Archive for May, 2012

Herb(s) of the Week: The Three Amigas – Alfalfa, Milky Oats and Nettle

Posted on May 28, 2012. Filed under: Herb(s) of the Week | Tags: , , , , |

It’s been quite the week last week (don’t even ask – crazy, wild, weird and not in the fun way!) and continuing into this week as well.  So much so that I knew I needed a special herbal blend and that’s exactly what this blend is.  I call the Three Amigas – Alfalfa, Milky Oats and Nettles.

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

In the past I had never given Alfalfa the due she deserved.   I had been taught it as valuable for its nutritive properties, but somehow those never leaped out to me as special compared to others like nettles, any seaweed, etc.   When I finally spent time working with Alfalfa, I felt the calming and supportive magic when I was stressed.

It was Matthew Wood who put the finger on what was really going on in my view (The Earthwise Herbal:  A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants):

“The medicinal properties more likely depend on the strong alkalinity of the herb.  Many problems are due to acidity.  Alkalization sedates the nerves and muscles, removes acids from the digestive tract and internal environment, improving digestion, reducing putrefaction in the gut, and cleansing the internal fluids and tissues.”

When I read that, I knew that was what I was feeling when I worked with Alfalfa.  When you’re stressed your body produces so much excess acids and Alfalfa helps with that.  It’s generally considered a good herb to use when treating nervousness, irritability and insomnia – I suspect for primarily for that reason.

Milky Oats (Avena sativa)

Milky Oats – Avena Sative (Wikipedia)

Milky Oats first appeared on my herbal radar in a significant way when I noticed she appeared in the nervine tincture blend I liked best, after spending some time checking out different blends by different companies.  All the other herbs used across the board seemed to be variations of the usual suspects (Skullcap, Passionflower, etc.)  But the blend with Milky Oats had an extra magic to it that really resonated with me.

I think that David Winston and Steven Maimes summed it up best (Adaptogens):

 “Fresh milky oat extract is a superb food for the nervous system.  It is a slow-acting tonic remedy that calms shattered nerves, relieves emotional instability, reduces the symptoms of drug withdrawal, and helps restore a sense of peace and tranquility to overstressed, angry and chronically upset people.”

Milky Oats is a classic nervine and often used with cases of nervous exhaustion, mental strain and insomnia.  I also think it is an amazing supportive player in combination with other herbs with similar actions making blends stronger.

Nettles, Stinging (Urtica dioica)

Nettle-(Stinging)—Urtica-dioica (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Hey, what can I say about Nettles, because like many herbalists I just completely love them.  They are amazingly nutritive and strong ally to us all.

I remember the very first time I drank a strong Susun Weed style infusion of Nettles (quart Mason jar 1/3 full of dried nettle and then add boiling water, infused overnight)  and was blown away by how dark black, complex and yummy they were.  I couldn’t get enough of it for weeks on end.  What they had, I clearly needed badly.

Nettles are filled with minerals and are so nutritious that I’m embarrassed for my neighbors who keep tearing them out of their gardens to grow things far less healthy.  And Nettles have an abundance of uses – see Susun Weed’s Healing Wise for wonderful coverage of that.

As I was flipping through some books today in writing this, one of the more interesting bits that I don’t recall hearing about before came from Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal:

“Nettle is anti-asthmatic:  the juice of the roots or leaves, mixed with honey or sugar, will relieve bronchial and asthmatic troubles and the dried leaves, burnt and inhaled, will have the same effect.”

My Own Take:  Individually any one of these is a great herb to work with, but when you have a strong need I find them amazingly powerful as a team. (You can throw in an adaptogen if you’re so inspired but frankly I find them just perfect as is for a blend.)

I’ve tended to call this blend the Three Amigas (Friends) because I see them as supportive friends to help you when you’re stressed and life feels out of control.  One nourishes you exceptionally (Nettles), one cleanses you (Alfalfa) and the last helps to calm you (Milky Oats) – like the best of friends should in your life when you’re in need.

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Book Review: Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman

Posted on May 20, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees | Tags: |

“I am the Lorax and I speak for….”

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Stop.     You used to be cool back in the day, but now you shill for greenwashing companies, so away with you and let me get on with at little tree love today.

I’m embarking on a tree themed summer and as part of that I’m starting to line up some readings along those lines.  First up is Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman.

Cover to Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman

I generally prefer to review what a book is rather than review what it isn’t.  But I’m going to do that anyway.   This book is so almost what I wanted but not quite.  Not that it is a bad book, it is in fact good for what it is.  I just kept having moments where I felt a nagging feeling of something lacking or wanting something else or more.

