A Holy Public Secret

QAL

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
~William Blake

I’m reading a lovely little book right now called The Forest Unseen, written by David George Haskell. This professor of biology spent a year observing a one-square-metre patch of old-growth forest in Tennessee and recorded his observations in a series of illuminating essays on the natural world. His premise was: observing the small, almost invisible aspects of nature can reveal the story of the forest as a whole in a rich and intimate way. Close observation invites the viewer to witness the hidden secrets of ecosystems that are otherwise unseen.QAL2I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially as I view the plant kingdom through my loupe. Seeing the small details come into focus under 10 or 20 times magnification fills me with no end of delight and awe and it really does feel like I am being let in on a secret. This kind of knowing feels special, as if I have passed through a threshold into a place where mysteries are revealed.Cone 013Ecologist and taxonomist Arthur Haines teaches that, “conscientious human interaction with plants, such as foraging in a careful and sustainable manner, can actually insure the survival of a plant species…” It is through interacting with the plants that we can truly begin to value them and their (our) habitats.

When you take this level of interaction with the plants down to the microcosmic level and reveal the mysteries awaiting there, I feel an unbreakable bond is forged. For me, it is a bond formed of wonderment, reverence and gratitude. A fierce protective instinct kicks in too, and a desire to nurture and care for the whole that is represented by the small part in front of me.cottonwoodbud

“If Nature Study is your goal,
Take note: a single part reflects the whole.
Nought is within and nought without,
For what is in is also out.
So grasp without delay this prize:
That here a holy public secret lies.
Rejoice in true illusion’s fame,
Rejoice in Nature’s serious game.
No living thing alone can be-
It only exists in company.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

And here’s the thing: these mysteries are available to everyone! Everyone has the ability to look closely and witness the ‘holy public secret’ of nature and discover the treasures waiting there.

This year I have designed a series of plant classes that I hope will give participants the opportunity to do just that. By providing the time and structure to cross that threshold into the realm of the unseen, each class will aim to make visible that which is so often invisible in our hectic, plugged-in lives.  Through a variety of lessons and activities such as nature awareness exercises, botany, herbal preparations and more, the full value of some of our most common, often widely disparaged plants, will be revealed. I invite you to come join me!

For full details on the classes or to register, visit here.


Winter Botany- Motherwort

Motherwort1Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is an herbaceous, short-lived perennial plant in the Lamiaceae or mint family. It is a fairly robust plant that can grow up to 5 feet tall, making it another good candidate for winter observation. Though most of the leaves will have withered away, the whorled calyxes persist, making this a fun and interesting plant to ID at this time of year. It is also easy to observe, even from a distance, the opposite branching pattern that is typical of the mint family.
motherwort2 This specimen has one pair of shrivelled leaves remaining, allowing us to view the opposite leaf pattern.
motherwort3 Look closely and see that there are two leaves per node on the stalk (as opposed to an alternate leaf pattern, where there is only one leaf per node). Also, notice the stem. It is square-shaped. This is another pattern of the mint family.

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In cross section it is easy to observe the four sides of the square stem. The stem of motherwort is hollow.
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Now let’s take a look at the calyxes. These are the only structures of the inflorescence, along with the occasional remaining seed, to persist in winter, the corollas (flower petals) having died back long ago.
motherwort4The calyx is the collective term for the sepals of a flower and it is the outermost part of a flower. The sepals are often, but not always, green, leaf-like structures that enclose a flower when it is in bud. In the mint family the calyx is made up of usually 5 sepals that are united or fused together to form a tube. In motherwort, these structures grow in whorled clusters around the stem, from the leaf axils. In this pic, half of the whorl has been removed to show 5 individual tube-like calyxes.

motherwort 017Looking down into the calyx, through the loupe, it is easy to see the five lobes of the united sepals. In motherwort the lobes taper off into slender, sharp spines. These spines are sharp enough to pierce the skin, so handle with care!

