It is early June, and I have been keeping an eye on the changes in the distinctive highly segmented leaves of Yarrow, which resemble a squirrel's tail in its early stages (the species name is millefolium, which translates to thousand leaves in Latin). Yarrow is making its appearance in the field, the yard and the gardens and some of the plants are presenting with an emerging rigid, square flower stalk, where the soft, delicate, feathery like leaves, are beginning to dwindle. Smaller, very finely divided leaves can be seen alternating on the stalk as they get close to the flat topped clusters of whitish colored flowers that are beginning to open. I am delighted to know this plant grows around here, as I have just gotten quite a few scratches from weeding the raspberries, and know exactly how to stop the bleeding and disinfect the wounds while I am out in the gardens. I crush a few leaves and flowers and make a poultice and inhale deeply... ahh, there is no mistaking the strongly aromatic scent that is Yarrow, and then I apply the poultice to my bloody wounds, which stops the bleeding and soothes the pain.
Yarrow is an herbaceous perennial found throughout the northern hemisphere and is endemic to North America, Europe and Asia. It is a member of the Asteraceae family, and can be found growing along roadsides, fields, prairies and sunny areas with well drained soils. The small flowers have five petals surrounding a tiny central disk, with each blossom about one fourth of an inch, creating a table top cluster that sits atop a single stem. The plants may range from less than one foot, to three feet in height. I have noticed that the plants in the garden get much taller than the ones in the fields and surrounding prairies. Additionally, I have observed that the plants that grow in rocky and poor soil seem to have a stronger odor in the leaves and flowers than those that are watered and maintained in the garden. I have observed this phenomena here in the Midwest, on the North West coast, and in parts of England and Scotland. It has been suggested that the Yarrow plants growing in more fertile conditions contain less medicinal qualities than plants growing in poor soil (Richo Cech, 2016; Sharol Tilgner, 2012; and Matthew Wood, 1997).
Yarrow has a long history of use in herbal medicine. Greek legends tell of its use by Achilles during the Trojan War to treat soldiers, with a Yarrow poultice to staunch bleeding on the battlefield, thus the genus name, Achillea named for the great hero. Other names associated with Yarrow are Soldier's woundwort, Nosebleed, Mifoil, Thousand- Leaf, and Squirrel tail, among others. The traditional uses of Yarrow are/were as a styptic, disinfectant, astringent, anti-inflammatory, painkiller, diaphoretic, bitter tonic and diuretic. The fresh and dried aerial parts of the plant are used most frequently, with some use of the roots used historically. Yarrow was/is used topically and internally as a poultice, tea, succus, tincture, and in brews.
The current uses of Yarrow are very similar to the traditional uses. In addition to treating wounds, it is often used to treat colds, flus, and fevers, as well as, painful or suppressed menses, bleeding hemorrhoids and as a digestive tonic. Yarrow has a cooling and drying energy. Because of it anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic abilities, it is used for irritable bowel syndrome and gastric ulcers with bleeding. The dried tea of herb and flowers is used to help alleviate a fever and is very nice in combination with Elder flowers and Peppermint leaves. A sitz bath can be used with dried Yarrow in hot water for hemorrhoids and episiotomy incisions or perineal tears. Our favorite use of Yarrow is as a fresh poultice to stop bleeding or in a first aid spray to disinfect wounds, stop bleeding and ease the pain of minor injuries, abrasions and cuts (we also find it effective as an insect spray, a tip from my main teacher Linda Conroy, a bioregional and Wise Woman Herbalist in Wisconsin).
If you don't know this plant, it is a good one to invite into your garden or to identify in nearby places, in case you might require some healing assistance. And, Yarrow attracts beneficial insects to your garden and it deters many pests in the garden, such as Japanese beetles, which have been quite plentiful this summer. Yarrow is fairly easy to grow and isn't fussy about the quality of soil, as long as it is well drained and in a sunny location. We have Yarrow growing naturally in our back yard (field) and in our gardens, having grown the plants from seeds in early spring. Additionally, we have had good success with dividing the roots and transplanting them into other gardens. Yarrow also propagates well on its own, so offer them lots of space.
