exchange is fairer (probably the Libra in me always worrying about balance and fairness!)

It’s certainly something that has been gnawing at me throughout my herbal studies. I don’t have a problem with what I have been taught by different herbalists as good practices and ways of spirit in dealing with harvesting plants including things like:

  •  Only take at most 1/3 of a stand
  • Don’t approach with cutting/digging tools out and ready but talk first and ask permission
  • Don’t take mindlessly but with awareness and connection
  • Leaving an offering (hair, corn meal, tobacco, etc.)

I’m pondering things such as awareness of supporting efforts to protect the environment. If I harvest this I vow to give this much to United Plant Savers, Wilderness Society, etc. or spend this much time helping or planting. Or instead of symbolic offering technically useless things – bring fertilizer or water that will help the plants you leave in the stand grow.

Not a fully grown throught yet, but something I’ll start pondering.

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Book Review: two books on honey

Posted on December 8, 2011. Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , |

This time around not one but two books that I loved!

I’ve been on a passionate kick of making lots of herbal honeys lately, and from that I’ve expanded to reading more about honey and the wondrous bees that produce it. These two books are the beginning of this mini-research project, but most definitely not the end.

Yes, you’re thinking that’s swell but isn’t this an herbalism blog and honey/bees aren’t exactly plants? Well, this blog also talks about healing arts (and sometimes will talk yoga!), but even without that honey and bees are a most worthwhile topic.

Here’s some reasons in no particular order:

  • Honey is amazingly medicinal by itself – good for treating infections, congestion, wound healing, burns, sore throats, insomnia and a host of other things.
  • You can make amazing herbal medicines with honey (like I’ve been doing lately.)
  • When used in combination with herbal remedies honey can enhance the healing property of herbs according to the Ayurvedic tradition (and there is some evidence on that point it seems.)
  • Honey is yummy and bees are cool!

Now on to the books.

Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive by Stephen Buchmann

Buchmann’s the shorter overview of the two books. It focuses more on the bees, beekeeping and the history of humans, bees and honey. It does talk about the medicinal uses of honey including historical ones, but that is not its main goal. The book is more of an informative first person narrative with lots of interesting stories giving you insights into the information it presents. It makes for a reasonably useful first overview of the topic. It has more of an appeal to a broader age group as well, set up so it is readable for adults while being a great first reference for kids 11 and up – not a mean feat when you think about it.

The Honey Prescription: The Amazing Power of Honey as Medicine by Nathaniel Altman

Altman’s book is far more extensive in most every respect. The title indicates its main goal of discussing the healing aspects of honey, but the book covers substantially all other aspects about bees, honey, history, etc. It makes for an excellent start to the topic.

What is especially nice is the substantive discussion about studies of honey including ones that offer more mixed results in terms of supporting his points. One of my favorite parts of the book is the extensive footnoting of studies and list of books, journals and on-line resources that gives me a lot to go through for my next steps of research.

One interesting point Altman discusses, that many herbalists should be quite familiar with, is how much of the research in honey’s medicinal applications is not done in the United States because of the inability US pharmaceuticals to patent and profit off of it, thus a lack of funding to research it.

Overall, both books are worth reading. The first is better if you want a simpler, briefer, more readable overview. The second if you’re looking for something a tad more substantial but still not remotely overwhelming as an introduction with lots of touch points for further reading.

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Thanks Plant Friend

Posted on December 6, 2011. Filed under: Plant Friends | Tags: |

Red Clover (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

It was a struggling December day in Boston and my soul was weary, but it was made so much better because I stumbled across a beautiful patch of Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) on my way to work.

Not technically rare since there are autumn blossoms of it (but actually it isn’t autumn anymore), but it was a beautiful surprise since I wasn’t expecting it and it was growing in a place I walk by daily but had never seen it before.

So I paused and sat on the ground, despite being in my work clothes, and just spent time with it as the rest of my neighborhood marched on to the subway in their pre-caffeine zombified state.  It renewed my spirit, just at time when I needed it.

It’s easy to list out all the “bigger” ways the plants can heal us physically, but it is the subtle and random ways when they appear and heal the spirit where the true magic can be found.

Thanks, red clover!

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