A Forgotten Piece: A documentary about my life as an herbalist

Life with a baby has certainly hindered my blog posts, so I apologize for the lack of content these past few months. I have been busy however, and wanted to share with you a beautiful video a University of Oregon graduate student made about my life as a forager, herbalist, and mentor. Andrea did a beautiful job piecing together my story along with clips of me foraging, making medicine, and Jasper of course. I want to share this with you all and give you a little inside scoop of my life and vision for living with the Earth.

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Harvesting Cottonwood Buds for Medicine

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Have you ever noticed that rivers just have that particular ‘river’ smell? Full of heavy, wet odors the smell seems to bring a sense of nostalgia and happiness for people. Whenever I pull out any medicines containing cottonwood buds I get the same reaction from people – the eyes close, a smile appears, and say “Wow that is amazing! It reminds me of something – like the river.”

Cottonwood or Populus spp., is a deciduous tree that grows natively in North America, Europe, and Asia. One of the reasons the smell reminds people of rivers is because it likes to grow in riparian areas. I often use this tree as an indicator species in drier climates to tell me where water might be in the distance. In the Willamette Valley we are bursting with trees since we are so wet, however in drier climates like in the Southwest it can be very useful; as they grow where even small seeps of water occur in a landscape otherwise barren of taller trees or shrubs.

Cottonwoods are in the Salicaceae family which includes many species of aspen, willow, and poplars. This plant family is special due to the salicylates they contain which is the chemical we seek for the medicine it provides for pain relief, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing qualities. To learn more about using willow as medicine feel free to check out my guest blog on the First Ways website.

In my region of the Pacific Northwest one of the most common cottonwoods is the black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa which is what I normally harvest. Winter is the time to harvest the leaf buds of the tree as they are not yet unfurled and contain the highest amount of medicine during this time. Once the leaves start to unfurl it is too late. My favorite time is right about now, mid February, because the buds are starting to swell and get exceptionally sticky and gooey.

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In order to harvest the buds sustainably it is best to wait for a wind storm that knocks off branches to the ground. It is always best to keep in mind that when one is harvesting leaf buds you are actually taking away the tree’s ability to get food from the sun. Removing buds from downed branches eliminates any harm to the tree by the wild crafter. Yesterday I went out along one of the forks of one of our major river systems to see what branches I could find. We had a wind storm about a week before and so assumed I would find some branches. The cottonwoods were intermingled with Oregon white oak, oso berry shrubs, blackberry, roses, and new spring greens. After searching for 15 minutes and only finding small branches here and there I found the jackpot. A cottonwood had completely lost its entire upper half and left a huge pile of its branches on the ground. Within two minutes I was able to fill my quart jar to the rim.

Cottonwood buds are maddeningly sticky and resinous as you will find if you go and start picking them. The resin is soluble in alcohol and oil which is why I only make tinctures and oils out of the buds. I use olive oil when making an herbal oil. Using the fresh buds (picked on a dry day) fill the jar about half to 3/4 full of the buds and cover all the way to the top with the oil. This can sit for 6 weeks or longer. I find straining it to be a real pain because not only are the buds sticky but they also stain equipment and hands so I end up just leaving the buds in the jar and draining off when I want to use it. The oil is extremely anti-microbial and so I never add any additional preservatives like Vitamin E oil like I otherwise do with herbal oils.

The oil can be used on its own, mixed with other oils, or turned into a salve. Due to its analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties cottonwood bud oil is wonderful to use externally for arthritis and other inflammatory and painful conditions. I often use it for my muscle oil rub in combination with St. John’s wort and arnica oils. These are just mixed in equal parts. A popular salve can be made using this oil called Balm of Gilead. This salve makes a great addition to any first aid kit as it can be used to help heal wounds and burns as well. The salve can actually help skin regeneration from burns.

This year I have plenty of oil and so decided to harvest to make more tincture. Once again I fill my jar of buds 1/2 to 3/4 full then cover with alcohol. Because the buds are resinous I like to use a higher percentage of alcohol than 40%. Using pure grain alcohol I decided to do a 60% dilution using the ratio of 1:0.6. So for every ounce of pure grain alcohol I will use .6 ounces of water.