May we grow ever appreciative of the weeds that grow in our midst and may we engage in relationship with them so that we might learn how to bring healing to ourselves and to all life around us.
As the long sunny days of summer are upon us, the bright orange and yellow flowers of Calendula begin to adorn our garden. They bloom along with St. John's Wort, Yarrow, and Borage which are set amidst a bed of green milky oats ready for harvest. Mid to late June is a beautiful time of year in the garden and everyday brings new delights. Herbal musings run rampant and the radiant offerings of the plants in celebration of the Summer Solstice, only heighten the magical quality and timelessness that is experienced.
Calendula is often referred to as pot marigold (not the same flower as the marigold, Tagetes, that is often companion planted with tomatoes) and in zone 5, where we live, Calendula is considered an annual. Seeds are sowed directly in the garden after the last hard frost, and with full sunshine and some attention to weeding the young seedlings, we witness the rapid growth from seed to blossom in approximately two months. Calendula is amazingly prolific; the more we pick the flowers, the more they seem to grow, with new blossoms appearing every 2- 3 days. Additionally, they will often continue to bloom until the first Autumn frost if care is taken in harvesting flowers from the somewhat fragile 2-3 foot light green plants.
Calendula officinalis is a member of the large Asteraceae family and is native to southern Europe and northern Africa, but is widely cultivated and naturalized throughout North America, Europe and North Africa. The species name indicates its long use as an official healing remedy in the practice of medicine. Calendula flowers have been used medicinally for centuries to heal wounds, burns and rashes, both externally and internally. The fresh and/or dried flowers are used topically in the form of oils, salves, lotions, facial creams, poultices and compresses. The fresh or dried flowers can be taken in the form of a tea or tincture to support the immune system and lift the spirits. And, the beautiful petals are a great addition to adorn any summer salad. (See Herbal Recipes for Calendula)
According to many of the contemporary and older herbals, Calendula is a great herb for all sorts of skin disorders. It acts as a vulnerary, anti-inflammatory, emmenagogue, antiseptic, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, demulcent, astringent, antiviral and antifungal. Calendula contains volatile oils that have a stimulating effect on blood circulation, which can result in sweating, lowering fevers and aiding skin eruptions to be brought out more quickly. Applying Calendula oil, tincture or a calendula tea (wash) can be very effective with skin disorders, including shingles, measles and fungal conditions. Applying a poultice or a juice of the fresh petals, also works very well to soothe pain and promote healing. And a calendula salve is wonderful for all sorts of rashes, including persistent diaper rashes.
Calendula has a warm energy and is rather bitter. It has an affinity to the Liver, Heart and Lungs, invigorating blood and moving lymphatic congestion. A strong tea or tincture can be taken internally for fevers, gastric ulcers, inflammation and menstrual cramps (some herbalists suggest not to be used internally during pregnancy). Taking Calendula internally with topical applications might be more effective for some disorders, especially chronic skin disorders. Another nice application is as a tea that is cooled and used as an eyewash for tired, red, and irritated eyes.
Growing Calendula and incorporating her healing qualities into our daily lives in her many forms, is like inviting the power of the sunshine, itself, into our lives. May we know her radiance inwardly and outwardly and may we share this healing and bright light to all we encounter.
It is early May and the Comfrey plants are in their full glory. They astound me each year in how fully present they become in the garden and surrounding tree guilds, towering over the clover, dandelion, and various docks; almost as if they embody the role of the garden guardians. Some of them look like small shrubs, rising well over a meter in height and diameter. The leaves are large and oval shaped and grow in an alternate fashion around a stout and hairy stem. The newly emerging purple bell shaped flowers hang in clusters and attract all sorts of pollinators, especially honey bees and bumble bees.
