Archive for Herbal Blog Party

Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

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Blog Party: Herbs for irritated skin.

The June Blog Party theme was “Herbs for irritated skin,” just in time for summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

As you might suspect, a few herbs were mentioned in just about every post (think plantain, chickweed, calendula). But there were surprises too. (Have you ever used anise hyssop for skin irritation? Lime zest? Prickly pear? Moneywort?)

Here are this month’s posts:

Kiva Rose of A Medicine Woman’s Roots gave us a very thorough inventory of the herbs she uses for summer skin problems.

Angie at The Herbalist’s Path contributed tips and recipes, including a delicious-sounding facial toner.

Ananda at Plant Journeys illustrated her extensive post with lovely photos of her favorite plants for skin irritation.

Darcey of Gaia’s Gifts gave us her favorite recipes, including the aptly named “Plantain Itchy Spray.”

I wrote about that most basic of skin-soothing recipes, the spit poultice.

And of course the inimitable Henriette of Henriette’s Herbal Blog gave a wide-ranging and useful roundup of remedies for all kinds of skin problems.

Next month’s party: Berries!

July in the Northern Hemisphere means berries. Strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, gooseberry, elderberry, huckleberry, mulberry, and currant. Ground cherry, highbush cranberry, mountain ash, honeysuckle, barberry, juniper, partridge berry, and virginia creeper. I bet you can think of at least that many more.

How do you use berries and berry plants medicinally? Write about one plant or several. Let’s have a berry party!

Put your post on your blog during the last week of July, and email me a link.

On August 1st, 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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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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Invitation to an herbal blog party.

What: An herbal blog party!

When: The last day of each month.

Who: Plant writers of all species.

Host for May: The Herbwife’s Kitchen.

Theme for May: Forgotten herbs.

Directions: Sometime during the month of May, write a blogpost about an herb that’s not commonly used by herbalists these days. It might be a regional herb, a neglected weed, or something that’s not generally thought to be “medicinal.” It should be an herb that you won’t find on a health food store shelf, or in popular herb books. Include this link——and send me a note when your post is up—rebecca {AT}

On May 31, come by and join the party!

PS: If you’re interested in hosting an herbal blog party or if you have ideas for future themes, please email me!

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