Archive for May, 2007

Blog Party: Forgotten Herbs

Welcome to the first (monthly) Herbal Blog Party!

It seems fitting that we should have our first party on this Blue Moon, with a Forgotten Herbs theme. I’m hoping the Blog Party can be part of a grass roots “remembering” about herbs in Western culture. I’ve certainly learned a lot from this month’s entries.

Guido from A Radicle wrote about Northern Willow-Herb, and about how he got to know this pretty little plant.

Ananda wrote a detailed profile of Rue on her new blog Plant Journeys.

Shamana Flora of Gaia’s Gifts wrote in depth about her experiences with Wood Betony.

Angie from The Herbalist’s Path wrote a post on Cow Parsnip, including recipe ideas.

The redoubtable Henriette of Henriette’s Herbal Blog wrote fascinating tidbits about Black Currant Leaf and Bidens.

I’m not sure if it was exactly for the blog party, but Kiva Rose of A Medicine Woman’s Roots wrote a lovely little post on how she uses Monkey Flower.

Oh, and I wrote about Melilot, my favorite plant of the moment.

UPDATE: Kiva posted some wonderful insights on Evening Primrose for her “official” contribution to the blog party, though we all know she writes constantly about forgotten herbs.

Next month’s party: Soothing recipes for irritated skin.

It’s summertime (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), and that means sunburn and bug bites and cuts and scrapes. What are your favorite recipes for soothing injured and irritated skin? (Salves, liniments, lotions, oils, poultices, washes, etc.)

Post your recipe to your blog sometime during the month of June, and email me a link.

On June 30, I’ll post the party here!

(If you’re interested in hosting a blog party, or have ideas for themes, let me know!)

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Forgotten herbs: Melilot, aka Sweet Clover

MelilotFor the Forgotten Herbs Blog Party I was all set to write about one of my favorite plants—all-heal (Prunella vulgaris).*

But the other day I was on my way back from visiting a friend near Knobs, WV and I took a wrong turn and got myself thoroughly lost. I drove and drove and drove and finally had to pull over to look at a map. On a high dry bank right across from my pull-off was this big patch of melilot (Melilotus officinalis). I was so glad to see it! In all my years of living in Vermont, I’ve hardly come across it at all (probably because it doesn’t like acid soil). It’s a plant I’ve been missing, and one I want to get to know better. I remember it most as a poultice herb, for swelling and pain, and as a plant I used to love to smell and chew on when I was little.

So I picked some of the lovely scented flowering tops and when I got back to my sister’s house, with the help of my niece, I made an amazing emerald green tincture that smells strongly of the plant—like new-mown hay. (Never underestimate the tincture-making power of the traveling herbalist. Yes, I travel with a bottle of grain alcohol for tincture emergencies. I’m an herb geek. Turns out my niece likes making tinctures. We shall have fun this summer!)

Some herbalists prefer to dry melilot before they tincture it, as drying concentrates the amazing scent. But since I’m traveling right now I’m not set up for drying, and melilot needs to be handled carefully as it’s dried—harmless coumarins in the herb can become dangerous dicoumarins if the plant is allowed to ferment.

I’m really looking forward to playing with this tincture. I’ll use it to clear stagnation and to encourage circulation of blood and lymph. Finley Ellingwood wrote in 1919: “Melilotus is a stimulant to the local circulation, and is adapted to those cases where debility or a feeble vital power . . . is associated with congestion” (Ellingwood). Melilot also has a great reputation for soothing “neuralgic” pain—especially headaches and menstrual cramps, and for calming muscle spasms and spasmodic coughs. One specific indication for melilot that’s mentioned in several sources is “coldness of the extremities” (King).

I’ll post an update after a few months of working with the tincture. I also plan to make an infused oil with the fresh flowering tops, which I’ll use for pain and swelling, to strengthen veins, and to encourage lymphatic circulation.

*All-heal is one of those incredibly useful underfoot weeds that modern Western herbalism tends to ignore in favor of fancy exotics. I’ll definitely have to write about it here before the summer is over.

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Dandelion recipes: Italian-style greens.

Dandelion Greens

Simple greens, Italian-style.

My favorite way to eat dandelions.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick dandelion greens. Stick to plants that are not blooming if you don’t want them to be too bitter. Sturdy kitchen scissors are great for picking greens. (You can also use garden or farm-grown dandelion greens—they’ll be bigger and maybe a bit less bitter, but you won’t have the fun of snipping your lawn with scissors!)

Wash dandelion greens. Soak them in a bowl of water, fish them out, and repeat with clean water until you don’t find any dirt on the bottom of the bowl.

Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet. You could also use lard or schmaltz. Goose fat is especially good.

Saute the greens in the oil. Cook them until they’re as soft as you like. You may want to put a lid on the pan and steam them for a bit if they’re tough.

Salt the greens to taste. Use good salt if you have it—I like unrefined sea salt.

Chop a bunch of garlic. How much depends on how much you like garlic.

