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...

Boneset Herb

Boneset herb (Eupatoria perfoliatum) is a perennial native of northeastern America and was commonly used by the Native Americans living there. It likes to ‘keep its feet wet’ by growing in the margins of swamps, marshlands and streams. The leaves are slightly rough and serrated and grow alternately, joining at the stem as if one leaf. It can grow up to 5 feet and then has clumps of small bone-white flowers that are coveted by bees.   The leaves and tops are used and gathered at the beginning of flowering. If harvested earlier or later, then only the leaves are gathered. European settlers were taught by Native Americans, how to use boneset for influenza with strong chills and aching bones. It became widely popular as treatment for malaria and was brought back to Northern Europe where it naturalized.   Boneset may have gotten its common name from being able to relieve “bone-breaking” fever (that which causes severe bone-pain), but it has also been traditionally used to help set and heal broken bones. As a bitter, it is also used to heal intestinal lining and appetite, post illness. I like to keep some on-hand during the winter months to add to a tonic tea when there is the first sign of chill that could be due to cold of flu. As a diaphoretic, it will help to increase heat and move it to the periphery of the body, helping to drive the pathogen out. Drinking it in a warm tea with other diaphoretic herbs like elderflower, yarrow and ginger can help ward off potential illness. If one does come down with feverish...

Cranberry

Cranberry grows in the cold, northern wetlands of Europe and America. Though the larger American variety (V. macrocarpon) has stolen the culinary show and is most widely available commercially, wild cranberries have been eaten by Arctic peoples for millennia and are still a very popular fruit for wild-harvesting in Scandanavia and Russia. Traditional Native American use of these sour, astringent berries was to incorporate them into “emmican cakes” along with dried deer meat and fat. Cranberries were also used as a dye, and for medicine that reduced fever, addressed urinary complaints and as a poultice to draw poisons out of arrow wounds. Early American colonists, who dubbed the berries “craneberry” (perhaps because cranes like to eat them) cooked them with maple syrup and ate this sauce with meat. They are highly nutritious as a regular food and juice, as well as a medicine. Cranberry fruits and juices contain large amounts of vitamin C, along with vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, E & K, plus potassium, phosphorus, calcium, manganese, magnesium, sodium, sulphur, selenium, zinc, iron and copper. Not forgetting the other pharmacological bio-active antioxidants known as proanthocyanidins/anthocyanidins and beneficial organic acids: ellagic, citric, malic, quinic, benzoic, chlorogenic, eugenol, ferrulic; also beta carotene, lutein and quercetin. In the 1920’s cranberry juice was widely used to prevent chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs) as it still is today. UTIs are usually caused by E. coli, that, like many bacteria have a hairy exterior which sticks to cells and allows the pathogen to take up residence there. This sticking is required for infection, so anything that prevents the sticking thus prevents infection...