Archive for February, 2012

Herb(s) of the Week: Pipsissewa

Posted on February 26, 2012. Filed under: Herb(s) of the Week, Uncategorized |

Pipsissewa was the first plant I “heard” while wide awake. At that point I had felt the presence of plants in my dreams but not while awake and in the world.

I was attending a plant walk and the group had separated to do their own explorations. I was hiking along a path and I felt something subtly tugging at me. I walked back to where I had felt it, but saw nothing. Yet I still felt a presence. I stepped slightly off the path and parted some plants and concealed by them was this beauty:

Pipsissewa -Chimaphila maculata (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

This particular Pipsissewa is Chimaphila maculata or the Spotted or Striped Wintergreen while the usual one that is used by herbalists (when they use it) is Chimaphila umbellata (here’s a link to some nice images of that one), but it is medicinal as well – in both cases it is the leaves which are the medicinal parts.

I instantly felt a connection to the plant as one I should work with, even though at the time I didn’t know what it was! At the time, I felt it less as an aid to physical ailments as one for emotional and spiritual ones.

It’s a traditional Native American medicine and the common name comes from the Creek Indians who called it “pipsisikweu” or “breaks into small pieces” referencing its antilithic qualities (breaking down gallstones and kidney stones.) It’s used for urinary tract problems and stimulates urine flow while disinfecting the urinary tract. As well as good for relieving fluid build up (and another reason I got interested in it as well in considering as part of a Meniere’s protocol.) It has also been smoked by as a tobacco substitute (okay but what hasn’t by someone somewhere?)

I like Matthew Wood’s take from his book The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants:

 “Pipsissewa is a great ‘eliminator of kapha,’ if I may coin a phrase. It warms and activates the lymphatics and kidneys, the carriers and the persers of water in the body. It is indicated when the tongue is swollen and coated in the middle. This might be an indication of ‘spleen yang deficiency’ in traditional Chinese medicine, a category similar to ‘scrofula’ in old-time Western medicine. There is usually congestion and stagnation of fluids and buildup of waste products. It warms and dissolves these congealed fluids and moves the wastes. Thus it is useful in cold, swollen, sluggish conditions and patients. In addition, it contains tannins that astringe the tissues and return them to good tone. It is indicated in the sluggishness, water retention, and weight gain of middle age.”

I’ve certainly noticed the fluid motive tendencies of it just working with the tincture.

Unfortunately, there are environmental concerns with Pipsissewa and it is considered a bit endangered in areas like New England.  I suspect that is partly because it likes small wild fires to spur its propagation and we tend to discourage those on our attempts to manage nature to our short term needs. Which is a shame for such a beautiful and useful plant. (Which oddly enough makes me think of the Kenny Roger’s song Lucille with a twist: “You picked a fine time to leave me Pipsissewa…” I’ll mercifully spare you the rest running through my head.) The plant can be a skin irritant which is a reminder to approach all plants with respect (although I’ve never had a problem with it bothering me.)

Ever since I first met it though (and every time since I’ve seen it) I’ve grow more and more drawn to exploring the flower essence of it. Allegedly it is useful in clearing ambivalence, releasing judgment and shame while cultivating innocence and wonder. Or another way I’ve seen it put finding light in the darkness. Which given its tendency to well shaded areas, produce such brilliant flowers and propagate via fire – seems fitting and powerful. I’ll be exploring those aspects soon.

Here’s a close up of the flower (with annoying hominid digits way to apparent!):

Close up of flower Pipsissewa -Chimaphila maculata (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

References of Note: I actually liked Indian Herbalogy of North America by Alma Hutchens best and found Grieve’s A Modern Herbal Volume II useful as well. Although very brief in its coverage I found some interesting tidbits in Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James Duke. And, of course, there’s almost always something good in Matthew Wood’s The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

My Own Take: Overall, I think it better to use other plants with similar medicinal properties given the population problems, unless nothing else will do. Which is a shame because I think it has a lot to offer as a powerful healer and plant ally and I feel it has healing magic yet to be discovered.

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Adventures in Urban Herbalism: Gardening – Seeds!

