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Making Elderberry Syrup

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. 

3)  In the morning, pour the softened berries into a blender and blend them vigorously.  They will vortex and mush up.

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.

Very thick!

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

Healing at Rootstalk

Dear Seeders,
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!”  


The Herbalscape

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 tortugais 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.

Managing Upper Respiratory Infection with Herbs

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:

40% elecampane

30% mullein leaf

10% spikenard

10% sundew

10% lobelia

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!

Botanizing Zanzibar

The lights of Mkoani were just blinking on when our bus pulled in to the docks.  A crescent moon hung like an Arabian scimitar over the blue-black waters of the Indian Ocean where the tramp steamer awaited my departure, the first voyage of a journey that would bring me home.  I’d been botanizing the islands of Zanzibar for a month and three days, and I was returning home with journals filled with writing, a grain sack stuffed with dried spices, and a precious bundle of about 70 species of dried seeds, tightly packed in a red flour sack, the bounty of a month’s worth of delving and dealing, picking and preening, separating and drying, buried now deep within my goods.  Politely refusing many offers of assistance with the luggage, I disembarked, stood briefly in line at the ticket seller’s, and purchased a one way ticket on a first class berth to the island of Unguja.  I would share the cabin with a family of curious cockroaches, but would be spared the raucous company of revelers that otherwise packed the noisy,  oily, cramped and humid second and third class levels of the steamer.  It was the first night of Ramadan, a religious holiday observed by the vast majority of the population.  During the day people fasted.  At nightfall special foods were laid out, and people feasted.  I pocketed my ticket and swung my bags to a resting place against the trunk of a friendly hardwood tree that overhung the tin roof of the ticket office.  Then, I seated myself against the aromatic bulk of my bag of spices and watched as the parking lot came alive with activity.  Food sellers made two sinuous lines from the barricades at the dock up along toward the rows of claptrap busses and taxis.  The women sat or crouched, opening baskets filled with fried octopus and squid, fishes on skewers, samosas and soft rolls, bright candies, oranges, green coconuts and the omnipresent banana.  People crowded around these food sellers and gave them eager business, bringing the food in folded newspapers to benches and low walls that surrounded the parking, eating voraciously after the day’s fast.  A murmur of happy conversation welled up from the docks, and there was much rumpling of newspaper and smacking of lips.  I was hungry, too.  Surmising that my luggage was too heavy to be easily carried off by miscreants, I left it propped there against the tree, and sauntered over to a girl who had soft, newly baked rolls and tough fried squid, purchasing the warm viands with colorful local currency and returning safely to my seat.  Having finished eating, I was approached by a large man dressed in black pants and a white shirt.  The pants were held up around his jolly belly with a knotted string.  The shirt was pulling apart at the buttons, revealing a smooth black belly that pillowed out like overstuffed sausage. 

                “What are you doing in Zanzibar?” he asked in standard Swahili.  I was glad that he wasn’t using the local island slang, which I’d never quite picked up on.  “I’ve been botanizing,” I answered. 

                “Oh,” he said, “do you know the local plants?”  “Some of them,” I answered.  “And I use them, too.  I’m a witch doctor.”  “Well then,” he replied, only half believing me, and smiling challengingly.  “What tree is this where you are sitting?” 

                I looked up into the darkened branches and just discerned the pointed, compound leaves of a neem tree.  “It’s mwarobaini,” I said, and needlessly explained that this meant “treats 40 diseases” and proceeded to list as many of them as I could think of at the moment.  “The leaves can be chewed to heal rotten gums and improve the breath,” I said.  “And the twigs make good toothbrushes.  The fat from the seeds will kill scabies and head lice.  The bark can be made into a cold infusion to cure the fever of malaria.  And the bark can be cut away from the tree to make the soles of shoes.” 

                All throughout this recitation the man remained unimpressed, as if I was telling him nothing new.  But at this last statement, he visibly brightened.  “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t know you could make shoes out of the bark of mwarobaini!”  Then, in order to illustrate my point, I indicated  the trunk of the tree above my head, where two foot-shaped scars revealed the spots where somebody had harvested a handy pair of sandals from this giving tree.  The man laughed until I thought his shirt buttons would surely pop.  Then someone called to him, so wishing me safe travels, he melted back into the crowd.  I settled down to wait for the steamer, and as I sat there, undisturbed, my mind roved back over the plants and trees I’d learned to identify and utilize to treat myself and local people during my travels.  They were ingrained in my memory, and I recounted them mentally, and this is what I was thinking about . . .   

