An Herbalist’s View. Patient Study-Looking to reduce symptoms in progressive disorders.

January 19th, 2013

This patient study looks at how herbs can help improve symptoms when there is little to do to change the primary problem. This is common situation with a number of chronic disorders. A note on confidentiality, I would only ask a patient whom I felt wouldn’t mind having their case discussed on an open forum such as this.  While it is obvious that I wouldn’t say their name, this sort of write-up would be obvious to the patient who is being discussed. Not only do I ask permission, but I want to make sure they would appreciate the idea, as he did here and was glad to share his situation. This case is from the Ithaca Free Clinic so all services and medicines are free. (The clinic also knows that I post on Facebook).

This patient is 57 years old. He had polio when he was three years old, and wonders if some of his current problems are due to post-polio syndrome (this occurs in some polio survivors and can include progressive muscle weakness, fatigue and muscular atrophy).

He developed brain cancer (astrocytoma) at 17 years old. This was in 1972, and the amount of radiation he received (and survived!) is causing many of his major health issues. He has a number of neurological problems from the radiation poisoning which is causing cerebral atrophy (brain shrinking). He sees a neurologist and gets brain scans regularly. I surely don’t understand all the aspects of this situation, but we started working on some of his more problematic symptoms.

The patient eats well (lots of home grown veggies and meat that he hunts) and is in general good health. He has a pretty good attitude about life. Many of his symptoms are progressive and he is appreciative for the reasonably good health he has now. He feels that he might have contracted Lyme a few years ago and took antibiotics for it. The reason I mention this is that it is hard to tell what is causing some of his symptoms, whether they are from post-polio syndrome, Lyme, effects from the radiation, or none or all of the above.

His initial symptoms were; very painful and stiff right arm and shoulder, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and difficulty mentally focusing. He needs about 12 hours a night of sleep to function well.

Our initial treatment strategy was to help him sleep better, increase mental clarity, and reduce some of his muscle pain. We kept the medicines and dosaging simple since it can be hard for him to remember a lot of details at one time. Valeriana officinalis tincture was given for sleep. We first tested it in the office by giving him a few drops to make sure it did not have an antagonizing affect (agitation), which it did not. The Valeriana dosage was 1-2 (1 oz) dropperfuls (about 1.5 to 2.5 ml) before sleep. He was given a 2 oz. tincture for mental clarity with Centella (3 pt), Salix (1 pt) and Acorus (30 drops). Dosage is one 2oz dropperful (approx 2 ml) 3 times daily.

His next visit was a little over a month later. He felt like the herbs were helping and wanted to continue with them. The Valerian was helping with sleep, but sleeping was still difficult. The arm and shoulder pain was about the same as was his difficulty with focusing.
We continued with the Valerian and told him to increase his dosage. We changed the tincture to Centella (2 pt), and 1 pt each of Acorus, Ocimum tenuiflorum and Passiflora. Tincture dosage was 1.5 ml 3 times daily. We also added a powder of Eleuthero (1.75 pt), Crataegus (1 pt) and Passiflora (.75 pt). One teaspoon mixed into water 2 times daily.

The next visit he had lost 7 pounds, mostly muscle. His arm pain was worse, but his headaches were better and he was sleeping better.

The medicines we gave him after this visit were Harpagophytum procumbens capsules for the muscle and joint pain (2 capsules twice daily). We changed the powder to 2 parts Yucca and Glycyrrhiza (his blood pressure is around 112/85) and one part each of Urtica, Eleuthero, Curcuma and Withania (same dosage as previously). We changed the tincture to Centella (1 pt), Gingko (1 pt) and Acorus (.4 pt). (Note, I wanted to use Gingko earlier, but ran out of the tincture, so we had to make some more). Tincture dosage 2 ml twice daily.

A note on a few of the specific herbs we have given him. The Centella, Ginkgo and Acorus are for mental clarity. The Harpagophytum and Yucca are helpful for arthritic-type pain. The Glycyrrhiza, Salix and Curcuma are antiinflammatory. The Urtica, Eleuthero, Glycyrrhiza and Withania are tonics for overall strength. The Passiflora, Ocimum tenuiflorum and Crataegus are nervine tonics.

