On the other hand, many people find themselves performing another solstice ritual (though they might not quite see it that way)…by scratching their poison ivy! If you’ve been enjoying the summer so much that you’re now dealing with some poison ivy – or sister ivy as she is sometimes respectfully referred to in the plant community – never fear…
Women's Health and Herbal Medicine
Our ancestors used what they could reach or what grew right outside their back door. So do/did the granny and grandpa healers who are still alive today. Who had time, resources, or the ability to buy from afar or transport goods along great distances? Exotic Amazonian (as in the jungle, not the retail mogul) antioxidant-rich superfoods were accessible only to those who lived in the Amazon. The name of the game out of necessity was “hyperlocal", and not because it was a buzzword, but because it was life.
The substances we use as medicine shift from region to region and may even change among microclimates within one community. A homestead up in a shady holler might use broad-leaf plantain to pack a wound, while those near the sunny meadow down the way might use the lance-leaved variety of the same plant. There is a magic simplicity in knowing the weeds or wild plants which grow closest to your home and touch your bare feet. Gathering abundant medicinal species and making them into tinctures, oils, dried herbs, vinegars, and salves for your own personal apothecary or herbal first aid kit can be done even with scarce monetary resources, as long as the intention, solid identification skills, and willing desire is present.
Harvesting according to the lunar cycle and clipping the aerial parts of plants during the full moon while saving underground roots for the dark of the moon/the new moon is another ritual practice that dates back many centuries. Both our ancestors and modern herbalists understand that they must get to know a plant intimately in order to come into relationship with it and to properly harvest plants at different seasons, therefore gleaning varying nutrients that manifest differently from seed to root and summer to winter. The cycles of the plant-body, human-body, and earth-body align and the synergy of this collision makes for the best medicine.
Another traditional southern folk medicine way to ingest poke is to swallow the ripe berries, which stain magenta in the wildest way and are often used as a natural dye. There is an immunity-optimizing spring cleanse protocol which involves swallowing one whole (fresh or frozen) poke berry on day one, two on day two, and so on, up until the tipping point where someone experiences symptoms associated with a strong cathartic dose of the herb (dizziness, nausea), and then stopping.
Within our materia medica of common 'weedy' medicinal plants native to the Appalachian mountains where we are based, you will also find a sprinkling of so-called invasive plants which are not native to this area and at times are seen as resource hogs, taking water, sunlight, and nutrients from our native plants and sometimes depleting their populations or even choking them out. One individual, a professional whose work is to control the populations of non-native plants in our woodlands, recently posed a question to us about the harvesting and use of invasive species such as autumn olive, multiflora rose, and mimosa and how this affects their presence amidst our native plants. It's such a fascinating inquiry and important topic that we wanted to address it here. After all, we eat, sleep, and breathe plants: their future is our future and their health is our health.
Does the Use of Abundant Herbal Remedies Include Invasive Species?
Increasingly, we are finding the plants in our yards are 'foreigners', invasive species which are sometimes stigmatized and snubbed by native plant lovers. What does the presence of these exotic botanicals mean and how do we deal with their infiltration of populations of other plants that we want to see thrive?
Mimosa tree flowers (Alibizia julibrissin)
Certain invasive herbs have become quite popular in modern herbal medicine: Japanese knotweed is commonly included in protocols for chronic lyme and immune support, kudzu leaves are edible, spinach-like, and certainly abundant, the plant provides an incredibly tough fiber for basket-weaving, and its nutritive, starchy root is an invaluable remedy for a number of physical issues, and mimosa flower goes into many mood-boosting formulas for its reputation as the serotonin-boosting 'happiness tree'.
Beyond the Idea of Good Natives vs. Bad Invasives
The framing of the invasive plant issue can be as varied as "All non-natives are bad," (see this National Geographic article on the subject) to "...The blame for damage done by so-called invasive species lies with us, when we have created an imbalance that opens opportunities for new species to move in," (Toby Hemenway on Timothy Scott's fascinating book Invasive Plant Medicine, which I recommend).
Autumn/Russian Olive berries (Eleagnus spp.)
The discussion on invasives vs. natives in the realm of modern herbal medicine gets complicated and nuanced quickly, with issues of sustainable wildcrafting and plant population control coming to the forefront. The average herbalist wouldn't dare refer to beloved plantain (which was known as 'English-man's foot' to indigenous Americans) or dandelion as invasive or consider eliminating them from the apothecary because they had origins somewhere other than North America.
To the contrary, the two weeds are present in some form in almost every materia medica and in the majority of apothecaries, mirroring their prevalence throughout the planet. The complexities of invasives vs. natives in the ecosystem are immense and this doesn't even touch on the philosophical lessons that invasive plants might hold for humanity: resilience, adaptability, and thriving under difficult circumstances, to name a few. Invasive plants are scrappy and tenacious to the core - qualities that will become more and more prized as we deal with a changing planet. One thing is becoming clear, though: the hard line between the invasives and the native plans is becoming blurred.
