The Medicine of Ponderosa Pine

The smell of pine needles warming in the sunshine hits any forest wanderer with a wave of sweet, balsamic richness that awakens the olfactory senses while simultaneously bringing about a distinct feeling of tranquility. I’m talking about a walk through a ponderosa pine forest, a place that emanates love and support. A place where worries and anxieties melt away and self-acceptance and self-esteem can settle in.

With its open and airy understory, the pine forest shows to its wanderer that moving freely forward is possible. By releasing self-doubt, self-defeating behaviors and paralyzing  emotions from the past that no longer serve us, this forward movement will be supported by the love of wise and nurturing elders of the plant kingdom.

The ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is a mighty conifer, reaching up to 30 metres tall and 1.5 metres in diameter. Its evergreen needles, at 10-20 cm, are longer than those of its other North American relations. Its broad and sturdy cones bear rich and buttery seeds (nuts), that are essential winter food to the creatures of the surrounding ecosystem; squirrels and birds, like the Clark’s nutcracker. Ponderosa’s deeply grooved, cinnamon-coloured bark, with its puzzle piece layers and vanilla/butterscotch fragrance, is unmistakable … it will soften your heart and warm your soul.

Ponderosa prefers to grow in the lower elevations of hot and dry grasslands, valleys and southern exposures. Not overcrowding these ecosystems, but humbly providing nourishment, shelter and medicine to the creatures who also call this semi-desert landscape home. Seeing the outline of a single mighty ponderosa standing on a distant hillside, provides the comforting feeling of steady patience and balance. Trees know this feeling, trees are the epitome of this feeling.  Balance comes to those who are rooted in the earth and reaching to the sky, a beautiful symbiotic circle of giving and receiving, one of the many reasons why the tree is a universal symbol for life.

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I grew up in the land of the ponderosa pines, the presence of these beautiful trees are comforting to me, they represent home and the sweetness of childhood. I may have relocated from the place I grew up in British Columbia, but I am so grateful to now find myself nestled in a cabin amongst the ponderosas here in Montana, very much at home.

How can you bring Ponderosa pine energy into your life?

Other than simply spending time in the forest to experience the deeply nourishing emotional and energetic effects of this sacred tree, there are other ways that you can use Ponderosa pine in your life.

Needles and Inner Bark

The young needles of the ponderosa make a tasty vitamin C rich tea, with some mild diuretic and expectorant properties. Brew an infusion of the inner bark, with honey, for more of a phlegm releasing, yet soothing action. Good for the later stages of a chest cold.

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Resin

Also known as sap or pitch, it is the lifeblood of the tree. Transporting water, hormones and nutrients through the inner layers of the tree’s trunk and seeping from any wounds that may occur in the outer layer of the bark.

This sticky resin acts as a defence mechanism against potential invading disease. Its anti-spetic properties also make it very useful as a topical treatment for wounds on our own skin. The sap is very effective at drawing out splinters and other foreign invaders to the skin, while also providing antimicrobial benefits, so as to avoid infection.  Michael Moore says in his book. ‘Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West,’ …”the resins stimulate topical circulation, increase inflammation, and noticeably speed up the foreign body response; pus and fluids build up much more quickly than if unattended, and the splinter will usually pop out the next day.”

Along with its antiseptic properties, the resin is also an effective expectorant for productive phlegm expulsion, this action makes it useful with coughs and lower respiratory tract infections. Ponderosa can assist us in releasing old gunk around the heart and throat, this is about breathing in life, speaking your truth and feeling safe to do so.

For making an alcohol extract (tincture) of pine resin, a higher alcohol content (Everclear 95%) will help to extract more medicinal properties from the resin. However, a lower alcohol content (40-50%) is still acceptable, if that is all you have or desire.  Adding raw honey to the extract after you’ve strained it, will amplify the antimicrobial effects as well as the sweet flavour.

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Ponderosa Pine Resin Infused Oil 

To make a pine resin infused oil, break up/crush any hardened pieces of sap and place in a jar with any softer bits you may have. Pour your chosen fixed oil (olive, grape seed, almond..) over the resin. A ratio of 1:2 (resin weight: oil volume) will make a thick extraction. A 1:5 ratio will make an extract that is easier to work with and still very potent.

Let the mixture sit for about 3 weeks in a warm spot, like near a wood stove. One may also choose to heat the mixture in a double boiler or crockpot for 6-8 hours for a quicker extraction. Strain and use.

Have a double boiler or crockpot that is specific for heating resins, as it will get sticky over time.

Add melted beeswax to the infused oil to make an easy to apply healing salve. Depending on your desired consistency of the salve, a good rule of thumb for how much beeswax to add is, 1 ounce of beeswax to 8 ounces of infused pine oil.

Burning the Resin

Simply burning chunks of resin as an incense in your home can bring about the purifying and grounding effects of walking amongst the pine trees themselves. A charcoal square and dish with ash or sand in it can be helpful for burning resin.

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Thank you for reading, be well and may you always find yourself in the forest.

~ Wild Iris

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Herbs for a Healthy Cycle

PMS. It can be difficult, unmanageable, unpredictable and very common for many women. But just because this variety of symptoms we call PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) is common, does not mean that it is normal. Nor do these symptoms have to be endured as a normal part of your life every month.

PMS and the symptoms associated with it have been brushed off as something that women just have to experience, when they can actually be a sign of a hormonal imbalance. We are dismissed as crazy, hormonal women and so often, doctors prescribe hormonal birth control simply to ‘regulate’ a women’s cycle, not even to prevent pregnancy! Unfortunately, these synthetic hormones, like the  birth control pill, are not actually regulating women’s cycles, but only pushing their hormone imbalances even deeper. This common practice of prescribing synthetic hormones is not helping women understand their bodies and how their hormones naturally ebb and flow throughout our cycle, but is only perpetuating the rise in hormone imbalance that already effects 20 million women nationwide.