He came in recently (January 2013), and seems to be in a better state overall. One of the things that also helped was cutting out coffee. The Valerian continues to help him with sleep, and we made up the previous medicines again except for the Harpagophytum capsules.

As you can see, we are not performing any miracles here. The effects of radiation poisoning are progressive, but instead of throwing up our hands to a difficult problem (though not a difficult patient, he readily takes his herbs) our goal is to back down his symptoms. While some of his problems have not gotten better, they have also not worsened, which is a reasonable result with a situation like this. He feels good taking the herbs and coming in for regular consultations. One of his main problems was fatigue due to a lack of sleep, and that has improved, which has the downstream affect of improving overall quality of life, a major goal.

Baptisia tinctoria

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

Quick comments on the GMP’s (Good Manufactoring Processes)

October 23rd, 2012

Contentious Herbal Issue, about the GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Processes). These are new enforceable FDA legal standards for retail supplement products, including internally taken herbal medicines.
While I was at the American Herbalist Guild (AHG) Symposium, I went to a class about the GMP’s and how smaller companies can become compliant. I appreciated the presenter’s information and real-life details trying to help people get through all the confusing mandates and details that are necessary to be up to GMP code.
Before I get into how I feel about this issue, I want to say a few things for clarification. First, I am FAR from being any kind of expert on this issue and so some of my details may be wrong. I am lightly knowledgeable at best about the subject, but my opinions are based on the gestalt of this thing not the minutiae.
Second, I am not really looking to start a flame war here, though I invite others thoughtful opinions for, against, in the middle or otherwise about GMP’s.
I left the above class frustrated (not at the informative presenters) and tried to figure out why. On the face of it, GMP’s are a ‘reasonable’ idea, that is, products are what they say they are, and so consumers know what they are getting.
The problem is all rules and contrivances necessary to get there. While it certainly seems ~possible~ to achieve being GMP compliant, there is A LOT of paper work and other details necessary to keep the FDA at bay.
But here’s where it gets more maddening for me. When I talk to some of the makers of herbal products, some of those who are GMP compliant make it sound easy for anyone to get there. It is surely not. If one is primarily a product maker, then perhaps they can devote the ongoing time and resources necessary to stay compliant. However, if you are a generalist herbalist on your own, and also see patients, gather and/or grow some of your own medicines, teach classes, etc, then it is not easy at all. So what these rules do in my mind is push this category of herbalist out of the picture (insert visual photo of a fuming Michael Moore here). So for small batch herbalists who may just sell locally, these rules will take a needed source of income away from people helping their community and making it more difficult to help keep herbal medicine local, affordable and accessible.
Okay, for those of you who are saying, yea 7Song, but what about the consumer?, I say to you “Please show me some documented or anecdotal stories that make these rules necessary for these kind of herbal producers”. How many times have herbalists sickened or poisoned their neighbors with their products? I am sure that it has happened, but as we all well know (need I say ‘steroid shots’) that no amount of rules will stop the occasional unfortunate accident. And generally the herbalist will be accountable, maybe not legally, but people will talk.
It is difficult for me to hear from those who are compliant and have the resources (money and people) but don’t see how these rules affect this category of shall we say, community herbalist?
Here is my analogy. To me, it is like licensing herbalists. At this point I personally would get licensed as I have been practicing long enough and have enough connections to make sure my name gets passed on as a Qualified Herbalist. And for others who are not, I would say ‘don’t you all see, it is for ~consumer protection~ that we need to be licensed. Otherwise how we would we parse those who have passed the tests from others who have not gone through the hoops we have?’ Well, I say F# that. There will always be people, licensed or not who are in it strictly for money or other reasons that are not about helping people or making quality products. And I don’t mind being associated with riff-raff. If there were simple ways that made distinctions between different levels of herbalists and did not exclude, I guess I might be open to it. But generally, it is about the integrity of the individual herbalist to let potential patients know their abilities
Okay, I don’t mean to really get into a licensing rant for herbalists debate here, I am just trying to make the point that our ready acceptance of GMP’s is similar as it will turn away ‘herbal people’ who might contribute to their neighborhoods and larger communities.
I don’t have any answers to this predicament; I just want to give voice to some of my feelings from this weekend. I hope we as a community of plant-loving, human-supportive people can do as best we can to help support others to be engaged in the old and new traditions of herbal medicine. ~7Song

