A May Wildcraft – Reishi and Lady’s Slipper!

4 Jun

I had the opportunity to travel north of Lakefield, Ontario last weekend to do some hiking and plant identification! We found many new plants that I did not have the pleasure of finding in flower last spring. Spring holds some of the most aromatic and floral-scented wildflowers, some of these being my favorites! Here are some of this week’s finds:

1. Trumpet Honeysuckle (not quite blooming)

Trumpet Honeysuckle(Lonicera sempervirens) – I love honeysuckles and this is one that I found growing in the forest’s edge in a small cluster. I am hoping to find another one in a few weeks when in full bloom and add its picture to  this entry. The way the opposite leaves almost make a cup around the flower cluster always catches my attention. These flowers are very pretty and have a wonderful, sweet scent, hence the name ‘honeysuckle’, a hummingbird favorite.

Edibility: None noted
Medicinal uses: You can juice the plant and use the juices externally for bee stings. The leaves were dried and smoked to alleviate asthma symptoms

2. Miterwort

Miterwort growing in a carpet of small snowflakes

Miterwort growing in a carpet of small snowflakes

(Mitella dphylla) – This little delicate flower was growing in the deep woodlands alongside Toothwort, White Trilliums, birch trees, and hemlocks. It can grow almost anywhere in our area but prefers moist soils. I like this plant because the leaves are mirrored symmetrically at the stem and also the way the waxy little flowers remind me of snowflakes.

Edibility: None noted
Medicinal uses: You can make an infusion from the leaves to treat fevers and as eye drops for sore, red eyes.

3. Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Yellow Lady's Slipper, close-up of the flower

Yellow Lady’s Slipper, close-up of the flower

(Cypripedium calceolus) – Lady’s Slipper is also known as ‘Nerve Root’, among others. What a find this was! I knew they grew in our area and are common in Europe, but this is something I have not found or seen outside plant books. The basal leaves were very camouflaged and as we were walking home through the forest trail, my sister’s partner, Kevin, told us he had found something. Katie and I immediately saw the ‘slipper’ and were so happy he found it. It does really have the shape of a shoe; I guess the name was a ‘good fit’…..

Edibility: None noted – can cause dermatitis to the skin and large doses can cause hallucinations
Medicinal uses: Lady’s slipper is most known for its sedative and relaxing effect on the nervous system. It is characteristic of this orchid to have a strong, bitter, pungent smell.  North American Indians used it as a sedative and antispasmodic to ease menstrual and labor pains and to counter insomnia and nervous tension. Nerve root might act as a drying agent to help shrink blood vessels.

4. Large Toothwort

Toothwort in full bloom with white flower clusters (very similar leaf and stem relation to Miterwort

Toothwort in full bloom with white flower clusters (very similar leaf and stem relation to Miterwort

(Dentaria maxima) – I found this plant growing in many areas of our forest walk, noting its similar posture to the Miterwort. A very nice show of white flowers carpeting the forest floor in small patches. This plant is very frost hardy (down to -20 degrees C.) and can be found near rivers and creeks, or in shady forests.

Edibility: Root – You can eat the root raw or cooked. Traditionally prepared by harvesting the pungent root and piled into a heap, fermenting for several days. This allows the root to sweeten where it is then boiled.
Medicinal uses: Again, the root is used as a ‘stomachic’ that helps tone the stomach, improving overall function and increases appetite.

5. Canadian Columbine

Canadian Columbine

Canadian Columbine

(Aquilegia canadensis -L.) – I first noticed Wild/Canadian Columbine when I was living in B.C. and first started to have an interest in wild flowers and identifying them. They really remind me of a nodding onion with the way they are so delicate, bowing down towards the ground. You can find these rosy plants in open or shaded forests and in rocky areas. I found this one in the picture above near a gravely road in the open sun, next to a coniferous forest. Their range covers most of North America. They can grow in acidic and alkaline soils, flower May to June, and grow about 2′ tall. Wild Columbine are perennials.

Edibility: I had no idea that the flower was eaten as a sweet addition to salads as they contain high amounts of nectar. Very tasty to snack on if you have them in your garden! The root can also be consumed
Note: Not known as toxic but other members in the Ranunculaceae family are known to be slightly toxic so caution is advised.
Medicinal uses:  The root is astringent and diuretic. It is chewed or made into a weak tea for the treatment of diarrhoea and stomach aches. The tea is used in the treatment of uterine bleeding. The boiled plant was used as a hair wash. The seed is anodyne and febrifuge. An infusion is used in the treatment of headaches and fevers (PFAF, 2012).

6. Wild Sarsaparilla

Flowering Wild Sassparilla and its root

Flowering Wild Sassparilla

(Aralia nudicaulis) This was an interesting find! At first glance I thought we had found ‘Dwarf Ginseng’, but after a closer look, we saw we had found another usable root, Wild Sarsaparilla. They like to be in dark, rocky, forested areas, found on the eastern half of North America. A perennial that grows just over a foot tall. You can notice the white cluster of flowers and the draping leaves that are taller than the flowers (unlike my mistake with Dwarf Ginseng).

Edibility:  The rootstock is used as a flavouring, it is a substitute for sarsaparilla, and is also used for making ‘root beer’. It is also used as an emergency food (usually mixed with oil), having a sweet spicy taste and a pleasant aromatic smell. A nutritious food, it was used by the Indians during wars or when they were hunting since it is very sustaining. Young shoots – cooked as a potherb. A refreshing herbal tea is made from the root. Pleasantly flavoured[222, 238]. The roots are boiled in water until the water is reddish-brown. A jelly is made from the fruit. The fruit is also used to make wine. The fruit is about 6mm in diameter (PFAF, 2012)
Medicinal uses: Wild sarsaparilla is a sweet pungent tonic herb that acts as an alterative. It had a wide range of traditional uses amongst the North American Indians and was at one time widely used as a substitute for the tropical medicinal herb sarsaparilla. The root is an alterative, diaphoretic, diuretic, pectoral and stimulant. The herb encourages sweating, is stimulating and detoxifying and so is used internally in the treatment of pulmonary diseases, asthma, rheumatism, stomach aches etc (PFAF, 2012).

