Old Ways Herbal

Vermont Herb School, Clinical Herbalist, Plant Remedies, & Herbal Farmcraft Wisdom.


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Preserving Mushroom Medicine

Medicinal mushrooms are often overlooked when we talk about solubility and the best ways to preserve things.  We talk a lot about mucilage, berberine and the like, but not so much about considering solubility to make the most effective mushroom medicine.  I personally think that’s because

a. folks get intimidated by the complexity (and weirdness) or mushrooms, or

b. folks are scared to experiment with something that comes around so rarely through the year–which makes sense, as you might only get one shot with the precious precious fungi this year.

The basic concept is this: most mushrooms contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents, like other organisms we use for medicine.  When they’re simply dried, we lose much of the water-soluble and all the alcohol-soluble medicinal compounds.  When they’re tinctured, we lose the water-soluble compounds.

Dried turkey tail and powdered chaga are familiar formulations, but do they really pack the most medicinal punch?  During the drying process, as the water evaporates, the lovely fruiting bodies that last week were shiny (or dull) and colorful (or not) as you cupped them lovingly in your hands in awe at the majesty of this creation are now hollow bits of corrugated cardboard just begging for a shallow grave in the compost pile.  That’s hyperbole, but still–why make anything other than the strongest, most effective, most delicious and uplifting and inspiring medicine possible?  Why settle for slightly medicinal cardboard when you can achieve an ambrosia of a panacea?  (That was a fun sentence to write.) Ganoderma

Is it possible to dry mushrooms and extract some measure of medicine from them?  Yes, obviously, or chaga chai would not be a thing.  Mushrooms are incredibly complex, the hard-won fruiting bodies of a vast mycelial network, and some of the medicine will stick around in the dried form.

That being said, drying is not the best way to preserve medicine from these incredibly powerful, slow-growing, central investments on behalf of a gigantic microscopic system of synergy and mutualism.  Wasting something that precious is downright…wasteful.  And also, why bother traipsing all over the mountain searching for maitake and reishi if you’re just going to let 3/4 of the medicine evaporate off?

The best way to extract the strongest, most complex water-soluble mushroom medicine is to preserve them fresh.  This is generally true of water-soluble medicinal herbs, too.  The recipe below for Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes (or mushroom ice cubes, if you want to be specific about it) will get you there.

But wait!  The true best, most complete, crazy amazing mushroom medicine is made by combining both water- and alcohol-soluble constituents, instead of choosing one or the other.  You can taste the difference, too: dried mushroom tea is lovely, tincture is fabulous, but a fresh mushroom concoction makes my whole body sigh with relief as my T-cells sing on their way into battle, in time with the war drums of the macrophages and the storming of the lymph and the gentle humming of my very very calm nervous system.  I like it, you could say.  Combine tincture and decoction into a concoction (really: double, double, toil & trouble).  The classic recipe is adapted below for maximum awesomeness, but there’s still just the three steps: tincture, decoct, then concoct.  Instructions below.

Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes

You can tell this is popular around here by the name.

If you’re planning to concoct some of your mushroom decoction, consider tincturing some–maybe a half-pint or a pint–at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?) and putting it aside until it’s ready.

1. Combine equal parts by weight of the following fresh mushrooms in a slow cooker (best) or large stock pot (not as good):

  • Reishi/Ganoderma
  • Maitake
  • Turkey Tail
  • Chaga (not technically a mushroom, as it’s not a fruiting body–it’s actually mycelium!  So cool!!!)
  • Or whatever you have, really.  But these are what I use, and I usually do 10 oz of each, but I have an truly enormous slow cooker so do what works for you.

2. Add these herbs for extra oomph and tastiness; use half as much of each herb as you used of the mushrooms (I use 5 oz of each):  IMG_2785

  • Elderberry
  • Cinnamon
  • Astragalus
  • Rosehips

3. Fill the rest of the way with water.

4. Gently simmer (covered!  Always!) for 2-3 days, the longer the better.  I go the full 72 hours.  It should be a terrible looking brownish blackish brackish color and quite fragrant, in an appealing swamp-creature kind of way.

5. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of up to 6 hours or so.

6. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.

7. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze.  When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer.  You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.

Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes can be added to tea, soup (simply the greatest addition to miso since the discovery of wakame), or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed, any time you would use dried mushrooms or mushroom tea.  I use cubes as fresh decocted mushrooms in the concoction recipe below.

Perfection Mushroom Concoction

1. Tincture FRESH mushrooms at something water-friendly, like 1:4 60% (info here if you’re like, what?), as noted in the intro for the recipe above.  When the tincture is ready, strain it into a clean jar, with at least twice the volume as the tincture (i.e. put a pint of tincture in a quart jar).

