Archive for the ‘Plants/Materia Medica’ Category

Preparing fresh Kava kava root tincture

Friday, December 16th, 2016

We recently tinctured fresh Kava kava (Piper methysticum) root. I purchased the fresh roots (primary and lateral roots) from Adaptations in Hawaii. They came second day air and on the following day we tinctured them up.

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Fresh Kava kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae) that just arrived from Hawaii. It is still in the carton it came in.

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One of the Kava kava roots

 

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The root crown of the Kava kava plant. Only the underground structures are used for the medicine.

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Ly, Courtney and Carly helping prepare Kava kava tincture

Here is the process used to make the tincture. I was fortunate to have the help of Ly, Carly and Courtney.

Here’s a link for a spot of live processing action https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vavOZCsvwe0

First the roots are cut into sizes that can be processed by the Vita-mix blender. Kava roots are not particularly tough, and other blenders would likely work as well (as opposed to notoriously hard roots such as Redroot [Ceanothus species] or Wild yam [Dioscorea villosa]). For cutting the roots we use a variety of tools. Pruners are used for small roots, a cleaver for larger roots and a small hatchet for the largest roots.

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Courtney chopping Kava kava roots with a cleaver.

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Ly cutting Kava kava roots with a small hatchet.

As with a number of roots, there is a lovely design in the cross section.

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Carly holding a cross-section of Kava kava roots

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A cross-section of Kava kava roots

 

The tincture is prepared in a 1:2 ratio in 95% (190 proof) ethanol. The ratio is plant weight: fluid volume. To make this process easier, after cutting the roots they are divided into 1 lb (16 oz) batches. Then 1 pound of root is put into the blender along with 32 oz alcohol (the fluid volume). This proportion of roots and liquid fits effectively into this size blender.

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One pound of cut-up Kava kava roots.

 

The reason for 95% ethanol (‘drinking’ alcohol) is that there is a lot of water in the plant and the final product will be diluted after the tincture is pressed. This ratio will extract most of the soluble constituents while still preserving the tincture.

 

We then blend the roots (action shot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhLPTP_AndM) and pour them into gallon jars.

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1 pound of Kava kava roots and 32 oz of 95% ethanol in the blender ready to be blended.

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The now blended 1 pound of Kava kava roots and 32 oz. of 95% ethanol.

The jars are rinsed, labeled and will sit for a minimum of two weeks and then pressed in a tincture press.

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The finished labeled Kava kava tincture. Next step, press them in a tincture press in about 2 weeks.

 

I use Kava kava tincture in a number of ways; as an anxiolytic (anxiety reducing), a sleep aid, and an inebriant (a disinhibitor of sorts). It is very idiosyncratic in its effects and some folks will enjoy the relaxing/ sedative qualities while others will find it disagreeable.

I will write more about the medicinal qualities of Kava kava, for now, I hope you find this mini-blog useful and that this information is helpful for preparing a number of fresh plants as tinctures

Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) 2014

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula) Monograph

Piscidia piscipula. A large tree growing in full sun

Introduction

In late January 2014 I went down to South Florida to identify and gather some Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia piscipula, Fabaceae). This is my second time making this trip. I had also gone down in 2007 and wrote a blog about it here.  Back then I gathered enough to make 4 full gallons, and have used nearly all of it over the past 7 years, so it was time to gather some more.

While I like to gather my own plants for medicine anyway, I had extra incentive with Piscidia. Time for a quick story. As its common name indicates, it grows in Jamaica and I have a number of friends who go to Jamaica regularly. I asked a few of them if they could bring me back a specimen of the bark so I could see what it looks like. Two friends, who know local Jamaican bush doctors, did so. The bark samples they brought back were different from each other, clearly coming from different plants. This made me cautious about what might end up in the marketplace as Jamaican dogwood medicine. Along with that, I have my own inclination to see the plants I use for medicine growing in their ecosystems.  So the next time I was invited to teach in south Florida, I left some time in my plans to try and find it. You can see this earlier story on my previous blog post.

This monograph will discuss more about Piscidia’s medicinal properties and clinical uses. I also cover some relevant botany for any intrepid wildcrafters who may want to gather (but not over-harvest) it themselves.

Piscidia piscipula showing tree holding branches in sunlight

Botany

Jamaican dogwood grows in Jamaica, Haiti, S. Florida and south into Central America (map; http://eol.org/pages/415760/maps). It is in the Pea family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) and not in the Dogwood family (Cornaceae). It is not the most distinctive tree at first glance but there are a few characteristic features that make it reasonably easy to identify. I have not seen it in flower or fruit, so all of my identification is from other plant parts.  The following botanical descriptions are from personal observation, which may differ from some field guides.
On a slightly different note, I find it interesting that Piscidia is the only plant I know in the Fabaceae that is used for pain. It is a very large family with some well-known medicinal members such as Astragalus, Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.), and Senna (Cassia spp.) and the constituents in Jamaican dogwood are unique in the family.

Size-while those grown in the open can get fairly big, they are generally mid-sized and tucked into the understory with trees of similar size. The larger trees can reach the same height as a mid-size Oak, but generally they are about the size of Apple trees (though not the same form).

Flowers and Fruit-I have not yet seen the flowers or fruits except in photos. The flowers are the typical butterfly-shaped pea flowers. The fruits are a bit more unusual looking. You can easily find photos of both online.

Leaf-the leaves are pinnately compound and composed of approximately 7-9 leaflets. The leaf itself is fairly long, about a foot when fully grown. One of the most obvious features of the plant is the distinctive leaflet color. The topside is a darkish green while underneath it is grayish-green due to its hairiness. This contrast is one of the first things to look for when trying to identify Piscidia.

Piscidia piscipula leaflets showing darker green above and hairy lighter green below

Piscidia piscipula leaves

Bark-depending on its age, the color of the bark varies considerably. Young twigs are a grayish green while medium-size branches are a darker green. A distinctive feature is the white lenticels in both of these branches (you cannot see them in older branches). Lenticels are pores where gas exchange takes place in the woody parts of trees and shrubs and are visually apparent and a helpful feature for identifying Piscidia. While other plants have obvious lenticels, the elongated shape and white against green bark is characteristic.As the branches age they often have patches of lichens growing on them. And the main trunk is sort of gray with green undertones.

Piscidia piscipula young green stems showing white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula young stems showing green coloration and white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula with green stems showing white lenticels

Piscidia piscipula trunk showing lichen patches

Piscidia piscipula trunk showing gray-green coloration

Young growth-the most notable identifying feature for Piscidia in winter is the young growth on the ends of some branches. Personally, I admire this growth. Part of my fascination is that it was how I first made positive identification when I initially sought out Piscidia. And as a photographer I find it lovely in its own right (which will be obvious from all my photos).

Piscidia piscipula details of young growth

Piscidia piscipula with young growth on a leaflet

Piscidia piscipula with young growth on a Piscidia leaf

Piscidia piscipula with young growth

Piscidia piscipula with young growth

The young growth is made up of small, unfurled hairy leaves surrounded by stipules, which are the parts that protect the young leaves until they emerge. The ends of the twigs are usually forked, with an axillary bud in the middle and leaves (initially wrapped in stipules) on either side. Look at these photos for a visual cue. As I said, I find this group of structures the most important trait to identifying a Piscidia when there are no flowers or fruits.

Equipment for Wildcrafting and Medicine Making

  1. Saw-a pruning or other type to cut branches
  2. Debarking knife or other tool to peel bark
  3. Cloth-or something to peel the bark onto
  4. Vitamix or powerful blender (optional)
  5. Ethanol-for tincture making
  6. Jars
  7. Scale and measuring cup
  8. Label making supplies

The Wildcrafting Tools I had with me

The Wildcrafting tools I would have liked to have had with me

Wildcrafting

This section is a bit difficult to write since I worry about this plant being over-harvested. But since I am writing about my Piscidia wildcrafting adventure, it seems obvious and prudent to let folks know best practices for gathering this useful medicinal plant.

The first and most important part about gathering Piscidia is to make sure it is plentiful and growing well where you are gathering it. It is not on any endangered plant lists, but it grows in only a small region in the continental US. And as I am talking about how useful it is I feel an obligation to say that I spent a lot of time looking for places where this plant was ethically harvestable. Please do the same.
One of the observable characteristics about Piscidia is that it likes to grow in full sun. Most often it is found growing in mixed woodlands on the border between the woods and an open space such as a roadway or power line clearing. You can see its branches reaching through the other trees and gathering sunlight at the edge of the woods. This makes it easier to spot while driving along back roads, especially once you learn the distinctive green leaf color.

It is the bark that is used as medicine, so the branches are gathered. On some of the plants you can see where the branches are continually cut back to keep the right-of-way clear. I think this is a good place to gather them as they will likely get cut off anyway. As with any time you are cutting off tree branches, employ good pruning techniques. Cut smaller branches where they meet a larger branch or the trunk. Do not cut in the middle of a branch as this makes it easier for disease to enter the tree. So cut the branch as close to the next branch as you can, a good pruning saw works well here. You may also have to cut the branches into smaller pieces for you car.

Glove on for peeling bark and not irritating blisters

Preparing the Bark

There are a few supplies that are handy to have on hand to process the branches and stems. These include a tarp to peel the bark onto, a saw to cut the pieces into manageable sizes and a good debarking knife. My favorite is a lightweight cleaver. If you are peeling a lot of bark, it is important to have a comfortable knife to do this, as this motion can be hard on the wrist and often creates blisters. Using a small pocketknife makes for difficult debarking. Even with a good knife, I started wearing a glove to protect my hand, though I did have a lot of bark to peel. Once you have peeled all of the bark, make sure that there is a lot of space between the peeled bark so that air can circulate between them they don’t mold (which would be quite annoying after all that hard work, yes?). Also, move them around daily to help facilitate their drying.
After the bark was reasonably dried I had to send it to myself as I was traveling by plane (and thank you again for sending it Susan Marynowski). This was expensive ($110), and a bit anxious-making, as I hoped the drying bark wouldn’t mold on its way to NY. And shew, it didn’t.

Piscidia piscipula-after it arrived by post back home in Ithaca

Medicine Preparation

I finished drying the bark by keeping it on a tarp near a window. When it was time to tincture it, I went to look on former labels to see the ratios and percentages I used last time I prepared it. It was 1:4 50% ethanol. I wanted to use the same numbers again as that medicine worked well and I am a bit conservative that way (if it worked last time…).
It is not easy to tincture strips of bark. They bend when you try to cut them with pruners and are very difficult to slice with a cleaver. So, I stomped on them. Yup, I had them in a large tarp which I folded over, and I walked all over them for days scrunching them down ever more. When it was time to tincture them, I wanted to use the blender to reduce it further because another problem with bark is that they take up a lot of room in a jar. We could only stuff 13 oz of the bark into a gallon jar. This means if we were going to go with 1:4 ratio, there would only be 52 oz of ethanol. And it being a gallon jar (128 oz) it would only cover about 2/3’s of the bark, leaving a lot of plant above the alcohol line. So reducing it with the blender was a better way to have all of the bark covered and saturated with ethanol. However, even with a Vitamix blender, strips of bark are problematic, as they still don’t break down easily. So we experimented for a while and finally figured out that adding more alcohol while feeding small amounts of bark into the blender while it was churning worked best. Also, the reverse switch on the Vitamix blender is helpful. This was time consuming, but after many hours all of the bark was processed. When we finally press it out, I think there be about 5 gallons of tincture, which should last me a few years. And then, back to Florida I go.