Plant Field Guides Review-Washington and the Pacific Northwest

March 1st, 2012


This is a list of the books I brought along on a trip to Washington State. I use these lists myself when I go back to an area, hence the personalized style. Plus, it would be boring to just write it up all school-like. Most of the books mentioned are plant field guides, though I include some maps and other books that may be helpful for the region covered.
One of the limiting considerations in describing these books is the amount of time I had in the different places I decamped. The place I spent the most time was in the Wenatchee National Forest south of Leavenworth, towards the interior of Washington. The other place I got to field-test them was in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington.

In the book review section below, I have divided the books up by those which I used most to those least used.

One thing that is a consideration for me is how well a book is physically made, and you will see this peppered through my reviews. The reason is that field guides (at least mine) get treated roughly, thrown in my backpack and dragged out in all kinds of weather. So a well-made volume is a consideration in its own right.

Throughout these notes instead of calling books by their title, I usually use the author’s name. This is a common convention and if you look at the book titles, they are all similar, so it makes it more distinguishable. The book list below has the authors and titles together for reference.

One of the things I found odd is the reliance of botany types on using mainly Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Pojar and Flora of the Pacific Northwest by Hitchcock and Cronquist. While Hitchcock is indispensible for this region, I was surprised more folk were not using Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Turner and Gustafson and Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia by Kozloff. I made it my business to let as many people know about the latter two books. I guess they are relatively recent (often a plus in this kind of literature) and not in wide circulation.

I find it helpful to have a few different floras that are not copied from each other. Often the difference between two species is minute, and different authors handle these details differently, and between two or more it can be much easier to settle on a species.

I purchased some books from using their reviews, and this worked well for me, as I purchased two useful books I would not have know about otherwise.


I want to define two terms that get used frequently in this review which are ‘flora’ and ‘keying out’. While the word flora is often used to describe plants in general (i.e., flora and fauna), with field guides it commonly refers to a book that has all the plants of a region. An example would be the Flora of the Pacific Northwest, which indicates it includes all the plants of the area delineated in the title. When trying to identify plants to their species these books are a boon, because it is hard to know which species you have without knowing all the plants that it might be in a given region.
Keying out is a process used in identifying plants. You are given a set of statements (usually two at a time) and you choose the more correct choice. After that you are given another set until you finally get to the (hopefully) right plant. This is the way most floras are written as it is a useful format. A different style might be a book that has all the flowers of a certain color near each other in the book. While this can initially helpful, you would need more clues to get to know which species it is, as the differences can be subtle.

The Complete Book List

  1. Flora of the Pacific Northwest-Hitchcock and Cronquist
  2. Flora of the State of Washington (1906)-Piper
  3. Mountain Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Taylor and Douglas
  4. Northwest Weeds-Taylor
  5. Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Pojar and Mackinnon
  6. Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff
  7. Washington Wildflowers-Larrison et al
  8. Wayside Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Strickler
  9. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Turner and Gustafson

Other Resources

  1. Marc Williams checklists-Part of my time on this trip was at the Rainbow Gathering and every year Marc makes a thorough list culled from various resources of the plants in the area that the Rainbow Gathering will be. This list is very helpful, and I make sure to print out a few copies before leaving.
  2. Plant lists from ranger stations-When I pass a ranger station for an area I will be in for a while, I stop in and see if they have a species list for that region. Sometimes the front desk people may not know, so ask if they have a staff botanist, and if she or he is in. Besides knowing if they have a list or not, they often know some of the best places to go see plants. I have had many good conversations about a region this way.

Books Used The Most Frequently

Flora of the Pacific Northwest, Hitchcock and Cronquist

Flora of the Pacific Northwest-Hitchcock and Cronquist

This is the standard flora for this region, and that alone makes it important to

Flora of the Pacific Northwest detail, Hitchcock and Cronquist

understand, as this is the book most folks will use for keying out plants.

