Archive for August, 2009

Calendula Meets Concrete

For some folks city life and love of herbs don’t mix. Me? I wouldn’t have it any other way. My New York roots reach down deep. I’ve lived in cities, towns  and villages on three continents and always end up coming back here. There is something irresistible about being able to interact with art, food, people and music from all the earth’s corners. I am also enamored with the reality that I can do anything at anytime here. Want to grab a turkey burgers with a friend at 4am after a night of dancing? Fine. Want to sit in the grass and listen to live ruumba on a Sunday? Okay. You can study everything from Ayurveda to Zen Buddhism. This city of contrasts and contradictions where I was bred and buttered is the place I call home.

Recently my family and I took a nearly 2 hour trek to the Bronx. Our destination: The Bronx Zoo. I have fond memories of The Bronx Zoo from my childhood.  Although I’m not quite sure I agree with the philosophies of zoos anymore, I was sure that the wonder on my daughters’ faces would be a deeply treasured memory. So we packed up, took 4 trains and went to the Bronx.

Our minds were set on lions, tigers and bears, but as we exited the train station we saw a sign that read “Farmer’s Market.” We could see a few stands and a plot of green behind them. “Let’s check it out for  a minute.” Well, a minute turned into 4 hours. It turned out that the market was staffed by a friend I’d taken herbal class with. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year. After spirited greetings and introductions, she motioned to the lush garden behind her.

Michelle, who is a lover of all things herbal, is extremely knowledgeable about acupressure, massage, and Chinese and Western herbalism. During our time together in the class, she never failed to amaze me with her generosity and her  intuition about herbs. She had spoken often about her involvement with a community garden and this gorgeous green land behind us, was that space.

Michelle took us on an extensive tour of Drew Gardens. I saw echinacea and St. John’s Wort growing  for the first time. What a revelation! I have used echinacea in different forms to treat coughs, colds and stave off breast infections. I have seen St John’s Wort help brighten dim spirits. I was finally getting to see these two fabulous plant allies in the earth.  Fragrant roses and lemon balm, vivid calendula, vibrant basil, delicate yarrow, feverfew, sage and two of my absolute favorite healers,  dandelion and nettles, abounded. There was something beautiful to see in every direction I turned. From Michelle, Alix, Jennifer and Nia selling fresh produce and carting heavy wheelbarrows of compost across the land, to the river gently rushing over black rocks,and  the small plots of herbs, vegetables tended lovingly by community garden members, it was all a feast for the soul.

Echinacea in Drew Gardens

Echinacea in Drew Gardens

I realized then that something special can happen in a community garden. Strangers are brought together through a love for tending the earth or a need for affordable food, a passion for herbs or all of the above. They start out as strangers but become as much of a community as the trees and herbs they care for. We saw hard work, dedication, joy and exuberance in that Bronx garden. In the midst of all the bustling and grey, we landed in an oasis of green. Who says that calendula and concrete can’t mix?


St John's wort in Drew Gadens

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This is the first healing plant I remember encountering. My mother kept an aloe plant in the living room. She spent ample time in the kitchen creating masterpieces and occasionally burning herself. After yelling, she’d go to the living room, break off a piece of the aloe plant and put the gel inside the leaf on her burn. She would explain that the pain was going away and that her burn would heal quickly. The idea that something inside a plant could help heal us amazed me then and honestly, it still does.

Aloe recently amazed my mother-in-law. After a day in blazing sun, the skin on her back, chest and shoulders was red and painful. I liberally applied the gel from a fresh aloe leaf to her skin before she went to bed. The next morning she was astonished, “There is no pain and I didn’t even peel!”

I used this magic plant to successfully heal a very stubborn case of pitoriasis rosea. I’ve also mixed it with coconut oil and egg yolk to create an effective and luscious hair conditioner.

For a time, my Aunt Maggie blended aloe with her orange juice (bitter!) and swore that it kept all systems going in her energetic 60 year old body. (She is in her late 70’s now and still traveling the globe.)

Aloe vera gel does good things for the liver and with its texture it is no surprise that it helps us make smooth moves in the bathroom. I’ve learned that many bitter plants and herbs help digestion and act to strengthen the liver.

