Plant Families – Food, Medicine and Poison! Featuring the Umbelliferae (carrot family)

This article was inspired by the common occurrence of wild carrot, aka
Queen Anne’s Lace, lining roadsides at this time. It offers us food and
medicine, and is a great plant to lead us into consideration of poisonous
plants.

The system for categorizing living organisms is called Taxonomy. Living
things such as bacteria, plants, mushrooms and animals are grouped into
Kingdoms, and then further organized into smaller groups based on
similarities. Plants and animals are further divided into families, with plants
having family trees similar to ours.

There are approximately 450 plant families worldwide, made up of 385,000
different species. Of these, 17 families produce 80% of our food and
medicinal plants.

Just as members of human families share traits, so to, do the plants
belonging to a particular family. They have botanical features in common in
their appearance and growth patterns, plus they contain the same or similar
molecules, offering food, medicine and potential poisons.

The Umbelliferae family is the easiest to recognize, it includes familiar
plants such as carrots, celery, fennel, parsnips, parsley, angelica, cumin,
lovage, anise, dill, caraway and coriander. It is distinguished by the shape of
the flowers, which look like upside-down umbrellas.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota), aka Queen Anne’s Lace is the ancestor of the
common carrot, it is native to Europe and parts of Asia, it is widely
naturalized around the world, including here in Nova Scotia. It has a broad
white flower, that resembles lace, sitting on top of a tall stem, with feathery
leaves. The flower head folds in on itself in late summer in a bird’s nest
shape, where hundreds of seeds ripen by the end of summer.

The seeds and roots are edible. I like to use the seeds as a spice, with a
flavour similar to cumin. The roots are smaller than garden carrots and are
white, with a strong carrot odour and flavour. I dehydrate and grind them to
add to soup stocks, especially for carrot soup, and as a seasoning for roasted
vegetables and coleslaw.

Medicinally, the seeds can be used for similar purposes as its cousin’s
fennel, cumin and dill – for indigestion, gas, bloating and colic, I like to
chew them for this purpose. The seeds are also good for cough and urinary
disorders. The plant should be avoided during pregnancy due to its uterine
stimulant action.

There are a few famously poisonous cousins to wild carrot – water hemlock,
poison hemlock and giant hogweed. Water hemlock grows here in NS,
usually along streams or ponds. It looks almost identical to wild carrot; the
main differences can be found on the stems and in the smell of the roots.
Poison hemlock is native to Europe, it was the poison used to execute the
ancient philosopher, Socrates.

Giant hogweed shows up here in NS on a regular basis, but doesn’t usually
get a chance to spread due to eradication efforts. As the name suggests, this
plant can grow up to 10 ft tall, and spreads easily by thousands of seeds. The
sap contains compounds called furanocoumarins that are activated by
sunlight, and cause severe burns and blistering to the skin.
Most members of the Umbelliferae family contain varying amounts of
furanocoumarins, so care is needed by sensitive individuals even when
handling plants such as fennel, parsnip and carrots.
This plant family is easy to grow, and will spread through self-seeding, so
unless you want a garden take-over, be sure to trim the flowers before they
go to seed. I learned this with dill this year – now I have lots for pickling!

Join me in my herb garden in Head of Jeddore for a workshop on the
Umbelliferae family. We will harvest and sample several plants, making a
tea, and spice blend, with discussion of their many uses, plus the interesting
history of the poisons among them, with a story to illustrate how they
became poisonous. Thursday, Sept. 8.  REGISTER HERE

Mayflower

One of my hobbies is flower sniffing, and I must say, our beloved provincial flower rivals any exotic bloom when it comes to its scent. Time stands still when I have my nose buried in a bouquet of mayflowers.

It may not win the prize for showiest bloom, it is small, pale and unless you look for it, easy to miss. However, for me, part of its charm is the sweet subtlety of its appearance.

Mayflower, also known as trailing arbutus, Epigaea repens, is native to Nova Scotia, usually found along the edge of forest trails or in exposed areas of woodlands. It trails or creeps along the ground, with dark green leathery leaves that remain on the plant year-round, the stem is hairy. The small white/pink blossoms form in small clusters, often hidden under the leaves. It is not to be found in meadows, nor in the garden; it requires a certain mushroom and soil pH to thrive, like most forest plants, thus it is difficult to cultivate. By taking care of its natural habitat, we can help to ensure that it continues to flourish.

Mayflower was designated as the provincial flower of Nova Scotia in 1901. It is fairly common here on the Eastern Shore where I live, and grew up. They were my obsession for the month of May; my house backed onto a forest, I was happily occupied with picking bouquets for my mother and school teachers.

We need not wait until May to find them; they can be found by mid-April in sunnier locations; which may be a result of a climate shift towards earlier spring warmth.

I haven’t found many references for medicinal uses of mayflowers, other than for urinary ailments. Folkloric and Mi’kmaq references are readily available. According to the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, mayflowers are wrapped in various traditions and stories; one being the spring activity of making beautiful birch bark cones lined with moss and mayflowers.  You can find a story about this practice here: Kiju – A story of netukulimk, by Melody Martin-Googoo.

http://www.mikmaweydebert.ca/home/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Kiju_A-story-of-netukulimk_MTTK.pdf.