A walk through a spice plantation. 

Mixed crop systems are very common, with groves of cinnamon and clove interspersed with towering nutmeg trees and an understory of bananas, cardamon and vanilla.  The people have made a business not only of growing and preparing spices for export, but in giving taste-test tours and showing off the plants and trees that have earned Zanzibar the “Spice Islands” adage.  Once you get to know the local people, they will inevitably ask “Have you gone on spicey?” This means,  “Have you toured a spice plantation yet?”  If the answer is no, then they will enthusiastically recommend that you do so.  And I would recommend this, too.  It’s amazing to see and taste the plants and trees that produce the familiar spices of world cuisine. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum).  The Swahili is “mpilipili manga” which means “Arabian pepper.”  I had imagined that this would grow on a tree but was surprised to find that it grows on a vine.  The farmers train the vines to a post, and harvest the drooping clusters of fruits at different times and process them in various ways to produce three grades of peppercorns:  white, red or black.  These are mainly given over to export, although the pepper is sometimes used locally,  to preserve and/or spice various dishes, mostly containing meat.

Cardamon (Elettaria cardamomum).  The Swahili is “iliki.”  At least two varieties exist:  small cardamon and giant cardamon.  This is an herbaceous plant that grows much like ginger and has extraordinary flowers that give way to the pods filled with sticky, aromatic seeds.  The pods are used as a spice, as a flavoring for tea, and as a carminative medicine.  Although many of the spices of Zanzibar are used very sparingly in local cuisine, cardamon is an exception.  It is commonly used in chai, and my guides (and I) chewed the pods as we walked. 

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum).  The Swahili is “mdalasini.”  The trees are very fast growing and can be allowed to grow singly, in which case they attain the form of a midsize, fountaining hardwood, or they can be planted in a line and trimmed to a hedge, for the purpose of privacy and as a wind break.  The bark is reddish and thick, and can be rossed, then peeled back from the trees in vertical strips so as not to kill the tree.  The bark is then sun dried whereupon it curls into quills.  Thick and ugly bark is ground up into powdered cinnamon.  Thinner, higher grade bark is dried into cinnamon sticks.  Let the buyer beware–Cassia bark is often substituted for true cinnamon.  But in Zanzibar, I saw only true cinnamon growing.

Clove (Eugenia aromatica).  The Swahili is “mkarafuu.”  This is the name of the tree.  The Swahili for the pregnant, bright red, swollen fruits that can be planted to produce more trees is “matende.”  The spice is made up of the flower buds, which are colored green at first , then turn bright red, and are then sun dried to produce the cloves of commerce.  The cloves are dried on mats in the sun, and turned several times daily.  Everyone rushes out to cover the cloves when a rainstorm approaches, lest the wetting of the cloves result in a diminution of quality.  Clove wood is used in construction and for fuel.  In local medicine, the cloves are a treatment for vascular disease.  They are ground, mixed with fat, and applied to the skin.  There is also a brisk business in clove oil (a topical and oral analgesic) and in clove soap (delightful).  Cloves as a commodity are controlled by the government of Zanzibar, and the price is very low to the producer and relatively high to the buyer.  Zanzibar produces the majority of cloves that are consumed on the world market.  Locals complain that the work of picking the flower buds is laborious and dangerous (one must climb high up into the trees) and that the wages are inadequate.  I observed many large sacks of cloves being loaded onto a steamer at the docks of Wete, on the northern coast of Pemba, the greenest island in the archipelago.  Higher prices are paid for black market cloves, but they must be exported surreptitiously.  Native dhows  with hand-carved wooden hulls and sails made of sewn-together rice sacks are loaded to the gills.  They brave the seas between the spice islands and the port of Mombasa in Kenya where the cargo is sold at a premium. 

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus/flexuosus).  The Swahili is “nchaichai” meaning  literally “tea-tea,”  which implies “something tea-like.”  The plant is used in local production of crude essential oil and in perfumery.  The dried leaves are used by traditional healers to make an infusion against headache and cough.  They sometimes recommend aspirating the tea through the nose. 

