by Maria Noël Groves on March 23rd, 2016

CoreyPine's Note: Maria Noël Grove is the author of the excellent new herbal book, Body Into Balance. The Blue Ridge School is hosting her on Thursday, April 7, for a class on "Herbs for Allergies" - see our home page for more info. She will also be teaching and have a booth at the Mother Earth News Fair that weekend, April 9 - 10.

The Art of Herbal Formulation
By Maria Noël Groves

As an herbalist and intuitive home cook, creating a recipe from scratch usually means I stand in front of my options (ie: the herb closet, spice rack, or tincture apothecary) pondering, “Hmmm, what do I feel like? What flavors go well together?” Then I begin pulling jars, holding them, inhaling them, and then scooping this and that into the pot, seemingly at random, letting my senses and gut instinct guide me. This is how most herbalists work to create blends, and no two people will make quite the same thing, yet it often all works.

However, herbal newbies often approach jars of herbs or a ready-to-harvest garden with trepidation. They’re afraid they’ll screw things up or combine things that don’t mix well. They want recipes! Exact recipes! Herbal medicine is generally more forgiving than you may think, but there is an art and science to blending great formulas. The ability to create your own custom blend allows you to make perfect healing remedies for you and your family and to craft creative blends to give as gifts or sell. Keep the following suggestions in mind, and then just start practicing! Make small batches at first – a cup of tea, tiny bottles of tinctures, cordials, etc. – until you know you have it the way you like it. Experimentation, trial and error are part of the experience of learning herbs. Don’t let it hold you back.

Before You Blend: Ask Yourself…
What’s Your Goal? Before you begin to craft your blend, first decide its purpose. Do you have a particular health concern you want to address? Is this a general tonic blend that addresses a variety of conditions for one person? Or are you simply making a tasty tea that features a particular herb or flavor profile? This will be the driving force behind your creation!

What Fits You Best? Before you get caught up in the fascinating yet overwhelming topics of what herbs extract best in which form and how to combine them, think about what works best for you (or the person you’re creating the blend for). No matter how amazing a tea is, it won’t do a darned thing if you hate tea and will never stick with the habit. Are tinctures perfectly convenient or too medicine-like? Are you stuck in that “just give me a pill, that’s all I’ll do” mentality? Do you need to avoid anything due to health such as alcohol or sugar and honey? Should you be aware of herb-drug interactions? Are you allergic or known to have negative reactions to specific herbs or foods? What flavors do you love and hate? Get to know the actions of each herb before you put it in your blend. Read up on them in a few good books or websites and then listen to your body to see if they agree with you. Some people might be surprised to find that licorice raises their blood pressure, cinnamon gives them constipation, ginger is too warming, or peppermint aggravates acid reflux even though these herbs are otherwise extremely safe and don’t cause these “side effects” in most people.

Does the Solvent or Extraction Method Matter? Perhaps you know you want to make a winter wellness blend, but you’re not sure if you should make it as a tea, tincture, cordial, herbed vinegar, herb-infused honey, or something else. Once you’ve established any personal preferences (see above) that may take precedence, ponder what remedy form suits the condition and herbs best.

·      Tea (Water): Pros – inexpensive, gentle, hydrating, easily absorbed, normal, and the ritual alone of making and sipping hot tea is healing.  Cons – inconvenient for some, generally limited to dry plants (some herbs lose potency once dry), some herbs may be unpalatable, hard to blend herbs that don’t mix flavor-wise or require different steeping times and methods (ie: roots and leaves).

·      Tincture (Alcohol): Pros – extract most herbs well, convenient to travel and take, shelf stable for years, easily absorbed. Cons – alcohol issues (addiction, allergy, religion), takes 2-4 weeks to make (unless you do a percolation tincture, which is ready in 24 hours, see my website for a video and directions), doesn’t extract minerals (ie: nettles) and mucilage (marshmallow, slippery elm) well. While 100-proof vodka works for most plants, fresh or dry, high-proof alcohol is more effective for resins (myrrh, boswellia) and fat-soluble constituents (turmeric). Low-alcohol decoction method preferred for mushrooms and polysaccharide-rich herbs like astragalus.

