Did you know that there are different names for groups of animals? A group of lions is a pride, crows are a murder, and starlings are a murmuration. If you’ve ever passed a tree filled with starlings you know why. Starlings like to do things in groups and one thing they do is truly amazing. There are a bunch of videos out there depicting their joyous aerobatics but one in particular stands out for me. It’s a combination of the music and the fact that the birds fly right over the camera person. It is a very personal moment and it doesn’t fail to move me no matter how many times I watch it. I suggest watching full screen. May your year be filled with moments that feel like this:
Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.
I know, I know, I was supposed to provide you with medicine making posts but I got derailed by a few things, including the holidays. I spent some years working in retail and when you work in retail you do not loose track of Christmas. It is everpresent in your life from about Halloween on. But it’s been a few years since I last manned a busy cash register and Christmas now sneaks up on me. I tell myself each year that I will plan ahead, not leave everything to the last minute. Right.
Anyway, here is a present I made for my cousin Jen. She has a 3 year old child now and this totally boggles my mind. I used to babysit Jen. I changed that girls diapers and now she has a kid of her own. I’m not in denial or anything, I just have trouble grasping the concept. I hope she likes her necklace, I think it came out pretty cool.
May you all have a very merry holiday and a very happy new year.
The weather over the last few days has been amazing. Sunny, warm, beautiful. I’m trying to store it up for the winter months to come, like freezing pesto to eat in the depths of January. I know that the cold and dark days are just around the corner but I feel okay about it. Winter has its own stark beauty, its own gifts to give. For one thing, you get to really see the shape of trees and of the land itself. And for another, the park is more peaceful and clean. I like that people enjoy it in the warm weather but sometimes it becomes incredibly noisy and there is always a ton of trash. I know people who like to bring things to the park as offerings. My offering to nature is to pick up trash, to take at least one thing out every time I go to the park. Sadly, there is always at least one thing to take and in the warm months, many things. In winter we get a break from it all.
Now is the time when I start to make my deep winter remedies. Wild cherry bark cough syrup, slippery elm lozenges, and balm for dry skin. It’s very satisfying to have these things ready, to know they will be there when I need them. I’m also making my Christmas lists. A few years ago I stopped buying things for people and started giving homemade gifts, mostly food. I make cookies and chocolates, preserves, conserves, and liqueurs. I make bath milks, balms, soaps, and sprays. And then there’s the knitted, crocheted, woven, and sewn items. I’ve always enjoyed finding just the right gift for each person and making gifts myself ups the satisfaction. I highly recommend it.
I will share the process as I go along.
What does autumn taste like? I think autumn tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, & cloves. They pervade the foods of fall. We cheerfully add them to pie, to soup, to cider, to eggnog but we probably don’t think about them as medicine. At least I didn’t until I started studying herbs. It turns out that these familiar spices are pretty powerful remedies, particularly for the digestion. It is no accident that we find them laced throughout our autumn and winter foods. Those foods tend to be heavier, more difficult to digest. These spices really help our digestive system to rise to the challenge. All three of them will ease gas buildup, relieve nausea, and warm up the digestive tract.
Thinking about this leads me to think about traditional cooking. Often, traditional recipes will bring together foods in ways that aid their digestion and assimilation. These days we turn to nutritional science and chemistry labs. Our ancestors had to rely on personal observation. They observed the effects of different foods and they went with what worked. To me, this seems like a much better system for figuring out what foods you should eat. How do they affect you? Not anyone else, you. If you have problems digesting a particular food – and it’s not due to an allergy or real intolerance – you might find out how the food was eaten traditionally. Was ii cooked and you’re eating it raw? Was it cooked with lots of spices and you’re having it with just salt? Did it have particular condiments like cheese or milk or a bit of raw vegetable? Was it soaked before cooking? What season does this food belong to? Is it a food your ancestors ate? Does it grow locally? Grow your awareness and you may find your digestion begins to improve.
I was thinking this morning that we – in the developed world – live backwards. In the summer, when nature is at its most active, is when we take our break. We have off from school, we take vacations and lie on the beach. Then, in winter when nature is at its least active, when it slumbers and rests, we speed up. We go back to school, back to work, and we take on the holiday season, dealing with crowds, traveling, and getting generally stressed out. It’s no wonder that we feel exhausted and depleted. We are part of nature and our bodies have rhythms that move with the seasons but we ignore those rhythms.
This line of thought led me to consider how to get closer to my natural rhythm while living in the world. I certainly don’t want to give up the holidays. I really enjoy them. I like to spend time with my family, I like all the wonderful food and the other rituals that come with the season, and I like gift giving. It’s very satisfying to find or create just the right gift. Then there’s those daily obligations that do not go away just because it is winter.
So I’ve made a list (I love lists) of things that I can do to scale back and allow myself more time for rest and looking inward.
Go to bed a little earlier – by 10pm whenever possible.