I have not used Piscidia in any other way besides as a tincture, so I do not personally know it effects in different medicinal preparations.

Piscidia piscipula drying back home in Ithaca, NY

Piscidia piscipula bark and peeled stems

Piscidia as Medicine

Introduction

As I write about Piscidia as a medicine, it is important to know that much of my description is based on using it over the past 7 years.  The reason I say this is that while there is validity to clinical observations it also increases the risk of bias. Hopefully this monograph encourages others to experiment with this plant and figure out best medicinal uses.
As I mentioned above, I did not use this plant for a long time, due to being unsure of medicines labeled Jamaican dogwood. Initially I wasn’t sure how to best prepare it or how best to use it. I had read enough to know that its basic medicinal action was for pain, but that is a broad description. So, I experimented with preparation methods and figuring out the specifics of its medicinal activity. After about 7 years and a number of gallons later, I feel I have a reasonable idea on how to use this plant as medicine. Though this should not inhibit anyone from continuing to pursue other uses and preparations.

Arielle blending the Piscidia piscipula tincture

Medicinal Uses

I have become an admirer of Piscidia as a medicinal plant, one I am glad to get to know and apply clinically. I have only used it in tincture form, so all discussion of it here is about it in tincture form. Piscidia is a very serviceable pain medicine, especially for general body pains (such as after an accident or a jousting tournament) and as an adjunct for skeletal muscle pain. Its sedative effects are minimal which makes it useful for daily use as it does not impair the cognitive process. It is an excellent first aid remedy because when it works (no one plant works all the time) it works reasonably swiftly and can take the edge off of acute pain. In other words it is useful plant for a wide variety of pain. It combines well with other plants (see Combinations below). Some plants are stronger pain relievers such as Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), or Hops (Humulus lupulus), but they may leave the patient feeling lethargic and not thinking clearly, while Piscidia does not have this effect commonly. That can also be a disadvantage as some times, such as after a traumatic accident, it is helpful to the mental edge off, but then it can be combined with them.

Another important attribute about Piscidia is that it is well tolerated with unwanted side effects being uncommon. This gives more room to play around with dosages when using it for treating pain.

For me, it is a classic first aid plant. It can be offered to someone soon after they arrive to a first aid station, even while still evaluating the extent of an injury and the dosage can be incrementally increased.

Piscidia piscipula branch showing young growth at tip

Dosages

When administering Piscidia and other pain medicines, it is helpful to evaluate an individual’s reaction to the specific plant before giving larger amounts. Herbal medicines that influence the nervous system often affect people with a variable range of individual reactions to the specific plants. This spans from having very little reaction to feeling disoriented or tired. While evaluating dosage by body size is helpful, this individual responses seem even more important to take into consideration. Initially try smaller amounts before giving large doses, especially in sensitive individuals (and they often know who they are).

I rarely see unwanted side effects from Piscidia, which makes it reasonably safe to use and larger doses can often be given. I have mainly used it with teens to older adults, but it seems like it would be safe for children. It is one of those medicines that you can start with a small to medium-sized dosage and just continually increase until the effect you are looking for is achieved or nothing is further gained from giving more.

For most uses, start with approximately ½ dropper (.6 ml) to two droppers (2.5 ml.), and then continue giving more in these increments. If there are other herbs in the formula, you may have to adjust your dosage depending on their strength.

Piscidia piscipula branches showing various colors and lichen growth

Formulation and Combinations

Depending on what you are using it for, Piscidia combines well with other medicinal plants. It has an ‘adjunct’ quality, meaning it seems to increase the medicinal effects of other plants as well as having its own amplified when they are used together. Two specific plants I think it works particularly well with for pain are Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Hops (Humulus lupulus). The following are some helpful combinations.

  • For skeletal muscle pain; Skullcap, Pedicularis (Pedicularis spp.), Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and Willow (Salix spp.)
  • For insomnia due to body aches; Skullcap, Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.) and Hops.
  • For a recent injury; Valerian, Kava kava (Piper methysticum) and Wild lettuce.

Piscidia does not have obvious antiinflammatory effects, but since inflammation is a common factor in pain, it can be combined with antiinflammatories such as Willow, Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp), Arnica (Arnica spp.), Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to help reduce the sensation of pain while the above herbs decrease inflammation.

Conclusion

I guess it will be obvious from this monograph that I have a fondness for Jamaican dogwood. It started with my finding, gathering, processing and making medicine from this plant, to incorporating it into clinical herbal practice. It is one of the plants that has obvious medicinal benefits, which I find very satisfying. So even if you don’t gather your own Piscidia, I hope you can find a good source and begin to use this helpful medicinal plant.

The nearly finished Piscidia piscipula tincture

A Jamaican Dogwood Story

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

Jamaican Dogwood tree (Piscidia piscipula)

A pre-story note; I wrote this as an article after I first gathered Jamaican dogwood in January 2007. I recently wildcrafted this plant again in January 2014, and decided to present this earlier edition as a blog with photos. I have avoided giving the exact whereabouts where I gather the Piscidia as I get nervous about people over-harvesting and/or gathering the wrong plant. So the location has been withheld, sorry.

This is the tale of my first encounter with identifying, gathering and preparing Jamaican dogwood in January 2007.

This is the story of me and Jamaican Dogwood, a plant I have longed to meet. The botanical name is Piscidia piscipula and it is in the Fabaceae family (the Leguminosae or the Pea family).  I have heard a lot about this plant over the years, most famously for its pain-relieving properties and wanted to give it a try. My problem was finding a reliable source for the raw herb (the bark being the part used most commonly). At least twice, I asked friends who were going to Jamaica with connections there, to bring back a sample. And each sample was different despite each of my buddies telling me the ‘bush doctor’ that had gathered the bark was knowledgeable and reliable. So I felt apprehensive about what was on the current market without having anyone I know having gathered this plant themselves. So as is my nature, I began to formulate a plan to someday find and gather this plant myself.

The trunk and bark of a mature Jamaican dogwood tree

First question, does it grow anywhere in the continental U.S?  This point is important for a number of reasons. One is that I am not likely to visit Jamaica any time soon. And just as importantly, if you have ever wildcrafted overseas, you learn how difficult it can be to transport plant material to the US (often for sound environmental reasons). Also, it can be prohibitively expensive to send from another country. And lastly, the plant can rot en route.

So I was excited to see that Piscidia grew in southern Florida, thereby circumventing all my above concerns. Now I have to say that South Florida was not high on my list of places to visit (and perhaps even avoid, as a New York Jew, it seems we are destined to spend our days in the ‘second homeland’). South Florida, as I have learned has many similarities (at least floristically) with nearby and similar climated places such as Jamaica hence Piscidia is a native down there.

A fortunate circumstance opened an opportunity to me. A friend of mine invited me to teach at the Academy of Five Element Acupuncture near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  And so after teaching there, I inquired amongst knowledgeable botanical persons if anyone knew where it grew in any abundance, and learned where it was most common.

So a plan was struck. I taught my 6 days and then got me a little rental car and cruised on down to begin my search.

Actually, before I left I belatedly began to call state parks in the neighborhood to find a place to camp.  First I should say they all ran about $35 a night, which is a friggin’ hefty sum to pay for setting up a tent, little did I realize it was about to become worse.

A typical Jamaican dogwood tree alongside a road

I spoke to a guy on the telephone about making reservations for staying in one of the state parks. It went something like this;

Me: Do you have any opening in the local state park for tonight?
Him: Hmmm (a few minutes of him searching somewhere), sorry all filled up for that night.
Me: How about tomorrow night?
Him: Let me see, no nothing for tomorrow night either.
Me: How about a campsite at one of the other parks?
Him: I’ll check (a few minutes pass) no nothing for tonight or tomorrow night.

This went on for a while and I finally asked, “When is the next opening for any state park campsite in this region?
Him: Oh, about mid-March.

Well that would have been much handier to know from the outset, as I was calling in mid-January. Granted I had waited way too long to call, but still, talk about being strung along. I imagined a bunch of reservation people giggling in the background as this conversation continued.

Then desperation set in as I was leaving that day to head down to (hopefully) Piscidia-land. So I hopped onto the internet, looked at a couple of somewhat scary-looking campgrounds, and chose the one closest to the park in the hope of a bit of nature.
Well they did have a spot or two, and you know how it is when your feeling desperate about something all the sudden the thing you would have not even considered a choice all the sudden looks tantalizing.  And so it was, even after looking at the map and noticing privacy would not be mine, I was still ecstatic to get a place to sleep that night on arriving.

My $40 a night campsite

And just as I suspected, it was basically a trailer park with many permanent RV’s and some camping spaces. But after a few tries, I found my own tiny little space on some white gravel surrounded by fence and patrons. And for $40 a night, oh well,  I am still indignant, but so it goes.

Now the Piscidia searching begins in earnest. I asked around if there were any trails which had plants labeled and identified. There were two, in a state park where I currently sat and a botanical walk a few miles up the road. I soon drove to the later and was walking, wondering, could any of these plants be my to-be Piscidia first-acquaintance? I looked at most of the obvious placards which showed interesting plants, but none yet the Jamaican dogwood (which is not actually a ‘dogwood’, i.e. a Cornaceae,  it is instead as noted previously a Fabaceae). I noticed that some of non-placarded trees had a small metal tag hung about them, and one, yes you can guess it, one had the Piscidia tag. Oh joy, oh good fortune! I stood there studying it, trying to memorize the features that would help me to sort it out later. The lowest branches were up too high for me to get a good look at the leaves and other conspicuous features.

I should add here that back in my car I had no fewer than 16 books on the plants of the region (or 48 pounds as the plane flies). This may seem excessive, but again I give sway to my tendency to pack heavy and be prepared for any number of alternate scenarios (just ask about my first aid kit). And sometimes one of these numerous books will be the one to provide that crucial detail that allows for positive botanical identification.

Young growth, very useful for identification

Young Piscidia growth. The roundish 'hood' shape (top of photo) is a bud with stipules. On the bottom is a very young leaf, covered in hairs. It will turn green and begin to photosynthesize later. There is a small round axillary bud in the middle.