The introduction to the book sets a great tone where she says:

“My purpose in writing this book is twofold.  First, I wish to remind the world of the beauty and poetry of the large trees that are being decimated everywhere to make room for parking lots and shopping malls, to make paper and wood products, and also through the destruction of rainforests and wildlands.  My second intention is to bring to public awareness how useful natural medicines are, how easy they are to prepare, and how available they are year round in our own back yards.”

In some ways the book does just that.  For each of the 19 major tree families she covers, there is a chapter with sections on:

  • Brief descriptions of individual species within that family
  • Practical Uses
  • Herbal Uses
  • Magical Uses
  • Poems between each chapter

One of the problems for me is the the black and white drawing for the trees.  They are fine drawings but linked with the limited descriptions they fail to invoke the trees discussed for me.  Let alone the majesty and power of them.  I’ll contrast it to a similar book The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore by Fred Hageneder (which I’ll be review before long) which has wonderful color photos that force you to pause and take in the tree.

There are times when I was reading on certain trees and felt them well covered but too often, I found myself thinking “Is that all? Isn’t there more to tell about that tree?”

At one point, she talks about Christmas and problems with attitudes toward  it as well as the killing of pine trees for it.  Then she relates her friend’s solution “to seek out the ugliest most asymmetrical tree” and that she found that “my little misshapen tree had a natural, windswept beauty that made it truly original and deeply loved.”   And I couldn’t help but think how I liked that story better in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

There are things that I wish had more explanation like when she talks of hawthorn:

“It is wise not to use hawthorn alone as it is a powerful herb.  Mix it with borage, motherwort, cayenne, garlic, and dandelion flowers for a long term heart program.”

Where I’d love more discussion of that since I haven’t seen or heard that warning before.  I’m not doubting her, but simply wanted more.  Mind you while I’ve used hawthorn by itself many times, I generally prefer it in blends myself including one of my favorites – hawthorn, eleuthero, licorice, milky oats and violet – I’ve never noticed a problem with using it alone.

But there are also profound bits like this scattered throughout:

“Large trees are a very valuable asset to the physical and mental health of society in general.  Tall trees act to conduct energy from the atmosphere to the ground, and vice versa.  Large trees in the neighborhood contribute to feelings of stability and strength for the community.”

I wouldn’t mind reading a larger essay along those lines.

I think in some ways I’m sounding harsher than is necessary because I suspect the book is partly just showing its age. It’s from 1991, out of print, and I’d love to see it revised and expanded.   A lot of its information can be found elsewhere, and sometimes more thoroughly, but in separate books.   If you already have good herbal reference books you’ll find the medicinal coverage, ID books will introduce to trees more completely, you can find books on the spiritual and magical aspects.

Nowadays, if you have other books that cover these things separately you don’t need to hunt it down.  (While back in 1991 it would have been the go to book, IMO.)  But if you happen to come across a good used copy, then definitely grab it as a nice addition to your herbal library.  There’s still wisdom and useful info to be found in there if you look for it.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

“I am the Lorax and I speak for Waki-Cola in our new Enviro-Bottle..”

Out, out damn Lorax. I’m dialing 911….

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Adventures in Urban Herbalism: Gardening – A Seedy Plot!

Posted on May 13, 2012. Filed under: Herbal Gardening, Urban Herbalism |

It’s been a while since I posted about my medicinal herbal gardening.   Sadly, I’ve gotten a late start since the yard I’m working with is shared with others in the building and this being the first year we had access to the yard we had to divvy up things.   I didn’t find out what my space was going to be until about four weeks ago.  But at last here it is,

Front View:

Plotting (Image by Michael Blackmore – Mad Crow Herbals)

Side View:

Plotting (side view) (Image by Michael Blackmore – Mad Crow Herbals)

It’s about 7 feet wide by 9 feet long and gets plenty of sun.

I spent a little time Earthing and connecting to the soil.

Connecting with the Soil (Image by Michael Blackmore – Mad Crow Herbals)

Which disturbed the neighbors for some reason, but scaring the neighbors can be good for the soul.  😉

Once I knew what the space was like I decided what I wanted to plant where by looking at the recommended planting distances and estimated heights.  Taken from the book Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs by Tammi Hartung (which is a great reference book!)

Give the space and conditions, here’s what I decided to try growing:

  • Calendula
  • California Poppy
  • Feverfew
  • Lemon Balm
  • Motherwort
  • Mugwort
  • Skullcap

I figured I’d do the Lemon Balm, Motherwort and Mugwort in containers partly because they tend to run a muck pretty easily and partly due to the heights of the last two so I can easily place them where they won’t block the sun of the other plants.  While the rest would go into the plot itself.