·      Syrups, Honeys & Cordials: Pros – taste good, easy to incorporate into daily routine, gentle, syrups and honeys quell coughs. Cons – not always potent, high-sugar (and alcohol for cordials), shorter shelf life than tinctures.

·      Powders & Capsules: Pros – convenient to take, homemade is inexpensive (but time-consuming to make), minimal taste, powders can be mixed in honey, nut butter, drinks (better absorption than pills). Cons – need to be digested, pills often not as effective as tea or tincture, store-bought products can be expensive, powders can be unpalatable, only dry material can be used, powders quickly degrade and are often adulterated or low quality in commerce.

·      Vinegars & Oxymels: Pros – vinegar base enhances digestion/absorption, superior to alcohol for extracting minerals, alcohol-free alternative to tinctures, shelf stable for a few months to one year, honey in oxymels (a vinegar-honey extract) improves flavor of vinegar. Cons – vinegar base aggravates ulcers and some cases of reflux, honey in oxymels may be too much sugar, vinegar flavor may not be palatable, shorter shelf life than tinctures, not as potent for most plants compared to water and alcohol.
 
Ingredient Categories: Primary, Supportive & Synergist
I learned this method of formulation from the well-known herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. I love its simplicity, and you can use it to craft an easy blend of three herbs or complex formulas. Choose one or more ingredients in each category: Primary, Supportive, and Synergist. This basic concept works whether you’re creating a tea, tincture, or other form of remedy.

1. Primary Herbs:
The herbs that have the primary medicinal action (for a health condition) or primary flavor (for a tasty blend of tea). These can take up a small or large percentage of a formula. 

It’s difficult to give general examples of primary herbs because they can be almost anything! Usually, though, they are relatively potent and direct in terms of action or flavor.

2. Supportive Herbs: These herbs support the primary herb and whole body vitality. For example herbs that are tonic, nutritious, adaptogen, soothing. Flavor-wise, they might provide a nice base note to offset or compliment the primary herbs. Or, they might buffer a strong activity or potential side effect of a primary herb. Often these take up a large percentage of a formula.

3. Synergists: These herbs help put synergy to work. Movers and shakers are often spices (cayenne, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, peppermint) that increase circulation and improve digestion to enhance the absorption/action of the other herbs. This isn’t just herbal voodoo! Just a pinch of black pepper improves turmeric’s absorption by 2,000 times, and a pinch of cayenne boosts green tea’s cancer-killing ability 100 times that of either ingredient alone. Ginger enhances echinacea’s anti-cold activity. Harmonizers (licorice, honey) tend to be sweeter bring flavors and actions together. In both cases they often improve the flavor of a formula. Often, just a small amount of a synergist is used. Cayenne, black pepper, and cardamom are so potent they easily overpower other herbs in your blend if you overdo it.

4. Maybe Also Add Some Good Vibrations? This gives your blends a little something extra. Rose petals have physical healing properties (ie: tightening and toning tissues), but they also gladded the heart. Consider them when you’re feeling hopeless, full of rage, or have a broken heart. Flowers are often a welcome addition, even if they simply make you happy to see them in your loose blend. Flower essences are highly dilute remedies akin to homeopathics that target emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing. You can easily add a few drops of a flower essence to tincture blends or your teacup. Highly scented herbs and spices bring in aromatherapy, especially for tea blends. In fact, any herbs can be viewed as having more esoteric healing properties. Generally speaking, roots ground us while flowers activate our emotions and spices light our fire. “Good Vibrations” are totally optional, but this is where the art and magic of herbs comes in.

Don’t Get Too Hung Up on the Details! Herbs don’t really like to be put in a box, so don’t be surprised if the same herb pops up in multiple categories in one or separate blends. They’re complex entities, and we put them into categories to help us understand them better. For example, cinnamon may be a synergist, but if you’re creating a blood sugar blend, it may also be a primary herb. Nettle is a classic supportive herb, but if you’re creating a nutritious blend, it’s the star player. A stress-relieving adaptogen might be the primary herb in a stress blend, but it will play second fiddle to hormone-balancing vitex in a PMS blend.