Your symptoms, such as extreme moods swings, migraines, acne, cramping, heavy periods or absence of periods, can all be helped with things like food, lifestyle choices and of course herbs (which is what I will focus on in this post.) Even some common diagnosed medical conditions like, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can be managed with simple changes in what we choose to put in our bodies and how we choose to view our menstrual cycles.

I will cover some herbs that can be very helpful and have been traditionally used by women for a variety hormonal and reproductive health issues. But first I want to refresh you on what is happening in the body and with the hormones on a physical level, in all four phases of your cycle (yes, there are four phases) and how we can sync with them on an emotional level. We women are intuitive creatures by nature, and just as our emotions can be messages that something is out of balance hormonally, they are also messages that can help us choose how we go about our days, in ways that sync with our current hormonal state, naturally. This is flow, and it feels so much better than challenging our natural rhythms and dismissing our emotions as crazy and pre-menstrual.

We call our fertility cycle, a cycle, because that is exactly what is happening with our bodies each month. We are cycling through a natural process of hormonal and physiological changes that are, in essence, preparing our bodies for conception and pregnancy. Of course conception doesn’t happen every month for us and so we menstruate and the cycle begins all over again. It is a complex cycle indeed, and when all of the components to a healthy cycle, like clear messages from the brain, strong tissue function and good liver and digestive processes, and emotional well-being are in balance… it is amazing, intuitive and beautiful!

Let me further explain…

There are four phases to the fertility cycle:

Estrogen Phase (Follicular Phase)

During this  phase, Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is released from the anterior pituitary gland in the hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates the release of estrogen from the follicle.

  • Estrogen rises, causing the egg(s) to ripen or mature.
  • Cervical fluid increases
  • Os (the opening between the cervix and the uterus) gets larger
  • Cervix becomes softer and sits higher.
  • Basal body temperature is low.
  • All of these things contribute to a more comfortable environment for sperm, if it should happen to come along. The length of the Estrogen Phase is variable and can be altered by things like stress.

The increase in estrogen may make you feel more social and energetic, plan or go to a party or a gathering, In this phase, creativity is growing, making this time a good idea to write down ideas, set goals and organize your home/workspace.

Ovulation

When the egg is mature, the pituitary gland releases Lutenizing Hormone (LH), which stimulates the egg to release, this is called ovulation.

  • The egg pops out of the ovary into the abdominal cavity and is ‘grabbed’ by the fimbrae and pulled into the fallopian tube.
  • LH is only high for 12-24 hours after ovulation, then it drops and we move into the Progesterone or (Luteal) Phase.

Ovulation only lasts 12-24 hours. This is an exciting time! You may feel really good, as well as sexual..act on it, especially if you are trying to conceive. Or take fun movement classes, like dance or acro-yoga. Creativity is at it’s peak here and you are your most communicatively concise, think about planning any meetings or important conversations during this time.

Progesterone Phase (Luteal Phase

Progesterone continues to rise and the gland that the egg popped out of becomes what is called, the corpus luteum, this is where progesterone is produced. The egg can live in the fallopian tube from 12-24 hours after ovulation. The rise in progesterone causes the body to prepare for fertilization (pregnancy),

  • Cervical fluid dries up
  • Os gets smaller
  • Cervix gets harder and lowers
  • Basal body temperature rises
  • During both the estrogen and progesterone phases, the endometrial lining has been building up in preparation for a fertilized egg to implant.

I like to think of this phase as the ‘nesting phase.’ Take time to slow down and enjoy what you put forth in your estrogen phase. Relax and practice restful self-care, have bodywork done, enjoy home activities.

Menstruation

If pregnancy does not occur, after 12-16 days in the progesterone phase, progesterone and estrogen drop and the endometrial lining sheds, menstruation occurs.

This time can be seen as introspective time or ‘me’ time. Trust your intuition, as it is high during this phase, as is creativity. Embrace all of your emotions as messages from your wise self. Journal about it, make art honour your blood and its creative life-force. Eat nutrient rich foods and enjoy light exercise like walking or yin-yoga.

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Now that I’ve refreshed you with a little anatomy and physiology as well as some emotional things to think about with each phase of your cycle, I can get to the other part that I love so much…how to use herbs for a healthy cycle!

I have included herbs for common menstrual difficulties that I talked about above and how best to administer them.

Pytoestrogens, what are they and what can they do in the body?

Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens, compounds like, lignans, sterols, coumestans and isoflavones. They act similar to human estrogens by binding to hormone receptor sites in the body. They don’t bind as strong as endogenous estrogen, but they can act mimic estrogenic activity, effect estrogen metabolism and help prevent the binding of harmful xenoestrogens (chemical or synthetic estrogens)

Some phytoestogens (isoflavones) need to be converted in the gut to become active, this is the reason good gut flora is necessary for some hormone balancing herbs to work.

Phytoestrogens are balancing in the body if you have too much estrogen, too little estrogen or too much xenoestrogens (the birth control pill).

Many foods we eat contain phytoestrogens, these dietary phytoestrogens can act as anti-estrogens to compete with estradiol and carcinogenic xenoestrogens for receptor sites. Lignans are also found in some of the foods we eat (ex. flax seeds), they are compounds that are converted in the gut and are also able to bind to estrogen receptor sites. “Women with diets high in isoflavones and lignans have been linked to lower incidences of breast cancer (Tilgner, 2009: 272).”