According to much of what I read, most of the seeds needed some cold to prep them (cold stratification) for two weeks.  Between the different books and sources there was a certain lack of agreement of the best way to do it (other than putting them in the fridge.)  In the end when I couldn’t decide which thing was best, I went with whichever seemed closest to what they’d find in nature.

I began channeling a little OCD and was putting one seed in each seedling cup as several sources recommended, but then as the seeds grew smaller I surrendered to it and if several fell in, then so be it.   🙂  Besides that is way more like nature.  (I did, just in case, set up 30 seedling cups when in the end I’m aiming for 15 plants.)

Everything thing I read warned you must label the seeds because you won’t remember what was where – with much talk about sticks, toothpicks, labels, etc.   All of which seemed quite excessive to me.  A seedling tray is a grid, just like a spreadsheet. So I just marked what was the front and entered it all in a spreadsheet.

Calendula Calendula
Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm
Mugwort Mugwort
California Poppy
California Poppy
California Poppy
California Poppy
California Poppy
California Poppy

See much easier!

While the seeds did their thing, I ordered some nice soil made by Vermont Compost Company.   So I could add another layer to the plot when the time comes and fill the containers for the three going there.  And these great Smart bags for the containers.

Two weeks ago, I took put the seedling tray on their warming mat, underneath their grow light and humidity dome and started waiting for the magic.    Within a couple of days a couple of California Poppies emerged gingerly and gently into the light.  Then a Skullcap and  by the end of the week the rest of the Skullcap.  Then a few more days and a Motherwort appeared and then nothing since…so I began to go into back up thinking, fretting and worrying.

Do I have to order seedlings?  I had lined up a back up place to order (Crimson Sage Nursery) seedlings from which carried all the ones I wanted.  I could probably harvest a few from around the neighborhood, etc.

I hadn’t written off the other seeds yet.  And more importantly,  I had to let go of a couple of things.

First was my attachment to what the books said.  I had become too caught up in the timetables offered by the seductive charts and tables, and my orderly notions that they would all be ready at the same time and all go outside together.  That’s human folly.  The seeds will grow when they chose (or not.)  Some will want to go in May and others in June.

And more importantly,  I may have wanted to plant certain ones, but some may be drawn more powerfully to come out than others.   The Skullcaps were amazingly venturesome, not only were the six you see, but since the seeds were so small I ended up with several seeds in each cup.  And I’ve been busily thinning them because each one seemed to emerge!   (Gee, I can’t image why  nervines would be so needed by someone who makes spreadsheets of a seedling tray….)

Seedlings Go! – (Image by Michael Blackmore – Mad Crow Herbals)

So maybe I’ll just end up planting what arrives into the world, when it arrives, because that it the way it should be.  🙂

One of the many reasons I chose this route instead of just buying seedlings.  There are so many learning opportunities at so many levels when you work with the plants rather than let someone else do it and buy their product.

More in the coming weeks as they develop.   🙂


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A Beautfiul Day in the Herbalhood

Posted on May 6, 2012. Filed under: Nature, Plant Friends, Urban Herbalism |

I’ve been finding inspiration in the abundance of medicinal herbs right here on the streets of Boston.   As I’ve been appreciating all the marvelous plants and snapping pics on my cell phone, I thought it would be fun to post about it and to make it a sort of test of how generous nature is with her healing offerings even here in the city.

Here are the rules I set for myself:

  • The plants I cover can only be within three blocks of my house
  • They can’t be in parks, gardens, etc.  they have to be wild city plants.  Side walk spaces, median strips, vacant lots or off abandoned sections of yards near the street are fine – as long as it is clear no one is tried to plant them
  • They have to be in more than one location in that area.  If there is just one plant it doesn’t count or if it can only be found in one place it doesn’t count.  And there has to be enough that you could harvest for yourself if needed – not for making medicine to distribute to others.
  • And only finding these by casually looking in my normal walks to and fro.  No extensive searches or going up streets and locations I usually don’t.  I want to find what is offered, not what I can hunt down to exploit.

The notion is you’re home, you need something quick and within five minutes you can find what you need for yourself.  And in particular, I’m doing this focused on being in a city, not a suburb or the country, etc.  – that’s what I’d call an Herbalhood.

Be warned there are a lot of pictures here.  And because of the volume, I’ll only mention a tiny bit at best about what each is good for otherwise this would be a mammoth out of control post. 🙂

In alphabetical order by common name, here we go…

1) Burdock

Burdock—Articum-lappa (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

In this case I found two whole different abandoned lots filled with them.  Burdock is traditionally used for cleansing toxins from the system and considered good for the liver.  Hmm, that area has lots of liquor stores and really greasy, fast food restaurants.
2) Chickweed

Chickweed—Stellaria-media (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Hey it’s all over. Soothing and good for various skin conditions as well as being a nutritive plant.  Pretty much everyone living in the city needs that.
3) Dandelion

Dandelion—Taraxacum-officinale (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Detoxifying and cleansing – with special affection for the kidneys and liver.  It’s everywhere we are, because everywhere we live we need it.
4) Greater Celandine

Greater-Celandine—Chelidonium-majus (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

And it is everywhere as well.  Traditionally a cure all  – with affinities for the lungs and gall bladder.  Sap is used for warts.  But it is strong plant best used with knowledge and care.

