Tetherow Road runs up past our downtown gardens and into the hills, a sleepy one-lane affair overarched by madrones and pillared by pines. Quite a few folks live along Tetherow, and I thought it would be fun to plant a roadside bed full of bright red “Empress of India” nasturtiums, to enliven people’s walk as they came down to the little complex of stores and country post office to get their mail, or an ice cream, or beer . So roundabout early spring I asked some of the guys to spread some readily available cow manure down next to the road and till it in and plant nasturtium seeds in three rows, about 4 inches deep. It works best to plant nasturtiums deeply, because they get a better root system that way, and I’ve found the fact that it takes them a few days longer to emerge from the soil can be significant protection against those sneaky, last minute spring frosts. Well, words are just so much air over vocal cords, and the way the guys interpreted my instructions was that they should make furrows and FILL them with the cow manure (it wasn’t really compost yet, still pretty green) and plant the nasturtium seeds in that. Thus began a frustrating time period for me, as the nasturtiums did not like being planted in cow manure, and when they emerged, many of them damped off or drooped and looked sickly, with misshapen leaves, compromised by too much muck, too many salts. At this point I took charge of the patch, and down on hands and knees, cleared out around the sick little seedlings, bringing in fresh dirt from the sides, pinching back the worst of them, thinking that they might re-emerge healthily in secondary sprouts from the deeply buried seeds. This did happen, more or less, and the little patch limped on, never dying out, but never looking very good. As the summer sun intensified, I ran a thin drip line out to the patch, and set up some microsprinklers. One bright, people-free morning as I weeded away down there by the road, I had a vision of an Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) shading Tetherow Lane, something different for the people to marvel at, its quick growth, lavender flowers, and vigorous life force. It would be an Empress Tree planted among Empress of India! I hoped the two empresses would not fight. If they did, I wagered, the Empress Tree would definitely win out. I had just the right tree, a bigger one that I’d been taking care of for a couple of years, so the next day I lugged the big pot down from the main farm and planted the tree right in among the nasturtiums. From day one, it outshone them all! The nasties were now 6 inches tall or so, having regrown from the roots, but the leaves were all crinkly. Flea beetles were taking up residence (like fleas on a couch frequented by an aged Rottweiler), and nary a flower in sight. If it kept up this way, it’d be first frost before I had any color! As the summer rolled along, I kept weeding and watering, but as the plants kept limping and never really kicked in, I started to have second thoughts about the seeds. Could it be there was something wrong with the seeds? So, I planted another germ test, this time in a gallon pot (see picture). I wanted to make sure the nasties would not have crinkled, ugly leaves when they emerged. They didn’t. So, It wasn’t the seeds that were the problem. It was the ENVIRONMENT . Yesterday, I went back down to the nastie patch and found what I’d been waiting for all summer long. There she was, the first flower. In the dark of the night she’d applied her secret red lipstick, and now she smiled up at me out of the green. Brushing a flea beetle off of her bright red apron, she looked up at me as if to say, “Let that be a lesson to ya. Trust the seeds, and … hold the poop!”
Archive for the ‘Herbal Scatterlings’ Category
December 31, 2011
December being the month of my birth, and when night casts its longest shadow, is also a time of introspection. I had recently been thinking about the unique ethnobotanical knowledge of children. Not usually one for extended nostalgic reverie, I now find myself pondering aspects of the first ten years of my life. Consider what follows a Solstice offering if you will, a nod to the past, a small sharing of self. Perchance you will find it entertaining or it will inspire your own cascade of recollections.
My early memories are a kaleidoscope of sensation, incandescent joys and virgin melancholies. This is still mirrored to me when I hear the early 70s music of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Janis Ian. Like that music which wove itself through my initial years and in some way gave form to who I am, I’ve come to recognize that there was a whole panoply of plants that also infected me with their enchantments, infusing something potent, deep within the roots of my being. Bear with me as I meander through memories from my first decade that still exude an aura of magic, yet to be washed away by the cleansing flood of time…
Around the age of 3 we lived on a farm nestled in a valley south of the city of San Luis Obispo in Central California. It is here that my vegetal initiation began. I remember watching my mom transplant small seedlings from paper cups into mounds of sweet smelling freshly tilled dark earth. Becoming cognizant of how I could help, I carefully followed behind her pulling the tender young plants out of the soil. It wasn’t until she got to the end of the row and turned around that she discovered what I was doing and gently set me on the right track. Sometime later that year I recall the joy of struggling to pull the serpentine garden hose over to water sunflowers that were beginning to tower over my head, a feeling of gratitude emanating from their large leaves that waved to me in the warm summer breeze.
The next year in preschool I was introduced to the miracle of sprouting beans, inspecting them each day, snuggled warm and moist in a bed of paper towels on the windowsill. The timeless wonder of life’s spark as they swelled, their skin split and the roots emerged, then cotyledon leaves, pushing up, seeking light. The distinct earthy-sour aroma of this process. The excitement of filling cups with dirt and carefully planting the naked seedlings within. This was undoubtedly the single most valuable lesson I learned in school. Germinating seeds is still one of the great passions of my life.
Growing at the edges of the school playground was a lowly mallow plant with rounded leaves and small pinkish flowers. What all the children appreciated most was the little rounded immature seed clusters which inspired the name “cheeseweed”. We would collect these miniature rounds of green veggie-cheese and when enough were in hand we’d gobble them up, relishing the mucilaginous texture and vaguely cheesy flavor.
Around this time someone demonstrated to me how to select the tender young fennel stalks and peel the fibrous skin back to get to the crisp and juicy sweet flesh. The flavor was beguiling and I could spend many a happy moment peeling and crunching stalk after emerald stalk. This became one of my favored snacks, no patch was safe from my ardent ravishings.