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).  The Swahili is “mkungumanga” which means “Arab nutmeg,” a name which is generally pronounced with a hushed, conspiratorial, and slightly embarrassed tone of voice.  The reason for this is that most locals know the fruits to be an intoxicating sexual stimulant.  The tree is very large and spreading, a handsome tropical hardwood.  The nut occurs inside a large fleshy pericarp, a presentation not unlike our English walnut.  Around the seed is wrapped a bright red, waxy net-like lattice,  which is the mace.  Basically, this is two commercially recognized spices in one, although the taste of mace, albeit stronger than seed nutmeg, is nonetheless very similar.  Locally, the seeds are ground into powder and used as a flavoring in porridge.  At night, the amorous couple may grind the seeds with anticipatory ardor, and make a hot tea, which is drunk before bed. There is good international trade, although the spice tends to get old and consequently loses much of its kick before it makes its way to the world market.  Fresh nutmeg is astoundingly potent.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia).  The Swahili is “mvanila” which is pretty easy to remember.  This is the dried pod of the vine of the vanilla orchid and it is an expensive commodity, reflecting the great care and hand labor required to grow it.  The saprophytic vines are mulched with coir and trained up a nurse tree.  The flowers must be hand-pollinated on a dry morning, and if this narrow window of opportunity is missed, there will be no vanilla pod.  It would be like trying to milk your cow without breeding her.  The pods are carefully picked at maturity and fermented and dried to produce the familiar sticky, black spice that one likes to find in very small chunks in one’s ice cream.  Even in Zanzibar, vanilla pods are expensive and somewhat rare.  As an aside, I inquired as to the name of the nurse tree and was told the trees were “mjengaua.”  I thought this was a great find, to know the name of the nurse tree, and wrote it in my notes, and eagerly went back to my little room at Sharook’s Guest House in the little town of Wete to pore over my references and find the Latin name.  But then I leaned back in my squeaky chair and looked at the stained ceiling and murmured “mjengaua, mjengaua, why is that so familiar?”  And in that moment I realized what the guide had done–not knowing the real name of the tree, he’d made up a contraction on the spot.  Mjengaua means “that which hangs the flower!” 

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).  The Swahili is “mlangilangi,” again, easy to remember.  The “m” prefix simply means “tree.”  Another full-sized tropical hardwood.  On “spicey” I smelled the characteristic, heavenly fragrance, before I even saw the tree.  My guide ordered one of his workers to scale the tall trunk and bring down a flowering branch.  I kneeled down to change my camera lens, which only takes a second, and when I stood back up was amazed to find the fellow standing before me,  proffering a nice branch.  He wasn’t even out of breath.  I’ll never know how he did that so fast!  Anyway, the branch was thickly studded with the star-like, green flowers, redolent with oil glands, and the entire affair smelled so strongly that I nearly went to sleep on the spot.  Later, in the car back from the spice tour, we were all fighting sleep–the whole car was redolent with the fragrance.  Locals make an oil infusion by partially drying the flowers and leaves, then steeping in coconut oil for a day or two in the sun, then straining and bottling up in the usual manner.  This is a potent sexual stimulant, a perfume, and an invitation to deep sleep and Elysian dreams. 

Tropical annuals for planting in the temperate north:

One of the main motivations for visiting Zanzibar (besides pouring cultural WD-40 on the rusty hinges of my dormant Swahili) was to identify tropical annual herbs that could conceivably be successfully grown in the temperate north.  This part of my mission was released to the winds of chance, and with good luck I came across a number of cultivars that turned out to be useful.  These were grown out in our gardens at Horizon Herbs with good success, so that we could produce our own organically certified seed.  They have become popular varieties that are now  grown throughout the US. 

African Bird Peppers (Capsicum frutescens).  The Swahili is “mpilipili hoho.”  These make bright red fruits, pointed, as small as the beak of a finch, occurring on heavily studded, short, globe-shaped bushes.  The fruits are very hot, and they are used sparingly in curries.  A rubefacient oil is made by grinding the dried peppers and making an oil infusion.  The fresh peppers are ground with salt and oil or vinegar to make a condiment, used mainly on rice dishes.  “African Bird Peppers” sold by seed companies in the US represent an astounding number of questionable cultivars.  My hope was to introduce some reliably identified germplasm into the public domain.   

