Sunday, June 20, 2010

July blog party: Adventures in herbalism

This month's blog party is on 'Adventures in Herbalism" and is hosted by Darcy Blue @ Gaia's Gifts.
What a great topic. We love our plants. We are constantly scanning the fields and roadsides for identifiable plants. It's like we are looking for old friends, even if we have never met. When we do meet. . . watch out! From walking into grass taller than your waist just to see if you can even reach the berries of an elder, to harvesting burdock seed for the first time and enduring the thin white hairs that embed themselves into your skin, or to inadvertently inhaling cayenne during the grinding for oil... the insides of your nose burning intensely for more than a few unbearable minutes- we will go to great lengths to talk to, to see, or to harvest and process them. We love our friends though, and a it's a relationship that endures.

It has been said more than once that plants have something to teach us. They have ways of making ( or helping ) us to listen. The first year I discovered elder in our area ( I had thought they grew only on the west coast ), I began to see the flowers everywhere. I worked across the street from a couple of beautiful bushes. I had noticed them along the mountain roads of W.Va., and later discovered a friend had one on his property. In my newly discovered excitement of a wonderful food plant, high in bioflavonoids that protect us during the winter months from the infamous flu and cold bugs, I went searching. . . with the intent to harvest. The elders along side the road just wouldn't do, it's the ones I could spot off in the distance of a field that looked safe and harvest-able. I politely drove up to one house and asked if it was ok if I could harvest some berries from the tree in their field. At first, they didn't know what tree I was talking about. When I pointed toward the field at the tree, I got a prompt 'no'. It is probably unsafe and they don't want to be held liable. I offered to sign a waiver... THAT was funny. They looked at me like I was crazy. I thanked them anyway, understanding and leaving them alone. As I was on my way out the winding road, I noticed a large elder in the distance. I turned around and headed back. Thinking I could pull off to the side of the road and walk the distance to see and hopefully harvest, I pulled off. Big mistake. There was no roadside. Only tall weeds to fool me into thinking the road had a shoulder.

It was a hot June day with my two toddlers in the car that was now teetering on it's axle. Getting out of the car was a trick, but we managed it easily enough. The grass was knee deep on the no-road-side. I felt horrible. I looked at the elder in the distance and realized this wasn't a relationship I could take with a grain of salt. She had something to tell me. She has powerful ways to be heard. The Elda-mor, a powerful feminine goddess, is said to live in this tree. There are many myths and magic lore surrounding it. A great goddess to petition in sickness, especially in children, but watch out if you plan on burning or cutting it's wood. Hauntings and even death are said to ensue.

So here I am, on the side of a residential road with my two toddlers, hot and sleepy (and maybe a bit worried or scared, too). The only place to rest or wait was under a great pine in a bed of poison ivy. Can you hear my sigh from there? I still can. Thank goodness for family, always there when you need them, whether they are working or not. While we waited for my brother-in-law to come to our rescue, I looked in the distance at the elder. I no longer cared about harvest, I wanted words with the tree. I just wanted to get close enough to see, touch, and listen. Without a car for the girls to sit in, though, and no chance of my walking a hundred yards away while they waited by the roadside (in poison ivy!) I couldn't just go tramping off. I lug each one onto my hips (they are barefooted, go figure) and I started off into the grass. A couple steps in and the grass was up to my waist (there's that sigh again, hear it?). I was a bit chicken to go the distance, so I took my place back on the poison ivy.

Help arrived and the chains were of no use, I needed a tow truck. A chunk of money and my more-than grumpy children later, the ordeal was over and the lesson learned. I had ten times the respect for elder than I had had that morning. The whole thing was sort of laughable. At home I made a buttermilk and vinegar bath for the girls, hoping to wash away any poison residues that may irritate them later. I believe I was successful for the most part: they got poison ivy and they got it bad, but it was just bad, though, and not really bad. I had fun concocting a lotion to aid in it's demise, and I was successful. A little less than a week later, it was all just a memory.

Later that June, I went to a friend's farm. Lo and behold- he has a beautiful elder laden with not ripe berries. He doesn't even use them, I could come back and get some!
I said my thanks to her that day. Later I came back for her berries. In the fall I was gifted again. A woman who works on said friend's farm had many elders on her property. She dug up six babies for me. I did quite the happy dance! I felt like the Elda-mor was approving of me now.
A whole year later and two of the six baby trees are laden with berries and a few flowers still. The other four are quite happy and growing with the season. The elder is truly an ally now.

Adventures in herbalism. I can't wait to hear the stories from the other folks this blog party. We all have them. It's part of the art, most of the fun, and definitely part of the journey in wisdom gained.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

plantago major, first aid in your front yard

Plantain (the weed, not the little banana) is a wonderful first aid plant. This plant is everywhere, hence the name 'white man's foot-steps'. It's an ovate or lance-leaved weed growing in a low rosette. Plantain has five ribs on each leaf coming off a thick channeled footstalk. If there are no broad-leaved plantain around, then I may see the lance-leaved plantain (plantago lancolata). While the broad leaved is deemed better, I have not hesitated to use lance-leaved in a pinch.