When I was around the age of 5 my mom moved to an old sprawling house on a farm in the rolling hills south of Arroyo Grande, about 20 miles from San Luis Obispo. This we christened Ft. Avocado on account of the large avocado trees that ringed the property. It was something of a wonderland for my small self and I came under the almost tutelary influence of many plants there. The small purple-black skinned avocados were in excess much of the year, hundreds littering the ground, slowly decaying into a sugary smelling sticky mulch. As well as becoming projectiles for my reenactments of epic battles from Star Wars or Thundarr the Barbarian, they were a constant source of nourishment, most often sliced in half, dashed with balsamic vinegar and spooned into my eager mouth. My mom was continually churning out guacamole and more experimental but highly successful creations like avocado pie and chocolate sauce. In the diffused light of the kitchen windowsill we were perpetually sprouting avocado pits by piercing them with a few toothpicks to suspend them partway in a jar of water, gifting the resulting treelets to friends and family.
Just outside the kitchen door was a shrub with large velvety leaves and huge, double trumpet, white flowers which exhaled an exquisite scent. This plant seemed to exert some spell over me. I recall many times staring at the shrub, enthralled by the scent of the flowers, sitting on the kitchen steps carefully peeling away the outer blossom to examine the convoluted one within, a heavenly pillowed landscape for hundreds of tiny insects. The plant seemed vaguely mammallian to me, associating the soft down of the leaves and blossoms with the fuzz on my slender arms or the skin of the pink babies that my pet rat, Rattie-Tat, had recently birthed (and soon devoured in a cannabilistic nightmare!) I now know this bewitching shrub to be the white angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia x candida, well respected by horticulturalists and shamans alike.
In the large open living room of the house there was a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I found utterly fascinating and disturbing. I spent a good deal of time lost in the pleasures and horrors of that wondrous and deranged landscape. In the shady areas outside the house dwelled another plant that seemed an unmistakable hybrid of vegetal and animal. It evoked the same fascination as Bosch’s art, in fact looked like something right out of the painting, a confrontation with living ambivalence. An Arum species whose obscene fleshy purple flowers erupted from the ground to emit a noxious stench akin to rotting meat with delicate overtones of excrement. All manner of flies and beetles found this irresistible and performed curious dances upon the blossoms. As the vaginal spathe withered, the phallic spadix swelled lewdly into what looked to me to be a devilish bright-red corn cob. This I knew instinctually to be toxic.
Out back of the house in the shade of the avocado trees were a series of ornate shallow cement ponds with small cement bridges connecting them, probably the creation of someone’s faery-infested nostalgic Victorian longing. The bottom of the ponds had cracked many years before, so they never held water. Surrounding the ponds and often scrambling within was an extensive patch of nasturtium, their large round leaves providing shade for the various insects and toads that I was always on the hunt for. My mom showed me to eat the regal orange and red flowers whose spicy flavor was a strange delight. The rounded green seeds were a small treasure to me, a faery jewel, the way they rolled between my fingers, fit in the palm of my hand, filled the pockets of my overalls.
Scattered around the property were patches of Oxalis pes-caprae, which we knew as “sour grass”. The clover like leaves I identified with shamrocks, leprechauns and Irish ancestors. I thought that the bright yellow flowers were a clear signature of an affinity with citrus, the intense sour juice running through the stalks was surely the same juice that swelled the lemon. This ubiquitous weed was a refreshing snack that appeared to grow in every suburban backyard, even at school. All the kids around my age highly esteemed chewing the stems. I still ponder what it is about the sour flavor (oxalic acids) that children find so magnetic (my own son Shannon went through a phase of coveting an Andean species that is semi-weedy in our greenhouse). Most of us leave behind the craving for intensely sour flavors with adulthood, by my mid-teens it had lost its appeal.
There were several large Canary Island date palms on the land. I would imagine their massive columnar trunks to be the lumbering legs of a brontosaurus or wooly mammoth. The small yellow dates that showered the ground beneath the trees were mostly pit and no one paid them much attention, yet I found the thin stringy layer of sweet chewy flesh delectable and would squirrel them away for snacking.
There was a large castor bean bush that I found a little intimidating, the deep blood-red new growth, the spiky seed capsules, the veins of the huge palmate leaves radiating from a single point that appeared to gaze at me like the eye of the cyclops. My mom mistakenly tied our goat, Rosie, near the plant one day which led to the demise of both bush and goat.
I loved to accompany my mom on the short walk to check the mailbox because of the large honeysuckle vine that ran rampant all along the dilapidated, lichen-encrusted fence bordering the property. The small glistening drop of nectar to be found within each yellow and orange flower was an ecstatic lesson in sweetness.
There was a small shaded stream that ran through the lower part of the land, the cool domain of polywogs, waterbeetles and nettles. It was here as well as San Luis Creek that I first discovered the sharp biting kiss of nettles, bringing tears and a persistent sting, yet for some reason I was continually drawn to experience this, even long for it at times. A good satisfying pain.
Just up the hill from the creek at the edge of the property was a hole in the fence where I could climb through to an open meadow and make tunnels in the aromatic green grass that towered over my head. In the middle of that field was my secret fort: a large poison oak bush with a hollowed cavity in the center of it. I remember laying in the embrace of its womb, feeling snug and content watching the dynamic play of sunshine amongst the leaves…it seems I was immune to the plant’s wrath, I never developed the rash, though others may have gotten it from me more than once…
During the school week I lived with my dad in suburban San Luis Obispo. From him I learned of the necessity for houseplants and how to care for them, mostly varieties of Pothos and Monstera and the small tree that inexplicably shared my name, Ficus benjamina. Occasionally, with my insistence, we’d venture into more exotic territory. The local Safeway periodically stocked those chlorophyll-deprived grafted cacti that were so popular in the 1980s: Gymnocalycium and Chaemaecereus mutants. How could a child resist the strange geometric forms and flourescent pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of these monstrosities? Appearing more akin to a grotesque pez dispenser than a living entity. They never survived more than year, the Hylocereus stock inevitably shriveling brown and the scion slowly losing its luster and turning to mush. The other houseplant I repeatedly convinced my dad to bring home only to perish were those amazing hybrid Begonia (Rex Cultorum group) with the crazy wrinkled and serrated leaves aswirl with exquisite color and patterns, disappointingly ephemeral in our hands.
