Mugwort: Home Medicine Cycle

Plant identification can be tricky and it is the biggest safety concern for the herbalist. While it is possible to hurt yourself with too much of a known herb or by using an herb improperly, it is much more likely that harm from herbs will result from incorrect identification.

For me, there's the particular issue that I'm more than 90 percent blind. I've always had trouble gathering herbs in the wild because everything in a meadow just looks generic green unless I put a leaf up two inches from my eye.

That's why most of my work with herbs focuses on things I can grow. My herb gathering is a lot more efficient that way. And when I plant and nurture an herb through the seasons, I am sure what I'm getting and I learn it's smell, texture and taste long before I have to go off and identify it in the wild

My mugwort plant top

My mugwort plant top

But even growing your own isn't always a sure thing. Some years ago, I planted what were supposed to be mugwort seeds and a plant sprouted. The leaves looked a bit thinner and wispier than the online photos of mugwort. The flowers were also greenish brown, rather than the dusky red shown in must mugwort pictures in books and online, so I asked some of the women from the local village who had a little knowledge of herbs. Two of them insisted that it wasn't mugwort but possibly something related.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but this didn't appear to be that either. I had read that mugwort is occasionally mistaken for poisonous hemlock, which can be deadly, so I was more than a little cautious. 

For several years, I let the plant live in the corner of my herb garden and each year it got bigger, beating out other hardy plants. Finally, I decided I had to fully research the identification for once and for all or get rid of the plant. The main markers for differentiating between mugwort and hemlock are the smell, the silvery sheen and small hairs on mugwort leaves, and later in the year, the flowers. 

Smell would someday be key for me but first I had to know the plant intimately to identify the smell. It was too early in the year for flowers (and mugwort is usually harvested before it blooms, so this is a common problem in mugwort identification) and relying solely on the hairs and a silver sheen of the leaves seems a bit shaky when your life is literally at stake. 

My mugwort stem

My mugwort stem

First, I carefully picked each individual part of the plant--the leaves, buds and stems--photographed them and put them through a plant analysis program. That program quickly proclaimed it to be mugwort. But I wasn't convinced. There were still the village women, who weren't exactly experts but they were local people with some experience in the natural environment.. So, I sent my samples in to a plant identification group. Finally, I got back my answer. 

It is mugwort. Several members of the group explained more clearly the most crucial identifying characteristics. The stem of my plant is clearly ridged and purple all over. Hemlock has a stem that is barely ridged at all and only spattered with purple (like when someone does an ink spattering art project). The flowers are quite different and I could confirm from previous years that while my flowers are a bit pale, they do match some photos of mugwort and most certainly are not hemlock flowers. 

It was a relief to finally make the determination and not have to uproot my plant. But I don't regret any of the time and caution spent to confirm it. Even with a plant I grew myself, the risk of dealing with a poisonous plant is there and always worth considering.

My mugwort buds

My mugwort buds

As soon as I was sure of it, I used some mugwort leaves to settle a sour stomach I had been struggling with for several days and made a bath of it for my kids who had bug bites all over their arms and legs from summer camp in the woods. My son also had a weird rash that might be bug bites, an allergic reaction of some kind or possibly skin parasites. Mugwort soothes bug bites and some other allergies but more importantly it is one of the best remedies for skin (and stomach) parasites.

I doubt the rash was parasites in this instance. But again, it's better to be safe than sorry. Now at least I have mugwort on my side for that.

Mugwort leaves and buds are used in teas, tinctures, washes and salves for a variety of discomforts and diseases, particularly stomach acidity, ulcers, constipation and intestinal parasites as well as skin infections. Mugwort is strongly antibiotic and anti-microbial. The tea has a calming effect on nerves and can help regulate abnormal hormone levels, which could be helpful for insomnia and obesity.

Women with light or sporadic periods can use mugwort to regulate menstrual flow and reduce the related pain of menstruation. Yarrow and/or red raspberry leaf may be better herbs for those with heavy menstruation, but mugwort has also been shown to bring relief during menopause. 

