by CoreyPine Shane on May 1st, 2015

I just got back from the woods, where the apprentices and I harvested Wood Betony flowering herb (Pedicularis canadensis) and Witch Hazel twigs and leaves (Hamamelis virginiana). And so begins my 2015 wildcrafting season, and on May Day no less! (or Beltaine in Gaelic.) What a way to start the year, with two beautiful plants.
 
So maybe you are asking what can you harvest this time of year? Different plant parts are harvested at different times – roots are usually harvested in the fall but can be harvested in the spring if need be (I just harvested my Valerian and Echinacea earlier this week).  Many herbs where the leaves are used can be harvested when the plant is either in flower or just before, when the plant has just reached its tallest.  But it is also a great time of year for harvesting barks.
 
Between spring equinox (March 21) and summer solstice (June 21) is when the new bark is forming on the tree or “slipping” as they say in arborists’ terms. Think about when you count how old a tree was by counting the rings – those rings are forming right now and by mid-summer will be hardened onto the tree. Right now is the easiest time to separate bark from wood.
 
So – perfect time to harvest all our medicinal barks!! Think about Witch Hazel, Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) (pictured above), Black Willow (Salix nigra), Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) or down here in NC we have Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium). Even the common White Pine (Pinus strobus) makes a great warming expectorant.
 
When harvesting, never ever strip bark off of a live tree. I prefer to trim some limbs off, which leaves less of a scar for the tree to heal, and to act as if I am pruning a fruit tree in my yard. In other words, I trim branches that are crossing over each other and blocking each other’s light, or low branches that are getting shaded out and will die in a few years, or are poking into a path and will be trimmed back anyhow. That way we can leave the trees even healthier than when we found them instead of diminished by our harvest.
 
Most trees we use the inner bark, which contains the living (green) part of the wood. Unless you have a giant limb or are debarking a fallen tree, you don’t have to worry about removing the outer bark – its usually just a few millimeters anyhow. Just strip the whole bark off of the heartwood, which will be harder than the bark, either using a sharp knife pointed away from you, or if you get it at just the right time of year, just peel the bark off by hand.
 
And then I have my “rule of thumb” – if  the branch is thicker than my thumb then I will debark it. Otherwise, I just get out my pruners and chop it into a jar to be tinctured.
 

And with an herb like Witch Hazel (pictured at left), I find that the leaves and young twigs are the  strongest, so that’s what I harvested. This common woodlands shrub is one of my favorite astringents. It is a great herb applied topically for any kind of spider veins, varicose veins, or hemorrhoids, for which I typically use an alcohol extract. It can be also applied externally to burns, wounds, weepy eczema, and even poison ivy because it is very drying – the tannins bind proteins and so tighten tissues.
 
Willow bark (Salix nigra) is a common tree around creeks and rivers in the sun. When I drive around the countryside I can look across farm fields and see where there is running water because of the winding lines of willow.  White Willow is a European tree, but I find our native willow actually stronger. The Weeping Willow has very little medicine.
 
If you are curious how strong your willow is, chew on a branch and the more it tastes like chewable aspirin the better medicine it is. Salicylic acid, the active constituent of aspirin, was originally discovered in willow trees and the medicinal action is very similar. Willow has a long tradition of being used for pain and inflammation, including arthritis and headache pain. It is also a great anti-inflammatory, especially combined with Turmeric. Combined with Witch Hazel, it could be used topically for a sprained ankle.
 
Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a great herb to stop coughing, very useful for the dry irritable cough after an infection has ended. I harvest the bark and tincture it, but it also makes an excellent cough syrup. It is easy to find this time of year by the white “bottle-brush” flowers (see picture) but I usually harvest it after flowering so there is less prunasin, a glycoside that is toxic in large doses.
 
White Pine (Pinus strobus) has the opposite effect – the sticky resins in the bark will help stimulate coughing as well as break up thick mucous in the lungs. It is what we think of as a “stimulating expectorant” meaning that it helps move phlegm up and out through stimulating a cough response. If this is too pronounced, it can be tempered with a small amount of Wild Cherry (perhaps 3 to 1, pine to cherry) to make it not overly stimulating.
 
