Rooting into Winter

This time of year, many favorite herbs have disappeared from view and are hiding underground. A few of us have disappeared too, if only to enjoy a little ‘down time’ as the cool, dark, rainy weather beckons us inward. Shifting our activity levels with the change of season helps us adapt to the unfolding of the year and its energy requirements. Even as roots are living off of stored minerals, they are also gathering nourishment and ‘rest’ for the growing season soon to follow and it is a good time for people to do the same!   In many healing traditions, winter rules the kidneys and adrenal glands – storage roots for our physical energy. These organs enjoy rest. Sleeping more (or at least slowing down) and eating root vegetables are a great way to rejuvenate. There are plenty of roots available at your natural grocer, including: celery root, turnips, yams, radishes, rutabaga, parsnips, sun-chokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes), burdock root, beets and carrots. More condiment-type roots available are garlic, ginger, turmeric and horseradish, all of which have powerful medicinal value.   Raw garlic is highly antimicrobial, for keeping cold and flu bugs (and perhaps a few folks) at bay, while cooked garlic serves to help loosen plaque and lower cholesterol. Both ginger and turmeric are highly anti-inflammatory and cleansing, so work well as a team. Ginger is warmer and stirs up circulation and promotes sweating (which expels toxins) while turmeric is a strong liver detoxifier. Small peeled nubs of each of these roots can usually be pushed through a garlic press into sauces, dressings and stir-fry’. For an...

Gently We January

January is a month that embodies the true starkness of winter on the coast. While it may be sunny, much native foliage, has tucked its juiciness under the soil. This natural inclination towards vegetative slumber when the sun draws a low arc across the sky is a sign to rest and repair. It may look like nothing much is going on for the red alder whose skeleton decorates our river valleys, but this tree uses winter dormancy to keep its house in order. For grasses and leafy trees, there is not enough light to make chlorophyll so nutrients like nitrogen, magnesium and phosphate are carried back from the leaves into the branches where they’re deposited in bark. Proteins are broken down and re-made and cell membranes are repaired. Excess sugar is salvaged and shuttled to roots for storage in anticipation of the energy needed to burst into life, come spring. For thousands of years humans living well above the equator have also saved energy and stored surplus to get through the lean, less productive months. Now modern humans can acquire whatever is needed and stay warm and well-fed through the winter, but physiologically our bodies are still in tune with the natural cycle of light. While your schedule might be full, it is of great benefit to take more time for rest and repair and nourish your roots at this time. During dark cycles our organs organize their own house keeping by detoxing and rebuilding damaged tissues. This is especially true of the kidneys, adrenal glands and liver where vitamins and hormones are synthesized. Since there is little vitamin...

Tis the Season

The damp coastal weather invites an incredible variety of fungal flowers (otherwise known as mushrooms) to pop up everywhere. Though mushrooms grow in soil and were originally believed to be an offshoot of the plant kingdom, recent studies have shown that most fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. They can’t photosynthesize (a requirement if you’re a plant) and depend on the food made by plants for their nutritional requirements, the way we do. Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi through mycorrhizal associations where plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates and fungi help plants take up water, provide nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, protect them from predators and boost their immunity. Indeed many of our beloved ecosystems, including our farmlands are dependent upon this relationship of reciprocity between plants and fungi. It is strange to think that so much of the biomass of a mushroom we pick is underground. The cute little stuffed white button mushroom you nibble at the buffet table has a relative that occupies some 2,384 acres (nearly 4 square miles!) of soil in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Based on the growth rate of this Armillaria ostoyae it’s estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years, which would earn it a place among the oldest living organisms as well as the largest. So what do fantastic fungal fruiting bodies have to share with us? Besides their high mineral and protein content, they have chemicals that support our immunity and prevent cellular damage. They also remind us of how sharing resources...

Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the old favorites in traditional herb gardens and kitchens and is still a popular herbal medicine throughout the world. The name stems from Greek “ground apple” for its lovely apple-like scent. In Spanish the name Manzanilla (“little apple”), describes the same. The two most popular types are German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla/recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). Though different species, they are used to treat the same common ailments, however German chamomile contains much higher amounts of azulene, an important medicinal oil.   Chamomile flowers resemble the daisy with white petals circling a cone-shaped yellow center and depending on conditions, bloom between May and October. German chamomile leaves are fern-like light green and feathery whereas Roman chamomile has finely divided parsley-like leaves that are thicker and flatter. For growing, German chamomile likes poor, clay soil whereas Roman chamomile prefers well-drained and moderately fertile soil. Although both chamomiles thrive in open, sunny locations, Roman chamomile will not tolerate hot, dry weather. There are other wild chamomiles, common to foragers, for instance, the well-know side-walk variety Matricaria discoidea, commonly known as pineapple weed whose leaves, have the lovely scent and can be used as a tea or in salads in a similar manner (the flowers are more bitter).   Wherever you travel and ask for an herbal tea, you are bound to have two consistent choices: mint and chamomile – and that’s a good thing! Chamomile’s most popular use is to calm upset stomach and nerves. It is combined with fennel and/or dill in baby ‘Gripe Water’ for colic and included in many intestinal soothing formulas as well...

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Mullein has long been one of my favorite tonic herbs and a special winter into early spring companion. This magnificent plant is like the elephant of the garden with its ears of broad, basal, furry leaves and its flowering trunk of nearly six feet tall. It is a native of Europe and temperate Asia, but has been naturalized across the globe. Upon its arrival in America, Native American culture quickly adopted the plant and used it in ceremonial smoke and as medicine. It takes two years for mullein to produce a stalk of its lovely yellow flowers, which like the leaves and the root, can be used medicinally. The stalks themselves can be made into torches by dipping them in beeswax or suet, and were traditionally used in religious ceremonies. The leaves of mullein can be picked in the first year and into the second spring, before the flowering stalk is formed. Their broad nature and tiny hairs remind us of the microvilli (little hairs) that live on the inside of our mucus membranes in the lungs and intestines, which serve to sweep mucus out of the body. Therefore mullein is a specific remedy for moving excess mucus out of the respiratory passages and digestive tract. It works for acute respiratory illness, congestion and dryness of the tissues, including; coughs, hoarseness or irritated throat, asthma, and bronchitis. I discovered its virtues while living in Britain with cigarette smokers. I included mullein in my daily herbal tea blend to keep away a ‘smokers cough’ and soothe my irritated throat. I highly recommend it when traveling to places with high levels...