My mugwort leaf

My mugwort leaf

Still, while mugwort isn't poisonous, it does have a low level of toxicity that could cause temporary sickness if more than three cups of the tea are taken per day for several days in a row. It is best used as a short-term treatment for digestive problems, even though thousands of people drank it daily during WWII when tea was difficult to obtain in Britain and people drank mugwort tea instead.

The most important warning on mugwort is that it has been used to bring about abortions and to stimulate the uterus while giving birth. Given that, it isn't at all appropriate for pregnant women, and due to the low level of toxicity, shouldn't be ingested by nursing mothers either.

A less worrying application of mugwort is for the skin. Just as it rids the body of intestinal parasites it can fight skin parasites that few modern medications are effective against. It also alleviates itching and reduces the inflammation of bug bites. It is a particularly effective bug repellent, so salves and oils infused with mugwort leaves or a few drops of mugwort essential oil can keep the bugs off of you in the first place. 

Compounds contained in mugwort have been found to combat cancer in a Chinese study and other studies point to possible uses for joint pain associated with arthritis. But these uses will require further research to be fully realized.

What is clearly scientifically demonstrated is the antibiotic and antimicrobial properties of mugwort. As well as preventing infections as a skin wash, the dried plant can be used as a smudge to kill airborne bacteria and prevent the spread of disease both at home and in places of business where incense is burned, such as massage parlors, where the pleasant smell of a mugwort smudge will blend right in.

Both mugwort tea and mugwort smoke have a history, dating back to Aztec religious ceremonies, of being used for lucid dreaming and astral travel. Compounds in mugwort are psychoactive but the effect is not one of dramatic hallucinations. There are many reports of predictive dreaming connected to mugwort and experiments with dreams might benefit from its use.

As with all posts on medicinal herbs, this is not intended as specific medical advice for any particular person. Allergies to mugwort do exist and those with serious symptoms of disease should seek medical attention.

Healing from soul exhaustion and emotional depletion

Greenery surrounds the house, climbing up the fences. To get in you walk up the driveway under a canopy of oak and plum branches. Flowers peek shyly from pots or the rock walls that hold up the terraces climbing our steep hill. There are greenhouses for the vegetables, a large, semi-wild herb garden and a cluster of quacking ducks wandering around.

I test out as an introvert on those personality questionnaires and this is the world I have made for myself. It took years to build and in the winter it can be pretty rugged. But in the summer there is a balance of solitude and connection. I have friends and connections all over the world. I spend much of the day conversing long distance amid both physical and intellectual work.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Sometimes the conversation is with a friend thousands of miles away, sometimes with a forum on a particular topic and sometimes it is a one-sided conversation in which I argue with authors I am listening to through an audio book while I weed the zucchini bed. 

And this past year there has been a troubling repetition in many of those conversations. Friends, family, acquaintances and even a lot of authors talk about a deep exhaustion weighing them down. Some call it depression or burnout and some have diagnoses, but others just feel utterly depleted. Not everyone thinks it's worse than before, and some of us only struggle with it some of the time, but the spread of this malaise is worrying. 

Has the purpose and passion gone out of your world? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Is your sleep troubled and full of stressful, anxious dreams? Do you find it easier to sleep in the day time and almost impossible to get through the day without a nap? Do you just feel half asleep, disconnected or out of sync most of the time? 

If so, you're not alone. I feel it too, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.

Sometimes these symptoms can herald clinical depression and if they interfere with your daily life, it is helpful to seek out the advice of medical professionals. But often these symptoms come from a kind of deep depletion or "soul exhaustion." This may or may not be accompanied by depression. It can occur following professional or emotional burnout, significant loss and grief, major life changes or periods of intense work and activity. 

Soul exhaustion is worrying even when only one person describes it. When it is spread through whole communities the need for a change is urgent.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Ignoring soul exhaustion can lead to severe medical complications, including depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, cancer and a host of systemic disorders. Depletion must be treated as a real expression of need and because it is so widespread in my circle these days, I have decided to address it here.

Most of my home medicine writing is about herbs and there are some herbs that can help at specific points in dealing with soul exhaustion, but much of what we need when we are depleted doesn't come from either traditional or alternative medicine. It comes from changes in our environment and routine.