Conventional wisdom tells us that invasive species are unwanted and insidious. But the landscape is changing; in a warming world, it is becoming increasingly challenging to define what is native and what is not. There is even an area of study within integration biology which looks at the relationship invasive and native plants have with each other. Opportunistic plants offer us the chance to respect them for what they are, appreciate the role they play, receive what they offer, and reimagine how to do this while also preserving and sustaining our native plants. This is their own unique medicine, whether you make it into an herbal tincture (as in Japanese knotweed or kudzu) or not (check out this NY Times article 'Invasives Aren't Always Unwanted' for more).
Why Harvesting and Using Invasive Plants as Herbal Remedies Helps Balance the Ecosystem
We promote the harvesting and use of medicinally and nutritionally valuable plants and herbs, regardless of where they originate from. Often, the appropriate use of invasives such as multiflora rose blossoms or hips or autumn olive berries can help to control, deter, and diminish their populations by preventing them from seeding or spreading further (since these hips/berries are their reproductive organs). When we harvest wild multiflora rosehips for tea, preserves, or for our award-winning Carolina Bitters digestive formula, or pick autumn olive berries as an antioxidant-rich wild snack or pie filling, we effectively reduce their chances of reseeding themselves with those particular fruits, which may give native botanicals in the area a better chance to hold their own and resist the invasive takeover.
Despite their poor reputation amongst gardeners, invasives do have value when considered part of the larger ecological web. The Albizia julibrissin tree was originally introduced to the US as an ornamental from Asia and adapts well to most soils. When we harvest the stunningly gorgeous mimosa flower and bark to make our grief-supportive and mood-optimizing Mimosa Elixir, we will often drop a branch - which may help reign in the growth of the tree - or gather blooms from a specimen that is about to be cut down or trimmed anyway. Sustainably wildcrafting the blossoms - while, of course, leaving some for pollinators and other people to enjoy - means that we are reducing the self-seeding ability of the tree and therefore future populations of mimosa, while increasing the ability of native trees to thrive.
What can be done to control the widespread growth of exotic invasives while also helping our precious native (often woodland growing) herbal remedies such as lobelia, yellowroot, Solomon's seal, and black cohosh to thrive? Eating the weeds is a good start. We never promote the cultivation or spreading of invasive plants because their vigor and growth speed has the potential to destroy the native species that make our region of western North Carolina so special and among the most botanically diverse bioregions in the world. But we are long-time purveyors of the Frank Cook (Plants and Healers International) mantra, "Eat something wild everyday," and many of the most sought-after greens in our foraged salads are wild mustard, dandelion, plantain, and garlic mustard. Top that with some blackberries and you have yourself a fully invasive salad.
Another practice we can all do is essentially 'find and replace'. If on your outdoor adventures you see young multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, privet, Japanese barberry, or Russian olive species which are going to choke out the native botanicals at the woods' edge or in the deep forest, pull out a few of these invasives and plant a seedling of goldenseal, ginseng, bloodroot, or black cohosh in their place. Jeannie loves to do this while giving her goats the opportunity to walk with her and munch down some of these exotic invasives as they will eat whatever she pulls for them.
Weaving traditional kudzu baskets at Red Moon Herbs with the incredible teacher Nancy Basket
True Sustainability Through Education, Plant Saves, and Seed Spreading
Perhaps the deepest thread that runs through our 26-year history as a small herb company is that of protecting and spreading seeds of native plant populations. We do plant rescues and saves in which we transplant native medicinals from areas where they would otherwise be eradicated by development. We promote the awareness and use of ginseng leaf which is undervalued yet as or more potent than ginseng root. We share traditional wild-tending strategies such as re-planting pieces ginseng and Solomon's seal roots and planting the berries/seeds before harvesting. We pride ourselves on being leaders in the seed-spreading revolution.
Intrigued with the subject and looking for more? For further reading, check out the thoroughly researched book Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives. Look into Ann Armbrecht's work on the Sustainable Herbs Project. Support your hyper-local or as-local-as-possible organic and biodynamic farmers, wildcrafters, and herbalists and know your herb sources and #whomakesyourmedicine. And as always, join us in supporting the work of United Plant Savers to conserve and protect our precious native medicinal plants.
With the beginning of the new year in only a few short weeks, we wanted to celebrate early with the launch of our brand new website. Here at Red Moon, one of our biggest goals is to educate and inspire people to learn more how simple and powerful local herbal remedies can be. Our new site is chock full of features to help you find, learn more about, and use your favorite herbs.
Here are a few features that will help you to get the most out of our new website.
