Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coltsfoot in flower

Tussilago farfara

I've never seen the flower until this spring when Casey took me to this spot. It's so sweet to see its brilliant yellow rising from the brown leafy carpet of fall and winter. I've been familiar with coltsfoot leaf for sometime now and its such a pleasure to see its flower this time. Coltsfoot flower and leaves are used for healing chest ailments like coughs and bronchitis, hence its folk name "coughwort." It has also been traditionally used to help asthma. On this particular day I felt like I was coming down with a cold and so we gathered some of the flowers with the intention to make a nice tea when we got back home. Casey added rosehips and some elder flowers along with the coltsfoot and I swear the tea cured my sore throat chills and coming cold!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Speedwell Veronica officinalis

Common names are Veronica, Bird's Eye, Ground-well and Common Speedwell

There is nothing “typical” about a green lawn when speedwell is around. These colorful (varying
shades of blue) vibrant thumbtack sized wildflowers are all over North America by at least a half dozen
common species. With three large petals and one smaller petal pointed down they gather in yards and
gardens. They are members of the figwort family that include mulleins, toadflaxes, snapdragons, and

It was once used to treat skin diseases, hemorrhages, wounds, coughs, and as a diuretic and
expectorant. The leaves were used in England as a substitute for tea. The Cherokee took this plant
with sweetener to get rid of coughs. They also used the warm juice to soothe earaches and a decoction
of the roots were said to help with childbirth. Speedwell has a great medicinal value for nervousness
caused by mental over exertion. One cup drunk before going to bed, through its soothing effect, is highly

Speedwell is one of the reasons we tell our friends to just let their lawn grow (you should too). Create
habitat for natures pollinators! Do away with the chemical carpet that we call lawn. If you mow, poison,
or “weed” your lawn you are not taking care of it. The land wants you to embrace the bio diversity that
it puts forth. Taking care would be to let it renew, regrow and of course rewild.

Oh and eat some by the way…the blue flowers make a great addition placed on top of icing on cupcakes
and the leaves, flowers, and stalks can be added to salads.

Spring Time, a Time for Tonics

Spring time is a great time for detoxing our body after winter hibernation when we can get sluggish. Tonics are a perfect way to "nurture and enliven" our system in the words of herbalist David Hoffman. They help wake the body from our winter rest and get important things like our bile moving to cleanse our liver which can hold many of our toxins. It only makes sense that the earliest herbs we see in  spring are the ones that we should be injesting too. Dandelion, chickweed, violet, nettles, and more. Spring tonics with herbs high in nutrients and minerals and that stimulate and discharge our blood are good for our digestive system, lymphatic system, and urinary system. This batch of spring tonic we made consists of stinging nettles, chickweed, spice bush, sassafras root, dandelion, turkey tail and molasses as a preservative. We spent a sunny but cool spring day building up a fire at Susquehannock State Park, collecting water from the spring, harvesting herbs and making a decoction of the tonic.

Chickweed Stellaria media 
Such a common and often overlooked plant that gets written off as "just a weed." "Little star" is a reference to the many sweet star like flowers that line its stems. It's an amazing all-purpose healing plant used internally and externally. It is considered a cooling herb and found in every continent and found even under the snow. Its a great source of food and contains saponins which have soap like action that works to emulsify and permeate membranes in our cells to absorb beneficial nutrients and minerals, making it great for the lymphatic system and glandular system. It neutralizes toxins, weakens bacteria cell walls to fight off sickness in the body, dissolves warts and growths and cysts. Susan Weed writes extensively about this plant and includes that it is great in helping with thyroid irregularities and weight problems.
Spice Bush
Lindera benzoin 
Spice bush budding about to unfurl its oval lobed leaves.
Spicebush is a common shrub of swamps and woodlands throughout North America. Spicebush is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and is named for the aromatic, spicy scent that arises from its leaves, flowers, bark and fruit.
Spicebush includes the brewing of teas from the crushed, dried leaves and the grinding of the dried berries for a seasoning spice. The teas are said to have a range of medicinal properties that include relief of fatigue, pain, arthritis, fever, cold symptoms, intestinal disorders and even breathing difficulties. Oils from the berries can be applied topically to treat bruises and rheumatic pain and as a general fist-aid ointment for cuts. 

Stinging Nettles Urtica Dioica
I like to call nettles "natures pharmacy" because it is so beneficial to our bodies being pack with vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrition for the body. They are great to strengthen the kidneys, help heal damaged tissue areas, support the body and  balance the adrenal system, immune, digestive, circulatory, endocrine and nervous system! It is incredibly beneficial for women in their menstrual/moon cycles. Great externally for promoting healthy strong hair and skin, making it great for eczema. Don't let the little sting deter you, just wear your gloves or not!