Narceus Millipede in the forest

Narceus Millipede in the forest

The first blooms of Hemlock Reishi mushrooms

The first blooms of Hemlock Reishi mushrooms

We found these baby fruiting Hemlock Reishi mushrooms on the same Hemlock stump as we found the mushrooms last year. There were about 8-10 new blooms this year which is good to see that we did not over harvest the mushrooms last year! We will be going back to harvest one or two this summer (with photos to come).

Last years Reishi fruit

A Reisi mushroom that fruited last summer

Plant Information Sources:

Web MD – Nerve Root overview: http://goo.gl/tCkqp
Plants for a Future Organization, http://www.pfaf.org
Ontario Wildflowers Database, http://www.ontariowildflowers.com
Newcomb, L. 1977, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.
Knopf, A. 2001, The National Audubon Wildflowers; Eastern Region, Revised Edition.

Planting a garden; Our 2013 layout

2 Jun

This spring has come very fast! We are writing this about two weeks after we started to plant all the seeds and work with the soil. When May arrived, the weather shifted to spring, almost instantly! We are currently getting over a frost scare with snow and had to water the entire garden the other night and cover all the young seedlings with bed sheets and towels. The weather has been a little volatile here in Ontario this past two weeks but things are looking up and spending time in the garden has commenced.

As April rolled around, we started to get into planning mode and adapted the garden layout that I made last year to acquire some of the improvements we noted at the end of the season which you can read here. To get organized and prepared for the planting season and have a successful garden again this year, here is our list of steps that helps to get us started:

1. We set up a large seed list of all the seeds we currently had stored (How to properly store your herbs/seeds) and categorized them into medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, vegetables, and ornamental flowers.

This is our list of seeds we had saved for the 2013 growing season!

This is our list of seeds we had saved for the 2013 growing season!

It really helped put into perspective the diversity of our garden when we went to plant. This list is only our saved-seed list and does not include all the perennials and starters we already had in the garden. As you can see, we plan on growing more edible leafy greens this year and a few less medicinals. Also, planting more flowers for the insects and pollinators to eat – We have been working towards a blooming schedule that allows spring, summer, and fall flowers so there is a continual food source for bees and other insects.

2. Design a layout of your garden/yard space with rough dimensions to allow you to plan where you can plant your vegetables or flowers. The help of a ‘companion planting’ books helps out a lot!

This year was a much easier year to design the garden because last was a huge experimentation and educational growing period. We already designed our 2012 garden using the measurements of our backyard and then figured out an aesthetic and practical design that we both agreed on. You can see our garden layout here: Garden Layout 2012, 2013
– After the shape and size of the garden was determined, we started to look up the plants that needed full sun vs. partial shade. I recommend watching the sun’s path during full summer to see the clearance (or lack of) of any buildings or trees around the area. If in spring or fall, the path will be much lower to the south so account for a higher crest during mid-summer.
– We also use a companion planting book for all of our culinary herbs and vegetables to have as diverse a garden as possible! For example, planting garlic or onions around some greens or vegetables helps to deter aphids or other insects that could become a detrimental problem to your garden.

Garden layout 2013

Garden layout 2013

3. Till and supplement your garden soil with hearty, dark compost to nourish your plants!

The first real account of spring, at least for me, is when you can actually put your fingers into sun-warmed soil. This really signifies spring in my mind and is my sense of connection between the planning phase and the planting phase. We first started tilling at the end of April or first week of May, here in Ontario, Canada, and just worked in some high carbon leaf compost mixed with home-made vegetable compost (high in Nitrogen). We tilled and stirred the soil in our beds, mostly around the perennials, while adding a deeper trench of carbon rich leaf compost beneath the vegetable seeds.

tilling the garden bed with a hoe

tilling the garden bed with a hoe

The next step in the garden is the most fun – PLANTING! Once all the planning and organizing is done, we are so happy to be able to plant the seeds and transplant our starters in the earth and watch them grow.

Deep in the Forest Beneath the White Cedars

14 May

“Plant identification may sound mundane, but when you observe the hundreds of  variables and interconnections that single plant has with the surrounding ecosystem, it becomes quite magical.”

A patch of White Trillium we found at the forests edge, just next to a meadow

A patch of White Trillium we found at the forest’s edge, near a meadow

 

This week was a great chance to spend a few days and evenings in the woods, meadows, and swamps near my home. I have been so busy with the garden and work that I have barely had a chance to get into the forest and see all the new living plants emerging from the soil. It is still pretty early in the year, and the nights have been pretty cold this week, but a few new species of plants that I did not have the enjoyment of identifying last year were  some of the ones I stumbled across during my hikes. I have to say that in the past, hiking out into a mucky swamp or down a dark cedar trail, even walking through horse-fly guarded grassland, was not really my thing to say the least! I enjoyed the outdoors and being in the forest but for much different reasons. I enjoyed walking and looking at the trees blowing in the wind, smelling the damp leaves and decaying branches, and spotting any wildlife I came across. These things are still very close to me when I go into the forest, but a new element of observation really ‘clicks’ with me; wildcrafting and plant identification. Plant identification may sound mundane, but when you observe the hundreds of  variables and interconnections that single plant has with the surrounding ecosystem, it becomes quite magical. You learn to notice things like the type and number of pedals an opening flower has, its fragrant pollen, the colors and textures of the leaves and stems, the ecosystem in which it is growing, its population and overall health,  insects which are eating it, its mode of fertilization and seed mobility, and lastly but most predominantly- its full life-force. This idea is what has called me closer to herbalism and understanding (mostly the basics so far) the powers of local plant medicines. I like to routinely grab my bike, my harvest packs/bags, camera, and I.D. books, and enter the woods to see what I can catch coming to life! It is a great way to connect with nature and learn a few things while doing it.