Cuts, scrapes, and burns are no match for the cooling gifts of aloe vera. I really don’t think any home should be without it. Big up to aloe. Get yourself a little plant or go to the bodega or supermarket and buy a big leaf. It will definitely come in handy one day.

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Red Clover
Red Clover

I am always thrilled to see these powerful beauties gracing our parks and gardens in August. Herbalists use the little purple flames called red clover (Trifolium pratense) against tumors, cysts, fungus, and skin problems. Its hormone balancing action also makes it a great ally for menopausal women.

In her wonderful book, Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs, Gail Faith Edwards writes, “The National Cancer Institute found anti tumor properties in red clover. No less than 33 different cultures around the world use red clover blossoms when cancer is suspected or diagnosed.”

I use red clover as an herb for replenishment.  I have a two year old and an almost four year old.  I nursed my first daughter for 15 months and I still breastfeed my second born. Having two little ones with more energy in their pinkies than I’ve ever had means that tired and I are no strangers.  I really need a vacation, but until I get one– red clover infusions help keep me going. These sweet looking blossoms are vitamin and mineral rich, they contain calcium, magnesium, vitamin B complex, niacin, manganese, potassium, vitamin C and more! Yes, red clover is a nursing mama’s friend. When I drink red clover blossom infusion, I feel good.  I steep the blossoms for four hours and enjoy seeing those flowers dance around in my mason jar.

Everything I have read cautions that people on blood thinners, those with thin blood, or women with heavy menstrual flows should not use red clover on a regular basis. The rest of us can go out and harvest the beautiful blossoms, take them home, dry them and enjoy red clover infusions. One of the women in my herbal circle also made a delicious red clover honey from the fresh blossoms. I don’t know what it was good for-but it was tasty!



Any good red clover recipes out there?

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Sometimes I hear the names of things and repeat them without considering their significance. It’s a funny thing for a person in love with language to do, but it happens. I get caught up in the rhythm of the words and say them without question. But now I might have a clue about what Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, had in mind when she named her group Urban Bush Women in 1984. Perhaps she envisioned women like me: blissful city dwellers who love the earth and are learning to work with her bounty.

My family and I took the bus 20 minutes and left our lovely urban compound for the sprawling, tall green calm of the beautiful Cunningham Park. Once there, I gathered parts of two plants that have come to me in dreams: sassafras and red clover.


sassafras leaves

The first time I heard the word sassafras it was in the title of an Ntozake Shange novel. I thought it was simply the character’s name. Fast forward a decade later and it’s the plant I go looking for first in woods and forests. Something about the shape of the leaves, the scent, the color, and the flavor. The plant worked itself into my sleep after drinking sassafras tea at a Pow-Wow.

In recent years this beautiful bush has fallen out of favor. Science says that the safrole in sassafras caused liver cancer in rats and the FDA banned it from use. Mind you, folks have been drinking tea made from this plant for as long as people have lived on this continent. A sister who gathers the bark on her reservation and makes tea from it explains that folks who know the plant know when it is best to use and when it is best left alone. When I asked my teacher Robin Rose Bennett whether she is concerned about the scientific findings, she says “Not in the least. It is a total non-issue. The plant is not safrole, it contains natural buffers.”

My passion is sassafras leaves. They are a key ingredient in gumbo and indeed they are healing. Robin Rose says, ”I use a tea of the leaves to help people get off anti- depressants. It’s an incredible spirit lifter. It also helps take tobacco out of people’s systems. I love sassafras.” Robin gathers her leaves in autumn “when they are golden and the tree is giving them freely.” I have gathered mine in summer and both of the teas I made were light and very refreshing. I covered the fresh leaves in just boiled water for about 8 hours. I also enjoyed a delicious brew of sassafras and spice bush leaves.

This is not a plant I make tea from every day. I probably enjoy sassafras tea for three weeks out of the year. That’s what I am led to do and somewhere I read that some indigenous people would drink the tea for a week, lay off of it and drink it again for a week. I’ve had two wise women show me this plant with no hesitation and like I said, it showed up in my dreams. Something in my spirit knows that the air, water and food in this country are a lot more dangerous than a few cups of sassafras tea. If you are drawn to this plant, you are in for a real treat.

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