1. Product Descriptions
Check out our new and improved product descriptions that go along with each and every herbal product that we offer. Many of the descriptions include links to informative articles and videos from trusted herbalists that will help you gain a deeper understanding of what these herbs do.
It just got a whole lot easier to browse our site for the herbs that you are looking for, even if you might not know what those herbs are yet. You can search by Collections, located in the top menu bar, for herbs that are specific to a certain body system or area of the body.
Or try using our handy search bar to seek out certain herbs or keywords. For example, a search for 'heart' will bring up hawthorn, an adaptogen for the heart, our Heart Tonic formula, and motherwort, or Leonurus cardiaca, another strong medicine for the heart.
3. Customer Accounts
Tired of typing in your shipping information or tying to remember what herbs you ordered last cold and flu season? Now you can register with Red Moon and we will keep that data safely and securely within your customer account. Registration is optional but only takes about a minute and is one way to make ordering a whole lot simpler!
4. Mobile Version
We know that you are busy taking care of yourself, your family, and all the little details of life. So that's why we've made it easy for you to put together an order of herbs to stock your medicine cabinet even when you're out and about. Check out the new mobile version of our site to see how simple it is to use.
January 1st marks Detox D-Day for many who practice the heroic or the scientific traditions of medicine. We all know what this looks like: a holiday season full of fatty richness and unhampered excess followed by a January resolute with green smoothies, lemon water cleanses, and partially used gym memberships. But in the Wise Woman Tradition, the new year marks a new season of nourishment.
We don’t cure or cleanse; instead we enrapture and enrich. Instead of living the ‘out with the bad’ philosophy, we think ‘in with the good’, feeding our bodies and souls and treating them with kindness, compassion, and love. We don’t resolve to persistently scrub our colons and clear our livers, because our guts and our filtration systems are already doing that for us, 24 hours a day, and far better than we could ever do it with all the diets in the world. We don’t detox, because we aren’t dirty.
You’re Not Dirty, and You Don’t Need Cleaning
There is an overarching ethic – which gets its time in the spotlight at this time of the year – that we human bodies are walking dirt bags from years past and in order to start fresh, we must get clean first. But have we forgotten that our bodies are already doing this for us, cleaning, filtering, and ‘detoxing’ in our waking life and our sleep so that we can continue living each day as fresh, whole, human beings? Each hour of each day, the body produces brand new cells and turns the old ones into waste products. Every minute, 1,450 milliliters of blood circulate through the liver after having been ‘cleaned’. Every 11 months, we have a completely new body made up of those brand new cells. We are renewed, replenished, re-nourished. And we didn’t even have to ‘detox’.
In the heroic tradition, which encompasses much of the alternative health world, pain is gain. Detoxing is purifying. The body is polluted, toxic, and sick, and only by hard work and careful cleansing can we get it clean again. We are filthy and must be controlled by regular detox rituals. Healing is the removal of everything bad from the body, and the addition of nothing.
In the scientific tradition of medicine, which represents much of western medicine as we know it, bodies are machines and herbs can be standardized into drugs, which fix machines. Health and sickness are always at opposite ends of the spectrum, and sickness is never a gift, never an opportunity, only a state that demands fixing. Healing the body through drugs and medicines helps the ‘machine’ to get back to a normal state of healthy function.
In the Wise Woman tradition, the world’s oldest system of healing and the one still practiced by the majority of indigenous cultures in the world today, good health is vibrancy, change, flexibility, and possibility. Health is an integrated both/and situation, rather than a black-and-white either/or dichotomy. Wholeness is ever-changing, unique, abnormal, and doesn’t involve eliminating the bad so much as including and honoring the whole. Nourishment is as simple and innocent as a steaming bowl of soup, as grounded as the powerful earth, as all-encompassing as the universal garden of healing, and as beautiful and perfect as you.
Resolve to Love Your Body for Its Pre-Existing Perfection
Trusting the body to provide you with your own optimum level of in-house cleanliness is part of trusting the body to do its job perfectly, provided that we offer it enough nourishment in terms of food, medicine, and emotional and physical engagement. It is like trusting the body to breathe, pump, and circulate the appropriate substances for those precious few hours of sleep you get each night.
This new year, consider resolving to love your body in its own perfect wisdom, rather than trying to scour every corner of it for bacteria and muck. The energy that you desire to put into detoxing is so valuable, but it would be so much better used in carefully choosing and preparing the foods that nourish your body, rather than trying to clear out any unwanted, invisible toxicity.
Those bacteria that we loathe are the same ones that grow the garden of our gut flora, those microbes that we want to purge are the same things that build up our immunity to viruses, and there is a good chance those toxins that we perceive are long gone, having being evacuated by our body’s own miraculous built-in detoxification system. Loving and nourishing yourself is a commitment to self-acceptance and self-awareness. Trust that your daily nourishing habits, like drinking nourishing herbal infusions, consuming nutrient-dense food, and using herbal medicine when appropriate, are enough.
