Archive for Bee Balm

Baby boom: pregnancy tips.

Perhaps it really is “Change you can conceive in,” as Newsweek put it.

In any case babies are popping up everywhere these days, and people have been asking me about herbs and healthy pregnancy.

This is what I tell them.

1. The “duh” list: Get enough rest, eat enough (good) food, and stay away from toxic stuff.

Rest: Your body will tell you how much you need. It’s best to listen.

Don’t freak out if you have trouble sleeping — drink a cup of chamomile tea, put a drop of peach leaf tincture on your wrist, or smell your hop pillow. And like I said, don’t freak out. (Remember, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first novel when she had insomnia during her first pregnancy.)

Food: Don’t eat bad food. Do your best to avoid sketchy food. Do eat plenty of good-quality protein (including fish), all kinds of good fats, and lots of in-season vegetables. (Confused about fish? Check this out. And this.) Oh, and if you know you’re allergic or sensitive to something, just don’t eat it.

Toxic stuff: This is a hard one. There’s toxic stuff everywhere, and once you’ve determined how much you can practically avoid, it’s best not to freak out about it too much. (Sense a theme?) Stress isn’t good for babies. That said, here are some common sources of toxic stuff: cosmetics; cleaning products; plastic food and drink containers; paint and other new building materials; dust in old houses; dirt around old buildings. (The last two are due to lead contamination. And this is something to worry about. Read up on it.)

2. Pay close attention to your blood sugar.

Low blood sugar can cause morning sickness (or anytime sickness). High blood sugar can make your baby grow too big, or give it blood sugar problems later in life. (And you don’t even want to think about gestational diabetes.)

Avoid low blood sugar: Eat protein. Avoid refined carbohydrates (i.e., white flour, white sugar, white rice). Eat protein. Don’t eat carbohydrates by themselves (butter your bread; put cheese on your crackers). Eat protein. And eat fat, lots of good fat.

Avoid high blood sugar: See “avoid low blood sugar.”

3. Take care of your kidneys.

Your kidneys do a lot of extra work when you’re pregnant (they have to filter 50% more blood than usual). Be nice to them. Drink plenty of water. Use a good high-mineral salt in cooking (avoid cheap refined salt). And remember that nettles are your friends. Nettle tea is rich in minerals and also a lovely kidney restorative. Nettle seeds are a good choice too. (If your kidneys are unhappy, you’ll end up with puffy ankles and feet. You don’t want this.)

4. Take care of your nerves.

There’s a lot going on. Give yourself a break. Breathe a lot and stretch a lot and take time to be quiet. Also milky oats. And peach leaf if you’re highly sensitive and irritable. Mint tea is lovely for tired nerves, and so is bee balm tea, especially if those nerves are feeling frayed. Holy basil tea if you’re tense and worried. Rose if you’re sad and scared.

5. Take care of your veins.

Remember all that extra blood? It can be a lot for your veins to deal with, too. Eat lots of purple foods — blueberries, blackberries, beets. If you know you might be prone to varicose veins (did your mother get them? ask her!), you might take hawthorne berries or oak bark (small doses of oak) preemptively.

6. Take care of your belly.

To prevent nausea (especially in the morning), make sure you eat enough protein (especially at supper). Peach leaf and ginger are both great for nausea, but in opposite situations: peach is good for “hot” constitutions, and ginger for “cold” ones. If you don’t know, experiment. Take a little taste and see how you feel. Catnip and mint are also good if you’re feeling gassy and burpish.

As your baby grows, your guts might get a bit sluggish. Make sure you eat enough bulky and mucilaginous food to keep things in order. Flaxseed is great for this, and so are apples.

7. And of course, take care of your uterus.

Remember, the uterus is a muscle. For generations, midwives have reminded us that raspberry leaf tea makes it strong. This is a good thing. A cup of raspberry leaf tea everyday is pleasant, too.

(You’re right, I didn’t mention supplements. I’m not a big supplements person, and I don’t know a lot about them. But if you take a prenatal vitamin, make sure it’s good quality. And if you don’t eat fish, you might consider fish oil or cod liver oil.)

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First herbs: bee balm.

logbhat-1.jpgDarcey is hosting this month’s herbal blog party. She asked us to write about the plant that first inspired us.

Well. I’ve been playing with plants since before I could talk, and there were so many that I loved when I was little. Plantain, ground ivy and all-heal in the yard; chives, thyme and lemon balm in my mother’s wagon-wheel herb garden; mayweed and blackberry by the barn; yarrow and milkweed in the hayfield; crabapple and hawthorn in the thicket; spearmint in the creek and coltsfoot on the bank; ramps and mountain mint up in the woods. So many. But I think the plant that made the strongest impression on me in the first year or two of my life was bee balm.

Our farm was back up against a mountain at the sinks of a decent-sized creek. There was a relatively active beaver meadow about halfway down the valley, and in the summer it was covered with bee balm. All kinds of bee balm—light purple, dark purple, red, pink, white. Little sprouts of color in the tall grass. A treasure hunt.

And the smell. If you haven’t smelled bee balm, go smell some as soon as you can. Taste it while you’re at it. Make some tea. It’s calming and comforting and enlivening. We drank it all winter when I was small—sometimes mixed with lemon balm, sometimes on its own.

Some of my earliest, happiest memories are of picking bee balm with my mother. She loves the plant as much as I do, and always has a jar of the dried herb in her cupboard for tea. I think if our family has a plant emblem, it’s definitely bee balm. Perfect, considering we have a family tendency to just the kind of nervous irritation and dis-embodiment that bee balm’s best at soothing.

A rambling note about what to call this plant:

When I was growing up, we used the name “bee balm” to refer to several species in the genus Monarda (M. didyma, M. fistulosa and M. media). In books you sometimes see them called wild bergamot or Oswego tea. Many herbalists just say “Monarda,” and one (the great Matthew Wood) made up his own name for M. fistulosa: sweet leaf. But I still like “bee balm” best. The other names ring hollow to me.

Europeans called it wild bergamot because M. didyma smells like old-world bergamot (Citrus bergamia). But I think the plant deserves its own name. It was called Oswego tea because the Oswego nation used it for tea. That’s better, but just about all the Eastern nations used it for tea. It doesn’t say much about the plant. The genus Monarda is named for Nicolas Monardes, the Spanish scientist who first described the plant to Europeans. Fine, but the plant was around long before he described it. Matt Wood tried to remedy the situation by calling it “sweet leaf,” but the thing is, I don’t find it sweet. As Henriette says, it’s “hot as a very hot thing.” To my ears, “bee balm” is the only name that actually describes the plant. It’s a soothing plant (balm) that attracts bees. Yes. Simple.

PS: That’s me in the picture when I was about two.

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Preserving the harvest: herbal honey.

thymehoney.JPGI swear I will never travel during harvest season again. I mean it. Really.

I’m off to teach at the second annual Northeast Community Herbal Convergence next weekend. I’m leaving for parts north tomorrow, and this morning it suddenly dawned on me that there might be frost before I get back. (It’s hard to remember these things when the weather is so warm.)

So I went into high harvest gear, doing things the quick-and-dirty way. I think I got most of what I wanted out of the garden and the weed patches around the farm. Now watch the frost come late this year. Fine. At least I’ll come home to a sweet smelling house—there are herbs drying all over the dining room.

And I was happy to have an excuse to play with some of my favorite substances: herbs and honey. Honey infused with aromatic herbs has got to be one of the most intensely wonderful things I have ever tasted. It’s good medicine too.

Herbal honey is radically easy to make:

Take a good bunch of your favorite aromatic herbs. (Thyme, lemon balm and bee balm are my favorites.)

Pack a layer of herb in a jar, cover it with a layer of honey,* and repeat. Finish with an extra layer of honey. It will be a sticky mess. No problem. Squish it with a spoon if there are big air pockets.

That’s all. (I said it was easy.)

Let it sit for a couple of weeks at least.

Taste it. Don’t eat it all at once.

That’s thyme and lemon thyme honeys in the picture. I’ll use them for sore throats and colds this winter. And I’ll eat them with a spoon when I feel like it.

*Make sure you get good quality honey. Talk to your beekeeper about how s/he deals with mites and other pests. Ask if s/he leaves honey for the bees to eat or feeds them sugar water. Don’t buy poisonous mass-produced grocery store honey if you can help it.

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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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Winter flu care: pink ginger tea.

Pink Ginger Tea

My favorite herbs for flu care are diaphoretics, to stimulate sweating.*

I like diaphoretics because they support the body’s natural response rather than “fighting” the illness. (I’m not a big fan of the body-as-battleground theory of disease, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Some of my favorite diaphoretic herbs: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), elder flowers & berries (Sambucus nigra) and ginger (Zingiber officinale).