Take naps when I can.
Visit the park at least 3 times a week.
Avoid excess caffeine and sugar.
Eat seasonal food.
Sit in stillness and quiet at least 10 minutes every day.
Prepare herbal remedies I might need ahead of time.
Don’t make a giant list of things to make for the holidays.
None of this is onerous, I just have to stick to it. The only one that is really tough is that last one. It’s so easy to get carried away with plans for lovely baked goods and knitted gifts. On the other hand, the second to last item is a joy.
My list of remedies is short. I like to make a wild cherry bark and licorice syrup and slippery elm lozenges for my throat, eucalyptus and rosemary salve for putting on my chest and under my nose for stuffiness, and some herbed bath salts for soaking stress away.
I’ll let you know how it’s going as we move into December.
Echinacea. I know you’ve heard of it. It’s probably the most well known medicinal herb in the US. And probably most of what you’ve heard is wrong or at least misleading. This is what happens when an herb goes mainstream. Studies get done, most of them badly. The herb ends up in all sorts of products brought to you by the herbal industrial complex. Now, it’s not all bad. People become more familiar with herbs, they get used to the idea of taking herbs, maybe they are inspired to learn more. But the poor herb does tend to get pigeonholed and sometimes distorted.
Echinacea was introduced to the settlers here by the locals who used it for snake and insect bites. Hence the name snakeroot. I’m not going to go through the whole history of the herb. Suffice it to say that at one point someone discovered it could speed the progress of a cold or flu virus making it go away sooner. Needless to say, that was a great selling point. Unfortunately it obscured the true action of the herb and resulted in people thinking they should take it all the time, as a kind of insurance against colds.
I find it very useful to look at herbs energetically. What is it that they do, in a very fundamental way? In echinacea’s case, it clears heat and congestion. This makes it useful for various hot, inflammatory conditions; particularly those caused by a poison. It is a great herb for insect bites, snake bites, and infections – both internally and topically. It speeds the elimination of toxins and it does stimulate the immune system and it will help you to get rid of that cold a bit faster. However, echinacea is not an immune tonic. It is not meant for long term continuous use. If you are looking to bolster your system so that you avoid getting a cold in the first place, you need to look to other herbs and foods and practices to help you. You want to have good nutrition, get good sleep, and keep stress to a minimum.
Filed under General, Herbs
The wet weather we’ve been having lately has been a boon for mushrooms. They are growing with abandon all over my park. I love mushrooms, and not just for eating. They are very cool and can do some amazing things. Their primary job is to convert plant, animal, and mineral matter into soil and this includes converting toxins. (Paul Stamets is a mycologist who is raising awareness about fungi and the role they can play in restoring the Earth. To hear him talk about it go here.) Thinking about the role mushrooms play in the environment can help us understand what they can do for us when we take them as medicine.
You’ve probably heard of reishi mushrooms. They are used a lot in Traditional Chinese Medicine (Ling zhi or “Spirit Plant”) but they also grow here in the US. Reishi will work to normalize your immune system, support the detoxification of the liver, and will engage in anti-tumor activity. Reishi is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and calming to the nervous system. It is of particular use if you feel very run down all the time and find yourself getting cold after cold. As it builds topsoil on the earth so it builds your stamina.
Most of the mushrooms that are considered “medicinal” are on the exotic side – reishi, maitake, shitake – but the common white button mushroom and crimini mushrooms have many of the same benefits for us. Take advantage of the bountiful crop at the farmer’s market and eat some every day. They are best cooked – raw mushrooms can be hard to digest.
Fungi were the first complex organisms to grow on Earth preceding plants by millions of years. They are our ancestors and we should pay attention to what they have to tell us. They deserve our respect and if we can work with them we may yet save ourselves and the eco-system we depend on.
We’ve had a pretty nice summer here in NYC so far. This is the first week where I’ve felt just a little too hot. One of my challenges is to stay hydrated in this kind of weather. Frankly, I find water pretty boring. It’s an effort to drink enough of it on a hot day. Fortunately there are several herbs that make lovely infused water that requires almost no effort at all.
First on the list is peppermint. Cooling and stimulating it makes a great drink for an active day. Second is ginger root. It’s just a little fiery when made as a cold infusion. I like to add some honey for sweetness. Third, and probably my favorite, is lemon balm. It’s a member of the mint family but is very mild and calming rather than stimulating. It has a delicate flavor and just a hint of sweetness to it.
All of these herbs are great for the digestive system. Peppermint and ginger stimulate the appetite and the flow of digestive juices and they both relieve nausea. Lemon balm is very soothing and relaxing to the digestive tract, easing any distress in the stomach. It also soothes the mind and can be taken at night to aid sleep.
To make a cold infusion chop fresh herbs and place in a mason jar or coffee press. Fill with cold water and allow to steep overnight. The next day strain the herbs out, add any sweetener you might like and store in the refrigerator. The infusion will last for 3-4 days refrigerated. Use 1/4 -1/2 cup fresh herbs per quart of water depending on how strong you would like your infusion. I usually make it strong and then add more water later for a milder taste.