But How Do I Choose?
As you begin to study herbal medicine, you’ll realize that herbs are like the English language: There are many synonyms. While some may have a slightly different tone or meaning, you can often use several words (or herbs) interchangeably based on availability and still relay the same message. First, what herbs do you have on hand to choose from? If cost is a factor, rule in or out your herbs based on price point. Now, each herb has multiple healing benefits – does one have any “side benefits” that you’d prefer? Any side effects you want to avoid? And, lastly, how does it taste or harmonize with the other ingredients in your blend – this is especially important when you make a tea. Creating a blend is a lot like arranging a flower bouquet or writing a poem, finding that perfect balance and beauty that works for you.


Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), registered clinical herbalist, runs Wintergreen Botanicals, LLC, an herbal clinic and education center nestled in the pine forests of Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown, NH. She is certified by Michael Moore’s Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, a registered professional herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild, and has also completed Rosemary Gladstar’s advanced training program and Lichenwood Herbals’ flower essence practitioner training. Her business is devoted to education and empowerment via classes, health consultations, and writing with the foundational belief that good health grows in nature. She is the author of Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care, a 300+ page, full color herbal organized by western body systems. Learn more about Maria and herbs at www.WintergreenBotanicals.com.
 

by CoreyPine Shane on December 17th, 2015

Blending Chinese Medicine philosophy
with American Herbalism


When I first started learning about American herbal medicine in the 1980s, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. There didn’t seem to be much philosophy behind it, no reason why we used one herb instead of another. It seemed an herb was chosen based on what symptom someone had as if it was a “dial-an-herb.” But I thought there must be a way of using herbs that isn’t just substituting herbs for drugs; there must be some underlying concept of when to use an herb.

I ended up finding Chinese medicine as a way to go beyond treating symptoms and to figure out the underlying problems, to treat the root cause. That has always been my goal and strongest desire. This is what guides all my treatments, all my teaching. And though American herbalism has come a long way since then, I still find the depth of Chinese medical philosophy ultimately fulfilling

But many people, maybe most of us, get intimidated at first –  “Chinese medicine is so big!” But here’s the thing – there is so much we can learn from Chinese medicine without needing to become Chinese herbalists or acupuncturists. I am clear with my students – I do not train them to be Chinese herbalists; instead we borrow from the lessons of Chinese medicine to better use our local herbs.

Many Chinese medicine practitioners would say it is all or nothing – if you are not a licensed acupuncturist then you shouldn’t say you are using Chinese medicine. Though I agree it is a complex system worthy of years of study, I also think that there are many lessons we can learn from Chinese medicine as a way of deepening our herbal practice.

My goal is to make it easy for you, break it down into bite sized chunks so it’s not so overwhelming. Even if you can pick up just one of the concepts below, it will deepen your use of herbal medicine.

Here are four things we can learn from Chinese practitioners, and I will go into more depth on some of these afterwards to help explain.
-       Look for patterns of imbalance. This will make our treatment plan more accurate than just treating symptoms as they arise because we are looking for the connections between different systems of the body.
-       Differentiate between Excess and Deficiency symptoms. “Deficiency” doesn’t refer to nutrient deficiencies necessarily, but to someone’s overall condition. When someone is deficient and lacking, they need to be built up and we use tonics. When someone is excessive we clear away.
-       Thinking about whether conditions are Hot or Cold, and Damp or Dry. And then thinking about herbs that way too. This is the heart of every traditional medicine whether Ayurveda, Mayan, or traditional European (Greek system)
-       There is no real difference between physical symptoms and mental or emotional manifestations of disease.

Because Chinese medicine is pre-scientific, the diagnostic tests used are observation, palpation (touch) and asking questions instead of  relying on reading lab values and using complicated and expensive electronic machinery. Which gives those of us who don’t have access to such tests a big advantage as well as saving our clients a lot of money.

Let me go into more depth about these principles.

1) Pattern Imbalances. To think about patterns, start to notice similarities throughout the body. For example, if someone is constipated and has dry skin, dry mouth, and chapped lips, maybe their instestines are also dry and that’s what’s causing the constipation. So that person needs herbs that help hydrate.

Whereas someone else experiencing constipation who also has tight shoulders, tight neck and a lot of stress, might be constipated because their colon is physically tight and they need relaxants. So, same symptom but two different patterns.

2) Excess and deficiency. This can be a little harder to get at first. To give you a feeling of what each feels like, imagine drinking too much coffee and getting anxious and jittery. This would be an excess type of anxiety. Now imagine getting anxious because your blood sugar is low and you need to eat – voila, deficiency anxiety!

Though it’s not always that simple, this does give you a visceral feeling for what to look for. I find it very useful when treating the nervous system for insomnia. Is the nervous system under-nourished and therefore more jumpy? Or is the nervous system over-stimulated?  I find that most people experiencing chronic insomnia don’t need sedatives as much as herbs to nourish their nervous system. Instead of using Valerian or Hops for them, what they need is Oat seed, Skullcap, and maybe some Magnesium.

3) Hot and Cold, Damp and Dry. Basically, herbs that stimulate circulation in some way are heating – think of ginger, cinnamon, or cayenne. Herbs that cool our body off are cooling – think of peppermint, lemons, and feverfew. But these are more obvious (maybe feverfew is less so, but remember it has a traditional use of lowering fevers) but how do we tell a new herb?

There is always the option of looking it up. More and more herbal books these days include the energetic information about an herb, including Sharol Tilgner’s books, Michael Tierra, and Matthew Wood. Or if it is traditionally used in Ayurveda (which includes most cooking herbs) or Chinese medicine, then we can look it up there. But we can also taste the herb and see how it makes us feel – more warm or more cool? 

Taste is an interesting measure too – Herbs that are more aromatic and spicey are more warming, whereas bitter and sour herbs tend to be cooling to the body (but sour is warming to digestion). And this could be the topic of our next blog.

4) Physical and Emotional. All traditions of medicine that I have looked at do not differentiate between physical and emotional symptoms. Or to be more specific, emotional manifestations of imbalance are treated with the same attention as physical symptoms. A liver imbalance, for example, can cause anger and anger can also reflect a liver imbalance. Someone who experiences anxiety with palpitations might take an herb for the heart even if the problem was not their physical heart.

And this gives us a physical way to treat non-physical manifestations of disease. The caution with treating spiritual and emotional issues in others is the tendency towards projecting our own issues onto others. By coming back to where someone’s physical symptoms manifest, we can treat someone’s emotional imbalance by treating their physical body.

These are four ways to get you started thinking about the connections, about how much we can learn and grow by studying Chinese medicine. There is much more out there and slowly each of us learn more. Chinese medicine is by no means the only way to treat disease but it has its strengths and we can all learn a lot from this ancient tradition.
 

by CoreyPine Shane on July 29th, 2015

Sleep isn’t always something that comes easily. Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms I see in my clients, even if it is not the problem they came in for. But there are many herbs that can help with sleep, and not just sedatives either.
 
There are many different “flavors” of insomnia and not every herb will work for every person. Some knowledge about the herbs helps narrow down the choices, and sometimes it takes some experimentation too. But creating good sleep habits are at least as important, if not more important, as herbs when working with chronic insomnia.
 
HERBAL CHOICES
Some of my favorite herbs for sleep include Passionflower, Valerian, Skullcap, and Hops. This list could go on and on as there are many relaxing herbs, also known as “nervines.”
 
Taking small doses of relaxing herbs throughout the day can be more helpful for chronic insomnia than trying to blast the stress away with one big dose of herbs at bedtime.  And in this article we’ll focus on night-time herbs.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) (pictured at left) is a common plant of the American Southeast with such a magical flower that you’ll forget it’s a weed through much of the piedmont. Contrary to its name, it is actually a very relaxing herb that is sedative in large enough doses.
 