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At the base of the calyx is the seed capsule which contains 4 nutlets, 3 of which are pictured here. They are three-sided and somewhat triangular in shape. The seeds are wider at the top and narrower at the base. Notice the fine, bristly hairs, just barely visible on the top of the seeds.
motherwortseedsMotherwort is a non-native plant that grows abundantly in disturbed soil, along roadsides, in fields and urban parks. Keep an eye out for its opposite branching and leaf arrangement, square stems and spiky, whorled calyxes.


Winter Botany- Elecampane

I love winter botanizing and observing the stark, beautiful remains of plants against a white landscape. Elecampane (Inula helenium) is an excellent candidate for observation because the tall, stout stems and fuzzy leaves persist most of the winter, well above even the deepest snow, as do the receptacles of the plant’s inflorescences.
Elecampane1Elecampane is a wonderful plant to experience tactilely, especially for kids. The  large, simple, alternate leaves, though brittle and shrivelled, should still feel soft and velvety on the undersides. Notice how the remaining leaves on the upper portion of the stem are sessile. This means the leaves lack a petiole (leaf stalk) and clasp directly to the stem of the plant.  The thick, round stem is also covered in fine hairs, but these may wear off over the winter.
elecampne2 As a member of the Asteraceae family, the composite flowers have some unique features, which are easily observed in Elecampane, even though the flowers have long since died. Involucral bracts are modified leaves (not to be confused with sepals) and ring the receptacle. Here we can see the outer bracts which are broad, curled under and covered in dense, short hairs. The inner bracts are long, narrow and glabrous (smooth and hairless).
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Looking at the receptacle you can see the pits in the disk that held the achenes (dry fruits which contain a single seed).
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Here is a close up view of the receptacle through a 20x loupe.
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Most of the seeds had dispersed, but these two found their way home with me. These achenes are long and four sided and attached to fine pappus hairs.
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These hairs are what allows the seeds to be carried long distances on the wind, an excellent reproductive strategy!
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Here you can see the woolly-velvety texture on the undersides of the leaves.
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And again through the loupe.
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Elecampane is native to Europe, but has naturalised through much of Eastern and Western North America. In grows in disturbed areas, fields and roadsides, especially in moist soil. Occasionally it grows in large patches pictured here, but often you will find single plants spread over a large area. I frequently see it at the edges of wooded areas. In the Ottawa area, look for it on the Carleton campus and in Brewer Park by the river.

Be sure to keep an eye out for this beautiful, interesting plant on your next winter walk and enjoy exploring and getting to know it!


Eastern White Cedar

cedar

Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae family) is ubiquitous in the Northeastern North American landscape. It is especially common in urban settings. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the average urban dweller in the Northeast wouldn’t have to travel more than 50 paces outside their front door before encountering a cedar hedge. As a fast-growing, hardy conifer that holds up well in cold climates, it’s a popular landscaping choice for living fences and privacy screens in residential areas. It is so common that its presence seems a bit dull and boring, a little too homogeneous.

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It is easy to overlook and undervalue something so banal. There is nothing exotic or rare about a plant that we see everywhere, everyday, so much so that we lose our awareness of it until it fades into the background as just another piece of the wall of green. What sacred mysteries could this mundane plant possibly hold?

Thuja_occidentalis_foliage_Wisconsin

But one only needs to, literally, scratch the surface to discover the wonders of this plant. Take a close look at the scaly leaves of a cedar bough. Studded along the upper and underside of the leaves are tiny glands that are just visible to the naked eye, but are best viewed under a hand lens. Each of these glands contain essential oils that are released when you scratch the glands with your thumbnail. The essential oil contains a number of chemicals including: alpha-pinene, alpha-fenchene, camphene, sabinene, beta-mycrene, limonene, alpha-fenchone, alpha-thujone, beta-thujone, camphor and bornyl acetate. (1)

These potent phytochemicals have many beneficial medicinal properties in the human body. They are antimicrobial, active against bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. They have immune-stimulating properties and act as adjuvants to prescription antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections.(2) Arthur Haines writes that cedar enhances the immune system through, “increased white blood cell count, increased cytokines and antibody production, activation of macrophages”, and that “taken prior to or at the onset of cold and flu symptoms, Thuja occidentalis has the capacity to shorten the duration of symptoms.” Cedar also has an expectorant action aiding in chest congestion, boggy lungs and phlegmy coughs.