In addition to enjoying the intoxication from their scent, I also like to pop a flower in my mouth and savour the flavour, it tastes as it smells, with a tannic finish on the tongue.  Otherwise, I highly recommend simply admiring their beauty while on your spring walks in the woods.

Side note: as is common with plants, multiple plants may share the same common name. Another native plant of Nova Scotia, false lily of the valley, Maianthemum canadense, is also called Canada mayflower. It can be found covering the forest floor, also with fragrant white blossoms, which bloom in July.

How to Love Your Liver

In March I start to gear up for my annual spring cleanse.  My article deals with our most critical organ of detoxification – the liver.

We may stand in awe of a beautiful waterfall, mountain range, waves crashing on the shore or a starry night sky, yet how often do we marvel at the human body? These bodies we inhabit are truly remarkable, with so much going on behind the scenes that we are not consciously aware of.

Think of the trillion cells functioning within organs and systems, that work non-stop to sustain us over the span of our lifetime.

Consider your liver. Located under the right rib cage, weighing in at about 5 lbs, the liver is the ultimate multi-tasker. Performing at least 500 different tasks, day and night, this busy organ deserves respect and support.
One of the primary functions of the liver is to process the biochemicals, ingested substances and wastes of the body. The liver isolates each one and alters it in some way to either make it useful, or to leave the body as waste via the kidneys or digestive tract. It does so through a series of steps that utilize the cytochrome P450 system of enzymes. The by-product of all this activity is more, potentially toxic wastes, which are dealt with in a separate phase of liver detoxification, so that the liver itself doesn’t make
us ill.

Another function of the liver is the production of bile, a yellow/green liquid that is excreted into the small intestine or the gall bladder, a storage tank for bile. Bile is the vehicle for the removal of wastes from the liver through the digestive tract. It also absorbs bowel wastes, including the die-off from the microbiome. Bile is needed for the proper break down and utilization of dietary fats and proteins, plus the conversion of certain digestive nutrients into usable forms. It also encourages bowel activity, preventing constipation.

Chronic constipation and slow transit time of food/stool through the intestinal tract can lead to the re-absorption of wastes back to the liver, making it work double time. Constipation can be prevented by consuming enough fibre in the diet (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils), getting enough fluid and exercise, and with the help of bitter herbs. I recommend eating ground flax seeds, they add fibre and bulk to the stool, and their oils lubricate the bowel. Grind them fresh, bi-weekly and store it in the refrigerator. Add 1 tbsp to yogurt, porridge, smoothies, salads, or to a cup of water.

Other liver loving foods to include are garlic, broccoli, apples, lemons, dark green salads, beets, and fresh culinary herbs.

There are a number of herbs that support liver health, these are referred to as hepatics. You may have several in your spice cabinet or growing as weeds on your lawn.

Turmeric, the golden spice used in curries and other savory dishes, stimulates the detox pathways of the liver. Take 1 tsp. daily, added to milk or a fatty oil; golden milk and turmeric paste are two diet fads I fully support.

Rosemary contains antioxidants that protect the liver from damage, and other compounds, including rosmarinic acid, for the treatment of cirrhosis, hepatitis and toxicity. Rosemary wine or tincture is best.

The seeds from milk thistle contain compounds that fortify liver cells, protecting them from the multitude of toxic substances it comes in contact with, including food, water and air borne chemicals, drugs, and other poisons. It can be taken as part of a cleanse, seasonally as a liver tune up, or anytime there is excess exposure to toxins. Tincture form is best, ½ – 1 tsp, a few times daily, depending on the strength of the tincture.

Dandelion leaves and roots make a great addition to the diet, or as teas and tinctures. Dandelion, along with other bitter herbs such as yellow dock, burdock, wormwood, motherwort and horehound, activates bitter receptors in the mouth that in turn stimulate liver function and bile production and flow through the digestive tract. I look to bitters as a primary preventative approach to liver health. Our North American diet is sadly lacking in bitter flavour; a simple way to make up this deficiency is by regularly eating dark green leaf salads with the addition of endive and radicchio. Both can be found in the produce section of most grocery stores; they add yummy
complexity to salads.

If you have hyper acidity or stomach ulcers, avoid strong bitters.
Liver health is critical for general health; in my clinical practice I tend to chronic and degenerative diseases by supporting liver function, especially when there is hormone imbalance, diabetes, high cholesterol, skin disease, cancer and arthritis.

Love your liver by limiting your exposure to toxins such as alcohol, drugs, pesticides, food colourings, perfumes, gas fumes, paint and other noxious substances. Use liver supporting herbs and foods on a regular basis, and consider the occasional liver-tune up or cleanse.

Me and my liver look forward to the return of the dandelions in May!
Check out my upcoming spring cleanse workshop.

Savayda’s Comforting Winter Herbal Tea Recipes

Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what winter teas are made of.

Each season brings different flavours and medicines to my tea pot. Winter is the cozy season, for maximizing comfort with tasty food and drink. The cold and dark provide more indoor hours, thus more time to dig out my cookbooks to learn new recipes, to try new ingredients, and to play with tea blends.