Young growth, very useful for identification

I should also add here that while the focus of this story is about Piscidia, I am generally interested in keying-out (that is, making a positive botanical identification) any plant whose path I cross. So though I am writing about Piscidia, I was also enjoying other plants and looking forward to identifying and photographing these later. Hence a caravans’ worth of books. The book that was most helpful was The Biology of Trees Native to Tropical Florida by Tomlinson, as it has some beautiful black and white line illustrations (how I adore these), and showed some characteristics that were not included in any of the other books. You see, botany is primarily based on the reproductive characteristics of plants, that is, flowers and their sequel; their fruits (such as seedpods). As this was January, there were none of these to look at.  I felt fortunate just in the fact that Piscidia at least still had leaves on it.  And so with the aforementioned book, while it did describe the flowering and fruiting parts, it also illustrated what turned into one of the best field marks for the season, the youngest growth; the buds and very young leaves. These are quite distinctive.

Compound pinnate leaf of Piscidia (typical of many Fabaceae, plants in the Pea family)

Piscidia leaflets, showing the difference of color, dark green above, white hairy below

Back to the initial tree I saw in the botanical walk. I still had questions of knowing how to recognize other Piscidia since I could not clearly see the lowest leaves which were about 8 feet above my head.  I just stood looking for any obvious clues such as the tree trunk width, color of bark, or distinctive features such as stipule scars. I might add that due to my questioning ways, I also didn’t out rightly assume that this was Piscidia. I have traveled to many botanical gardens and the tags are often not scrutinized and are sometimes wrong. This is not as unusual or as uncommon as it may seem, and so especially on a trail like this without any clear association with a botanical garden I had my reservations. Also that it was just an unadvertised metal tag inconspicuously placed on it, I did not assume that it was an off-the-rack Piscidia. Still, I had done my homework and I could see that they were compound leaves, darker green on the topside, hairier on the bottom and arranged alternately on the stems. And I knew it grew around here from all accounts. So I kept walking looking to see if there were any more conspicuously labeled Piscidia’s. There were none, but it was a nice walk and I stumbled upon an abandoned condominium complex, and growing amidst the broken concrete slabs was a plant that looked suspiciously like a young Piscidia tree. So, I cut a couple of branches to bring back to the campground to further identify. At this point I was hoping that this was Piscidia as it was growing in a highly disturbed habitat which is good news to the wildcrafter. This means that it might be found it in other like-minded disturbed areas, thus not negatively affecting the local flora if gathered. Plants that grow weedy-like are some of my favorite to gather, as I feel I do less damage when gathering. And I knew Piscidia was native, which means it might not have these characteristics making a more difficult wildcrafting proposition, or not to be gathered at all (for more wildcrafting ethics and quandaries, see the Wildcrafting handout on website).

Jamaican dogwood stems in trunk of rental car

Excited by the day’s findings, I drove back to my acorn-sized crappy $40 a night campsite (such a complainer am I), ate a quick din-din, and busted out the botany books to compare. Unfortunately there was not enough there to convince me that I indeed had the right plant. Fortunately I met someone who had an excellent wireless card (this was 2007) and went on-line and perused as many Piscidia photos and descriptions as I could find in the internet universe.  Unfortunately nothing I came upon was good enough to convince me. Fortunately it was time to go to sleep and let go of my brain for the night.

Also, after being frustrated with not finding a photo on the internet to help me discerns Piscidia’s identity, I determined myself that if I was to find this plant, that I would post a butt-load of useful photos (hence this article).

Piscidia bark being peeled off stem

Piscida bark soon after being peeled

Next day, field guides in hand, I went off onto the less inhabited side roads. I found a likely place to pull over and began my explorations of the day.  And sure enough, trees of various sizes similar to the Piscidia I had seen the day before were in evidence. This time I did a more in-depth survey of all the available plant parts. And once again, disappointingly, there were still no flowers or fruits to work with. But I was able to look more carefully at the leaves, barks of various aged trees, and other distinctive characteristics such as buds, new growth and stipule scars. These matched up with the Tomlinson book and I felt I had a match. This was okay for photographs as they can be changed later, but not good enough for gathering. As I was driving around, I stopped at a nature center and asked the person working there some questions to see the breadth of his floristic knowledge. Fortunately he knew many plants, especially trees. As there was what I thought was a Piscidia in the lot there.  I asked and he unequivocally said it was Piscidia and showed me the positive identification characteristics. Excited and losing my last shreds of doubt, I asked his references (same as mine, Tomlinson, good) and if it could be confused with any other plant, which he answered with a firm “no”.

I felt pretty well satisfied from this experience, and now fired-up, I went back to my expensively-rented tiny piece of gravel-strewn earth.

Later that day, small foldable saw and pruners on hand, I headed out to find some inconspicuous roads to gather a bit of Piscidia. Not easily done in this densely inhabited area. But I came upon some lesser used roads and set up shop, meaning I parked my trusty rental, and sussed out where it would be best to do the least damage to the local plant population.

Typical size Jamaican dogwood growing alongside roads

In wildcrafting there are a lot of questions raised about how to gather and do the least harm. So that this paper does not become overly extended by covering a wildcrafting review, I will say that I chose to cut down small trees that were close to the road and mostly had limbs already chopped off for right-of-ways for cars and power lines.
So I cut and gathered a few smallish trees and then further cut their stems to fit into the boot of my rental car. And the whole time I was furtively glancing about for those who may not appreciate my wildcrafting work (for instance, Johnny Law). Eventually I had a few armloads and headed back to my ignominious budget-swallowing (yet cute in its own way) campsite. And then as those who wildcraft know, the longer and more tedious work begins. And so, post-sunset I put on my new iPod and began the long night of listening to mopey indie rock that I so cherish and peeling Piscidia bark. And indeed I did, well beyond the blisters and the general I-want-to-do-something-else crankiness. With kava as my spacing-out late-night buddy, I peeled until most of the local retirees and snowbirds had gone to sleep and then I peeled some more. Wildcrafting tip #501; most barks peel off much easier from freshly cut stems. There is more moisture between the cambium layer (the medicinal part) and the heartwood. Eventually tiredness (and kava) got the best of me and asleep I fell.
I awoke around sunrise and finished the job. This was made more painful by the big aching blister I had accrued the night before which lay between my thumb and forefinger. Eventually I used some vet wrap (a type of sports wrap, which is not a style of sandwich) during the night to cushion off this blistered area.

Young growth and leaflets of a Piscidia piscipula tree

And then the next part of the day’s events began. I got back into my vehicle and went off to gather more Piscidia before it got too hot (it reached into the 80’s by midday). And again I scuttled about, scouting for new areas, and gathering another armload.
Same routine, a bit of dinner and back to peeling bark into the wee hours. And again, rising early to finish the job.
What a relief to finally finish with all the stems (now just heartwood) looking pretty in their de-peeled state. It was now time to find a place to inconspicuously drop these stems off in an environmentally friendly manner.
It felt good to finishing peeling all that I gathered. It is one of the ethical risks wildcrafting entails, biting off more than you can chew. Sometimes it is so easy to gather a whole lot of a plant only to have some hampering factor slow you down for processing it all, and then you are left with ‘wasted’ material. So, it was with relief that this had not happened, though the risk was not over yet. Now that I had all this freshly peeled bark I had yet to dry it and somehow get it back to Ithaca in an un-moldy state to process.

But this decision needed to wait, as I now wanted to get the heck out this most immodestly-priced and privacy lacking campsite and into the Everglades. So away I drove.

I will not go into the details of this second part of the story except to say that how much I enjoy the sweeping beauty of the Everglades, the vast landscape of Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) and the wildflowers poking out here and there. And while I was in Everglades (and spending a more reasonable $16 a night for a handsome campsite) it was hard to not kick myself for not having spent more time of my short time down here in Flamingo, Everglades rather than the human-fill area of where I was.

A mature Jamaican dogwood tree

But then there was the Piscidia drying in my tent. The pungent smell now becoming ever more familiar. (I’m not sure I will want to sleep in a small tent with a lot of drying Piscidia for a long time to come.) If you have not visited the Everglades or the nearby Big Cypress, may I suggest it if you are ever in this part of the world. It is an uncommon and lovely ecosystem.

Just a little bit more to this torrid undulating tale. Two days later it was time to head back to civilization, and before I left The Land of Piscidia I thought about how I was to get all this peeled bark back to myself in Ithaca. So I obtained a cardboard box of the right size and materials from a box store going out of business, along with a big roll of packing tape. And as I was to leave soon, I packed the bark in the box and taped it up, brandishing a cloth sack-full that I would carry with me on the plane as a back up. Why a back up? Well, actually I was kind of nervous about what state the mailed bark would arrive back to me. I had dried it some, but it is humid in South Florida, so I was packing some perishable material. But the time had come, and so the first town I passed thru I stopped at the post office and after a 45 minute wait and $29 later, I sent this bad boy box of Piscidia to Ithaca, realizing there was nothing more I can do but wish it well on its journey.
The next day, I was home quiet home. Yes. And the day after that, I was thankful as my package arrived safely to my home. Anxiously I opened the box, nervous for the rank whiff of bacteria or mold. But, instead, a box full of beautiful Piscidia that I very soon put in my large dehydrator, and that’s how the story stands to this day.
Thank you for reading My Piscidian Adventure~7Song

Drying (and sleeping with) Piscida bark in my tent

Plant Medicine Notes-Chaparral (Larrea Tridentata)

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Plant Medicine Notes-Chaparral (Larrea tridentata)

Glass flower replica of Larrea (Harvard, Boston, MA)

One of my favorite first aid plants for infections is Chaparral (Larrea tridentata, Zygophyllaceae). It has a number of other common names, but in the world of herbal medicine, Chaparral seems to be the most common, common name. This is distinct from the southern California plant community which is also called ‘chaparral’. It is also called Creosote bush due to the similarity of its smell with creosote (a tar derivative). It is in the Zygophyllaceae, a small but showy family, also called the Caltrops family. This makes it related to Guaiacum and Tribulus terrestris (Puncturevine).
Please note, I will be using the name Chaparral and Larrea synonymously throughout this article.
There are a number of reasons I like this plant alongside its medicinal virtues. First, it is very common where it grows, which is throughout a number of desert ecosystems in the southwestern US.  So while that is quite a ways from here (Ithaca, NY), when I am out that way I can gather oodles of this fragrant (some would say stinky) plant without impinging on it or its environment’s health.

Botanical Description

Larrea tridentata is a medium-sized branchy shrub with evergreen dark green leaves. The resinous leaves are compound and opposite, with two leaflets attached to each other at the base. The flowers are shiny yellow with five petals. The fruit is a capsule densely covered in white hairs.

Two leaves-Larrea tridentata

Fruit-Larrea tridentata

Wildcrafting Tips

Chaparral is often the dominant plant where it grows. Frequently, there are huge colonies of it in its range. To wildcraft, drive into one of these areas and look for plants that have more young growth which is a brighter green color (and often a stronger resinous smell). You will see this distinction more often near the roadside as the scant water in the desert runs off the road and is taken up by the plants. I tend to avoid plants right along roads, especially given the profusion of them nearby. It is fairly easy to gather by either cutting the stems with pruners, or just breaking off the younger stems as the plant stems are brittle. I tend to go between the two methods when gathering. I put them in burlap bags which I find versatile for collecting many plants.