Exceptionally high in vitamin C, one of the other common names for this plant is arborvitae, which means ‘tree of life’. Tales have come down through history, recounting how early explorers and settlers to the New World suffered from scurvy and Native Americans taught them to drink tea made from cedar and other conifers, to treat and prevent the disease. It is hard for us, with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, to imagine now how deadly this disease was, and how miraculous such a simple cure would seem to those suffering from it. Tree of Life, indeed.

Topically, the plant is beneficial as a wash for wounds and skin irritations such as fungal infections. Traditionally, cedar has been used on warts and cold sores.The Eclectics used cedar for ulcers, bed sores, mouth sores, varicose veins and gangrene.  Some First Nations communities would dry and powder the leaves to use as a poultice for skin conditions.

Cedar is a scared plant to Native Americans and is used for medicinal, household and ceremonial purposes.  Traditionally, the Algonquin used an infusion of the leaves to give to children with colic. The Abnaki, Algonquin and Iroquois treated rheumatic complaints with topical applications of the plant. The wood was used for canoe slats and ribs. The bark was used for weaving and cordage. Leaves were used in steam baths and burned to fumigate living spaces and as incense fore ceremonial purposes. The tree was worshipped and revered for it usefulness.(3)

Incorporating cedar into your home apothecary is easy. The plant is soluble in water, alcohol and oil. Leaves can be harvested with the proper tools and care and dried for use as a simple tea. Keep your tea covered while steeping to prevent the volatile oils from escaping. I love adding cedar to my baths in the winter time for the warming, circulatory stimulating and mild pain relieving properties. Cedar foot baths are lovely too. I simmer a few good handfuls of leaves in a pot on the stove for about 20 minutes or so and strain the decoction into my bathwater or foot bath. As an herbal steam, cedar is wonderfully aromatic and helpful in breaking up sinus and chest congestion. To prepare, crush a handful of leaves into a large bowl and pour boiling water over the leaves. Being careful to not burn yourself, position your head over the bowl and cover both your head and the bowl with a large towel. Gently breathe in the steam. Pine and fir needles are a nice addition to this steam as are a few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus, tea tree, rosemary, sage etc. Try regular applications of a cedar tincture on warts and fungal infections. Take small doses in hot water at the onset of a cold or flu. Cedar infused oil smells great and is also useful for fungal issues and other skin irritations. Making your own smudge sticks from cedar is easy. I use them at the start of my yoga practice and throughout the day to help focus my attention and shift my mood. Simply being near cedar has benefits too, especially for people with heart disease. Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that, on a warm summer’s day, “the trees will release fenchone and both alpha and beta-thujone into the immediate environment. These chemicals are strong cardiac muscle stimulants and will help the heart in its pumping function…White cedar also produces camphene and camphor, which are broncholdilators and improve the breathing of all those suffering from chronic lung problems.”

The next time you pass that plain cedar hedge, stop a moment to admire a bough, scratch and sniff a leaf and inhale the essential oils and perhaps bring some home and get to know this scared plant.

Occasional, moderate use of this plant can be very beneficial, but because of the thujone content, cedar should not be used in excessive amounts for prolonged periods of time and is best avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women.

For folks living on the West coast, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) has similar uses.

Avoid harvesting from areas high in pollution and contamination and do not harvest from private property without permission.