Tea blending is an art and science for me, combining the desire for both therapeutic value and pleasure.  The pleasure feature of the equation is expressed through complimentary flavours, colour, texture fat from cream or butter and just the right sweetener.  Using loose herbs, instead of tea bags, allows for creativity, personalization of tea blends and freshness. Most herb shops, like mine, and healthfood stores offer many bulk herbs to work with; a selection of fifteen herbs and spices allows for many creative combinations, many of which may already be in your spice rack.

Last winter I taught an online course on the medicinal uses of the common culinary herbs and spices, and I became better acquainted with the delights of spiced teas.  In the winter I add at least one spice to my tea blends to add extra warmth to the brew – spices are inherently warming.  I use ginger, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, fennel, star anise.  These spices offer strong flavour, and in general act as digestive stimulants.

In the winter I am attracted to eating more citrus fruits, when I do, I try to buy organic so that I can make use of the peelings for teas and medicine making.  Citrus peels, notably orange and lemon, are high in antioxidants and cancer fighting compounds.  They are also bitter, which is a good flavour addition to improve digestion.  They round out the flavour of tea blends very nicely.  They can be used fresh or dry; I have some drying in a basket by the wood stove, a dehydrator works well too.

If you are a black tea drinker like me, try combining varieties of black tea, and add herbs to the brew.  I am currently using an Irish breakfast blend with extra Assam, sometimes I add depth with a smoked tea called Russian Caravan, plus rose petals. I serve this blend with lots of blend and honey to counteract the high tannin content.

The tea recipes below reflect some basic, universal health needs for those of us living in our northern climate, plus they are rich in flavour to enhance the pleasure aspect of tea drinking

Breath of Life Tea

Mix equal parts:

  • Balsam fir needles
  • Mullein
  • Peppermint
  • Hyssop
  • Cardamom seeds

Mullein is a lung tonic and is helpful in cases of lung congestion and cough, hyssop is also helpful for coughs and asthma.  Balsam fir must be harvested during a forest walk, which is also good for our lungs : -)

Sunshine in My Cup of Tea

  • Calendula 2 parts
  • Holy basil 3 parts
  • Rosemary 1 part
  • Orange or lemon peel 2 parts
  • Ginger root or powder 1 part

The bright orange and yellow blossoms of calendula remind me of the sun. Holy basil is very tasty and is very sustaining to the nervous system, rosemary clears the mind and helps chase away the winter blues. Citrus peel reminds me of sunshine, and the heat of ginger feels like sun rays in the tummy.

 February 14th

  • 2 tsp. Damiana
  • 2 tsp. Rose petals
  • 1 Tbsp. orange peel
  • a pinch of cayenne powder
  • 2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup milk of any kind – dairy, soy, almond, rice, oat

Simmer the damiana, rose and orange peel in the water for five minutes.  Strain.  Add the cayenne, cocoa and milk and return to the boil, stir and watch that it doesn’t boil over.  Sweeten to taste with honey.  This one is best shared with the special person in your life, all winter-long and especially on February 14th.  Damiana is a relaxant that stimulates certain desires.

Spicy Chai

  • 6 parts cardamom
  • 4 parts cinnamon
  • 2 parts fennel
  • 1 part clove
  • 1 part black peppercorns

The secret to making good chai is to grind the whole spices in small batches in a coffee grinder – this will triple the aroma and flavour.  To make chai, simmer 1 tsp. of the spice mix per cup of water, covered, for five minutes, include 1 tsp. black tea or rooibos tea (caffeine free) in the pot.  Strain.  Return to the pot and add an equal amount of milk of any kind and return to the boil.  Sweeten to taste with honey.

This tasty traditional tea of India makes an excellent after dinner tea, or for after coming in from the cold.

Immune Power Blend

  • Elderberries 3 parts
  • Hibiscus 1 part
  • Star anise 2 parts
  • Orange peel 1 part
  • Juniper berries 1 part

Simmer ingredients in water for 15 minutes (1 tbsp of the mixture per cup of water), Strain. I like to sweeten this one with pomegranate syrup, available at Middle Eastern and Indian grocery stores. This one has a very strong flavour, drink ½ cup as needed if you feel a cold or flu coming on.

A tasty, hot tea provides an opportunity for a break during a work or study session, and it can be a great excuse to have a friend over for a visit.  Elevate the tea experience by using your special tea set, maybe pick up some cookies, and make tea part of your winter rituals.

I wish you all the comfort and joys of winter.

 

How to Dry Herbs

 

At this time of year my access to fresh herbs (and food) dwindles with the change of seasons and I have to switch from remedies utilizing freshly picked herbs to processing and preserving for fall and winter. Like gardeners preparing fruits and veggies for storage by canning, pickling, jams, and dehydrating, we herbalists do the same by making tinctures, infused oils, syrups, vinegars and drying.  

 

Since the onset of the pandemic, folks are intuitively placing greater emphasis on home gardening and self reliance, plus it has been an enjoyable pastime during lockdowns. With the enthusiasm for gardening comes the happy task of dealing with the inevitability of abundance.

Just like anyone can learn to preserve food, so too can folks learn herbal preservation and home remedy making.

 

The most basic preservation method is drying.  Drying methods vary, depending on the growth form of the plant and the part used.  I have outlined various examples below:

 

Tall stems, leaf and flower – goldenrod, yarrow, vervain, mugwort, fireweed, mint, motherwort, St. John’s wort, nettle, meadowsweet

These can be tied in bundles of 2-3, at the base of the stems.  Fewer stems allow better air flow and less chance of mold.  Hang upside down in a well-ventilated room. Once dry, run fingers along the stem to slide off the leaf and flower.

