Monday, February 27, 2012


In late February it's calving season out on the Greenbrier Valley grasslands. We don't have such predictable reproductive cycles except nine months after the lights go out. Still, nature provides plants to help both bovine and human hormonal issues. 

Black cohosh

Black cohosh root (Actaea racemosa) helps menopausal symptoms and joint pain. Dig the large root in the fall when it's tall flower stalk is still visible to avoid confusion with toxic white baneberry  (Actaea alba) which has similar foliage but a short flower stalk. Other estrogen promoting plants are red clover (Trifolium pratense)and evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis).

Wild yam root (Dioscorea villosa, D. quaternata) helps menstrual irregularities and muscle cramps. Young plants have three or more heart shaped leaves in a radial whirl before vining out. Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) is another progesterone promoting plant but also helps to tone the uterus, making it helpful for many female problems.

Wild yam (Dioscorea quaternata

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Be sure to scrub and chop the roots of black cohosh and wild yam soon after digging. They become rock hard with drying, making it difficult to expose the flesh to alcohol with tincturing.

(adapted from Hoffman D. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press 2003)

  • black cohosh - 1 part
  • wild yam - 1 part
  • black haw (Viburnum opulus) - 1 part

  • chasteberry - 2 parts
  • black cohosh - 1 part
  • skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) - 1 part
  • wild yam - 1 part
  • blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) - 2 parts
  • periwinkle (Vinca major) - 2 parts
  • black cohosh - 1 part
  • chasteberry - 1 part
  • cleavers (Galium aparine) - 1 part
  • wild yam - 1 part
  • chasteberry - 2 parts
  • black cohosh - 1 part
  • St. John's wort - 1 part

Dried chasteberries for infusion or tincturing

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Avoid estrogen promoting herbs (black cohosh, red clover, evening primrose oil) with a history of estrogen sensitive breast cancer.

Friday, February 17, 2012


A hillside of ramps

Just one moon until Spring Equinox and the earth is awakening here in West Virginia. Our native wild onions are ramping up for sun on southern slopes. Chickweed is whirling out from rich garden beds. Even the yard is greening with dandelions sensing the return of light and warmth. It's time for a spring tonic and there's no better delivery system for herbal medicines than the oldest one - food.

Dandelion for blood cleansing

Young dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale, see Identifying Medicinal Plants) provide a salty and bitter addition to a spring salad, stimulating urination while sparing potassium.

Chickweed for digestion

Chickweed buds (Stellaria media) offer a nutty and slightly sweet taste to balance the bitterness of spring greens. They also promote digestion and metabolism to prepare for increased activity with the coming of spring.

Ramps for blood flow

Topping off a spring salad with chopped scallions stimulates circulation to rewarm the hands and heart. Any Allium will do including chives, garlic, and wild onions sprouting in the yard. Here in southern Appalachia we like ramps (Allium tricoccum) but be forewarned - everyone in the house had better like them too.

HERBALIST'S NOTE: These three plants are classified as alteratives for their respective body systems - dandelion for liver and kidney, chickweed for digestion, and onion for heart and circulation (See Alteratives in Herbal Formulas)


bacon (local uncured if available) - 10 slices
baby spinach (fresh) - enough to half fill a large salad bowl
dandelion greens - 2 handfuls
ramps - 4 thinly sliced (8 if scallions)
chickweed buds including leaves - 2 handfuls (substitute watercress)
red wine vinegar - 6 tablespoons
lemon juice - from one lemon
sugar (optional but better) - 1 tablespoon
black pepper - 8-10 grinds (1 teaspoon)
salt (optional) - 2-4 grinds (1/4 teaspoon)
avocado cubes (optional) - from 1 avocado

1) Place spinach in a large salad bowl and top with dandelion greens and ramps;
2) Cook bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until crisp, then remove and crumble it;
3) Reduce heat to medium and quickly stir in vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, and black pepper until hot;
4) Immediately pour this hot mixture over the greens and lightly toss to coat the spinach;
5) Sprinkle on the crumbled bacon (and optional avocado), adding a few grinds of sea salt if using uncured bacon;
6) Serve with a fresh loaf or two of gluten-free bread.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One thing we can all count on at some point during the year is pain, be it temporary from a self-limiting problem or chronic from a long-term issue. Early February is the time to plan the summer’s herbal harvest and this year my sweetheart entered several pain relievers on our order form. It will be our first try for California poppies, a legal variety of the far Eastern kind, so I’ll let you know how it’s tincturing and use goes next fall. Our best pain formula to date contains tinctures of a different pain killer (Indian pipe), an anti-inflammatory (willow bark), and a sedative muscle relaxant (hops).