First, here are a list of symptoms. A severely depleted individual may experience:

  • A desire to sleep much longer than normal,
  • Disrupted, overly light and restless or leaden and motionless sleep at night,
  • Frequent need to sleep during the day,
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning or after daytime sleep,
  • Difficulty motivating one's self to carry out basic daily functions (getting up, daily routine, work, household),
  • A sensation of body heaviness,
  • Even small movements may feel like hard work,
  • Heightened sensitivity and anxiety, being on edge,
  • Great difficulty in dealing with even minor changes in daily routine or small crises,
  • A sensation of being out of step with time, a dreamlike sensation even when awake, a feeling that everything is in slow motion,
  • Strange physical symptoms without medical explanation, such as deep aching throughout the body, tension headaches, stomach troubles, dizziness and/or ringing ears,
  • Muscle weakness and great difficulty exercising,
  • Intensified emotions and strong changes in emotion, sudden tears upon hearing a story which may not seem at first glance to be particularly sad, unbearable anger and feelings of helplessness over injustices,
  • Feelings of deep loneliness, even when surrounded by people,
  • Loss of customary hopefulness and optimism, feeling jaded and hopeless about life or one's purpose,
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, causes or passionate work, or where interest may remain energy does not follow,
  • Chronic anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Individuals who are normally forgiving and warm can become bitter, angry or jealous and have difficulty explaining exactly why or the reasons are much bigger than any momentary disagreement.
Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It will be different in different individuals but there is a pattern to these symptoms. And moreover, a person struggling with soul exhaustion will often know there is something wrong and those around them will know it, but when asked we cannot give clear or concise descriptions of our symptoms. Yet the sense of deep change and trouble remains. 

There are a number of possible underlying causes for soul exhaustion. However, not every person who experiences these types of events will be dangerously depleted. There many factors and depending on the severity of the causes and symptoms, medical help may be needed. 

Soul exhaustion may result from:

  • Family or other significant breakups,
  • The loss of someone close,
  • The loss of a home, job or business,
  • Illness or disability in the individual or family members,
  • Life changes that drastically disrupt daily routine and goals
  • Being trapped long-term in a toxic, abusive or ostracizing home, work or social environment,
  • Unresolved past trauma, either physical or emotional,
  • An inability to say no to the constant demands of others without regard to the individual's needs,
  • Pushing one's self too hard in work or in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances until the point of burnout or collapse,
  • An unhealthy diet, substance abuse and/or electronics or other addictions,
  • Exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals or environmentally polluted areas,
  • Overwhelming past regrets or events in the past that make it difficult to focus on the present,
  • Being unable to break free from repetitive, purposeless or draining work,
  • Experiences of discrimination, hate speech or attacks based on characteristics over which the individual has no control (often but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic or social class),
  • Physical, economic, geographical and social barriers to fulfilling one's potential and achieving meaningful self expression,
  • Worries and anxieties about future security, the safety of loved ones, debts or other looming problems,
  • And pressures from social injustices, extreme econimic inequality and ecological devastation.

It is unlikely that one of these causes alone will result in an individual becoming deeply exhausted and depleted, unless that one factor is extreme. However, a combination of these factors can be devastating.

This is particularly significant because many medical lists often leave off the broader social and environmental contributors. I placed them in the latter part of the list, not because they are less important but because they are more complex. In any event, this isn't a list for someone else to use, so much as it is for individuals to look at their own factors.

One theory about the increase in deep exhaustion holds that it is a biological response to our bodies' ability to sense ecological danger. Particularly with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change and extreme whether that have caused economic disruption and large human migrations in some areas of the world, our bodies are reacting to our sense of biological interconnection, which is sounding alarms that cause anxiety and--after lengthy periods in which we can't escape or make a meaningful impact to solve the crisis--soul exhaustion.

That leaves me with the crucial and urgent question of what an individual can do about this deep depletion, given the often on-going underling causes. 

Here are some things that can alleviate the exhaustion and give the individual a chance to rectify at least some of the underlying causes.