2. A. If you’re concocting on the same day you made the decoction:

Allow the decoction from the recipe above to cool to room temperature, then ladle through a fine strainer into a measuring cup until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.

2. B. If time has passed since you made the decoction: Pressed tincture

Remove Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes from the freezer and thaw them at room temperature in a measuring cup, until you have equal parts tincture and decoction.

3. Combine equal parts tincture and decoction.  Some people also choose to ad raw honey at this stage.

4. Label and store in a cool, dark place, and use instead of mushroom tea or tincture.

There you have it, delicious and effective.  Not the easiest way of making mushroom medicine, but it sure works great. Enjoy.

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Preserving Water-Soluble Magic Beyond the Growing Season: Herbal Ice Cubes

This thing happens kind of a lot when you live in a place with significant seasons: you harvest some wonderful medicine, enough to last you a while–maybe all year–but then you have to actually do something with it while it’s still good, knowing you can’t get more until next year.  Most people’s gut reaction is to either dry or tincture the wonderful medicine, and generally speaking that works great for most things.

Except when it doesn’t.

If you’re familiar with solubility, you know that some medicines extract best (or in some cases only extract) in water-based preparations, so tinctures aren’t an option.  (If I lost you, try this article and scroll down to the section on solubility.)

Some (actually, many) herbs with significant water-soluble medicinal constituents, and generally herbs with high volatile oil content, tend to dry as weak medicine.  Obviously this isn’t true across the board–otherwise tea wouldn’t be a thing–but think of the difference between fresh basil and dried basil and I think you’ll get what I mean: there’s a real difference, and fresh is better.

And sometimes the medicinal properties evaporate straight out with the water when the plant dries, making it essentially useless in its dried form–think of borage, or jewelweed: wonderful fresh but downright lousy when dried.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to preserve water-soluble constituents without drying the herbs.

No, just kidding.  Here’s an easy & fun solution that allows us to preserve water-soluble medicine at the peak of its medicinal awesomeness.  This is the sort of fun kitchen witching that yields instant gratification: you might find yourself passing around your latest success at a dinner party, and any kids in your life are likely to think you’re a genius.

Herbal Ice Cube Recipe

1. Choose herbs that make sense together.  Keep in mind:

  • Solubility
  • Freshness (things that are harvested at the same time are ideal)
  • Flavor
  • Formulation purpose
  • Energetics & synergy

2. Harvest the herbs properly, at the appropriate time of day & moon phase, on a day when you have time to deal with them.

3. Immediately infuse or decoct as appropriate (instructions here).  Infuse or decoct at double strength.  Infuse for at least 6 hours, decoct for at least 2 hours.  You want super strong, fragrant awesomeness.  It should be decadent in that kitchen.

4. Cool to room temperature, covered, a matter of hours.

5. Strain through a wire mesh strainer into a large pitcher or batter bowl, something with a pour spout.

6. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze.  When completely frozen, pack cubes into freezer bags or jars, label, and store in freezer.  You will probably have to do numerous rounds of freezing ice cube trays to get all the liquid frozen.

Herbal Ice Cubes can be added to tea, juice, soup, or just thawed and drank throughout the year as needed.

Sample Herbal Ice Cube Formulas

To beat wintery blues in these cold, dark climes, I make ice cubes with:

  • Borage
  • Lemon Balm
  • Holy Basil
  • Calendula

And they’re there and easy when the days are short and cold and difficult and my family is grouchy in the deepest part of winter–pop it into a cup of tea with some honey and boom!  Cheerful people everywhere.

My husband’s poison ivy?  Yes, he still gets it in the winter.  How about:

  • Jewelweed
  • Plantain
  • Mullein Flower
  • Oatstraw
  • Nettles

Bam!  Take that itchy rash.

Winter cocktail parties?  Something like:

  • Rosemary
  • Lemon balm
  • Anise-hyssop
  • Ginger

And everyone thinks I’m special.

You get the idea.  Experiment & have fun.

Oh!  And also check out this article about the same concept, but for the amazing Immune Magic Mushroom-Herbal Heaven Ice Cubes.  They’re only so-so.


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Cold & Flu Tea Recipe

When all is right in the world, it’s easy to mess around with kitchen witching.  That’s not the case when we can’t sleep, or the kid’s sick and screaming, or whatever the current herbal crisis happens to be.  Over many years of drying herbs to infuse in honey “when I get to it” and not pressing tinctures until I actually have to use them (because farm life is just that kind of busy), I’ve learned that when I need medicine NOW, having to make it is a huge hurdle.  Although I’m not as on top of my home apothecary maintenance as I’d like to be, I’ve made it a point to have a few basics in stock all the time, so I don’t have to make it in a pinch.

