Monday, April 30, 2012


Witch hazel's zigzag stem

A glance up into the late spring dusk will tell you that both bats and bugs are out, good beasts one and all if only they'd stay to themselves. But some must have their blood and others privacy for their queen. So be off, you bees, chiggers, mosquitoes, ticks, deer flies,  and various and sundry other biting and stinging insects!

Lavender in summer

I like a spray-on repellent from the garden that doubles as a cooling spritzer. In this simple recipe, distilled witch hazel provides a cooling and astringent base for extraction of aromatic and bug-noxious oils from lavender and thyme.

Thyme flowering in late spring


Bug Stuff in spray bottle

- distilled witch hazel - 4oz
- lavender sprigs - 3 (flowering if available)
- thyme sprigs - 3 (flowering if available)

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Lavender and thyme essential oils (3-5 drops) can be subsituted for the fresh flowering herbs.

1) Place lavender and thyme sprigs in a suitable spray bottle;
2) Fill the bottle with witch hazel and put on the spritzing lid;
3) Spray onto appropriate body areas before insect exposure:

chiggers - feet and ankles (they are mites that crawl up from the ground)

bees and wasps - face, neck, and arms (spray into hands and wipe onto face)

deer and horse flies - exposed skin

mosquitoes - exposed skin

ticks - feet, ankles, pant line, shirt line (they grasp clothing from grass stems and crawl upward until skin contact)

DOCTOR'S NOTE: It is important to check for and remove ticks within a day of possible exposure because a tick has to be attached for more than a day to transmit Lyme disease.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Poke in late spring
The lushness of May is upon us - it's time for the spring harvest of medicinal plants. Since most won't be used right away, preservation of herbs for future use is critical. Careful drying will provide mold-free medicines for next fall and winter's teas and tinctures.

Sage and spearmint
The aerial parts of plants with strong stems can be dried by tying in a small bunch and hanging for a couple weeks in a warm room or shed with a little sunlight and air movement. They may take longer to dry with cool or wet weather, and should be left hanging until leaves are crispy.

Other plant parts can be dried by evenly spacing them on a window screen laid in warm dry room with good ventilation. We use our outdoor sauna seats because the slats allow better air movement up through the herbs. Thick roots like black cohosh and poke need to be sliced to half an inch or less in thickness to assure inner drying. Berries may need longer drying time or more warmth for complete drying. Store herbs in air-tight jars only after thorough drying. Any moisture left in incompletely dried plants will allow fungi to do it's stuff, spoiling what would have been your year's supply of herbal medicine.

Drying poke berries and roots

Poke provides a particularly potent plant medicine, if potentially poisonous. It's a powerful anti-catarrhal (mucous reducer) for respiratory problems and a strong lymphatic known to help arthritis pain and stiffness. Toxic cathartic (diarrhea producing) effects can be minimized by avoiding leaves and stems, drying berries and roots before use, and only taking small doses (1-3 drops of root tincture, one berry every other day).

Dried poke berries and roots

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Echinacea purpura and E. pallida
On first whiff, it might smell odd to treat seasonal allergies with plant medicines. Case in point coneflower (Echinacea species) - it's a member of the allergenic aster family but suppresses a histamine response to bee stings and snake bites. Since echinacea only works for acute reactions, other plants are better for prevention of more persistent respiratory allergies - runny nose, itchy eyes, headache, and fatigue. Formulas for chronic problems usually include an alterative for the involved organ system, specific herbs for the problem, and an adaptogen for whole person recovery.

Nettles flowering in late spring
We know nettles (Urtica species) as a digestive and kidney alterative (see Alteratives in Herbal Formulas) but it also reduces allergic reactions and helps to eliminate mucus. The young leaves have fewer stinging hairs and can be picked in early spring for a fresh or dried leaf tea. Use gloves to harvest aerial parts of mature plants from the edges of yards, gardens, or fields for drying and tincturing.

Goldenrod in late summer

Goldenrod (Solidago species) is sometimes blamed for fall allergies caused by it's less showy companion ragweed. However, the pungent leaves and flowers of goldenrod have the opposite effect, relieving red itchy eyes and fatigue. Added to tea or tincture formulas, goldenrod has been especially helpful for cat allergies.

Barberry in the fall
Barberry (Berberis species) can be added to an allergy formula when excess mucus is affecting both respiratory and gastrointestinal function. Pull up the bitter yellow root by cutting off most of the prickly shrub, squatting to grasp the stem with both hands, and pulling upward by straightening the legs. A little of the dried root tincture will add a lot of relief for chronic effects of allergies.

Finally, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is my adaptogen of choice for allergies because it also helps to stabilize mast cells, reducing the allergic response.(see Adaptogens in Herbal Formulas) Since it's not usually possible to avoid all allergens, a tea or tincture formula containing these or other herbs more specific to the individual can help to prevent reactions and reverse chronic symptoms.