Today I was visiting a store, an old used book store to be exact, and when my partner showed me a National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, I was ecstatic! I spent over half an hour looking at the great detail of the pictures of wildflower petals, the majestic backdrops of the plants found all over the East Coast which featured numerous types of ecosystems, and I wished I was in each one of them. An urgency to visit all these wild places and smell each forest’s scent. The feeling that I get when I am looking through one of these plant field guides or gardening  design books  is a mixture between curiosity and amazement; I want to know where and when each plant will bloom, and most of all, the evolutionary processes and adaptations that occurred to make that plant what it is today. In other words, I am blown away when I try to understand the complicated relationships between predators and protectors of a particular plant; whether the plant adapted  to attract the pollinator or the other way around – that kind of question. It really is quite hard to understand, but the beauty is how well everything works out in the end.

A natural ecosystem, whether one that includes humans or not, is so much more complicated than one would assume. I have shared in the common view of nature as being trees and plants with a few bugs and birds and some natural weather fused in. The reality is unless you get down on your knee and peer deep into the ecology of even the soil beneath your foot, you will miss the very breath that is life on this planet. I have realized how much more there is to a simple forested path than just trees and pine needles covering the trail. There is a myriad of connections you can make that intertwines all the creatures and acts of physics within a wild-space.  For example, on my hike through the forest a few nights ago, my sister and I noticed what looked like a beaver damn in the river. We walked over to the water’s edge to see in fact it was just a burly shaped fallen branch. We happened to be standing in a tightly knit White Cedar forest with only a little light reaching us through the canopy. My sister pointed out that one of the cedar roots beneath our feet was erupting with little baby cedars! We followed a trail that was winding under the soil to the water’s edge. I noticed these were not Cedar trees at all, they were poplar – Balsam Poplars to be exact. We followed the emerging line back the other way, right up and over the root crown of the cedar beside us and abut 6 more feet to the base of a mature Poplar. It was erupting with basal shoots that were infants on a successful root that had made it to a source of sustenance, the river beyond us. I then became aware of the forces at work in this situation;

a) the immense number of emerging roots that became more noticeable as I took along the ground beneath me. A literal spider web, possibly a meter or more deep of roots, supporting a spongy, hollow forest floor.
b) a fierce competition of roots, like arms swarming and reaching over each other to fight for retreating ‘ground’ space.
c) the small clearing we stand has spots of light trickling in from above; the perfect location for these opportunistic Poplar shoots and they were growing steadily toward it.
d) The area was littered with fallen cedar limbs. The energy of the decomposing organic matter made by the cedars now fuels the explosive energy of the pervading Poplar; inviting it into its territory.

There were many, many other examples of associations that were happening while we assessed the forest floor, but this is only my interpretation. As an observer, the story was my own. Another could see the layout I explained and have a totally different understanding. That is the beauty of having your own experience in nature, learning from all the plants and insects around you. Just like us, each living organism has its own complex interactions and associations with its ecosystem.

Next time you are walking on a forest trail or even in your own back yard, stop to notice aspects beyond the flower itself. Look at the shape and color of the petals. Maybe a few quick questions like: How many petals does the flower have? What do the leaves feel like? Are they waxy or fuzzy? Are there any insects living or feeding on the plant?  There are many things we can learn from nature if we look a little deeper and I invite you to open up to this as well.

“The reality is unless you get down on your knee and peer deep into the ecology of even the soil beneath your foot, you will miss the very breath that is life on this planet.”

—————————————————————————————

This week’s plant-finds:

(Lunar Harvest can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.)
Trout Lily in the forest

Trout Lily in the forest

1. Trout Lily

(Erythronium americanum) – This amazing little lily was blanketing the forest floor with waxy, dark leaves that are spotted (like a trout) and curled. It is native to Ontario and is edible! I came across these earlier in the spring so they have not fully opened, but this is what a Trout Lily looks like when it is fully blooming.

Trout Lily corm

Trout Lily corm

Edibility: at the base of the plant, there is a small ‘corm’ that is edible. I did not pick the ones I found as they are still very young and I wanted to leave them for birds and other wild creatures, but this is a picture of what a corm of the Trout lily looks like. It is said to taste similar to cucumber.
Medicinal Uses: None noted

2. Yellow Downy Violet 

(Viola pubescens) – This awesome little

Yellow Downy Violet

Yellow Downy Violet

yellow violet was all over an east facing hill that was opening is small areas. This one is not fully open, but you can see the fuzzy, round toothed leaves and the typical vertical black marking on the lower petal. These violets are in the Viola family and found in dry, mixed deciduous forests. They bloom in the spring months, April through May.

Edibility: Wild Violets are noted as edible! You can eat the flowers and leaves – great for salads and tea,  syrups and vinegar!
Medicinal Uses: None noted

3. Field Pussytoes

(Antennaria neglecta) – These little white shoots have been something on my to-find-list and I

Field pussytoes ready to bloom!

Field pussytoes ready to bloom!

stumbled across them last night in a grassy field. The name alone is quite interesting as are the flowers themselves. I have always come across this plant in my plant identification book, but have never really noticed it in the past here in Ontario.

Edibility: None noted
Medicinal Uses: Not used very often anymore, but once used for coughs and for the gall bladder. The plant is very rich in mucilage which makes it very valuable in the treatment of chest complaints. It is also used in the treatment of liver and gall bladder complaints.