Some examples of estrogenic herbs: red clover, black cohosh, yarrow, angelica, calendula, licorice, saw palmetto, St. John’s wort, pulsatilla, dandelion, chaparral, damiana.

These herbs can be taken in the form of an infusion (strongly steeped tea), a tincture or a capsule.

Food with high levels of phytoestrogens: grains, seeds, nuts and legumes.

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Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Liver Supporting Herbs

The liver works hard to rid the body of waste products, like environmental toxins, red blood cells and hormones. The liver converts the strong estrogens, estradiol and estrone, into the less potent estrogen, estriol,  thus normalizing estrogen levels. It also aids in the digestive process, therefore, it is very important to support the liver when you are also working to regulate your hormones. Some examples: Dandelion, Burdock, Oregon Grape root, Yellow dock  (helps with utilization of iron), artichoke, milk thistle.

These herbs are great taken as a tincture, so as to get the bitter flavour that is so helpful for the secretion of bile and the digestive process as a whole.

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Making Oregon grape root tincture.

Nutritive Herbs

These herbs are high in vitamins and minerals, perfect for a mineral deficient state, premenstrual cramps or for someone with absorption issues. Some examples: raspberry leaves, red clover, nettles, alfalfa, horsetail, oatstraw, strawberry leaf, seaweeds

These herbs are best as infusions, so as to get as much of the water soluble vitamins and minerals. Seaweed is great added to your food or in soups or as a capsule.

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Nettles (Urtica dioca)

Uterine Tonics

These herbs help to promote fertility by toning the tissues of the uterus. Used for general reproductive health as well as, cramping and heavy bellying due to atonic tissues. Some examples: raspberry leaf, blue cohosh, motherwort, dong quai, false unicorn root.

One may notice an improvement in cramping with these herbs, when taken over time, as it is the strengthening of the tissues that helps with the cramping. See antispasmodics below, for herbs to use in a more acute cramping situation.

Raspberry leaf is best as an infusion, the others are great taken as tinctures.

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wild raspberry (Rubus idaeus)

Uterine Astringents

These herbs help to reduce uterine bleeding by tightening the tissues. Can be taken at time of heavy bleed or for the week leading up to your bleed. Some examples: cotton root bark, lady’s mantle, raspberry leaf, shepherd’s purse, yarrow, trillium.

These herbs are best as tinctures. Yarrow and raspberry leaf are good as infusions.

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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an amphoteric herb, meaning it is normalizing. This is why you see it in the list of herbs that reduces bleeding as well as the list of herbs that bring on menstruation. Amazing!

Emmenagogues

These herbs bring on menstruation. They can be used in instances of late periods or absence or periods. Some examples: yarrow, sage, motherwort, pennyroyal, angelica, mugwort, fenugreek. **warning: do not take these herbs if pregnant or if you think you may be pregnant!**

These herbs are best as infusions or tinctures.

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Motherwort (Leonarus cardiaca)

Antispasmodics

These herbs reduce smooth muscle cramping of the reproductive system. Some examples: valerian, black cohosh, wild yam, cramp bark, motherwort, black haw.

These herbs are great as infusions or tinctures.

Hormone balancers

These herbs help the body achieve hormone balance by working with the endocrine system. Some examples: chaste tree berry, donq quai, peony, licorice, black cohosh, sarsaparilla.

These herbs are great in tincture form and as a formula. You will most often see a liver herb in with a hormone balancing formula, because the liver has such a big part in processing and recycling hormones. There are great herbal companies that make fantastic women’s hormone formula. Some that I like include, Herb Pharm, Five Flavors Herbs and Heron Botanicals (available through some practitioners)

Digestive Supporting Herbs

Fireweed:  astringent, helps pull together boggy tissues and supports a healthy environment for good gut flora. Pau D’Arco: anti fungal, helps with candida overgrowth. Black Walnut: anti fungal, helps with candida overgrowth. Yellow Dock: a good digestive bitter and helps the body utilize its iron. Marshmallow: soothing to the mucus membranes. Triphala: a blend of 3 fruits from India. It is a gentle laxative to help with regular elimination as well as strengthening the bowels as a whole.

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

These lists of herbs are by no means comprehensive, but just meant to get you started with some ideas of herbs that one could work into their self-care routine. There are so many herbs out there that have been used traditionally by women, all over the world. Something to think about when choosing herbs is; what are some of the herbs listed that grow near you, in your ecosystem?  what menstrual issue do you want to focus on first?  We are all different, one herb that works great for one woman, may not have the same effect on another woman.

Start simple, maybe with just one or two of these herbs and remember to take time to honour the plants, as well as your body. Sometimes simply finding a way to rebuild that connection with  Mother Earth, can help women view their cycles in a more positive light..and maybe even just that can help diminish PMS symptoms.

 

Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment or send me an email with any questions you may have.

The divine feminine within me honours the divine feminine within you.

~ Wild Iris

Fireweed; a Conversation with a Colonizer Plant

Wildfires reshape the land in a vast and sweeping manner, and in the wake of destruction, we proclaim things like, ” What will the land look like after this fire!? It will be charred, barren, dead.. nothing left.”

But we humans also reshape the land in expansive ways. Ways that involve machines that roll over the top soil and cut down trees at a rapid pace that is measured in board feet per hectare. We humans are ‘efficient’ when it comes to natural resource extraction, a skill that I have a hard time standing behind and boasting about.

