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
Yesterday the sky was mostly clear and blue and I sat outside letting the sun bathe my face. Today the sky is leaden and for a brief moment I considered building an ark. The combination of snow on the ground, rain, and 50 degree temperatures has created a low hanging fog that’s sitting over the park. I saw only one other person during my walk. Amazingly, he was in just a sweatshirt. No rain jacket, no umbrella. Just seeing him made me colder. It can’t be that he was unprepared, it’s been raining for hours. It always amazes me when people are so oblivious to cold.
But despite the cold there is a kind of beauty to days like this. The fog that conjures up sprites, jacky twoad, and the Hound of the Baskervilles is delightfully otherworldly. Rivers appear all over, the rain and snow melt running in torrents down to the river and the sky is deep,gray, and mysterious.
I went out, not just to walk in the mist, but to buy some ginger. My circulation is a little slow, my joints crackly. I need to warm myself up and ginger is just the thing. I like to make fresh ginger tea. I just grate some ginger, pour in boiling water and let sit for 10 minutes or so. I like it just like that, bracing and pungent but I also like to add some honey and occasionally some lemon juice. If you are feeling chilled you can also add the infusion to a hot bath. Stay in for at least 15 minutes then wrap up well.
Filed under General, Herbs
Spring is here. I know, we usually think of spring arriving on the equinox, March 21. But as far as nature is concerned spring has already begun. The days are noticeably longer than they were on the winter solstice, the sun warmer and higher in the sky. Seeds are beginning to stir in the warmer ground, starting to push their green shoots up through the soil. This renewal is gradual, so subtle that we may not notice it unless we really pay attention. So it should be with us. Spring is a great time to make changes in our own lives but we should do it gently, giving our bodies time to adjust.
We may be tempted to toss our winter gear into storage but we want to make sure we stay warm during this time. Cut back on fatty foods, caffeine, and sugar but do so gradually, not cold turkey. We can begin to up the pace of our exercise; spring is a great time to begin a new exercise regimen. Exercise gets our blood and our lymph moving to increase our energy and clear stagnation. The herbs that arrive early in the spring are perfect to help us in this work.
Dandelion is one of my favorite plants. Its yellow flowers always cheer me up and I can make wish before blowing the seeds into the wind. The flowers are a favorite of bees while the leaves get eaten by a variety of wildlife. Dandelions are so hearty, not to say stubborn, surviving in all kinds of places: parks, lawns, construction sites, and drainage ditches. The long taproot pulls nutrients from deep in the ground later to be released into the topsoil. The roots also create drainage channels in compacted soil, aerate and attract earthworms.
Dandelion clears and replenishes the soil and it can do the same for us. The leaves are used as a diuretic, removing retained fluids and encouraging elimination and optimal kidney function without depleting the body. The roots are a real friend to the liver and gall bladder clearing stagnation, stimulating bile flow, and providing nourishment. Our liver performs more than 400 functions and can use all the help it can get. Both the leaves and the roots serve as bitters, stimulating our digestive juices.
Dandelion leaves can be eaten as salad or steamed or sautéed like other greens and the root can be had as an extract or an infusion, warm with a little honey. The flowers can be turned into dandelion wine and the unopened buds into a pickle. Many people consider dandelions a scourge to be eliminated but in fact they are friends and allies. The next time you see a dandelion smile, and thank the plant for its work and for providing us with excellent medicine.
Filed under General, Herbs