4. Periwinkle

(Vinca minor) – I have seen these little guys in my

Periwinkle Flower

Periwinkle Flower

neighbors garden before, a waxy ground-cover looking plant that has a little blue/violet flower in the early spring. Periwinkle is VERY invasive and should not be spread or introduced outside the home garden. It grows in many areas of North America, predominantly on the Eastern coast. We found this growing in a dark Locust grove as a ground cover mixed with Wild Grape and deciduous trees. It likes to line moist forest floors.

Edibility: None Noted
Medicinal uses: Periwinkle is an Antispasmodic, Astringent, Bitter and Sedative  tonic, among other important things. It contains a potent alkaloid called ‘vincamine’, which is extracted and used pharmaceutically as a cerebral stimulant and vasodilator. Its real use, since its discovery, is treating heart problems and dementia, which is due to low levels of blood reaching the brain.

5. Marsh Marigold

(Caltha palustris) – This swamp and stream-bed loving flower is known to light up wet areas in April-May with its bright and beautiful yellow blooms. I had seen this in the spring many times and wanted to document it. The Marsh Marigold definitely needs wet, saturated soil to thrive and can also grow in a soil based water garden. I stumbled across this only because it is almost impossible to miss if you are hiking around an area that has and wetlands or streams…

Marsh Marigold in damp creekbed

Marsh Marigold in damp creekbed

Edibility: This plant can be very TOXIC if eaten raw. It contains the toxin glycoside protoanemonin, which can be harmful if sap gets on your skin. It is best to stay away from the older parts of the plant, like lower stem and basil leaves. Cooking is the best method to deactivate the glycosides; Boil in water, then change water repeat, 3 times! I don’t think I would risk eating this plant as most of the nutrients would be gone after a triple boil, but it is good to know for survival.
Medicinal uses: Since the whole plant is an irritant, caution is advised! Externally used to treat warts, or boiled and mashed to create a poultice for sores. A tea made from the leaves can act as a diuretic and laxative.

6. Coltsfoot

(Tussilago farfara) – Coltsfoot is the first plant I tend to see rising; a very eager flower which

Coltsfoot flowers in full bloom

Coltsfoot flowers in full bloom

gladly provides sustenance for early and competitive bee populations. When this stalk emerges, it really reminds me of Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) due to the texture on the stem, especially before it blooms.

Edibility: Contains alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver in large doses. Smaller doses are safer. There are many uses for Coltsfoot, most of the plant is edible! The flowers and buds are good raw/cooked and have a light anise flavor. The leaves can be boiled (also rinsed after boiled to help lower the bitterness). A tea can be made from the leaves and flowers and again has an anise flavor. I found out that you can dry and burn the leaves to create a salt alternative!
Medicinal uses: Coltsfoot is a noted for its great Antitussive and Demulcent abilities, helping to relieve coughs and expelling mucus. There are possibilities of toxicity when using in higher amounts, especially dried flowers. Coltsfoot is also used as a whole body tonic.

We came across some other common flowers in the area like Wild Strawberry, White Trillium which is our provincial flower, and an interesting fungus growing on some white and red cedar trees; Cedar-Apple Rust, as shown below. Thanks for reading my post, hopefully I can blog more weekly finds like these in the future!

Cedar-Apple Rust on a Cedar tree

Cedar-Apple Rust on a Cedar tree

A patch of White Trillium we found at the forests edge, just next to a meadow

A patch of White Trillium we found at the forests edge, just next to a meadow

Wild Strawberry Flowering

Wild Strawberry Flowering

Adam D.

Plant Information Sources:
Plants for a Future Organization, http://www.pfaf.org
Ontario Wildflowers Database, http://www.ontariowildflowers.com
Newcomb, L. 1977, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.
Knopf, A. 2001, The National Audubon Wildflowers; Eastern Region, Revised Edition.

The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica); A love-hurt relationship

11 May
Stinging nettles in the back garden

Stinging nettles in the back garden

This year is an exciting year for our established garden perennials. We have been nurturing some for the past 4-5 years. Echinacea purpurea, and nitrogen-fixing legumes like Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and a strong medicinal I have loved to use for years, Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) are but some. It wasn’t until last year that I really started to understand and appreciate the wondrous nutritive abilities Stinging Nettles have. I have seen them in damp forests many times, especially behind a house I spent a summer at in British Columbia, Canada. They were thick, 3-5 feet tall, and they sure let you know if a bare arm or leg grazed them while walking past! After reading about nettles in herbalism books and literature, I was excited to grow these in our back garden in case we couldn’t find many wild bunches. We planted some nettle seeds in a few designated areas of the garden last year that would suit their growing needs (nutritious, damp soil, partial to full sun, away from central paths). They awoke early this year and are doing great in the garden, ready to be harvested and made into some delicious tea and soups. The ideal time to harvest Stinging Nettles is between May and June, picking only the new tender top growths, before the plant flowers. You can save and dry any extra leaves for future use.

“The leaves of the plants have stinging hairs, causing irritation to the skin. This action is neutralized by heat or by thorough drying, so the cooked leaves are perfectly safe and nutritious. However, only young leaves should be used because older leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths which act as an irritant to the kidneys.”