Comfrey is a perennial and has naturalized here in the U.S., growing in old fields, along streams and waste places. It is a member of the Boraginaceae family and is considered a biodynamic accumulator; having a large taproot that is eight to twelve feet, drawing up nutrients from deep in the earth and making them available in their roots, leaves and stems. Comfrey is very high in protein, Vitamin A precursors, Vitamin C, Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Iron and and other trace minerals and is suggested to derive and store Vitamin B-12 from the soil (Coe's Comfrey brochure). These leaves can be used as a nutritional food source for animals and also as a nutrient dense green matter for the compost and compost tea. We often chop and drop the leaves to compost right where they are cut. This is a great plant to include in your permaculture design.
Comfrey has several nick names: Knitbone, Blackroot, and Bruisewort are just a few. It has been suggested that it is a wonder herb by some herbalists. Comfrey root, stems and leaves are considered cooling, moistening, bitter and sweet with an affinity towards bone, muscles, skin, lungs, stomach and kidneys. The plant is very mucilaginous and contains allantoin, which aids in cell proliferation in minor injuries, helping wounds heal rapidly. Comfrey is considered a vulnerary and a demulcent which soothes and coats irritated tissues and helps with inflammation. Comfrey also has astringent and expectorant properties, while relaxing the membranes.
Comfrey root, stems and leaves can be used internally and externally. Historically, the young leaves of Comfrey were eaten in salads and cooked dishes or dried and drank as a tea or added to food and juices. It has also been made as a tincture with root and leaves and stems. It is used externally in the form of compresses, fomentations, oils, salves and creams. Comfrey is indicated for any rapid wound or bone healing. External applications of Comfrey are very healing to wounds, cuts, burns, bruises, and most skin irritations, even friction blisters that have formed from over use of hands or feet from gardening, and hiking. We use the comfrey salve alone and in combination with plantain and calendula for a more general wound healer (and my parents love it as a rapid healing salve on insect bites and all sorts of rashes). Check out the Herbal Recipes section for how to make your own comfrey infused oil, salve and fomentation.
I will note that there is some controversy in the U.S. about using Comfrey internally. The FDA does not recommend the use of Comfrey internally and on broken skin. One study found that high doses and heavy consumption of the root (making up 30-50% of the diet), caused tumors to develop in juvenile rats. The roots contain the compound pyrrolizidine alkaloid, which when over consumed and over long periods of time, can result in liver veno-occlusive disease (Tierra, The Way of Herbs, 1998). We must be discerning and judicious in how we choose to bring about healing for ourselves and the environment around us and to use herbs in a way that is respectful, in moderation, and in their whole form.
Our relationship with Comfrey, like many other herbs, invites us to collaborate in a way that is nurturing and healing to ourselves and all the other organisms that share this space with us. Engaging with Comfrey's deep nourishment as a way to enrich soil, feed pollinators, and relieve pain and promote healing in injuries is a step on a path to greater wellness.
May our herbal allies be plentiful and our appreciation for them grow ever deeper!
It has been rainy for almost a week, as is often the case in April. At last, the sun peeked through the clouds this morning, briefly, and my daughter and I happily witnessed the bright yellow dandelions that began to appear in the lawns around town, on our way to school. Dandelions are an underappreciated weed and another one of nature's gifts of nourishment to our health. It saddens me that dandelions are viewed by many people as unsightly weeds that even inspire the buying and applying of poisons in one's own yard or parks (where children and pets often play). As we get to know Dandelion; maybe, we will rethink our relationship with these cheery weeds.
Dandelions are members of the Asteraceae family, the second largest family of flowering plants and are probably the most recognized plant that grows all around us. They are herbaceous perennials that have naturalized throughout the U.S. The toothed leaves can grow to 10-40 cm in length, forming a rosette. The hollow flower stalks emanate directly from the long taproot at the center of the rosette and are unbranched and leafless (with milky white latex). The single composite flowerhead at the end of each hollow stalk is a distinguishing characteristic of dandelion, as well as the yellow composite flower with its ray flowers (petals) that overlap to the center.