The good; it is a straightforward useful tome for the working botanist. It has small but practical black and white line illustrations for most species with important botanical details helping to highlight the individual differences. It is well made and while large it is not too heavy.

My least favorite aspect of this book is the short individual plant descriptions for each species. When you arrive at the species in the key, that is where the plant description is located. This is as opposed to other technical floras where after you key to the species you then go to a through species description.  But in general the information provided is enough to decide if you have the correct species. And to be fair, this dramatically cuts down on the size and weight of the book.

There really is no major downside to this flora. It may be a bit outdated, and the illustrations and descriptions a bit small, but it works, and that is the most important detail.

The keys from this book, along with the keys in Kozloff were really helpful together in identifying many species.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff

This review starts with a quick story. I was preparing for my trip to Washington and looking through the Amazon book reviews for plant field guides for books I did not know about and kept seeing this book with excellent reviews, but knew no one who used it (and I have many NW botany friends). But I found a used copy for $12 (good price!) and purchased it. And I am sure glad I did, it is an excellent flora for the region it covers.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Kozloff

I knew some of Kozloff’s work having his useful Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest (see below). And this flora is from 2005, much more current than Hitchcock and Cronquist. As soon as I got it, I could see that it was a thoughtful, well-done flora, but its value became evermore so apparent as I started using it in Washington.

I wondered if Kozloff was a pariah of some kind since I didn’t know anyone using this book, but it just seems that Hitchcock and Pojar are the standard.

This book is good as a stand-alone flora and better as an adjunct with Hitchcock.

Like all field guides it has its up and downsides. Beginning with the positive, it often got me to the plant species I was looking at, which is the most basic goal of any flora. It has a good sprinkling of useful black and white line illustrations, and very helpfully, over 700 color photographs. They are of a good size and quality, and often with a black background helping highlight the various botanical aspects of the plants.

The keys are well thought out and generally helpful. One can see that the author has not just copied these keys from various books, but has spent time revising and devising new keys. As can be expected this works some, but not all of the time. The nomenclature is more up to date, and while he may still use older families (i.e., Scrophulariaceae) for plants now placed in different families, there are notes pointing this out.

Okay, some of the difficulties. What Kozloff has admirably done, is re-worked many of the standard plant keys. The problem is sometimes his keys were particularly vexing, but that is why I carry more than one flora when I have the opportunity. And it was very helpful to use this book to balance out what I could not figure out in Hitchcock.

Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia-Kozloff

Also, like in Hitchcock, the description of a species is within the key, rather than a separate and more thorough description. So even after getting to a species, it could be hard to ascertain the species. And again setting it up this way keeps the size of the volume down, an important feature when trudging a number of field guides around

To sum up, this is a very useful flora. The author clearly has an extensive working relationship with the plants and has revised and reworked older flora’s adding updated and new information as well as his personal observations of the plants. The color photos are lovely and useful, as well as the black and white line illustrations. Some of the keys are a bit baffling and the descriptions are rather brief, but all in all, this is an excellent plant field guide for the region, and one I am very glad to have had along.

Note: A problem for me was that I took this with me into the Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington, and this book does not cover that area as well, as it is not ‘Pacific Northwest’. I then supplemented it with Washington Wildflowers.

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Turner and Gustafson

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Turner and Gustafson

This book is new to me, and was glad I purchased it. There are a number of reasons I like it, but above all, it helped me identify a number of species. I used it in conjunction with more technical floras (Hitchcock and Kozloff).

It has a basic key dividing the plants by obvious flower color and then the number of petals, symmetry, and a few other basic clues. This is rudimentary but helpful to get to a starting point, and that is why I used it in conjunction with other plant keys.

The book is well made and a good carriable size. It has a useful section on the ecosystems covered which was helpful for me not being familiar with the different regions of Washington State.

Onto the main reasons I found this book so useful. First, just the number of species covered (1220) means that there is a good chance the plant I am looking at it is included, which I found to be the case. Next, the photos, while small, and mainly just one per plant species are well done, meaning that the photo contains enough useful characteristics to help with plant identification.

Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, Turner and Gustafson

While the photos are helpful, a drawback to this book is the lack of photos highlighting other details of a species or even better might be black and white illustrations. But one field guide can’t be one thing for all people, so once again the need to use other field guides along with this one.