Two ‘Warning’ Stories

Story one; there were a few times when I have gathered Chaparral while on a Southwest road trip with family and friends. With the desert sun beating down through the car windows, the recently gathered wildcrafted plants reeked its strong odor. Sort of like 10,000 of those little pine fresheners, but each one coated with Larrea resin.
So, why the warning? Some of the people who have been with me on these trips needed a few years recovery time to able to be around this plant again without being overwhelmed by the smell. (This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only by a bit.)
Story number two involves how I process (break down) the plant. In the mid 1990’s I was studying and teaching at Michael Moore’s school in Albuquerque NM. While there, I lived in a basement apartment. I was garbling (a quaint but useful herbal term for refining the plant for use) the recently gathered Chaparral by letting the plant dry on a tarp on the floor. After it dried I would then step on it to separate the leaves off the stems. This is pretty efficient, but as you can imagine, this Larrea Dance releases quite the odor tribute. And the landlords upstairs did not appreciate it. So I put a fan nearby pointing towards the only little window I had down there. After a while they stopped complaining, though I am not sure if it was that they didn’t want the hassle of kicking me out, or they just got used to it.

Flowers-Larrea tridentata

An Interesting Chaparral Fact

Another aspect that makes this such an intriguing plant is its longevity. There is a Larrea stand in the Mojave Desert called the “King Clone” that is a whopping 11,700 years old. Yup, you read that right. This makes it one of the oldest living organisms on earth (as far as measuring this type of thing goes). The original aboveground part of the plant died way long ago, but the plant continues to expand underground sending up new shrubs (clones) which now form a ring. All the plants in this clonal ring are genetically identical, and it has continued to grow and expand since, hmm, lets see, about 9700 BC.
Here is some perspective on what was happening on earth around then; in people-land, we are mainly hunting and gathering, though the nascent skill of agriculture is emerging. And the last big glacial period was ending around then too. At that time in what is now California, a seedling sprouted, grew and continues to this day through the many ages of we call modern human history.

So, counting up the ways I like this plant so far (its medicinal value forthcoming), is for the commonness in where it grows, the ease in gathering and garbling (sans neighbors), and a fascination on how long this plant can live. Plus, after a desert rain the air is pungent with the odor of Larrea, which I find revivifying.

Processing and Medicine Making

After taking the leaves off the stems, there are a couple of ways you can process this plant for medicine. First, you can just dry it for future use. The plant dries pretty easy, just lay it out on some kind of sheet (such as a tarp) in a non-moist environment. It is helpful if the room gets some sunlight to speed the drying process.  If you are going to use a dehydrator remember the smell will waft throughout your home, and your dehydrator will smell like Chaparral for a long time to come. This might be problematic if you are going to dry more delicate smelling plants or foods in it later.

We Interrupt this Blog to bring you Another Odd Anecdote

Years ago, I lived in a very drafty moist cabin. To keep most of my dried plants dry, I kept them in jars, buckets and tubs. But I kept my Chaparral in an open box figuring it would resist any molds, etc. A couple of weeks after I had stored it in the aforementioned box, I looked in and all of the Larrea had gone moldy. I didn’t even know that can happen, but it sure did and I had to compost all that hard work and plants gathered from far away. I guess Chaparral is not used to living in a constant moist environment and had no defenses against the pathogen.

Medicinal Preparations

The part of this plant used medicinally is the leaves, though if you have some branches, flowers or seed capsules in with them it will not hurt the medicine. The leaf can be used either fresh or dried, as there is not that much water in them to begin with.

There are a number of preparations that can be made from Larrea. Here is a list of some of the ones I make and use the most (medicinal uses for them are below). Due to the antioxidant properties of this plant, most of these preparations will have a longer shelf life than medicines made from other plants.

  1. Tincture-tincture with 95% ethanol at about 1:2, or as close to this as you can get while having the leaves covered by the menstruum and a few inches above it.
  2. Infused oil-soak (infuse) the leaves in extra virgin olive oil, and let them sit for at least 2 weeks in the oil. Cover the leaves with the oil and have a few inches of it above them. Since they resist mold, you can let the leaves stay in the oil for a longer period of time than most plants.
    There are two very good reasons to make this preparation. The first is Chaparral’s use as an external antiseptic. The oil alone, or combined with other plants, can be applied directly to wounds. The second reason is Larrea’s strong antioxidant effects. The constituents (chemicals) helps stabilize the infused oil, and by adding the Chaparral oil into other oils or salves, it will slow down their rate of rancidity and give them a longer shelf life. The only drawback to this is its strong taste and smell so you may not want to employ it in preparations like lip balms.
  3. Salve-salves are basically infused oils solidified with beeswax with essential oils sometimes added in. Using Larrea in a salve is similar to using it as an infused oil.
  4. Tea-tea is a water-based preparation generally prepared with hot water. Chaparral is usually infused (hot water poured on) rather than decocted (cooked) in the water. Remember that if this is for drinking, you may want to use a light touch with the plant, it is strong tasting.
  5. Honey-an infused honey is when the plant is covered with honey which will eventually extract the plant constituents. There are a few ways of increasing the ability of the honey to absorb these. One is heating it in a double boiler or just keeping the jar near a warm place so that the honey is liquid enough to allow movement of the materials between the plant and the honey.
    I have not used Chaparral honey yet, but I am considering it as a burn medicine to have the Larrea augment the honey for this type of treatment.
  6. Capsule-these are plants powdered and put into various types of capsules. There are good reasons to use capsules with Chaparral. First, the plant’s constituents are stable, so the medicinal action will still be potent even after the powdering process. The second is that this plant has a very strong taste so many people will not take it. But capsules can bypass the taste buds. Remember that if there is a lot of ‘Chaparral dust’ on the capsule, it might decrease patient compliance (meaning it will taste bad).
  7. Compress-a compress (compare to poultice) is prepared from a tea of the plant and then a cloth dipped into the tea is applied to the distressed body area. Chaparral compresses are especially helpful when you cannot directly soak the affected area. You can also soak a bandage with the tea (or tincture) though it is sometimes problematic to keep an area too moist for too long.
  8. Poultice-a poultice is when the plant is applied directly to the body (as opposed to a tea of the plant, see compress). I tend to use compresses more often as they are less sloppy. One of the most common types of poultice is called a ‘spit poultice’. This is when you chew a plant up and spit it on the hurt area. Good luck with this and Larrea.
  9. Powder-as mentioned in capsules, the powder of Chaparral is pretty stable and will last a while. A reason to powder it is to combine it with other plants and substances such as clay. It can also be stirred and drank, or put into capsules.

10. Wash/Soak/Sitz/Bath-these are all ways of soaking a body part in Chaparral tea (or tincture if need be). This is one of my favorite ways of using Larrea, making a very strong tea and then soaking an infected body part such as a foot or forearm. I think it is one of the most effective ways of using this plant. To prepare this, just make a very strong tea of the plant and soak the body part in hot, but not painfully hot water. The heat helps by keeping the local pores open allowing better infiltration of the plant constituents. Keep in mind that the water may have infectious material in it so make sure the vessel is washed well and the water disposed of properly.

Whole shrub-Larrea tridentata

Patient Compliance

An important consideration with Chaparral is how to get people to ingest it. Externally it is not so difficult, but internally this can be quite tricky as the plant is very bitter and for many the taste and smell are quite disagreeable. This is especially true if they are going to have to take it for a while. So when deciding what form (tincture, tea, etc) to give it is important to consider the patient’s ability to actually consume it. For someone used to taking herbal preparations this may not be as difficult. But for someone unaccustomed to drinking plant-based medicines you might want to figure out the easiest form for them to take. If it seems they will not use it, consider using another herb. It is not easy to disguise the flavor of Chaparral, adding honey to the tea just makes it taste sweet yucky. One form to consider are capsules. They have little flavor (unless the outside is dusted with the plant powder) and are fairly stable in powder form. The next most acceptable form is tincture, mainly because you can shoot it down quickly and you don’t need as much of it. You can add the tincture to juice or add flavoring herbs such as Cardamom to the tincture, but probably the best way to get it down is to dilute it, knock it back and follow with a chaser. I would reserve the tea for folks used to herbal medicine.

Medicinal Uses

While there is a wealth of information on the medicinal uses of Larrea, I am going to stick to the most common ways in which I use it. This is mainly in first aid and for various types of infections. If you are intrigued by this plant, I suggest researching other historical and current uses. This plant and closely related species have a long historical usage by people who have lived near it.

Infection

The main way I use Larrea tridentata is in various preparations to help prevent and kill a number of infectious organisms. These include; bacteria, fungi and protozoa. For herbal honesty’s sake, I want to be clear and say I have seen Chaparral not work many times, but it has helped often enough and sometimes where other plants (and drugs) have not. And so I continue to use and recommend it. It is valuable plant that I hope people who read this begin to use more frequently and widely.

In first aid the main common types of infections I see are skin and gut infections. Skin-wise, the most common infectious bacteria are staph (Staphylococcus aureus). Gut infections include bacterial, viral and protozoal organisms that are delivered through food and water. I also occasionally see fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot.

With staph infections, it is one of a number of remedies that are helpful depending on the strain of staph, the extent of the infection and the individual’s immunological resistance. While this is not going to cover a full staph treatment protocol, this is how I use Larrea in these situations. If the wound is on an area you can put into wash basin (i.e., hands and feet) soak the infected area in a very strong tea of Larrea  If it cannot be soaked, use a hot compress. Afterwards alternate between remedies (see Combinations below) which will be applied topically. Apply the Larrea tincture directly on the wound and/or put it on a gauze pad which is then held in place. You may also want to employ other topical and internal plant medicines such as activated charcoal poultices and Echinacea tincture internally.  An important note about staph infections is to avoid using sticky tape to hold the gauze in place. When it is removed, the hair that is pulled out can leave a gap for an infection to take place. Use self-adhesive tape such as Coflex or Vet Wrap.. Staph infections are not always easy to treat, and when stubborn they need to be taken seriously. With these types of infections also consider community protection and letting the infected person know that they are contagious. Also, they need to be intelligent with their treatments. And you and they both need to clean up good each time you work together.

Another place to use Larrea is with infectious gut organisms. This gets trickier as it can be hard to tell if it is an infection or a non-infectious disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome. Also, it can be difficult to know which type of infectious organism. I will not go into those details here but if you know the person ate or drank contaminated food or water then consider using Larrea with other herbal medicines along with (but not at the same time as) activated charcoal.

One last place here to consider using Chaparral for is with fungal infections. I have seen it work well with the type of fungi (a Tinea) between the toes and also under toenails. The best way to treat this is with hot Chaparral tea soaks and topical application of the tincture.

To simplify, if you think it is an infection and it is not posing an immediate risk, then consider using Chaparral, either internally or externally.