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I use cottonwood tincture as a great substitute for willow bark. In this area the native willows are not very high in salycilates compared to white willow in Europe and so cottonwood buds are the alternative. I use the tincture more for its expectorant properties for the lungs. This is a lesser known use of the plant and I find works wonders. I like to make a mixture of equal parts of cottonwood bud, elecampane, and mullein for folks who are dealing with dry persistent coughs at the end of a cold. Time and again I give the mixture to my clients and within a day or two the cough is gone – and this after sometimes months of coughing! The tincture can be used for bronchitis and other lung issues.

I add the tincture to my throat spray as it is very helpful with laryngitis and loss of voice due to the inflammation. Once again the tincture is wonderful to add to first aid kits as it is a great anti-septic and can help with skin infections or the prevention there of.

This is the perfect time of year for harvesting the buds so wait for that windstorm and have fun!

Useful tips:

– Reuse the same mason jar for oil and tincture. The resins ruin any container and are almost impossible to clean.
– Search for a large or several large downed branches instead of picking smaller ones.
– To remove the resin from hands I like to first rub olive oil until it starts to come off, then using soap and a scrub brush you can scrape the rest clean. Alcohol works great too. While harvesting be sure to carry some salve if you need to clean hands in the field. Or rub in dirt so that it takes away the stickiness until you get home.

Baby’s First Herbal Bath

 

I am so proud to announce that my little boy was born earlier this month on January 8th. As my readers know it was a nearly 3 year long journey to conceive and finally birth this little guy. His name is Jasper Layne Bradley and he decided to make himself known 3 weeks in advance of my due date at 36 weeks and 4 days.

As birth plans go ours didn’t go exactly according to plan. Because he was considered late pre-term I ended up having to be in the hospital instead of the Nurse Midwifery Birthing Center. I was really against having to go to the hospital due to the environment and the decisions we would have to make about what we did and did not want the nurses to give us during our stay. Turns out it went wonderfully well, the staff at Riverbend were considerate of our choices and understanding of our situation.

I was able to have a normal vaginal birth and the only drugs I had to be on was penicillin since my GBS culture had not completed its 7 day growth period. My water broke the night before and I experienced a mild and slow labor up until 5:30 PM the next day. After 5:30 PM I went immediately into active labor and less than 3 hours later Jasper came quickly into this world. So quick in fact I almost didn’t have a midwife or doctor attending.

My labor journey was amazing and I am so grateful to be able to have that experience and come out well on the other end. I clearly remember being in the middle of it and thinking “Wow, I could never ask for or want to be on drugs.” This was mainly because I didn’t associate the surges with pain but rather intensity and knew I would lose out on so much if I became numbed out.

Jasper is growing steadily and now weighs over 7 pounds (birth weight was 5 pounds 11 ounces). He is a kind and gentle soul but also is quite clear in ‘articulating’ his needs!

I finally decided it was time to give him a bath since I had decided not to wash off all of the protective coating he received from birth. Instead of using a soap based bath I chose to do an herbal one.

First I simply made an infusion in a quart jar using equal parts of chamomile, lavender, and rose buds. Then I put water in the baby bath and added the tea mixture to it. He smelled amazing! The calming, soothing, and astringent quality of the herbs helped him to relax and soothe his crazy infant acne.

I am continuing to use herbal based baby products and will blog those recipes as I go along.

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Dandelion Wine – Part 3 Bottling!

First and foremost – Happy Herb Day!

Part 3 of making Dandelion Wine nearly completes my series. The last installation won’t take place for months out – that is when we will enjoy the fruits (or flowers?) of our labor.

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After nearly 3 weeks the wine finally stopped bubbling and fermenting. The first two weeks were none stop bubbles and my airlock was constantly jostling around inside its container. At the 2 and half week mark there was a significant decrease in the bubble action and for a couple of days it nearly fooled us into thinking it was done.