Cramp Bark and Black Haw are both great anti-spasmodic herbs that are often used for menstrual cramps and to lessen the pain of kidney stones. Though Cramp Bark is more popular, I think Black Haw is stronger and it is also incredibly abundant in the southern Appalachians where I live.
 
So those are a few barks to get you started, now get out there to the woods and explore! And Happy May Day!!


by CoreyPine Shane on April 4th, 2015

This is the best time of year for so many wild greens. My other favorite with Chickweed (see last blog) is Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). The badass, leather jacket-wearing, don’t-mess-with-me weed of wet places across the U.S. The dark green of the leaves communicates the wealth of nutrients available for those brave enough to harvest them.
 
The sting of Nettles can be avoided by wearing gardening gloves and long sleeves, but I also like a sting or two when I am harvesting – it makes me feel awake and alive. If my mind drifts or I am not paying attention while harvesting, that is usually when I get stung, as if the plant is reminding me to be present.
 
So how is this possibly an edible? Once cooked, the leaves no longer sting. Even dry they don’t technically sting, but all those tiny stinging hairs (“trichomes”) can still create a lot of itchies. And they are a delicious cooked green, like spinach but much more nutritious. But you can also eat them raw and get more of that nutritional punch.
 
Just how much nutrition do they have? Nettles are 25% protein, some of the highest protein of any vegetable, plus very high amounts of magnesium, calcium, Zinc, Vitamin C, Iron, and Chromium amongst others (“Nutritional Herbology,” Pederson: 1998).
 
The easiest way to eat nettles raw is to put it in a pesto, for example the Nettles-Chickweed Pesto recipe from last blog. You can actually take almost any edible wild green and blend it into a paste with oil to make a simple wild-foods spread, whether you add the other traditional pesto ingredients or not.
 
Nettles can also be cooked like spinach, and is delicious in soup or as a cooked green. For a soup, strip the leaves from the stems (with gloves) and use them just as you would spinach, but plan a longer cooking time, as they are tougher. Karen and I often add the fresh leaves in season or the dried leaves in winter when making broth or stock to add some extra umph.
 
They are also delicious sautéed, but they do best when you add water or broth while cooking. If you just use oil they get crispy and dry and become “nettle chips.” Not very appetizing.
 
Nettles can also be dried for tea, though typically I harvest for tea when the plants are taller and I can get more leaf per plant, but before they flower. This is usually late April through early June, depending on where you live and how sunny the patch is.
 
When making the tea, throw a handful of the dried leaves in a canning jar, fill with boiling water and cover. Then let it sit for a few hours for a “long infusion” that is so rich it is broth-like. This long infusion is considered the best blood builder in western herbalism, good for pregnant and nursing mothers, or for anyone who is nutrient deficient, especially when combined with Oatstraw (Avena sativa). Just be aware that it can be a bit of a diuretic, so not so great for long car-trips!
 
Now when you get stung by a stray patch of nettles down by the river, instead of being annoyed you can get excited about all the wonderful food you can make for free! In a future blog, I’ll talk more about all the wonderful medicinal effects of the tea and tincture.


by CoreyPine Shane on April 1st, 2015

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but here in WNC early spring has arrived! This warm, wet weather means the spring ephemerals like Toothwort, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Spring Beauty are coming soon, and the beautiful Bloodroot flowers are beginning to cover hillsides (picture on the right). The daffodils are tapering off as fruit trees, like the peach and cherry trees in my garden, come into bloom.
 
Even if you still have snow on the ground, it’s time to start thinking about harvesting from the wild! Fresh new greens are popping up – chickweed, nettles, the unrelated dead nettles, and young cleavers. If you live further south they’ve been up a while, and even in the cooler northern regions, you might see some of these beginning to unfurl their leaves. I have seen chickweed, green and lush, encircled by snow.
 
To me, Chickweed (Stellaria media) is the sign of spring, and the taste of spring, too. Abundant in cool wet places, this “weed” often takes over areas of a garden or a shady, grassy hillside. In the south, depending where you are, it flowers and then goes to seed by late April or May. As the stems grow long and stringy, it becomes much less tasty. Up north, you can find it in the middle of summer.
 