Fruit-Larrea tridentata

Other Medicinal Uses

Larrea is also used for a much broader array of medicinal uses. It has been well researched due to it containing nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA) which has strong antioxidant properties. The free radical scavenging abilities of NDGA recommend it being helpful in a wide range of diseases. Someday I hope to expand my use of this plant for some of these chronic disease states. If you are interested in learning more just search nordihydroguaiaretic acid

Due to its bitter flavor it can be used as digestive bitter but since it has many other properties it seems better to use a safer (less complex) bitter such as Gentian (Gentiana spp.).

Dosage

It is difficult to give concise dosage guidelines for almost any remedy or treatment but here are some general protocols. When treating an acute infection as with something brought on by ‘bad’ food or water, use a large loading (the first) dose and then use medium amounts regularly for 2 days or so afterwards. To give an example;  you and a friend drank some iffy ‘live’ water from a stream near where you were camping in the Rockies. Two nights later you both wake up around 3 am with diarrhea. You are nauseous but not vomiting. Start with about 4 ml (nearly a teaspoon or about 3 full 1 oz dropperfuls) along with some other herbs. Alternate with activated charcoal (but not at the same time). And then take about 2.5 ml (about ½ teaspoon or 2 full 1 oz dropperfuls) every four hours for about 2 days. And then reduce it to about 1.25 ml (a full 1 oz dropper) every four hours for another day or so. It is hard to say how long as it depends on whether your symptoms are getting better. So this is a very broad parameter for treatment.
For external infections, try to soak the infected part in hotish water at least 1-2 times daily. And apply Chaparral tincture throughout the day.

Bud and flower-Larrea tridentata

Combinations

While Larrea can be used alone, it also combines well with other plants. What percentage of the plant you use in a formula depends on the main health benefit you are seeking. For instance, if you are using it for an infected wound, you might use a larger percentage of Chaparral as it is a strong disinfectant. But if you are looking to treat inflammation, you might add plants that have as stronger antiinflammatory action.

For staph infections in particular, it is helpful to use a mix of plants and change them after every few wound care treatments. This seems to help keep the staph infections at bay.

  1. Antibacterials-Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) Oregon graperoot (Berberis spp), Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
  2. Antiinflammatories-Arnica (Arnica spp.), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Willow (Salix spp.), Turmeric (Curcuma longa), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.)
  3. Astringents-Anemopsis californica (Yerba mansa), Oak (Quercus spp.), Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Geranium root (Geranium maculatum).
  4. Vulneraries-Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum).

Safety Profile

There are a number of concerns about the internal use of Larrea mainly involving liver damage. Again, as with the medicinal uses section, please look through the literature to learn more. As with many studies, it is hard to interpret the causality of Larrea creating damage to the liver and other organs. But here is my take on it, it is a strong herbal medicine; in taste, smell and effects. It has a decisive action on infections. My recommendation is that for external use, it seems safe enough unless it was put into a deep wound over a long period of time which would allow for systemic uptake. Internally, I would try to limit its use to about 2 weeks or so. If it has not helped by then it might be time to change the medicine. Also, the flavor tends to limit people’s ability to take it, so if you are using capsules, which have no flavor, you may want to set a regular dosage with a time limit.
Any quantity I suggest here is just conjecture. I have no way to evaluate how much a person can take or for how long. You will have to figure this out for yourself using common sense guidelines, information gleaned from outside sources and the knowledge of your own body.
Two special notes.  Internally I would suggest people with frank liver damage such as Hepatitis C avoid it. I don’t know any studies to confirm or deny this, but there are other plants that might work and frankly Larrea just seems strong.
Also, while there is no clear evidence of Chaparral interacting with any conventional drugs (such as with CP450 pathways), it seems possible that it might. So if you are taking drugs that are essential for your well being, you may want to have some lab tests performed to make sure your markers haven’t changed.
I realize that this may seem hedging but it is the best information I feel I can offer. So, to reiterate, Larrea is strong and could possibly cause some health problems taken in large doses over a long period of time. Avoid it when the liver is damaged and be cautious taking it regularly if you are on any life-sustaining medications. I think using Larrea for first aid situations, notably infections, is reasonably safe due to the duration it is used.

Chaparral is used by some people as a cancer treatment, and I frankly I feel unqualified in giving any response to this. I don’t have enough information and would just suggest that anyone with serious health disorders to make sure to be seen by knowledgeable people.

Considerations

Please remember that when helping people to keep the patient’s needs first. Their getting well is more important than your desire to experiment with herbal medicines. If there is an infection that is quickly getting out of hand, it may be time for medical intervention. It is not that antibiotics always help but sometimes they might work better or in conjunction with Larrea and other herbs.

Conclusion

Larrea tridentata is a useful plant for number of reasons. First, it has strong infection fighting potential and can be used for number of different infective organisms. This makes it a useful plant for anyone preparing to do first aid in an outdoor situation, especially at a longer event. Next, it is a common plant where it grows and a lot of it can be gathered without harming the plant population or the environment it grows in. It is soluble in a wide variety of menstruums and can be prepared into a number of helpful medicinal preparations. It has strong antioxidant properties so it maintains its medicinal strength for a lengthy period and can be added to other medicines as a preservative. For all of these reasons, plus the way it makes the desert smell after a rainfall, I hope that others learn to appreciate and use this plant.


Gelsemium sempervirens-Wildcrafting and Medicine Making

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens, Loganiaceae)

While in Gainesville, Florida recently I gathered some Gelsemium sempervirens for medicine. Honestly, I have some from when I last gathered it in 1994 or so, but I like to sometimes wildcraft plants again to remember the specifics of gathering them.

Gelsemium has many common names generally alluding to its sweet (many would say overly sweet) floral fragrance. These include Jessamine and Yellow or Carolina jasmine (or jessamine). These names can be confusing as it is not related to the Jasmine plant (Jasminum species) commonly used for its fragrance. Gelsemium (my preferred common name to avoid confusion) is generally placed in the Loganiaceae family, though it also sometimes placed into the Gelsemiaceae.

This plant has a large natural range from Southeastern US to Central America. It is a vine and while it can be a bit weedy, I find it rather lovely, and glad to see and smell it when I occasionally visit Florida in February.

Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens Loganiaceae)

Gelsemium as Medicine
I have not used Gelsemium much for medicine yet, partly due to its toxicity. However, in the proper dosage, it has been used

Gelsemium sempervirens flower

to help reduce pain and I would like to learn how to use it this way.

The underground structures (rhizomes and roots) are the parts used as medicine. I tinctured them fresh at approximately 1:2 in 85% ethanol. The reason it is approximate is that I was flying home with the medicine, and to avoid adding too much weight to my already weighty baggage, I added just enough ethanol in the jar with the cut-up herb before leaving Florida to preserve it until I got home and add the rest of the alcohol.

You may notice that a number of plants that are used to help with pain are potentially dangerous, such as Atropa belladonna (Belladonna) and Aconitum columbianum (Monkshood, Aconite, or Wolfsbane). The reason for this is that plants affect neurotransmission, that is, the ability of the body to ‘talk to itself’ through the nervous system. And since the nervous system is involved with the transmission of pain signals, interrupting this pathway can help reduce pain. But this also disrupts the body’s ability to perform very important processes such as breathing. That is why you see respiratory failure as one of the common lethal affects of some of these plants. As an interesting historical note, it has also made them infamous as poisons.

Gelsemium sempervirens flower

So why use them at all? Because in first aid pain one of the most common problems (here I am referring to physical pain) and so any agent that can help with this situation is worth a consideration. Also, the dose is often well discussed in older herbals as well as current herbalists who use these plants. So gather it I did.

Wildcrafting Gelsemium

Gelsemium sempervirens flower bud

These notes were made while gathering Gelsemium near Gainesville, Florida. This is a very common plant and not threatened in anyway, so there is little worry about hurting the population. I would just avoid taking it from an area where the soil seems contaminated, or if someone is purposefully allowing the graceful vines to grow around their home. This plant grows in a number of soil types, though I looked for it growing in sand (common there) as it would be easier to dig out. The parts used for medicine are the underground structures, especially the rhizome, along with the roots. The rhizomes (a type of underground stem) grow somewhat horizontally and not too far below the soil surface. This is one of the ways that this vine spreads itself as it sprouts up from various places along the rhizome. Because it was not growing too deeply in the soil, I was often able to extricate it from the soil with just my hands pulling the rhizome and roots loose. There is a special ‘yanking’ technique for helping remove underground structures. The roots are often holding the plant fast in the ground and so you want to loosen them while not having the plant break off and then left with just a small piece. Instead, give firm pulls to the rhizome, so that it and the roots start to separate from the soil. This is the yanking part. This way, when you eventually pull even harder, more of the root and rhizome comes out.
One of the difficulties of gathering roots and rhizomes is deciding which is the one to plant you want to gather. This can become difficult, as there are a number of different roots in any given piece of earth. And there are also other vines tangled in with the Gelsemium, notably a number of Smilax species. There are a few ways to do this. First, find an area that only has Gelsemium growing as a vine, so as not to confuse it with the Smilax or other plants. Next, the first few times you gather it,

Gelsemium sempervirens rhizome and roots

gently unwind the plant from the plant it is growing on so that you have the whole plant in your hand (as opposed to only having the root). This way it is obvious that it is attached to the right plant. And since Gelsemium has opposite leaves (as opposed to Smilax with alternate ones) it doesn’t have to be in flower. You may want to wear jeans or other heavy-duty clothing as you will likely be working around the thorny Smilax plants. I want to point out, however you gather this or any plant, you have to have properly identified it in the first place. There is no substitution for good botany skills here.
So, find a Gelsemium vine that is not entangled with other vines, and follow it down to where it meets the soil. Now with your hand, or using a hori hori, follow the rhizome under the soil, gently and firmly jerking it, so that it loosens from the dirt. And continue moving your hand along the rhizome to find and loosen more of the underground structure. In larger vines, the roots are thicker and will need to be dug out with a hori hori or other too. While I am doing this, I am using my pruners to separate the many vines that are attached to the rhizome to make removing it easier. One more notable feature of Gelsemium is that the rhizome and roots have a distinctive smell. I wouldn’t trust this alone to identify the roots, but it is helpful, and I like the smell.

And so that is my Gelsemium wildcrafting and medicine making adventure. I hope you found it helpful, and I will post later as I learn to use this plant as medicine. ~7Song

Gelsemium sempervirens wildcrafted

Gelsemium sempervirens tincture

Baptisia tinctoria

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

This article is about Baptisia tinctoria often called Wild indigo. This is not the plant that makes the indigo dye, though that plant (an Indigofera species) is also in the Fabaceae (Pea family). It is one of my favorite plants for respiratory viruses (cold and flus) and accompanying sore throats. The roots  are the part used for medicine. It was employed by the Eclectic physicians who used it for a variety of conditions. It is also the source of one of my favorite quotes in Ellingwood’s Eclectic Materia Medica; he suggests one should use it if one has “ stools resembling prune juice or fetid meat washings”. ‘Fetid meat washings’, how is that for a visualization.

It is not a common plant, but I occasionally find it along the borders of woods mainly in Virginia and West Virginia. And while it is not particularly showy, I can usually spot it while driving due to the distinctive green coloration of the leaves.

