Old Ways Herbal, Juliette Abigail Carr

Vermont Herb School, Apothecary, Clinic, & Family Herbal Wisdom


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Free Medicinal Plant Walk in May

Join the Old Ways Herbal School of Plant Medicine for a Free Medicinal Plant Walk

Saturday, May 12, 4-4:30 PM in Brattleboro

Celebrate spring with a calm amble to meet the medicinal weeds of spring in Brattleboro.  We will discuss how to find them, medicinal uses, preparations, and safety concerns.  Children are welcome.

RSVP required:


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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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Make Your Own Herbal Allergy Syrup

This article was originally published in The Country Grind Quaterly, an excellent rag full of fabulous articles. Check it out.

Seasonal allergies can destroy an otherwise beautiful day, especially among those of us who have done a lot of travelling or have moved from one bioregion to another. Many folks turn to Benadryl in desperation, then waste the rest of what would otherwise be a lovely, productive day sacked out on the porch with a medicine-head high. While I understand the desperation behind reaching for the magical decongestants, I urge you to reach for homemade allergy syrup instead. You can make it yourself, and you can still drive the tractor without fear of passing out and rolling the thing. If you take it every day the intensity of your allergies may lessen over time. Seriously, the pharmaceutical companies will not take as good care of you as you can take of yourself.

Allergies Attack! Allergies are essentially your immune system overreacting and slaughtering innocent bystanders. Your immune cells have to tell the difference between things that belong in your body and things that don’t, and then annihilate the intruders to protect the fortress. If your immune cells are lazy or drunk on the job, they could miss an intruder—and then you get sick—or they could overreact and attack cells that aren’t really a threat. Pollen, dog hair, dust, and small children are not threats to your wellbeing, and yet some people develop allergies.

It’s not clear what causes folks to develop allergies, but it’s probably connected to an inappropriate inflammatory response related to chronic physical stress, especially from eating unhealthy fats, having chronic vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and being exposed to significant pollution. There’s a reason allergies and asthma affect the urban poor more than other populations: if your body is in a constant state of hypervigilance (from pollution, junk food etc.), your immune cells are more likely to overreact because they’re halfway to red alert already.

How to Eat Right, in 15 Seconds or Less: Eat real food. Immune cells are made out of fat and need vitamins and minerals to work. If you’re plagued by allergies, quit eating that processed garbage and focus on anti-inflammatory foods, especially omega-3 fatty acids (“good fats”) like in avocados, nuts, and fish. Vitamins and minerals are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and animal products—in other words, actual food. If you eat like crap your cells will be made out of crap. Don’t be a dumbass and buy into the myth that the FDA or big pharma has your back because they don’t, fool—they directly benefit from your poor health choices.

Honey, Nectar of the Gods/Bees: Honey is a famous seasonal allergy tonic (something you take for a long time to reduce a chronic problem). I also use it as a formula base for other kinds of allergies and chronic inflammation including inflammatory autoimmune disorders. Promoting healthy immune function reduces inappropriate responses like allergies, so honey probably works because it’s an anti-inflammatory and a probiotic nutritive. Honey contains vitamins, minerals, amino acids, bioavailable enzymes that aid digestion, and healthy bacteria that enhance the function of your body. These nutritive aspects of honey are anabolic, meaning honey builds the body’s reserves of strength and nutrition, enhancing overall structure and function. Honey is especially appropriate for folks who tend towards deficiency and are chronically frazzled or worn out.

Only use raw honey because pasteurization kills the probiotic critters and denatures many of the proteins that give honey its medicine. Use local honey exclusively; yes, honey from Brazil is cheaper than the fancy local stuff, but the fancy local stuff contains trace amounts of the pollen that’s actually making you feel sick, and exposure to tiny amounts of pollen over time desensitizes your immune system. My favorite is wildflower honey, which is dark and rich with all that wild plant magic, but blueberry or tupelo or whatever is made in your area will do just fine.  More about honey here.

So to make a really great formula against allergies, start with honey. You can keep it simple and just eat a tablespoon of raw, local honey every morning (darn), or you can add herbs to make it work better. Honey will help allergies eventually, but if you feel sick today you want something that will help right now—and that’s where the herbs come in.

The Herbs

As always, I strongly recommend choosing herbs that grow in your bioregion. These examples have a wide range, but you’re better off using a local substitute than ordering this or that miracle wonder herb from wherever. The land around you provides; figure out what categories (herbal actions) you need, and then find a local version. No sense in ordering something from Siberia when a fresher, cleaner version is growing in your neighbor’s hedgerow. Remember to look up any herb you’re planning to use to make sure its precautions are safe for you.

