My favorite herbs for flu care are diaphoretics, to stimulate sweating.*
I like diaphoretics because they support the body’s natural response rather than “fighting” the illness. (I’m not a big fan of the body-as-battleground theory of disease, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Some of my favorite diaphoretic herbs: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), elder flowers & berries (Sambucus nigra) and ginger (Zingiber officinale).
Elderberry and ginger make a delicious tea that you might want to drink all winter, whether you’re sick or not!
To make pink ginger tea:
Slice up 2-3 inches of fresh ginger.
Put the ginger in a pot and cover it with about a quart of water.
Add 2-3 tablespoons of elderberry (frozen, canned, juice, syrup or dried).
Simmer the mixture until it tastes strongly of ginger—usually at least 15 minutes. (The tea turns a muddy purple-brown as it simmers. Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.)
When it’s ready, remove the tea from the heat, let it sit a minute to cool, and add good quality raw honey** to taste. (Don’t boil raw honey. You’ll kill the enzymes.)
Now for the magic. Squeeze the juice from one small or half a large lemon. Add it to the tea. Watch the color change from muddy to clear pink!
Drink hot, preferably while wrapped in a blanket.
*The simple definition of diaphoretic: an agent that stimulates sweating. But as Samuel Potter points out in his 1902 Materia Medica, diaphoretic is derived from the Greek meaning “I carry through.” Diaphoretic herbs help carry heat and energy through the body, promoting excretion through the skin.
**You have to be careful with honey. Most US beekeepers use toxic miticides to keep their bees alive. Talk to your beekeeper, buy organic honey (expensive, if you can get it), or use a reliable supplier like Honey Gardens in Vermont.
Now that we finally have a bit of winter here in Vermont, people are starting to get sick. The symptoms are familiar: a slight sniffle, rawness in the throat, pressure in the ears, swollen lymph nodes.
Here are my favorite ways to care for this kind of winter cold:
1. Topical tinctures. I like to drip lymphatic and tonic herbs directly onto the surface of the tonsils. (If you want to try this, hold the dropper right up against the back of the inside of your cheek, with your head tilted back. Do a few drops on each side.) Some herbs I use this way: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), red root (Ceanothus americanus), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). (Only use cultivated organic goldenseal, NEVER wildcrafted—this is an endangered plant.)
It’s best to experiment and see what feels right, since these herbs have really different personalities. Lemon balm is soothing and stimulating; red root is strongly astringent; ground ivy is astringent too, but gentler; goldenseal is an amazing all-around mucous membrane tonic, but be prepared for bitter if you use it this way.
2. Neck massage helps the lymph system drain (pay special attention to the area under the collarbones—this is where the lymphatic ducts empty into the bloodstream).
3. There’s nothing like a good whole-body stretch or a pleasant walk to get the lymph system moving.
4. Hot herbal face cloths feel really good, and they also encourage circulation and drainage. Just soak a washcloth in strong, hot herbal tea and press it to your face. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) are lovely, but you can use any aromatic herb.
5. And, of course, there’s always chicken soup.
P.S. I’m extra geeky about the lymphatic system lately. Check out this amazing drawing.
There was a nasty, hot, lung-drying bug going around these parts this spring. Turns out the perfect thing for it is one of your lawn’s best-kept secrets: blender juice.
(This combination is also wonderful for hot, irritated digestive systems — think ulcers, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” / IBS, and other inflammatory conditions.)
Making blender juice is a great way to get the fresh, green, cooling properties from just about any plant.
Here’s how to do it:
Pick your plants.
Rinse them off if you need to.
Toss them in the blender with a bit of water.
I like to let them sit for a while to infuse, then blend a little more and strain. But you can just go ahead and strain after the first blending if you need to.
(Hot tip: mallow/plantain/chickweed/violet blender juice is wonderful sponged on a sunburn.)
Most of my winter herbal recipes involve long-simmering pots on the back of my woodstove. Tasty broths and teas that warm a person from the inside out, and make the house smell good too.
Winter is a time for concentrated, warm foods. Put away the leafy summer herbs, and get out the roots, seeds and spices. Valerian, licorice, sarsaparilla. Flaxseeds, cardamom, nutmeg. Cinnamon, ginger, cloves.
The best way to stay healthy in the winter is not to fight the fact that it’s winter. In winter, things move more slowly. We need to sleep more. We need richer, fattier foods. In winter, as mammals, we need to stay warm. (It’s quite common for people to forget to dress warmly enough for the season. It’s not unreasonable to wear a scarf indoors if you live in a drafty house.)
Good long-simmered bone broth is the best winter food I know. It’s rich in protein (gelatin) and minerals, and it warms you “to the bone.” Add some vegetables and call it soup. Use it to cook rice or beans. Or just drink it straight with a pinch of salt.
Here’s how to keep a stockpot:
1. Always save bones. (Yes, even bones that people have gnawed on. All that simmering will take care of any contamination.) Keep them in a jar or a bag in your freezer. You can separate them by animal if you like, or lump them all together for “mixed stock.”