Garden gate path sunshine trees lush green - my pic.jpg
  • Prioritize time for restful and replenishing activities (sometimes called "self care"). We can not take care of those who depend on us, if we are too depleted ourselves. Replenishment isn't selfish or idle. Quite the opposite. Expecting others to pay attention to what we need, figure it out and make sure we get the needed replenishment is far more self-absorbed than taking the time to do it ourselves. Often replenishment comes from adequate sleep, reading or time spent in nature, but it can also come from engaging in one's personal interests without pressure or pursuing spiritual studies.
  • Rest as much as necessary. Sometimes--especially when rest has been neglected--this means a great deal of sleep and rest. Illness, disability, extreme types of work, previous trauma and other factors may make greater than average rest necessary over the long-term. This is not a shameful circumstance but rather a fact that cannot be denied without unacceptable costs.
  • Turn off technology and spend time doing fulfilling things that use other senses and body movements, such as reading or absorbing stories in other ways, baking, crafting, creating art, listening to music, experiencing nature, singing or playing music, exercising, immersing ourselves in water and being around people who sooth us and bring out our laughter; 
  • Take time for spiritual practices and growth. This can mean participating in a specific tradition, doing yoga or other movement-based spiritual practices, lighting candles and creating an uplifting atmosphere, meditation, drumming or chanting, going into nature for extended periods, observing the sun, moon and stars or learning about specific things like the healing uses of stones or scents and reading systems such as the Tarot or i-Ching for inner understanding.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables which have not been chemically treated. We must adapt our diets to include as much unprocessed or lightly processed foods and as much locally produced fresh foods as possible. Pay particular attention to avoiding highly processed foods that don't contain a lot of nutrients, even though they may be widely regarded as "healthy" such as packaged bread or white rice. It is important to include some foods that simply bring a moment of satisfaction and joy to the individual. Eating healthy should not mean boring food. Find favorite healthy foods and pick a few favorite not-so-healthy foods as well.
  • Drink teas made with detoxifying herbs; Because people who experience deep exhaustion have often been exposed to toxic chemicals or heavy metals and because anxiety and other emotional distress actually produces toxins in the body, it is important to consider detox. Dandelion root, nettle, red clover and burdock teas are helpful and should be drunk daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for several weeks. If you have a tendency toward anemia, a blood test for anemia may be in order. In this case, caution is also advised with nettle tea, which can flush iron from the blood as it cleans other, harmful heavy metals out of the body. 
  • Take herbal teas, tinctures and extracts of herbs for energy and mood regulation. If you feel a slump of low energy in the morning or the middle of the afternoon and have a tendency to go for coffee or cola in order to power on through the work, try to schedule rest, while drinking green tea and eating lightly sweetened chocolate instead. These also contain stimulants and taste delicious but they act in a more sustainable way in the body. Rhodiola supplements can also help to stimulate the brain once a lot of rest has been had.
  • If negative thinking accompanies a lot of the low energy and keeps rest from being fully absorbed, some anti-depressant herbs such as lavender, lemon balm and St. John's Wart can be helpful. For these purposes I often use tincture because it is best to take them for several days (up to two weeks) in a row but tea will also work nicely if you can make sure you will be able to take it every day. Observe carefully because moods are a matter of delicate body chemistry. Not everyone will find the same herbs useful. St. John's Wart relieves depression for me, but a friend of mine experiences insomnia instead. Be aware of any allergies you may have, take notes on what you are trying, pay attention to any adverse reactions and consult with medical professionals.
  • When negative thoughts and critical "self-talk" intrude, we shouldn't either deepen it or push it away automatically. Feel the emotions associated with this self criticism and any assumptions of the judgments of others. Acknowledge those feelings and hold the part of yourself that is criticized gently. Spend the time necessary to understand the negative thoughts without falling into them.
  • Consider negative words you say about yourself, such as "I'm so fat!" or "What an idiot!" Even if you mean them ironically or as a kind of joke among friends, consider changes to the words that will help to relieve negativity. "That's my attempt at prepper storage" can replace "fat" comments. Or "obviously I have too much on my mind" can replace recriminations over forgotten items or errands. Those are just examples which don't deny reality or outlaw humor, but they are less blaming and judgmental. 
  • Set aside a few moments, perhaps as part of spiritual practice or at some other time when the daily routine is not too hectic, to focus on breathing exercises, smile-muscle exercises and/or meditation on loving yourself and absorbing the love around you. This may also be a time for a practice of gratitude. One year I listed at least one truly good thing that happened during the week at the end of every week in my calendar. Then I read them at the end of the year. It seemed like a bit of a hockey exercise but it turned out to be really astonishing. I know good things happen, of course, along with the hard stuff, but reading it all together was more of an experience than you might think.
  • Read jokes, tell jokes and find ways to increase laughter. Laughing really matters and in times of hardship and strife, it may be at a deficit. You may have to actually seek out jokes and plan silly things in the beginning, if you have been really depleted by difficult circumstances, but bringing back laughter is as important as anything else on this list. 
  • Practice grounding and balancing our energy. Many of the people who are so depleted today are depleted precisely because we are high-energy, active and passionate people. This energy is a great gift, but it can also come with its own challenges. Whether you currently have abundant energy or feel depleted, exhaustion can be helped and prevented by grounding. Grounding can be as simple as spending time in nature. Gardening and other sustenance-producing activities that get your hands into the earth are particularly helpful. But it can also be done even when nature is temporarily unavailable. You can stand or sit during your daily quiet time or spiritual practice, take a few deep breaths and visualize tree roots going down from your feet and/or tailbone into the earth. It may mean visualizing the tree roots twining down through a few floors of a building, through some foundations and concrete, but get them there in visualization. Continue a few more deep breaths and focus on absorbing the steady, sustainable energy of the earth.
  • Find useful things to do to improve the environment and community around ourselves, when energy permits. This last is crucial and yet it can't be done very effectively at the deepest points of exhaustion. Research and specify things you personally can do to improve the ecological and social environments. These may be very small things or large things. Use your particular abilities, talents and blessings. If you have money, that may help a great deal. If you don't, there are other ways. While you may have physical difficulties, many people who are doing the work of environmental and social justice need help with non-physical tasks. The opposite is also true. You may not know precisely what to do, but many organizations can use a pair of strong and quick hands. Doing this kind of work, either as part of your "real job" or during your off hours not only helps to elevate the conditions that exhaust you, it also plays a vital role in preventing exhaustion and rebuilding strength after you have rested. 