My dad and I spent a good deal of time exploring the golden hills, granite capped mountains, oak filled valleys and expansive coastline of SLO County. We tried eating many feral foods: cattail rhizomes and flower stalks, miner’s lettuce, spicy wild mustard and salty salads of New Zealand spinach. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) provided the signature scent. Even today the smell of these aromatic plants invokes a wistful echo of my youthful wanderings. The dominant tree throughout much of the landscape was the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). There were so many of these charming noble trees that I spent time with, the gargantuan sprawling branches a welcoming playground, offering cool shade in the heat of summer, the architecture of their limbs and rough bark perfect for climbing and building tree houses, the leaf litter the abode of all sorts of interesting insects and the worm-like slender salamander. The acorns were always finding their way into my pockets. I tried eating the meat raw on numerous occasions, they looked so edible to me and I could never quite accept the astringency that greeted my tongue when I bit into a carefully peeled acorn. In the denser woodlands large colonies of pitcher sage, Salvia spathacea, carpetted the ground beneath the oaks, emitting a fruity smell when trampled. The hundreds of erect flower stalks with their large globose whorls of bright flowers hypnotized me. After observing the frenzied affairs of hummingbirds in their midst I was thrilled to discover that the magenta flowers secreted a delicious dollop of honey-nectar within.
Occuring throughout the foothills of San Luis Obispo were large patches of prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. These were most likely introduced from Mexico during the time of the Spanish missions, but may have also been part of Luther Burbank’s great “spineless cactus” debacle in the early 1900s. These colonies would often spread over several acres, the spiny pads forming a labrynthian fortress through which I would carefully traverse. The golden yellow flowers produced egg-sized red or orange fruit that I highly prized for their delicious flavor. Collecting and eating the fruit was a bit of a challenge. A small proportion of the plants were nearly spineless, but most were clothed in long vicious spines. I’d usually try to spear or knock off the fruits with a long stick. Once I had the fruits, I had to be especially cautious of the glochids, those miniscule barbed spines that armed the fruit. I did my best to avoid these by carefully slicing the fruit in half and scooping out the flesh, but many times I ended up with glochids in my hands or even my tongue and mouth. Because of this I had a strange relationship with the plant, and on several occasions, with a sturdy stick in hand for a sword, I waged war upon the cactus. Hacking and slashing the pads, the satisfaction of feeling the juicy innards splatter with my blows. Perhaps my later fascination with cactus was atonement for these violent acts or perhaps the plant had compelled me into what was ultimately a creative form of propagation rather than destruction… the pads I whacked to the ground would have simply rooted and grown more plants, like the severed heads of the mythical hydra.
When I was 8 my mom returned to the area after living in the mountains of Montana and Colorado for 2 years with my step dad and infant brother. For the next decade they lived in a house on 20 acres outside the small town of Nipomo, situated on a large sandy mesa about 40 minutes drive south of the city of San Luis Obispo. This is where I spent most weekends and stretches of summer. One of the most striking features there was the hundreds of acres of Eucalyptus globulus trees that surrounded their homestead. Of Australian origin, these trees were planted in 1908, perfect rows laid out in large grids. The tree denied the hopes and dreams of that era, they were not suitable for telephone poles or lumber in general, so the acres of planted trees became neglected and grew into the dense towering forests that I came to know. The large older trees with many side branches were superb for climbing. Big trees with younger saplings growing near them provided an opportunity for a unique experience. After climbing 15+ feet into the mother tree I could leap out through the air and grab hold of the sapling which would arch under my weight and rapidly lower me to the ground. I spent hours performing this joyous feat, feeling myself a primordial monkey-boy.
These anthropogenic forests were a perpetual source of discovery. In the shade of the sickle-shaped leaves with their menthol aroma and underneath the bark that sloughed off the trunks in large sheets I would find a plethora of insects and their larval infants, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes, toads of impressive size, slender salamanders that curled themselves into tiny spirals, sundry snakes, bluebelly and alligator lizards, the rare and coveted blue tailed skink, kangaroo mice, savage shrews and fantastical fungi. Scattered between the trees during spring and early summer bloomed pink, yellow and red flowers I never encountered anywhere else, still a mystery to me. Further up in the embrace of the trees there’d be Pacific tree frogs hiding beneath the bark or occasionally the yellow speckled arboreal salamander that squeeked when discovered. Climbing even higher would reveal all manner of intricate woven nests that cradled delicate eggs or the freakish fledglings of a considerable variety of birds. A great many moths and butterflies were also to be found but none quite so impressive as the migratory monarch. This large butterfly, vibrant orange with bold black veination, would arrive in autumn at select trees by the thousands to perch in dangling masses and overwinter. It’s hard to capture with words the wonder and strangeness of this phenomenon, standing beneath a tree in exultation, half of the branches scaled in their overlapping orange and black wings. How they all periodically moved their wings in unison, as if to one heartbeat, the inhalation and exhalation of one organism. How I would feel this pulse manifest in my own body. Tree, butterfly and boy as one. Grace.
Eventually I heard the grumblings about how Eucalyptus didn’t belong here, the forests somehow harmful to other plants and wildlife. This contradicted so much of my experience, but it’s a complex issue and I’ll leave my thoughts on this to another time. The popular maligning of the tree led to the 10+ acres of forest adjacent to my mom’s property, where my younger brothers and I had spent countless hours in play and rapt discovery, being clear cut and bulldozed. I was deeply saddened, like the loss of a whole group of friends, a vital piece of my childhood suddenly, irrevocably, gone. The acreage lay fallow for many years, a few forlorn stumps the only reminder of what was. Eventually a monocrop of strawberries was planted, black plastic and poison covering the once fertile earth…
Peering into this reflecting pool of memory I glimpse myself in sensual dialogue with the world, not so much a language of words, but of emotions, touch, sounds, smells and tastes. An immediate intimacy with the flux of life. Perhaps it is our maturation into the world of words and the concepts they construct that blurs our recollection of those early years, diffusing a little our relation to life in all its myriad sensuous forms. Yet, paradoxically, words are what I now have to capture and share these echoes of childhood.