Baptisia tinctoria growing in its native habitat

I use the fresh root tincture. The roots are not that far down in the soil, but they tend to grow in clayey soils and are not that easy to dig and pull out. Also, when you try to pull them out, the outer root bark comes off leaving the middle part of the root in the ground. So it takes a little while to work the whole root out of the soil.

I often mix this plant with Echinacea, Berberis, Ligusticum, Hydrastis and other antimicrobial plants. I use it for colds and flus and secondary bacterial infections. And while killing or inhibiting viruses and bacteria are two entirely different things, I feel that Baptisia and perhaps these other plants do so, likely through different mechanisms and various constituents each of them have.

Baptisia tinctoria in flower

Dosage-it is a fairly strong medicine and I tend to not use it alone. In a tincture with equal parts of Baptisia, Ligusticum, Eupatorium perfoliatum and Echinacea, for an adult in the throes of a flu, I would give about 2.5 ml (a half a teaspoon, or about 2 full 1 oz droppers), every 2-3 hours the first day. As symptoms abated, I might use a bit less every 4 hours. And as the condition improves lower both quantity and frequency.  In these situations you might want to also start mixing in other medicines such as antiinflammatories, decongestants, cough and sore throat remedies, pain relievers and other medicines. For a more detailed list, please see my handout ‘An Herbalist’s View-Approaches to Colds and Flus).

It seems safe for children, just reduce your quantity (not frequency) with littler people.

If you haven’t tried it, this is a plant I would strongly recommend.

As usual, I hope this was helpful. ~7Song

Baptisia tinctoria plant freshly dug

Baptisia tinctoria roots-recently gathered

Baptisia tinctoria-mature seedpods

Baptisia australis

Avena-A Monograph on Oats as Medicine

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Avena barbata-Wild slender oats

This is a monograph about oats, the same plant that oatmeal comes from, but here the focus will be on how it is used medicinally.

One thing that can be said about this plant is that unless you have a specific oat allergy, it is a very safe, nutritive plant. As such, a wide variety of people, including those that are often sensitive to other medicines, can use it. It is one of those plants that straddles the line of ‘is it a food, or is it a medicine’, which is often an arbitrary line anyway.

Avena Botany and Nomenclature

There are a couple of common names for Avena depending on which of the different parts of the plant is being used. The mature seeds are the part used for food and depending on how they are processed are called oats, oatmeal, rolled oats, etc. In herbal medicine the immature flower heads and the stems and leaves are the main parts used. Generally when the immature flower heads are made into a tincture (see Medicine Preparation below) it is called fresh milky oat tops, or milky oats. This is because there is a white fluid that is exuded from the flower head at this phase of its development, and it is the preferred time to tincture the plant.

The other parts of the oat plant employed for medicine are the dried stems (technically called a culm) and leaves. Sometimes the immature seed heads are sold along with the culm and leaves. These are most often used for tea and are called oatstraw or wild oats.

One of the things that always seemed ironic to me is seeing the dried plant straw sold in jars in markets for medicine, and then driving along and passing by large bales of hay sold for much less. The baled oatstraw is generally sold for animal bedding.

Botany

Avena is in the Poaceae (also called the Gramineae), the grass family, which is one of the largest families of plants and with one of the widest distributions. This family contributes a significant portion of the human diet and includes rice (Oryza), wheat Avena barbata with botanical details(Triticum), corn (Zea), sugar cane (Saccharum), rye (Secale), along with others. The grasses have their own distinct botanical characteristics. It is too technical a family to cover here but there is a photo of Avena barbata which shows a spikelet (the inflorescence) from the plant containing 2 florets (small flowers). The dangling parts (yellow on a thin string) are the stamen. Each floret has 3 stamens. And the feathery part is the stigma, where the pollen will be caught. The whole spikelet is the part that will eventually mature into the milky oat top.

The most commonly used species is Avena sativa (and it cultivars). This is the species that is cultivated for its consumption and if you see large fields of oats, it will be this species.

There are two weedy species that are probably useful as well. They look very similar to Avena sativa, and one would need to botanize them to see the differences. I don’t know if anyone purposefully gathers them, but they taste similar and probably are just as useful. The first is Avena fatua, which is a common weedy oats (meaning not purposefully planted) and is commonly found wherever people grow A. sativa. The second is another weedy species, Avena barbata, which is found mostly in California. These can be found growing along roadsides and other non-garden places, but so can Avena sativa.

Avena sativa-recently harvested

Wildcrafting and Gathering

The most likely place one will gather Avena sativa is from farms. It has a distinctive green color and once learned can be easily spotted while driving along. You can then ask the folks growing it if they wouldn’t mind you gathering some of the tops. This will likely bring incredulous looks (which the herbalist should be familiar with by now). It shouldn’t impact their crop, and you likely to get permission. You may want to find out if the crop is sprayed. The second place is along roadsides where you may find any of the three above-mentioned species.
I also ask my organic gardening friends if they will grow a row of it for me, as it is pretty easy to grow. I trade herbal medicine and consultations with local farmers for these favors.

Few tools are needed for gathering this plant. First I make sure it is the right time to be gathering the plant. It is easy to test, just squeeze the immature oat top and a medium-thin white fluid will emerge from the base. Those of you who enjoy pimple popping will like this aspect. Not all of them will exude this fluid, but a majority should. Now it is time to gather. I usually just bring a brown paper grocery bag and turn down the sides so that it stands upright. I then walk along the rows, using both hands in a loose fist and drag my hand upward along the stem gathering the oat tops. It takes a bit of practice and initially you will be pulling some of the oat plants out of the ground. It takes a while to fill a bag, but that is a good amount of medicine depending on what you are going to do with it. You may also want to bring pruners and cut a number of the stalks and dry them for tea.

Processing, Medicine making and Preparations

There are two common ways of processing the Avena, one is drying it for tea, and the other is tincturing the fresh oat tops.

First, directions for preparing the tincture. Freshness is important in preparing fresh milky immature seed tops tincture. The day that I gather them I set aside as the day I will also process them. After trying a number of different methods I feel the best way to get the medicine from them is by using a blender. There are a number of reasons for this, and one is that the oat tops are light and bulky and take up a lot of room in the jar you will tincture them in. So that if you try to cover them with alcohol, it is weak, even if you jam them tight in the jar. Blending them breaks down the plant material much further and makes for a stronger medicine. I use a Vita-mix blender for preparing tinctures, they are a bit pricey, but I think worth it. (If you decide to purchase one, I would suggest a used one and the kind that has a reverse motion to its motor, which is very useful for tincturing). I blend the tincture at 1:2 80% ethanol, and it turns a psychedelic lime green color.

If you do not have a blender, try to double macerate it fresh. It would be very helpful to have a tincture press for this method. If you grow them yourself this wouldn’t be too hard. Gather the amount you want to tincture at the earliest date of the oats going milky. Press them firmly into a jar and cover with 80% ethanol. The oats should stay milky for a week or so. Before they become dry (that is, when you press on the oat heads, nothing comes out) press the tincture you have already made. Gather more fresh milky oats and add the previous tincture onto them. That should make it substantially stronger.

The second oat medicine is by drying the culm, leaves and any leftover tops. Warning, the culms (the fatter part of the stem bearing the leaves and flower top) mold easily even after they seem dry. I have had this happen a few times. I dry the aforementioned parts (usually in a dehydrator) and then put them in a jar to keep. Some time later I will open the jar to find the culm (not the leaves nor tops) moldy. I assume there are some persistent fungi within the culm, and in the right conditions (such as a jar with a lid) it does its moldy thing. I suggest storing them in a paper bag, as they less often become moldy. But still, make sure to dry them thoroughly.

A Processing Story

Some years back, I was on a class field trip to the Adirondacks, visiting my friend Paul Murtha who owned a beautiful piece of land he called Myrthwood. While we were in the Adirondacks we also visited Jean Argus of Jean’s Green’s who let us pick a whole bunch of the Avena she had sowed. So we gathered the milky tops and brought them back to Paul’s and I asked to use his blender to process them.

Before I go further in this story, it is important to know that Paul had just finished building his kitchen and painted part of it white (a bit of foreshadowing here).

I was blending the oat tops and adding alcohol and….shwoosh, the top flew off and the blended Avena flew out. The tincture splattered the walls, leaving them that lime green color I mention previously. It stained all too well and Paul had to re-sand and re-paint the areas where the accident occurred. If you are reading this Paul, once again I apologize and thank you for letting me take so many of my students to your lovely place. Paul now lives in Ecuador, hopefully not due to all the classes I brought to Myrthwood.

Medicinal Attributes

The main medicinal attribute of Avena is as a nerve tonic. A tonic meaning it is more useful taken regularly for its nerve calming

Avena sativa-Oats

properties rather than an on-the-spot first aid plant (such as Scutellaria). It does not have dramatic action, it slowly and consistently helps restore ones ‘nerves’. But what does ‘nerves’ mean? Here I am referring to a feeling acquired from those that have pushed and pushed and now feel tired, out-of-sorts, or just plain disconnected much of the time no matter how much they rest or sleep.

I think of Avena primarily as a vata remedy, and would like to characterize some vata traits. While it is a fun exercise to generalize these characteristics, it is important to remember they are just caricatures. Individuals who may have some of these characteristics, may also have other parts of themselves that don’t fit the vata mold at all. One’s traits are most pronounced when that part of them is out of balance. An example, I’ve talked elsewhere about how pitta-types may react if they get a flat tire while running late for an important event. Their tendency is to start bossing everyone around and laying blame. In the same circumstance, a vata-type may lose their ability to concentrate and start to panic, and run in circles; “what are we going to do, what are we going to do?” But what is important to understand is that anyone could also just rationally and realistically work their way through the situation. It is the dosha imbalanced (at least temporarily) that we see these actions. While it is important to take the individual into account during treatment, there are times when these archetypical characteristics are helpful in making herbal and lifestyle recommendations.

Here are some more concepts of vata, and hence characteristics of people who might benefit from oats. Their thoughts easily becoming scattered and have a hard time staying focused, especially with a lot of distractions around (think sports bar). This type of person lives for spontaneity and creativity which is often at its peak in the wee hours, when the rest of world is quieter. It may be difficult to gain weight and there is a constant need to snack. If there is nothing to eat, disorientation sets in. They can be very empathic and may find themselves crying during television commercials. These are just a few traits and hopefully give a glimpse into the vata archetype.

While oats are a fine vata tonic, anyone feeling frayed can enjoy a cup (or quart) of this tea. One of the reason it is more specific for the vata constitution is the same reason it is so widely eaten as food, and that is that it is nourishing. And if there is one fundamental treatment for vata types, it is feeding deficiencies. Building up.

The tea is a better building tonic than the tincture, and the fresh milky oat top tincture is stronger than the tea. For those who feel exhausted or easily scattered it may be helpful to drink the tea throughout the day, and use the tincture when needed.