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The importance of it being completely done fermenting lies in the fact that if we bottle it while still under pressure we could risk exploding the bottles. This tid bit does actually come from direct experience. My husband and I were playing around with making Nettle Soda (blog post to come about that!) and in order to not make it so alcoholic we only let it ferment for a day or so then put it in the fridge to stop the process. For whatever reason 3 or 4 exploded outside and inside of the fridge. Glass shrapnel is kind of a safety hazard.

Luckily we waited until we saw no more bubbles for an entire day before making the decision to bottle.

We didn’t have any wine bottles and I was too lazy to get some. Instead we used some of our beer bottles with either disposable caps or with a latch.

Wash and sterilize the bottles in the dishwasher using the hottest setting if possible. Remove the airlock from the wine jug and using a funnel, gently pour the liquid into the clean bottle.

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There is a lot of sediment at the bottom of the jug so be sure not to swish it around as we don’t want that in our finished product. Cap all the bottles (or cork if you are using wine bottles) and label. Be sure to add the date as well since these will not be drunk for quite some time.

I am going to wait until at least the winter solstice before opening one of them. Dandelion Wine ages very well and becomes more complex and flavorful over time. Right now mine smells pretty yeasty and I hope that will work itself out in time. I also think it is going to be quite alcoholic – but we will see. Here is a very interesting blog from a winery whose family has been making Dandelion Wine for many years – Bellview’s Blog.

Happy waiting!

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Lilac Flowers – an Edible and Medicinal Treat

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Lilac shrubs have always been one of my favorite signs of spring. Growing up in Eastern Oregon we wouldn’t see the blooms until at least May, but here in the Willamette Valley we are blessed seeing them bloom as early as the beginning of April. Vases filled with freshly cut lilac reminds me of family, home, and my grandmother who passed on her green thumb to my mother and then on to me.

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My grandmother Vera Mezger circa 1940

Lilac or Syringa spp. (the common species is vulgaris) is in the olive family and is native to the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe. People emigrating from Europe brought the shrub to plant in their gardens in order to savor a piece of home. Here, out west, pioneers brought lilacs with them during the 1800’s and now you may find lilac growing wild in abandoned lots and homesteads.

Lilac fragrance is wonderfully intoxicating, however, it is very difficult to capture the scent. Synthesizing in the lab is the only sure way to get a true scent. Here is an interesting recipe on how to capture the scent at home: How to Make Lilac Fragrance.

The flowers are edible and have some medicinal qualities. I have to say eating even a single flower raw is a flavor exploding experience giving my mouth a slight astringency (drying to tissues), bitter, and heavy floral taste. I would say these are best for garnishes and edible flower displays on pastries rather than whole meals.

Medicinal uses are still a gray area when it comes to just the flower. Most resources that I have found (random blogs, pfaf.org, A Modern Herbal) list that the medicinal benefits of Lilac come from the leaves and fruit. Apparently, it was used as a tea or infusion historically, and has been used as a anti-periodic. Anti-periodic basically means that it stops the recurrence of disease such as malaria. There has been some studies that indicate a febrifuge action which may help bring down fever.

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The flowers themselves I can only guess based on my taste observations which include actions of astringency, aromatic, and perhaps bitter qualities.

Astringents tighten, draw, and dry tissues such as skin. So a wonderful application would be a cold or warm infusion to use as a toner on the face. Or using the same method but apply to rashes, cuts, and other skin ailments.

An aromatic action causes irritation to the place that it is touching (think GI tract) and irritation brings blood flow and blood flow equals healing! Eating the flowers raw may help with gastric issues such as flatulence or constipation. Making an herbal infused oil may be a great way to capture the aromatics for healing purposes and to make your own fragrance oil. (*Update* The flower oil I made turned out to be pretty gross. I recommend wilting the flowers heavily before adding to the oil. Remember oil and water don’t mix!)

At the end of the blog I have included some links to great recipes to try with lilacs. I decided to try my hand at two of them that I will share. Lilac honey and lilac infused oil.

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Lilac Honey

Jar size of choice (1/2 pint, pint, quart etc.)
Local, pure honey

Fill jar with freshly picked flowers with a little room at the top. Pour over honey to the top and cap. Allow to infuse for at least 6 weeks. No need to strain afterwards – eat the flowers along with the honey! Great for adding to recipes, spreading on bread, or adding to teas.