Here’s a recipe for a cold and flu tea to have on hand going into winter.  This formula works well as a base, since it’s a general respiratory infection and get-well-soon mix.  If you’ve got other symptoms, it’s a lot easier to add some willow and a sprinkle of angelica than starting from the top when you’re hacking up a lung.  teapot

Although there are lots of great immune herbs from around the world, we’ve got what we need right here in our own backyards.  If bioregionalism is a new concept for you, please see this article, but I’ll spare everyone else the rant repeat.  These herbs are native or naturalized guests that flourish in cold climates, but if they won’t grow where you do, get out your books and talk to your neighbors to find a similar herb that does.  For info on drying your own tea, see this article.

As well as bioregionalism, a couple of other concepts that come into play with formulation are synergy, balance, and energetics; if you’re interested in getting awesome at formulation, read up on those here, here, and here, but it’s too much for right now; hopefully in the future I’ll write an article or several just on formulation, but today is not that day.

Crumble together in a quart jar or airtight bag, 1 cup each of the following:

Monarda: Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma, with their many common names (bee balm, wild bergamot, oswego tea, scarlet monarda etc.) have thousands of years of traditional use in North America for cold, flu, fever, respiratory infection, and other permutations of winter illness.

Monarda didyma

Monarda didyma

I use them together, as I have found them to have a synergistic effect on stimulating the respiratory tract and “burning off” a fever (as Matthew Wood calls it), but you can use whichever species is local to you.  Monarda is very useful as a warming (and later cooling, if you sweat out a fever), drying, stimulating, dispersing agent of change throughout the respiratory tract and sinuses.   It will move out whatever cold garbage is stuck in your lungs, dry up a drippy nose, act as an anti-inflammatory and decongestant to sinuses (postnasal drip, headache with facial soreness, weird ear pressure), and sweat out a fever.  It is antimicrobial, gently immune-boosting, and improves the mood.

Elderberry is one of the best-known immune stimulators and antimicrobials.  It’s used daily to prevent sickness, and is wonderful in higher doses to help you get better, faster; the science is very good on this, numerous studies indicating some very high power T-cell stimulating scary-antigen-annihilating magic.  I put it in almost everything immune-related because it’s so effective and delicious.  Generally, you want to decoct elderberries and add them to the rest of the tea, but making separate batches kind of defeats the purpose of having a lazy sick person blend ready to go, so here’s a little cheat: dry elderberries thoroughly, then grind them in a mortar and pestle or grinder.  They won’t last long, and they won’t be as strong, but they’ll get you through when you need them to, and you can infuse them with everything else if you have to.  The herbal demagogues will frown at this advice, but I’ve found that there are a lot of folks out there infusing roots and berries as a matter of convenience—but at least grind them first so you actually get some medicine out.

Add ½ cup each of the following and mix well:

Hyssop is a warming, drying, stimulating fix-all for respiratory woes, sinus issues, and fevers.  It’s antiviral and has a powerful effect on moving out deep-set, chronic conditions of cold-stuckness, especially accompanied by low-grade fever, thready pulse, and feeling sad or down.  It has a synergistic effect with monarda in terms of flavors, energetics, and physiological effect.  If you can’t grow hyssop, try elder flower. tea

Lemon balm is a delicious antiviral famous for soothing frazzled anxiety, sleeplessness, mild pain, and imparting a feeling of general well-being.  It’s effective against viral infections, soothes dry-behind-the-eyes exhaustion, and improves mood.  It’s cooling, calming, and soothing, helping to ground excess energy to focus on rest and healing.

Thyme is a vigorous antimicrobial immune stimulant.  It’s full of volatile oils that evaporate when dried, so it’s most powerful infused fresh into honey or syrup.  That said, it’s still a very useful addition to tea in its gentler dried form.  Thyme is very warming and moving to stuck secretions as an expectorant and decongestant, will help break a fever, and brings the antiviral magic right where it needs to be by stimulating circulation.

Add ½ cup of ONE of the following:

If you tend towards cold, stuck, inflamed, phlegmy (productive or nonproductive) congestion, especially with loss of appetite, facial pain, or sore throat that needs to be cleared:

Elecampane is a warming, stimulating respiratory decongestant, a mover and shaker that brings blood flow to the lungs, throat, and face and puts lots of power behind ejecting any disgusting slimy business stuck in there.  This is strong medicine.  It’s a root, so like elderberry it’s normally decocted.  Keep it separate and decoct with the elderberry, or use this lazy sick person cheat: chop it up as fine as you can when it’s fresh, dry thoroughly, then grind and add to your tea blend.  It doesn’t need to be powder, tiny shards of root will infuse if necessary.