It contains useful range maps for each species, and while the plant descriptions are concise and size-limited, I found the information useful.

In other words, while this book has its limitations the quantity of plants covered along with good quality photos and descriptions, rudimentary keys in a smallish volume, helped me identify many of the plants I did not know.

I strongly suggest purchasing this book for anyone who lives in its region.

Books Used Less Frequently

Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Pojar and Mackinnon

This is one of the mostly commonly wielded field guides for the region (along with Hitchcock and Cronquist). It is not my preferred field guide though.

It is a useful plant guide. It is a well made and a carriable size. It contains many plants, tilting the chances that you will find the one in your hand. It contains a few color photos of the plants featured often accompanied with black and white illustrations, an excellent combination. There are keys for many plant families, and some of the genera (Rubus, and Pedicularis for instance) are keyed to species. And in Hitchcock fashion, some of the keys have small black and white drawing helping to illustrate the key.

A helpful aspect of this book is that it includes trees, shrubs, ferns, grasses, mosses, liverworts and lichens. In other words, very inclusive of the whole diversity of plants, not just the more obvious flowering ones.

There is a ‘Notes’ section to each plant with a lot of interesting information. First, it discusses the different botanical information, such as other species within the same genera. It often has a wide variety of native uses, making this book the most useful if you are interested in how a plant is/was used. And it often explains what the genus and species mean, such as whom it was named after.

All of this strongly recommends this book, and yet I do not use it often. There are a number of reasons for this, some may seem picayune, but nevertheless they limit my use.

First, and most importantly, I don’t find it that useful for trying to initially identify a plant’s genus nor especially its species, which is the main reason I bring along field guides. I find other field guides more helpful in deciphering a plant’s identity The reason for this, is that while it does have keys to many genera and some species (and very helpful keys for the trees), I still find it easier to use Hitchcock or Kozloff. The descriptions in this book are good, but since they pack a number of species under one genus, it can be difficult to ascertain which species I am looking at. This book is helpful at having the most common species represented, the plants you are most likely to encounter.

And for me, I would rather not have all the information on uses but instead look up that information elsewhere and have that space devoted to differentiating species. Also, I do not find the photos so useful, a little too small, leaving out important details. Perhaps I am being unfair here, but I would like to use this book more often and these are the reasons I do not.

I can imagine that many people would like this book for many of the above reasons. Perhaps and updated version some day?

Washington Wildflowers, Larrison, Patrick, Baker and Yaich

Washington Wildflowers-Larrison, Patrick, Baker and Yaich

I didn’t start using this book until later on in my trip which was too bad as it quite useful. I do need to point out, as this is my second copy, that it is a very crappily made book. The binding breaks and pages fall out no matter how it is pampered, as it is made with a poorly glued binding. Oh well, at least it is not too expensive (less than $1 on Amazon today). There are 2 main reasons it is so useful. Primarily because it is Washington specific, and just as important, it has floral keys. All of the other books I used are for the Pacific Northwest, meaning I have to plow through many plants that I will not be seeing. Plus, it covers all of Washington State including the drier east side.

It does have some color and black and white photos, but they are the old-type and of limited use. But I repeat, it has reasonable keys, and using this book along with Hitchcock, and Kozloff, it is possible to identify many of the plants of Washington, including the more inland regions where I used it. And while the descriptions are short, they are longer than Hitchcock. If you live or botanize in Washington, I recommend it.

Books Used Infrequently

Mountain Plants of the Pacific Northwest-Taylor and Douglas

This book is useful due to the good-sized color photos and helpful descriptions, including trees, club mosses, horsetails and ferns. Some of the plants have a number of different photos for the same plant, showing variation and different aspects which is especially helpful with some of the trees covered. I would recommend this book (perhaps along with Strickler’s below) for those wanting a good color photo plant book. I would recommend Turner and Gustafson alongside this.