The entire dandelion plant is edible. I have heard it suggested by herbalists that it is one of the most nutritious plants on earth. As a young child, my dad would send me out to gather the greens in early spring to add to our dinner salad. Dandelion greens are considered a spring tonic and after a long winter of not eating fresh greens, these nutrient dense greens are often craved. The energy and taste is bitter, cold and sweet; having an affinity for the liver, kidneys, Gall bladder, spleen, stomach, pancreas and bladder. In different herbal traditions it is thought to clear heat and toxins. The green leaves are high in vitamins A, K and beta carotene, while the roots are high in vitamins C, E, thiamine, riboflavin, B6, folate, and the minerals iron, potassium, calcium, and manganese.
I will be honest and say that the greens are quite bitter and depending on when they are harvested and how they are prepared can make a big difference in enjoying them or merely tolerating them. In my experience, the greens are typically less bitter in early spring and when they are younger. They can be eaten anytime during its growth cycle and eaten raw or cooked. Try steaming, boiling, and/or eating a raw salad mixed with a variety of greens; adding a healthy dressing or a drizzle of olive oil and fresh garlic might help make the dish more savory. The roots are best dug in the fall of early spring, but can be harvested at anytime. They can be steamed or stir fried like a root vegetable or dried and roasted to make a tea. The flowers and stalks can be eaten as well or collected and made into dandelion wine, tea or an infused vinegar or oil. Dandelion flower cookies are also a delicious way to incorporate nature's goodness.
There are many ways to prepare the different parts of dandelion for its nutritional and medicinal uses. See the Herbal Recipes of this website for a few ideas. Learning to acquire a taste for its bitterness can take time. Try nibbling on several leaves each day, and eating dandelion mixed in other foods. Perhaps, we can learn to appreciate this free and abundant weed and nourish ourselves and the earth in the process. The honey bees will thank us, too, as dandelion flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen for many of them and other insects, as well.
May the weeds be plentiful and our appreciation for them grow ever deeper!
The emergence of nettles scattered in patches among last year's Golden Rod and towering Walnut trees and surrounding young Elder shrubs, is one of my favorite discoveries in late March as I walk the paths, searching for signs of spring, around our home. After a long winter, the hearty greens, poking out of the ground, are a promise of fresh, local, and nutrient rich food to be enjoyed and shared in the weeks to come. Nettles are perennial plants, so thankfully we look forward to seeing them growing in the same areas, year after year.
Nettles are considered to be a nutritive herb, pot herb and spring tonic. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, containing Calcium, Potassium, Iron, Carotenoids, Vitamins C and B, Manganese, and Silica. In the Wise Woman Tradition and other herbal traditions, tonics are thought to be deeply nourishing, providing optimum nutrition to the immune system, often targeting specific glands, organs and body systems. Tonics are safe and can be incorporated into a short or long term nutritional plan, helping to strengthen and restore the body after a long winter of heavy eating or even in chronic illness. Tonics can have far reaching effects in the body and mind, so that an overall strengthening and revitalization is experienced with consistent use. Nettle is particularly good for the kidneys and adrenals, and is a wonderful ally for women in all stages of life.
Nettles are easily observed in nature, growing in wet areas, full to partial sun, around barns and along roadsides. They resemble the Mint family, having square stems and opposite leaves which are serrated, dark green, long-heart shaped, and pointed. The stinging hairs on the underside of the leaves are a distinguishing characteristic that is noted if you approach the plant with disregard. They are like little hypodermic needles that inject formic acid into the skin when you come into contact with them (often creating a little stinging rash). So, if you are foraging, wear gloves and long sleeves. When nettles are knee high, you can wildcraft the top 1/3 of the plant. Only harvest from a tenth of the population in that patch and offer gratitude as you accept their gifts. Later in the season when the plants begin to approach one meter, but before flowers appear, you can pick the leaves to be eaten or dried for later (again following a respectful manner of wild crafting... only 10% in a population).