Some other nervine qualities of Avena are for anyone who feels they have plundered their nervous system reserves and now have a hard time focusing and have become rather snappy. It may also help folks who have difficulty falling asleep who when they lay down, their mind becomes a cacophonous enclave of disconnected swirling thoughts. This is different than a more pitta-type of insomnia where the person goes through a litany of all the things they should have done that day, or could have done better. (Or, for the true pitta ‘check’, telling people off in your mind).

Dosage

Avena preparations are some of the safest nervine remedies. While they don’t have the punch of some, they rarely leave one feeling addled or tired. The amount used is really just an individual decision. The main suggestion is to use it on a regular basis. And schedules can help bring order to a scattered mind, so consider using them at a regular time throughout the day.
The tincture is also useful to take throughout the day, ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5ml) as often as needed, taking larger amounts when troubling circumstances lie ahead (or behind).

Summary

I hope this monograph gives insight into using this safe, easily prepared, non-endangered plant. Just drink a few cups and see if you like it’s oaty flavor, and perhaps you will find it a helpful nerve restorative.

Pedicularis (Lousewort) Monograph-Pedicularis as a Skeletal Muscle Relaxant

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
Inflorescenses of 4 species of Pedicularis

Inflorescences of four species of Pedicularis

This  monograph will explore the genus Pedicularis, the plants often called lousewort or wood betony. It will give a wide overview of the genus as well as focusing on its use as a helpful skeletal muscle relaxant. And on an aesthetic level, this genus is one of my favorite plants to find. The various shapes and shades of leaves and the lovely twistingly curved colorful flowers. Yes, a beautiful group of plants.

Botany and Name Derivation

Pedicularis is derived from Pediculus the genus for lice. It seems this connection results from an old idea that when this plant was ingested by livestock, they acquired lice. Though as herbalists are well familiar, these tales become contorted over time and there may be a more believable story at its root. Or not. Either way one of the most common of its common names is lousewort, leading to an even more thorough connection to these insects, as a single lice is a louse. This is where the word lousy comes from. Interesting, eh?

Stachys officinalis-the other Wood betony

Stachys officinalis-the other Wood betony

The genus Pedicularis is currently in the Orobanchaceae. It was formerly (and to some still) in the Scrophulariaceae. All the Scrophulariaceae that are partly or fully parasitic on the roots of other plants were moved to this family.

The common name lousewort was already discussed, but what about wood betony? I do not use this common name as it is too often confused with Stachys officinalis (see photo), which are also commonly called wood betony (or just betony).  The older name for Stachys officinalis was Betonica officinalis, so maybe a connection there. But instead of more speculation on this name, remember that there are two plants commonly called wood betony; Pedicularis and Stachys. And again, to avoid confusion, I will not be calling it wood betony here.

Wildcrafting

Pedicularis bracteosa from Washington

Pedicularis bracteosa in Washington state

As there are a number of Pedicularis species, it is hard to generalize on how to ethically harvest them. Around upstate New York Pedicularis canadensis is usually found in spread out patches, and should usually be left alone. But in the Southeast it is much more common and if one spends time traveling and looking, they can usually find a patch or two to gather from.
The same holds true for the Rocky Mountain and Western species. While none are endangered, they can be spread thin. Make sure there are a number of large self-sustaining patches where you are gathering. Come back and check on them to make sure that you are doing an environmentally healthy job gathering them. It is often best to keep your wildcrafting spots to yourself, or

share with trusted friends. If teaching, instill the importance of ethical and sustainable harvesting to your students.

Pedicularis canadensis in carmine

I suggest all readers to go out and seek your local Pedicularis species. In the east there is Pedicularis canadensis (which sometimes sports a lovely shade of carmine, see photo). The Rocky Mountains seem to have the most species, and then a number of species westward. Some species are woodland dwellers and others grow in open marshy areas.

Pedicularis groenlandica

Medicinal Uses

Pedicularis is a useful skeletal muscle relaxant. A quick review; skeletal muscles are those that you can generally move voluntarily (‘I am now going to look over my right shoulder’), and smooth muscles are those that are a part of your viscera and are involuntary, you don’t have to think about coordinating your gastrointestinal tract to propel food from one end to the other.
I find it most useful for back pain, upper to lower. Now, this is not a narcotic, so it cannot remove all the pain associated with sore skeletal muscles, but by relaxing the tension it can decrease the need for stronger pain medicines. Also please remember that when pain is decreased, it does not mean that the underlying problem is resolved, and so caution is necessary to make sure one does not reinjure themselves (an all too often occurrence).

Pedicularis is also useful for neck and shoulder tension. For massage therapists, giving this plant to particularly tight patients before working on them can be helpful. An advantage of skeletal muscle relaxants is that they do not dumb down one’s thinking and so can be taken throughout the day (with the consideration of not reinjuring).

While I have outlined the back, shoulders and neck here, Pedicularis can be tried for any skeletal muscle pain.

For medicine I have primarily used Pedicularis groenlandica (Elephanthead), the main reason is that it is one of the first I learned and find this species to be effective. But many other herbalists use a number of the different species growing around the US. And I am beginning to experiment more myself.

Safety

Pedicularis racemosa (Parrot's beak)-Colorado

Pedicularis racemosa (Parrot's beak) in Colorado

Another advantage of Pedicularis is its general good safety record, negative side effects are uncommon. The most common is the medicine causing some ‘spaciness’ or mild disorientation. For some people this will be enough to warrant trying a different remedy, for others it can be helpful as it reduces their sensation of pain further.

There is concern about this genus’s potential to pick up potentially toxic constituents from nearby plants. The reason is that Pedicularis is a hemiparasite and often obtains nutrients from nearby plants through its roots (though it does not need this association to survive). Some of the plants that it parasitizes do have potentially harmful constituents, such as the pyrrolizidine alkaloids from Senecio triangularis. There is clear proof that this connection exists (see links below), and so the question is what to do about this situation. I avoid gathering it when it is growing very near a toxic plant such as Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima), but it is hard to know really what roots it is feeding on. My recommendation is to avoid gathering it near plants you know are toxic, say Aconitum. It is hard to know exactly how much Pedicularis medicine one would have to ingest and if the potentially toxic compounds are bioavailable. I have not seen this poisoning yet and I have worked with people who take large amounts of Pedicularis daily, however we are, as always, in an herbal learning phase and need to be open to possible consequences of the medicines we recommend.

Pedicularis crenulata (Meadow lousewort) in Wyoming

Combinations

Pedicularis combines well with a number of other plants.  Other skeletal muscle relaxants include Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, please be aware of side effects from this plant) and Skullcap (Scutellaria). Add antiinflammatories such as Arnica (small doses here), Willow (Salix) and Turmeric (Curcuma). And also use with anodynes (pain relievers) such as Wild lettuce (Lactuca), Hops (Humulus) and Valerian (Valeriana). One of my favorite combinations is equal parts Pedicularis, Black cohosh, and Skullcap in a tincture. If the injury is recent, than I might add 10 drops of Arnica tincture into a one ounce bottle of the above blend. I sometimes keep the anodyne herbs separate, especially if there is a lot of pain, so that they can take large amounts of the skeletal muscle blend without losing mental function and take a larger amount of the anodyne tincture to help with sleeping.

Medicine Preparation

Community Herbal Intensive 2008-Gathering Pedicularis groenlandica in Wyoming

I tincture Pedicularis fresh and use the aboveground parts when the plant is in flower. If the plant is very stemmy, such as with P. procera, I might take the leaves off the stem. It is an easy plant to process as the tissue if very soft and easy to cut. I tincture it 1:2 in 95% ethanol.

I have made an infused oil with the plant as well, but don’t feel experienced enough to know if it works. I chop the aerial parts and then dry and infuse them in extra virgin olive oil.

Pedicularis procera (Giant lousewort) in WyomingDosage

I don’t often see unwanted side effects from this tincture. And as with all medicines, I have seen it not work, especially with intractable back pain. As I mention above some people experience some spaciness with the tincture. The effects of Pedicularis are often felt soon after taking the tincture, so try a few drops, wait a minute or three to see if it is helpful or creates this or other undesired effects.

Dosage is a matter of quantity and frequency. With Pedicularis, it is important to experiment with both. Some people will find helpful something like 1 dropperful (1.25 ml) every 3 hours or so, while others may do better with a half dropper (.60 ml) every hour or more. And yet for other people, they may do best with large quantities such as 2-3 dropperfuls (2.5-3.75ml) whenever they feel the pain coming on. Help your patients learn to experiment with dosage, offering them some guidelines depending on their health issues and constitution.

Summary

Pedicularis species are a valuable medicine for the practicing herbalist’s remedy kit. They are a useful skeletal muscle relaxant with minimal side effects. It is a lovely plant to get to know and watch where it grows. Spend some time around a local species to appreciate its beauty and charm.

Links

  1. This abstract is from a technical article describing some Pedicularis species up-taking toxic constituents
  2. This is a rough photocopy of the above article.
  3. A non-technical articlea discussion on the environmental considerations for the plant and its parasitism, and a quick note for herbalists.

Flowers of Pedicularis canadensis

Pedicularis canadensis post flower in West Virginia

Pedicularis canadensis post flower in West Virginia

The Skullcaps-A Scutellaria Monograph

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Skullcap-Scutellaria lateriflora

Skullcap is a favorite plant among many favorite plants. It is a plant I have spent a lot of time around, which will add to the length and depth of this monograph. I hope that this writing helps people appreciate skullcap both as a medicine and also as a creek bed denizen.

My Story

I have been intrigued by skullcap for many years, since my early days studying herbal medicine. This is partially because it is so well-spoken of in the medicinal herb world, plus it is a plant I can find on my own and watch grow through the seasons. While it is not a particularly showy plant, it has a striking dark green color, nice veins, and grows in the kind of streamy lowland woodlands that I like to naturalist my way around in.

A story. I used to live in an un-electrified cabin in a community in the woods outside of my adopted hometown of Ithaca, NY. One afternoon after waking from one of my regular daily naps, I had a strong notion where I might find this plant, which I hadn’t seen around often. So groggily I walked the quarter mile or so to a place I have walked frequently and there it was, growing along a streamlet. Well, that surprised me. But once I realized its preferred habitat, I was able to find it in a number of places around my home. Which was my beginning of getting a first-hand view of this plant.

Skullcap-Scutellaria lateriflora

Skullcap Botany

Skullcap is the common name (often modified with a preliminary word, such as mad-dog skullcap) of the genus Scutellaria. Both the common name and the genus allude to a sticking-up part on top of the plant’s calyx. Scute means ‘little dish’ and you will have to use your imagination for this allusion. But the important thing is when trying to determine if it is a Scutellaria, is to look for this protuberance on top of the calyx, a good indicator to the genus as this feature is only found on Scutellaria (the plant must be in at least in the early flowering stage to see this).

The genus Scutellaria is in the mint family-the Lamiaceae (also known as the Labiatae). While many mint family relatives are noticeably aromatic, Scutellaria is not. This family contains a number of other useful nervines including, Motherwort (Leonurus), Lemon balm (Melissa), and Tulsi (Ocimum).

