The herb of northern winters: Pine needles

Where I live there is so little sun at the dark of the year that I can't even keep a pot of chives green on a warm window sill, let alone grow any herbs outdoors. Even the Siberian buckwort has given up for the year and its berries turned to mush. The ground has been frozen for weeks and it will be frozen for another two months yet, though there isn't any snow.

Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

You might think an herbalist has nothing to do but read dusty herbal tomes at this time of year. And some of that definitely does happen, but there is still one plant that gives its medicine in this season. And it is one you are likely to bring indoors one way or another. You might as well make some immune-boosting tea while you're at it

That is, of course, pine needles. 

However, with pine and other conifers a warning has to be put out right up front. Not every Yule tree is a pine and there are conifers related to pines that are toxic, even lethally poisonous.

Yew, a wonderfully magical but deadly tree, is the primary danger for humans. Consumption of the needles or berries, even in small amounts, can kill. Yew is often used as a decorative hedge and could be confused with spruce or fir. 

When I was a child, I often ate the new growth of fir needles while walking in the woods. We called them "friends" as a slurring of "fir ends." And they were piquant but generally tasty as well as high in vitamin C. Fortunately, we didn't have many yew trees in our climate or this might not have ended well. (Yew does reportedly taste much better than most poisonous plants, which is why animals are sometimes found dead beneath yew trees with needles in their mouths.)

Anyone planning to harvest conifers as an herb or for food should become familiar with the differences between a fir and a yew tree. Here is a video that should help.

Some pine species also contain substances that are harmful to other animals. Ponderosa pine is significantly toxic to livestock and other species can cause sickness in dogs and cats. However, chocolate is also toxic to dogs and unhealthy for cats. So they just need different holiday treats. 

For humans the needles of pine, particularly white pine, are a good source of vitamins and immune-boosting compounds. While the needles are best for eating when young and tender in the spring, they will release a significant amount of vitamin C and other immune boosting compounds even from tough, frozen winter needles. 

Pine needles can be brewed into a pleasant tea that provides vitamins and acts as a decongestant for coughs and colds. For more serious congestion, it is possible to boil the needles down into a soup. And for a little boost, some people add them to spiced cookies. 

While it is possible to dry needles and retain some of their medicinal effectiveness (as long as they are protected from sunlight while they are dried and stored), harvesting them fresh is no trouble at any time of the year in most places.

In the warmer months, pine trees can provide other essential medicines, primarily sap to cover cleaned, open wounds at risk of infection. Once a wound is thoroughly cleaned, coating it in pine sap is one of the best ways to ensure that it heals without infection. The disinfectant and protective properties of pine sap rival what modern medicine has to offer. 

Using tumeric as a simple, medicinal herb and tea: Home Medicine Cycle 33

Tumeric is a wonderful plant that has been used as a spice and a medicine for thousands of years. It has now become very fashionable among health-conscious people in the West because of recent research into its many medicinal qualities. And as with many fashion trends, this one comes with its caveats. 

Tumeric plant - Image by  J.M.Garg  under a GNU Free Documentation License

Tumeric plant - Image by J.M.Garg under a GNU Free Documentation License

Yes, tumeric contains compounds which have been shown to combat Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis and unhealthy cholesterol levels among about six hundred other health problems—primarily through anti-inflammatory and antioxidanteffects. It isn’t all made up.

But it isn’t all well-understood either. And the dosages needed to treat serious illnesses can be difficult to obtain from safe sources.

Exciting research is progressing to find practical ways to use tumeric as a supplemental cancer treatment and to fight Alzheimer’s disease. But at present there are a plethora of supplements and powders on the market that all claim to be the best sources of tumeric and curcumin, the main medicinal active compound in tumeric. Unfortunately many of these supplements and spices are diluted with useless and sometimes hazardous fillers and coloring agents. It can be very difficult to obtain undiluted tumeric supplements or tumeric extracts that have been safely processed to retain beneficial qualities. 