How Can You Nourish this New Year?
Deep nourishment, soul-level, bone-level nourishment, comes from myriad different places. In the food world, we may grasp it from savory, warming winter broths and stews. We may suss it out of roasted root vegetables and lacto-fermented vegetables that are brimming with probiotics and the makings of good gut flora. And we definitely derive it from our daily nourishing herbal infusions, using the dense nutritional load of nettles, oatstraw, linden, comfrey, and red clover to get our everyday doses of fully absorbable vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
In the emotional world, we find nourishment from rewarding relationships, personal time spent with the spiritual self, and the wonderful hibernation period that only winter allows for. Nourishment is all around us, nestled in the tree buds sleeping silently until spring, tucked under the first layer of snow in the chickweed that still blooms white beneath the January ice. This year is new, this year is nourishment, and this year, you can choose to nourish yourself in your personal perfection and in your own perfectly messy, perfectly clean soul and body.
November marks the tail end of ‘sang season, but relics of the harvest time remain: small town signs scrawled with ‘Will Buy Ginseng – No License Needed’ and reports of poachings on private land or national park felonies over the last two months. Ginseng hunters and buyers have been everywhere this autumn. But where is the ginseng?
Statistically speaking, approximately 95% of it is getting shipped to Hong Kong and Singapore, a region which has now exhausted their resources of the root and relies almost exclusively on the Appalachian mountains to supply their steady demand. In 2012, the U.S. exported 45,000 pounds of wild ginseng and 342,000 pounds of the cultivated woodland crop. But what many consumers and cultivators alike don’t know is that ginseng has a secret, and it’s hiding in plain sight.
The Down and Dirty on Ginseng in North Carolina
We’ve all seen the hokey reality tv episodes where life depends not on modern commerce as we know it but on rebel flags, bear hunting, and huge sackfuls of ‘sang harvest. But what is the deal with ginseng in North Carolina, really? Is there a way to harvest it legally without risk of jail-time? Is that even sustainable? How is poaching different from stealing? Let’s get rooted – no pun intended – in the regulations here and take a look at the rules of the game of Appalachian ginseng.
As one of six states that permits a very limited amount of ginseng to be wild harvested from its national forests, North Carolina has struggled to get that number of permits just right. This system has scaled back considerably in the last two years to make room for the growing threat of poachers and thieves. Offering only 136 permits per year (a 75% reduction), the state agency is attempting to limit the destruction of ginseng as much as possible. But Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman has noted that despite having the lottery restricting the ginseng harvest for the last couple of years, it’s not certain whether the ginseng plants are bouncing back with any vigor.
If you’re fortunate enough to win the lottery, the ginseng ‘lottery’, that is, in which you enter your information at the Nantahala or Pisgah U.S. Forest Service district office and get (or don’t) randomly granted a permit to dig, you may harvest between September 1 and 15th. There is some semblance of accountability for future generations; NC state law requires that you sow the seeds from the ginseng you are harvesting within 100 feet of the plant.
Considered ‘green’ when it is freshly dug, ginseng roots must by fully dry before selling to most dealers. The drying process takes about a month when done naturally. The dried root sells for between $500-$2000 per pound to hungry and steady Asian markets. Before exporting it off to any international buyers, dealer permits must be obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But this isn’t ginseng unlimited: you may dig only 1-3 pounds fresh with this type of permit, and any harvesting outside these bounds is considered poaching and likely to garner you a $5,000 fine, 6 months in federal prison, or both.
Stealing, on the other hand, is even more sinister than poaching. Ginseng thieves seem to grow in numbers as quickly as viewers of shows like Appalachian Outlaws boom. An $8,000 patch of personal ginseng cultivated by a retired physician recently disappeared outside of Asheville – and all because of a hole in a barbed wire fence. Diggers attempting to harvest on private land must have written permission from the land owner on their person, or risk a felony charge.
In the Smokey Mountain National Park, the ginseng situation has gotten so serious that the park rangers have now micro-chipped and dyed over 13,000 ginseng roots, many of which were recovered from thieves, moved back to the park land, and replanted. The dye enables the law-abiding dealer to examine the root and tell immediately whether or not it is stolen property.
This plant is one of the few valiantly protected at both the state and the federal level. With a volatile market combined with the unpredictability of mother nature, the collapse of this multi-million dollar ginseng industry never seems too far outside the realm of possibility. People reach for ginseng because of its acclaimed longevity powers and tonic health benefits…but even if we’re all ginseng-high and living for 120 years, don’t we still want our children to be able to experience the wonders of the root as well?