Flora of the State of Washington (1906)-Piper

It would seem that this flora would be very useful due to its specificity, but I did not find it so for a number of reasons. As could be imagined, a book that is 106 years old has some outdated terminology. And the main reason that I did not use it much is that the newer volumes had the information without the outdated terminology. I was still glad to have it to see if a plant I was keying out even grew in Washington, though Washington Wildflowers covered that realm well enough. If I spent more time in Washington I may use this volume more to compare with other books. Many of the keys from this book seem to be have been incorporated into newer volumes. Such is the way.

Books Not Used

Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest-Kozloff

I did not use this book mainly due to the lack of time I had to explore the animal life. While the photos are of an older type they are still useful, especially of the non-flowering plants and animals. It is still one of the most useful all-around field guides to the various life in the Pacific Northwest. Aside from the photos, the author clearly has spent a lot of time outside in this region and has a depth of knowledge which shows in his writing. If the photos were updated, this would be a much better volume, but it is still worth having to learn about life in the Northwest.

Wayside Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest-Strickler

This is one of those books that is quite attractive with its good-sized color photos and brief descriptions of the plants covered. It does a good job of covering the more commonly encountered wildflowers and its best use would be for either a quick check-up on a plant or to see a color photo after keying it out. And it is the large size of the photos that makes this book a little better than some others. It would work well in conjunction with Turner and Gustafson.

Northwest Weeds-Taylor

I did not use this book as I was busier in the bush than amongst the weedier places. However if I were wandering amongst gardens, old fields or roadways, this would be a handy identification guide to have. The medium-sized photos are only so-so, but what it does well is cover those plants that we see most often in disturbed habitats. It occasionally has a few photos of the same plant from different angles, a helpful detail. You may not be able to know exactly which plant you have from this book, but you will likely get close enough to the species and learn the plants that often accompany humans in our habitat altering endeavors.

Avena-A Monograph on Oats as Medicine

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.


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).


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).


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

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


  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

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).


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


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.


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

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

The Eupatorium Story-Joe Pye Weed, Boneset and White Snakeroot, Part two

January 19th, 2012

Eupatorium Botany

This group of plants are all in the Asteraceae (Composite or Sunflower family), the largest family of flowering plants. Within the Asteraceae, they are in the Eupatorieae tribe, a subgroup due the huge size of this plant family. And from here on in, it gets more confusing. At one point the genus Eupatorium comprised nearly 800 species, but the genus has since been broken up into a number of other smaller genera and work continues to be done on this genus and changes continue, leading to some complication.

Common names can be confusing as they are often locale-based. Boneset seems to be a standard name for E. perfoliatum, so that one’s easy. Joe pye weeds sometimes have an additional word attached such as Sweet or Hollow joe pye weed (or just joe pye). Who is Joe Pye? I don’t know, but there are a couple of good stories about who he may be. Perhaps you can make up another and add it to the Joe Pye myth collection. Gravel root most likely has to do with these plants use for kidney stones, which are also called ‘gravel’. ‘Snakeroot’ is a common name for quite a few plants, often purportedly due to being antidote for snakebites.

Here are some of the key differences between the Eupatoriums in this article. I have adapted the keys from The Vascular Plants of Northeastern US and Adjacent Canada by Gleason and Cronquist, to simplify the technical language.

Below are a few important terms. Please also see the descriptive photos.

  1. Florets are the small individual flowers in the Asteraceae.
  2. A Head is a group of florets within one involucre which are specialized bracts that surround the head of flowers and form an individual, discernible collection of florets.
  3. Inflorescence is a collective term for many flower heads together.
  4. A Node is where the leaves meet the stem.

Boneset and White snakebite-The leaves are opposite with 2 leaves per node

  • Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset) is easily distinguishable by the way the leaves are joined to each other where they meet the stem (technically called perfoliate, hence the species name of this plant).
  • Eupatorium rugosum (Ageratina altissima) White snakebite-Please note this plant is poisonous, make sure you identify plants accurately. White snakeroot is smaller than the other plants here which are usually more robust. White snakeroot is usually shorter and thinner. This one generally grows along the borders of woodlands, especially where it is disturbed, such as a road or path. The opposite leaves are somewhat thin, with a long leaf stalk (petiole).