The Aymara peoples of the Andean Altiplano acknowledge that the past lays not behind us, but before us, our entire history stretching to the horizon, yet clearly visible, the future always to our back, just over our shoulder, only seen as a glimpse. Coming from a culture that turns its back on the past, chooses instead to look for what is yet-to-be, I find it useful, at least for a time, to reorient myself and view my history. Gazing out across the geography of myself it is evident how integral and present the botanical realm was in my childhood, though it wasn’t until my late teens that I became acutely fascinated with plants. In those early years what really captured my greatest attention were all the creeping, crawling, scurrying, slithering, hopping and flying creatures. The plants were more an aspect of the sustaining matrix of the world, known as distinct living entities, but almost background to ambulatory life. Yet it now appears, from my current vantage, that the plants were an even greater molding force for me than the fistful of toads or pockets of rolly-polly bugs. We inhabit a scandalously fecund planet, teeming with life of every imaginable form. The more I consider it, perhaps facing always to the future engenders a fevered dream state, a phantasmal farsightedness, a turning away from who we are, longing to be more. This has allowed our culture to overcome great obstacles and manifest unparalleled wonders, but often at great cost. In looking out to distant stars for life we miss much of what is right before us. Living is coexisting, children know this instinctually and recognize sentience all around them. We have much to discover from children and from our own childhoods.
Because I find this content both entertaining and enlightening, I have included these musings of my friend Ben Kamm here on “The Seed Screen.” Ben and his wonderful family run “Sacred Succulents,” a wonderful place to get seeds and starts of a really unusual selection of botanicals. Here’s the link
Big Love, Richo
Making Elderberry Syrup
The motivation for inventing and testing this recipe comes from my wish to help people who are suffering from colds or flu, or wish to avoid same. I’ve noticed that many children balk at taking bitter medicines yet many of our best cold and flu medicines are bitter ones. So I set out to find a strong antiviral and immune enhancing herb that would be agreeable to palates young and old. In this I settled upon Elderberry. Having experienced its protective influence, therapeutic value and finding it very tasty indeed, I even took to lacing it with other herbs (for instance the great antitussive, elecampane) and administering it to children, who gleefully took it, and much to their benefit. Being convinced, I proceeded to learn as much as possible about the diverse methods of preparation. Once we in our family started producing a syrup made of our fresh berries cooked down and preserved back with honey or glycerin, it turned out to be so needed that our supplies soon dwindled. Unflummoxed, we knew we had a reserve of dried berries in stock. In the old “Making Plant Medicine” tradition I then set out to determine the best process for producing a superior black elderberry syrup from the dried berries. Here it is step by step, in word and photo!
1) Use 1 cup of dried berries (weighs appx 100 gram, or 3.5 oz.)
2) add 2 cups boiling water. Cover with plate and let sit overnight. Volume now shows over 2 cups.
4) Pour the berry mixture into a fine sieve and press it through, or put in a pressing bag and press out in a tincture press (not shown). (Compost the seeds.)
5) Volume of juice is 2 cups. Simmer the juice on the back of the stove at low heat. Stir occasionally. Keep reducing juice until it reaches half volume (1 cup). It’ll take an hour or two. The juice is now very concentrated, thickly loaded with pectin and bioactive compounds. By the way, reduction time when using reconstituted dried berries (as in this recipe) is much faster than when reducing down the pressed juice of the fresh berries, which pretty much takes all day.
6) Measure the reduced juice. It should be 1 cup. Licking pan is acceptable.
7) Add 1 cup of glycerin or honey to bring volume back up to 2 cups.
8)Stir with a Zebra spoon from Kenya. Sorry about the dirty thumbnail its good honest dirt.
9) Filter through 4 layers cheesecloth
10) squeeze out cheesecloth by hand into the ceramic bowl, or press in a tincture press (not shown).
11) Pour filtered juice back into clean pyrex. Should measure a little less than 2 cups. Have some! (Kenyan spoon tastes a little funny.)
But overall, Deelicious!
Endnotes) Very nice syrup, properly preserved and very clean, having been filtered of impurities. Honey preserved syrup probably best kept in fridge. The glycerin preparation is suitable for bottling and dispensing pretty much like a tincture. Dosage of the syrup is 1 tablespoon each dose, taken 2 or 3 times daily. If exposed to cold germs, consciously avoid touching nose.
Good News! Richo
Rootstalk, oh Rootstalk, how can I tell you how it was? Did you ever come home from preschool to find that in your absence someone had, as a complete surprise, made you a sandbox and filled it with a seemingly infinite quantity of fluffy yellow and completely catpoop-free sand? It was like that, only with a lot more food, wine, beer, water, music, magic, herbs, herbalism, and smiles thrown in. So, if you never had a sandbox prepared for you, and you did make it to Rootstalk, now you know how it feels to come home to one. And, if you did at one time get a surprise sandbox and you also made it to Rootstalk, then you are doubly blessed. Please pray for everyone who never had a sandbox and who missed Rootstalk.
Rootstock. Even the Wild Cherry Trees seemed to join in the festivity, when out in the woods, through a quirk of the seasons, a great load of cherry fruits, plumped up enticingly by a couple of late spring rains, became quick-dried by the summer drought. Going out on herbwalk one could not help plucking and sucking and certainly was treading on the whole dried cherries with pit and stem–they were just falling out of the forest overstory, draping themselves invitingly on alder twigs, scattered about freely on trail or trailside. Doug Elliot, who one evening filled the bleachers of the amphitheatre with throngs of smiling, laughing, singing, fully engaged rootstalkears (if I may coin a term), managed to go home to Appalachia with a bag of perfect dried cherries in hand, reserved for his sweetie. The rootstalkears, a little like those fallen cherries, could be found scattered throughout the extensive grounds working, learning, sipping tea, or simply milling about, some engaged in conversation, some dancing, others walking silently, enthralled by the forest, and everywhere prevailed a good herbal earth healing family vibe.