My focus on the Practical Herb Lore blog has always been to give you herbs that simply work, that you can grow or process on your own and ensure the quality and safety at the source. That’s partly because I’m not selling herbs or supplements but rather trying to document my struggle to take back my own health. It’s also because I’ve observed that using fresh, locally grown herbs isn’t just romantic and ecological. It really makes a substantial difference in the health benefits of herbs.

As a result I can’t give you a cure for cancer or diabetes based on tumeric… yet. However, what I can give you is a recipe and guidelines for using tumeric for broad prevention of illness and specifically for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

Analysis of a wide variety of sources concludes that you can take a preventative dose of about 1 tsp of fresh or dried tumeric root daily without side affects. Higher doses can be used to fight specific inflammatory diseases or cancers. High doses over the long term may lead to ulcers. 

Most research on tumeric is focused on powder extracts of the compound curcumin which is the most medicinally active compound in tumeric. While it may be easier to take supplement capsules, it is much more difficult to be sure of the quality and safety of what you are taking. Tumeric has been used successfully in many countries in Asia for centuries as a whole food but the use of an isolated compound such as curcumin hasn’t been studied for so long. There may be side effects to using the isolated compound, as has been found with many synthetic pharmaceuticals.

It may be difficult to grow tumeric root in many parts of the world but you can often buy fresh tumeric root or dried, powdered tumeric root. It may be difficult to tell if the powdered tumeric root has been diluted with useless or potentially harmful fillers and coloring agents. But the fresh root is widely available in grocery stories and can be grated and used as a spice or made into tea—while roughly adhering to the one-teaspoon-per-person-per-day rule.

In a pinch you can put high-quality tumeric spice powder into gel capsules and swallow your one teaspoon per day that way. It is helpful to swallow a couple of corns of black pepper with the capsules as the compounds in tumeric are not well absorbed by the body and black pepper contains compounds that assist in absorption.

Tumeric rhizome - image by  Simon A. Eugster  under a GNU Free Documentation license 

Tumeric rhizome - image by Simon A. Eugster under a GNU Free Documentation license 

But a much more certain and probably more enjoyable option is tea.  One study documented the use of tumeric tea in some villages in India where the population has the lowest incidents of Alzheimer’s disease in the world. Some reports indicate that the key to tumeric’s preventative powers is the consistency of the long-term use of small amounts of tumeric on a daily basis, rather than a one-off drink from an expensive juice counter.
Here are two recipes for tea, one simple and one more complex but quite delicious.

Basic recipe for tumeric tea

Bring four cups of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of turmeric powder or fresh grated tumeric root (for better flavor). Add a pinch of black pepper to aid in absorption of medicinal compounds and simmer for about ten minutes. Strain the tea and flavor with honey, ginger, cinnamon or lemon.

Tumeric-milk tea with extra punch

The medicinal compounds in tumeric don't dissolve well in water, which is why it's good to strain the basic tea with a fine seive. But curcumin and other compounds do dissolve in fats far more readily. That is why a combination of milk and cocoanut or almond milk makes a good base for tumeric tea.

Gradually warm a cup of coconut or almond milk. Add a half a teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black pepper, a teaspoon of finely chopped ginger root, a pinch of cinnamon and a teaspoon of raw honey. Mix vigorously to remove lumps. Strain before drinking.

I love to hear from you and I would particularly be interested in the experiences of others in using tumeric medicinally. Drop me a line in the comments. Thanks!

The painkiller, anti-inflammatory and first-aid herb: Home Medicine Cycle 17

I must have been thirteen when I was away at summer camp and I was first assailed by crippling cramps. Then every month for twenty years I spent a few hours in excruciating pain, while waiting for my heavy doses of Ibuprofen to kick in. I had to take the maximum dose for two or three days just avoid writhing on the floor in pain. It wasn't a matter of being pain free, but of having less pain.

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Doctors told me it was just something I had to live with. I knew the pills weren't good for my liver, but there was no hope in sight.

So, you can bet that I was ready to try just about anything. I tried various home remedies (heat packs, special diets and so forth), but nothing worked appreciably, until I discovered yarrow.

This was at the very beginning of my experimentation with herbs, so I had no real belief that it would work. I originally started studying herbs out of a romantic enthusiasm for fantasy books with herbalists in them. For real life, I had been taught that herbs are mild, gentle and only slightly effective. They might smooth out rough skin, but they couldn't touch extreme pain. .

When I read that yarrow could help with menstrual cramps, I hoped that it might mean I could cut back a few of the ten toxic, maximum strength Ibuprofen I was taking every month. That would be well worth the effort. 

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

An herbalist friend taught me to make tincture (like this). I already knew very well that yarrow isn't poisonous and that I'm not allergic to it, because my brothers and I used to use yarrow leaves to pretend we were smoking when we were kids. I had chewed up quite a few of yarrow leaves pretending to be a farmhand with tobacco in my cheek. I'm not sure why we chose the excruciatingly bitter yarrow plant for this, but that was the rule of the rural kid-mafia back then.

In any case, I knew the plant was safe, so I made my first tincture and swallowed some before my next attack of menstrual cramps. I was too chicken not to take Ibuprofen as soon as I felt the first twinge. I knew that if I left it too long, I would be acting like a worm on a fishhook for the next few hours. Usually about four hours after I took the Ibuprofen it would start to wear off and the dull ache would give way serious cramps again. Then it would be time to hastily take another pill. 

Warnings: You don't get heavy-duty healing effects without heavy-duty medicine. Herbs are real medicine and it is a good idea to consult with doctors about your health and about taking herbs. 

People who are allergic to plants in the Aster family (including ragweed) may have allergic reactions to yarrow. Pregnant women should not take yarrow because the relaxing effects on the uterus could theoretically contribute to miscarriage. Yarrow can conflict with medications meant to thin the blood or drugs that reduce production of stomach acid. 

But this time, I forgot to take the Ibuprofen again for the simple reason that I didn't feel the cramps returning. I didn't even feel the dull ache for a few hours. When I did remember, I took more tincture cautiously. That month I only needed two Ibuprofen. Within a year, I had figured out the dosage so that I only needed one Ibuprofen every month and then often none at all.

Now that is herb power!

Here's how yarrow tincture works to quell menstrual cramps. It's an anti-inflammatory, it slows bleeding, it stimulates the uterus and estrogen in the body, and it relaxes the large flat muscles. That means that it may not work this well for some types of cramps. It will work best for cramps in large flat muscles (including strained muscles in the back). It's worth a try for any type of menstrual cramps and it can  help to regulate overly heavy menstruation (and prevent anemia). 

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

In order to control cramps as bad as mine, I have to take half a teaspoon of tincture every two hours, starting as soon as I know the cramps are coming (before they've actually started.) If I don't take it within the first few hours and the cramps get going, I'm in for a bad few hours. I don't have to wake up at night to take the yarrow tincture every two hours but I do have to have it by my bed and take it immediately before rising during the night or in the morning. 

Yarrow tincture works so well for this that it has quickly become indispensable. If I was to be banished to a city wasteland and I could only take one herb with me, it would be yarrow, and not just for issue of menstrual cramps. It is one of the most versatile and powerful herbs in general. 

Here are just a few uses:

  • I have seen yarrow ease painfully strained back muscles a number of times, converting several skeptical backpackers to herbalism.
  • It is one of the best herbs for slowing bleeding, both in wounds and internal bleeding.
  • It has strong anti-microbial and disinfectant qualities. The tincture can be used to disinfect cuts and the salve will help to keep dirty scrapes or cuts from getting infected (while helping to staunch bleeding).
  • Yarrow has been used for gastrointestinal problems that involve inflammation.