Goldenrod: High summer is the ideal time to make your allergy syrup because it’s goldenrod’s heyday. Goldenrod is a strong astringent, so it sucks up extra moisture and tightens mucous membranes (mouth, sinuses, GI tract, etc.), giving an anti-inflammatory effect. When you take the gooey wetness and inflammation out of mucous membranes, most allergy symptoms disappear (also great for UTI’s, but that’s another topic). The beauty of goldenrod is that it kicks in right away: you feel sick, you take goldenrod, you feel better. If you don’t feel better, take more goldenrod, and then you feel better. It’s safe for your kids, too.  Goldenrod

Poor goldenrod has a false reputation for being a major allergen. We can be allergic to pollen that floats through the air from wind-pollinated plants. Although goldenrod is blooming when folks are sneezing, it’s pollinated by bees. Goldenrod pollen isn’t floating through the air, hoping to land on a flower and make little goldenrod babies to continue the genetic line—the bees do that. The culprit is ragweed, a wide spread wind-pollinated plant that blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Looking at the two plants side by side, it’s easy to see that ragweed is wind pollinated, with its little green flowers hanging down from its armpits and swaying in the breeze, whereas goldenrod is covered in bees, who are in turn covered in its pollen.

There’s a staggering number of species of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and you can use any species for medicine as long as chewing on the leaf dries your mouth out unpleasantly right away. Harvest goldenrod by cutting the stem with pruners. Choose flowers that are about to open; they will continue to open as they dry. Chop goldenrod up and tincture it fresh at 1:2 75%, or hang the stems in a dark, cool place to dry for tea.

Nettles: I’m sorry to repeat myself, but nettle is so wonderful against allergies that it would be herbal sacrilege not to mention it here. Nettle is a cooling anti-inflammatory strength-builder (like honey!) that is a famous tonic against seasonal allergies and allergies that manifest themselves in skin and mucous membranes. Using nettles in your allergy syrup requires some planning ahead, since we harvest nettles in the spring. I use spring nettles tincture in allergy formula, or you can use dried nettles. It’s important not to harvest nettle leaf once it blooms, as it can have weird effects on your hormones and irritate the kidneys. Please see the article in Issue #2 for more about harvesting nettles.

Holy Basil: Holy Basil, also called Tulsi, Tulasi, or Sacred Basil, is an adaptogen, an herb that balances different body systems by changing how our endocrine system (hormones) reacts to stress. Different adaptogens work best on different body systems, called having an affinity. Holy basil has an affinity for the immune system: if the immune system is overreacting, like with allergies, holy basil will calm it down; if it’s underreacting and you’re sick all the time, holy basil will jumpstart it. It also has an affinity for the nervous system (stress, anxiety, depression, memory) and digestive issues related to stress or immune function, among other uses. You should feel something immediately, but its real effects take time to kick in. Taken daily, holy basil can help retrain your immune system’s lousy response to allergens.Holy Basil

Harvest holy basil when it’s in full bloom by cutting it part of the way up the stem, at an angle above a leaf node, to give it a chance to come back this season. Hang dry for tea, or tincture fresh at 1:2 75%.

Some Other Adaptogens: Adaptogens are one of the main types of herbs that people order from far away because of their supposed miraculous properties. Again, there’s something in your area that will work, you just have to figure out what it is. I love holy basil for allergy syrup because it’s delicious, effective, and it’s insect-pollinated (meaning you’re not allergic to it and it’s got trace pollen). That said, there are a lot of other adaptogens that work well on the immune system, so if your growing season is too short for holy basil, try something else. Nice cold climate adaptogens include artist’s conk (Northern reishi, Ganoderma applanatum or tsugae, which is milder), chaga fungus (Inonotus obliquus), licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota or G. glabra), and schisandra (S. chinensis). If you can’t grow holy basil, maybe one of these will be your herb.  Ganoderma

 

Seasonal Allergy Syrup Recipe

In its simplest form, syrup is medicinal tea mixed with sweetener. This one is made to work well and last for a long time. It contains tea, honey, and tincture, yielding a delicious, potent medicine.  It tastes like medicinal candy and is safe for kids. You can substitute dried herbs for fresh if you’re making it out of season, but then also try to make a fresh one next summer–it’s very potent.  Yields about 15 ounces.

You will need:

6 oz raw local honey

Herbs:

  • Goldenrod, 2 T fresh
  • Holy Basil, 2 T fresh
  • Nettles, 1-2 T dried
  • Your 4th herb, ½ T dried or 1 T fresh

1 oz each of the following tinctures:

  • Goldenrod
  • Holy Basil
  • Nettles

Follow the syrup-making instructions here, way down at the bottom.  Put about half of each herb in the honey and half in the tea. 

Happy kitchen witching.  Let me know how it goes for you.