We made our booth of green Empress Tree poles, lashed together with hempen twine and draped with a rainbow tapestry. Located up against two giant conifers, our OM away from home, Horizon Herbs sat at the top of the hill in front of the main hall. People lucky enough to flag down a golfcart made it up the hill effortlessly, while the rest of us had to hoof it. Unless one was in very good shape, a brief rest in an extra chair situated in the shade of a rainbow, surrounded by seeds, books, herbal plants and large hanging bunches of aromatic summer savory, white sage and rosemary looked mighty inviting. This was our marketing strategy!
A good looking fellow came huffing up the hill, and when I offered him my chair he politely refused, but then set down his pack and absent mindedly took the chair anyway, venting something halfway between a grunt and a sigh as he sat. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said in his rough voice, “and lo and behold you’re the first outfit I come across! ” Then massaging his legs, ” Wow, that hill was a killer!” I empathized, “Too bad you didn’t catch a golf cart.” “I know,” he said, “Especially when you’re trying to recover from laser surgery to remove your uvula!”
A bit taken aback by this unpredicted response, I nevertheless retained some composure . Projecting my best doctoring voice, I intoned “Open your mouth and say Ahhhh,” which he did, tilting his mouth toward the rays of sun that streamed in under the rainbow. I noticed he had a nice blonde beard and ‘stache. Getting back to business, a quick examination of his fauces revealed a gaping white crater where the uvula should have been, as well as an alarming proliferation of other craterous lesions all around the back of his throat, the whole looking swollen and infected. “Hmmm,” I intoned. “I assume you’re doing something to heal this up?” “Well,” he said, rummaging through his khaki backpack for some bottles, “I was just at a big herbal conference and people gave me a whole lot of stuff.”
“Oh,” I said, interested, “Mind if I take a look?” I was to be giving a lecture on “herbal vulneraries” wherein astringent medicines for treating aberrations of the mucous membranes were to figure prominently. I wanted to see what kind of astringent and antibacterial medicines had been prescribed for this poor bloke. I figured somebody had at least given him some Goldenseal. Imagine my dismay when he presented me with a whole lot of product that had nothing to do with treating his actual condition! The last bottle I picked up said “Kava Kava” and I plunked it back into his backpack. “None of this stuff is for treating what you’ve got.” I said, as gently as possible under the circumstances. “Wow, really? I was wondering why it wasn’t working,” he said. Then, “My throat’s on fire!” “Here,” I said, rummaging through my mochila and pulling out my precious demo bag of bright green and blue, dried Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris) flowering tops. “Make a strong tea out of this at your earliest convenience, gargle with it repeatedly, and drink some, too.”
The next morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mountain Rose Herbs had set me up in the chapel for my main lecture on herbal vulneraries. A little before the hour, I slipped out into the surrounding meadows and picked a number of sadly weather-worked stalks of self heal. Returning to the chapel, I was grateful to see a crowd of beautiful people filtering into the pews. Then, when people had settled, we fulfilled my most ardent wish by chanting the sacred seed syllable “OM” three times. There was a beatific pause, an enthralled silence that filled that hallowed place, into which I gently interjected the words “Self Heal.” This was the first vulnerary I wanted to talk about. Passing around my bedraggled stalks, I explained that the herb is best used when dried and in full flower. I apologized for not having a more appropriately prepared and labeled sample, explaining that I’d given it away to someone who needed it more.
Suddenly, off to the side, lumbered up the same fellow from the day before, now holding above his head a narrow-necked bottle containing a bright yellow liquid. Everyone turned in their pews to observe this little interruption. He cleared his throat, then chirped out, “This is where his sample went, and I can attest that it’s really good stuff. My throat is much better today!” The crowd turned back to me, smiling. “By the way,” I said, “That is not a urine sample. At least, I don’t think it is. . .” The fellow jerked his head back and forth, laughing. The crowd was laughing, too.
Refreshed, I went on with my lecture, but there was one little question that sat like a dunce at the back of my mind and wouldn’t go away. Why, oh why, would one undergo laser surgery to remove the uvula, that little baglike thing that hangs at the back of the throat, a defenseless, innocuous, and to me somewhat endearing appendage. So later, when this good natured fellow stopped by the booth again to show me his much improved throat, I asked him that very question, and this was his (again, completely unpredictable) response. “It’s because of my girlfriend,” he said. “She can’t handle it when I snore!”
This blog examines ways to develop any piece of land into a medicinal herb garden, and will suggest several specific methods for creating and maintaining plant habitat. In an ecological context, a few good herbs will be recommended. The herbalscape is a medicinal herb garden intended to augment the landscape and increase overall biological activity. The herbalscape is gorgeous to behold, and gives people easy access to all the gifts provided by both the local plant populations and also introduced ones. The role of the gardener is to nurture and by this be nurtured.
Existing plants, bushes, small and large trees must coexist harmoniously with buildings and roads. In order to accomplish this, mark out sinuous pathways—this will help integrate everything. Around permanent features and in along the path in places less traveled, planting spots are created by digging beds. The path is made more solid and believable by artful use of paving stones, sand or bark, rock walls, fences, rock gardens, trellises and/or hedges. Besides pathways, another element that really helps integrate everything is water, whether supplied artificially by irrigation or naturally by rivulets, streams, rivers, lakes, or oceans. Give thanks for the water. In building the herbalscape, we also honor the sun. Without this unmitigated source of energy, our efforts would be fruitless. The main garden is usually oriented to catch the sun, and secondary areas are developed to mitigate the sun. One of the ruling dichotomies of growing plants is—do they love the sun, or do they love the shade? By using natural and organic gardening techniques, we honor the land and the soil. Open places are either protected by cover-crops, are working fields, or are being converted into gardens and herbalscapes. We appreciate gardeners who see empty land as a slate on which to write with trees and colorful flowers.