If you tend towards dry, spasmy congestion, especially with painfully dry hacking cough, blood when you blow your nose, dry sore throat, eye soreness, and unequal ear pressure:

Mullein or violet leaf: These are both moistening herbs that cool, soothe, and heal dry inflamed tissues, especially the lungs, nose, and sinuses.  Make sure to accompany them with honey.

gardening weeds

Mullein, borage, and holy basil are all wonderful water-soluble herbs

If you always get sick this way, consider using a full cup (you can take out the thyme, if you need space in the jar).

Make your tea by adding 1-2 tablespoons per cup of boiled water, cover, and steep for 10-20 minutes.

Based on symptoms, add appropriate things to your tea like:

Honey is antimicrobial, immune stimulating, anti-inflammatory, and very soothing.  It should be added to all tea made for someone who isn’t feeling well.

Immune-boosting tinctures like Echinacea, spilanthes, Oregon grape, yellow root, Japanese barberry (this is invasive so use a ton!) help you get better faster.  Some Tinctures BrewingHowever, don’t add these herbs dried to your tea, use them as tinctures: their magic is primarily alcohol-soluble, so the medicine is found in tincture, not tea.

Fever tinctures like willow, boneset, meadowsweet, catnip for kids, especially when accompanied by sore muscles and headache.  These herbs don’t have to be in tincture form, but it’s easier in the moment—however, feel free to decoct/infuse to your heart’s content.

Cherry tincture (or decoction, syrup, honey) as a cough suppressant, for hacking coughs accompanied by muscle pain, when you just need it to stop.bark

Mushroom ice cubes: medicinal mushrooms are wonderful for the immune system, but they really lose their oomph when dried.  My favorite way to prepare them is to make a 3-day decoction, freeze in ice cube trays, and add cubes to tea and soup when we’re sick.  There’s a recipe for this on its way this week.

There are a million other awesome immune herbs local to your area, so have fun playing around with this and let me know how it goes.  Have a nice winter!


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The Battle Over Fire Cider

I challenge you to sign the petition, honor the boycott, and make your own fire cider: keep your family and our herbal & local food community healthy!

At the end of December, I wrote this summary of the battle between the herbal community as a whole and one selfish, short-sighted national company as a little aside in a full-length magazine article on infused vinegars.  They declined this section–it was off topic–so I’m publishing it here with some additions (anything that seems angry, because I am).

Fire cider is a spicy, immune-boosting infused vinegar that is traditionally taken in the winter as a cold and flu remedy. The concept is old, but the name “fire cider” was made up by herbal pioneer Rosemary Gladstar in the 1970’s, and published in a copyrighted book in 1994. Rosemary has been a pillar of the herbal community for decades and has taught so many herbalists that her ideas have become part of the common parlance. Fire cider is now a generic term with many recipe variations, produced in kitchens around the world.

However, a heated debate has arisen over the use of the term fire cider.  A Massachusetts-based company, Shire City Herbals, has started manufacturing wholesale fire cider for national distribution and has trademarked the name, claiming it as their own invention–despite it being a well-known traditional, generic term, previously published in books and produced by hundreds of small companies.  As Tradition Not Trademark says, it’s like trademarking “pizza.”

Since the trademark went into effect, Shire City Herbals has pursued many individuals and small, local companies with threats of legal action and bullying on social media and sites like Etsy, despite claims that they have no intention of “persecut[ing] folks making home remedies and selling their remedies on a small scale” (from the Shire City Herbals blog).

Despite their name, Shire City Herbals is not a local herbal company; they have national distribution of their only product, fire cider, and have been called “a small national company working to corner an industry with a single product” by Free Fire Cider.  In other words, they are not one of the thousands of companies run by community herbalists trying to make a living doing what they love; instead, they’re doing what they can to destroy the livelihoods of others.

The herbal community has risen up in resistance to the dangerous precedent this trademark sets, along with local food aficionados and do-it-yourself enthusiasts, as the trademark forbids the use of a long-standing generic term and recipe, and violates the principles of a community based on cooperation and shared knowledge.  Beyond the lack of ethics here, the long-term dangers to the herbal community are significant, as Free Fire Cider explains:

“[T]his could set the precedent for the trademarking of generic, traditional terms by national companies and could lead to a huge change in the grassroots herbal product industry, nationally and internationally. With national companies potentially bullying smaller herbal producers with the legal system, forcing them to stop using generic, cultural, historical herbal terms, so that they can capitalize off of the term, and monopolize the industry with the standardized product. A scenario like this could lead to restricted access to quality, small batch, herbal remedies made locally and distributed locally.”