Sources:
(1) Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger
(2) Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northeast Vol. I, Arthur Haines
(3) Native American Ethnobotany: Daniel E. Moerman

Photos:

http://pixabay.com/en/thuya-hedge-tree-of-life-thuja-10508/

http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%BBywotnik_zachodni


Fall & Winter Workshops

wildpotluck2

This summer’s series of plant walks wrapped in September with an amazingly impressive wild potluck feast. It was wonderful to see all the dishes and drinks creatively made with a variety of foraged ingredients.

With the cooler weather here and snow inevitably on its way, it’s time to move indoors. All through the fall and winter I offer workshops in my home, on a variety of subjects and themes relating to herbal medicine.
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I kicked off workshop season last Saturday with Herbs for the Musculoskeletal System. We had a full house with 12 lovely participants and one adorable baby.

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I love those moments after a workshop ends and I sit down feeling exhausted but also wound up and kind of high and just ever so grateful to have been given another opportunity to share simple, practical information on how people can use the healing plants that are growing around them for medicine in the home. I find myself offering up a wordless prayer of thanks to the plants and asking for the grace and wisdom to do right by them, while recommitting to the journey of learning and deepening my knowledge and understanding of the material that I share with others.

If that sounds a little flaky, so be it. I don’t think you can go too far down the herbal garden path without leaving at least a little room open for flower fairies and plant spirits. It gladdens the heart and in no way interferes with my ability to understand the immune stimulating activity of water-soluble polysaccharides in plants or the connection between the bitter taste, T2R receptors, the vagus nerve and digestive health. At a certain point everything dissolves into mystery anyway; something profound and inexplicable. In the meantime I’m happy to explore what is knowable and not-so-knowable with both my brain and my heart.

But I digress. What I wanted to tell you about is that all the dates and details for my workshops this fall and winter are up and available for you to check out here.

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My workshops focus on easy to find, local, weedy plants that you can harvest yourself and make into simple remedies to support health and wellness. I always emphasize how good food, proper nutrition and healthy movement are foundational to health. I have a bias towards wild foods, nature awareness and walking and I’ll talk about all these things before I even get to the plants. I want people to use their senses to experience the herbs so I will invite you to taste, smell and feel plants in all their forms. This is whole plant medicine and it’s organoleptic learning. Sometimes it’s messy. I’ll probably tell you you’re throwing your money away on expensive tablet and capsule supplements (although I do believe there is a therapeutic time and place for these.)  I’ll encourage you to grow and gather your own medicine, but I’ll also show you how to choose quality herbal products in the health food store. I’ll ask you to make ethical choices (no wildcrafted goldenseal or echinacea please) and I’ll go on about the benefits of supporting local, small-scale herb growers and wildcrafters (full disclosure: I am one!) I’ll do my best to deepen your herbal knowledge beyond a ‘this herb, for that condition’ model that simply substitutes herbs for drugs. This can work sometimes, but it’s really hit or miss and doesn’t even come close to the kind of bone deep, whole body healing that is possible when you treat the person, not the disease and you know how to match the right herb with the right person. (The last 3 workshops cover this material in particular.) In my workshops there will always be tea and snacks! There’s handouts, lots of resources, and sometimes a little something else for you to take home to add to your apothecary. The groups are small, cozy and really friendly. I love the folks who come out and I think you will too.

Here are the upcoming dates and topics. They are $30 each. If you are a CSA member you can attend for free (although there is $5 materials fee). If you would like to attend more than one, get in touch with me directly for a discount.

November 15th Herbs for the Respiratory System
December 6th Herbs for the Female Reproductive System
January 24th Herbs for the Digestive System
February 21st The Tastes of Herbs
March 21st The 6 Tissue States
April 25th Intro to Constitutional Theory

Oh and you know what my favourite thing is about hosting workshops? I can guarantee that at least once a month my place will be thoroughly cleaned! So please come out and give me a reason to dust. :)


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