And then, after all that deforestation is said and done, the government sends people back in. With spade-like shovels in hand, bags full of seedlings on their hips and we get to work creating hand-made forests. Sometimes it looks like a valiant effort to rebuild what we took down, to replace the crucial carbon dioxide producers or maybe it’s just so they can be cut down again in 100 years? Either way, the little saplings are planted for profit. Those tiny trees spent their first few years being coddled in huge greenhouse tree nurseries, and it is the tree planter’s job to release them back into their wild habitat, in vigilantly laid out plots approved by the government. Again, our efficiency takes precedence over any truly meaningful and heart felt connection to the forest itself.

However, even with all of the structure and logistics of forestry work by humans, when it comes down to it, the forest has its own ways. There is rebirth and renewal that happens in the forest everyday without our help. The plants simply show up, doing what they do best, and that is grow, nourish and communicate amongst each other.

Given time and the ceasing of human/machine intervention, we can observe how the forest rebuilds itself in a truly symbiotic way that involves all the plants, the soil, the watersheds and the animals, this act of restoration has been perfected by way of evolution. The overall health of a forest is inherent. The plants and animals know what to do.

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A cut block years after it’s been logged and replanted with trees. The diversity and symbiotic relationships of the plants here is apparent.

Just like wildfire reshapes the land, so too do the plants that rise from the ashes, there is much that is born of fire and heat. Cones open up and seeds pop, seeds that have been waiting beneath the canopy, the fallen leaves and needles. They seize the opportunity to capture the sunlight, germinate and begin their upward journey towards the nourishing rays of the sun.

After events like wildfire and logging, there are certain plants that appear first in the newly cleared land, we call them colonizer plants.

Colonizer plants have important jobs in reestablishing what the ecosystem needs to be healthy again. Whether it’s loss of top soil, erosion, logging, or wildfire, there are certain plants that choose to put down roots in the aftermath of such events. They do this in a genuine display of love and gratitude for the Mother who sustains them, the Earth herself.

So, what can colonizer plants teach us? I sat with a well-recognized colonizer plant of North America, fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and asked just that; “What wisdom do you have for me fireweed?”  And she answered..

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), also referred to as willow herb.

Fireweed is a catalyst for change, transition. This plant has the courage to rebuild from devastation, she seizes opportunity for new beginnings. Fireweed is the beauty in chaos and the beauty in a healthy community that comes together in support of everyone and everything. Fireweed knows that rocky slopes can turn into flourishing ecosystems if you believe in yourself and those around you. Healing and rebirth is possible. 

I love fireweed.

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Fireweed’s pinkish purple flowers grow in terminal clusters at the top of the stem. It is a perennial plant that blooms in its second year.

Fireweed is best harvested while in bloom. Because it is a very water soluble plant, making the leaves and flowers into a tea is a great way to use her medicine. Fireweed is astringent and anti-inflammatory with an affinity for the lining of the gut, making it a soothing remedy for digestive complaints like diarreha, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, leaky gut syndrome and other inflammations of intestines. Fireweed can also be used in times of diet changes, after cleansing from Candida overgrowth and recovering from food poisoning or giardia, as it aids the gut in reestablishing a healthy and hospitable  environment for our good gut flora to flourish. She aids us in returning to a place of balance.

Are you noticing any similarities in what fireweed does for the natural environment and what it does for the environment within us yet? Do you see why I love plants so much? They really do have a lot to teach us, there is so much that goes on in a forest that is not seen with the naked eye, and unless you really take time to listen, there is a chance you may even miss the conversations that go on as well.

Even the seemingly minuet, have their places in the community; the web of life. Listen for the beautiful symphony that is everything.

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Depending on the elevation, the best time to harvest fireweed for tea is throughout mid-summer, before it goes to seed.

Valerian and the Moon

Her flowers are small and delicate, inconspicuous. Which says nothing about her strength, for she is potent. Her name is Valerian (Valeriana spp.) Her medicinal roots are renowned for their strong, distinct smell and sedative effect. Many say the smell is reminiscent of dirty socks and they can’t stand the taste, but I actually enjoy it very much. Herbalist Michael Moore calls the smell of valerian, “morbidly fascinating, pleasant almost”… this I resonate with.

These potent roots of hers fully embody their wildness, pulling directly from the energy of the Earth, putting forth her ariel parts, reaching for the sun and simply showing up, in gratitude. This is what our wild friends can teach us; there is a strength to be had when we are in touch with our surroundings. And when strength is woven in with grace and we in turn respect our surroundings, it is beautiful and authentic. DSCN3451 Valeriana likes to grow in fertile soil with some moisture and a bit of shade. Her bright green flower stalk can grow up to 15 inches tall. Blooming in the late spring, her tiny flowers are white (sometimes pinkish) like the moon, shining through the window and casting a sliver of soft light across the foot of my bed. And also like the moon, valerian soothes me into the dark hours of the night.

I take valerian a few minutes before my head hits the pillow for the night. With her effect on the nervous system, she helps to soothe a restless mind. As I lay there, I feel her medicine spread over me, comforting and sleep inducing, and she takes me into dreamtime. I am transported into a vast dreamscape with the potential for vivid images and messages from another realm. What fun it is to travel like this with valerian, for she has been an ally to me ever since I brewed my first mug of her tea and tasted that unmistakable flavour on my tongue, years ago. I am happy to say that after some time of not having any valerian in my apothecary, now a little amber bottle of her extract sits bedside again. We have been reunited.

In keeping with the moon theme of this piece, I will add that Valerian also has the potential to be a woman’s moontime ally, as she is an antispasmodic and has traditionally been used for menstrual and stomach cramping.  Valerian says, be yourself, stay rooted in your truth.. no matter what others may think about you, for whatever it is that ignites your fire, that is your calling ~So be beautiful and authentic.