There is legal action pending against Shire City Herbals to revoke the trademark as well as a boycott, an online petition to the US Patent and Trademark Office to get the trademark revoked with over 9,000 signatures (please add yours), and many free and fabulous recipes available all over the internet.  I really love Mountain Rose’s recipe, and these charming variations from Rosemary Gladstar.

The herbal community urges everyone who cares about small-scale local production and an economy of cooperation to make their own fire cider this year!  There are as many recipe variations as there are cooks and it’s likely to change based on what you have in the kitchen, but here’s a place to start.

If you’d rather buy top-quality fire cider instead of making it, consider supporting one of these small, hand-crafted herbal companies: Herbal Revolution, LaLa Earth, & Good Fight Herb Co.

Juliette’s “Winter is Coming” Fire Cider Recipe

Based on Rosemary Gladstar’s original, Juliet Blankespoor’s guidance, my family’s taste buds, and the availability of ingredients in December in Vermont.

1.  Chop or grate, and combine in a quart jar:

  • ½ cup fresh ginger
  • ¼ cup fresh horseradish or a ½ cup prepared horseradish
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bulb garlic
  • 2-4 cayenne peppers
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 2 Tbsp each: rosemary and thyme
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 quart raw apple cider vinegar (or whatever will fit)

2.  Cover the mouth of the jar with waxed paper or cloth before putting on the lid. This prevents the lining of the lid from corroding due to the acidity of the vinegar.  Label with the date and ingredients, and store in a cool, dark place.

3.  Shake the jar daily (or as often as you remember). The motion helps extract the medicinal properties more thoroughly.  The longer your vinegar infuses, the stronger it will be.

4.  Strain in 1-3 months.  Pour through a fine strainer or cheesecloth into a clean jar. Squeeze out the last, strongest goodness before discarding.

5.  Add ¼ cup raw honey, or more to taste.

Take 1-2 tablespoons per day to keep your immune system strong, or 2-4 tablespoons a few times daily as a remedy for colds and flus.  It’s very strong-flavored, so dilute in water or honey as needed.


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Homegrown Tea

As the snow piles up and icicles grow from the eaves, tea becomes a central part of my life. Drinking a steaming, fragrant cup of last summer’s bounty in front of the woodstove on these long winter nights is a cold weather ritual that resonates to my bones. I love the seasons; I love how the most basic ways I spend my time change throughout the year in perfect rhythm with the world around me, and how just when it starts to feel a little stale—say, April snowstorms—the earth is changing to its next phase, as the earliest plants push their way towards the sun. But now it is only the beginning of the season, when the smell of woodsmoke and the silence of a snowstorm feel like coming home after too long away. In honor of this season of joyful homebodiness, of planning next years’ crops and spinning wool by the fire late into the night, here is an explanation of how to make a truly beautiful cup of tea.

tea

A Good Start Tea is the backbone of herbal medicine and it is often the easiest way to get herbs into your daily life. If you have wanted to fiddle with herbs but are having trouble finding the rhythm to actually do it, try drinking a cup of herbal tea every night after supper, when the day’s tasks are complete and you can relax with a book or guitar and just be. This practice helps put the days’ worries to rest, soothes us after overeating at supper, makes up for that last beer, and settles our minds for sleep. It’s surprisingly effective at giving us a good start tomorrow, and it’s an easy stepping-stone to inviting herbs into your life.

Many folks who drink medicinal tea as part of their daily routine like to make a large amount at once to drink throughout the day.  To do this, make a quart jar or 2 of tea, let it cool, and refrigerate. It’s good for 24 hours.

Healing Ritual The ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health.  Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing.  That deep breath of fragrant steam when you first lift the cup contributes to relaxation, promoting health and healing. As all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists.  The ritual of tea drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any conversation about tea.

Unique Medicine Some health conditions can be best served by tea, as hot water has its own medicinal attributes in addition to whatever herbs you add.  People who use herbs to help with anxiety find the ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example).  The same can be said of herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing.  For cold and flu, tea soothes sore throats and rehydrates us, in addition to whatever medicinal stuff you threw in there.  The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches.  For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones (did you drink Beast Ice for 10 years?) or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better, so take your herbs in tea.  The list goes on, but the point is to consider how hot, fragrant, medicinal water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.

Drying and Storing Herbs

It’s obviously the wrong time of year to be drying herbs for tea, but it’s the right time of year to be planning next year’s garden. As you consider companion plants, culinary herbs, and general bounty, think about what herbs you might add for tea.

Drying herbs is easy. For most herbs, hang them in bunches or dry them flat on screens or stretched pieces of lace or muslin. Some herbs—the very dense, resinous, or gooey herbs like mullein, calendula, and comfrey—are harder to dry without molding, but there are tricks like using a fan, leaving them in the sun for a few hours before bringing them in, etc. that can be found online.