This herb is specific for an over-active mind, circular thinking and even muscular twitchiness. This is the herb I keep on my bedside table for when I drink coffee too late in the day, or just find myself too stressed out to be able to relax into sleep. For this purpose, I take 2-3 squirts of the fresh plant tincture.
 
Probably the most famous herbal sleep remedy is Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Valerian is a fairly strong sedative that relaxes both the mind and the body, and has a “heavy” energetic to it, meaning that it can slow us down and allow us to sleep by slowing us down, even making our limbs feel heavy. Taking too much can result in feeling foggy the next morning, but sometimes it’s worth it to have a good night’s sleep.
 
Also, be aware that 1 in 20 people get stimulated instead of sedated by Valerian, so be careful the first time you try it. It seems to have less of this effect when using the fresh root tincture, or when combined with other sedative herbs like the ones listed in this article.
 
Another strong sedative is Hops (Humulus lupus), the same flowers that are used to make beer. I think of Hops as a fairly strong sedative, and usually combine it with Passionflower or Skullcap to create a relaxing blend.
 
And finally we have Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), which is not a strong sedative but more of a “nerve tonic.” Skullcap helps quiet the mind, especially for anxiety or when we are caught in circular thinking. I think of it like its name – putting a “cap” on our thinking.
 
By itself it won’t help most people get to sleep but if it is excess thinking that is keeping us up, Skullcap can calm that thinking so we can get to sleep. Or it can be added to some of the other herbs to enhance their relaxing properties.
 
Skullcap can combine well with tincture of “milky” Oat seed (Avena sativa) as a day-time tonic to help us stay relaxed during the day so we’ll be less stress out at bedtime and be more ready for sleep.
 
One pattern that I see in chronic insomnia is people who are too exhausted to sleep. Thinking about this from a Chinese medicine perspective, we can think about this as  “deficiency insomnia” because it is almost as if we don’t have the energy to sleep.
 
For this type of person who is tired all day but can’t sleep at night, perhaps has some adrenal exhaustion or chronic stress, I find it more helpful to nourish the nervous system rather than sedate it. These people might find more effectiveness using herbs like Oat seed, or Ashwagandha.
 
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most popular herbs in India, having a similar place to Ginseng in Chinese medicine. What makes it unique is its ability to both nourish and give us more energy, but at the same time to help us relax and sleep better. The best way to use it for sleep is to drink a milk infusion before bed. Take a teaspoon of the powder in almost simmering milk with a pinch of Cinnamon, let steep for 10 minutes, then drink the milk and avoid drinking the powder at the bottom of the cup.
 
Although not an herb, Magnesium can be very helpful for sleep, especially when someone has tight muscles or even restless leg syndrome. To help with sleep, I recommend taking a dose of powdered Magnesium (For example the Calm brand) in a glass of water a half hour before bed.
 
It is surprisingly effective to help relax muscles as well as to initiate sleep. Or perhaps not so surprising, as Epsom Salt baths have a long history of use for relaxing muscles, and that is just Magnesium sulfate. Magnesium can also function as a mild laxative, so if you take too much you may find yourself headed to the bathroom the first thing in the morning!

BETTER SLEEP HABITS
There is an amazing amount written about “Sleep Hygiene” so I will just include a few helpful notes here.
 
First off, establishing a routine is extremely helpful. If you go to bed at 11 pm every night, then your body knows at 10:30 to start winding down. Our natural circadian rhythms start to take over when we get into a habit of going to bed at the same time every night.
 
Also, most traditional medicines recommend going to sleep by 11 pm at the latest for best sleep. After that time, our “second wind” often kicks in and we can be up longer.
 
Other things that help include: not eating for two hours before bed, creating a truly dark bedroom to enhance melatonin production, and avoiding stimulating activities before bed including TV, movies, and mentally stimulating books.
 
One thing that I have found helpful is an app for computers called “f.lux” which changes the color of the computer screen from a general blue color to a peachy color after sunset, which is a more natural color that is less stimulating to the mind. So if you find yourself staying up late to check Facebook, then this could be a good app for you.
 
Hope you find this helpful, and here’s wishing you a good night’s sleep!



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.






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