To Harvest Is to Kill…Or Is It?
Harvesting the root kills the ginseng plant. What many people don’t realize is that these standard practices of killing ginseng during harvest weren’t always like this. Earlier in the game, before ginseng cultivation was getting started and most of the harvest was wild-crafted, ginseng could be harvested and grow back.
The ginseng root must have three ‘prongs’ or four buds when harvested, meaning that it’s at least five years old and typically around seven or eight. In the old days, the root, shaped like a little man with a taproot torso and two scrawny legs, was dug up and the harvester typically broke off one leg (the shorter of the two) and replanted it. Almost all the ginseng that was sold in those days was just so, the main larger root with one ‘leg’, not two. One day, that all changed. Dealers decided they would only accept the whole root in its pure, unadulterated form. This was when ginseng harvests took a turn; from then on, to harvest would mean to kill.
“I grow ginseng as a perennial. I harvest the roots but I don’t kill the plants. When it gets to be 8-10 years old, it frequently starts making new roots around the neck.” Joe Hollis, a god amongst herb cultivators who specializes in Chinese herbs, recommends harvesting the existing roots and leaving the new rootlets in the ground, which would then produce a new root in the next couple years. Unfortunately, because of regulations as they stand, you can’t sell ginseng root without the neck. But for value-added products (and perhaps eventually a new wave of more sustainable regulations), the perennially cultivated ginseng is a largely untapped market.
We export between 94% and 97% of our organically wild-harvested ginseng to the Eastern markets, while we simultaneously import their highly sprayed, chemical-laden Asian ginseng to be used in our adaptogen formulas and Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics. Buyers pay nearly 90% more for the wild-harvested root as opposed to the cultivated, and it is thought to be about twice as effective as the cultivated. But no amount of effectiveness is worthwhile if we’re eliminating the ginseng from the woods.
As Below So Above: A Vote for the Leaf
The Wise Woman tradition values whole plant extracts in which all the synergistic constituents of a plant are included. This way of making medicine is holistic, inclusive, and broad. It is the direct opposite of pharmaceuticals, which isolate one chemical compound and extract, manipulate, and concentrate it.
With our feet firmly grounded in the fertile soil of the Wise Woman tradition, we want to make a case for the leaf of ginseng as an undervalued aspect of the whole plant’s medicine. Worshipping at the feet of the root of this ‘king (or queen) of the forest’ and ignoring the rest of the plant has done us no good. That said, what if there were more to ginseng than just its root? It turns out that there is.
According to clinical research done by a group of scientists on the bioactive compounds and pharmacology of ginseng leaf and stem, “Extracts from ginseng root and leaf-stem have similar multifaceted pharmacological activities.” This covers all of the properties we know and love about ginseng - its energizing, longevity-promoting, healthy-blood-sugar-optimizing, optimal-weight-promoting, nutritive qualities. They are all present and accounted for in the ginseng leaf. What’s considered the active ingredient in ginseng, the magic bullet, the ginsenosides, are fully present and active in the leaf. All those delightful polysaccharides, antioxidants, flavonoids, volatile oils, peptides, and amino and fatty acids that we love about the root? You better believe they’re active in the leaf, too.
Studies have shown that ginseng leaf extract improves learning and memory capabilities, preserves the cardiac and vascular systems, and exhibits anti-diabetes effects…just like the root. In one particular study, the leaf was shown to have significant hypoglycemic effects and prove extremely beneficial in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
It’s in terms of costs and sourcing, though, that ginseng leaf and stem presents the greatest advantages to the exclusive use of ginseng root. Henriette Kress, a wonderful and vastly knowledgeable herbalist in Finland, tells it like it is: “The leaf of American ginseng is as good as the root. It's also much cheaper, but next to nobody sells it because next to nobody knows about it.” She explains that the tradition of using only the roots of ginseng is a relic of the storage limitations of the old-fashioned herb trade. Dried root kept in burlap bags would last in barns for years, whereas the leaf would not. Now that we’ve moved beyond the limitations of that era, isn’t it time to move onto a new era of ginseng leaf as truly sustainable medicine that grows back year after year?
Another answer to the maze of questions that is ginseng sustainability was introduced by Joe Hollis, who brought gynostemma or ‘southern ginseng’ into the US and touts this weedy plant as a similarly five-leafed curiosity comparable to ginseng. Gynostemma, which chemically contains the same active compounds as ginseng, is, “The most valuable plant you can grow for your own health,” according to Hollis. The entire plant is used medicinally, but particularly the aerial part.
If Sustainable Medicine Is Our Goal, Why Are We Devastating Our Ginseng Root?
It’s not uncommon that we here at Red Moon Herbs get a request for ginseng. We are, after all, an herb supplier, so why shouldn’t we carry this most sought after herb? On the large scale, we hope to soon nationally pioneer a tincture of the leaf and stem, an effective, well-studied, underdog adaptogen of the herbal world that is truly sustainable. Locally, we will begin be offering a limited edition ginseng leaf and local honey elixir at the Ginseng Expo coming to UNCA this December. We are choosing to take a stance on behalf of the plant – the whole plant, leaf included. We are choosing to stand up for the complexities of ginseng as a living, growing botanical, as well as a valuable medicine that deserves to remain a growing part of our Appalachian heritage.
Want to learn more? Come speak ‘sang this December at the International American Ginseng Expo on December 4th and 5th on the UNC Asheville campus. A rare gathering of the global leaders in all things ginseng, the expo is well stocked with classes, panels, networking opportunities, and round tables. Join buyers, growers, dealers, researchers, herbalists, and marketers from far and wide to delve into the world of the most famous medicinal root in the world.
My hawthorne berries are growing plump and ruby at the top of this 5000 foot mountain, and I am still in the bottom lowlands, a mere 3000 feet or so in elevation, strapping thick hiking boots to my feet and pulling on canvas gloves in the pre-dawn dew.
The day for harvest has finally come, and Burdock the Bernese mountain dog knows it as much as I do. Last year around the hawthorne harvest time, I caught him sneaking low-hanging fruit from the tree as I was harvesting. I thought, “What an excellent example of zoopharmacognosy!” because firstly, it’s a wonderful word to think aloud to oneself, and secondly, because truly, he as an animal has this vital canine instinct about what’s good for him. With a purebred mountain dog father, he has a genetic predisposition to heart troubles, the very thing that hawthorne remedies so reliably. And did he know this, when poking his long furry snout unperturbed into the brambly thicket and nibbling on the berries? I think so.
We climb steadily up towards the ridge where the hawthornes reign, Burdock with his backpack and me with mine, both of us stopping to drink from one of the seven springs we cross along the way. Both of us in various states of bedragglement the higher we climb, accumulating hundreds of tickseeds and agrimony burrs, he in his tail and me in my mane, both of us avoiding the falling buckeyes and sweating a bit in the cool September climate.
We have been watching the hawthornes all year. The tree of May, they bloom bursts of white delight in the late spring, beneath which fairies are said to dream in the old Gaelic traditions. When they were in full blossom I gently cut away some of the rosy flowers and leaves, which would be made into sweet, flavonoid-rich tincture for needy capillaries and wanting vessels.
Hawthorne is in the rose and apple family, and it’s obvious: the flowers mimic creamy mini ornamental roses while the seeds hold the same toxic Snow-White compound as their fruity cousins: cyanide. In my understanding, it’s about as big of a deal to consume a hawthorne as it is to eat an apple. Strain out or spit out the seeds, and you’re fine.
Their medicine is sweet, tonic, and red, astringent and life-filled, bioavailable to the cardiovascular system and generous in antioxidants. Compounds from hawthorne are used to create some pharmaceutical heart medicines and have been touted for their safety, effectiveness and lack of herb-drug contraindications. They are considered an adaptogen for the heart, with that mystical phyto-ability to lower blood pressure or raise it as needed, and to aid the cardiac area of the body to do its best job pumping, distributing, and nourishing the blood.
The berries are early this year, and so I must be, too. Hawthorne does not wait around for insignificant wildcrafters to come and take their pick, and neither do the black bears that roam this acreage, and neither do the dark-eyed juncos fluttering to nab the topmost berries that gleam scarlet in the light. Hawthorne does not mind if I have orders to fill and eager berry buyers 3000 feet below its roots and a city and a world away.
Hawthorne lives here, actually lives here, has been born and watered and winded and pollinated and grown up and old and gnarly and reproduced one million berry children here. And hawthorne will continue to live here so long as the mountain keeps kind to it, and the harvesters pluck only what their baskets can carry, and never more.
We pick for hours in that close, high-elevation September sun, so much nearer than than normal, and the basket begins to fold and creak beneath its slowly growing weight. Or, I pick, and Burdock sturdily guards us from bears, or, more likely, sinister chipmunks and dragonflies. The thorns guarding the haws are nothing less than formidable and no match for tender human hands, some of them growing more than two inches in length, jagged reminders that this is the wild of blood-red berries, not merely pricked fingers from a fairytale.
We tumble down the mountain, sliding through rocky creeks and dodging leafy banks, 10 pounds heavier at least, laden but far from burdened. The bears can return to their sweet feast in privacy, now, and I can return to the ear-popping lowlands from whence I came.
But not before a deluge of black Jerseys decides to take interest in our cause. Burdock and I descend upon a pleasantly mooing field of Madison County cows, who turned quickly into an aggressively stomping and MOOING field of Madison County cows as we trundled through their territory. They seemed to be showing far too much interest in my wildcrafted goods than I deemed appropriate for cows, dodging towards either me or the oddly cow-colored dog and then leering backwards with a noise like a tortured primate.
I wonder at this point if cows have some obscure fondness for hawthorne berries that perhaps I wasn’t aware of, and begin to hold my precious bag of loot a bit further away from my side, just in case I needed to toss it to my bovine predators and run like the wind. Surely none of these were bulls, were they? The grab-the-bull-by-the-horns expression came to mind and I was conveniently reminded that none of these cows indeed had horns, so surely they wouldn’t be in hot pursuit of a redhead with a red bag full to the brim with bright red…no! Surely not!
Nevertheless, we weren’t going to risk it. We dart around the herd, running and scattering a few berries in our wake, Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs style, under barbed wire fences and over fallen hemlocks and safely clattering three miles down the mountain.
The day for harvest is over for another year. We will keep watching the hawthornes through the winter, we will go and visit them again when their branches are bare and they look dead and grey, and we will approach them in the spring again, asking once more what heart fruits they will hold for us come autumn.
When my herb teacher, a fourth or fifth generation herbalist, was still a young child in the foothills of the Alabama Appalachians, she learned to use plants to predict the patterns of human disease. As far back as she can remember, she’d always been taught that the particularly dominating plants of that growing season were there to treat the people that lived nearby. And when one plant dominated the landscape for a particular spring or summer, she knew what to expect that fall.
So she put her students to the test. “What have y’all been seeing really growing prolifically, really taking over this year?” she asked us, her second year class at the Appalachian Center for Natural Health, where we study traditional southern folk medicine. “Sumac,” says somebody, and, “Elderberry,” says another. One student pipes up, “I’ve never seen more St. John’s wort than I have this year. It’s everywhere,” and another butted in, “The Queen Anne’s lace is unbelievable right now…it’s always there, but this is different…"
“What do y’all think that means? The sumac, the elderberry, the St. John’s wort, the Queen Anne’s lace? Why are we seeing those more this year than in the past? Is there a reason?” We pondered, stumped. Surely it wouldn’t be because of a climate change or a farmer’s almanac type thing or a planetary alignment. We students were coming from all over the southeast and had seen these plants’ unprecedented takeover from several different states. I wondered if it was just a, “Well, just seems to be a darned good year for that yeller weed,” sort of farmer talk.
But our teacher cracked the subject open: “As far as I can see, it looks like we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of viruses and flus this year.” St. John’s wort, Queen Anne’s lace, and elderberry are of course well-known herbal cold, flu, and virus remedies. All three are excellent anti-virals and the elder combined with the Queen Anne’s lace is a powerful herbal flu and bug support. Sumac berries can also be used to support the body during a viral infection.
This prediction of the illnesses that we have to look forward to in the coming fall raised quite a conversation: do plants exist just to help humans? How do plants communicate with us? What kind of intelligence do plants have? Why do they want to help us? Can plants really predict what people and even ultra-intelligent computer programs cannot?
When our teacher was being trained in herbal medicine, her grandparents were practicing herbalists and would make house calls to their patients, rarely bringing much more with them than a couple of dried roots in their bags. They knew that at least during the growing season, most anything they might use to cure someone could be found in their backyard. So this way of predicting an epidemic based on the botanical life of the area is really rooted in necessity and habit – the herbalist used what they had, and they noticed if they had a lot of something and were using, say, elderberry, more than any other plant that season.
This belief imbues in plants a certain divine intelligence, very like the ‘minds’ or ‘spirits’ of plants that Stephen Harrod Buhner refers to in his books Plant Spirit Healing or The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. The idea is connected to a very Native American view of all things belonging, everything in its place, every plant with its purpose. It connects us with the plant world in a way that is very real, a way in which we are interdependent on each other, a way in which we need plants for more than just their pretty perfumes and idyllic symbolism. We need them to get through the next season.
As I drive the goldenrod and ironweed sided hillsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I begin to wonder what this massive field of yellow and purple means. What’s its purpose, besides being a brilliantly stunning crockpot of wildflowers? I know that I’d rather look out and see a roadside lined with Joe Pye Weed than a roadside predicting epic numbers of kidney stone sufferers to come, but still, it is easy to believe in the language of the plants to guide us from disease into nourishment. What could be glowingly more obvious, and yet somehow more subtle to us humans, than the dandelions growing in every lawn in America that cry out to our livers, the vast majority of which could use at least a little love.
Keep your eyes on the plants this autumn. Do you see a correspondence between the proliferation of that patch of plantain and the number of bug bites your family gets? Do you notice a connection between the wild cherry trees and the coughs or sore throats that may pop up this winter?
Let us know! There are no wrong answers, and no nasty weeds.