African Tea Basils.  These are widespread indigenous species that take two basic forms.  The first is an upright perennial woody bush known locally as “mtule.”  The Latin is Ocimum suave.  The plant occurs very commonly on roadside and in waste places, and is largely ignored by the populace.  The funny thing is, despite its cosmopolitan nature, I never got a very good picture of it (until we grew it out here in the US).  Every time I saw a good one in Zanzibar, I hesitated to bring out my camera, lest I be labeled a tourist and be obliged to fend off an onslaught of locals asking for handouts, selling trinkets, telling unlikely stories, or attempting to pick my pockets, etc.  Salimbum, who was the highly respected witch doctor I apprenticed to , said that the leaves were dried and made into a tea, used for treating gum disease and were also given fresh and undried to teething children, to kill the pain and to stop their crying.  Since the predominant smell is oil of clove (eugenol) I wondered first why they didn’t simply use cloves, but then realized that cloves were an introduced species, and that the use of mtule would have substantially predated the introduction of clove trees to the islands.  In any case, the use of a clove-like plant for treating dental woes is a good cross-cultural verification. 

The second form is a diminutive annual plant known locally as “kivumbasi.”  The Latin is Ocimum canum.  This, too, is a very common plant on the islands, usually found in patches where the ground is moist.  The plant goes quickly to flower and seed, smells minty, and is somewhat variable from place to place.  On the island of Unguja, I discovered a patch of citrus smelling kivumbasi, a unique accession that turned out to be quite valuable.  Since I discovered this plant while in the act of assisting some locals who were suffering from various complaints, I really saw this discovery as a bit of instant good kharma.  If only we could package that.  In Zanzibar, witch doctoring requires a communion with the physical (herb) and the aetheric (magic, if you will).  This herb kivumbasi bridges any perceived gap.  The tea is used to treat stomach ache and as a general panacea, a kind of African adaptogen.  The dried plant is used as an incense to welcome in the newborn and to banish evil spirits from the house.  It is used by the witch doctors in divination.  One of the divinatory methods I observed was exactly the same as the Gypsy method known as “reading the tea leaves.”   

African Culinary Basil (Ocimum basilicum).  In Swahili, this is known as “mrihani.”  I’m convinced there must be other cultivars, but the predominant one I found was a midsize, sweet basil with ruffled leaves and a rich, true basil fragrance.  A beautiful plant both to behold and to taste.  This is used by local people to flavor curries, and it is dried and hung about the neck in a locket known as “manukato.”   We grew the plants out here in the US and found it to be a reliable annual cultivar, previously unknown.

African Marigolds (Tagates erecta).  In Swahili, this is known as “tururu.” One of the standard ethnographic references for Swahili plants (Kokwaro, 1976) gives a straight-faced documentation of an indigenous use for this plant that was probably a joke hatched by a playful informant.  “Roots eaten with oyster nuts (Telfaria pedata) to relieve pain in the sexual organs.” If you’ve ever tried eating the woody roots of a marigold, you will know one of the reasons why this is probably a joke!  Now, I have friends in the seed breeding trade who have worked hard to create new cultivars of African Marigold, and I’m sure what they’ve come up with is very nice.   But I wanted to go the opposite direction and find the plant that started the whole business, and my thought was that this should be a midsize, upright plant bearing  orange and yellow flowers arrayed as singles (not doubles), giving forth the strong and characteristic smell of marigolds.  American herbalists (including myself) tend toward using calendula in their salves, but I’ve always been interested in trying out marigold, which is a similar flavonoid-rich medicinal flower that was a traditional salve-making ingredient (and dye plant) from the European tradition.  I shied away from doing this, because all the marigolds I could find were hybridized or heavily selected.  I was keeping a sharp eye, but all I’d seen so far as I toured around first Unguja, then Pemba, were a few marigolds growing roadside.  Then one day, walking up the road toward Kinyasini in Pemba, I stopped at a roadside stand selling fresh cane juice, and noticed behind the stand a yard, and in the yard a garden where grew hundreds of African marigolds.  These plants perfectly fit the description that had been developed in my mind’s eye!  Would the cane juice seller be willing to pick some dried seed heads for me?  Yes, he would.  He picked three, and gave them to me.  “Fine,” I said, and “thank you,” but knowing I needed a much broader genetic platform for good seed saving, I offered him a nice reward if he would give permission for me to go through and get seeds from the entire patch.   The fellow called to some neighborhood children, and as a team we picked every dried seed head, putting them in paper bags that I had handy.  “By the way,” I said as the pick neared its end.  I want to grow these in America and send the seed out to gardens all around the world.”  He stopped, smiled, looked up at me and said “That is good.  All gardens need flowers like these!”