Filed under Food, General
When I think of June I think of strawberries and roses. Both occupy a place in my imagination where they exist in their perfect form. I remember being a child and having wild strawberries; they were marvelous tiny bursts of sweetness. And then there were the strawberries bought at the farmer’s market in Belgrade where they were piled high and just the smell of them was delicious. I have never managed to replicate those experiences. The strawberries I have today, while quite decent when bought from local farms, are never quite as marvelous as those in my memory. I know that some of that is due to the obscuring mists of time but some is also due to breeding fruit for looks rather than flavor, a practice that has left us deprived of nutrients as well as flavor.
I’ve had a slightly better experience with roses – coming closer to the original experience – though many that one finds in gardens have no scent. Originally, there were only a dozen species of rose. Then people got involved and hybridized to the point where we now have about 100 species and thousands of cultivars. For the life of me I cannot understand why one would breed a rose that had no scent, no matter how perfect the shape or glorious the color. To me, scent is the very essence of the rose. I suspect that it is also much harder to grow a scent-less rose without resorting to pesticides and fungicides. The essential oil that gives a rose its heady, alluring scent is also strongly anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. While it functions as an attractant for pollinators it is also the rose’s main line of defense.
Fortunately many wild roses grow in my park. They are one of the original species, rosa multiflora. They don’t look like a florist’s shop rose having just 5 petals. But smell one and you will know it is a rose. Every time I pass a bush I stop to sniff the blossoms. I try to store that scent so I can carry it with me even after the blooms are gone.
In herbal medicine roses are used in a variety of ways. In addition to being anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory they are also astringent so can be used in infusion to tone tissue in the digestive and urinary tracts. Rose infusion or rose water makes a wonderful gentle toner for all skin types. The essential oil is calming and helps to improve mood and focus. Once the blooms have gone the rose begins to form fruit, the hips. Rose hips are filled with vitamin C and like the petals and leaves are mildly astringent. Both the petals and the hips can be made into an infusion, syrup, jam, or tincture.
A simple way to preserve the scent and flavor of roses is to infuse the petals into sugar. Be sure to use organically grown roses that have not been sprayed with pesticide.
Rose Scented Sugar
Remove the petals spread them out on a wire rack and allow them to dry overnight. This will help to concentrate the scent.
Lightly crush them and layer them in a jar with granulated sugar using about 1/2 cup of petals for every 4 cups of sugar.
Leave to infuse for at least two weeks.
Store in a dark place to preserve the flavor.
Use the sugar to add a subtle taste and scent to desserts and beverages.
I’ve been thinking lately that I might need some Hawthorn in my life. You’ve probably seen Hawthorn trees, they’re planted in most of the parks in New York City. They tend to be short and wide with winding branches; perfect climbing trees if it wasn’t for the thorns on the trunk and branches. (Haw is another name for berry and then there’s the thorns.) On some species they look really lethal. In fact, hawthorn is quite gentle. The berries and flowers are cardiac tonics, strengthening the heart and evening its beat. Whether you need to be stimulated or relaxed hawthorn is on the job. It dilates arteries and veins releasing constrictions and blockages. It lowers blood pressure and aids in maintaing healthy cholesterol levels. Hawthorn can be used both as a preventative tonic to keep the heart in good health and as a treatment for heart problems including angina, coronary artery disease, and loss of function due to old age. I believe hawthorn is also a remedy for the more intangible ills of the heart, for those times when we feel “heart sick”, “heart broken”, or just a bit melancholy. If we are having trouble expressing our emotions hawthorn can help us to open our hearts and be healed.
Hawthorns bloom in May with white, pink, or red flowers. The tree was called the Queen of May, the May Tree, or the Faerie Tree and the blossoms were used in Beltane and May Day celebrations. Hawthorn was treated with respect as it was a faerie tree and stood on the threshold of the Otherworld.
I heartily recommend going and sitting with a hawthorn tree. There’s a great guide to trees in NYC put out by the City of New York Parks and Recreation department. It’s called “New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area”. It has information on identifying trees as well as a guide to the best place to see each tree. Or you can look it up on the internet and get a sense of what you are looking for. Don’t worry about identifying the individual species, it’s pretty difficult even for professional botanists. The hawthorn trees have apparently cross pollinated with abandon and a complete disregard for the botanical classification system. (Another reason to like them). You can look for the thorns and the blossoms (they’re still in bud this week but will bloom soon). When you find one, take a good look at it, really see it. Touch the bark and smell the blooms – they have a musky scent, not what you’d expect from a flower. Then have a seat and lean back against the trunk of the tree, feel it against your back, and just sit for a while. It is in silence and communion that we can get to know the plants and trees that share our world, that make our lives possible.