The Flaming Crucible: Mood Disorders and Inflammation

flaming fern on volcano, Hawai'i

flaming fern on volcano, Hawai’i

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a link to the images and additional readings for the class, The Flaming Crucible: Mood Disorders and Inflammatory Disease, that I taught at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference this weekend in beautiful Cloudcroft, NM. There is a mini-reader with articles on everything from the microbiota-gut-brain axis to epigenetics to vagal tone, along with some select images that I used during the presentation. Included papers are not necessarily those I deem most important, but are a sampling of quality articles that are also available as free full-text. There’s so much more, but this is a great primer as we begin to understand the role of inflammation in mental health.

A sneak peek:

InflammationMentalHealth

Posted in clinical use, mental health Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Sustainable Herbs Project Rewards

At Ann’s request, I’ve put together these high resolution photo collages that can be used as desktop or tablet backgrounds or screen savers…or for whatever your heart desires. These are large and high-resolution, suited to wide screens. Click on them to see their full size. Just visit the Sustainable Herbs Kickstarter project to claim one of these and support this important work.

Enjoy!
California wild

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patera Physic Garden for Healing & Learning 20115

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roses and Foxes

Posted in Uncategorized

hallowe’en faerie cottage (yes, really)

In case anyone ever wondered where I got my planty obsessions, for better or worse, we don’t have to look far. The, er, pumpkin, doesn’t grow far from the vine.  My interests in all things garden, plant, art and craft–and cottagey–can be traced right to my mom. And the good news is, she’s got SKILLS!

As a hallow’s eve treat, I’m sharing photos that appeared in my inbox this week, documenting her latest project.  She is like Martha Stewart to the fae! Who wouldn’t want to live in this pepo palace?!

 

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Extra points to those who can spot the many herbs she’s included (where’s the poke?) and extra-extra points for those who can ID the types of acorns involved. She’s not just crafty, that mama, she’s clever, too.

 

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At this time of year when many honor the ancestors, I’ll take this opportunity to send a shout-out to my mom, for passing on how to make a decent faerie house (essential skill in any gardener’s tool box!), but also for just being her magically excellent self.

Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

 

 

 

 

Posted in seasonal musings Tagged , , , , , |

autumn

Distilled by the low sun and chilly nights, it seems that the beauty of the world is being concentrated and the essential nature of things revealed.  Autumn’s alchemy is transforming the common sights of summer, perhaps taken for granted, into treasures, rare and fine.

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thorns yield rubies 

 

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silk springs from leaf and vine

silk is spun

 

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green becomes gold

green becomes gold

water becomes sky

and the river, heaven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in photography, seasonal musings Tagged , , , , , |

gratitude and violet syrup

Farmacy fire circle with passionflower, enjoying the late arrival of frost

Last weekend I was honored to participate in the Northeast Radical Healthcare Network’s revival gathering (Radherb for short) at Farmacy in Greenwich, RI. Hosted by Mary Blue and her dedicated crew, it was a rich ferment of like-minded, yet diverse folks having important and difficult conversations about health justice, sustainability, and cultural competence in their many guises. There was great local food, plant walks and plenty of community building. I was proud of the incredible crew of students from VCIH that came to represent with their super-smarts (and killer moves at the after-hours dance party). And, I was inspired and heartened by everyone’s creativity and tenacity in addressing the hard issues that arise from working in marginalized communities, using a marginalized medicine.

Through projects of every shape and size, folks are carrying on not just the medicine of the plants, but also the medicines of solidarity and liberation.  Yes, the plants are what we fight for–making and keeping them accessible to everyone, protecting them where they thrive, and seeding them where they don’t. But we’re fighting, too, for institutional and social change, from the government on down to each individual. We’re starting with ourselves, looking at privilege and assumptions, at the roots of power and how to use our own in service.

borage, for courage

It’s no small thing that we have the plants to guide and support us. We need them now, as ever, to keep our spirits up, our batteries charged, our resistance strong. And they offer this aid and more, physically and less tangibly, too. In so many ways, they give us what we need to carry on. I always come back to this–to the plants’ generosity and to my gratefulness. I saw the same appreciation in everyone I met over the weekend and I think that’s really what we have most in common. Deep and lasting gratitude.

Thank you, plants, for sticking with us, feeding us, shaping us to survive and thrive on this beautiful planet. Thank you for being the web that connects me to all of these strong and inspiring people. Thank you for giving me this worthy work.