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Formulas are much simpler to prepare when you have a home apothecary of single herb teas and tinctures.


basil tincture - 4 parts (2oz)
goldenrod tincture - 2 parts (1oz)
nettles tincture - 1 part (1/2oz)
barberry tincture - 1 part (1/2oz)

1) Pour the proper proportion of the tinctures into a small liquid measuring cup with a pouring lip and with adequate increments for precise measurement;
2) Gently swirl or stir the tinctures until thoroughly mixed;

3) Pour the mixture into 1 or 2 ounce bottles for dispensing;
4) Label bottles with formula name, date, and herbs;
5) Take 1/2 to 1 dropper (15-30 drops) once a day for allergy prevention, three times a day for treatment.

DOCTOR'S NOTE: Acute allergic reactions associated with shortness of breath, wheezing, and dizziness may need immediate evaluation by a healthcare professional.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


It's sweet, it's nutritious, it's healing, it's, well, yummy for the tummy. And honey, it turns out, is also an ideal base for extraction of certain herbal medicines: Sage for sore throats; Ginger and garlic for colds and flus; Nettles for nutrition; Marshmallow for ulcers. The honey extracts and preserves the plant medicine, delivering it to the gut for intestinal effects or for absorption.

New and old horsetail stalks

Horsetail (Equisitum arvense, E. hymenale) is an ancient non-flowering plant that grows in sandy wetland soil. The new leafing stems have a longstanding reputation for strengthening bones, nails, and hair as a "silica tonic". While the mechanism for this action is incompletely understood, horsetail's history of effectiveness is indisputable. And the silicon and other medicinal components of horsetail are best extracted from the fresh plant into a medium of similar acidity - honey.

HERBALIST'S NOTES: 1) Avoid taking the horsetail plant internally because it's sand content can irritate the gastrointestinal tract; 2) An oxymel is a heated mixture of honey and vinegar, either or both of which has been used to extract plant medicine.


Horsetail sterile stem

Unfiltered honey - 3 parts
Horsetail sterile (leafing) stems - 1 part
Glycerin - 5% of amount of honey

1) Gather a half dozen or so leafing horsetail stems by pulling them upward which will break them off just under the earth;
2) Cut off the dark and dirty underground portion of the stems;
3) Cut the rest of the stems into small pieces into a medium sized wide-mouthed jar;

Straining horsetail from honey  4) Pour honey over the horsetail to completely cover it;
5) Poke a chopstick or straw repeatedly into the honey to allow any trapped air to escape;
6) Cover the jar with a tight fitting lid and place in a warm dark place for 2-3 days (I place it on top of the hot water heater);
7) Strain off the honey into a clean jar with a lid. Compost the horsetail;
8) Stir in the glycerin to keep the honey from separating;
9) Label and store in a cool place;
10) Take one teaspoon daily for growing pains or three times a day for nail or hair problems.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Catnip in early spring

Most medicinal plants are preserved after harvest by drying for infusion or tincturing. A few garden mints, however, are more effective if used right after picking.

Flowering catnip
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) may stimulate our black cat Cleo but has the opposite effect for her two-legged housemates. It calms both the mind (nervine sedative) and the gut (carminative, antispasmodic), making it an ideal herb for insomnia from indigestion, particularly in children. With it's square stems and aromatic opposite leaves, catnip is easily confused with other mints unless flowering. But Cleo will always know it's catnip, and a plot of it in the garden will keep the fresh leaves handy when needed for a bedtime tea.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is another mint with nervine sedative and gastrointestinal antispasmodic properties. Fresh leaf extracts have the additional effects of soothing sore throats and improving mood by calming anxiety. The lemony taste distinguishes it from the other mints of your garden which lemon balm will gladly dominate if given the chance. You can limit it's spread by potting a clump each fall for a winter stash of the fresh leaves.

Lemon balm in mid-spring

Basil flowering tops
 The spiciness of basil (Ocimum basilicum) adds a diuretic and diaphoretic (sweat inducing) element to the medicinal effects of this third garden mint, giving it wider applications as a respiratory tonic and adaptogen (see Adaptogens in Herbal Formulas). Contrary to cooking with basil, the fresh flowering tops are the most pharmacologically active so dead-head away but save the pickings for tea or tincturing.

Fresh mint tinctures three ways

HERBALIST'S NOTE: Tincturing of fresh plants can be done by the folk method (chop into jar, cover with alcohol) as shown for lemon balm,  the weight-to-volume method (1:2 ratio of plant to alcohol in blender) as for basil, or a combination as for catnip since it took 5 parts alcohol to cover 1 part of the plant.