These young fresh tops or leaves can be prepared in a myriad of ways. Another name for nettle is wild spinach, and it can be substituted for spinach in any recipe (just make sure to steam or blanche the nettles for 60 seconds to spare yourself the painful sensation of her sting on your lips and tongue). The stem and leaves of young nettles can be eaten, but typically the stem is too tough to be eaten later in the season and we only harvest the leaves at this time. Some of our favorite recipes that include nettles are : Nettle-potato soup, Palaak paneer, Nettle-mushroom omelets, quiches, frittatas, poached eggs and steamed nettles, stir fried nettles with other veggies, steamed nettles with garlic and olive oil and goat cheese, hortakopita, Nettle pesto pizza, veggie soup with lots of nettles, nettle-quinoa-bean veggie burgers, lentil soup with nettles and of course, Nettle infusion, and Nettle chai tea. You get the idea... so delicious! Check out some of my recipes in the Herbal Recipes section of the website.
Enjoy and appreciate Stinging Nettle in all her forms. She has the power to be deeply nourishing and transformative in your daily movements. And don't forget to dry or freeze some nettle to be enjoyed in winter, too.
May the weeds be plentiful and our appreciation for them grow ever deeper!
It is a cold wintery day and although the snowy landscape is beautiful and it is a lovely time of year, there are numerous stories of friends and family members succumbing to various strains of the flu. Sometimes the good habit of washing our hands constantly and nourishing ourselves well, is not enough to prevent a highly infectious virus from taking up residency in our lungs. It is with gratitude that we turn to Elder for some protection and relief.
Elder, a native to Europe, is a large perennial shrub or tree, thought by most taxonomists, to be in the Caprifoliaceae family. Different species grow throughout North America, as well as many other parts of the world. On recent trips to the UK and South America, we saw it growing as a small tree throughout the English and Scottish countryside, and in urban landscapes of Bogota, Colombia, where older women were known to harvest from it to use as medicine. It has long been used by herbalists in many communities throughout history, for all sorts of healing.
On a walk in June, through the countryside, chances are you will see Elder growing along creek beds or forming hedges along the sides of the roads. The leaflets can be 4-10 cm, varying in number from 5-9 and are dark green, oval shaped, and arranged opposite of each other. Elder thrives in moist areas with moderate sun and is often in community with Stinging nettle, wild brambles, and Cleavers. The creamy colored flowers that form in umbels, bloom in June and the clusters of purplish berries that ripen in August are the most common parts of the plant that are used in herbal medicine. I want to note that some people do use the bark, fresh leaves and dried bark in medicine making, as these parts of the plant are more potent than the flowers and berries, but caution is advised, as they are also higher in concentrations of cyanide and could induce vomiting if not prepared carefully. Stephen Buhner gives a nice account on other ways to work with Elder in his book Herbal Antivirals, 2013.
Elderberry is one of the most effective herbs for preventing and treating colds and upper respiratory infections. It is anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, antibacterial, anticancer and high in antioxidants C and E. Elderberry stimulates the immune system and can be used as a preventative medicine, taken in small doses as a decoction/tea or syrup, throughout the flu season (See Herbal Recipes). Elderberry and flowers have antiviral capabilities against various strains of influenza A, B and other viruses such as Herpes Simplex, Epstein-Barr and HIV, as well as other microorganisms. Elder inhibits viral replication and maturation of viruses. Elder binds the influenza virus, resulting in the inability of the virus to penetrate and infect the healthy host cell. Increasing the doses during an influenza infection can help to lessen the symptoms and speed recovery time.