It is important to remember through all this that the time it takes to recover from soul exhaustion varies widely and depends on the same factors that cause depletion in the first place. Every person's circumstances are different and healing doesn't always abide by human schedules. Judging ourselves or others for a slow recovery will only slow that recovery further because such judgments contribute to depletion. In the end, resilience is fostered most by a combination of solidarity and intuition.

Be well and nurture joy. I welcome your comments and especially any typos found in my blogs. this week I am particularly exhausted as well, so you may just find some. 

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. 

Camping tip: Forage for tea and enjoy a vitamin boost

Nine years ago I packed food and video equipment in to a Greenpeace blockade camp in a military zone in the Czech Republic, dodging patrols and slipping up unmapped trails. The goal of the camp was to protect a couple of tree-sitters and thus to occupy a strategic hilltop marked for a US radar base that would put the first foreign troops in the country since the Soviets were kicked out in 1989 and destroy a fragile ecosystem in the process. 

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

I'm delighted to report that Greenpeace and local activists won that fight. 

I don't recall our packs containing anything like tea or even coffee when we carried supplies in and maybe this wasn't actually an oversight by the more experienced blockaders. In the end, other than a renewed sense of what can be accomplished by non-violent activists and the unsung little victories of environmental and social justice, I came out of the Brdy Hills with an item I no longer needed to carry in my camping kit - tea. 

I'm a tea drinker--herbal, black, green, you name it--and especially on camping trips, a hot drink in the morning is essential, though I can live with or without caffeine. As a result, I have always carefully stocked and refreshed a tea supply in my camping kit and I suffered greatly a few times when it ran out at an inopportune moment. 

The Greenpeace campers taught me how incredibly easy it is to forage for tasty, drinkable leaves if you're out in the woods anyway. After learning this, it seems almost silly to pack the stuff. 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

The basic thing to remember is that if you are used to eating the berries, you can usually brew the leaves. Wild huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves make a great base for tea. Raspberry and blackberry taste pretty similar to black tea and you can treat them much the same. But instead of caffeine you'll get an extra dose of iron and other nutrients, which is particularly useful for when you're outdoors and active. 