Happy full moon my friends and pay attention to your dreams, there is much to be deciphered!

With love,

~ Wild Iris

Nourishing Yourself With Nettles

I have a new routine in my life that I have really come to love, it involves a very special herb…no surprise there I’m sure.

This routine…let’s call it a nourishing ritual of sorts, is the preparation and later the drinking of a very strongly steeped nettle tea. I brought this ritual into my life in recent weeks, and as I say, it has become a very satisfying part of my day.

As my day winds to an end, the house is still, quiet and lit only by the small light in the kitchen, the kettle boils and I scoop a few heaping spoonfuls of dried stinging nettles into a mason jar. The smell of the dried herb reminds me of a pasture, a forest, my childhood, or maybe a past life, either way it connects me with some primal knowing and my desire to use what the earth provides as nourishment.

I pour hot water over the nettles, cover the jar and head upstairs to go to bed. I settle into the blankets, grab a book and I can hear the lid on the jar make a popping sound as it seals from the heat, even this sound has become a comforting part of my nightly nettles ritual.

I steep the nettles overnight in order to extract as much of the vitamins and minerals as possible. Nettles contain, iron, calcium, potassium, selenium, magnesium, zinc and vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B5.

In the morning, I drink the tea at room temperature. I can taste the vitality of this amazing plant, a true superfood indeed. It tastes green, like chlorophyll, pure liquid sunshine at it’s finest. If there’s one way to start your day with gratitude, it’s to drink a jar of sunshine! The energizing effect of nettles is amazing and quite noticeable, even only after a few days.

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Nettles that I harvested with my friend, Hunter, last spring. I made them into pesto, delicious!

As we move into Spring, I am content in knowing that I have chosen the perfect seasonal plant ally to cleanse and nourish my whole body.

Nettles nourish my liver, aiding my body in the elimination of excess hormones and toxins that may have built up over the winter. By aiding the liver with it’s toxic overload now, I will find that when the pollen starts to float around in the air, hay fever symptoms will be lessened, even eliminated. Hay fever is a sign that the liver is having trouble eliminating foreign invaders, like pollen and dust, therefore it gets bogged down.

I notice a difference in my skin, the largest elimination organ of the body, as nettles help to calm the red and irritated dermatitis I have been experiencing on my face…also a sign of overload on the liver. Nettles work on the respiratory and digestive tracts helping with excess mucus.

Nettles nourish my blood, infusing it with a healthy boost of bioavailable iron, calcium, trace minerals and vitamins, healthy blood in turn nourishes my kidneys.

On a spiritual level, nettles nourish my whole being. Her cleansing effect helps me let go of relationships that are no longer serving me and release past traumas that lie within me, stagnant and damaging. Her energizing effect lifts the mental fog that makes it hard for me to see that I am a competent and confident woman. Her strength helps me stand strong in my own truth, I know myself and my boundaries.

And so it is, my journey with nettles so far…

Acts of nourishing oneself start with self-love. By choosing to put herbs and foods that we know do good, into our body, we are saying, “I love myself, I desire health and happiness and I know that I am deserving of these small daily routines that bring me health and happiness. And I am grateful.”

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A nettles patch I found this Fall…it’s a secret spot.

 

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Nettles (Urtica dioca) with seeds.

 

 

I will leave you with a great video on foraging for nettles in the wild, from my mentor, Garliq, at the Kootenay School of Herbal Medicine. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that nettles are not only lovely as a tea, but they can be used in many of your favourite meals as well!

 

Feel free to share any of  your own healthy daily rituals with me in the comments, I would love to hear from you!

Hawthorne and the Spiritual Heart

” The way is not in the sky. The way is in the Heart.” – Buddha 

It’s quite clear; heart disease is rampant in our culture today, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in America every year. This is a startling statistic, how did we let this get so out of hand!?

Why are we feeling the need to eat copious amounts of bad food (or food like substances) hydrogenated fats, too much sodium, drink too much alcohol and not exercise? Why do we glorify being busy, stressed out and always rushing around? What is at the root of this sad desire to treat our bodies so poorly that our hearts struggle to do their jobs properly?  It’s something deeper than just consuming poor quality fats and not exercising. What else is it that has gone awry in our culture and contributed to this very unfortunate atrophy of the spiritual heart?

I think it’s a disconnect. We seem to have forgotten where we came from and what we know; what is Sacred. We harm Mother Earth and we silence our inner wisdom, our primal knowing. Yes, a disconnect and a blindness.. we feel that we are separate from Nature and emotions like fear and greed blind us to the fact that we are hurting the Earth and we are hurting each other.

In classical Chinese medicine the heart is the Emperor of the body, and unbalanced emotions like depression, anxiety, obsession or sadness lead to depleted shen (spirit) which in turn opens up a pathway for disease to get in and manifest. When we focus on things like, not having enough money or material things and we obsess over trivial happenings in the world that are based around false images and how we should look and act…when we don’t speak our truths…when we glorify the rat race…when we forget how to lend a hand to fellow human beings and other creatures…when we lead with ego and not our hearts, emotions like depression, anxiety and sadness set in and I believe our hearts are weakened by all of this and that all of today’s chronic diseases and spiritual unrest are a part of the culmination of this troublesome way of being for so long.

But, even with all of this, especially with all of this…love is in high demand, we just need to up the production of it, get more of it out there for everyone. Open your heart, lead with your heart and look after your heart, embody love, spread love and you just may be surprised at the healing that occurs on so many levels, or maybe it will just feel natural, organic, like how it’s meant to be.

You may ask, “How do we begin to heal our hearts and the disconnect from the Sacred?”