Benefits and Medicinal uses for Stinging Nettles:

– Alterative, cleansing tonic and blood purifierNettle scientific
– Treats hayfever and allergies
– High in iron; great for treating anaemia
– Acts as an astringent, diuretic, and a stimulating tonic
– Helps blood clotting, dandruff, asthma, and hypoglycemia
– Very nutritious as a food that is easily digested and is high in minerals (especially iron, calcium, and silicon) and vitamins (especially A and C)
– Known to aid osteoarthritis; reducing pain in joints by applying topically over sore area; has been shown to reduce their non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

  • For Rheumatism, the fresh young leaf tops were traditionally picked and rubbed or ‘beaten’ onto the skin. This is called urtification, actually induced a potent  irritation to the skin that is far worse than just brushing the hairs across the skin. Urtification of Nettles works in two ways; first it acts as a counter-irritant, bringing more blood to the area to help remove the toxins that cause rheumatism. Secondly, the joints that are inflamed and sore from the Rheumatism are eased by the plants natural occurring formic acid.

“The juice of the nettle can be used as an antidote to stings from the leaves and an infusion of the fresh leaves is healing and soothing as a lotion for burns”

Preperations:

how to pick nettles using the "taco" technique

how to pick nettles using the “taco” technique

Tisane/Herbal Tea Infusion: For a basic tea mixture, each cup of boiled, filtered water, add 1 tsp of dried herb (you can use 2 Tbsp or more if you are using fresh herb). Cover the pot and let set for 30 minutes. This is the ‘infusion’ method to make nettle tea.

For our home-harvested and brewed tea, we hand-picked the nettles in our back yard, picking the young tops as shown. A technique shown by superfood expert David Wolfe, is to grab under the leaf and curl it up like a taco, thus not touching the hairs on the top of the leaf or the barbs on the stem of the nettle plant. Then pluck the leaf off and set into the basket, or even set into the mouth (not to touch the lips or front of the tongue).

We then snipped into smaller pieces (some people prefer to rinse the nettles before adding to tea) and put the water on to boil. Once the water was rolling, we took it off the heat and added the nettles. Cover and let steep for 30 minutes or longer. You can let sit over night and reheat in the morning for an even more potent tea –  This technique let the water cool with the herb in it, therefor extracting different nutrients at each decreasing temperature stage. The end result will be a much darker and potent tea.

After the tea has cooled enough to drink, enjoy! You can add other green or fragrant herbs with the nettles like mint or chamomile if you wish for a more calming or sweet tea.

Baths: This is good for sciatica. Soak a large amount of Stinging Nettle plant material, including the root, in cold water for 8 hours or overnight. Then boil the herb for 10-15 minutes and add to the bathtub. Soak in the herbs for as long as you feel comfortable. This may also be used as a foot soak.

Shampoo wash: Place one half cup of the dried herbs in a huge 5 liter pot. Bring the herbs to boil slowly. Remove from the stove and keep covered for an additional 10 minutes. Add in some shaved olive oil soap and bring to boil. Cool to a warm mixture and wash your hair with this.

Soups: The flavor of green, young nettle tops is a delicious taste to add to soup recipes. A simple recipe could be

Stinging Nettle Soup

1 lb of young stinging nettle tops
4 cups of Vegetable Broth
1/4 cup of Brown/Basmati Rice
1 medium white onion, diced
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp sea salt
pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 2 teaspoons of salt. Drop in the stinging nettles, and cook 1 to 2 minutes until they soften. This will remove most of the sting. Drain in a colander, and rinse with cold water. Trim off any tough stems, then chop coarsely.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat, and stir in the onion. Cook until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice, chicken broth, and chopped nettles. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

.

Sources:
http://www.pfaf.org, Urtica dioica
http://www.naturalnews.com, 
Stinging Nettles: So Many Cures that You Will Lose Count. 2012

http://www.umm.edu, Stinging Nettle:Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, 2011.
Nettle Soup recipe modified from: allrecipes.com/recipe/stinging-nettle-soup

Spring-time garden greening

20 Apr
catching not only a honey bee, but another wasp too

Our first Honey Bee and a friend

Everbearing raspberry buds ready leaf

Ever-bearing raspberry buds ready to leaf

It has been a long time coming but the ground is thawing and our soil is breaking with small green sprouts, reaching for the sun. I have been itching to touch the soil the past few months so a daily walk through the mucky garden paths subdues my anxiety. The major difference we have this year over last is that many of our herbs were perennials so we actually have many garden surprises popping up each day. I have taken a look through the leaves and covered spaces to see what is coming to life. Here is what I have found:

This month my sister, Alissa, and her partner Kevin, arrived from a winter in Mexixo and will be staying with us. They will be helping us out in the garden as well as enjoying the bounty of home-grown, organic veggies. We plan on really expanding the greens and vegetables and hopefully berry canes. We were a little late on planting our starters in the basement but thanks to the warm weather forecasted in May, we will be able to start planting outside (we live in Ontario, Canada so our growing season starts a little later). One of the many things we have starting to grow is Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). It is one of my favorite herbs as it so nourishing for the blood, liver, and body. It is also a powerful pain reliever  when you apply or rub the stinging hairs to a sore or inflamed area of your body.

The soil is warming up and we are getting ready to plant! We have been busy organizing and planning our garden, building our 2013 layout plan which we are excited to share with you in a few weeks! With the accompaniment and advice of our companion planting guides, along-side our growing experience from last summer, we have made some major improvements that we hope help our yields and  growth. We will be posting our next blog soon about the accounts of our May planting as well as some of our planting methods we used. Thanks for reading,

Adam D.

Common Edible & Medicinal Ornamental Plants

1 Apr

Illustration of Rosa rugosa

Hopefully the vast and intimate relationship between human beings and plants is not something that I have to elaborate on extensively. For the sake of not writing a novel (which I apparently love to do despite my own protests) I am going to broadly categorize the relationship that we have with plants into two categories: aesthetics and practicality. Plants are incredible and unique organisms, just as we and every other living thing is. They are fundamentally different from other forms of life based on a myriad of chemical and genetic principles.