Store dried herbs in resealable bags, containers, or jars, in a dark, cool place. I have a ton of dried herbs, so I store mine in bags inside of those giant light-tight plastic containers (there are 6, and they’re alphabetized…) but if you don’t have too many, jars in a cabinet works great. Just don’t store them over the stove or fridge, where they’re exposed to heat and humidity, or they’ll get stale or moldy.

If you’re a gardener, storing your own herbs is effortless and rewarding. Blending your own tea is a natural extension of consuming your garden’s bounty that will continue throughout the year. If you’re not gardening, you can buy dried herbs online or from a local herbalist and still blend your own tea.

Choosing Good Tea Herbs

Taste There are some herbs that taste truly terrible. Don’t torture yourself. You get 0 points for suffering through a cup of valerian, kava kava, and spilanthes. If it tastes gross, make a tincture (see Country Grind #1 or my blog for instructions if you don’t know how).

Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble medicine (constituents).  That means the medicine comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol.  All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of the best way to extract the medicine you’re trying to use.

Picking water-soluble herbs is easy—just think of what you’ve drank before. Any of the herbs that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, rosehips, oatstraw, raspberry leaf, and holy basil.  Any herbs that are gooey (demulcent) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage.  Likewise, very aromatic herbs do great in tea, like ginger, elecampane, lemon balm, hyssop, prickly ash, and licorice. Also, food herbs such as nettles, burdock, and chickweed are high in water-soluble constituents. Right there is a reasonable list to get you started and I bet you can name half a dozen more off the top of your head.

Composition of the Perfect Cup

teapot

Blending your own tea seems a little daunting, but it’s really pretty straightforward—and then you have fresher, higher quality tea tailored to your needs, and at a fraction of the store price. What Celestial Seasonings knows and most of us don’t is essentially just balancing flavors in an intentional way. A knowledge of herbal energetics really helps with this, but that’s a little complicated for now—suffice it to say there is more to this that you can learn if you want.

It’s totally okay to throw one herb in your cup and call it good; mint tea is a standard for a reason. But if you want to do some blending, choose a few herbs using these general guidelines, or make up your own. What it really comes down to is activating all your senses and taste buds at once.

Purpose What is your tea for? Emotional balance, digestive problems, immunity, overall health? Start there and think of a couple herbs you could use. Try to identify if they are warming or cooling, drying or moistening in your body, and use that to narrow down your choices based on what you want.

Use All Your Senses The fragrance and appearance of the tea have a huge impact on how much you enjoy drinking it. Bright colors glow among clumps of green leaves, so think of fruits like rosehip, schisandra, prickly ash berries, and tiny dried flowers like lavender. Large dried flowers will open in the cup to be little bright surprises, like calendula, rose, and red clover. This is in addition to the medicinal qualities, taste, and fragrance they add.

Balance Your Blend Now pick an herb that is very fragrant, an herb that is tangy or sour, an herb that tastes great, an herb that looks beautiful, and an herb that is sweetly mild tasting. That last one is essential: it will give your tea depth of flavor and provide a backbone for everything else; it’s the central element that holds everything else together.

Like So…Okay so maybe my beautiful herb is red clover, fragrant herb is hyssop, tangy herb is rosehip, incredibly delicious herb is holy basil, and mild herb is oatstraw. I’ve made a blend that will increase overall health, tonify my endocrine system, lessen depletion or adrenal exhaustion, balance my cycle, protect me from toxins, nurture my nervous system, mood, and sleep cycle, protect against sickness and infection, and is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I can make a month’s worth of this tea for the cost of a few days supply of good loose tea at the store, if I buy dried herbs; considering I have these herbs dried from my garden, it will be free. It will also look, smell, and taste wonderful—which is really the point, anyway.

Actually Making Tea

There is more to life than teabags. If you separate your tea ingredients into infusions and decoctions, you will have much stronger medicine and fuller flavors, as tough plant parts need more oomph in their boil than delicate parts (this is true of people too).

Infusions

An infusion is usual tea: hot water, herbs, done.  We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers—think chamomile, mint, lemon balm, etc. They’ll fall apart to mush and shreds if you boil them.

To make an infusion, boil water in the kettle. Crush dried plants between your hands or chop fresh plants to release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength. Or use a pinch of this and a dab of that, which is how I do it.

Pour boiling water over herbs.  Cover and infuse until it cools to a non-tongue destroying temperature; the longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be.  Strain and consume in massive quantities.

Decoctions

A decoction is when herbs are simmered, as opposed to having water poured over them.  Decoctions are used for denser, tougher plant parts, which need more time and bubbling power to extract the deep goodness.  These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds, like ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch.

To make a decoction, simmer water in a small saucepan.  You want to add a little extra for evaporation.  Chop or grate fresh herbs.  Crush dried herbs between your hands.  Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for taste and strength (or a pinch and a dab).

Add herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover.  Allow herbs to toil and trouble until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes, then strain and feel really good about your herbal prowess.  Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.

Have a beautiful winter and happy kitchen witching.

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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Bark Harvest & Ethical Wildcrafting

Autumn is the season for bark harvest, one of the most fulfilling medicine making tasks. A walk through the woods on a crisp fall day followed by several hours in the sun as the days grow shorter and the world goes to sleep—it is definitely worth the effort, and a few trees will provide a lifetime’s medicine.

Bark is highly potent, as it is constantly growing and changing based on the needs of the tree and the influence of its surroundings. Interacting with the wider world makes for strong constituents—as in “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—so we make medicine from plant compounds generated to ward off pests, disease, sun damage, etc. Trees are part of a larger system, so they’re forced to interact and protect themselves, making strong compounds along the way. Bark contains the growing cells of the tree, as well as the cells required to transport water and sugar for photosynthesis—on a cellular level, bark is always interacting with the rest of the organism, the mycorrhizae in the soil, and changes in its surroundings, so it contains quite a lot of plant magic.

Ethical Wildcrafting

Ethical wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants and trees conscientiously, to avoid damaging the health of the population or the overall ecological system. It’s especially important here because if you don’t harvest bark properly, you’ll kill the tree, which is like killing a chicken for the eggs. The basic principles are simple: don’t kill something when taking part of it will do; don’t take more than you need; and don’t take more than the population can stand. This issue is close to my heart, as I’ve watched plant populations decline as people violate the sanctity of the natural world in the name of greed. Ignoring the longevity of other creatures is buying into the mythos of man as supreme ruler over the birds and fishes—which solidly places us on the path toward unwitting acceptance of large-scale corporate rape and pillage of the natural world, violating the basic principles of land stewardship and of simply being a decent person. Harvest intentionally and teach the people around you, so our natural world stays awesome.

Don’t Kill It This is an issue with any wildcrafting or wild foods harvest, but it’s blatantly obvious when you harvest trees. Trees are keystone species, meaning they form the center of the complex ecological web that surrounds them, from plants that only grow in soil with the pH maintained by that tree’s leaves, to the lichen on its branches, to the birds that eat the bugs that eat the wood, to the foxes that eat the birds…you get the idea. Trees are important fellows among their woodland brethren, so it’s easy to imagine the impact of removing one for a shitty reason, like by accident. The most common way this happens in wildcrafting is by girdling, or removing a section of bark around the trunk of the tree. Girdling kills the tree because the leaves and roots can’t trade water and sugar, leaving the tree to starve to death. Girdling is one thing if you’re carving a homestead out of the wilderness—it’s a time-honored way of clearing forest—but it’s something entirely different if you’re just doing it because you don’t know any better. Girdling is specific to trees, but the overall principle applies to any plant: don’t kill it if you can avoid it. For example, instead of taking the whole root of a perennial, cut off most of the root, then replant the root bud where the stem comes out so the plant will grow back. If you’re harvesting leaves, cut the stem above a leaf node so it will easily regrow, instead of cutting it off at the ground. This is an easy habit to get in to.

Take What You Need… There’s no reason for wildcrafted herbs to end up in your compost. It’s better to go back for more than it is to take too much the first time.

…But Not Too Much When harvesting wild plants, take about 1/5 of the population, max. I’ve heard this explained as “1 each for the animals, birds, fish, plants, and people,” and “1 left for each of the four directions,” but those are maybe a little out-there for me. I just don’t take more than 1/5. It’s easy—if you’re really not sure, count to 5 and take the 5th plant. It’s especially important not to take too much when you’re harvesting from a small population, a rare or threatened plant, or at a place that’s really popular for wildcrafting— in these situations, you might decide to harvest far less to avoid having a negative impact. The United Plant Savers website has great resources to tell you if a plant is threatened.

How to Harvest Bark

Tools:

  • Small handsaw
  • Pruners
  • A small, sharp knife, not serrated
  • Quilt or bed sheet, spread on the ground in a sunny spot

Timing Harvest bark when nights are cool and days are warm and crisp, as the leaves change and fall. You want the tree’s energy to be focused on shutting things down for winter, so it’s heavily present in the moving part of the bark. Bark harvest is best done in a group, since the yield is high and it’s more medicine than you really need just for your family; together with friends, it takes on an air of cider-pressing or finishing a quilt, celebrating community and the work of your hands.

Pick a Tree Common species that make great medicine include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, black haw, and many others. It’s easiest to find the trees in the early fall, so you can positively identify them when they still have leaves, and come back when the time for harvest is nigh. Choose a smaller tree so you can reach the branches.