Plantain is famous for it's use on insect bites and stings. A chewed leaf applied directly to the bite or sting will relieve itching and help quell inflammation. It is the first thing I reach for when someone has been stung by a bee. Many people refer to plantain as the band-aid plant, it gets this name honestly. I have seen it stop bleeding and relieve pain of many cuts and scrapes, and it's easily accessible!
An infused oil of plantain is pretty amazing as well. I have seen it clear up diaper rashes the doctor's antibiotics failed in. I add it to any salve specific for healing irritated skin. When the kids get into the nettle by accident, we grab the plantain to neutralize the sting. It even aids in what ails my pets: I have seen it work like magic on my dog's skin allergies and his cough.

These are all great abilities for a plant to possess, especially a plant so easily found anywhere. We all get bit, stung, or itchy more often than not. For these reasons alone it's worth it to go identify some today, but even more incredible to me, and less read about by many, is plantain's usefulness in afflictions of the urinary tract and lungs.

It is approved by the German Commission E (a German sort of FDA) for internal use for easing coughs and mucus membrane irritation, but details on it's use in this way seem to be shoved under the rug. I have read that plantain is used for hay fever and asthma, even though it's use in this manner is never expanded upon. Nobody talks about it!

Plantain has become one of my allies, possibly the most important herb in my first aid cabinet. I have seen such dramatic effects that I am surprised it's not one on the top of the list of most well-known herbs of all time: right up there with ginseng and goldenseal.
Having suffered from allergy induced asthma all my life, I have relied on pharmaceuticals to aid in my breathing since age three. I had a terrible run-in with mold a few years back that prompted me to try plantain. I was a sneezing, eye-watering mess. Breathing was difficult and I found I was using the inhaler way to much. Having just read about a succus (juice), I juiced some plantain. What a thick, green juice it was! One dropper full and my eyes stopped itching and watering, the sneezing disappeared, and in ten minutes my breathing was easier. What a relief! What a quick relief! Why isn't this so spoken about as I believe it should be? Are there not millions of Americans suffering allergies every year? How household of a name is Claritin now? I was floored. I ended up using plantain all summer in place of my inhaler. By November, I remember having to take 2 dropperfuls of tincture to get the effects I desired, and they were a bit shorter lasting than earlier in the year. I was worried that the plant would lose it's efficacy with me. I went back to using the inhaler on an as-needed basis, which was much less and back to normal from much earlier that year. The next allergy season rolled around and I tried plantain once again. In ten minutes I felt better. For a few hours I was unaffected. No efficacy problems there. The opening and almost relaxing effects on the lungs is just amazing. I would say it is a bronchodilator. Herbalist Jim Mcdonald once told me he would recommend plantain for carpenters. These guys breathe some nasty dust, and with plantain's expectorant actions it makes total sense. It's soothing to the tissues while aiding in the expulsion of foreign materials. I would also recommend this to folks who keep birds. It has anti fungal activities which could be an aid in protecting the lungs from some forms of fungal diseases common among bird owners.

Another wonderful first aid use for plantain is in the urinary tract. Some people are just prone to these imbalances, and they can be discomforting to say the least. For the burning or the pressure sensation, plantain is a great aid. Plantain is demulcent, which means it produces a sort of soothing coating to the mucus membranes. This diuretic, anti inflammatory, anti bacterial herb is a wonderful choice in treating cystis and urinary tract infections. If there is bleeding, what better than it's astringent actions as well??

I should mention it's use as a laxative as well. I personally have never tried out this aspect of plantain's medicine, but I hear that Metamucil is a psyllium product (you'll have to copy and paste):
made from plantago ovata, a Chinese variant. This is a multi-billion dollar industry. Think about all the resources in production and shipping we could be saving by using what grows right out our back doors!
Psyllium, you ask? Psyllium is the seed from the plantago species. You can read more about it here:

It is an easy one to harvest, just slide the ripe seeds (usually in the fall) from the tall flower stalk into a paper bag. The seeds are placed in water and drank to bulk up the stool. I have heard that while harvesting you do want to be careful not to breathe in any psyllium dust. This has been known to be a cause of asthma and breathing problems, and allergic reactions in a very few.

Some notable constituents found in plantain are allantion, mucilage, apigenin, aucubin, oleanic acid, sorbitol, tannin, and some silica. Together these constituents lend plantain it's anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, diuretic, astringent, and expectorant actions. Acubin has been proven to be a powerful anti-toxin. Allantion promotes wound healing, speeds up cell regeneration, and has skin-softening effects. Plantain is not associated with any common side effects, other than those few that are allergic to it's pollen. It is safe for general use and the leaves lend themselves well to a decoction. Used alone or in combination, plantain is a steadfast friend. It tops the list of my top ten first aid herbs.