Posted on February 19, 2012. Filed under: Herbal Gardening, Urban Herbalism |

Herbal Seed Packs (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

All my little packets of seeds for my herbal gardening have arrived.  Which somehow makes it all so much more real.  I guess I have to start deciding what I’m doing where (yard, containers outside and in), when I want to plant and figure out when I need to start the seedlings from there. Such fun!

Because it is about the season, there are lots of articles around about starting seeds, etc. in the magazines I get.  And,  of course,  info in the books.   But I think there is a community aspect to all of this as well.  Not just the community of plants and nature but of people.

So I found a local urban agriculture group  that is also offering lots of relevant workshops in the coming weeks that I will attend.   It is called The Food Project – which does lots of great work with inner city kids, the poor and homeless, so they sound like folks I’d love to connect with and maybe volunteer with anyway for lots of reasons.

And I’m starting to explore what other groups there are locally too.  There are lots of gardening groups, but none I see just for folks growing medicinal herbs.  I want to connect with those groups but something more specific would be great as well.  Perhaps that is something I should work on creating.

I have to check it out, but after scouting around I think I have found a local garden center I want to do business with – Boston Gardener.   They are local, independent, urban, organic specialists and support of lot of inner city garden projects. All things I want to support.

So step by step I’m getting there.

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Book Review: The Male Herbal: The Definitive Health Care Book for Men & Boys by James Green

Posted on February 12, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: |

“It’s not you, it’s me.” is what I feel I should be saying after reading The Male Herbal:  The Definitive Health Care Book for Men & Boys by James Green. It’s a good and useful book, but it took me a long time to sit down and actually read it. Why? Because I have a resistance to books aimed at men which try to speak with men via stereotypical “guy talk.” It just grates on me fiercely. Partly because I’m not one of those men. (And it is hard to imagine a women’s health book doing the same with women!) That said, the author keeps that sort of thing to bare minimum, so I didn’t have too much twitching when reading it.

Roughly the two thirds of the book is devoted to explanatory essays covering topics such as:

  • a brief history of herbalism
  • men versus women (biology and anatomy)
  • how to prepare herbal remedies
  • an overview of herbal actions and how to help choose the right herb to you
  • constitutional types
  • his own theories of herbs and health
  • health care specifically for males and in general

While the last third is a more encyclopedic Materia Medica of herbs.

Which altogether, really covers what you want in such a book.

I was intrigued in how different some of his preparations differed from the tradition I studied in – much more modest ratios and “brewing” times , partly because he emphasizes the energetics I believe. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, the more you read and study with different herbalist the more you realize how vastly different philosophies of dosage and preparation actually are. Green has, in fact, written an entire book on, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual, which is on my to buy list. Now it has moved up that list significantly because I want to explore that a bit.

One of the tools he offers is based on constitutional model (roughly) that roughly parallels Ayuredic tradition of doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) as well as William Sheldon’s work (endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph) but with his own development and adaptation. Instead he uses Monarch, Seer and Warrior.  Which are used in helping to identify health trends and treatments.

Extreme Poles from James Green The Male Herbal

Now say we were to use a classic example of the Man of Steel. Wait we can’t afford that on this blog? Who did we get – the “man made out of steel?”

Starman (Image via Black Sun Blog (

O’lordy – It’s Starman!

Okay, that works better in the way and illustrates a strength in the way Green explains his system. Generally, people don’t fall into exact clean categories and you have gradations. Green includes a questionnaire to help figure out where one might fall.

This chart from the book illustrates that pretty well.

Gradiated Triad from James Green The Male Herbal

Starman for example (unlike that other character we couldn’t get) has a “bit” of Monarch  as well as some warrior.

YMMV, for how useful you find this as a tool for thinking about men’s health and treatment. Personally, I appreciate knowing different ways of thinking about it, while not necessarily using them  as much myself. I had a bit more of a problem with the terms used since they have so many connotations that it pulls me into different less useful associations. While the doshas not being English didn’t cause me such an issue. I’ve had discussions with herbalists who take the exact opposite stand.