Planning: In order to plan a good herbalscape, it is best to first gain experience with the land as it is. This means examining (and even mapping) the access, solar positioning, topography, tree cover, power spots, existing plants and available water sources. All of these play a significant role in determining an appropriate garden plan. As gardeners we also pay special attention to the soil, which may range from sand, to loam, to rock, to clay or even “gumbo.” Knowing the soil and variations in the soil substrate will eventually help determine where the garden will be and which plants will thrive there. To really know the land, it helps to camp out overnight, observing the going to sleep of daytime entities and the prowling of nighttime visitors, awakening to the morning chorus of birdlife. Walk often, at different times of day, through the proposed site, making note of intact resources and gaining sensitivity to the unique aspects of the land. These walks will help identify where improvements (such as gates, signage, tree trimming, trail clearing, setting in “people-bumpers,” bed making, underbrush cutting, bridge and stair making, and benches for resting) may eventually be helpful. If space allows, some parts of the land are best left completely wild and untouched. It is nice to remember to enjoy the land as it is, and in making any changes, take the projects one at a time and bring them to (albeit temporary) completion before going on.
Entryways and Gates: Functional boundaries such as the entryway to the land, the home zone, a cross-fence for containing domestic stock, or the boundary between one ecological zone and another (the ecotone) are obvious places for gateways. Make the gateway area roomy and inviting. “Well begun is half done.” Large boulders solidify intent, and are too big to grass over and end up under the blade of the lawnmower. These boulders are good for defining margins to the side, creating the open arms of a wide pathway leading up to an opening vaulted over perhaps with Rosa spp. (climbing roses), Lagenaria siceraria (gourds), Humulus lupulus (hops) and/or Dioscorea batatas (Chinese wild yams). The gate itself deserves special attention, as rustic designs truly augment the flowers. Also, gates are best made to swing open easily, yet secure tightly. Natural materials such as weathered boards and wrought iron hinges are a nice touch. The condition of the gate often reflects the condition of the land. Create “farm-schwei” by not blocking the entrance with things like wheelbarrows or piles of rotting debris or empty plastic pots. When constructing or walking through the gateway, consciously guide the energy by offering up a prayer from the heart. Grassy entrances are best kept mowed short, thereby making it obvious where people are meant to walk. This helps keep the entryway energy clear. A good raking is very helpful to get rid of toe-stubbers.
Excellent plants for decking out beds around doorways may include stately Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) plants, midsize medicinals such as Ocimum sanctum (holy basil, Krishna tulsi), bedding plants such as Tropaeolum majus (nasturtiums), or mystical plants such as Trichocereus pachenoi (San-Pedro cactus) in pots. A doorway can be a beginning or an end, or a way through into another state of consciousness. It would be nice to make our garden doorways like this—an invitation to suspend for a spell the worries of human culture and connect more directly with the native state. “Enter here and think no more.”
Making beds: In the forest or under trees, clear the underbrush and low branches with shovel, hoe, loppers or saws. The axe/grub-hoe combo tool is very useful for cutting roots, preparing beds, and digging-in small water lines. Amend the soil with local ingredients (sand, rotted leaves, rotting wood) and mulch with more leaves.
In open areas in the full or part sun, build soil and good planting areas by tilling, planting clover, waiting for it to grow up about knee high, mowing and eventually tilling under again. Then, add compost, till again, apply mulch (rotted hay or coir) and plant through this mulch into the amended soil—outrageous. Here basically you do your work first and as a result of the weed-prohibitive mulch and highly fertile soil, the plants require less ongoing upkeep. Overall health, yield and medicinality are enhanced. Between these beds, you can allow the grass to grow, and keep it in check by mowing. We have recently thrown out our traditional lawnmower and now use a large, pushable weed whip to maintain between the beds.
Organically decomposable weed barriers (such as old cardboard boxes with staples and tape removed) are very good for thwarting weeds in any location, including entryways, pathways and beds. Try to keep the margins clear of weeds. Put down the weed barrier, then cover with cheap, locally available sand. Leave entryways and pathways sandy, but layer up more organic matter on the beds. This kind of work is slow at first but will likely save many hours of work in the future.
The layering up of materials on growing beds is really a kind of sheet mulching. The idea is to layer down at least 4 inches thick each of sand, pumice or pea gravel, compost, rotted hay, fill dirt etc and then top with a thick layer of coco-pith or bark mulch. This is similar to the way soils may be layered down in nature, and plants generally know what to do with it. Basically, you build the soil according to your perceptions of what will work best for the plant community that you intend to put there. Acidic bark-mulches can be very usefully applied around trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that need an acid loam soil. Cocopith is very nurturing to herbaceous plants that prefer a more neutral growing medium. For alkaline lovers such as Lavendula spp (Lavenders) or Mandragora officinalis (mandrake), dig in limestone, then put down a weed barrier, then cover the weed barrier with sand and plant the plants through a hole in the weed barrier right into the mineral soil below, swirling the sand around the crown of the plant to finish. These different layering techniques give you and the plants lots of options.
Garden Paths: Wide, as creeping plants and flowers will soon narrow it. Plan path width at the minimum of 4 feet, unless there just isn’t room (as between large trunks of trees.) Better to plan for 6 feet wide—wider at entryways. People will tarry longer on wider paths, and in the forest wide paths let in more sun.
Meandering so as to maximize surface area and prolong the bliss.
Leading to the best niches, even if it doesn’t otherwise make sense to go that way (here’s where you show off the shiitake log, or the gnomehole in that old oak, or the Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-pulpit) patch.
Clearly defined, so as to keep humans near the plants, but not on the plants. Some of the best people bumpers are logs, lines of large stones and thorny hedges (e.g. Rosa rugosa). A well-worn path will attract more soles.
Good Gardening Practices: A few well-grown plants produce more medicine than many poorly grown plants. Nurturing just a few of each kind will almost always produce enough medicine for self, family and immediate community.
Pile all debris to create shelter for small birds and mammals and so as not to contribute to greenhouse gasses by burning. The piles eventually melt down into useful humus (with the help of earthworms.)