Well, I ask you, “Why do we like to spend time in the forest, in the mountains, in nature?”

Because it is inherently healing us when we spend time in these places, these places we so often call God’s country. The exchange that occurs in our heart’s electromagnetic fields with those of the plants, trees, animals, water and mountains in such Sacred places, reminds us of the connection, we feel it and we are reminded that we are all One.  So I say, go to these places and spend time there just simply being.  This is part of what Stephen Buhner calls, Earth- Centred Spirituality, in his book, Sacred Plant Medicine.

Buhner states, “For people who engage in this kind of exchange, one of the major impacts is the continual awareness that we are never alone. We find ourselves companioned by other ensouled phenomena that care enough about us to engage in this kind of sharing. Through this deep exchange, we are not only anchored in the knowledge that the other inhabitants of this Earth are intelligent, we also experience a direct information exchange with them through our hearts, without the kind of reductionism necessary when consciousness is located in the brain….The natural empathy that such close connection engenders also causes people to treat the world very differently than they do when they are alienated from nature.”

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Outdoor classroom at Green Path Herb School.

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I have only just begun reading Stephen Buhner’s book, Scared Plant Medicine, but already it has helped me put to words some things that I have been thinking about and trying for quite some time to draft in this very blog post. Sometimes it’s worth it to work on a blog post for weeks and weeks before you finally head to the library and find a book you have known about but haven’t read yet, start reading it and within the first few pages find that the author is putting into words so beautifully many of the muddled thoughts that have been floating around in your head! Ah, the synchronicities of life never cease to amaze and inspire me!

I had originally wanted to talk about the herb, Hawthorne (Crataegus spp). This herb is one of the premier heart herbs. It is known as a cardio-tonic, and a vascular trophorestorative, because when used over a period of time, it strengthens the whole cardio vascular system, it’s connective tissue and the lymphatic system. Hawthorne also prevents fat buildup in the liver by improving the breakdown of cholesterol into bile acids, thus helping to lower cholesterol. It has been used for numerous heart disorders, like helping to normalize arrhythmias, valvular insufficiency, angina, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, hypertension and hypotension, to name a few. Hawthorne’s high concentration of antioxidants make it excellent for restoring tissues and reducing inflammation. Hawthorne medicine is widely used in parts of Europe and countries such as Germany report their need for less heart surgeries is linked to the use of hawthorne as a cardio-tonic. *** WARNING: Many people are on pharmaceutical drugs called A.C.E inhibitors for high blood pressure. Because hawthorne naturally inhibits angiotension converting enzyme (A.C.E), it could interact with the effects of the pharmaceuticals. Please consult your healthcare provider before taking hawthorne and have your heart meds monitored closely if you are taking hawthorne.***

I personally have been taking hawthorne on a different level than to help with my cholesterol and the physical strengthening of my cardiovascular system, and rather I’ve been taking it on an energetic level (i.e; taking drops doses), to help with the protection and nourishment of my spiritual heart. By taking only drop doses of hawthorne, I am aiming to harness the Spirt of the plant, it’s essence and the emotional healing that can occur when we choose to form a different kind of relationship with a plant. This is plant spirit medicine. Energetically, hawthorne can be used for those who need to be nurtured. It is used for emotional heartache and it opens the heart to forgiveness of others. 

I had the great pleasure of harvesting hawthorne blossoms and leaves with my fellow students at Green Path Herb School, as we meandered through the grassy trails of Mount Jumbo in Missoula this spring. As I stated previously in this post, simply the act of being in nature with the plants and people we love can be a healing experience. And the added bonus of that excursion is that I now have a jar of powerful hawthorne medicine on my apothecary shelf, that I can take whenever I want to return to that beautiful moment in time and the wisdom that hawthorne has to offer.

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Hawthorne tincture.
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Cody and Nicole enjoying the sunshine on one of our school field trips.

And with that, I will leave you with another quote about Earth-Centred Spirituality from Buhner’s book, “Relating to the natural world in this manner tends to create ecologically sustaining behavior. It is very difficult to hunt to extinction a species that is felt to be relative or a sacred expression of Spirit. In industrialized societies, many people have forgotten this way of feeling and the Earth and its parts have become only resources or objects of study. This depreciation of the value of life has begun to have grave effects on our Earth and our lives. In denigrating the value of other members of the ecosystem we have devalued ourselves. Our own capacity to revere and feel the connection of life can restore the Earth and our lives…It is very hard to cut down a forest when we experience it as alive and intelligent and as an elder to the human.” 

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Me, soaking up the ancient tree wisdom of an Idaho cedar.

Thanks for reading…and may you always find yourself in the forest.

Make It Yourself: Elderberry Syrup

On a recent trip to the Kootenays, I was pleasantly surprised to see the elderberries still very abundant. Windows down, CBC radio playing and the warm October sun on my face, I headed south towards Nelson, BC. Every time I passed an elderberry bush, leafless but heavy with bunches of the dusty blue berries, I got excited for wildcrafting and I could almost taste the sweetness of elderberry syrup in my mouth.

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Slocan Lake
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Kootenay Lake from Pulpit Rock.

Such glorious abundance the Earth gives us in the fall, right before she goes to sleep for the winter, she intentionally sets us up with nourishment for the long, cold months to come and some of the common health complaints that accompany them. Stock up on those berries and roots for the winter! Which brings me to the elderberry syrup and why you may have seen references to it around the so called ‘cold and flu season.’ Elder is a very traditional remedy in many countries, scared to the gypsies of Europe and one of the favourite herbs of Hippocrates himself.

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Elderberries (Sambucus nigra).