For thousands of years human beings have gone to great lengths to enhance the physical appearance of plants in order to satisfy our seemingly endless hunger for the beautiful, strange and interesting. In some cases, we have completely removed some plants from their natural habitat and context and altered them to such a degree that this new ‘cultured’ and ‘designed’ organism exists for us and by us. Ornamental cultivation marks a crucial and defining aspect of our relationship with the plant world, something that has changed both us and them forever and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

However, if you change your perspective to one of practicality and realism, you discover that a plant cannot be eaten or used no matter how beautiful or aesthetically pleasing it may be. This defines the other realm of our physiological relationship with plants; one of reverence and respect for their service of sustaining us as well as all other terrestrial life. Despite this, the world of horticulture and agriculture just like that of medicine and food is drawn by a very thin line that is only slightly blurry at best. Unbeknownst to many, there are a wide assortment of plant species that are more commonly associated with the ornamental end of the scale but also possess edible and medicinal uses. I present to you a few very common plant species that are largely regarded as being ornamental but also offer edible and medicinal uses that can help you to even further enjoy what these plants have to offer. What could be more satisfying than growing and nurturing a plant that provides you with both beauty and aesthetic appeal as well as sustenance and nourishment; food for both the mind and body?

Rose of Sharon blossoms

The rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is a fast growing shrub or small tree indigenous to East Asia that is closely related to both the medicinal plants marshmallow, Althaea officinalis, (not the artificially colored and flavored confection composed mainly of sugar and corn syrup) and red hibiscus, Hibiscus rose-sinensis. Rose of Sharon is very common in the horticultural trade and a truly staggering number of cultivars are available which has produced a nearly endless range of color, form and texture.

The plants establish quickly, can tolerate summer drought, and do best in a sunny, open position with plenty of space. They can be trained into small trees or multi-stemmed shrubs, or allowed to grow into a full, sprawling bush which seems to be their natural preference. For the purpose of rose of Sharon’s edible and medicinal properties, all cultivars can be used although it is probably best to stay away from the double-flowered and heavily bred varieties since the external and internal chemistry and genetics of the plant have been altered and this could affect how they are processed and assimilated by the body. If you do not have Rose of Sharon already growing in your garden, I would recommend trying to obtain seeds of the the straight species.

The often large, 5-petaled flowers in their entirety are edible, including the small green appendage (calyx) which attaches the flower to the twig from which it emerges. They have a fresh, crunchy and slightly mucilaginous (slimy) texture and a mild and gently sweet flavor. They make wonderful garnishes for any dish, although are particularly at home in salads or the petals separated and layered in sandwiches. The flowers are usually produced for several weeks, if not a month or more, from mid summer to early fall. Both young (when still folded and emerging from the bud) or old (slightly wilted) flowers can be used. I enjoy them best raw, although they can also be cooked and incorporated into casseroles or added to soup or stew as a thickening agent.

The young, light green and irregularly lobed leaves as well as tender shoots are also edible, but they quickly become tough and fibrous. Both the leaves and flowers can be made into a tea which has similar properties to the aforementioned Altheae officinalis. The mucilaginous texture that you experience when eating the raw flowers and leaves is very soothing to an irritated throat and digestive tract, reducing inflammation from irritation or infections. Ulcers, irritable bowel conditions and constipation are just some of the conditions that can be treated by regularly drinking a tea from or consuming the flowers and leaves of this versatile as well as stunningly beautiful plant.

Siberian pea tree flowers

The Siberian pea tree (Caragana arborescens) comes to us from north-east Asia, where it can be found growing in a wide range of conditions including dry, gravelly slopes and moist, rich valley bottoms along streams. This very adaptable and resilient species was originally introduced to North America as a food crop, planted along trade routes by early migrants who traveled from the areas where this plant is native. Over time, other virtues and characteristics of the Siberian pea tree were recognized and exploited. Once considered food, this plant is sold in bulk nurseries to be planted in groups on the slopes of recently constructed overpasses and junctions as a soil stabilizer. It is also commonly planted as a windbreak and to mark the property boundaries of agricultural operations. Unfortunately, the knowledge of this plant as a provider of food and nutrition has largely been abandoned, which is a terrible shame.

As if the name wasn’t enough of a hint, The Siberian pea tree is in the legume family Fabaceae (formerly called the leguminosae) and has the capacity to fix nitrogen into the soil thereby enriching and improving its capacity to nurture other plant species. In addition, the species is remarkably cold hardy (down to at least -15 degrees C) and can tolerate long periods of summer drought and high-humidity once established.

I find that the beauty of this species is its seasonal versatility. I have encountered few plants, that have not been intentionally cultivated for the purpose of being edible crops, that provide food throughout the growing season. In early to mid spring, dense clusters of bright yellow pea-shaped flowers are born on short stalks. These can be harvested (with care to avoid the paired spines at the base of each compound leaf)  quite efficiently and eaten fresh or added to salads and soups for color and flavor. As would be expected, the flowers have a pea-like flavor that is quite agreeable and lends itself to being incorporated into various dishes.

A couple of weeks later, around late May or June, those flowers that remained after your first grazing have been pollinated and have begun to grow into beans. They are long, narrow and a couple of inches long. When still vibrant green and flexible, they can be eaten raw in salads, cooked in casseroles, roasted with other vegetables or used in any one of the ways that you would use green or pole beans; with which the flavor is also quite comparable with. Further still, in August and July, the left-over pods will turn brown as they mature and split open to reveal beans. These can be sprouted and eaten, or soaked and boiled to be used in sauces, bean salads or mashed.

Given that these plants can flourish with complete and total neglect once established (it is fully hardy and drought tolerant), they are an asset to an edible and medicinal landscape. It is appropriate to keep in mind that this species is mildly invasive, at least in the southern greater Toronto area (specifically Hamilton and Burlington) where I have observed it first hand spreading downwards on slopes where it is planted. The mature seeds, when released from the pods, simply roll down the hill and germinate a few feet down slope from the mature colony.

