Waiting for the first herbs

 

When the fragile light first glides,

whispering across the land,

the cold sunlight of March,

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

 

as sleet still stings like sand,

I walk in the bare woods,

before the first buds awake.

Tiny rosettes of nettle nestle

amid the leaves I rake.

In the garden little pokes

above the still cold dirt

but tiny chickweed leaves

to heal some small hurt.

Still the tops of most herbs

stand dry and winter browned,

waiting past the last April snow

safe beneath the ground.

Then coltsfoot and lungwort,

brave and hearty those two,

raise their faces to the sun

pale yellow and purple blue

Rosemary and lavender,

as your leaves slowly green,

beware the last blast of winter

that we have not yet seen.

I’m waiting for the leaves

to wave green flags of spring

I’m waiting for the flowers

and breath to rise and sing.

The world needs more poetry these days. I may not be able to do all the things I have wished to. But I heard that we now have a local chapter of Extinction Rebellion. My post is short because I’m off to check out their website and sign up to do my bit on the home front.

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.

Feverfew: A tenacious friend to guard against migraines

The first thing I noticed about feverfew is that it is one tough plant. I planted feverfew in a pot early on in my gardening adventures, partly because the flowers are known to repel wasps and we were having a problem with wasps invading the back veranda where we like to sit. 

Unfortunately for the feverfew, I was not a very good gardener all those years ago and because this pot was by the picnic table, away from all the other beds and plants, I often forgot to water it for weeks at a time. It was under the veranda roof, so this was really a problem. It lookedcompletely dried up several times, and I thought it was dead. Then my toddler children over-watered it on many other occasions, drowned it in mud, dug its roots out and tipped it over. 

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Creative Commons image by  Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Twelve years on, the feverfew is still alive. 

It does have some ability to dissuade wasps from congregating, but only if you take care of it well enough to allow it to make flowers. The more flowers the better, when it comes to repelling wasps. They have a bitter smell. 

Relief for those suffering from migraines

However, the real gold in feverfew is in its ability to prevent and subdue migraine headaches. While the name of the plant suggests it as a treatment for fevers and it has been used that way historically, modern medical studies have proven its worth specifically in treating migraines. In Canada, the use of feverfew to treat migraines has been legally recognized. 

The flowers and leaves of feverfew can be collected and dried, powdered and put into gel capsules for natural headache pills or the fresh leaves and flowers can be tinctured in 40 percent alcohol. The dried-leaf capsules will only have full potency for a few months, so if you can tolerate a small amount of alcohol, tincture may be the better option. 

The short shelf-life is also a good reason to grow your own or find feverfew locally. It will not stand up well to industrial processing or the length of time necessary to distribute commercial capsules, so supplements with feverfew may not be as effective.

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Graibeard of flickr.com

Warnings

There is one consistent warning given about feverfew. Chewing the fresh unprocessed leaves may result in mouth sores or loss of taste. It has a pungent and bitter taste that is not particularly pleasant, so I don't really recommend it. I did once chew a leaf as a test and suffered no strange effects, but people with greater sensitivity may well suffer from sores and the taste doesn't help matters.

I have found no report that tea from feverfew leaves or syrup made from an infusion would be likely to cause sores, but the taste is so repulsive that I doubt either would be a popular remedy. 

Other uses

Feverfew is also still used to treat fevers, irregular menstruation, colds and sometimes infertility, but these uses have not been studied in modern times and documentation of their traditional use is sparse. Given that there are usually more well-known herbal alternatives for these issues, I generally use feverfew only for headaches. 

Standard dosages

Studies have shown feverfew to be safe if 50-150 mg of leaf powder is taken daily for less than four months. Longer use has not been studied. These dosages are standard and individual reaction and individual plants may vary widely. This isn't specific medical advice and consultation with professionals as well as careful self-observation is recommended.

Feverfew is a tenacious herb and a steadfast friend when you the world is too much for you.

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.

A faith I can see and touch

My new ESL student walks in and he's gigantic, even taller than my 6'6'' dad. He's a Czech military medical doctor and an expert on Ebola and other nasty stuff. His desire for absolutely perfect English is rivaled by few.