Create habitat by building diverse microniches (shelterbelts, rock walls, artfully placed fences, drainage.) Create food by opening up access to berries, nuts and other wild vines, bushes and trees. Wherever possible, dig beds and grow food.
Planting: Plant in sets of at least three individuals—preferably more like a dozen. This makes the plants happier, more noticeable, gives the patch critical mass to support itself, and provides some insurance against losing the population to the likely challenges of insect damage, false footsteps, wind, herbivory, etc. This practice also assists in cross-pollination and eventual production of healthy, robust seeds.
Each plant species has specific requirements for sun, space, drainage and fertility, which to a large extent will dictate where they will best grow. For instance, rocky spots in the full sun or rocky margins may be planted with succulents such as Sempervivum spp (stonecrops) or Lewisia rediviva (bitterroot). Mountain species also thrive in the rock garden. These might include Pycnanthemum virginianum (mountain mint), Arnica spp (arnicas), Calluna vulgaris (heather) or Achillea millefolium (yarrow). A sodden, low spot with adequate sun and good fertility may speak of Gentiana lutea (yellow gentian), Valeriana officinalis (valerian) or Spirea ulmaria (meadowsweet). Under the trees, one would naturally plant forest-dependent species, which will vary according to the type of trees (especially coniferous vs. hardwood) and the extent of the shading. Here in the West, people often ask what kinds of medicinals will thrive in the acid soils around redwoods, cedars or other intensely acidic conifers. In this case, you can try Mahonia nervosa (Oregon grape), almost any member of the family Ericaceae (e.g. Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) or the family Pirolaceae (e.g. Chimaphila umbellata). A distinct favorite of mine for this moist, acidic econiche is Coptis chinensis (Huang-lian, Chinese goldthread) or new world goldthreads. The shade of buildings and other human-made features may also serve. Places where logs rot into the native soil are excellent prospects for direct-seeding. Disseminate seeds from your favorite plants immediately when they ripen—this is a hugely labor saving practice, promotes naturalization and is often quite successful with species that are otherwise recalcitrant germinators, such as Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot). A forest margin with small trees and bushes for climbing would be good habitat for Chinese wild yam, Codonopsis pilosula (Dang-shen), Campsis radicans (trumpet vine creeper), Clematis virginiana (virgin’s bower), or Gynostemma pentaphyllum (Jiao-gu-lan). A sandy exposure in the sun would make a good spot for Origanum spp. (oreganos), Thymus vulgaris (English broadleaf thyme), rosemary or other Mediterranean herbs. In open fields plant Papaver spp (poppies), Calendula spp (calendulas), Echinacea spp (coneflowers), Silphium laciniatum (compass plant), Asclepias tuberosa (pleurisy root), and other prairie species. Waterways will benefit from adding medicinals that grow well in muck, such as Nasturtium officinale (watercress), Petasites spp (western butterbur), Acorus calamus (calamus) and Iris versicolor (blue flag). Those who live by the ocean will likely find great pleasure in working with the many species of halophytic Plantago spp (sea plantains), Eryngium, and various Boraginaceae, such as Echium vulgare (viper’s bugloss) and E. wildpretii (tower-of-jewels) that thrive in maritime climates.
Labeling: There is great room for creativity, function and quite frankly total dysfunction around plant labels. On one hand, you want to help people out by telling them what the plant or tree is, while on the other hand you really want people to experience more than the name of the plant, and relate to the plant, not the label. Also, plastic labels soon fade and become unsightly or unreadable, while larger ceramic or metallic labels can be quite costly and may be difficult to keep current. We use small metallic tags that can be engraved with pencil or stylus and attach with a wire to tree twigs or to a stake in front of smaller plants. These we find to be indelible, long-lasting, and quite helpful for recording data such as plant species, lot number, and time of planting or other details. However, they may easily be missed when the trees or plants leaf-out. Labels may also be coordinated with the brochure or garden map, and this can be a very nifty way to create self-guided tours. Good labeling equates to accurate identity, which in this world is good cheap insurance.
Watering: Watering requirements vary hugely depending on location, but in dryland situations, the ability to water is one of our best tools for bringing in plants which would not otherwise thrive. For instance, we grow Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal) and Eleutherococcus in our woods here inSouthern Oregon, but without an occasional summer watering these plants would soon suffer or disappear. Along the path, simple drip lines are very effective for watering—they meander with the path. The drip line is also indispensable for watering shelterbelts that tend to be on dry margins. Drip systems conserve water, deliver directly where the water is needed, and are inexpensive and easy to use and relatively foolproof—as long as you make sure to install a filter.
“La tortuga” is a specific bed-making technique that we have developed here at Horizon Herbs. The name of the technique was born when the first beds we made in this way resembled giant turtles (tortuga is Spanish for turtle). The tortuga may actually be shaped any way you like—it doesn’t have to look like a turtle. Making the beds correspond to the contours of the land or other natural shapes (such as leaves, clouds or sinuous lines) blends them with the landscape. To make a tortuga, first lay down a water-permeable weed barrier, then line the outer margin with large rocks and fill the bed with thick layers of (from bottom to top) sand, pumice (or pea gravel), compost and coir. Make each layer at least 4 inches deep—deeper if possible. We combine micronutrients (rock powders and kelp) with the compost layer. The layers are not mixed, but rather left in strata, since this is the way that soils occur in nature. According to our observations, different plants will develop root, tuber and rhizome structures in the preferred strata (sand or organic). Plants that have deep taproots (e.g. pleurisy root) can be planted through the weed barrier into the mineral soil below. La tortuga is somewhat protected and permanent in that it cannot easily be walked on or overcome by weeds (the small amount of weeding needed in such a feature is more fun than work.) The hydrophilic organic ingredients (compost and coir) maintain moisture between waterings and through drought. The sand and pumice promote perfect drainage, which is appreciated by most plants. The stones store heat during the day and release it to the plants at night, resulting in early crops and exceedingly large and healthy individuals. What one loses in terms of plant numbers one gains in terms of plant yield. The weed barrier and the rockwork can be made impermeable to gophers—the best protection we have devised for our root crops, which otherwise are likely to be consumed by very healthy gophers.