A Sampler of Medicinal Herbs and Trees from Zanzibar:

Aloe (Aloe kirkii, A. vera).  The Swahili is “mshubiri mwitu,” which means forest aloe.  An alternate name in Swahili is “mzimakilio” which means “to make whole the crying” or “to stop the crying” a reference to the practice of dropping the aloe juice in the infected ear of a crying infant (and what happens afterwards).  Other common uses include boiling the plant and drinking the liquid to treat stomach afflictions or diabetes.  The plant is also used for treating the sting of the poisonous sea snail (koa) (Heine & Legere, 1995).  One of the most satisfying experiences of my entire Zanzibari sojourn was coming across a wild Aloe vera on the pristine tropical island of Misale, off the coast of Pemba.  Misale is a nature preserve, and you’re not supposed to pick anything, but I confess to having done a bit of guerilla gardening.  The Aloes were growing pathside not far from the beach where we landed our dhow. Finding wild Aloe instead of propagating it on my windowsill at home  was like knowing a prisoner and meeting her  for the first time in the outside world–I saw  her in a new light.  The radiating clusters of juicy leaves were borne up on writhing, succulent stems covered in a papery bark.  Emanating from the base of the stem were many small “pups” which I knew to be good starts.  Carefully removing them from the mother, I went across the path and planted them in likely spots on the opposite side.  I hope someday to return to discover that my charges have grown as big and healthy as their parent.  Aloes are respected by all the local people, and would never be harmed or overharvested.  In fact, among the general populace, people demonstrate an innate sense of conservation, protecting plants and taking only what they need.  On several occasions, when picking seeds with the help of indigenous people, they demanded that I stop, even though it seemed like there was a surfeit, simply because something told them that it was–enough.     

Annatto (Bixa orellana).  The Swahili is “mzingefuri.”  This is a showy shrub that is commonly planted as a hedge.  It yields prodigiously.  The lovely flowers give way to red-tinged, spiny capsules that contain the soft and brick-red seeds.  These are water extracted to produce a universal coloring agent that is frequently used in the food industry.  A little goes a long way in turning white cheese into yellow cheese, for instance.  The plant is used by the Swahilis against fevers and infections.  The Vedic populace uses annatto for making the third-eye bindi mark habitually worn by married women. 

Baobab (Adansonia digitata).  The Swahilis call this “mbuyu,” which means “the tree that bears gourds.”  Many of the plants I’ve spoken of so far are spices originally imported to Zanzibar to grow on planned plantations.  Baobab however is native.  In fact, the current Genus name, which belonged to the white explorer Michael Adanson might reasonably be changed to mbuyu.  Mbuyu digitata–it flows, and such a name, if allowed, would put more emphasis on the genuine African origin of the tree.  Regardless of its name the tree is fantastic–looming, with a swollen barrel of a trunk reaching out with a few humanoid branches attempting to clasp the blistering sun.  The gourds themselves are elongated and hang pendant to the undersides of the branches.  They are filled with rocklike seeds suspended in a crystalline matrix.  This material dissolves readily, and a spoonful stirred into a glass of water produces  a delightful,  brightly sweet/tart beverage loaded with vitamins.  This is merely one of the uses of the tree, which also provides twine and herbal medicine.  Not to mention shade in a scorched landscape.    

Castor (Ricinus communis).  The Swahilis have various names for this member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) including Mbarika and Mbono. This is another native, and it is well respected, left alone where it grows in open places near roads and in waste areas. The plants grow long, woody stems up to 15 feet, and the frilled flowers give way to rubbery, softly spiny capsules wherein the  seeds develop slowly.  When mature and dry the plant forcibly ejects them out into the environment, where they are left to lie, because they are quite poisonous, although only if ingested.  In native witch doctoring, the broad, smooth, palmate leaves of this plant are steamed until hot and then laid on problem areas as a poultice.  We had grown several species here on the farm for over a decade, but it was in Zanzibar where I generated sufficient confidence to actually use the plant.  In Unguja, local acquaintances were suffering from plantar warts, and I performed some minor surgeries.  I used the oily endosperm of the castor seed to pack the craterous site of extraction, then followed up with steaming castor leaves that pulled out the infection, the whole disallowing recurrence by destroying the viral core.  People recovered quickly.   