We all know it’s coming – some of us may already be in the thick of it. The congestion, the bleary eyes, the runny nose, the headaches, the pains, the stuff. Allergy season is in prime time at the moment, and it happens to fall right at the time of year when the dogwoods are exploding into blossom, the birdsong is melodious, and all we want to do is be outside. “What a cruel joke nature plays!” we may think to ourselves while sniffling and gazing longingly out the window. We’ve heard of all the natural remedies: local honey, bee pollen, and locking yourself indoors until summer…but have you met the nettles?
Know Your Nettle
Stinging nettles, Urtica dioica (and also wood nettles or Laportea canadensis, which can be used fairly interchangeably), are an incredible green ally for those with persistent allergies and seasonal symptoms. On top of using locally produced bee by-products like honey, royal jelly and pollen to combat allergies, incorporating nettles as a superfood and super-infusion can give springtime allergies a kick in the pollinated pants. Mineral rich, incredibly high in iron and chlorophyll, and densely nutritious, nettles are a food-herb and can be consumed in abundance with absolute safety. Mid-late spring is the optimal time to harvest nettles, when their formic acid content is lower and they are more tender and less fibrous than their summer or autumn selves.
In her book Healing Wise: The Wise Woman Herbal, Susun Weed advises that “Nettle is an ally which – combined with the Wise Woman ways – can help the gradual healing of a person with a condition such as hay fever, allergies etc… Try a cup/250 ml of nettle infusion, or a half cup/125 ml cooked fresh greens and pot liquor, or a teaspoonful of the juice every nice spring day for at least a month.”
Nettles are best used as a tonic herb for chronic allergy sufferers. Expect to use nettles regularly for one week to one month before realizing significant improvement and relief. See Susun Weed’s website for more on this juicy food and medicine. Need nettles?
Rusty on the exact process of making a full-strength medicinal herbal infusion? Lucky for you, it takes less than the time it takes to brush your teeth, and we’ll remind you how simple it is in this article in one of our earlier newsletters. Check out our archived newsletter for a recipe for a rich Russian Nettle Tonic to get even more nettles into your life.
Osha: An Ocean of Possibilities
While nettles is one of our best green allies for allergies over the long-term, a wise woman surrounds herself with not one but many friends. Sweet, spicy osha (Ligusticum spp.) is another one of these allies that are useful in soothing the redness and inflammation of the allergy season. But unlike nettles, osha is fast-acting to support at the scene of the issue.
In the form of a potent low-dose botanical, the aromatic osha root assists in allergic reactions and anaphylactic situations until one can seek medical treatment should an acute situation arise. On an allergy that manifests itself through redness, irritation and inflammation on the skin such as hives and rashes, osha tincture can be used both topically and internally in tandem to support the body’s extreme histamine response. Got an itchy throat from allergies? Osha is helpful for soothing the esophageal passages.
If you or someone you know has an allergy – whether bee sting or nut butters – it’s a wise investment to have a bottle of osha tincture on hand for those unexpected reactions. As a bonus, osha is also excellent for use on any painful, swollen insect or animal bites or stings that you might experience. Don’t be caught without this powerful root medicine, and may the osha and the nettles help you to enjoy an allergy-less spring singing with the birds!
While walking in the forest recently with the kids, we found several of Earth’s bountiful treasures: whimsical witch hazel flower and a few lucky buckeye (Aesculus spp.) pictured here. We see the remains of summer’s leftover reishi (Ganoderma spp.) and lingering dried oyster mushrooms, fresh turkey tail (Trimetes versicolor), usnea (Usnea spp.) on branches fallen, a few clinging hawthorn berries and plenty of wild rose hips for syrups and teas (see both fruits pictured below).
These gifts of the forest offer their abundant fruit to us with no expectations in return, so we choose to give a token to express appreciation.
We may leave dried tobacco or herb from an offering pouch, a few strands of hair or a prayer of thanks. A neat winter gift for our bird and forest friends can easily be made using a pine cone or two as a bird feeder. These are gestures in the season of giving. Replanting the yule or holiday tree of cedar, spruce or pine can be a safe place for wildlife while providing cone seeds or evergreen berries as winter food.
Birds also forage on berries such as hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and black haw (Viburnum prunifolium). All of these shrubs will soon be ready to plant in your garden or forest in early spring. Some of these shrubs have medicinal properties, such as hawthorn for heart health, barberry or Oregon grape as a digestive bitter and wound healer and black haw with its numerous uses, including support during threatened miscarriages or postpartum hemorrhaging.
I am humbled and ever so grateful to Mother Earth’s generosity even in the coldest season, such unconditional giving shared during the lean times is the ultimate example for us all.
Abundant harvests and gift giving year-round,
Jeannie Dunn, Director