Impermanence: Compost and mulch will eventually disappear—dried up by the sun, tracked away on the underside of shoes, literally consumed by the plant or tree they are nurturing. Plants now in full flowering array will eventually become dried up sticks that blow away in the winter wind. Every human contribution, be it mowing the lawn, or weeding the corn, or picking the Matricaria chamomilla (German chamomile) will have its heyday and its decline. Only the list of things to do is never-ending. So please indulge yourself and stop to smell the fleeting blossom of the rose. May it fill your heart with joy.
You know the scenario. It happens most often when the seasons are changing, and you haven’t been taking proper care of yourself. Oatmeal, dry socks and licorice tea give way to dry cereal, wet Birkenstocks, coffee in the morning and cocoa at midnight. The stimulants are deemed necessary, because that long-procrastinated project must now be accomplished in short order. Normal schedule abandoned, the compost bucket goes overripe and unemptied. The unwashed dishes start piling up on the counters, threatening to cascade onto the floor. Then, the neighbor kid comes over (oblivious of his runny nose), needing first a snack and then a cuddle on the couch. You read him “Elmer and the Dragon,” and wonder if he’s contagious. Later, you try to cheer yourself up by going out to eat (someone else can do the dishes), but once in town you can’t find good parking and end up walking for blocks in the rain. Your stylish coat is soaked, the restaurant is drafty, and you wish you’d stayed home with your project and the wood stove. You feel a little iffy the next evening, and after a fitful sleep awaken to the gray reality—a cold is on the way.
Now, before I give out any advice, I have to let you know that I’m only a village herbalist. I have avoided clinical experience (clinics don’t smell as nice as the garden). I do not conduct double blind studies except when trying out new shampoos (I close both eyes). Living on the west coast of the US, my style of herbal healing is mainly based on practical experience, my studies of western herbalism and a special garden-derived way of understanding plants and what they can do. I know what conditions will yield to this way of healing, and I know when to refer people to the professionals. Over the years I’ve treated a long string of maladies affecting family and neighbors: bites of cats, infected splinters, poison oak and ivy, impetigo, ringworm, burns, puncture wounds, head lice, urinary infections, upper respiratory infections, and coughs, lots of coughs. When a problem arises, I usually know of a straightforward herbal therapy that, if followed diligently, will result in a positive resolution. There is suffering nonetheless. There is also grace. The herbs I use come from my garden—I know them personally—and they rarely fail to bring solace. Now back to the cold.
Stage 1 of a cold is just that—an experience of cold and stasis. There is hypersecretion of mucus, which is thin, runny, and clear or whitish. There is much sneezing, stuffy nose, often headache and bodily discomfort. The appetite suffers, and bowel movements are infrequent and unsatisfactory.
Treatment for stage 1 cold:
Take echinacea fresh root tincture every few hours, and take black elderberry syrup or tincture every few hours (along with or separate from the Echinacea). Take a sauna, a rosemary bath or a hot Epsom salt bath. Eat warming and easily digested foods. Rest. Protect yourself from the elements. Avoid dairy and sugar. Take Vitamin C. Have an enema.
Take one or more of the following pungent herbs (usually in food):
Ginger, cayenne, horseradish, garlic
Take one or more of the following palliative herbs (tea or tincture):
Thyme, hyssop, ma-huang
If judiciously practiced, this therapy will prove effective in banishing a cold outright. If not successful, or only partially successful, then we begin to see signs of stage 2.
Stage 2. The mucus membranes of the throat are now red and swollen. The phlegm becomes thicker, and takes on a yellow or green coloration. This coloration is indicative of pus, which the body is attempting to dispel through the nose. A sinus infection may arise, usually accompanied by a headache. The throat begins to hurt, the lymph nodes swell, and the voice becomes gravely. The hearing suffers, and there may be sporadic fever, especially in response to exertion, and sometimes fever alternating with chills. Energy tends to be very low at this stage.
Treatment of stage 2 cold:
Stop using the echinacea, and drink marshmallow tea as an immune stimulant and to hydrate and soothe the mucous membranes, keep taking the elderberry.
When appropriate, take hot yarrow tea or hot elderberry flower tea to sweat out the fever.
Take goldenseal diluted in water and gargle every few hours. Ingest some goldenseal, also. The effects are antimicrobial and stimulating to the digestion and the liver. Gargling with a strong tea of dried Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris) flowers can be incredibly helpful at this stage. Avoid dairy. Continue to eat easily digested foods such as oatmeal, soaked dried fruit, and chicken soup. Taking care of yourself, you will probably not have to experience stage 3.
Stage 3. The infection now descends into the lungs. The sinuses may clear, the sore throat may ease, and the blowing and sneezing may cease, but now the breath seems to rattle in your chest, and you begin to cough. Then you cough some more, and the more you cough, the less energy you have. When you lie down to sleep at night, the coughing worsens, and you sleep poorly. Your body is trying to expel deep-seated chunks of phlegm and associated toxic debris. Stage 3 infection really must be attended seriously, because if not treated properly, the condition can worsen into pneumonia (stage 4). Or, the infection can become chronic, where complete healing never really takes place, leaving one open to the recurrence of any of the above stages of infection at any time, especially when resources are low and defenses are down.
Tincture formula for stage 3 cold:
30% mullein leaf
Used judiciously, the herbs will take effect and the cough will lessen. Now, exercise can become a very useful therapy. Working the body helps dispel accumulated toxins while oxygenating the blood and expanding the lungs. You will feel better. Appetite will return, along with normalization of bowel function.
In every phase, herbs lessen symptoms, accelerate the healing and discourage deterioration into more complicated conditions. Balance of all body systems (homeostasis) is the natural state. Your body is like a garden. Put enough good herbs in there, and it will be a beautiful sight!