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