 

Short stems, leaf and flower – violet, self-heal, thyme, sage

Like with tall stems, or use drying racks.  Simple drying racks can be made with window screens, or mesh stretched between two chairs. Turn the plant every few days for even air flow.

 

Flowers or leaves – calendula, red clover, rose, plantain, lady’s mantle, dandelion, marshmallow, Labrador tea, sweet fern

Drying racks or baskets, single layer, turn every few days.

 

Fleshy (high moisture content) leaves and all roots, fruits and barks – mullein, comfrey, rosehips, hawthorn, rowan, elderberry. (Root medicine article to follow in my next newsletter)

Dehydrator, sometimes a basket next to a heat source such as a wood stove or radiator.

 

Seeds – Queen Anne’s lace, dill, fennel, any seed for future planting

Let the seeds mature and dry on the stem, you can delay harvest until fall, or when the seeds turn from green to brown. After harvest, hang the plant by the stem, upside down, with a paper bag secured around the flower head containing the seeds.  The seeds will completely dry and fall into the bag, give the flower a shake, seeds will fall when ready.

 

These are general guidelines, there are always exceptions for individual herbs, i.e., some tree barks dry well in baskets. Always harvest herbs for drying when they are dry, free from dew and rain. Dry all herbs out of direct sunlight, in a well-ventilated area.  Drying times will depend on the inherent moisture content of the plant and humidity levels, roughly 2-4 weeks.

 

Storage – Herbs must be 100% dry before storage to prevent mold and spoilage, they should crumble and snap.  Store in paper bags or glass jars, air tight and out of direct light.  Be sure to write the name and date on storage containers.

Shelf life – Leaves and flowers can be kept for one year, roots, fruits, barks and seeds for two years. Some herbs have a shorter shelf life, such as echinacea, valerian, eyebright, chickweed, shepherds’ purse, and should be processed in some other way such as tinctures, vinegars and oils; I don’t use these herbs in dry form in my practice.  There are other herbs I prefer to use only fresh, in teas and tinctures, such as St. John’s Wort.

 

Dried herbs are versatile in that they can be used in cooking, as teas, or transformed into many other preparations.  In some cases, it is advantageous to use dry herbs instead of fresh, notably infused oils and vinegars where the introduction of water from fresh plants can increase chances of spoilage.

 

I am looking ahead to my fall and winter herbal needs, especially cold and flu remedies and herbs to support my nervous system.  I have a good supply of dry thyme, sage, marshmallow leaves, yarrow, skullcap and holy basil for teas and other preparations.  What herbal needs might you be preparing for?

 

The Benefits of Kale & Chlorophyll

Part 1 – In Praise of Kale

 

Isn’t kale the best! What vegetable do we know here in our North Eastern climate that is so hardy, generous and nourishing? Kale deserves an award for its tenacity, nutritional and medicinal value, and quiet beauty in the garden. It, and other members of the Brassicaceae family such as collards, cabbage, broccoli, turnip and Brussels sprouts are easy to grow in our region, and they store well after the fall harvest.

 

Last year I planted more kale than we could possibly eat. I left the plants in the ground after they stopped producing leaves around December, they overwintered and now they are producing tender, sweet new leaves.  Kale is a biennial, it has a two year life cycle; in the first year it produces only leaves, the flowers and seeds appear in year two. My kale stems are growing quickly and are beginning to form flowers, which I will let fulfill their purpose – to produce seeds. I will harvest these seeds, dry them and plant them next spring. Let your kale overwinter this year and enjoy its full potential.

 

In the meantime, I am enjoying the leaves in salads and stir fries; I also made a vinegar extract using apple cider vinegar by simply chopping the leaves and steeping them in apple cider vinegar for 2 weeks.  Kale, like many other green leafy vegetables (and herbs), is rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, manganese and other minerals, which can be drawn from the leaves by the acetic acid in vinegar.

 

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates

 

Kale is considered a “superfood” because in addition to its nutritional value, kale has medicinal properties due to the presence of various secondary metabolites. Research has revealed it to be therapeutic for managing blood sugar, anti-inflammatory, balancing to the gut microbiome, and cancer prevention.

 

“…kale has beneficial effects on the gut microbiome by increasing the bacterial diversity and proliferation of specific beneficial bacteria, such as Coriobacteriaceae. Furthermore, glycan degradation and vitamin B1 metabolism are enhanced by kale and these have been shown to play an important role in attenuating inflammation.”

Source

 

“The preliminary results suggested that intake of kale reduced postprandial plasma glucose levels (16).”  Source

 

“Sulforaphane, another compound found in kale,17 was proven by studies to deliver a protective effect against certain cancers,18,19,20 and may help enhance the health of your liver21 and gastrointestinal tract.22 “  Source

 

Kale, like other greens, is rich in chlorophyll, which has many known medicinal benefits, which leads me to part two of this article…

 

Part 2 – The Power of Green – Chlorophyll – “stored sunshine”

 

Spring is all about the greens – leafy plants and trees emerge from their winter slumber, appearing and unfurling in a succession of shapes and shades.  As a herbalist, I get very excited by the return of my familiar friends, the early medicinal leaves of spring – dandelions, ground ivy, nettle, comfrey, horsetail, violet, chickweed and false lily of the valley (to name a few). Most of these are edible as well, offering a variety of vitamins, minerals and other compounds that nourish.  