*****

 

And thanks to each of you at the gathering who came to listen to my ramblings about the plants I so love. Here’s the violet syrup recipe I promised on the plant walk. Use it in good health and full spirits.

violet flowers

Violet Syrup 

(a good one from food.com)

equal volumes violet flowers and water (some prefer to use distilled water) (to make 2 quarts syrup, use 4 cups violets and 4 cups water)

white, organic sugar, double or just 1.5 times the amount of water (use 6 cups for above example)

lemon juice (juice of one lemon for above proportions)

1. Pick violets from an unsprayed and unpeed-on yard. Purple will be best for the magical purple color, but a few white ones are lovely, too.

2. Pour boiling water over fresh violets. Infuse (let sit) for 24 hours.

3. Strain.

4. Put sugar, water (really tea) and lemon juice in saucepan and boil for 10 minutes (don’t forget to be amazed as the murky violet water turns magically amethyst).

5. Pour into sterile jars. Can or refrigerate to preserve.

This was traditionally used as a cough syrup, and though it probably won’t hurt to make other things more palatable (I’m talking to you, elecampane), it’s likely not going to do the whole job on a cough and may be a little heavy on the sugar. This is really just a delightfully stunning violet purple simple syrup with a very faint violety flavor. Imagine the fancy cocktails you could use it to make–anything that calls for simple syrup. I like it with sparkling water over ice cubes that have had borage flowers frozen into them–or more violet flowers! This is a lovely summery accompaniment to lavender shortbreads or lemon verbena tea cakes. Best served to your closest herbal friends who will appreciate the effort. Or, to someone you are wooing into the plant-love clan. This is a sure-fire attention-getter.

Enjoy and don’t forget to share some with the violet faeries. They lack saucepans and lemons and really enjoy a good tea cake.

 

Posted in medicine making, social and health justice, wildcrafting Tagged , , , , |

photos now available for sale on the site!

foxglove ~ a new addition to the card selection

It was far easier than I imagined to set up the first round of photos with the e-commerce system I have. So, 40 or so images of Vermont garden plants are now available for sale as 4×6 blank note cards with envelopes and 8×10 unmatted and matted archival prints. It’ll take me a little to get my process for packaging and shipping down, but if you order, I’ll be sure to let you know the timeline.

The cards make great greetings for any occasion, but are also nice enough for framing if you like, as many folks who’ve bought them from me in the past have suggested.

Thanks for your interest and support in getting the plant beauty out into the world!

Posted in European/North American materia medica, photography

winter medicine

heaven

Yesterday was Imbolc, the day halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and officially the start of Spring on more seasonal, agrarian calendars, particularly those of my ancestors in the British Isles. In those more moderate climes, the snow drops are apt to be showing themselves and Imbolc brings with it a real promise of the unfurling once again of the fertile green cloak across the land. But, of course, in our Vermont climate, we are deeply ensconced in Winter still, and this day offers more of a symbolic glimpse towards the brightening and warming of these hills.

It’s been frigid here, 60 degrees below freezing within the past two weeks and then thawing and raining shortly after, only to freeze once again. And all the while it’s been mostly gray, clouding the spirits of most and obscuring the feeling of any sort of stirring or quickening of sap, seedling or inner inspiration, all of which are promised by Imbolc and its patron goddess, Brigid.

So, when I woke today to a blue sky and temperatures just at freezing, it seemed that perhaps Spring might come after all–that the thick, slow  ice flows of Winter might dislodge, that the light of the sun might be truly growing and kindling a small flame in the heart of the world.

As I padded downstairs, I was greeted immediately by our resident grouse outside my window, all puffed up to keep herself warm as she foraged for her daily ration of tree buds. I haven’t seen her in a couple of months, since the hard freeze, and I wondered where she’d dug her snow tunnel for safety and warmth. For a bit, she crouched under the hemlock outside the window and watched me, while I watched her, and then she scurried off. I decided she was giving me the “hard eye”–as my sweetie describes the look we give the cats when they’re misbehaving–admonishing me to get myself outside and into the woods.

So, I did. I found, of course, that there is much afoot, even under cover of snow and ice. I’m always in need of reminding that the cold and slow times are important preparation for the productivity and maturation of the Fire season. But, perhaps even more, I need a reminder that the simplicity and pared down nature of Winter makes space for a depth of reflection and quality of work that can’t be achieved at any other time. The modest, purposeful movements of the animals in search of food reminds me that only so much can be done in short days and only that which is necessary.

Simple realizations and small practices, like the tiny swollen tree buds, are the potent beginnings of the glories of Summer’s canopy, yes. But condensed inner and outer movements–such as dreaming and intention-setting, long naps and fire-tending–also hold their own value, solid ballast for the frenzied expansion and manifestation to come.