Elderberry and ginger make a delicious tea that you might want to drink all winter, whether you’re sick or not!

To make pink ginger tea:

Slice up 2-3 inches of fresh ginger.

Put the ginger in a pot and cover it with about a quart of water.

Add 2-3 tablespoons of elderberry (frozen, canned, juice, syrup or dried).

Simmer the mixture until it tastes strongly of ginger—usually at least 15 minutes. (The tea turns a muddy purple-brown as it simmers. Don’t worry, we’ll fix it.)

When it’s ready, remove the tea from the heat, let it sit a minute to cool, and add good quality raw honey** to taste. (Don’t boil raw honey. You’ll kill the enzymes.)

Now for the magic. Squeeze the juice from one small or half a large lemon. Add it to the tea. Watch the color change from muddy to clear pink!

Drink hot, preferably while wrapped in a blanket.

*The simple definition of diaphoretic: an agent that stimulates sweating. But as Samuel Potter points out in his 1902 Materia Medica, diaphoretic is derived from the Greek meaning “I carry through.” Diaphoretic herbs help carry heat and energy through the body, promoting excretion through the skin.

**You have to be careful with honey. Most US beekeepers use toxic miticides to keep their bees alive. Talk to your beekeeper, buy organic honey (expensive, if you can get it), or use a reliable supplier like Honey Gardens in Vermont.

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Comforting herbs.

Most of us are ready for some comfort right about now. Holiday chaos is behind us, we’ve more or less survived, and it’s time to get quiet and cozy and rebuild our reserves.

Here are indications or “symptom pictures” for some calming and comforting herbs. A symptom picture is a great way to get to know an herb better—it describes the characteristics of a person who fits a particular herb. All of these herbs could be considered nervines that are good for “stress,” but you get the best results with plants if you pay close attention to details.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa): Nervous stomach, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” someone who is passionate and intense but holding back. [Tincture or tea.]

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Agitation and insomnia with pain. [Tincture or tea.]

Catnip (Nepeta cataria): Stress stomachaches, cold headaches, overstimulation and colic in children. [Tincture or tea.]

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile): Irritability, petulance, complaining, impatience, “acting like a baby.” [Tea.]

Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum and O. gratissimum): Tension with fear underneath, running on adrenaline, trying to control things. [Tincture or tea.]

Hops (Humulus lupulus): Anxiety, muscle twitching, muscle and digestive tension, insomnia. [Tincture or tea.]

Kava (Piper methysticum): Muscle pain and tension, worry, “wrapped up in knots.” [Tincture.]

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Nervous excitement, giddiness, headache. Culpeper says: “tremblings and passions of the heart.” [Tea.]

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Speedy feeling, racing heart, can’t calm down. [Tincture or tea.]

Linden (Tilia x europaea or T. americana): Heartache, sadness, palpitations, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tea.]

Milky Oats (Avena sativa): Run down and weak, drained nerves and body. Hildegard suggests oat water in a sauna for “a divided mind and crazy thoughts.” [Tincture or tea.]

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): Heartbreak, grief, emotions feel out of control. [Tincture or tea.]

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Raw, in need of soothing. Hildegard: “one whose heart is weak and sad.” [Tincture or tea.]

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Racing thoughts, tremors, irritation. Tommie Bass used it to restore peace in relationships where people get irritated with each other over little things. [Tincture or tea.]

Peach Leaf (Prunus persica): Sensitivity, overstimulation, overheated, nervous nausea and vomiting. [Tincture or tea.]

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): Fear, anger, nightmares, physical spasms. [Tincture or tea.]

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata): Anger, headache from heat. Hildegard: “a discontented mind.” [Tincture.]

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): Pale, cold, weak, spacy, agitated, can’t sleep, can’t catch breath. [Tincture.]

Vervain (Verbena officinalis and V. hastata): Driven, perfectionist, striving, tense neck muscles. [Tincture.]

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa and L. canadensis): Been through trauma, deadened, cold, feel numb, stiff muscles. [Tincture.]

If you’re interested in learning to relate to herbs in terms of symptom pictures, Matthew Wood’s books are a great place to start. But really it’s just a question of getting to know the plants personally.

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