Ramanas rose hips

The Ramanas Rose (Rosa rugosa) is a relatively new wild edible treat for me. Around where I live, they are commonly planted in the small, crowded ‘green islands’ in the middle of parking lots. Ramanas roses can tolerate a modest amount of salt spray and poor air conditions, making them suitable for cultivating in such conditions. However, I would advise not to harvest from these plants as the soil that they are growing in probably contains completely inappropriate amounts of petroleum derivatives, inorganic road salt and likely also garbage. Better to harvest seeds or cuttings from these plants and grow them in your yard or a pot as part of a balcony or porch garden!

Originally growing in clustered colonies in sand dunes and gravelly piles along the edges of the sea in South Korea, Japan and Eastern China, this species was selected for cultivation mainly because of its hardiness and it’s ability to be breed with other rose species. Therefore, there are many double-flowered and sterile cultivars and breeds of this species available in the horticultural trade, although for the most part I have only seen the straight species planted in public places.

Naturally, the flowers have light pink to dark purple slightly wrinkled petals with a faint sugary-sweet fragrance and a white center. Like other rose species, the flower petals can be eaten raw, added to salads or sandwiches, used in potpourris or soaked in water to make rosewater, a very expensive but easily made natural food flavoring. Of course, be careful to avoid getting pricked by the vicious thorns that, although soft and rubbery when young, quickly harden and become a threat to wild harvesters. A tea made from the flowers has a particularly profound affect on the liver and spleen, helping to cleanse.

My favorite aspect of this rose is the fruit that is produced. Rose fruits are referred to as hips, and are biologically very similar to the morphology of an apple or pear, with an astringent skin concealing lusciously sweet flesh surrounding a cluster of seeds in the center. Many rose hips are small and very fiddly to collect and eat, but the hips of the Ramanas rose can be between 2 or 3 centimeters in diameter. The layer of flesh is also surprisingly thick, and has a wonderful texture and flavor.

The hips are produced in clusters from the start of flowering which occurs in mid to late spring. If the hips are harvested as soon as they are ripe in mid-summer, another flush of flowers may produce another crop of hips in autumn. As the hips ripen, they turn orange and finally a bright, deep red. Once the skin starts to wrinkle slightly, they can be picked and eaten out of hand, preserved as jam, made into a fruit compote, or mushed and incorporated into a sweet and savory sauce. Rose hips are famously rich in vitamin C, as well as vitamins E, A, flavonoids and essential fatty acids, which may be important in preventing the formation or spread of various cancers.

Even the seeds of Ramanas rose can be used. Although tough and bitter when eaten out of hand (not to mention the little hairs which cover the seed’s surface and can make swallowing difficult and uncomfortable) the seeds can be rinsed and then ground into a powder which can be added to soups, smoothies, oatmeal, or just about anything. The seeds are rich in minerals and have an impressive amount of vitamin E – and there is more to come! In late spring or early summer,  new shoots from established plants can be seem emerging from the ground. This species aggressively propagates itself in this way and can form dense hedgerows if left to it’s own devices. One way to control its spread is to eat the new shoots! When flexible and tender, they can be cut at base level and steamed, baked or cooked just like asparagus.

What’s incredible is that this is only 3 plants out of hundreds of commonly ornamental cultivated plants which have the capacity to feed and nourish the world. I encourage you to explore and diversify; introducing into your body a wide variety of unorthodox crops, and therefore unique combinations of nutrients, minerals, active enzymes and the like, producing an individual that is just as healthy and diverse as what they eat. I am all about biodiversity in the forest, biodiversity of the mind, and biodiversity of the plate. I believe that a lot of the common ailments that plague the industrialized world result in part from continually eating the same types of food over and over again and for extended periods of time. Embrace plant diversity, both agricultural and ornamental, and continue to step over the perceived and arbitrary boundary that exists between these two terms. Happy learning, growing and feeding!

Building An Herb Shelf; 6 Tips on Storing Herbs

19 Mar

This weekend was perfect to get a project done that I have been planning and thinking about for a long time; where to safely put all of our herbs and plant medicines? I wanted to make sure a few standard requirements were met when answering this question. I have put together these six standard requirements for storing herbs which are the basis to maintaining high quality medicinal and nutritional qualities. By keeping the conditions of your storage area optimal for preservation, you can get the longest shelf-life and potency from your plant medicines

a) Store herbs in glass jars with a tight fitting lid
-Glass is a great container for herbs (mason jars are what I use) and can be recycled from soups, canning, and certain food products. The largest benefit is they do not leach plastic by-products, like plastic bags or containers do. Another benefit is creating a tight seal and not allowing oxygen or moisture to enter, minimizing oxidization or mold on the plant material which will drastically lower its shelf life.

b) Keep out of direct sunlight
– Light can destroy valuable vitamins and phytochemicals within the herb and can lower the potency of your dried herbs. Storing in a dark cupboard or closet (in my case) is a great way to seal out any ultraviolet rays.

c) Keep the medicines cool and away from any heat sources
– Storing herbs away from a heat source is very important. Just like cooking your food, several enzymes and nutrients (mostly vitamins) are destroyed when heated. This also quickens their expiry date. When drying the herb, it is best to either hang or set-to-dry to reduce the exposure of heat. Another way to shorten dry-time  is using an adjustable temperature dehydrator. Keeping the temperature low, and humidity low, the plant material will dry out faster with less chance of mold and will retain higher amounts of nutrients.

d) Organize alphabetically or by group
– In the picture of my herb shelf, I have created an example of how I would like to organize my shelf eventually, into simple areas that make searching for particular items easier. You can