2. When you’ve collected a good pile of bones, put them in a pot and cover them with cold water. (You can add a dash of vinegar if you like, to help draw minerals from the bones.) Put the pot over low heat. Let it come to a gentle simmer. If you’re using a gas or electric stove, turn the heat down as far as it will go. If you’ve got the stock on a woodstove, move it to a cool corner or put it up on a trivet. (I’m told you can make stock in a crockpot, too. But I’ve never used a crockpot, so I don’t know how that works.)
3. Leave the stock on gentle, low heat for 12-48 hours. (Yes, I know that’s a long time. It really does make the best stock, though.) Check on the stock every once in a while and add water if it needs it. If you’re using raw bones, there will likely be quite a bit of foamy scum that comes to the surface. Just skim it off — a little tea strainer works well for this. Try not to let the stock boil. Low heat is best for extracting gelatin. (Don’t kick yourself if it accidentally boils, though. Just turn it down. Your stock may be a little cloudy, but it will taste fine.)
4. When you can’t stand it any longer, strain out the bones. If there is a lot of fat on top, skim it off and save it for cooking (a little jar of fat in the fridge is a lovely thing). Now you have stock to play with! What will you make?
You can add warming winter spices to your stock if you like. But my favorite way to take warming spices is in tea. In winter, my “teas” are usually decoctions, simmered on the stove until they perfume the house.
Here are some of my favorite winter teas.
For people who get dry and cold in the winter: flaxseeds (Linum usitatissimum), cassia / cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum), ginger (Zingiber officinale), cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).
For people who get a lot of sore throats and swollen lymph nodes in the winter: echinacea root (Echinacea angustifolia or Echinacea purpurea), red root (Ceanothus americanus), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis).
For people who get cold hands and feet in the winter: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), wild ginger (Asarum canadense) (harvest wild ginger only if it’s locally abundant; “regular” ginger can be used instead).
Oh, yes, and for everyone, because it’s so tasty: pink ginger tea. (This is, of course, one of the best things to drink when you’re down with the flu.)
When I told the gentleman who installed our satellite internet that I’m an herbalist, he started singing the praises of Tahitian Noni Juice. Right. I told him I was sure the Noni Juice was very nice, but there were ten different just-as-useful herbs growing right by his feet in my backyard, and he could have them all for free.
See, exotic herbs with hyped-up marketing campaigns just don’t excite me. Who knows exactly what’s in those bottles anyway? And why should I give my money to big, sketchy companies when my backyard supplies just about all the herbs I could ever need?
Today I decided to go outside and make a list of the useful herbs that are growing wild right now within 20 feet of my house. The list was even longer than I thought: more than thirty very useful plants.
Here they are, with a use or two for each to give you an idea of what they’re good for. Keep in mind that many blogposts (books, even!) could be written on every one of these plants, so there is necessarily a lot left out. I just wrote the first thing that came to my mind about each one.
All Heal (Prunella vulgaris): incredible wound-healer and alterative.
Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.): valuable diaphoretic, nervine.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra): alterative, thyroid support, skin fungus.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.): an astringent when you need it.
Burdock (Arctium lappa): liver and kidney soother, resolves scaly skin.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria): sleep for babies, stomach-calmer.
Celandine (Chelidonium majus): liver and lymphatic stimulant.
Cheeses (Malva rotundifolia): useful mucilage-laden mallow, soothes everything.
Chickweed (Stellaria media): gentle, soothing alterative and lymphatic.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus): classic bitter digestive.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): elimination balancer, alterative, minerals.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): good for sneezing allergies, digestive and urinary soother.
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea): alterative, depurative.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): another wonderful, soothing mallow.
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata): antispasmodic of the first order.
Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria): possible lymphatic.
Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum): respiratory stimulant.
Plantains (Plantago major & P. lanceolata): stings, wound healing (inside and out).
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): strong lymphatic.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota): kidney stones, thyroid, and birth control too!
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): gentle lymphatic, alterative.
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis): traditionally used for mania!
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella): traditional cancer herb, good vitamin c in salad.
Spiny Sow Thistle (Sonchus asper): cooling digestive tonic.
Strawberry (Fragaria spp.): gentle astringent, baby diarrhea.
Thistles (Cirsium spp.): liver and digestive tonic.
Violet (Viola sororia): so cooling, soothing, and comforting.
White Deadnettle (Lamium album): astringent, good for heavy menstrual bleeding.
White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia): bitter nervine.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella): tasty source of vitamin c, heals old wounds.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): sharp cuts, internal healing, alterative.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): liver stimulant, laxative.
Well, not a bad materia medica, is it? Most of these plants grow in cities, too. Medicine all around, if you look for it. (Big herb companies don’t need your money anyway.)
"Spit Poultice Herbs"
The theme of this month’s Herbal Blog Party is “Soothing recipes for irritated skin.”
