Archive for the ‘Herbal Diary’ Category

I Want to be Scene Green

Hear those burgundy skirts rustling the wind? See that golden leaf (finally) falling into the arms of that patch of earth it has been flirting with all summer? Fall has sashayed onto the scene. I am thinking about spending time with my favorite herbs before they tuck their healing leaves and blossoms underground for the winter. I want to get out and dig more dandelion root, spend time with burdock, and gather some of sassafras’ spectacular leaves. More than anything though, I am craving being in the green.

A few years back I had an experience that is only now starting to make sense to me. I was having a miserable day: my daughter was sick, I was tired, all of our interactions were fraught with tension and I felt close to the breaking point. I decided that we should go outside. I bundled my daughter and I up and off we went to get take out from one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants. I picked up our order and was rushing back home– still tense– when I decided to take a little detour. “Let’s go to the park,” I said to Serene. She agreed.

The minute the soles of my shoes touched the grass, I softened. I went to my favorite tree–a gigantic, beautiful oak close to one of the entrances in the park. I stood and leaned on the tree. My breathing deepened. My tension began to disappear. I looked at my daughter and felt more compassion for us both than I had felt all day.

That day I learned (again) that there is something there–in the green and the brown trunks and the rich soil–that is ready to embrace us. There is something there that is ready to befriend us and help us find health and balance if we are willing to get beyond our fears.

My husband recently had an experience gathering burdock root and taking an infusion of it to work. He said he scared everyone in the office. This was burdock he dug up. It was not something he had purchased or something that came from a controlled space like a garden. People asked him how he could be sure it was clean. He was surprised by their reactions but I explained that as a bona fide city girl, I could relate. My journey with herbs has meant  having to throw out all those things that connect “earth” with “dirt” and “being dirty.” I have learned to trust the earth, to trust that I can use a root that I dig up to make great medicine. I remind myself that this is the way my great-grandmother did it. This is the way our grandmothers and great aunts kept the family healthy for generations.

But what I learned that day in the park with my gorgeous daughter and my tensions evaporating like dew drops on the sun had nothing to do with all that. I learned that there really is healing energy out there in the green for us. Sometimes we don’t have to gather anything but the courage to sit quietly among the leaves and trees and let them help us get back to our centers.

Have you had any healing experiences simply being among plants?

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Born to be wildcrafting

Ginkgo leaves

Ginkgo leaves

I started delving into herbs when I was about 16. I remember getting my hands on  John Lust’s The Herb Book, looking at the miniature drawings and studying the descriptions of what ailments what plants could cure. I would get my herbs in capsule form or in boxes of teas back then. I used packaged tea blends for problems when they cropped up. I knew that herbs were a viable form of healing for certain problems but they were not yet a consistent part of my life.

On the next leg of the journey, my friend Bruce took me to a store where one could buy dried herbs. I was in my early twenties then and thought it was interesting to get herbs this way. I don’t remember why, but I got a small bag of vervain and an even smaller one of eyebright. Months later, I experienced redness in one of my eyes. I found that little bag of eyebright, made a tea from it, strained it and put a couple of drops in my eye. I had no idea if that was supposed to be done that way (I still don’t) but the redness cleared within an hour of using the drops.

All this to say that I’ve never been skeptical about the power of herbs; however, it wasn’t until I gave birth to my second daughter at age 33 that I decided to pursue an herbal education. In the United States where the words “health” and “care” don’t really belong together and visits to homeopaths, naturopaths and other alternative healers could land you in the poor house, it seemed to me that the only sensible solution to the dilemma of receiving quality health care would be to become the healer our family might need. That’s when it got serious. I’d already found myself a good herb store, and it was there that I heard about a teacher named Robin Rose Bennett. When I read that she would be doing a six week class at The New York Open Center, I signed up and sat rapt through every session. I will never forget when Robin told our class that “Plants are our teachers and our elders.”

I think that the best thing to have when one wants to learn about herbs is a good teacher. I had a few books and I’d worked with loose herbs, but it wasn’t until I found a teacher that things began to come together. Through Robin I am learning about the art of identifying and harvesting herbs –and this is something that this city girl never imagined doing. I’ve had the privilege of going on herbal walks with Tioma Allison and Andrea Reisen and I’ve learned about indigenous planting and harvesting practices from Franc Menusan. Sitting at the knees of these healers has profoundly affected my earth walk. Herbs are a part of my family’s daily life now–in fact, they are part of our family. Now, my preferred way of getting certain common herbs (dandelion, burdock, red clover, sassafras, plantain, ginko) is by going into parks or woods and gathering them myself. There is something very special about making medicines from plants you have gathered and given thanks for.

My supplies have now grown to include many more books, vodka to make tinctures, apple cider vinegar, extra virgin olive oil to make infused oils, two cute drying baskets, a good field guide (which I am still trying to figure out how to use), and a dozen or so mason jars for making infusions. Yet nothing replaces a great teacher and building a relationship with the natural world.

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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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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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