 

The nutritive herbs and leafy food plants such as kale, collards, spinach, and lettuces, are rich in chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green colour. As you may recall from high school biology, chlorophyll allows plants to absorb the energy from sunlight, which they use through the process of photosynthesis to create carbohydrates, which fuels their growth and development.  A byproduct of photosynthesis is the release of oxygen, which enriches our atmosphere, and is essential for our existence – the breath of life. In return, we breathe out carbon dioxide, essential for plant life. It is a true marvel to contemplate this exchange between plants and animals, the exquisite balance of life on Earth.

 

Chlorophyll is nearly identical in molecular structure to haemoglobin, the red blood cell of animal blood. The only difference is the molecule held at the center of the ring structure, as shown in the diagram below:

 

https://patch.com/img/cdn/users/1730190/2012/08/raw/8a9f5f8f1aae9c8a5283c9fe581751de.jpg?width=695

Due to this similarity, chlorophyll has a high bioavailability when ingested, especially when combined with iron rich foods. Plants rich in chlorophyll help to build the blood and remedy anemia and deficiency.  

According to nutritionist, Paul Pitchford,

 

“chlorophyll supports bone mass by directing calcium to deposit in the bone; it can also, like vitamin D, help with cellular renewal because chlorophyll foods all contain “growth regulating factors” that spark proper cell differentiation, growth and development. This healthy cell patterning stands in contrast to the unchecked, undifferentiated, malignant growth of cancer.”

http://healingwithwholefoods.com/author/wpaul1/

I recommend eating green leafy vegetables and herbs daily, either raw, sauteed, or steamed.  Kale and other Brassicaceae family plants should not be consumed raw by those with thyroid disorders.  

The increasing abundance of locally grown vegetables available at our farmer’s markets, in the wild and in our gardens, is all the encouragement we need to load up on greens.

The Herbalist’s Spring

Nothing was more wonderful than waiting for a happiness you could be sure of.

~ Barbara Kingsolver

 

Wonder-full is how I experience spring here in Nova Scotia, Nature’s great regeneration. Although still a week away on the calendar, the seasonal shift is already palpable. I sometimes hear complaints about our spring being “non-existent”, which I assume is in reference to the linger of winter rather than the arrival of spring. Yet, when we shift our sensibilities into subtle mode, we can experience a long, drawn-out spring transition.

Beginning in April with coltsfoot, followed by dandelion, plantain, chickweed, lady’s mantle, nettle, comfrey, mayflower, birch tips, mint, lemon balm, ground ivy, violet, hawthorn, and horsetail, to name a few, spring offers us a three-month parade of medicinal plants. This is more than enough to keep a wildcrafter/ herb grower busy; harvesting, drying and making medicinal preparations.

Even before the plants emerge from the soil, we can study the growth pattern of tree buds; it is fun to learn to identify local tree species by their buds and early growth.  Many of our local trees are medicinal, their buds and sap collected in spring, leaf, flower and barks in summer and fall – maple, birch, oak, linden, mountain ash, alder, fir, spruce.

I have a process for welcoming the approaching harvest seasons, it is both practical and ritual. First, I take stock of my home and clinic apothecaries – what did I run out of, what will I need for the year ahead?  What remains – and how should they be dealt with?  Dry leaves and flowers lose their potency after a year, roots, barks and fruits are good for two years. I make the extra effort to use the remaining herbs, often in teas, or to give away.  The left overs I include in the ritual I will explain later.

Then I refer to my harvest calendar from the year before as a reminder of when I can expect each herb to appear.  Each plant has a particular window in which it is most medicinally potent or valuable. Most of the spring harvest is of leaves, which are best collected early, before stem and flower begin to form.  

If you are a regular herb harvester, I recommend keeping a harvest journal each year in which you record the onset and completion of each plant’s phase of optimal harvest. This may vary slightly from year to year and in the different regions of the province or across the country, but it gives guidance for planning your busy harvest seasons. You can download a sample of a harvest journal here

And then come the seeds! I order my herb seeds from Richter’s Seeds in Ontario, they specialize in medicinal herb, with over 1000 to choose from.  Local seed companies carry some medicinal herb seeds – Annapolis Seeds, Hope Seeds, Yonder Hill Farm, Revival Seeds.  I start my seeds indoors in April.

Next, I take delight in getting my harvest tools from storage; my gathering baskets and snippers.  I make an altar in honour of spring, on which I place these, and other images and symbols of the season.  On the Spring Equinox I light a candle and give thanks for herbs of harvests past, for winter medicines and for the herbs coming in the seasons ahead.  I then take some of my left-over herbs to a special spot on my property and return them back to the earth, again with expressions of gratitude.

There are spring harvest festivals held all over the world; in India it is called Baisakhi, Jewish people celebrate Shavuot, in Pagan Europe the Spring equinox or Ostara in March and Beltane on May 1, in Madagascar the Santabary festival is celebrated in late April, another name for Chinese New Year is Spring Festival, they acknowledge the start of spring between January 21 and February 20.  The Ute Indians of Colorado celebrate Spring with the Ute Bear Dance.