Here are a few of the images I collected today to remind myself of the need for “tending the buds”, treasuring the simple, the slow, the essential–my gifts from Winter.

the clear path

purpose

golden birch, a small flame in the forest

illumination

work around

imagination

sunlight capture

preservation

rest

rest

sturdy resolve

resolve

love

love

Posted in philosophy, seasonal musings, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , , |

artemis on fire: making mugwort burning bundles

gathering seeds

Fall is the time to collect the seeds for sowing in the coming year. This includes the literal seeds of next year’s crops, as well as the kernels of wisdom gleaned from this past period of growth. We recognize what has served us well and what we can let go of. As we look toward the inward turn of Winter, we encounter darker, more contemplative days, and perhaps reflect on the things we value most, those things that sustain us in the leaner times. In many traditions, this time of falling leaves is also a time to honor our ancestors and acknowledge the unseen world around us. It is a time to recognize that the physical world is ephemeral and that all things in Nature will eventually wither and die.

People around the world use the smoke of burning herbs (i.e. as incense or smudge) to prepare a space for this sort of contemplation, as well as to honor and invite the sacred, in whatever way that takes shape. No matter our tradition, when we burn and inhale the smoke of leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, and resins of plants and trees, we can change our experience of the moment. We might use smoke to cleanse a space or affirm our intentions. We can use it to shift our mood, either to uplift or to relax, to focus or to achieve a dream state. Smoke can also be used to prevent the spread of respiratory infections in close quarters. In fact, incenses and strewing herbs were historically used to bring both a prayerful attitude and improve hygiene in the close quarters of worship.

mugwort harvest, summer

At the end of the gardening and wildcrafting season, one of the last things I do is collect herbs for burning. This is a great use for those plants no longer quite perfect enough for teas or tinctures, but still vibrant and aromatic and eager to be utilized. I especially like mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and other members of the Artemisia genus, like wormwood and sweet annie. These are cousins of desert sage, a familiar herb used as smudge in the Southwestern US. The namesake of these plants is the Greek goddess, Artemis. She was a moon goddess, encouraging connection to the darkness within, that same inner darkness that we retreat to for contemplation and reflection. Carrying a bow and arrows, she was also a keen huntress, using her skills to protect the forest and all of its creatures. She was said to be especially concerned with the health of young girls and birthing women. But, just as she protected and brought fertility and health to those in her care, she brought also illness and death. And so, she helped mediate the natural balance of light and dark, growth and decay.

mugwort in bud, July

As the green slips away from the Vermont hills and the animals gather food and find warm dens for a long rest, Artemis is at work. Now is a perfect time to use the plants that bear her name to help us do the work suited to the season. I often call on mugwort , wormwood or sweet annie, whether as smoke, tea or small doses of tincture, when someone is having a hard time choosing what to nurture and protect and what to let fall away. Mugwort is known for bringing more vivid dreams to sleep, but I also think of this plant when someone has trouble visualizing their life-dreams or might know what they desire, but can’t fight to make it happen. Here, Artemis lends the skills of an archer: one who can select a target and then defend the path to its realization. I have also found that when someone is challenged to take care of themselves, especially if they’ve been nourishing others at their own expense, mugwort can encourage self-preservation, so that tending others is a sustainable act.

finished bundles, ready for drying

To reap some of these gifts of the plants, try making your own burning bundle. Simply cut 6 to 12 inch branches of your favorite aromatic herbs. In addition to mugwort and her cousins, I love hyssop, lavender, rosemary and evergreens, like pine. Once I have a nice mix, I put the short branches together in bundles that fit easily in my fist. Be sure they are at least an inch in diameter, as these will burn best once dry. You’ll need embroidery thread, cotton string or any natural twine of your choice, a length about 4 times the length of your bundle. Wrap the base of the bundled fresh herbs using one end of the string, but leaving a 6 inch tail. Using the long end, spiral up the bundle, pulling the string nice and tight as you bind the herbs together. When you get to the top, wrap around a couple of times and then spiral back down the bundle to where you began. Now tie your two tails of string together. These bundles will dry nicely in a week or so and can then be burnt as you like. They take some time and attention to light,  but just keep blowing on the embers until the core burns on its own. Soon enough, you’ll have a steady flow of smoke to use for your intended purpose. When you are done burning the herbs, simply put the bundle out in a bowl of sand or soil and save for re-lighting later.

This is a wonderful way to bring the plants with you into the Winter, yet another way they offer themselves as allies and friends. May your dreams, both sleeping and awake, be rich and sweet.

