Archive for All Heal

Local herbalism: using the plants in the dooryard.

When I told the gentleman who installed our satellite internet that I’m an herbalist, he started singing the praises of Tahitian Noni Juice. Right. I told him I was sure the Noni Juice was very nice, but there were ten different just-as-useful herbs growing right by his feet in my backyard, and he could have them all for free.

See, exotic herbs with hyped-up marketing campaigns just don’t excite me. Who knows exactly what’s in those bottles anyway? And why should I give my money to big, sketchy companies when my backyard supplies just about all the herbs I could ever need?

Today I decided to go outside and make a list of the useful herbs that are growing wild right now within 20 feet of my house. The list was even longer than I thought: more than thirty very useful plants.

Here they are, with a use or two for each to give you an idea of what they’re good for. Keep in mind that many blogposts (books, even!) could be written on every one of these plants, so there is necessarily a lot left out. I just wrote the first thing that came to my mind about each one.

All Heal (Prunella vulgaris): incredible wound-healer and alterative.
Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.): valuable diaphoretic, nervine.
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra): alterative, thyroid support, skin fungus.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.): an astringent when you need it.
Burdock (Arctium lappa): liver and kidney soother, resolves scaly skin.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria): sleep for babies, stomach-calmer.
Celandine (Chelidonium majus): liver and lymphatic stimulant.
Cheeses (Malva rotundifolia): useful mucilage-laden mallow, soothes everything.
Chickweed (Stellaria media): gentle, soothing alterative and lymphatic.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus): classic bitter digestive.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): elimination balancer, alterative, minerals.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): good for sneezing allergies, digestive and urinary soother.
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea): alterative, depurative.
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): another wonderful, soothing mallow.
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata): antispasmodic of the first order.
Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria): possible lymphatic.
Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum): respiratory stimulant.
Plantains (Plantago major & P. lanceolata): stings, wound healing (inside and out).
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana): strong lymphatic.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota): kidney stones, thyroid, and birth control too!
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): gentle lymphatic, alterative.
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis): traditionally used for mania!
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella): traditional cancer herb, good vitamin c in salad.
Spiny Sow Thistle (Sonchus asper): cooling digestive tonic.
Strawberry (Fragaria spp.): gentle astringent, baby diarrhea.
Thistles (Cirsium spp.): liver and digestive tonic.
Violet (Viola sororia): so cooling, soothing, and comforting.
White Deadnettle (Lamium album): astringent, good for heavy menstrual bleeding.
White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia): bitter nervine.
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella): tasty source of vitamin c, heals old wounds.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): sharp cuts, internal healing, alterative.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): liver stimulant, laxative.

Well, not a bad materia medica, is it? Most of these plants grow in cities, too. Medicine all around, if you look for it. (Big herb companies don’t need your money anyway.)

A side note: I’m a space cadet. After I reminded everyone else about this blog party, I forgot about it myself until I saw Kiva’s post. Silly, I know.

What should our next blog party be? I promise to participate on time!

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Herbs for irritated skin: spit poultices.

The theme of this month’s Herbal Blog Party is “Soothing recipes for irritated skin.”

Now, I can think of a lot of wonderful recipes for salves, ointments, lotions, sprays, liniments, etc. But when I think about how I use herbs in the summer for my own skin, I think of the simplest recipe of all: the “spit poultice.”

A spit poultice is exactly what it sounds like. Pick a few leaves, chew them up a bit, spit them out, and put them where they’re needed. I use spit poultices for bites and stings, scrapes, cuts, bruises, burns, and just about any other mishap my skin might encounter in the summer.

Here are some of my favorite herbs for spit poultices:

All Heal (Prunella vulgaris). All heal (also called “heal all” or “self heal”) is a great all-purpose spit poultice—no surprise, considering its name. It’s good for cuts, bruises, burns, bites, and irritations of all kinds.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa). Also called “wild bergamot” or “sweet leaf,” bee balm is one of the best plants to poultice on burns of any kind.

Chickweed (Stellaria media). Chickweed is incredibly soothing. It’s wonderful for irritations of the eye; also stings and superficial inflammations.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Comfrey poultices are good for interior swellings (bruises and sprains) and exterior abrasions (scrapes and superficial cuts).

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Ground ivy is a great poultice for bruises, especially dark purple ones (think of the classic black eye).

Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia). Moneywort (also called “creeping jenny”) is a good poultice for all sorts of wounds, especially old ones that refuse to close.

Plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata). Plantain is the classic spit poultice herb. A plantain spit poultice is the best thing I know of for any kind of bite or sting. It works great for redness and swelling in general, too.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This much-maligned plant makes a great poultice for running sores and ulcers.

Violet (Viola sororia or V. odorata). Violet’s mucilage makes it lovely for burns (including sunburn), but it’s also great for bruises, irritations, and swellings.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow is especially good for deep, clean cuts. Bruises, too. It’s one of the best herbs to stop bleeding, particularly when there’s thin, bright red blood.

Most of these are common underfoot plants. If you need a spit poultice, you can usually look around and find at least two or three of them. And most of them are good for most skin problems in a pinch. (But don’t use comfrey on deep wounds—it can cause the skin to heal over a wound that isn’t ready to be sealed off.)

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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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Insomnia is not insomnia is not insomnia.

Difficulty sleeping comes in many forms.

Trouble Falling Asleep can be associated with tension, excess nervous energy (“heat”) or a depleted nervous system (“cold”). My favorite herbs for falling asleep are kava (Piper methysticum) for tension, hops (Humulus lupulus) for heat and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Staying Asleep is usually associated with tension or excess nervous energy (heat), but it can sometimes be related to depletion (cold) as well. My favorite herbs for staying asleep are passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for tension, peach leaf (Prunus persica) for heat and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) for cold. (Detailed indications for these herbs.)

Trouble Waking Up (aka waking up with that run-over-by-a-truck feeling) is common in people whose bodies are sluggish or depleted overall. Lymphatic and liver-supporting herbs are the thing to use here. Some of my favorites are cleavers (Galium aparine) and all heal (Prunella vulgaris) for sluggishness and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and oats (Avena sativa) for depletion. (I haven’t posted detailed indications for these herbs yet. Some of them are in Matt Wood’s book, listed below.)

Basic sleep hygiene applies in every case of sleep trouble: Dark and quiet bedroom (no TV), no caffeine/stimulants in the afternoon (or at all), good exercise (but not in the evening), good relaxing and good food.

Important: It is always best to choose herbs carefully, based on an individual’s constitution. Don’t think “valerian is good for insomnia.” Ask “Is valerian good for this person?” There is no insomnia, only a person. (If you give valerian to someone who has a hot constitution, it can have a stimulant effect; if you give hops to someone with a cold constitution, it can be depressing.) I never like to recommend herbs for anyone without seeing them and talking to them first. Again: herbs are for people, not for conditions.

N.B.: Heat/Cold and Tension/Sluggishness are part of a system of “energetics” that many herbalists use to understand human bodies and match them with appropriate herbs. Someday I will blog about energetics, but in the meantime the best introductory discussion of western-style herbal energetics that I know of is in Matthew Wood’s book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism.

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