Symbols of spring appear in popular culture; Kokopelli is recognized in Native American cultures as a bringer of fertility to the land with the spring rains. Pagan symbols include eggs, bunnies, lambs, flowers, and baby chicks, most of which were eventually incorporated into Christian symbology. Animal symbols of spring include Canada Geese, groundhogs, robins, bears, storks and caterpillars, to name a few.  In our part of the world, we celebrate spring with mayflowers, crocuses, daffodils and tulips.

What are your spring rituals?  What ever they may be, may you find much hope and joy in anticipation of spring and all the blessings of the season.

 

Pomegranate

I wrote about cranberries in December given their prevalence during the holiday feasting season. Another fruit that appears in supermarkets at this time of the year is pomegranate. Unlike cranberry, pomegranate does not grow in our region; it is native to Iran and India and is largely cultivated throughout Asia, Africa, the US and the Mediterranean. 

Have you ever wondered why it is featured so prominently at this time of year? It is a popular fruit among many cultures, widely cultivated and currently in season.  It is an ancient and celebrated tree; the fruit is included in spiritual/religious ceremonies in many cultures. 

I was recently chatting with a woman from Iran, Nozhat, who lives and works in Halifax as an acupuncturist; she shared that pomegranate is greatly celebrated in her native land, it is among the fruits included in their winter solstice celebrations.The following is her description of it: First of all, there are two types of pomegranate in Iran, sweet and sour, the sour is wild and you can find it in the woods of the northern part of the country. The sweet pomegranate is the main one used for the winter solstice celebration. The juice is used in many traditional stews. The paste/ molasses is the main ingredient in a side dish made with olive oil, chicken stuffing and special stews. Pomegranate soup is also very popular in winter, especially for winter solstice night. The seeds are a beautiful decoration for many kinds of salads, stews, cooked rice and other dishes.

She also shared some of the medicinal uses: antipyretic for fever, anti inflammatory, fungal infection, boosting immunity, anti cancer: especially recommended for men to prevent prostate cancer, treating worm parasite, the skin is used to treat diarrhea, high blood pressure (especially the sweet pomegranate juice), improves cardiovascular function. Different preparations are available in herbal shops.

Overall, when it is the season of this fruit, it is highly recommended to use it. In the Persian cuisine the pomegranate products are mostly used to balance the taste and temperature of the ingredients. 

Nozhat Momtaz works at Coral Shared-Care Health Center, for acupuncture appointments you can call (902) 420-0033

I am most familiar with the Ayurvedic use of pomegranate; the white inner rind is highly astringent, used to treat diarrhea, sore throat and fever. Try chewing on a piece of the rind to experience the drying sensation of astringency in the mouth, it would be helpful for mouth sores. The seeds are demulcent, used to sooth dryness and irritation in the GIT. 

The part we most often seek is the red, juicy seed lining, called the sarcotesta. The juice is now widely popular, considered a “superfood” due to its high anti-oxidant content. A highlight of my travels in India 20 years ago was fresh pressed pomegranate juice for 0.25 cents a glass.

Most grocery stores seem to be selling pomegranates at half price right now, so stock up and enjoy this ancient medicinal fruit.  My favorite dish is Fesenjan – Persian Pomegranate Chicken stew with walnuts. Pomegranate molasses can be purchased at the Mid East Food Centre in Halifax, I use it as a base for sauces and on porridge. 

 

P is for Prevention – Holistic Disease Prevention

The pandemic provokes me to emphasize my favorite “P” word – PREVENTION.

A preventative approach to health has always been a guiding principle in my herbal practice, it simply makes good sense. Disease prevention is an important part of my lifestyle and practice.

For many years I focused my prevention efforts on cancer prevention by joining the board of Prevent Cancer Now (PCN) – a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to primary prevention (http://www.preventcancernow.ca/). During that time, I also designed and co-organized the Cancer Prevention Series, an eight-week program that drew together health professionals and other experts from our community to share their approach to cancer prevention. The series ran annually for six years, made free to the public through fundraising.

Both of these experiences highlighted for me the empowerment and sense of purpose that comes through a preventative lifestyle.  Also, that the best outcomes are based on a holistic, multi-factorial approach to health.

Prevention is an interesting concept – with cancer, early detection, with the use of medical technology i.e., mammograms, stool samples, pap tests, PSA tests, is considered as prevention by some, versus primary prevention, as per PCN, which is not getting the illness in the first place. As for Covid19, we are all familiar with public health guidelines to wear a mask, wash hands and keep a physical distance to help prevent the spread of the virus; these measures undoubtably help reduce exposure, but they don’t prevent individuals from becoming sick with infection if they are in contact with the virus. What has largely been missing in the mainstream fight against Covid19 is guidance on how to be healthy and support (and not hinder) our immune health.

I recently watched a video by Bruce Lipton, Ph.D in which he stated that “60% of Americans have one chronic disease and 40% have two chronic diseases.” In Canada, 43.7% reported having at least one of the top ten chronic diseases in 2017 (see references for more detail). When our immune system is bearing the burden of distraction by chronic degenerative disease, it is not available in its full capacity to deal with exposure to an infective organism.  In my view, the big opportunity with this pandemic is to shift our attention on a mass scale to cultivating good health, free from chronic degenerative disease, which has always been the focus of herbalism and other holistic health professions. As I see it, this strategy would improve general health and wellbeing in our communities, generate greater resilience, against flu and other infectious diseases and reduce the burden on our health care system.

My year-long herbal program, which has had over twenty runs here in the Maritimes, condenses holistic principles into a living format, with the goal of living healthfully with resilience against chronic disease. I would like to highlight a few of these principles, and a selection of herbs, that I have been emphasizing during the pandemic. This is by no means a comprehensive plan for Covid prevention, instead I offer the basics with the hope that you are inspired to formulate a plan for cultivating your own best health. If you want to dive deeper into a herbal and nature based approach to health, I encourage you to join me in September for the next round of my year-long herbal program.

Diet and Nutrition for Disease Prevention

Quite simply, eating a variety of fresh, whole foods provides the foundation for good health.This excludes refined sugars, processed foods and synthetic chemical additives.

There is general agreement among health experts on key nutrients that enhance immune health and our ability to prevent and treat the flu; they happen to be the same nutrients I emphasized during the Cancer Prevention Series. They are the primary anti-oxidants – zinc, selenium, vitamins A, C and E.  Other notables are quercetin and vitamin D.

Any research into these nutrients will reveal that they don’t work in isolation; they require co-factors such as other vitamins, minerals or enzymes to activate or facilitate their use by our immune systems. Popular wisdom says that for iron absorption we need vitamin C, and for vitamin C absorption we need bioflavonoids, and the bioflavonoid quercetin is needed for the proper utilization of zinc. Often these nutrients are combined in nutritional supplements, and although supplements are of value, it is important that they be taken within the context of a whole food diet, emphasizing variety, in order to obtain the broad range of nutrients needed to best serve the immune system.

Soups and smoothies are my easiest ways to obtain nutritional variety because I can pack each with many different ingredients. The soup pot and blender are my best kitchen tools.

With the colder weather I am naturally drawn to eating more soup. For each soup recipe I use a bone and vegetable broth as a base along with immune supporting herbs and mushrooms. My current favorites are shiitake, reishi and enoki mushrooms, astragalus, thyme, rosemary, bay, ginger and raw garlic as a garnish. I aim for 5-7 servings of soup per week, ideally one bowl a day.

I am not attracted to fruit and cold food in the winter; smoothies make it easier for me to overcome this aversion, and I add hot water to remove the chill. I include several “superfood” powders known to support immune function; spirulina, rosehip and alfalfa.

Immune Power Smoothie for Disease Prevention

  • 1 banana
  • ¼ cup frozen blueberries (or mixed berries)
  • ½ avocado
  • ¼ cup cranberry juice
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 2 tsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp cod liver oil (yes, the flavour is hidden by the other ingredients)
  • 1 tsp spirulina powder
  • 1 tsp alfalfa powder
  • 1 tsp rosehip powder

Combine all ingredients in the blender until smooth. Makes 2 cups.


Herbs for Disease Prevention

I appreciate herbs because, like plant foods, many can be used daily to help form the foundation for good health. Since the pandemic started, I have been including the following herbs on a regular basis.  You can access more information on these herbs by downloading my Cold Kicking Tool Kit.

Astragalus – I wrap the chopped root in a muslin sachet and boil it along with marrow  bones and mushrooms when making broth, then remove it when the broth is complete.  I also make a decoction along with the other herbs mentioned below. I include the tincture of astragalus in my winter tincture blend.

Citrus peel – When I purchase organic oranges and lemons, I keep the peel and air dry them in a basket by the wood stove or in the dehydrator.  I add them to tea blends.

Garlic – 1 clove raw, crushed, daily, as a garnish for just about any meal

Ginger – fresh or dry in tea blends, powder added to porridge

Eleuthero, withania – adaptogenic herbs that help reduce the burden of stress, as teas and tinctures

Mental Health

My personal experience, plus 22 years of clinical experience confirms that stress suppresses the immune system. Rest, good sleep, exercise, nature, laughter, human connections and adaptogenic herbs have been my resources for relieving stress during the pandemic.

What are yours?

References

Bruce Lipton: The Human Immune System – What Happens During a COVID Infection?

Canadian Chronic Disease Indicators – Health Canada website

Stress and the Immune System

bunchberry

Medicinal Summer Berries

I’ve been a wild berry picker since I could crawl. I remember sitting in fields while my mother and aunts would forage for fruits, and as I got older, I would do my part to fill the buckets instead of emptying them into my mouth. Wild berry gathering has the benefit of being a free source of food that is nutritiously equivalent to,  if not superior to, cultivated fruits, plus it offers a valuable outing into nature.

Wild fruits add variety to the diet and are easy to prepare. They are great simply eaten fresh from the bush. They may also be transformed into jams, jellies, syrups, sauces, teas and wines, or preserved by freezing, drying and canning.

August brings us several wild berries, some familiar like the raspberry, blackberry and blueberry, and others that are not as well known.  In addition to these fruits being yummy and nutritious, they, along with other parts of the plant they come from, offer medicinal properties as well.  Berries are high in anthocyanins, flavonoids, micronutrients and fiber.  These and other compounds contained in berries offer benefits is cases of heart disease, diabetes, inflammation and cancer. They protect blood vessels and help prevent atherosclerosis. 

Most of the berries noted below are native to Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada, and readily available; why purchase expensive, exotic berries from the Amazon with such an abundance of “super foods” in our own backyards!

Bunchberry

Found growing in coniferous forests from July through until September.  Their bright red colour make them hard to miss, they are about the size of a pea and grow in clusters on top of a short stem.  They are juicy and mild tasting, but have a single hard seed inside that makes them hard to eat.  I like them boiled as a tea or sauce.  The leaf and root were used medicinally by first nations people for lung and kidney ailments and aches and pains.

bunchberryWintergreen

Another red berry of the forest, the berry and leaves can be found year -round, even buried under the snow.  Both have a strong flavour, used  toothpaste and chewing gum.  Wintergreen leaves were used traditionally for arthritis, colds, headache and indigestion.

Raspberry

The leaves of wild raspberry bushes have been used as medicine for thousands of years.  They are astringent and thus helpful in cases of diarrhea, bleeding and ulcers.  It is a popular women’s herb during pregnancy and childbirth.  Use 1 tsp. of the dry herb or 2 tsp. fresh per cup of tea.  The leaves contain iron, calcium and other minerals that can be extracted by steeping them in apple cider vinegar for two weeks.  Once strained the mineral rich vinegar can be added to salad dressings or taken as a tonic mixed with water.

Blackberry

The leaves have the same medicinal properties as raspberry leaves, both can also be used externally as a wash for sores and as a gargle for inflamed mouth and throat.  I just made a big batch of blackberry syrup, which is loaded with antioxidant nutrients.  I like to add it to sparkling water. Recipe below.

Staghorn sumac

The berries of this shrubby tree form in dense, cone shaped, upright masses.  The small individual berries are hard, hairy and not very fleshy, and are a deep red or burgundy colour.  They make a tangy red coloured tea.  The berries were used medicinally by first nations people to treat fever, diabetes, lung ailments and as a wash for ringworm.  The leaves, bark and twigs were also used medicinally.

Blueberry

North American First nations people used the leaf tea as a blood purifier, for colic, labour pains, and as a tonic after miscarriage.  The leaf is used in modern herbal medicine to treat diabetes and to balance blood sugar levels.  It is astringent and can be gargled or used as a mouth rinse, and for diarrhea.

The fruits of this genus – blueberries, bilberries, huckleberries – are known to have potent medicinal properties.  They are especially valuable for treating the eyes and to strengthen blood vessels.  They contain antioxidant compounds.  A tea made from the dried berries is helpful for diarrhea.

False Lily of the Valley

This herb carpets forest floors throughout Nova Scotia, producing a sweet-scented blossom in June and tasty berries in late summer.  The berries start off as a translucent white colour with speckles and mature into a wine-red colour when ripe.  They may be small but packed with juice and a distinctive flavour.  First nations peoples used the leaves and flowers as a remedy for headaches, sore throat, and cough.

Black Elderberry

Made popular in recent years as a remedy to prevent and treat common cold and flu, this shrubby tree has been prized for its medicinal properties for many centuries.  All parts of the tree can be used, especially the flower and fruit.  The berries are best cooked before eating, either as a tea, syrup or jelly.  They are ready for harvest between mid-August and mid-September; get them while you can, the birds like them too for strengthening their vision for their migration south.

Cranberry

I classify this as one of our best local “superfoods”, rich in antioxidants and vitamin C.  It can be used to prevent/treat dental and urinary infection by making it difficult for bacteria to adhere to the lining of the bladder and gums.  Try dehydrating them to add to granola or cookies, or make a sauce sweetened with honey.

BLACKBERRY SYRUP

2 cups fresh blackberries

4 cups water

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. cloves

2 cups honey

Gently simmer the berries and spices for about 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain, pressing all the liquid from the fruit.  While still warm, stir in the honey.  Cap and label. This syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.  Add to sparkling water and herbal cocktails, yogurt, smoothies.

Sample studies on the health benefits of berries from Dr. Mercola’s Food Facts https://foodfacts.mercola.com/:

A review published in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research also supported the chemopreventive properties of cranberries, highlighting their ability to help inhibit the growth and spread of several types of tumors, including those in the breast, colon, prostate and lungs, possibly due to the flavonols and anthocyanin glycosides in these fruits.21

Some of the most researched benefits of blueberries are their antioxidant and antiaging properties. Several studies have shown that blueberries may help protect against age-related deficits in memory and motor function, possibly due to the fruit’s polyphenolic compounds having the ability to help lower oxidative stress, fight inflammation and change neuronal signaling.22,23,24,25,26

Another study also found that stomach, prostate, intestinal and breast cancer cells were inhibited when patients were tested with an array of different berry juices, including raspberry, black currant, white currant, gooseberry, velvet leaf blueberry, low-bush blueberry and other lesser-known berry types. While some berries had little or no effect on cancer cells, researchers concluded that including berry juices in the diet might prove chemopreventive.28

Blackberries may also have beneficial effects on your brain health. In another Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study, high antioxidant levels in blackberries, strawberries and other berries are found to help manage age-related memory loss.51 Study authors further reiterated that:52