Posted in European/North American materia medica, growing/gardening, medicine making, wildcrafting Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

spring forward, but not too fast

Before we get into the season at Patera in earnest, my sweetheart and I took the opportunity to get away for a few days. This was called for, as I was in Hawaii less than a month ago, in perfect 80 degree weather for two weeks, only to return to rain and wind and gray skies. We had only a hint of crocus growth in our yard. I was having plant-withdrawal after the incredible verdancy of the big island’s non-stop flower show! So, since there wasn’t much yet to see here, and just a few early leaves in the medicine garden, we set off.

Hawaii's "wildflowers"

It was a brief jaunt South to Western Massachusetts, where we got to bask in the flush of Spring that they are already enjoying there. Actually, it was more like high Summer, with 95 degrees and serious need for sunscreen. We spent a day at Smith College’s conservatory and gardens, where I got to see some of my new semi-tropical friends (Monstera deliciosa, aka cutleaf philodendron, banana, many an orchid, and flowering citrus to knock your socks off).

semi-tropical house in Smith's conservatory

And, I got to swoon over the much-progressed flowering trees–the crab apples were already wafting their indescribable incense, leaving me craning my neck to find the source as we walked down every street. We are still a week or more away from such delights on my chilly, zone 4, ridge. We did return to a yard full of daffodils, though—a surprise after leaving them tightly wrapped in their buds. I had to make a big bouquet in the dark–even before getting all the luggage in. I’d purchased a sweet sea green pottery vase at a junk shop that was just begging to be filled…really, it was.

in the orchid house

I’ve been spending my spare time, as our own weather continues to warm, leafing through gardening books for inspiration as each day I stare down the large swath of black plastic that is the next bed to be built in our yard. The thing about gardening, as I’m realizing now that I own a home, is that it’s always happening in the future—a plan, a dream, a fantasy of how it will all one day be mesmerizingly, perfectly gorgeous. No matter how much is accomplished, always, there’s more and better to do. Of course, I also know that it will never be just as it looks in my mind’s eye, so I’m resolving this year to work on restraining my dreamer, just a little. I intend to enjoy each moment in the garden, just as it is now and keep the ghosts of flowering-crabs-future at bay.

serious rock garden swoon at Smith

After all, in both my home gardens and here, at Patera, I already have enormous beds with hundreds of plants awaiting their debut as the soil keeps warming. So, I’ll keep bringing my focus–and adoration—back to them. Weren’t they the object of my keen future desires just last Fall as I tucked them in with visions of their Spring emergence–clever color combination perfection and all that?

What do I do then, with my fidgety gardening self–with two weeks until our gardening apprentii arrive at Patera and only small leaves on most of my babies at home? Well, I’ve dug my gardener’s heart (and spade) firmly into right NOW—and yes it requires digging in! I’m working slowly around the perennials, cleaning up the grey fuzzy leaf-hats left on the lady’s mantle, trimming the rubbery leaves of overwintered yellow foxglove, clearing the dry maple litter from the tiny, crinkly, dark lemon balm leaves as they give up their sharp, lemon scent. I’m preening over the grape hyacinths  as they enlarge in their little bunches and take on their sweet-grape fragrance that pulls me to hands and knees daily. And yes, I’m thinking, just a little, about what delights I’ll eventually cook up with the nettles, who’ve sent up their tender shoots already (nettlekopita? nettle-potato soup w/chives? simple steamed nettle with balsamic vinegar and butter?). I figure that near-future planning is allowed in my be-here-now gardening resolution, right?

Yes, I’ll keep my mind on the present conundrums–how hard to prune the various Clematis species and whether the garden sages are worth saving this year after a hard die-back. Because, after all, no matter what the thermometer says on a given day, it’s not Summer just yet. In fact, there’s so much left of Spring still to savor. The ostrich fern fiddleheads–Vermont’s ubiquitous late Spring treat–are decidedly still tucked tightly into their spirals of papery fur. The tulips have barely begun to form buds. The peonies’ deep purple “hands” are still curled tightly against an errant chill. My wicked plots to kill my gout weed patch later this year are incomplete…oh, I mean…ahem…I have yet to enjoy the delights of each unfolding Spring moment quite as much as I’d like.

Posted in growing/gardening, philosophy Tagged , , , , , , |

baikal skullcap: the indigo bunting of flowers

I am utterly smitten with baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)  for so many reasons, but the most significant is its unbelievable, otherworldly shade of indigo blue. When it first appears in the garden in late July, I jump about excitedly and preen over it with adoring eyes, but it’s really now, in late August, that the true heart-throbbing begins as the plants at Patera are covered in blooms that simply glow. The sky literally pales in comparison.

