Archive for August, 2012

Horsing Around: Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)Trees, Made of Awesome

Posted on August 27, 2012. Filed under: Trees | Tags: |

I recently found a very nice stand of Horse Chestnut trees right near my apartment (where the photos below are from) which has inspired a new found interest in working with this tree as I’ve spent more time out amongst them. Thus this week, part of my Summer of Tree love, I’m beginning my explorations of Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).

Let’s face it; it is a special and fun looking tree.

Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals)

With its big palmate leaves:

Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals) leaves

When you look at the leaves you can notice how prominent the veins on them and one “prominent” take away is the specific and powerful action Horse Chestnut has on veins. Then you can think of most of the associated healing actions as related to its ability to strengthen, repair and heal veins.

That’s where its magic is most often mentioned when talking with herbalists. It’s an excellent remedy for circulatory problems, especially those involving the veins and any sort of swelling or stagnation such as hemorrhoids, varicose veins and swollen feet and calves – like being on your feet all day. It works by stemming fluid leakage, strengthening and toning cell walls.

Its big spikey seed pods are quite distinct:

Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum (Image by Michael Blackmore, Mad Crow Herbals) seed pods

I feel they help covey some of the warnings about working with it internally:

  • Seed husks are toxic (less in the sense of dying but more in the sense of they can make you ill but frankly they are unpleasant tasting enough that you’d be hard pressed to ingest much of them)
  • The leaves and the nut’s green outer husk can cause stomach upset and are noted for their strong narcotic effect
  • Shouldn’t be used if you are on blood thinning meds or have any bleeding disorders

Not that you can’t use it internally, but you should really know what you’re doing or work with someone who does.

For me, I’m less interested with working with it internally but instead am focused on its external uses such as:

  • Bruises
  • Swelling from sports injuries
  • Improving skin tone and strength
  • Easing the effects of aging on the skin
  • Helping with bags under the eyes

All of which sounds like things I think a whole slew of people would in interested in – and certainly worth exploring more of as I work with it. I suspect that its affinity for dealing with fluid leakage and improving cell walls will make it especially effective for all of those things.

We’re coming up on a great time to be harvesting the nuts, known as Conkers. In the fall, the seed pods drop to the ground and the husks open and if you gather them promptly the nuts are easier to break apart for medicine making.

The flower essence (Bach’s markets it as White Chestnut) is used for repetitive, gnawing thoughts you can’t let go of. And it is considered a powerful remedy to clarify your mind and begin to think clearly. While a strong tincture of the flowers used to be used as a remedy for rheumatism (applying externally twice a day.)

The nuts, known as Conkers, also had a lot of interesting historic/folkloric uses that may or may not be terribly “valued” today:

  • Conkers (just like saying that) used to be carried in one’s pocket to prevent hemorrhoids and rheumatism
  • They were also placed with clothing to keep away moths and were believed to drive away spiders when kept in the corners of the room and behind furniture
  • The powder was worn in a bag over the heart for cramps
  • They were used to make explosives
  • Conkers (almost out of my system now) are like soap nuts and produce a lather that can be used for shampoo or cleaning clothes

All right, one more thing about Conkers then I think I can let go of them. There’s a game where you hit one Conker into another to see how long you can do it with it breaking. And in fact there is a World Conker Championship!

One other fun thing about Horse Chestnut trees is a local connection. I work right around the corner from where the tree spoken of in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem The Village Blacksmith stood:

“Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands. “

There’s a plaque there commemorating it, and it is believed by some to have been a Horse Chestnut tree. There is a chair said to be made from the tree when it was cut down which was given to Longfellow and it was tested and indicated to be Horse Chestnut.

Sure there are folks who think it was a Sweet Chestnut tree but there’s a word for those folks – wrong!

Maybe a “conk” to the noggin will help them see sense…


References of Note:

Comfort to the Sick by Brother Aloysius
Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier
Tree Medicine by Peter Conway
Male Herbal by James Green
Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress
Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

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Spirit, Spirituality and Intention in Practice and Working with Herbs

Posted on August 14, 2012. Filed under: Path of the Healer, Random Musings, Spiritual Practice | Tags: |

The other day I saw a post online where the author was complaining about not finding yoga spiritual as part of a tirade about how corrupted the US is and pure India is.  Yada, Yada.

But it did trigger an “a-ha” moment for me.

Here’s a secret of searching for spirituality in practice – you won’t find it in Yoga, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. You find it within you and how you approach things. That’s the commonality in all these teachings. But yet we see people like the author continually looking for it there and then complaining when they don’t find it.

The whole “chop wood, carry water” trope in Zen has actual meaning. If you approach chopping wood and carrying water spiritually you will find it a spiritual practice. If you don’t, it isn’t. The same applies to Yoga, all religious practices and so much more in life.

Intention is so powerful and key with so many activities.  Heck it is a powerful underpinning of Karma for Hindus and Buddhists.  And, IMO, it is also so potent in working with herbs and making medicines with them.

I’m actually pretty good at tincture making and get some nice extractions to the point that I routinely get asked about how I did it.   I’ve even had folks make things from the same sources in the same official way but not quite have as good a result as me.

At one level, I do have a powerful instinct for proportions and mixing probably honed from my cooking skill.   But I think it comes down a lot to intention as well.  I believe there are a couple of main ways ways to make herbal preparations:

  • Mushroom style making – keep them in the dark and mostly ignore them
  • Mechanically make it following the instructions, mixing and shaking it as needed
  • Sending prayers, good intentions, energy into things

I basically fall into the last camp, but in a different way, since I think it is way too formal.  Many people’s  spirituality is oh so serious – while mine is funny and joyful.  Laughing spirit rather than somber spirit.

Plus I believe just sending prayers and energy as making what you’re working with into just an object to be used.   I don’t believe that when you’re asking for healing,  treating as object is the way to to do it.  Anymore than treating someone as object is the way to ask a favor of them.  I think it is far too easy to treat plants as just another thing to use and I’d rather work with them as partners and in relationship.

For me, I like just talking with them plainly.  That’s right…I talk with my brewing tinctures and herbal products!   Everyday.  I also talk to growing plants too.  I say hello in the morning, goodbye when I leave for the day and goodnight when I go to bed.   And in between I talk to them, praise them, joke with them, etc.   🙂

Important FYI, Nettles hates fist bumping.   Don’t say I didn’t warn you….

Inspired by this  I did an incredibly unscientific and mostly biased experiment where I made both Goldenseal and Hawthorn berry tinctures but in three different ways each.  One of each in my usual talkative way, one of each in the more formal herbal way, one of each mix and ignore for a while.  All were made with the same sources and mixtures levels.

The unscientific result?

The first two Goldenseal ones were pretty similar with slight differences that could be more imagined than real, while the ignored one simply didn’t extract as well.

But the Hawthorn berry had quite the difference.   The regular way was fine, extracted reasonably with no problems.  My talkative one extracted better in my view and tasted far better.  The ignored one was the most dramatic result – it didn’t extract well at all and tasted awful with a sharp edge to it.

Concrete proof?   Perhaps not, but very interesting to me.   I suspect different herbs react in different energetic ways and need appropriate care energetically in making them.     And I think intention plays a role in how well you work with herbs and healing.

That’s just my insane .02.  😉

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Book Review: trees a visual guide by Tony Rodd and Jennifer Stackhouse

Posted on August 3, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees | Tags: , |

Trees are the bees knees!  (Yes, yes, I know left brain it sounds silly but I’m waxing* poetic or at least very silly.)

(*Yes that’s a bee pun!)

I’ve been spending time this summer as part of my Summer of Tree Love getting to know them including reading all kinds of tree related books.   I’m particularly excited about the latest book I’ve read about the subject – trees a visual guide by Tony Rodd and Jennifer Stackhouse

One of the big reasons is that it has many, many…more than a few…beautiful and inspiring pictures of trees!

More than a picture book though, it is also a lite botany book focused on trees.   In particular, it is a form and function focused book and not a tree identification book, although it has a nice reference section on 99 individual trees.

It’s broken down by thematic chapters:

  • A world of trees:  a basic overview of what constitutes a tree, the evolutionary history of trees as well as considerations of climate
  • Form and function: One of my favorite sections which goes into the essence of the parts of the tree, its reproduction, environment and the external factors affecting them (soil, predators, etc.)
  • Diversity of design:  How the different types of trees express the elements above and deal with their environment
  • Communities of life:  the natural world that develops around the differing community of trees – other plants, animals, fungi, etc.
  • Trees and the human world:  how we use trees in society historically and currently
  • An indispensable resource:  Trees immense value to the life on the planet as a whole
  • Factfile:  Nice sum up of leave type, tree appearance and families

Which really covers the bases well.

There are little touches throughout like have to scale icons of people next to trees to illustrate the sizes which is a marvelous nice quick visual aid that I wish other tree books would do. And it is filled with moments where you learn new things.  I periodically thought “wow I didn’t know that”, “oh interesting”, “now it makes sense”, etc.   Plus did I mention the many nifty pictures?

Now I’ll grant that it doesn’t talk about the medicinal properties of trees but I still think it is interesting and valuable for herbal folks.    It can be pretty easy to just focus on the medicinal uses of the plants but I feel you can work with best them by understanding them better which means a little botany and this is a very painless introduction to that topic.  On that note, I’d also recommend Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon which is an amazing book – both books work well together.

Yes, someone will no doubt be raising their hand going Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel which is another very nifty book but that is oriented toward botany for identification which is great but I like that these two are more form and function.  It’s the difference between just knowing someone’s height, weight and name – and actually knowing something about them.

I think it is important for herbalists (and folks who love plants in general) to really know more about plants and not just how to ID them and use them.  It is a more respectful approach to them spiritually as well IMO.

Anyway…I definitely recommend this one.  It’s pretty, informative and fun – how many books can say that?

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