Coral Tree (Jatropha multifida).  This handsome bush to small tree is variously known as “mbuluki” or “miodine” which means “the iodine tree.”  Apparently the plant has been relatively recently introduced, since the main ethnographies of the East African region ignore it, and it was difficult for me to find out much about it from the villagers, many of whom dismissed it as an “ua ya bustani” which is a general term for any garden flower.  Another Spurge family member, mbuluki  builds up its fleshy branches with impressive rapidity.  When the bark is slashed, out oozes a soothing oleo-gum-resin that can be rubbed onto wounds to make an antiseptic and protectively latex-like natural bandage.  The leaves are deeply palmate and as pretty a thing as you’ll ever see on a plant.  The flower is a cluster of coral red goblets.  The fruits are large and yellow, feeding and protecting  the meaty seeds that when fully ripe become filled with fat.  With care, these could probably be rendered into biofuel. 

Curry Leaf Tree (Murraya koenigii).  The Swahilis name this one “mvuje” or “mpolio” because they say it treats polio.  Small children wear a sewn bag of the dried leaves around their necks as a charm, to discourage childhood diseases.  It is common practice to burn the dried leaves in order to drive away sickness from the house.  The witch doctors use the plant to expunge  evil spirits.  The strangely musky leaves, when  fresh,  are used by the Vedic population to flavor special curries.  India, remember, is just across a relatively small ocean.  If you’re in East Africa, and you get a yearning for India, you can take a tramp steamer across the ocean and perhaps even stopover at the heavenly  Seychelle islands, but watch out for Somalian pirates–they are active in these seas! 

Henna (Lawsonia inermis).  The Swahili name is variously “mhina” or “muhina.”  This is mainly used as a lovely conditioner and dye for the hair.  The dried leaves are ground to powder, then hydrated and applied to the hair like a mudpack, allowed to sit for several hours, and then rinsed out to reveal the new you.  Mixed with a solvent, this same leaf powder can be applied to the skin in order to stain it bright red.  In Swahili culture, this is often done in elaborate scrolls on the soles of the hands and feet, where the skin is light enough to show the decorative touch.   

Jequirity (Abrus precatorius).  There are at least 17 Swahili names for this little vine, including such descriptive terms as “macho ya tipitipi.” This means “eyes of the white brown Coucal” which the seeds resemble.  They are hard, globular, and bright red, with a large dark spot.  The powder of the seeds is potently poisonous but it is also used by the witchdoctors.  I visited two of these dynamic healers, and both of them showed me the seeds to this plant.  Supposedly the poisonous properties are rendered harmless once the seeds are boiled in water. 

Love Apple (Solanum taitense).  Defining this plant under “Love Apple” might be a stretch, because it is not the usual species that is mentioned, but to my eye it is very, very close.  This is a lurid smelling tomato-like bush, a perennial that grows in dry ground and makes patches in waste places.  The plant is fast-growing and frequently adventitiously re-sown by the dropping of its own fruits, which resemble small, green tomatoes.  The Swahilis know it as “mtunguja” and it is used to address various dental woes.  The roots are shredded and soaked in water, which is then pulled into the mouth and retained for some time, and finally spit out.  This addresses gum infection and cleans out and slows down dental caries.  The smoke from the burned plant is likewise used to fumigate the mouth against infection.  The man who taught me about this plant demonstrated how it could be used to flush worms out of the teeth, squeezing his eyes shut and  leaning over the imaginary smoke, baring his teeth like buck goat in heat.  It was quite graphic. 


Kokwaro, J.O. 1976.  Medicinal Plants of East Africa.  Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam:  East African Literature Bureau.

Heine, B & Karsten Legere, 1995.  Swahili Plants: an ethnobotanical survey.  Rudiger Koppe Verlag.  Koln, Germany.

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