The flowers of the elder are used medicinally as well, but for today I will stick to talking about the berries. Because of their high concentration of antioxidants (bioflavanoids), elderberries are excellent to take during the cold and flu season in order to strengthen immunity and to lessen ones chance of catching something. The antioxidant boost they offer are also known to shorten the duration of a cold or flu by at least a few days. Elderberries have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties and are often used for sinusitis, coughs and sore throats.

**WARNING: when I talk about using elderberries, I am using the juiced berries that I have cooked down and squeezed through a strainer. Consuming the raw berries and the seeds may cause gastric distress and/or vomiting. DO NOT EAT THE SEEDS**

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Bringing the berries to a boil.

 

ELDERBERRY SYRUP

You can multiply this recipe by the number of cups of berries you harvest.

1 CUP ELDERBERRIES

1 CUP WATER

1/2 CUP HONEY

1 TSP GINGER (DRY)

1 TSP CINNAMON

1/4 TSP CLOVES

IN A SAUCEPAN, BRING THE BERRIES AND THE WATER TO A BOIL, ADD THE GINGER, CINNAMON AND CLOVES, LET SIMMER FOR 30 MINUTES.

REMOVE FROM HEAT AND STRAIN THE MIXTURE THROUGH A FINE STRAINER OR CHEESECLOTH, GIVING THE BERRIES A GOOD SQUEEZE TO GET AS MUCH OF THE LIQUID OUT AS POSSIBLE.

ADD THE HONEY TO THE WARM JUICE AND STIR UNTIL EVENLY MELDED.

**STORE IN THE REFRIGERATOR**

DOSAGE:

~ ENJOY A TEASPOON A DAY AS A COLD AND FLU  PREVENTATIVE. TASTES GREAT ON PANCAKES AND YOGURT TOO!

~ WHEN SICK, TAKE A TEASPOON EVERY 2-3 HOURS WHILE THE COLD PERSISTS.

 

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Strain and squeeze the berries.

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Home is where your heart is

Looking up at the grey sky as I turn over in my cozy bed, I think that today is a day for slowing down, for going within.

Today is for sleeping in, just a little bit longer..

Today is for slow yoga postures, stretching like a lazy cat by the warm fire, deep breaths and a long savasana.

Today is for coffee brewed with cardamom, it brings me back to the muggy rainforest of India.. sticky, sweaty skin, insects buzzing all around and my sweet sister by my side. It’s a fleeting memory though, as the crisp autumn air is more tangible at the moment and I wrap a scarf around my neck.

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Birch (Betula papyifera).

Rather than go for a run today,  I bundle up and take the dogs for a walk instead. The air smells like decomposing cottonwood leaves and smoke from the wood stove. Going slower down the path I am more observant. I spot new plants that I didn’t notice before and I stop to taste the rosehips, they’re not ready just yet, they could use another frost to get that sweet flavour.

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Rose hips (Rosa acicularis).

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I continue down the path, a feeling of being grounded comes over me and I am comforted. This place is one where I have spent many childhood days, with siblings and friends and I’ve walked with more than one family dog down this path over the the years. I can’t help but feel nostalgic as I climb onto the slash pile and see a memory of myself, my brother and my sister, it seemed so much bigger then and in those days ‘king of the castle’ was a much more serious affair…no one wants to be the dirty rascal.

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The slash pile.

Coming home to BC always brings up these childhood memories for me. I like it, but right now I also have a longing for the place I just left..Montana. After four years spent there, those memories are more recent, vivid and sharp and they pull at my heartstrings. The seasons are not the only ones in transition right now, I am also in the process of closing one door and opening another and this time isn’t without emotions, I am feeling the whole spectrum. However, time spent in the forest, helps me stay grounded. I am able to see the gifts from the last four years of my life, so much was gained in the form of skills, relationships, lessons and wisdom and for that, I am so grateful.

I am holding onto sweet memories and at the same time starting a new chapter…

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Some of Nature’s builders at their finest.
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Hello.
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Daz.
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Burdock (Arctium lappa).
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Aspen (Populus tremuloides).

 

Finding Devil’s Club

Everyone was saying it, “It sure is a bear grass year!”

That is was, this spectacular sight was one not to be missed. Bear grass in full bloom all along the side of the highway in the Seeley-Swan valley of Northwestern Montana. Mats of this thick grass covered the forest floor, in the centre of the mats rising up like a torch, the stem of the bear grass flower stood so beautifully with its inflorescence of small white flowers on the top. It only blooms every 5 to 10 years, I felt so lucky to be seeing it like this. The dashes of purple lupine mixed in made it look like we were driving though a watercolour painting, the display of wildflower splendour went on for miles.

 

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Bear grass in bloom.

 

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Bear grass only blooms every 5 to 10 years.

 

Julie’s Volkswagen bus full of wild women herbalists, on our way north in search of plants that inhabit a different ecosystem than the hotter and drier grassy hills of Missoula. We were following our teachers and the guides of this herbal treasure hunt, John and Elaine, as we caravanned north towards Glacier National Park. They had explained the nature of our adventure the evening before, as we sat around the campfire swatting mosquitoes…telling us to be prepared with long sleeves, thick gloves and to make sure our clippers were sharp, an adventure indeed! They did a good job of getting us excited to meet the plant that we were now driving over 100 miles to find.  It was Devil’s Club, Oplopanax horridus, that was on our radar that day, a plant that I personally have had some unsettling encounters with in the past, but now thanks to more herbal knowledge and some months using an herbal preparation of it, I have come to look at it in a very different light.