5) Ground Ivy

Ground-Ivy—Glechoma-hederacea (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another one that is everywhere.  Often used with ailments and weaknesses of the ear, nose, throat and digestive system.  Hmm, all the things city air and life hurts the most.
6) Knotweed

Japanese-Knotweed—Fallopia-japonica (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Don’t even need to point out how common this one is.  In traditional Chinese medicine it is used for cancer, inflammation and high cholesterol.  And here is considered as a treatment for Lyme disease.
7) Mugwort

Mugwort—Artemisia-vulgaris (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

To be truthful, this particular mugwort isn’t around anymore (not that mugwort isn’t plentiful locally enough to count.)  I chose to use this picture because it illustrates the ability of the plants to appear as needed.  This one was in a corner of door of an abandoned garage and grew to eight feet tall.  It was the first specific plant I dreamed.  I saw it in a dream and knew I had to make a tea from its leaves.  I did  so that night and had a very influential dream on my life path (I may share that another time.)   Mugwort is traditionally a digestive and for elimination of worms.

8) Mullein

Mullein—Verbascum-thapsus (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Not as abundant as some of the others but I found four plants in different locations so I count it. Used historically for coughs and congestion.  And externally as a wound healer.

9) Nettles

Nettle-(Stinging)—Urtica-dioica (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another one that is everywhere we are.  And outside herbal community not given the love it should.  One of the most nutritional and nourishing plants around.  Better than most of the one’s we buy in the stores to put on our tables.  It’s detoxifying and helps with skin conditions.

10)  Plantain

Plantain—Plantago-major (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another one in abundance.  Where Europeans walk it follows so goes the lore of Native Americans (earning it the name White Man’s Footprint.)  Great for drawing out toxins from wounds and easing itching – mosquito and other bug bites.

11)  Red Clover

Red-Clover—Trifolium-pratense (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another fairly common one.  Often used for skin conditions and as an expectorant.  Plus it helps rebuild the soil.

12)  Reishi

Reishi (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

I found three of these which surprised me, so I decided to count them.  There are several different species of reishis which all have the similar immune building uses.
13) Shepherd’s Purse

Shepherd’s-Purse—Capsella-bursa-pastoris (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

This year we have an embarrassment of riches with Shepherd’s Purse.  Not just clumps of plants every 10 – 15 feet, but only stands like this every block or so it seems – particularly in the area of my neighborhood near where there had been several  shootings and assaults this spring.  It’s good for bleeding – coincidence?

14)  Violets

Violet—Viola-odorata (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another that is pretty common.  Used for coughs and congestion and in treating breast and stomach cancers.

15)  Yellowdock

Yellow-Dock—Rumex-crispus (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

I found one stand in with a bunch a knotweed, plus about a half dozen assorted individual plants in different locations.  So present and easy to find.  The root is a handy laxative.  Hey no one eating take out fast food in the city ever needs that, right?  😉

And two honorable mentions that aren’t used medicinally so much now but used to be.
16) Garlic Mustard

Garlic-Mustard—Alliaria-petiolata (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

It’s every where and particularly abundant this year it seems.  It is not only yummy to eat.  But it traditionally was used externally for ulcers.

17) Winter Cress

Winter-Cress—Barbarea-vulgaris (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

Another mustard that is making a strong showing in my Herbalhood.  I found about eight of these about.  Old scurvy treatment amongst other things.

Ta-da!  And that is almost a dozen and half without trying hard.  If I had looked harder or loosened my rules, I could have easily increased that number.  Heck, if I included trees alone that would have done it (I left off trees because in the city they are planted by choice rather than being provided by nature like these.)

And somehow, thinking about the neighborhood/Herbalhood, I feel myself channeling Mr. Rogers (who was so the Jimmy Page of children’s television!) and with apologies to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood I give you…

Mad Crow’s Herbalhood

It’s a beautiful day in this Herbalhood,
A beautiful day for a herbalist,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

It’s a herbally day in this beautywood,
A herbally day for a beauty,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

I have always wanted to have a herb just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a Herbalhood with you.

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my herbal?

Won’t you please,
Won’t you please,
Please won’t you be my herbal?

Ah, brings tears to my eyes.

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