Lilac Infused Oil

Jar size of choice (1/2 pint, pint, quart etc.)
Carrier Oil – Olive Oil, Jojoba, or Sweet Almond Oil are options
Optional – Vitamin E Oil for preservation

Fill jar with very wilted flowers (make sure the flowers are as dry as possible to discourage rancidity). Cover with carrier oil and cap. Allow to infuse for up to 6 weeks. After 6 weeks strain and use in salve formulations or as a base for an aroma oil. Try combining with Lavender, Patchouli, or Jasmine Essential Oils.

Here are some ideas for using lilacs in cooking from other recipes online:

Lilac Jelly
Lilac Wine
Lilac Liqueur/Cordial
Lilac Infused Blueberry Syrup
Lilac Ice Cream

One more point of interest. Lilac wood is supposed to be one of the densest in Europe and has been historically used to make musical instruments such as pipes or flutes. We had to cut down one of our lilac shrubs I am sad to say, however we kept all the branches. I will choose one to make a pipe (hopefully one day soon) and will describe the process in another blog post.

Stop and smell the flowers!

Making Dandelion Wine – Part 1

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Dandelion Wine is the spring classic beverage for wild food and wine lovers alike. For the past 5 years I have been telling myself “This is the year I will try my hand at wine!”, and then the Dandelion Flowers fade away with late spring and my window for gleaning has passed. I am pleased to announce that I have beaten the procrastinator and I did it.

Google has no shortage of variations on wine recipes so I wanted to record my own experience with some tips that would have been helpful for me in the beginning.

Supplies

2 gallon stone crock
Cotton tea towel or cotton muslin cloth (large enough to cover opening of crock)
Medium sized strainer
8 quart (at least) pot
Basket/bowl
1 gallon or larger carboy and airlock
Empty wine bottles with corks or beer bottles with caps

Ingredients

1 gallon dandelion flower petals
1 large orange and 1 lemon
2 pounds sugar (white, brown, honey, or dextrose)
1 package of yeast (wine yeast – follow directions on package)
1 tsp dried ginger

Begin by collecting the flower heads of Dandelions. The first step of this process really only needs the crock, flowers, and water so you have a few days to get the other items together.

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Harvesting Dandelion Flowers

It’s not as simple as just pulling off the heads from the stem! The trick is to get only the yellow petals and not (or as little) as the green sepals as possible because the green parts are quite bitter and will alter the flavor of the wine. My husband and I found two different ways to do this. The first way is mine. With my harvesting basket in hand I go out on sunny days when the flowers are in full bloom.

Side note – the Asteraceae Family have many sun loving plants including the Dandelion. They will actually open in the morning and close up at night. The fancy term for it is “sleep of plants”.

After popping off as many heads as I can in a few minutes with my basket I then grab another bowl to throw the discarded flower bits. Using my finger nails to slice the flower down the middle so that it will open flat I pinch off the petals pulling it away from the head of the flower until nothing is left but the green parts. FYI your hands will get very yellow and sticky!

Matt on the other hand used scissors (nice kitchen shears) to cut the green sepals and lower portions off leaving just the petals. His lack of fingernails made it difficult for the pinch and pull method.

It takes a lot of time and patience to get a full gallon of flower petals so my solution was to gather each evening after I came home from work and put them in a gallon size zip lock then froze the entire bag. It took me probably about 5 days to gather enough during the week then freezing to fill the entire bag full. I am lucky to have plenty of Dandelions in my yard to yield several batches of wine if so inclined. Do be sure you are harvesting from a place that is free of chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides.

Ants love Dandelions and seem to be a major pollinator. We found that if we came to a bunch of flowers crawling with ants to just leave the bowl full of freshly harvested flowers outside so that the ants disperse on their own. Formic acid (from the ants) will probably not be a great additive to the wine.

Once I gathered the full gallon of flowers I emptied the bag into my 2 gallon crock then boiled about a gallon and a half of water. Pour the boiling water over the flowers, stir, and cover with the cotton cloth. Allow the petals to infuse for 3 days.

This concludes part 1 of making Dandelion Wine. Keep an eye out for part 2!

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