Dandelion Taraxacum Officinale
Everyone knows this herb and often writes it off as another weed. It is a powerfully medicinal plant, so learn a new appreciation for this one and its healing actions! Dandelion is bitter. Bitter herbs like Dandelion help to nourish the liver by stimulating flow and discharge of bile that help flush out the body. Dandelion is also a natural diuretic. It helps relive water and toxins without depleting the body like many over the counter prescriptions do because it contains tons of potassium. Like the other herbs mentioned already, it helps digestive weakness and strength the blood. Gather the leaves and flowers to eat in salads or stir fries, and the root is great for teas and tonics. 

Turkey Tail
Trametes versicolor
Part of the polypore mushroom family, Turkey Tail is a highly medicinal and easily found in the woods growing on decaying logs with its colorful stripes and turkey fan tail. Its main effects are to strengthen the immune system. It helps to enhance the most important cells in our body, T helper cells. These are the ones that tell the rest of our cells what to do and when to stop. Many autoimmune diseases and cancers attack these important cells especially during chemotherapy and radiation because they inadvertently kills T helper cells so go Turkey Tail! 

Sassafras   Sassafras albidum 
We love this under story tree for its sweet aroma, its mitten leaves and for the amazing teas it makes from the root. The root is typically harvested in the spring to made into a tonic for cleansing the blood. It is considered one of the best alterative herbs. Alteratives are "herbs that gradually restore proper functioning of the body, increasing health and vitality. Some support natural waste elimination via the kidneys, liver, lungs, or skin. Others stimulate digestion" -David Hoffman, Medical Herbalism.  Sassafras also has value as a stimulant, pain reliever, astringent and treatment for rheumatism. Skin eruptions may be bathed in an infusion from the leaves. 

I want to honor the Native Americans of our region, the Susquehannock and the Conestoga who practiced their healing traditions and shared things like using Sassafras for its medicine. I think about what the woods used to look like before the indigenous were pushed out and killed by the white settlers. I think about people living closely to the earth, foraging food from the forest that provided, living off and from the land, utilizing everything and being connected and a part of the earth that so many are estranged from today. On a daily basis, I witness the logging of our forests, the over killing of animals for fun, the spraying chemicals on our soil, the dumping trash into our water ways, the mass production of animals and food for consumption and none of it makes any sense. So wherever we are and how ever small we are, every time we harvest our plants, we make sure to replant one in return, and we find ways to protect all life from any more prolonged abuse in whatever ways we can. 

All mixed together slowly boiling over our fire at Susquehannock on an early spring afternoon. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Harbinger of Spring and a Wildflower of Mid Winter

Skunk cabbage – Symplocarpus Foetidus

As the winter weather starts to wane, and the rays of the spring sun appear the magic of transformation
and growth is happening all around our rich moist woodlands. Tight green spikes appear through
snow and ice, creating melted shapes throughout the forest floor. In a few short weeks these Skunk
Cabbage buds will turn into beautiful solitary reddish green orbs. Often undiscovered the red spathe
sits silent especially when concealed among tangled grasses, with or without snow and ice. As mother
natures’ pollinators crawl through the opening in the spathe they use this natural sauna to stay warm
from the breezy chills of the early often unpredictable spring weather. Creating its own heat and often
maintaining a constant temperature of up to 72 degrees the inside of this plant cave holds a life-saving
supply of golden pollen for beetles, flys, and bees. This skunky odor attracts insects to the spherical
ball of tiny flowers hidden within. Actually the smell often resembles rotten meat and two of its scent-
producing substances are the same chemicals found in decaying animals. In fact the reddish color of the
spathe imitates that of meat and carrion to get the attention of flies and beetles.

A few creatures use the spathe for shelter. Spiders, slugs, frogs, and even warblers have been known to
hang out and even nest inside them during the summer months.

So much talk of the spathe and flowers but the skunk cabbage is usually in all its glory when the bright
green almost chartreuse leaves unfurl and overlap each other carpeting the moist soil. The leaves hinder
other plant growth by blocking out life sustaining sunlight that the skunk cabbage needs to live. These
natural umbrellas keep living beings cool and out of sight from potential predators.

This winter wildflower has been used medicinally for years. The leaves were used in poultices for burns,
root hairs treated toothaches, the scent of crushed leaves helped to alleviate headaches, the pulverized
root was used externally to make hair grow, a charcoal mixed with bear grease was said to cause “power
dreams” and crushed leaves as a poultice were used for the healing of sore knees. Grizzly and black
bears foraged for the roots after hibernation to strengthen and cleanse their stomach.

Once found throughout our region. The skunk cabbage is found less frequent due to encroachment on
the habitat it survives in. Often bogs and swamps get drained for highways, housing, and commercial
developments because of the common thought that these areas are considered “waste” areas
condemned because of no civilized value.

**** When out foraging and you need to make a quick sturdy container use skunk cabbage leaves.
Great for berry collecting and even used as a container for collecting water.