Now, I can think of a lot of wonderful recipes for salves, ointments, lotions, sprays, liniments, etc. But when I think about how I use herbs in the summer for my own skin, I think of the simplest recipe of all: the “spit poultice.”
A spit poultice is exactly what it sounds like. Pick a few leaves, chew them up a bit, spit them out, and put them where they’re needed. I use spit poultices for bites and stings, scrapes, cuts, bruises, burns, and just about any other mishap my skin might encounter in the summer.
Here are some of my favorite herbs for spit poultices:
All Heal (Prunella vulgaris). All heal (also called “heal all” or “self heal”) is a great all-purpose spit poultice—no surprise, considering its name. It’s good for cuts, bruises, burns, bites, and irritations of all kinds.
Chickweed (Stellaria media). Chickweed is incredibly soothing. It’s wonderful for irritations of the eye; also stings and superficial inflammations.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Comfrey poultices are good for interior swellings (bruises and sprains) and exterior abrasions (scrapes and superficial cuts).
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Ground ivy is a great poultice for bruises, especially dark purple ones (think of the classic black eye).
Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia). Moneywort (also called “creeping jenny”) is a good poultice for all sorts of wounds, especially old ones that refuse to close.
Plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata). Plantain is the classic spit poultice herb. A plantain spit poultice is the best thing I know of for any kind of bite or sting. It works great for redness and swelling in general, too.
Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This much-maligned plant makes a great poultice for running sores and ulcers.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow is especially good for deep, clean cuts. Bruises, too. It’s one of the best herbs to stop bleeding, particularly when there’s thin, bright red blood.
Most of these are common underfoot plants. If you need a spit poultice, you can usually look around and find at least two or three of them. And most of them are good for most skin problems in a pinch. (But don’t use comfrey on deep wounds—it can cause the skin to heal over a wound that isn’t ready to be sealed off.)
Dandelion tinctures, from left to right: root, leaf, flower.
So clearly dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion.
Affinity: liver, gallbladder, digestion.
Action: nourishing, tonic.
Affinity: kidneys, bladder, blood.
Action: stimulating, draining.
Temperature: neutral or slightly cool.
Affinity: heart, mind.
Action: comforting, brightening.
Like I said yesterday, dandelion’s old common name is “pissabed.” So we know it’s had a long and intimate relationship with the human urinary tract. But dandelion is so much more than a simple diuretic.
Nicholas Culpeper was on the right track in his 1653 Herbal (1814 edition):
It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them . . . it opens the passages of the urine in both young and old; powerfully cleanses imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them.
So my favorite technical word for dandelion is not diuretic but “deobstruent”: Dandelion opens what is blocked.
Now, don’t go running around giving dandelion to everyone who feels sluggish, stuck, or constipated—a lot of those people are “cold” or depleted, and dandelion is for sluggishness associated with heat and excess (the Chinese say “fire poison”). Dandelion is especially good for heat associated with dampness or “bogginess”—think Mississippi Delta on an August evening.
So dandelion opens what is blocked, cools what is irritated, and drains what is soggy.
But don’t forget that dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion. Each part—root, leaf, and flower—works differently. (Hint: This is tomorrow’s topic.)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has been used medicinally for as long as people have bothered to write about such things. It might be native to the Middle East (but no one’s really sure) and it’s traveled to just about every corner of the temperate world by now.
Maude Grieve says in her Modern Herbal:
The name of the genus, Taraxacum, is derived from the Greek taraxos(disorder), and akos (remedy), on account of the curative action of the plant.
Now, Mrs. Grieve’s etymology is poetic for an herbalist, but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees:
Medieval Latin from Arabic, ultimately Persian. The Synonymia Arabo-Latinaof Gerard of Cremona (died 1189) has ‘Tarasacon, species cichorei’. This appears to have been a corruption or misreading of the Arabic nametarakhshaqoq or tarkhshaqoq, itself according to the Burhan-i-Kati (native Persian lexicon), originally an arabicized form of the Persian talkh chakok‘bitter herb’.
Dandelion is of course from the French “lion’s tooth” (dent de lion), but these days the French just call it pissenlit, “piss-the-bed”—which also happens to be an old-time English name for the plant. In 1565 John Hall wrote in his Courte of Vertu, “Lyons tooth, That Chyldren call Pysbed.” (OED entry for pissabed.)
Pissabed. Remember that. It’s a pretty good first clue to how dandelion works.
It’s dandelion week here in the Herbwife’s Kitchen. That is to say, it’s spring!
I’m scouring the yard for lovely little lion’s teeth, trying to get them before my housemate’s lawnmower does.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one of my favorite plants. It’s incredibly versatile. Each part—flower, leaf, root—has totally different properties, and each can be prepared in so many different ways.
This week, in celebration of spring, I’m going to make dandelion every way I can think of (tinctures, infusions, food of all sorts), and write about the highlights here.