Even if his system, while interesting, doesn’t work for you – not using it is not required for working with the book. It is still an good herbal reference for men’s health. I’d pair it though with a good plain guide to men’s health – I’d recommend The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men’s Health: Lessons from the Harvard Men’s Health Studies. There are other good books, but I’d avoid any men’s health book that has whole chapters on “hair loss and treatment”, “better erections” etc. (like Men’s Health for Dummies) – they won’t really be useful as a general health guide.

Overall, good book and nice thoughtful addition to one’s herbal and health library.

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Adventures in Urban Herbalism: Gardening – The First Steps

Posted on February 3, 2012. Filed under: Herbal Gardening, Urban Herbalism | Tags: , |

I continue down the path toward growing medicine herbs in my space in the city.

Marsh Bridge - (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbals)

The Beginning Readings:

The first book I read was The Medicinal Herb Grower Volume 1 by Richo Cech which gave me a nice overview and things to think about. (I reviewed it a bit ago so I won’t go much into it here.) Now the second book I read, Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World by Thomas Fox, ended up rounding that off nicely and gave me some food for thought. I’m tempted to give it a full review another time but for now – it is an excellent overview of gardening, planting, etc. concepts that seem to be left out of some of the other books (because perhaps they just assume you know although you might not) as well as good food for thought. And most importantly I learned lots of things I didn’t know before and found really interesting! Which is so often what I really want in a book. Definitely recommend it.

Deciding What to Get and Where to Get It:

I decided to begin with an insanely unrealistic fantasy list first – just to flex the mental muscles and have fun. So I flipped through a couple of big herbal encyclopedias and made a list of everything that struck my fancy regardless of how sensible it was. I let myself squee with joyously irrational fantasies of actually growing them all…for about a week.  Eventually after looking at list with a some what more realistic eye I pared it down to things I could actually have a chance of growing. (A handy first step is getting acquainted with hardiness zones as outlined on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone map – this gives you a rough idea of what will do best/survive in your area. Most books and places you order from will reference it as starting point.)

One final check I made before ordering was to see if anything I wanted was against the law to buy, plant, etc. in Massachusetts. (Hey and lets admit it, we herby folks loves us some plants that aren’t always beloved by others!) Most seed places will probably not have for sale things on the national list of banned plants, but the states vary a lot. Certain plants will be fine for one state but not another. (Here the list for Massachusetts.) Luckily, nothing I wanted was going to be a problem.

There were a couple of things I kept in mind when deciding on places to buy seed that I wanted the companies to offer:

  1. Safe Seed Pledge – places pledging not to use GMO seed. The Council for Responsible Genetics originated that and keeps a listing of those companies that do.
  2. Organic – the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association has a partial list, and lists many of the reasons why you should care too.
  3. Bioregion Grown – seeds from plants grown in your bioregion will be better adapted to growing in it. Permaculture Activist has a list of seed companies by state as a starting point.

Now mind you, I like considering everything, but remember it’s never worth getting overly obsessive about matching every criteria!   I ended up ordering most of my seeds from a place in Massachusetts – Organica Seed. And went to a couple of places out west to get the couple of things that I didn’t get there – The Thyme Garden Herb Company and Horizon Herbs. All great places.

So what did I order in all? – Here’s the list:

  • Calendula
  • California Poppy
  • Chamomile
  • Feverfew
  • Lemon Balm
  • Motherwort
  • Mugwort
  • Passionflower
  • Red Clover
  • Self Heal
  • Skullcap
  • Violet
  • Wild Bergamot

Probably slightly more than I may actually be able, or want, to grow but I’m up for the adventure of trying. If there are some I don’t end up using I may give or trade them away or see if I can let them find homes in other places around Boston.  Just call me Mikey Herbalseed! 😉

I’ll be doing some experiments of container and vertical gardening where some of these may end up. I may seed part of the existing soil in the yard space I’ll have with Red Clover to build up the soil for next year rather than plant anything else there. I may try some things with grow lights in my room’s window seat.  Making those decisions and planning the details is still part of the next steps.

To be continued…

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