The Elder flowers are used internally as tinctures or teas for colds and fever, especially in combination with Yarrow and Peppermint or Lemon Balm (See Herbal Recipes). The flowers are also used topically to soothe and soften the skin and can be infused in oil and made into creams and lotions. The berries are often made into a jam, wine, syrup, tincture, or decoction. In addition to helping with influenza, Elderberry can also be helpful in cases of bronchitis, hay fever, sinusitis, nasal congestion, sore throat, edema, urinary tract infections, neuralgia and rheumatism. We also enjoy a warm Elderberry cordial, as a preventative, before bed during most nights of the flu season, in a small handmade cup that our son made for us... a most delicious ritual that helps keep us all relatively healthy.
May you also experience the healing and protective qualities of Elder in your garden and in your hearts, minds and bodies throughout all the seasons and offer gratitude for her many benefits!
It is a cold and snowy day in January, the kind of day that beckons deep nourishment; herbal infusions, savory soups, and fresh whole grain bread with organic cultured butter or freshly pressed garlic with olive oil. Thankfully, one of the first chores of the day is to strain the herbal infusion that has been sitting overnight. Today it is oatstraw, like it is on many days. But somehow the taste of the warmed and earthy oatstraw infusion this morning is even more deeply satisfying, almost in a soulful kind of way.
I have great respect for the plant, Avena sativa, cultivated oats; which has a long history of use as food and medicine in different parts of the world. Cultivated oats are annuals in the grass family, Poaceae, that grow well in zones 4-9, preferring full sun, and have hollow stalks with knee like nodes on the stems that can grow to three or four feet in height. They produce very small black flowers, lacking petals and sepals, and are wind pollinated. Oats have a fairly quick life cycle (depending on temperatures and rainfall) and can be sown several times throughout the growing season here in Knoxville, Illinois. We broadcast seeds in prepared beds at different times of the year, beginning in April, and are amazed to see green shoots sometimes within 3-4 days. After several weeks, the plants are a beautiful shade of green that appear resilient and flexible, moving elegantly in the early summer breeze as we await the perfect time to harvest (usually after two to three moon cycles). As an herbalist, I mostly work with the plant in its immature stage, which includes the green stalk, leaves, and the unripe seeds of the grain or what is referred to as the milky oat tops. When the unripe oat tops are full of a sweet, milky white liquid, and after several days of dry weather, we know it is the peak time for harvest.
While oatmeal is a long time favorite breakfast food known for its heart healthy benefits (I enjoy a bowl of soaked and slow cooked oat grain cereal with plain yogurt, fruit, nuts, and freshly ground flax seed almost every morning), I have come to fully appreciate the other qualities that oats offer as well. Oatstraw with the milky oat tops infusion is very nourishing to the nervous system and is considered a nutritive tonic. It is rich in phytochemicals and nutrients, such as saponins, sterols, flavonoids, alkaloids, lysine, calcium, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, and zinc among others (Tilgner 2009, Balch 2010). Susan Weed (1989) suggests that a consistent practice of including oatstraw infusion in the diet brings about noticeable improvements in coordination, stronger bones, better focus, improved memory, greater clarity, increased awareness, a feeling of centeredness and calm, stabilized blood sugar, increased libido, and maintains restful sleep patterns. It is suited to those with a depleted nervous system, anxiety, exhaustion, nervous stress, and irritation.
Rosemary Gladstar (2012) suggests that it is especially helpful for those with ADD, multiple sclerosis, and during pregnancy and menopause, as it generally improves nerve function, produces a calming focused energy, and reduces fatigue. I have also found that the oatstraw infusion offers support with transitioning from addictive substances such as caffeine, as it reduces and mellows typical side effects with its deep nourishment.
I learned the Wise Woman method of making the oatstraw infusion (this is the green stalk, leaves and milky oat tops steeped for 6-8 hours in boiled water) from Susan Weed's book, Healing Wise and from my studies/apprenticeship with Wise Woman herbalist, Linda Conroy, of MoonWise Herbs. This method of using a greater amount of herb, boiling water (even decocting it for 5 minutes before the long infusing time is suggested by Isla Burgess, 2007), and a long steeping time helps to make the oatstraw more bioavailable, breaking down the plant cell walls so that the nutrients and minerals can be more easily extracted and assimilated into the body See Herbal Recipe. By using this method, one cup contains 250 mg -300 mg calcium (Weed, 2002). Oatstraw infusion can be served cold or warm, depending on the season and time of day and when it is cooled, it is especially refreshing on hot summer days while working in the garden, as there is an immediate calming and cooling effect on the mind and body.
Oats provide so much in regards to food, medicine, and beauty that I almost forgot to mention that we also work with oats as a cover crop in combination with Austrian pea and Daikon radish. Sown by itself as a cover crop for the winter, it offers effective weed suppression in the spring and in providing quick organic matter for the soil. We have even experimented with planting potatoes straight into the bed, clearing a little space and mounding as needed... making it a no till method with the oat straw mulch already in place. Additionally, our chickens love it, if by chance we have any straw and oats that remain for them to scratch up or nibble on when we let them into the garden.
Consider making oatstraw infusion or a cup of tea that includes oatstraw blended with other relaxing herbs See Herbal Recipes, as part of a daily or weekly routine/ritual to nurture yourself more deeply. If infusions are not your cup of tea, try a fresh milky oats extract/tincture in organic vodka or a nonalcoholic glycerite. If you have access to a small plot of earth, grow your own bed of oats. Cultivate a more intimate relationship with her as you sow the seeds, nurture the plants, sway gracefully with her in the summer breeze, dance with her under the moonlight, harvest the straw, dry the herb, prepare the infusion, and savor the earthy brew that Avena offers.
May you enjoy the many qualities that oats offer and may we all be filled with gratitude and optimal nourishment as we engage in this deeply satisfying relationship.
It is another cold winter day with a heavy blanket of snow on the ground. The temperatures have dropped into the negative numbers and all is quiet and still. Even the tracks of deer, foxes, and squirrels have disappeared in the snow, but the strong stems of mullein, milkweed, goldenrod, wild carrot, and echinacea stand boldly as the snow continues to fall. It is the mullein that draws my attention this afternoon and it is the thoughts of warmed mullein leaf infusion sweetened with maple syrup and a little milk that offers a soothing effect to the deep seated congestion that settles in the bronchioles during this blustery dry season.
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is in the Scrophulariaceae family and is a striking biennial found along roadsides and railroad tracks, on the outer edges of woodlands and in open fields, and often on hedge banks, at the edges of areas that are rarely mowed, at least in our yard. According to Maude Grieves (1933), the genus Verbascum is a widely distributed plant, growing in Europe, West and Central Asia, North Africa, and North America, and contains 210 species. It seems to have naturalized here in the US, and I have seen it growing in rocky, dry fields in Columbia, South Carolina as a child in the 70's to as far north as Vermont and in areas near Glasgow, Scotland, spanning zones 3 - 8 in the US.
During the first year, a rosette of large, soft, and woolly grayish green leaves emerge, which is an easy way to identify the plant. The velvety leaves are oblong and oval in shape and grow up to 18 inches in length and 7-8 inches in width. In the second year, a thick, tall, stalk grows from the center of the rosette, bearing leaves that grow alternately and progressively smaller as a flower spike of almost 12 inches tops the stalk with 1/2 - 1 inch, five petalled, yellow flowers appearing at different times in early summer to late fall. The stately plant can grow 7-9 feet tall. It is these distinguishing characteristics of mullein that have inspired nicknames in Europe, such as Our Lady's Flannel, Velvet Dock, Candlewick Plant, Jupiter's Staff, and Hag's Taper.