Chickweed has small opposite leaves that come to a slight point at the tip. It is smooth, unlike Speedwell (Veronica) that is slightly hairy and becomes more toothed as it grows. Speedwell is not toxic, but it is also not chickweed. Both crawl along the ground before arching up 6-10 inches.
 
I harvest chickweed by taking a knife and slicing it just above ground level. If you yank it up, you’ll still get plenty of good plant but you may also get more roots and dirt that need to get picked out. Either way, you do need to go through and garble out any unwanted parts before using it for food – it’s too easy to get other plants mixed in.
 
You can use chickweed in a salad, but my favorite way to eat it is as a pesto, often mixed with fresh nettles. See the recipe below.
My other favorite way to prepare it is as a juice. Buy a wheatgrass juicer (hand cranks start at $30) and bundle the plant as you slowly feed it in. Be careful not to feed it in too fast; I have seen chickweed explosions before!
 
I love to drink an ounce or two at a time – it is much tastier than wheatgrass and possibly even more energizing. When I drink it, I just feel bright and perky and ready for springtime. Next time I’ll talk about more spring greens including Stinging Nettles, one of my favorites for both food and medicine.

Nettles-Chickweed Pesto
  • Handful (about 1 cup) of packed Nettle leaves
  • Handful (about 1 cup) of Chickweed above ground parts, well garbled
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, as much as needed
  • Garlic, 1-2 cloves. Or tender field garlic tops
  • Nuts (optional) – I prefer pecans but whatever nuts you want. They are more digestible and less astringent if you soak them a few hours, then discard the water. 
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor (preferred) or a blender, and process until smooth. Add more olive oil as needed until you get the consistency you desire. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator or freezer and pour a little oil on top to prevent oxidation. Use within a week for best flavor. Can be used on pasta, to top bread, to flavor grains, on top of cooked meats or on sandwiches. Really, the possibilities are endless - Enjoy!!
 

by CoreyPine Shane on February 13th, 2015

We have turned the corner of winter. We have passed February 1st and call it Groundhog Day, Candlemas, or Imbolc, the cold months are half over. But how is your patience with the darkness? Things are beginning to pick up in anticipation of spring-time, crocus and daffodils are blooming (at least here in the South), but there are still frosts and freezes, snow and cold dark nights to journey through. February might be the shortest month of the year, but it is the month that tries our patience the most.
 
And in the middle of this dark month we have this celebration of love, Valentine’s Day. Whether this is a time of romantic spark in the cold or a guilt-inducing Hallmark holiday, you’ve got to wonder about the timing. Is it too much to bring in all those red hearts in this gray month? Whatever your answer, it is a good time to look into our hearts and remember our core.
 
For that is what is going to see us through the darkness – coming back into our core, remembering ourselves deeper and so having the patience to endure. Which brings us to today’s subject, embracing the contradiction of February. Let’s talk about aphrodisiacs and about loss and grief. Take what you need from this discussion, because without going through the darkness we won’t be able to recognize the light. And interestingly enough, it is the same group of herbs that can do both because both are times we need to open our hearts.
 
Think romance and you might think of roses. As an herbal remedy, Rose (Rosa spp.) also helps heal our hearts. I like to make a rose elixir with half brandy and half glycerin and pour that over dried (fresh if in season!) rose flowers. This is a delicious remedy that helps open our hearts to our lovers, our friends, and also to feel our feelings. Rose is a big part of my Sweet Love Potion, but I also use it in formulas to help heal a broken heart or to move stuck grief.
 
Rose is under-rated because it is too obvious, but for the same reason that smelling roses makes us feel good, tasting rose does the same thing.
 
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a tree in the rose family that also has a great reputation for the heart. Some call it the “chief heart nourishing herb” in western herbal medicine. Traditionally, the berries are primarily used but recent herbalists have started using the flowers as well, and I have found them to be exceptional, perhaps even better than the berries for the emotional heart and also for lowering blood pressure. The berries still have lots of flavonoids, the chemical that turns the fruit red, which is a great anti-oxidant and a nourishing tonic for the blood vessels, so I usually combine flowers and berries.
 
But I do find Hawthorn flower to be especially amazing for opening our hearts to feel more and to move through our process more. It combines well with roses, as in Herbalist & Alchemist’s formula “Grief Relief” which also has Mimosa bark (Albizzia julibrissin). Mimosa is another great herb for love or for healing loss and grief; either way the experience opens us up to feel more. In my own Pine’s Herbals “Happy Heart”  formula, we use Hawthorn flowers and berries, Rose glycerite, Linden, and Motherwort for both the physical and emotional heart.
 
It’s very interesting that most of these plants have a thorniness (Rose, Hawthorn and Motherwort). It reminds me of the “Heart Protector” organ in Chinese medicine, the part of ourselves that stands guard at the door of our innermost self and makes sure we only admit what will truly serve us. When our Heart Protector is out of balance we forget our appropriate boundaries and let in people and experiences that aren’t in our best interest. An important part of love, any love, is about balancing our inner and outer worlds, in other words about balancing opening and protecting.
Ah, but then there is Mimosa tree (Albizzia julibrissin), called the “Collective Happiness” tree but it grows like a weed across the Southeast and into the Midwest. The bark and flowers are both used in Chinese medicine and both are uplifting and joyous. The flowers are the color of a sunset or as my wife Karen Savage Shane likes to say, “little faerie paint brushes”! Beautiful, deliciously fragrant and abundant, they make a great extract that is uplifting, invigorating and just plain happy. Karen and I made a Mimosa mead a couple years ago that is still one of my favorite meads I’ve made.
 
The bark is also uplifting but penetrates deeper into our body. By circulating the Qi and Blood, it helps us move through places where we are stuck and nourishes the heart in the process. I use Mimosa bark to much success in formulas when people are stuck in a funk or a rut of melancholy that they can’t seem to find their way out of.
 
Let’s wrap up by talking about those all-purpose remedies, the adaptogens. Both Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Ginseng (Panax ginseng) are great tonics for the whole body, especially when people are feeling tired, overwrought and/or overwhelmed. But they are also great sexual tonics as well. Ginseng is more warming and Ashwagandha more relaxing and nourishing, so depending on what you need, either can help you rekindle your pilot light for a sweet night of togetherness, or they can help you have the energy and stamina to see you through the process of grief and release.
 
One last note – emotions are healthy when they are moving. Whether you are working through infatuation or grief, or just engaged in the ever-shifting dance of romance as we get to know someone more deeply, remember to move. Whether it’s yoga, qi gong, or just going for a walk, moving our body helps us move through stuck emotions. And breathe, always remember to breathe.
 
Whichever process you are going through, be brave, feel your feelings and listen to your deep heart – it never lies. As we move through the rest of the dark and the cold, remember to nourish and tend your inner fire deep within your heart, and use these herbs to help carry you through to spring-time and the return of the green.

by CoreyPine Shane on January 13th, 2015

Choosing the Right Herb – An Easy Equation, part 1

It's a common enough situation for those just learning herbal medicine. Look up a disease or a symptom in a book and there's a laundry list of herbs. How do you know which herb is going to be best? It can be confusing for a beginner, but there are some basic guidelines that almost all herbalists use and are relatively easy to learn. In fact, you could think of it as an equation.
 
The beauty of plant medicine (and the challenge, I might add) is that herbs are complex, often with more than one use. And yet they are also subtle, meaning they are both gentler on the body than pharmaceuticals yet also deeper-acting. A good herbalist must know their herbs well, just as any craftsman must know their tools.
 
But it's not about learning more and more herbs – it is much better to learn a few plants very well than have a large but shallow materia medica. Each plant can be used to treat many things, and the more we are able to match the complexity of the herb to the complexity of the person, the better chance it will actually work because it will be more specific for their imbalance. Don't look for the “new best herb” - find the herb you already know that is best. The perfect herb for a person is often the herb that you have on-hand and best matches what you're looking for.
 
However, no matter how complex a problem is, once you answer three basic questions, you can come up with a short list of useful herbs. This creates an easy equation to narrow down your choices and create better results. And although it works best when you know your herbs well, to use this equation all you really need is a good reference book.
 
The basic equation is simple:
Action + Body System + Strength = Herb Choice. 
 
 
FIVE FACTORS IN HERB CHOICE
 
Now you're ready to think about herb choices.
 