Stir the garlic into the greens. I like to leave it basically raw, but you can keep cooking it for a minute or two if you like.

Serve it forth, as they say in the old cookbooks.

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Dandelion recipes: breakfast.

Dandelion fritters.So dandelion week has turned into dandelion month, and I’m afraid I still won’t have time to try all the dandelion concoctions I’ve been thinking about. (Thank my long-suffering boyfriend. He likely won’t want to see another dandelion for quite some time.)

Today it’s a full dandelion breakfast: Dandelion fritters with dandelion syrup. Floral and joyful, it tastes exactly like spring!

For the syrup, I used Henriette’s method. The flavor is incredibly complex—floral and honeylike, with hints of caramel and fresh green leaves. Amazing. As soon as I can, I plan to make a nice big batch to freeze.

For the fritters, I made a basic pancake batter (a cup of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, an egg, a cup of milk, a couple of tablespoons melted butter, and a pinch of salt) with enough extra milk added to make it about as thin as heavy cream. Then I added a nice pile of yellow dandelion fluff*—about a cup or a little more. I cooked the fritters on a hot buttered griddle just like pancakes.

*By “yellow dandelion fluff” I mean the yellow parts of dandelion blossoms, separated from the green bits and fluffed up a bit to avoid clumping. Sound like too much trouble? I think you can get away with including a bit of green, but be sure to pinch off the stem end of each blossom, or you might get some bitterness in your fritters.

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Dandelion week: anatomy of the lion’s tooth.

dandelion tinctures

Dandelion tinctures, from left to right: root, leaf, flower.

So clearly dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion.

Dandelion Root

Taste: earthy-sweet-bitter.

Temperature: cool.

Affinity: liver, gallbladder, digestion.

Action: nourishing, tonic.

Dandelion Leaf

Taste: fresh-salty-bitter.

Temperature: cold.

Affinity: kidneys, bladder, blood.

Action: stimulating, draining.

Dandelion Flower

Taste: bright-honey-sweet.

Temperature: neutral or slightly cool.

Affinity: heart, mind.

Action: comforting, brightening.

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Dandelion week: the bite of the lion’s tooth.

Like I said yesterday, dandelion’s old common name is “pissabed.” So we know it’s had a long and intimate relationship with the human urinary tract. But dandelion is so much more than a simple diuretic.

Nicholas Culpeper was on the right track in his 1653 Herbal (1814 edition):

It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them . . . it opens the passages of the urine in both young and old; powerfully cleanses imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them.

So my favorite technical word for dandelion is not diuretic but “deobstruent”: Dandelion opens what is blocked.

Now, don’t go running around giving dandelion to everyone who feels sluggish, stuck, or constipated—a lot of those people are “cold” or depleted, and dandelion is for sluggishness associated with heat and excess (the Chinese say “fire poison”). Dandelion is especially good for heat associated with dampness or “bogginess”—think Mississippi Delta on an August evening.

So dandelion opens what is blocked, cools what is irritated, and drains what is soggy.

But don’t forget that dandelion is not dandelion is not dandelion. Each part—root, leaf, and flower—works differently. (Hint: This is tomorrow’s topic.)

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Dandelion week: history of the little lion’s tooth.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has been used medicinally for as long as people have bothered to write about such things. It might be native to the Middle East (but no one’s really sure) and it’s traveled to just about every corner of the temperate world by now.

Maude Grieve says in her Modern Herbal:

The name of the genus, Taraxacum, is derived from the Greek taraxos (disorder), and akos (remedy), on account of the curative action of the plant.

Now, Mrs. Grieve’s etymology is poetic for an herbalist, but the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees:

Medieval Latin from Arabic, ultimately Persian. The Synonymia Arabo-Latina of Gerard of Cremona (died 1189) has ‘Tarasacon, species cichorei’. This appears to have been a corruption or misreading of the Arabic name tarakhshaqoq or tarkhshaqoq, itself according to the Burhan-i-Kati (native Persian lexicon), originally an arabicized form of the Persian talkh chakok ‘bitter herb’.

Dandelion is of course from the French “lion’s tooth” (dent de lion), but these days the French just call it pissenlit, “piss-the-bed”—which also happens to be an old-time English name for the plant. In 1565 John Hall wrote in his Courte of Vertu, “Lyons tooth, That Chyldren call Pysbed.” (OED entry for pissabed.)

Pissabed. Remember that. It’s a pretty good first clue to how dandelion works.

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Dandelion week.

dandelionIt’s dandelion week here in the Herbwife’s Kitchen. That is to say, it’s spring!

I’m scouring the yard for lovely little lion’s teeth, trying to get them before my housemate’s lawnmower does.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one of my favorite plants. It’s incredibly versatile. Each part—flower, leaf, root—has totally different properties, and each can be prepared in so many different ways.

This week, in celebration of spring, I’m going to make dandelion every way I can think of (tinctures, infusions, food of all sorts), and write about the highlights here.

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