In my early 20’s,  when I worked as a tree planter in the wilds of British Columbia, those of us in the silviculture scene dreaded running into a stand of the mighty Devil’s Club. This impressive member of the ginseng family can stand up to 3 metres tall, with a thick spine-covered stem and large prickly, palmate leaves, it stands like a hostile looking umbrella and is usually found growing in stands of numerous plants, which can make for an even more hostile encounter if you don’t know what you’re walking in to. Even a light brush against the leaves can result in a wound from the devil’s club, let alone accidentally grabbing hold of the stem or walking  right into it. There were many days on the drive home from the cut block, when fellow tree planters would be comparing festering devil’s club wounds. Needless to say, the idea of devil’s club didn’t used to bring to mind thoughts of a mighty plant ally with numerous healing qualities …all of which I later came to learn.

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The white flowers of Devil’s Club will later turn into red berries.

 

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The thorns cover the stems and the underside of the leaves.

 

The forest grew thicker and wetter, the red cedars began to make an appearance as we neared our destination. The the VW bus slowly climbed the winding forest service road, Cody and I in the back seat, grabbing field guides and freshly harvested herbs as they slid back and forth along the countertop. Some of us had our heads out the open windows, looking for any sign of devil’s club. Going in search of specific plants can be a test sometimes, if you’re too eager, too loud or just acting unconsciously, you could miss it, the plants won’t show themselves to you.

I think Elaine was the first to spot it, she has good eyes for this kind of thing, well seasoned at the art of plant identification from the passenger seat. We pulled in behind them and all got out, clippers and gloves blazing, but this is when the humbling happens…there we were, all standing on the edge of the dirt road, a steep slope in front of us and a forest floor that appeared to be non existent because of the dense foliage and fallen trees covering it.

This is when our wildcrafting ethics come into play. Being excited about finding the plant you came for is great, but taking time to assess the surrounding area for things like, signs of having been sprayed with herbicides, mine tailings, dirty water etc. is also very important. When you feel that the area is clean, make sure to inspect the stand of the plant you’d like to harvest, is it healthy? Are there plenty enough to harvest without damaging the population? While you are doing all of this, one must also be checking in with the plant itself, the spirit of the plant is there for you when you ask it a question…is this a good spot for me to harvest? Does it feel right? What is your intuition telling you? Listen… Being with the plant is very important, especially because you are harvesting it for medicine that you will more than likely be taking yourself. It’s kind of like eating food that you grew and harvested yourself, there is an amazing and nourishing connection that happens when we do this, as there is when we harvest plants to make into herbal preparations. Putting your sweat, energy and intention into the whole process of  making herbal medicine is profound.

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Domini, not intimidated by the thorns in the slightest..

 

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Anna, surrounded by Devil’s Club.

Gathering devil’s club alongside Elaine that day was a truly humbling moment. The whole time I was thinking about how amazing it was that I used to be so scared to even come close to this plant and now here I was, right underneath it,  harvesting. The sun hot on our backs, digging into the side of the bank, as we uncovered the trailing roots we could smell that distinct sweet smell of her sap, her vitality.  We managed to gather enough large roots for the both of us to share. Wiping the sweat off my forehead, I thanked the spirit of Oplopanax for her nourishment and the gift of her physical form. This act seemed so sacred to me, the connection between myself and the Mother.

Devil’s club had been revered for its medicinal actions for many generations, by native tribes up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to Oregon. It was used to treat, arthritis, rheumatism, indigestion, constipation, respiratory aliments, pneumonia, toothaches and as an ointment for treating wounds. In later years, when diabetes showed up in native communities, with the loss of their traditional diets, Devil’s Club was even used as a blood sugar balancer and still is to this day. The Shamans of the tribes were known to use Devil’s Club in sweat lodge ceremonies and burned it to ward off evil spirits associated with disease. It was hung in doorways or worn as amulets to ward off evil spirits. The tea was drunk in large amounts by those seeking visions.

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Cody, stripping the bark from the woody roots.

 

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The root bark is the part that we used for our herbal preparations.

This amazing plant is still used today for many of the same purposes, and an additional one that really stand out to me is the effect Devil’s Club has on the adrenal glands. Like other plants in the ginseng (Araliaceae) family, it is used for indications of ‘adrenal burnout,’ which can manifest as mental, nervous, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Devil’s Club fits into the herbal action category of adaptogens, these herbs work with the hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA), helping to regulate the hormonal negative feedback loop that occurs here (the release of cortisol), thus aiding our bodies in adapting to the stresses of this modern world; physical, emotional and nutritional stress.

Because our body’s stress response includes the endocrine, the nervous and the immune systems, by taking herbs that are adaptogens, we are supporting a healthy response in all three of these systems. Talk about nourishing!

I have also taken Devil’s Club on an energetic level; Sajha Popum from Organic Unity Spagyric Essences say that Oplopanax, “teaches us to step into one’s power in a sacred and honourable way. It strengthens and nourishes the Solar Plexus  and builds personal power in a big way. It is the premier protection plant, it helps us establish boundaries with the self and others. It is a great ally for highly sensitive people and empathetic people who have a hard time differentiating between their own feelings and those of others.” You can buy Sajha’s essence of Devil’s Club here.

Or you can buy it from Mountain Rose Herbs, through the link on my blog.

As I said earlier in this post, my relationship with this amazing herb has changed profoundly, I am so grateful to have met Oplopanax on a different level. Being out in the forest with my friends and teachers from Green Path Herb School, was a highlight of the summer for me. It’s adventures like this that help to root me even deeper in my role as an herbalist.

Thanks for reading.

Feel free to share in the comments section about a special relationship with one of your plant allies!

 

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