Perhaps you can see in the photos above the small maroonish “caps” on the calyxes which then swell in size once the flower is dropped, as in the bottom right photo. These caps appear on both our American skullcap and this Chinese skullcap, or huang qin as its also called, though the whole presentation of baikal skute is so much showier. I’ve read various accounts of the inspiration for skullcap’s name–the cap-like shape of the upper lip of the flower or this little cappish protuberance on the calyx. Honestly, the flower of the local skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) doesn’t have such a fancy hat shape, so I always wondered about the veracity of this. The rakish green calyx beret you see here seems a much better bet for inspiring namers!

the less showy caps and color of American skullcap

This little cap is very important to the signature of these plants, which I experience as powerfully calming the racing and anxious mind by “putting a lid on it”. Sometimes when we seem to be spinning out into the ethers with thoughts and emotions, skullcap gives us a little containment, cools us off, soothes the edges. American skullcap serves as an important foundation for clients with anxiety, panic attacks, mania, irritability, and bipolar disorder, not to mention Tourette syndrome and even seizures. It can’t be beat for relaxing folks into sleep, especially when tension is held in the body, as in restless leg syndrome, or simply for people who tend to be fidgety and tight. By promoting GABAnergic activity (GABA is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter), it reduces tension in body and mind.

Coming from the mint family, it’s no surprise that these scutellarias would be cooling and relaxing nervines, but what’s interesting to me is that they are used in some unique ways in their respective traditions. The yellow root of baikal skute is used, where we use the aerial parts of American skullcap. They both have a curious greenish flavor, slightly bitter, but American skullcap leaf tastes more characteristic of plants with iridoids in them (in this case catalpol), so it’s reminiscent of plantain or vervain. If you eat a baikal skullcap leaf (not the medicinally used part), it tastes incredibly sweet. I’ve asked Sarah if there is use of aerial parts in TCM, but it seems not. This is most curious, as it’s downright delicious (but obviously some important, and less tasty, chemistry is missing from the leaves).

As I mentioned, the primary use of American skullcap is as an anxiolytic, while the main uses of baikal skullcap are for inflammatory conditions, especially of the cardiovascular system, liver, and lungs. It’s also used for cancer, especially of the lungs. During the H1N1 scare, I recommended it to folks concerned about an excessive immune response damaging their lung tissue in the later phase of the flu, and it’s similarly useful in the hyperactivity seen in autoimmunity. I also often offer it in combination with reishi for asthma, especially related to allergies. In TCM, the heart and lungs inhabit the upper burning space (aka jiao), along with the mind (which includes the brain, but also our spirit and emotional selves). So, as a plant with affinity for the upper jiao, it follows that baikal skullcap is also used by Chinese herbalists to cool and calm the mind and spirit, echoing the common application of its North American cousin. However, this use of baikal skullcap is less common in Western herbal practice and receives far less attention from the research community.

bouquet of beauty medicine starring baikal skute, belamcanda, bee balm & blue vervain

In terms of chemistry, these plants share not only the iridoid catalpol, but also flavonoids, notably baicalin, scutellarin and wogonin. While present in differing concentrations in each plant, together these molecules give both plants their anxiolytic activities, and both should also possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer activities. What I find curious is that we Western herbalists don’t tend to use our skullcap as an anti-inflammatory in the way that Chinese herbalists employ theirs. Similarly, we don’t tend to use baikal skullcap as an anxiolytic. It seems we could be using both plants in broader applications. I’ve had good success with both inflammation and anxiety with baikal, so now I’m looking for opportunities to test out broader uses of American skullcap, too. (Since there’s not really a tradition of using it as an anti-inflammatory, this is definitely extrapolation, but I’m excited to see what might emerge.)

Baikal skute is a prolific perennial, blooming in its first year and ready to harvest as early as the fall of its second.  It’s incredibly easy to start from seed each year to ensure a continual presence and has no pest problems, like the evil beetle of skullcap death that ravages our local species. All it asks is full sun and good drainage, which it gets plenty of in its respiratory-oriented bed, tucked in with the blackberry lily, sage and lobelia volunteers. Even though our local skullcap is an absolute staple of my practice that I will never abandon, I admit to being wooed by the magical, brightly-hued stranger. Like a sighting of the elusive indigo bunting, its arrival in my garden has almost ruined me for less showy companions.

“The purple flowers are like schools of dolphin breaking through green waves in a summer sea.”

~ Richo Cech of Horizon Herb seed company, obviously feeling similarly enchanted

Posted in Chinese materia medica, clinical use, doctrine of signatures, European/North American materia medica, growing/gardening Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |