Tug Hill Herb Harvest and Some Surprises

Nearly every year since I began my herbal studies, I retreat up north to the Tug Hill region of New York state learning about, finding and using the plants that are detailed in my books. Each year is different, between the harvest times and the weather, which plants are growing profusely and which ones are more scarce. This year yielded some surprises, as every year does.

When you arrive on the Tug Hill Plateau (it is not really a plateau, but a cuesta), you are met with the appearance that this land sees harsh winters and weather.

The trees are all bent in one direction (southeast), towards the Adirondack mountain range, the variety of flora and fauna is less diverse than “down the hill”, and everything has a sort of tenseness to it. That what grows must grow quickly before the season is up.

Most years, there is still snow on the ground by May as the winters pile snow on and the spring thaw lasts many weeks. Fall begins in the blink of an eye in early September. One day the leaves are a gorgeous riot of color, the next they are gone.

Summer is no different. The sun rises very early (earlier than I rise!), and sets around 9pm leaving enough light for a walk until 9:30pm or so.

I have my calendar marked for the same day each year to ensure that I schedule to be on Tug Hill. I harvest St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

St. John’s wort is waning at that time, but still very powerful as the plants are pushing out their second blooms and there are areas where some plants are still blooming for the first time.  Goldenrod is just beginning to flower, and the ghost pipe is at its peak. Many other plants are ready to harvest as well: lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), to name but a few.

St. John’s Wort

For the St. John’s wort, I make as much oil as I can manage, and make tincture as well. I infuse my St. John’s wort oil in a combination of grapeseed and olive oil, on the stovetop.  Many traditionalists say that you need to infuse it in the sun, but I have never had much luck in not having the oil turn on me.  So, the stove it is.  This year, the oil is such a rich dark burgundy, it is astonishing.

 

The goldenrod, I too make oil and tincture from it, and some vinegar to extract the flavors of late summer to add to my cooked greens in the fall, winter and early spring. I used rice vinegar for this task, as last year’s vinegar with apple cider vinegar (my least favorite vinegar) was so unappetizing to me that it is still sitting in the bottle.

I harvested as much ghost pipe as I will need, and some for a trusted friend*. I also collected small amounts of meadowsweet and lobelia, which I also tinctured. Since I tend to make a lot of topicals -salves, ointments and oils- I made some self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) oil, and harvested yarrow to create an oil and tincture. Red clover was on my list to harvest for an oil, but I never managed the motivation to collect it from the fields.

Ghost pipe flower

Ghost pipe emerging from the ground

Some years are like that: if I’m not feeling it, I don’t harvest. Other years there is a simpatico with the plants and you harvest more abundantly.

I think the medicine is better when you are happy harvesting and making it.

 

Lobelia

I found enough boneset to warrant a small harvest for personal use come cold/flu season. There was plentiful peppermint and lady’s mantle, of which I only harvested the peppermint. Yarrow and lobelia grow widely in the harsh shale-rich soil, and I had a blast collecting my friends to have their help for the year to come.

In the woods, on a day when the clouds were so low you were walking in mist, I happened upon a huge stand of skullcap, which I gratefully harvested from, and some small patches of bugleweed that went untouched. This was the first time the skullcap was plentiful enough for me to harvest, and I was overjoyed.

I never truly appreciated skullcap until I gave up my nightly glass of cider, skullcap tincture mixed with other herbs is a wonderful end of day de-stressor. It gives me a sigh of relief, relaxes me into being home after a long day commuting and being at work. Will be wonderful to see how the fresh herb tincture compares to the dried herb tincture that I’ve been using.

There were mushrooms galore, and even some wee reishi next to a tree that a porcupine was climbing. I did not know that porcupines climbed trees, it was a marvelous sight to behold.

Reishi

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Porcupine climbing up a tree

(sorry the video is sideways!)

This area had the most ghost pipe that I had ever seen, it has now been dubbed “ghost pipe city”. In this same area, there is a large patch of wild ginger (Asarum canadensis). I harvested leaves and roots from this patch last year, tincturing the roots, and as the patch had grown in size, I harvested a small handful of roots and leaves to dry for this year’s winter use.

I have names for some of these areas, my particular favorite is “fern valley” where an opening in the trees allows for a dense population of ostrich ferns to flourish. Just up from Fern Valley, I saw a baby rabbit off the trail, hunched down looking petrified from the presence of a human. Nearby there was a bear paw print in the damp and spongy earth that was longer than my forearm. What a sight to behold!

There are stands upon stands of blue cohosh, none of which I harvest, growing beautifully larger every year. And then there was this beauty, a trillium the size of a serving platter.

Huge trillium

 

Snake!

 

And, I made a new friend: wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis).

Aralia nudicaulis roots

Aralia nudicaulis root

 

While not the ideal time for harvesting, it grows plentifully all over the woods that I harvested from two clusters and made two different tinctures (with two different alcohol ratios) to compare the differences. It has a lovely resinous, aromatic smell that is not overpowering. If I like the tinctures, I plan on going back to harvest in a more ideal time (fall or spring).

Harvesting this herb was a blast and lovely learning experience. The runners are very shallow in the earth (1-2 inches), with the roots growing a few inches deeper. The plants are all interconnected, much like we are, and you cannot harvest just one without affecting the others in a way that is not as obvious with other plants. (I thought I took photos of the area that I harvested from, but I apparently did not. Next time.)

These plants have a quiet, gentle peace about them, and I found myself spontaneously kneeling and meditating with them for a period of time.

 

 

The last time I did that was in a ring of ghost pipe where a bear had obviously been digging in the center of the earth. I wanted to lay down and sleep where the bear had been, enclosed in the ring of ghost pipe protecting me.

Blue vervain eluded me this year, as did pond lily (I have not found a pond deep enough on the property from which I harvest, and I kept having strange dreams about harvesting it and sinking into another dimension while doing so – so I think it’s for the best, in some ways, that I did not find it) and American ginseng. Maybe next year…

 

Garbled goldenrod

 

Self-heal

 

You may ask what is in store for all of this medicine that I gratefully and humbly harvested from this lovely land?

I have created a line called “Tug Hill Herbals” which will continue the tradition that Quaternity Holistics began: intermingling the use of local, wild-crafted herbs with traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic and Western herb to create unique formulas inspired by the region, life and with the hope of helping us work through some of our struggles be they physical, emotional/mental or spiritual.

I have a lot of ideas for future products, and a lot of herbs with which to bring these ideas to fruition.

My heart feels full and happy with this new venture, and I hope that you will love the new things that are sure to come.

One thing I know for sure: I will be offering small sample sizes for purchase, and a variety of other smaller items so you can experiment with my potions.

 

Do you harvest or make any of your own herbal medicine? What do you harvest/make, if you do?

What do you wish you could harvest/make, if you do not?

What are some herbal medicines that you wish you could have on hand on a regular basis?

 

Queen Anne’s lace

 

*There has been much debate about the “ethics” of harvesting ghost pipe and promoting its use as a “pain reliever” due to the fact that the growing conditions are very specific, and it is rare in many parts of the country, and there are fears that this mysterious plant may become endangered similar to goldenseal and American ginseng. For one, ghost pipe does not relieve pain, it provides the mental separation between yourself and your pain. If you are unable to do this without the herb, in any capacity, the herb will not work for you. This herb simply provides you with the additional ability to continue the separation between yourself and your experience of pain. It is not a catch-all pain reliever, and I have taken it personally enough times to know if/when it will be helpful and when it would not be worth taking. Secondly, ghost pipe is very plentiful in the region where I harvest. The stands that I have been harvesting from have not been negatively impacted by my wild-crafting in the years since I began harvesting insofar as population density and growth. I only take the upper (aerial) portions of the plant, I do not use shears but my hands, requesting permission to harvest for medicine-making purposes with each stand first, and I typically will take one perhaps two flower stalk(s) per stand. This ensures that the stand is able to continue its growth cycle with limited negative impact. If I were in an area where this plant was not plentiful, I would not be harvesting it.

Slowing Down in the Summer (and Beyond)

White peony

As a child, summer meant hanging out by the pool, going to summer day camp, swimming in lakes, running through the woods, spending time with friends and being free from most responsibilities.  Now that I’m very well past that nostalgic time of freedom, summer means that I’m busier than ever – work schedule has required more than the usual late nights, East/West coursework has become the center of my universe, weekends have been spent upstate or at home, I feel like I’m the go-go bunny!  I don’t like it!  Part of it is my fault: I’d booked social engagements, extra-work engagements, and fun activities in so much that I didn’t book much downtime since the “downtime” at home I had had to be spent cleaning, doing laundry, catching up on things at home from the aforementioned engagements/activities!  Thanks to a friend and herbalist, I was instructed that I must take one day off a week – no excuses.

As such, the past two weekends I’ve only done enjoyable things on Sundays – things that I want to do, things that are fun, things that relax the mind and body.  I’ve had to do a couple of hours worth of things each of those days, but when the timer goes off I stop what I’m doing and move to something else.  All of this has made me realize how little I take time to just enjoy being home, watch a movie (with organic popcorn!), and just be.  As one of my most wonderfully great teachers says, we need the balance of both doing and being.

Besides, summer is the time for storing up our energy reserves to get us through the long winter!  It isn’t meant for pushing ourselves harder, faster, and longer!  When we push ourselves so hard in the summer, we are depleted going into fall and winter, and end up getting sick.  I’m giving you permission, like my friend-herbalist did for me, to have a day off, ask for help, treat yourself to a full day of “being.”

With my instructions to “be” for a whole day once a week, I’ve realized how much I push myself and that I’m always “doing”.  Even my idea of “being” has elements of doing in it!  I can’t stop!!!  I have been brought up to think that “being” is akin to laziness (whether this was something I’ve implied/formed on my own or was instilled in me, I don’t know) but I’m learning that you have to “be” so that you can “do” (and vice versa) and that being is not lazy but necessary!  It makes me so so sad to know that I really could have (and should have) slowed down, stopped to smell the roses, and laze about my home in the interest of dolce far niente.  Not everything needs to get done, I can’t do everything I want to do, and that’s going to have to be okay.

So, what’s a gal, who doesn’t like to slow down, do to slow down???

1.  Take a bath, I (like my mother) adore Epsom Salts.  They not only help to replenish the magnesium in our body, but they feel oh so good!  If you have lavender essential oil, put 5-6 drops into the bathwater before you get in.   If you have flowers, put them into a muslin bag (or brew a strong tea) then add to your bathwater.  I also really like adding powdered rose petals to the bathwater, just a tablespoon or two.

2.  Drink a cup of tea.  My favorite is chamomile-rose at the moment, but I also like lemon balm too.

3.  If you are so inclined, laze on the couch, put a movie on – any movie that makes you happy – and watch it from start to finish.

4.  Read a book!

5.  Talk a stroll through the park, make it leisurely and long.

6.  Get together with loved ones or friends and spend the afternoon together.

7.  Take time to meditate – sit, lay down, walking meditation, etc.  Enjoy the stillness and silence of yourself, take the deep breaths into the vastness of your soul and spirit.

8.  Most of all – don’t do housework, cleaning, laundry, cooking, etc.  I am learning to reserve one day a week as a day of rest, and I’m learning to protect it as something special.  It has been far too long since I’ve taken a day to rest and relax, years at least!

9.  Check out Rosalee de la Foret’s post on the Human Nervous System for more information too!  www.herbalremediesadvice.org/human-nervous-system.html

What do you do to relax?  How do you like to spend your days off???

Summer Heat Woes

Ostrich Ferns - Quaternity Holistics

As much as I tried to avoid getting overheated and succumbing to Summer Heat in the middle of a pretty horrid heat wave, I must admit: I failed.   It has been two years since I’ve had a Summer Heat invasion, the last time was when I decided to bicycle to work in 100F heat on an air quality alert day.

On July 4th, I woke up at 3am with the overwhelming sense that I was both burning up, and freezing.  I woke up only because I was having nightmares.  I was in a cold sweat, yet my body felt like it was boiling from the inside!  This is not a pleasant experience, but at 3am it seemed even more so mixed with my newly awakened foggy state.  Out of bed I crawl, taking a blanket and my pillow with me, and onto the couch.  I got a glass of water, cut a slice of fresh ginger, and started up a movie.  The fresh ginger may or may not have been a good idea, but it was the only thing that sounded appealing to my very unhappy stomach at the time.  I spent the next two and a half hours jumping up from the couch, and running into the bathroom.  I was miserable.

Eventually, I remembered that I had a tincture blend with some cooling herbs, herbs that would help me sweat a little, right on my kitchen counter-top.  I made some hot water, and in the tincture went.  I drank the hot tincture water, ate another slice of fresh ginger, then drew a tepid Epsom salt bath.  I sat in the bathtub, alternating between sweats and chills, until the goosebumps I’d had since 3am went away.  Thankfully, I started to fall asleep in the bath, so I promptly bundled myself up and crawled back into bed to sleep until 10.30am.

When I awoke, I was no longer in a feverish haze, and I made the following tea blend in my French Press:

  • 1 part chrysanthemum leaves
  • 1/2 part mung beans
  • 1/4 part mint
  • 2 slices ginger
  • 1 part qing hao

I let all of this steep for 25 minutes, then drank the whole pot.  By the end of the pot of tea, I felt like I could function enough to figure out something to eat (plain white rice, with some cooked veggies.)  I spent the rest of the day and weekend doing my best to eat a very simple diet, of cooked vegetables, not too much animal protein, and no raw foods.  I ate some steamed bean sprouts each day, which helped tremendously.

Looking back on this, I really wish I had had a packet of this tea blend (or tea pills) ready to go for my middle of the night illness as I believe I could have suffered for far fewer hours than I did if I had made this tea straight away – even though I was in no shape/state to be making proper tea.  I am thankful that I have a good number of tinctures lying about to help in a pinch though!  The day before I got sick, I had eaten a lot of avocado mixed with steamed and raw vegetables, salad with feta cheese, and a ton of watermelon.  I should also mention that I really like beer with ice in it when I get home from work.  I clearly did not follow my own advice.  The combination of food and drink during the heat wave made my body too cold and damp to handle the heat and humidity outside.

Take care during this season of Fire, especially with these very hot and humid days.  Don’t end up like me, feeling like a Baked Alaska, at 3am at the start of a holiday weekend!

Spring Has Quickly Turned to Summer

Summer is here!

I hope everyone is taking it easy, not overdoing it, and resting so that you’ll have the energy to do all that needs to be done over the coming months! At the same time, I hope you are enjoying the warmth and light that this season brings!

I wanted to briefly introduce you to Akebia quintata (shown above, and below), also known as Mu Tong in pinyin.  My grandfather planted them on what is now my parents’ property (and what is my childhood home.)  This plant has basically taken over one whole area of their property, and it making headway into taking over as much of the other bit of their 3-ish acres as possible.  This particular Akebia vine has made its home in a holly bush.

While this is not an herbal monograph, for those interested:  Akebia is typically used to “drain dampness”.  It is slightly cold in temperature, it is bitter and is directed towards the Bladder, Heart, and Small Intestines.  This plant’s flowers have a gorgeous heady perfume.  I wish I could have bottled some!  Perhaps next year I’ll know how to capture flower’s fragrance and perfume!

The temperature of herbs indicates how it affects the body – “cold” temperature herbs/foods cool the body down (like mint tea, or watermelon.)  This is much like what an air conditioner does to a hot house, or ice cubes do to water.  “Hot” or “Warm” temperature herbs/foods heat the body up, and stoke the body’s internal furnace and heat generating ability (like cayenne pepper, cinnamon and ginger, curries and other spicy foods.)

When you are outside for long periods of time, in the extreme heat, your body becomes invaded by the heat of the environment.  Too much heat when it is hot out exhausts your body’s cooling abilities and makes you sick (think of Heat Stroke), too much cold foods when it is hot out creates “dampness” (like condensation on a glass of ice water on a hot day – but that’s what happens to the inside of your body!)  In TCM, all of this is called Summer Heat (that scorching hot feeling, or heat from overexposure) or Summer Heat with Dampness (the heat feelings from a hot and humid climate.)

Here are some things you can do, and some things to not do, to protect yourself from suffering from Summer Heat this season:

1.  Avoid: overeating cold raw foods, ice cold foods/drinks, juices/smoothies, melons and too much fruit
2.  Drink: hibiscus, lemon balm, rosehips, and chrysanthemum teas cool, not cold
3.  Avoid (or limit/restrict) red meat, alcohol and caffeine – except green tea which cools the body
4.  Eat: spicy foods and hot teas in moderation – they promote sweating, which in turns cools the body
5.  Avoid citrus juices, soda, sports drinks, sugar, honey, agave, etc – except Stevia – they create what is called Heat and Dampness thus aggravating what you are experiencing
6.  Eat: fresh vegetables, salads and fruits in moderation; legumes, white meats, mung beans, watermelon (in moderation), soy bean sprouts and room temperature herbal teas.  Balance fruit intake by eating the seeds or piece of the peel with the fruit – as always, eat organic and local!
7.  Drink: water with slices of lemon, lime, cucumber, berries, mint leaves, etc in the glass.
8.  Do try to keep the indoor temperature as close to the outdoor temperature as possible, or at least cover up in the chilly air conditioning.  The extremes in temperature leave the body vulnerable to all sorts of invasions (think: summer colds/flus) – limit your risk by wearing a scarf and sweater inside, and removing it when you get outside.