The simplest approach is to figure out which action is needed and the location in the body you want to affect. Look up an herb in any quality herbal book and you will see a list of the aformentioned herbal action terms (e.g. diuretic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, etc.) Many books will also have a complete list of these actions and their definitions. Then you need to figure out where in the body the herb has its greatest affect, what is its “system affinity.” And finally, how strong an herb it is. You will generally need stronger herbs for problems that are short-term (acute) and gentler herbs for chronic issues.
 
This will get you a short list of very good herb choices, and it is fine to stop there. To get an even more accurate herb choice, you can fine-tune your choices with three more elements. Namely, thinking about the relative strength of the herb (tonic, acute, or low-dose), its energetics (hot or cold, building or clearing), and any specific indications of the plant (additional attributes not obvious from the previous qualities).
 
This is our basic equation. To illustrate its usefullness, let's look at each of these steps and learn more about how to choose the most appropriate herb for a specific problem AND the unique person.
 
ACTIONS
Most herb books will list the action of each herb and have a glossary to define these terms, so we won't cover every possible term here. Some terms are most likely familiar (anti-inflammatory, diuretic, expectorant, analgesic), and some are unique to herbal therapy (alterative, adaptogen, nervine).
 
Think about these as a short hand version of what the herb can do, its “resume” so to speak. You won't know everything about a plant by knowing its action terms, but it does give you a broad idea of the herbs actions, and these are the basic categories that most all herbalists use when beginning their herb choice.
 
So begin by thinking about what action is needed – do you need an anti-microbial herb or an anti-allergy herb? Someone with edema (water retention) might do well with a diuretic herb, someone with cramps could use an anti-spasmodic. We could go much deeper into treatment strategy and how that affects action choice, but that is beyond the scope of this introductory article.
 
 
SYSTEM AFFINITY
Herbs tend to have an “affinity” for certain body systems (in old books this was called its “tropism”). So it's not enough to choose an anti-spasmodic for cramping – Black Cohosh is excellent for menstrual cramps, but Ginger would be a far better choice for cramping in the digestive system. Even within an action like “nervine” (a tonic for the nervous system), you could use Skullcap to relax tension from over-thinking, while Pedicularis would be better for muscular tension and over-use of the body.

This information is not always included in an herb book directly, so sometimes you need to read into the text and see what diseases the herbs treat, then think about what system that affects.

STRENGTH
When it comes to the strength of an herb, I like to think about there being three main categories: Tonics, Acute herbs, and Heroic herbs. Although not every herb fits neatly into one of these categories, understanding the strength will help you better match the herb to the severity of the imbalance.

Tonic herbs are the backbone of modern herbal medicine. These are herbs that can be taken for long periods of time and create balance in the body, or nourish and tone either the whole body or one particular organ system. These herbs really shine in both preventative medicine and also in long-term care and healing of chronic disease.

Acute herbs are used for situations that are going on right now. When someone has a cold or a headache, or is in acute pain, then we reach for one of these remedies. They are more about treating an illness or symptom than about creating balance in the body.

Heroic herbs are strong herbs that have a strong effect on the body. We try to avoid these in general, but there are times when a very strong remedy is called for. They have the possibility of throwing the body out of balance, but they can also save lives. This type of healing, by the way, is the focus of modern medicine; whereas herbal medicine prefers using building and balancing herbs.

Here's an example. If it is flu season and your friends are getting sick and you feel like you've been working hard, you may want to take Astragalus because it is an immune "Tonic" that helps restore the strength of the immune system and build more white blood cells. But if you are already feeling sick, then it is too late to build. You need to fight the infection! So you could take Echinacea as an "Acute" herb to stimulate your immune system. Echinacea is better at getting the body going than at preventing disease.

If the infection got really bad, you could go for some of the heavy hitters, but don't use "Heroic" herbs unless you really know what you're doing. There are herbs like Poke root, Lomatium, and Coptis that could be used for bad infections, and antibiotics would also fall in the Heroic category as a substance that can kill infection but often has side effects.

If your herb book doesn't mention the strength of the herb, look at the dosages to get a better idea of how strong it might be. Since different herbalists use different dosing strategies, the best bet is to compare dosages within the book.

These are the 3 basic characteristics to think about when choosing an herb to help someone. This article will be added to and edited again in the near future, so let me know your questions in the comments section below, and I will include my answers in the next version right here.






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