Indian pipe

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is an odd flowering plant without chlorophyll. The white stem sprouts from the eastern forest floor after a summer rain and quickly unfurls a pink-hearted flower if moisture remains.  Just as quickly it involutes and disappears if disturbed or the soil dries out. Since it extracts best fresh into a lovely violet tincture, it’s best to carry a jar of 50% or higher alcohol on summer hikes. I’ve seen a path full of this rare ephemeral plant disappear when I returned the next day to collect it. But be careful to take only stems and leave plenty untouched in order to preserve the population.

Willow blossoms

The pain relief of Indian pipe is complemented nicely by the anti-inflammatory effects of willow bark, the original source of salicylic acid in Aspirin. White willow (Salix alba) is the classic medicinal species but any will do including weeping willow, pussy willow, and the wild North American species black willow (Salix nigra). It’s tedious to strip off the inner bark from the trunks of these trees but quite simple to snip off thin terminal branches into small pieces for extraction as tea or tincture. Wild yam root (Dioscorea species) is an anti-inflammatory alternative to willow and also adds a muscle relaxant effect.

For nighttime pain, a sedative can be added to an herbal analgesic formula. I like hops (Humulus lupus) because it climbs up our back porch each summer with its bitter strobiles. Since these fruits are so feathery, you’ll need to tincture them in a blender to achieve the usual 1:5 plant to alcohol ratio for dried herbs. Other garden sedative pain relievers are lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), and passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). 

Hops strobiles in late fall

HERBALIST’S NOTE: Pain is a symptom which expresses that something is wrong with the body, mind, or spirit. It is important to listen to pain and make any necessary changes in lifestyle to alter its causes.


Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) 1:2 in 70% - 2/3oz (1 part)
willow bark (Salix alba) 1:5 in 50% - 2/3oz (1 part)
hops (Humulus lupus) 1:5 in 40% - 2/3oz (1 part)

1) Pour Indian pipe, willow bark, and hops tinctures into a 2oz dropper bottle;
2) Take 1-3 droppers (10-30 drops) at bedtime for overnight pain relief.

DOCTOR’S NOTE: Avoid sedatives before driving or operating machinery; Avoid willow bark if allergic to Aspirin.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Sage leaves spurt out at a hint of winter sun

People and plants survive winter by a variety of mechanisms. Some pull inward, conserving energy and water by keeping under the covers or underground. Others make their own antifreeze to keep internal fluids flowing.  A few, like the key ingredient in this natural deodorant, pile on layers, drooping into the leaf litter when chilled and leafing out when the sun comes out.

Witch hazel's zigzag branch

The problem with most natural deodorants is that they don’t work unless combined with aluminum. This recipe, however, drops the noxious metal and instead combines antibiotic, astringent, and acidic herbs to last the whole work day. Sage (Salvia officinalis) is antibacterial and drying. The astringency of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) adds another drying element. Throw in the acidity and scent of lemon peel and there you have it, an effective herbal deodorant.


dried sage – handful (substitute white pine needles)
dried witch hazel leaves and twigs – handful (substitute oak bark)
lemon peel – from 1/2 a lemon
vodka 100 proof (50%) – 200ml
distilled water – 200ml

Double filtering prevents clothing stains
1) Crumble the sage and witch hazel into a jar with a tight fitting lid;
2) Add the lemon peel in small pieces to the jar;
3) Pour over the vodka to completely cover the herbs;
4) Tighten the lid and place the jar in a warm dark spot;
5) Swirl the jar daily for one week;
6) Strain off the liquid using a double layer of coffee filters;
7) Add the distilled water to bring the tincture to 25% alcohol (minimum for antibacterial effect);
8) Pour into a spray bottle and use once or twice a day.

DOCTOR’S NOTE: If you have a history of alcohol related problems or alcoholism, avoid alcohol based deodorants because it is absorbed through the skin.