There are many species of Scutellaria around the US and Canada. Most of my writing here is refers to Scutellaria lateriflora, because it is the one that I have used the most, as it is the most common around where I live. It is also the one most cited in North American herbal literature.

Scutellaria galericulata showing the distinctive protuberances

But other species are often used as well. The herbalist Joshua Muscat in Oakland uses a west coast species Scutellaria antirrhinoides, and Kiva Rose, an herbalist in the Gila region of New Mexico uses her local species, Scutellaria potosina which she calls blisswort.

A species I would like to try more often is Scutellaria galericulata, as I see this one with some frequency. Like S. lateriflora, it also inhabits wet places.

The point here is that many Scutellaria species are used as medicine. So learn your local species, look and ask around to see if you can find any resources about it, and please make sure it is not threatened or poisonous before using it.

Scutellaria potosina, a Southwestern species

Medicinal uses

So why all the fuss about skullcap? Here is a list a few of its uses which will be covered in a little more detail further on.

  • A generalist herb useful for a number of nervous system related problems
  • Nerve tonic (also known as a neurotrophorestorative), mainly for Pitta types.
  • Pain remedy
  • Both skeletal and smooth muscle relaxant
  • A relaxing sedative generally without the knock-you-out effect, making it useful for daytime use
  • Works well in formula with other nervines and relaxants.
  • Can be used for acute conditions or as a tonic for long-term problems
  • Gateway herb, to help get people interested in herbal medicine due to its effectiveness.

To start with the obvious and necessary, while Scutellaria can help with the above conditions, it may not, as individual constitution dictates. While I have seen it help many people over the years, ironically it does very little for me. I have taken large (and by large, I mean swallows) of the tincture. And for an experiment during one of my gathering trips, I ate about 10 plants worth. And, well, very little action. But as any clinician knows, you cannot use yourself as the standard barometer for treatment.

I generally use this plant in two forms; fresh plant tincture and dried plant tea. I use the tincture for all the below situations and tea mainly for its nervine effect, (usually mixed with other herbs).

Pain

Skullcap is a useful general pain remedy, helpful for a wide range of problems such headaches, injuries, spasmodic pains such as cramps and general body pains.

It is not the strongest pain remedy I know, but it has some particularly useful traits. It can help focus and amplify the efficiency of other remedies. For instance, if you are giving crampbark (Viburnum opulus) for menses pain, by adding some skullcap to the mix as it can augment the crampbark to help with the cramping. Other examples include using it with feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) for headaches, or Pedicularis for back pain.

Another helpful characteristic is that Scutellaria is less likely to cause lethargy or mind fog then plants like valerian (Valeriana spp.) or hops (Humulus lupulus). This is important as a pain medicine and for its use as a nervine, as people can take it while performing tasks that they need to be cognizant for.

Dosage for pain. Remember individuality here, especially with nervous system remedies. Start small, you can always initially try just a few drops to check for reactions. You can then have the patient take measured amounts, continually increasing them incrementally in ½ dropper doses, until they find the relief they seek, or realize that Scutellaria is not helping and to try a different medicine. The general rule when administering any herbal medicine is to consider the amount and the frequency. For background chronic pain between ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5 ml) as often as every 2 hours. For acute pain, there really is no limit except for the person possibly feeling out of it eventually. It is a useful first aid remedy and for those doing first aid work it is helpful to have a large bottle on hand.

Students gathering Scutellaria lateriflora in the Adirondacks

Nervine

Besides its use for acute and chronic pain, skullcap is helpful as a constitutional tonic. Before I go into specifics, please consider experimenting with this plant even if the situation doesn’t fit the below guidelines. In terms of Ayurveda, it is most helpful for Pitta types. I see it most useful for people who constantly need to take charge. They make constant contingency plans and feel personally insulted when things don’t go their way. They may have insomnia and cannot initially fall asleep due to thinking about all the things they could have done differently that day. They might worry about their performance about everything (‘was the dinner okay?’) and are expert at criticizing themselves, and others.

One other place I find skullcap helpful, is for people who have an emotional attachment to their injury. This is common. When the person thinks about how they sprained their ankle or got stung, there is an upsetting emotional quality to it. With this type of person you may see them blaming themselves for the injury (‘I knew I shouldn’t have run that trail’) Skullcap may help relieve the physical pain and some of the emotional pressure.

Consider using some other nervine tonics in conjunction with skullcap such as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Skullcap can be given at least a few ways for the above implications. With tincture, regular tonic doses somewhere between ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5 ml) 2-5 times daily, or for more acute situations anywhere from a ½ dropperful to a teaspoon. For tea, a good strong cup (.40 oz to 1 quart water) drank a few times a day in half cupfuls. Experiment.

Jocelyn preparing Scutellaria lateriflora

Medicine making and Preparations

With Scutellaria I gather aboveground parts including the stems, leaves, while the plant is in flower for medicine. I mainly prepare it as fresh plant tincture, 1:2 in 95% alcohol soon after gathering it. I comb through the plants and pick off sick looking leaves, and then chop it all up with a cleaver. It is a soft plant and easy to process.

It is also a useful tea, but I rarely gather enough to dry any. It is very light, and so you have to have a lot, to get just a pound of tea. But I sometimes receive donations for the Ithaca Free Clinic, and I use it often there in this form.

Wildcrafting

This section is going to be about Scutellaria lateriflora as I gather this plant nearly yearly from the same spot and have been taking many notes along the way. You may have to indulge my rather long wildcrafting chapter here.
First, this is a plant that one must be careful about harvesting, as while it is not uncommon in its favored habitats, it is rarely prolific. So please walk and wildcraft gently where you do find it. Make sure after gathering that you can look back and still see a healthy population in a not very disturbed ecosystem. I should say that I have told only 1 or 2 people about the spot I go to. It may be selfish of me, but I feel like this large area I gather from can only sustain one wildcrafter. I go there to harvest by myself and have not yet seen another person, which allows me to be more present with the plant, the environment, and myself. Whenever gathering any plants, do not gather from the first patch you find it in, as it might be the only one around. Give yourself time to wander and make sure there is enough that you can harvest some and there is plenty left to reseed itself as this Scutellaria is an annual.
I generally gather the upper 2/3’s of the plant, making sure some of them have seeds left on them. They have a delicate root system, so be careful to not pick them out of the soil thus not give the plant time to mature its seeds.
I gather two ways, sometimes I use my pruners and other times I pinch the stems off with my fingers. Both ways work well,  I just alternating my patterns.

Around Upstate New York, the best time to gather is while the plant is in full flower, sometime between mid-August and early September. This skullcap likes it shady and wet. I find it most often along small creeks in woodlands. There are some mosquitoes this time of year, so bring a long-sleeve shirt and hat and I’d recommend wearing a good pair of sandals and some pants you can roll up, as you will probably be doing a fair bit of stream walking. It takes a little while to learn to sort Scutellaria out from amidst the other vegetation, but once you do, it becomes much easier to see. One of its most distinctive features is the dark green color.  Some of its common plant associates include

  • Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago species)
  • Early flowering Asters (different genera)
  • Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  • Hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit)
  • Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
  • Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
  • Avens (Geum species)

A few more wildcrafting notes. It is easy to get lost gathering Scutellaria as you will be meandering and following an unorganized path through the rivulets. Make sure to take stock of where you are every once in a while. As it can take a few hours to gather enough I suggest bringing snacks and water with you. I use large brown paper bags as I can fold the tops back so I can put the bag down and it will stand on its own while I am gathering. Double bagging is helpful, as the ground will be wet and the bag may rip. Bring a few extra.

The Land of Skullcap

Final Notes

As should be obvious by now I admire Scutellaria lateriflora. I enjoy finding it on creek bottoms, spending time gathering it for medicine and observing the other life around where it grows. I also like it as a broad-ranging nervous system remedy and a fairly safe herbal remedy for a wide variety of people and problems. I hope this monograph enhances your appreciation of this plant as well, and that you use this and other species of Scutellaria in your herbal practices.

Blue Vervain-Verbena Hastata

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Blue vervain-Verbena hastata

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata, Verbenaceae). This plant probably tops many people’s ‘love that plant’ list. Yes, mine included. It is handsome and graceful and sturdy and what a gorgeous sight with many blooming at the same time covering an expanse of bog or swamp.
What I find interesting is that it seems our current use of Blue vervain as medicine is derived from its European relative Verbena officinalis (Vervain, Simpler’s joy and others). And while Verbena officinalis is easy enough to grow, the native here is the preferred plant. I don’t see that very often, where a famed European medicinal plant is usurped by the local. Well, bravo, and personally I think both plants work rather well.
And what is that use? As a nervous system tonic (a neurotrophorestorative to folks like me who just like long medical-sounding words). I like it better as a nerve tonic rather than for acute ‘nerves’. I have seen it help many people, often in formula with nervine cousins such as California poppy (Eschscholtzia) Hops (Humulus), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia), Skullcap (Scutellaria) and similar. Each of these is different and by mixing and matching, one can come up with an impressive individualistic formula.
I use it specifically for over-thinking worrywart types, that is to say Pitta-on-fire. You know the type, always planning, and

Common vervain-Verbena officinalis

having a hard time accepting changes to the schedule. Or people who cannot help but work and push and work and become obstinately cranky. They may need to relearn how to breath and listen, but this medicine can help too. It seems to relax what looks like excessive neurotransmitter firing.
Now we can divide worriers into two types here (Vata and Pitta for you in the Ayurvedic know). I don’t see this as helpful for the vata worrier, whose mind will become very scattered when things go awry and may go blank or will fill with lots of fog, fizz and fuzz. The type I see it  helpful for is more the typical Pitta pattern. That is when plans change abruptly, say a flat tire, they will get all busybody like and tell everyone what to do, and do I see some anger there?  Or they will indulge in heaping cupfuls of self-recrimination (“I knew we should’ve taken my car!”)

It is helpful to take regularly, something like ½-2 dropperfuls (.60 ml-2.5 ml) 2-4 times daily. At first the person may not notice a difference, but ask again a few weeks after taking it and they may say they feel as if their feathers are not as easily ruffled. I don’t know if I’ve yet seen very negative reactions to this plant medicine, just some neutral ones (as in, it doesn’t seem to do anything).
I tincture the fresh (or fresh dried) inflorescence (flowertops) and leaves. It is common around here, but still, I am careful not to take too much from any one area, as I do not want to disturb the beauty quotient of where it grows.
I also use the dried leaves and inflorescences as tea. If it is dried too slowly the leaves get a blackish hue, which I am not sure is a problem, but I use a dehydrator where the leaves stay green and some of the flowers keep some of their purple.
It is bitter tasting, though less biting then some.
I hope this paints a helpful portrait. Try this plant if you have not. You know who to give it to.

Blue vervain in wetland-Verbena hastata

A mass of Blue vervain

A mass of Blue vervain