Happy herb gathering! It's the height of the wildcrafting season. Remember to be careful of correct identification and note that an herbal guide isn't the same as a prescription from a doctor or professional herbalist who has seen you personally.

I love to compare notes. Leave your observations, questions and stories in a comment below and share this post with your friends.

Easy tincture – how to make your own powerful herbal medicine

'Tis the season to be overwhelmed with the herb harvest.

I only actually harvest and preserve a fraction of my family's food and most of our medicines but this time of year I fall into bed at night so exhausted that I don't even dream. I suppose this comes of having several other "jobs" besides growing and preserving things but it still makes me wonder how so many cultures manage to have extravagant harvest festivals.

The result of all this harvesting (both in the garden and in the world of books) is that I haven't written as much on Practical Herb Lore as I hope to. However, I have to post this because this is what you most need to know at right now at this time of year, if you want to make your own herbal medicines.

Yes, you can dry herbs to make tea and some teas can be very effective medicines. Salves are also good and I'll get to the first step in making those next week. But one of the best ways to make potent herbal medicine is with good old 40 percent alcohol. Being based in Eastern Europe, I use vodka but anything that is around 40 percent (80 proof) will work. When you brew herbs in alcohol in order to extract their medicinal compounds you are making tincture.   

 Why make tincture?

Herbalists know that many of the plants most people think of as weeds contain powerful medicinal compounds. One such herb is Ecchinacea. I recently had a lengthy debate with a doctor friend over Ecchinacea and the fact that several recent studies found little or no benefit in terms of the prevention of upper respiratory infections in people who took tablets of freeze-dried Ecchinacea. The studies were well controlled and large enough to matter. My doctor friend was convinced that this should bring into question generations of herbalist use of Ecchinacea as an immune support, herbal antibiotic and flu remedy. But there is one thing overlooked in this argument. All of the unsuccessful Ecchinacea trials used freeze dried Ecchinacea. None used fresh Ecchinacea or Ecchinacea tincture.

My own humble experience doesn't constitute a study but I have used both store-bought tablets containing dried Ecchinacea and my own home-made Ecchinacea tincture. In both cases, I probably subconsciously expected the Ecchinacea to work. But the tablets never did. The tincture, on the other hand, has good anecdotal results. 

The fact is that the chemical compounds in herbs that produce medicinal effects are often very volatile and herbs are almost always best used fresh. Because we have to prepare for winter in my part of the world and sometimes because we need to concentrate an herb's effects, we often have to process herbs. One of the most reliable methods for capturing those volatile compounds and preserving their beneficial effects is to make tincture. Not every herb is appropriate for this but I'll give you a quick list of the best ones.

Which herbs are good for tincture and what do they do?

Here's my shortlist of must-have tinctures to survive the winter:

Ecchinacea - Traditionally many herbalists have used the root of Ecchinacea but you need stronger alcohol to extract the medicinal compounds from roots and I have had better luck with the flowers so far. Ecchinacea tincture is good for general immune support and prevention when there are colds and other infections going around. Some herbalists have concentrated Ecchinacea to the point where they use it as an herbal antibiotic but I haven't personally experimented with that. 

Yarrow - Yarrow flower tincture makes a great anti-inflammatory for pulled muscles, strained backs and menstrual cramps. It is also one of the few herbs credited with slowing internal bleeding.

St. John's Wart - In my extended family, St. John's Wart is probably the most commonly requested and used tincture. We pass around little bottles of the stuff like a treasured family secret. That's because St. John's wart is both an effective anti-depressant and a good remedy for seasonal mood disorders but it is also specifically anti-viral. Those little yellow flowers seem to capture the warmth and healing energy of the sun and store it in their amazing red juice. We take one teaspoon daily for depression (for no more than three weeks at a time) and three teaspoons daily for viral infections (for no more than one week at a time). Oh, we also use it externally as a disinfectant. When I have to go on a trip and pack light, St. John's wart is the one tincture I always take with me.