Mullein has been used as a medicine for at least two thousand years and there are accounts of use in many parts of the world (Alfs, 2013) . All parts of the mullein plant can be used, but it is the dried leaves and flowers that herbalists work with the most. The dried leaves and flowers are considered to be antispasmodic, anti inflammatory, expectorant, demulcent, and astringent; an ideal remedy for problems of the respiratory tract such as bronchitis, whooping cough, and chest colds. A tea or a long steeped infusion with greater amounts of herb are the easiest and most prevalent ways to work with mullein internally, but tinctures can be used as well.
We have used different forms of mullein successfully on a variety of occasions, but it is the long steeped infusion that we like the most for breaking up deep seated congestion and promoting expectoration, and drinking it preventatively to keep mucus from settling into the bronchioles in the first place. (See Herbal Recipes) The use of mullein came to mind one cold morning in October, at the Galesburg Farmers Market, when an older gentleman stopped by my booth to ask if I knew of any herb that might help him. He told me of his chronic respiratory condition and said that he coughed so hard that he felt like he was breaking his ribs and was willing to try anything. I suggested trying mullein tea and increasing the amount each day if he reacted positively. We met again several weeks later and he reported that he drank a weak infusion once a day at first and then increased it as it helped break up the hardness and make the cough more productive, while reducing the severity of the painful coughing. He asked if I had more of the dried mullein leaf available to get him through the winter and told me that he knew the plant and would let it grow freely on his property without killing it ever again.
The leaves are also known as a wound wort, and can be bruised or boiled and applied externally to soothe nerve pain, bruises, and burns. I have been told of cases where smoking the dried leaf helped to relieve asthma attacks; Robin Rose Bennett, among others, speak of this as well (Bennett, 2015). Mullein leaf and root have also been used to help with adult diarrhea and issues of the kidneys. The flowers are thought to be pain relieving with antiseptic properties. We have made mullein flower oil to ease ear aches (See Herbal Recipes), where it is most useful when the ear pain is related to an upper respiratory illness. The oil can also be used topically for pain relief and might be best suited for nerve pain and potential neuralgias (Wood, 1997), a remedy that I plan to work with more.
If you are fortunate enough to be around a place where mullein grows freely, consider yourself blessed, as mullein is very good and safe medicine. Harvesting some of the leaves can be done in the first year while the leaves are in the rosette, but waiting until the second year is more beneficial to the plant. When it sends up the stalk and flowers begin to grow, harvest the newly opening flowers and the leaves (preferably after several dry days). Spread the leaves out to dry for one to two weeks and/or infuse the flowers in oil or a good quality vodka. Do not overharvest the flowers, allowing 75% of the flowers to go to seed, offering the potential for new plants to grow in the vicinity in the following year. Additionally, insects/pollinators are attracted to the flowers when in bloom and the birds feed and perch on the dried stalks in the winter.
I enjoy mullein so much that I am seriously considering growing it in our garden, as wildcrafting it doesn't always yield enough for use in our family and to share with others. And while this past year, I was able to wildcraft/ harvest a good bit of mullein, I still feel like I did not have enough surplus to offer to those who might really benefit from it. And yet as I write this, I am well aware of how extra mullein came our way last summer. A dear friend of ours invited me over to forage with her in late July, on several acres of disturbed land, where they had created a large pond with habitat that was perfectly suited to mullein getting well established. We enjoyed the late afternoon, climbing up and down the pond's edges to carefully harvest the most beautiful leaves (from the second year plants). It is interesting to note that this surplus of mullein was the exact amount that I traded with another friend who was making her way out to Oregon in early September, where she was concerned with the air quality from the wildfires and thought the mullein might be helpful. Nature offers us such balance in ways that we do not always recognize.
May you enjoy the many qualities that mullein offers and may we all be filled with gratitude and optimal nourishment as we engage in this deeply fulfilling relationship that brings us ever closer to the heart of the earth, and to each other, and to a place of connection and healing.