A rough organization by group for my closet herb-shelf

A rough organizational grouping of my closet herb-shelf

organize it any way that  you want. Some health food stores organize their herbs alphabetically for the sake of simple referencing. This is perfect for storing at home too. I like my layout to be set up in groups so if I need a few herbal ingredients to treat a certain ailment, they are all grouped together. This comes in handy when I need a little extra help with anxiety or getting to sleep, I can grab my favorite herbs from the Nervine and Sedative sections. Grouping does save a lot of time once you get to know your layout.

e) Easy access is important if you need to find things quickly
– The way that I have the shelf set-up is that it is at head level. This way when I am am standing in front of the shelf, it is easy to see all the labels and reach everything I need. I also have a light mounted on the wall above the shelf which I can turn on when I need to see inside the dark closet. I installed a ladder on the wall to the left so I can reach the harder to access areas at the very top of the shelf. If you have the shelf near the floor you have to bend down and there is generally less light when you are trying to view labels. Since you are trying to keep sunlight out of your storage area, having a small light to see in this dark space is key.

f) Properly label and date when the herbs were purchased or harvested
-It is a very obvious idea, but putting large and visible labels on the fronts of your containers helps to know what you have in the jar. Dating helps to determine how long the herb has been on the shelf, allowing you to rotate or replace. I like to add if it is organic, sustainably harvested, or if I was the one who wildcrafted/grew the herb. I even keep my home-grown/harvested herbs in a separate container than the store bought herbs. That way I can appreciate the tastes and potency of our garden saved herbs, knowing I watched them grow and nurtured and harvested them myself – it makes the tea/remedy much more special.

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Herbs with tight-fitting lids, in glass jars, labeled

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Label shows I wildcrafted it, the herb name, and date dried

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I have been continuously reading into Rosemary Gladstar’s , “The Art and Science of Herbology”, a course that I am currently completing. At the starting of this course she mirrors these requirements, outlining a set of four tests that can be completed to assess and measure the health and potency of the herbs you grow or those that you purchase. The four tests are as follows;

Color: The herb that you dry should be vibrant as the day you picked the herb. If you harvest mint leaves or lemon balm, they should be alive and green after they are dried. Herbs that are yellow/orange like Calendula should be bright and not see-through or pale. Roots hold true to this rule; they should be almost the same color and vibrancy as first harvested. Echinacea root should be a grey-brown, Yellow Dock a yellowish brown, Golden Seal should be a bright golden-green color.

Smell: A good marker for quality is its smell, not necessarily a good smell, but a distinct smell that represents the herb’s quality. Some herbs are bitter, some sweet smelling, some very ‘bad’. A notorious ‘bad’ smelling herb is Valerian,  having the resemblance of dirty socks. If you purchase or have Valerian stored, higher potency will accentuate a VERY dirty smelling pair of socks. This is actually a good thing… Another herb Rosemary points out is Peppermint. If you have a very good stored mint, the uncapping and smelling should make your nose tingle and eyes sting. Each herb is different, some are ‘green’ smelling, some are fragrant like flowers and pollen. Take note on the vibrancy of different brands, varieties, and suppliers, remembering the effects each herb has on your nose and senses.

Taste: The power of the herb when placed on the tongue is a great indicator of the life-force and value of the plant. Again, not all herbs will have a good taste, so how much you like the herb is not the measurement. When you taste the herb it should be fresh. You should judge the potency by how strong, distinctive, and vital they are as well as how much they ‘rouse your taste buds’.

Effect: The last measurement of quality and potency is to actually try the herb to see its effectiveness. We know that for much of human existence, our species has had a knowledge about plant medicine and certain plants are good for certain ailments.  If your herb is not working for you, it is wise to first question its quality and potency of the herb, followed by if it is really the right remedy for the situation.

Building My Herb Shelf

When I decided to build this shelf, I did a lot of measuring and designing on AutoCAD to create a plan that fit the different sized jars and tincture bottles I had. I also took into consideration the access to the attic hatch in the closet ceiling; not to block the door. I used reclaimed wood from old shipping containers that I dismantled and planed clean and smooth. The cupboard is floating, not attached to the walls at all, just kept in place by a tight fit and 4 screws up from the main shelf it is sitting on; this way I can remove it if  I wanted it elsewhere. The main dimensions are around 40″ long by 34″ wide. The shelves are double width at the bottom and single width, 4.5″ deep, at the top and on the right side. I am definitely not a carpenter by any means and this project took me about 4-6 hours to complete, not including the AutoCAD design which I made a little over-complicated for such a small shelf and simple concept. The drawing did however come in very handy for measurements and allowed me to play around with spacing before cutting any materials.

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View of the right shelf

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View looking into the closet (front)

Herbs and Spices
A common place for people to store their culinary herbs and spices is beside or above the kitchen stove… The heat rises towards under-side of the cupboard they are stored in, potentially warming the herb. With heat can come moisture from kettles or boiling water. If herbs are not kept sealed and kept in a proper jar, they have the potential to become moldy or go bad.  Moving the spices away from the stove or elements so they can maintain a cool and consistent temperature will help you keep cooking with strong, rich herbs.

Other tips: 
-Make sure if you are purchasing herbs from a store, they are sustainably harvested or certified organic. Some lower grade herb manufacturers spray their herbs with fungicides and pesticides to keep the product longer.
– If you are harvesting herbs for home use, make sure you harvest them sustainably and responsibly! There is a large index available that lists herbs and plants that are over-harvested and at risk for extinction in the wild. (Some USA endangered species are listed on the USDA Natural Resources and United Plant Savers). The best way to ensure you are getting a good quality medicinal herb is to actually grow it yourself. You then know its growing conditions, its harvest date and shelf life, that it was harvested at its prime, and if there were any chemicals involved or not.

-Adam Deck

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