Beyond these, the year's newest fir needles are an excellent addition to make a more fragrant tea. Mint and wild thyme or wild oregano flowers can usually be found as well.

Fresh forage tea is particularly high in nutrients and flavor, and you'll enjoy the break from dried teas. However, there are a few cautions to observe while you're doing this:

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

  • Don't eat or brew plants you can't identify or are not sure are edible.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within a few yards/meters of an established campsite. First of all, the campsite will become stripped. And second, the males of our own species and those of one of our most friendly species (dogs) have a habit of marking the edges of such campsites with their urine. You can't be sure who has been there before you.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within 20 yards/meters of a minor road or 100 yards/meters of a major road. You don't want toxic heavy metals along with your iron supplement. 
  • Don't pick plants in protected areas, national parks, high mountain meadows or particularly fragile habitats. If planning to camp in these areas, you do need to pack in everything. (And pack everything you brought in out again, of course.)
  • When harvesting wild plant leaves for tea, be careful to take only a few leaves from each plant. Don't pull or you may damage the roots. If possible use scissors. Take only what you need. Harvest for future use, only if there is a great abundance of a particular plant and then be careful that you don't damage the plants or topsoil. 
  • Before harvesting wild plants, sit a moment in the area and get a sense of it. Does it smell right?  Do you have a relaxed feeling or an uneasy feeling? Any sense of disturbance or unease you feel could indicate that you should not pick plants there. Human beings are still quite capable of instinctively sensing the health of plants without knowing logically why. The area could be polluted or too fragile and your body might pick up on that.  
  • Give your thanks to wild plants you harvest from, whether silently or out loud, when you are finished.

Next time you're camping and have access to hot water out in the woods, brew up fresh forage tea and you will have an immediate connection to the local land and the earth itself.

Linden: Golden comfort in myth and medicine

As a child my heart was captured by the songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

I learned by heart the song Legolas sings of Nimrodel and I wondered over the light leaves of linden, which I imagined to be a mythical tree of Middle Earth, since there were no such trees in the semi-desert where I grew up.

When Galadriel sings of an eternal golden tree in the land across the sea, I thought this too must be the linden, so often referred to as golden by Tolkien. 

As a young adult, I was delighted to find that linden trees are real, though sometimes called lime trees in the US. They don't bear limes and I assume there are also lime trees of a completely different sort that do. And while linden trees have a stately and magical beauty to them, they are not usually golden. They turn bright yellow in the fall.

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Yet they also turn gold for a brief moment in the late spring, or early summer. The tree gives an impression of burnished gold for the week or so when the blossoms are in full bloom and the tree is surrounded by an ecstatic cloud of honey bees--and often as not an herbalist or two.

Tea made from linden flowers and leaves is so widely accepted as a cold and cough remedy in Central Europe that even the most medical-model doctors may suggest it. Linden tea is very pleasant and a light, pretty yellow in color. It can be a great comfort for anyone with an upper respiratory infection. It loosens phlegm so that it is easier to expel. 

The tea can also be used to help with insomnia and migraines. In some situations it has been used to help with certain circulatory problems, including high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, but it should be noted that there is an unconfirmed suspicion that it may exacerbate preexisting heart disease if drunk too often. 

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Linden is said to ward off bad luck and it is holy to Slavic peoples. It was often planted in town centers centuries ago in western Slavic countries and even in Germany. It's a national symbol of the Czech Republic as well as of Slovakia and Slovenia.

The wood of the linden tree is very fine grained so it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It also resists warping once cured and it is relatively soft for a hardwood. This has led to its use as a carving wood for statues, musical instruments and barrels throughout the centuries.

In Lithuania women prayed to a goddess of the linden tree called Laima. Even the seeds of the tree are treated with respect and once they were spoken to as if they were human.

For me linden symbolizes my new land across the sea and the changes that have made me part of this country. It does not grow in the dry land of harsh and expansive beauty that I left behind. I have planted a linden tree at the top of my property here in this softer, smaller land. Now I wait for the day when it will bear flowers. It can take as long as fifteen years for the tree's first flowers. No wonder it is a tree marking the deep roots of people in a place. These things take time.