Thyme - Thyme tincture is one of the things my husband swears by for fixing the chronic cough that no establishment medical specialist was able to fix in several years of trying.

Marshmallow - Marshmallow is the other tincture that my husband uses for his coughs. Together they have worked a virtual miracle in soothing a chronic cough that used to last from October to April each year.

Elderflower - Elderflower has the miraculous ability to clear up excessive mucous like nothing else I have ever seen outside of some of the more dangerous stuff at the drug store. I just got over a terrible cold in which I went through several boxes of handkerchiefs in two days. Thanks to elderflower tincture, the thing didn't last more than those two days.

Lemon balm - For those of us who are a bit high strung and can have a hard time going to sleep the night before some big event, lemon balm is can be a life saver. It is calming and can make you pretty drowsy. The other thing about lemon balm is that it is specifically active against the herpes virus. I prefer to use lemon balm salve to deal with cold sores but a dose of lemon balm tincture would probably do the trick as well, and it would certainly help with the stress that usually accompanies cold sores.

Plantain - The Czechs have a saying about another herb/alcohol mix, "What it touches it heals." They mean this mostly about the buzz you get from drinking a shot of hard alcohol, but with plantain tincture it is literally true and you don't have to drink nearly enough to get a buzz. Just remember that whatever part of your body will come in direct contact with the undiluted tincture can be effected. Plantain's effects appear to be specific to cell repair. So, it can be used on external wounds after disinfection for added speed in healing. It can be used for coughs and sore throats if the throat and bronchial area is raw and irritated. It is excellent for stomach problems where the lining of the stomach is irritated. I've seen plantain work on some stubborn skin infections that even synthetic antibiotics had not cleared up. 

How to make tincture

Okay, not that I have visions of your own powerful herbal medicine chest dancing in your head, lets'get down to the nitty gritty. Fortunately, it is quite simple. 

  • Chop your herb into small pieces about a half an inch long. If you can, use a ceramic knife.
  • Pack the chopped herb into a glass or ceramic jar.
  • Pour 40 percent (or stronger) alcohol into the jar until it completely covers the herbs. 
  • Poke a knife into the jar to release air bubbles and top off the alcohol again. 
  • Close the jar tightly.
  • Label clearly with the name of the herb, the word "tincture" and the date.
  • Place in a cool, dark place.
  • Let brew for four to six weeks.
  • Strain the herbs through cheese cloth. Wring out the bundle of herbs in cheese cloth firmly and catch the tincture in a glass or ceramic bowl. 
  • Store the tincture in small dark glass bottles, ideally with dropper lids. Label carefully.

That's it. That's all you need to make potent herbal medicines that last up to five years if kept out of direct light.

Warnings

  • Please note that tincture is "real medicine." You should treat it just as you would treat ibuprofen. Keep it out of reach of children. Be watchful for allergic reactions. Use with care and don't exceed dosage recommendations for the particular herb you choose. Let you doctor know if you are taking tinctures regularly. I am not a doctor and my notes are not medical advice.
  • Be aware that tincture contains significant amounts of alcohol. The end product usually contains about 20 percent alcohol. You usually only take a teaspoon or two of tincture at a time, so most people should not have a problem with this. However, children and recovering alcoholics should avoid tinctures. You should also refrain from taking tincture directly before driving, if for no other reason than that the while you wouldn't take enough to show up in an alcohol blood test, it might show up in a breath test for some minutes after taking the dose.
  • Be particularly careful with labeling tinctures. Some tinctures can have adverse effects if taken regularly for long periods or if taken in dosages that would be fine for another type of tincture. Also some tinctures may have the wrong effect for the situation at hand. I once mislabeled a tincture and instead of taking Yarrow tincture for cramps, I accidentally took comfrey tincture, which is extraordinarily potent. The result was one of the worst headaches I have ever experienced.