He's usually both tough and cheery, but on his second visit, he admitted that he had a bit of a toothache. It was making it difficult to concentrate, but he said he didn't want painkillers.

So, I cautiously mentioned my work with herbs. We had a surprisingly frank conversation about the doctor-herbalist divide. He said he resents herbal hype by supplement advertisers. I agreed that the hype is problematic and that most "supplements" are of poor quality and ineffective, explaining that fresh, local and minimally processed herbs are much more useful. 

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

"The important thing to me is that we see modern medicine as the primary health care and herbs and other alternatives as secondary," he said. We discussed the placement of the English article in that sentence--which is surprisingly complicated, if you get right down to it.

Then I went so far as to agree that while I use homegrown herbs for 90 percent of my family's health needs, I'm very glad for modern medicine when we really need it, such as the occasional lifesaving antibiotic or surgery.

He laughed and agreed to drink some herbal tea for his toothache. Every lesson since then he has wanted more herbal tea, even though his toothache is gone.

That discussion ended well, but his statement about primary and secondary health care stuck with me. I mulled it over for a few days, and realized that I actually disagree with that premise.

Homegrown herbs are definitely our first line of defense in health issues. Our doctor and pediatrician almost never see us and that is a good thing. It shows that we're doing something right.

During the late winter this year a series of particularly nasty viral infections swept through the local schools. Every family we know succumbed--whole groups of friends usually taking ill at once.

With a feeling of grim resignation, I dosed my children with a syrup made out of sweet glycerin, echinacea flowers and lemon balm leaves from our garden--a non-alcoholic substitute for antiviral tincture. I figured that with some advance preparation, our symptoms might at least be somewhat mitigated. 

I never thought we would escape the epidemic entirely, while everyone else I spoke with was in bed for at least ten days and two of my friends' children had to be hospitalized with opportunistic pneumonia. But the frigid, gray end of winter finally gave way to a wet and chilly spring and now the sun has come in earnest, drying out the sickness and leaving us unscathed. 

When this sort of thing happens, we never know for sure if our herbal concoctions have saved us or if it is more a combination of luck and eating vastly more vegetables than the rest of the town.

This was the first year in four that we didn't fall to the viral epidemic of the winter and also the first year I had been able to make the antiviral glycerate. Cake-decorator's glycerin is a strangely controlled substance by local pharmaceutical regulations.

So I don't exactly have proof that my herbal antiviral concoction was what saved us, but I have enough evidence to enthusiastically try it again. 

In many other situations the results are so obvious that denying them is ridiculous. Even my children know that a paste of plantain leaf will almost instantly relieve the pain of bee and wasp stings, nettle tea will immediately wash away the burning of an allergic reaction to nettles and a cough syrup of honey, plantain, thyme and mullein will quiet relentless hacking. They've seen it happen again and again.

Sometimes the same results can be had with a white, pink or colorless substance from the pharmacy in town. But too often for comfort, those substances are ineffective or cause nasty side effects.  

I take yarrow tincture just as any woman would take pain-killers for particularly bad cramps. It is as easy as popping a pill and results in no follow-up headaches. 

When my daughter caught a very unpleasant skin parasite from dangling her arms in a murky pond last summer, the local pediatrician spent six weeks proscribing medicated creams and harsh disinfectants. I am not used to skin ailments that don't quickly bow to my herbal salves, so I carefully followed the doctor's instructions. 

Finally, in despair because the weeping sores on my first-grader's arms showed no improvement either with herbal salves or the latest in pharmaceuticals, I cut large slabs of goo off of the aloe vera plant that sat mostly forgotten in our living room and mercilessly taped them on every single sore.

Then I covered the child's entire arms with bandages each night. After a week, the infection was gone. And though the aloe vera plant had been reduced to a nub, it has now rebounded to three times its former glory in time for another summer of wild children. 

The military doctor is unimpressed and calls my observations, "anecdotal." I agree that I love scientific studies--like those that have greatly advanced the use of lemon balm as an antiviral in recent years. 

"You just have faith in herbs?" he asks in what appears to be genuine curiosity.

If you want to call it that. My faith doesn't have to be "pure" and unquestioning.  I do have trust. It's a faith I can see and touch.