Next, taste the tree: cut off a little twig, the smaller the better, chew on it until you get a real good sense of the flavor, then spit. With a little experience, you’ll be able to tell how strong the medicine will be from this tree. Even if you’ve never tasted this medicine before, know that strongly medicinal bark will effect your mouth: willow sucks up all the spit, sassafras makes your mouth feel wet, black birch tastes like root beer, cherry tastes like nasty almond air freshener (or cyanide…) so if you don’t notice anything, even if you don’t know what it should taste like, move on.

If you’re not routinely tasting the plants you harvest, get in the habit. Medicinal content changes throughout the season and from year to year, based on where each tree is in its growing & reproductive cycle, and what its life has been like this year. Triumphing over adversity makes us all stronger, but sometimes it takes a while for our personal strength to recover from a major life-changing setback, so even if that particular tree isn’t strong enough this year, come back next year and see what it says to you.

Harvest So now you’re sure you’ve got the right tree, and it tastes great/terrible so you know it’s got some magic in it. The next step is to harvest the bark. Choose a small branch, maybe the size of your arm or smaller. Find a place where the branch branches, then identify the collar, or the fatter part at the base of the branch. Use your saw to cut the branch just beyond the collar; if you cut into the collar itself, the tree won’t heal right and can rot. Make your cut parallel with the collar, so water won’t collect in the cut. Don’t let the wood split or crack, cut it cleanly so you don’t hurt the part of the branch you’re leaving behind; if necessary, cut part of the way through from the bottom up, then finish by cutting from the top down. Remember that the priority is to not hurt the tree: don’t take more than the tree can spare, don’t take more than you can use, and don’t make cuts that will hurt the tree long term.

Process Bring the branches to your blanket in the sun. Look them over carefully and wipe off any dirt, lichen, insects etc. Use the pruners to remove tiny twigs and pile them up—they’re medicinal but you don’t need to shave them. You can cut the branches into smaller pieces at this point to make them more manageable, 3-foot sections work well. When you’re ready to shave bark, sit on the blanket with one end of a branch in your lap, and the other braced on the blanket in front of you. Use your knife to shave down the length of the branch, removing long strips of bark. You want to make sure you get the cambium, the inner bark that contains all the good stuff, but not the wood. Cambium can be white, green, yellow, even pink, and is generally smooth, moist, and clearly alive—it’s the part that splits into the cells responsible for all that transport and growth stuff. If you’re shaving off wood, make your cuts shallower; if you’re leaving the cambium on the wood, go back and shave it again. If you’re struggling to shave the bark, try switching knives—sometimes a different size or shape blade does the trick. When you’re done, the branch should be all wood, no bark visible. The bark will have fallen on your nice clean quilt, so it’s easy to gather.

Making Bark Medicine

To make bark medicine, you can tincture it fresh or dry it for later use.

Dried Spread the bark in a single layer on a drying rack in a cool, dark place, and stir regularly until dry, a few days. Once it’s dry, store in jars, bags, or containers, in a dark place. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to make syrups or tinctures later.

You can build a drying rack in a few hours by screwing 1×2’s into rectangles, attaching legs, then stapling lace or muslin over the frames. Alternatively, pin the corners of large pieces of lace to the ceiling, then place the herbs you want to dry on top.

Tinctures Bark tinctures best at a lower ratio, like 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture, because it is so fibrous and dense—it needs more liquid to extract all the medicine. Most barks prefer lower alcohol content, too, so use 50%-60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40%-50% for a dried tincture. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please look back at the article about making tinctures in Country Grind #1 or read about it on my blog.

I hope you decide to give this a try—it’s really satisfying, especially in January when you clear up that cough with your own cherry bark, or fix a brutal headache with willow you processed yourself. I love hearing your successes & failures with medicine making, so let me know how it goes!

This article originally appeared in The Country Grind Quarterly. 


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What Are You Searching For?

When I check the stats on this site, I see a ton of hits from people using search engines.  Sometimes I can see the terms, like “hops recipe,” yesterday (I can help you, hops fan), but usually I can’t see the terms.  Personally, when I search for really specific knowledge online, I usually end up wading through pages and pages of sales sites (“find hops recipe for less!”) and bogus yellow pages and background check sites (“did hops recipe go to your high school?  find hops recipe now!”) and other utter garbage.  It’s obnoxious.  If you’re searching for a recipe, growing info or whatever related to medicinal plants and you can’t find the info you want, just leave me a comment (preferred, so others can see it), put it on the facebook page, or drop me an email.  I love this stuff and I’m happy to help if I can.  And hops fan, come back!  I have recipes!  I will tell you them!