Joe pye weed/Gravel root-All of these have 3 or more leaves per node

  • Eupatorium maculatum has approximately 10-16 florets per head and the inflorescence is flat-topped. It is often found in lowlands and near water, and has the widest distribution of these three.
  • E. purpureum and E. fistulosum have 4-7 florets per head and the inflorescence is convex (dome-shaped).
    • E. fistulosum the stem is more purplish throughout and is hollow with a large central cavity. The easiest way to identify this one is to just cut the stem and see if it is hollow, and also if the stem has a lot of purpling to it.
    • E. purpureum the stem is purplish mainly at the nodes and is not hollow or only has a slender central cavity. Also, this species tend to grow in drier habitats than the others.

In Gray’s Manual of Botany it says this about E. purpureum-“bruised             fresh plant strongly vanilla-scented”. This is what probably gave this species the common name Sweet joe pye weed. It is also the one trait that was not apparent when I found this plant.

The genus Eupatorium is large and has been revised a number of times. Some species, such as Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) have stayed within the genus while many others have been segregated out. The tall purple-flowered Joe pye weeds, have been changed twice recently from Eupatorium to Eupatoriadelphus and now seem settled into the genus Eutrochium. Other Eupatoriums have also been assigned different genera. Different authors have different opinions about this genus, so it is best to know past and current genera. One way to do that is to look at the synonym listing often accompanying a species from an online source such as The Flora of North America or Wikipedia.

Within this article, I have kept all the Eupatoriums together as a concept, but have listed their new genera as each species is discussed separately

Medicinal Uses-Joe pye weed/Gravel root

Something to consider about the different Gravel roots species as medicine is that while the Eclectic physician’s (a school of US doctor herbalists from about 1830-1910) mention E. purpureum but not E. maculatum or E. fistulosum, it could have to do with the botanical names of these species at the time. Both of these species were at one point considered subspecies of E. purpureum.
Within the older literature (such as King’s American Dispensatory, used by the Eclectic physician’s then and by herbalists today), there are many uses for this plant, including for pain in the urinary tract, incontinence, male and female reproductive issues, stomach disorders and a number of other health problems. But in general, herbalist’s today mainly use the roots for conditions relating to the urinary tract, especially as a diuretic and to help the passage of kidney stones. It is used as a tea and tincture for these conditions.

From a clinical standpoint, I am still learning about the how well they work in the above categories. I have used it for many years, generally with other herbs in diuretic formulas for prostatic conditions, urinary tract infections and for moving stones. In each one of these conditions, other plants were used as well (i.e., antimicrobials in UTI). Gravel root seems safe and I will continue to put it in these formulas, though it would be helpful to try it by itself to help quantify its efficiency.

At this pointing my practice I usually use E. purpureum as tincture and E. maculatum’s dried roots for tea. The reason for this is that I have enough of the ‘official’ species for tincture use, but have to gather fresh roots every few years. Since E. purpureum doesn’t grow around here, I use E. maculatum for this.

Boneset-Eupatorium perfoliatum

Boneset is easily identified apart from the Joe pye weeds (and most other plants) by the way the leaves are joined together around the stem.
This common wetland plant has a long rich history of medicinal use both in past and current practice. The leaves and flowers are taken as a tea or tincture, though it is quite bitter tasting. It is one of my favorite herbs for colds and influenza. It is relatively safe and a few good strong cups of the infusion or a dropperful or two of tincture every few hours can speed up the rate of recovery. Best to take it as soon as you feel the virus coming on (which is generally true for most medicines).

The Eclectic physician’s listed many uses for Boneset, including for “stomach disorders of the inebriate” but here is an important quote “In influenza it relieves the pain in the limbs and back. Its popular name, “boneset,” is derived from its well-known property of relieving the deepseated pains in the limbs which accompany this disorder, and colds and rheumatism”.

The reason I include the above quote because a common question is about whether Boneset can be used to mend broken bones, similar to Comfrey. While some herbalists do use it this way, it is more commonly used for viruses.  The name boneset is derived from two places. First, the leaves are attached in a way that some people see as a ‘doctrine of signatures’ suggesting that it can mend broken bones. The second, as in the above quote, is that Boneset has been used for viral infections which are often accompanied by bone and muscle pain, especially during a coughing fit. So by helping stop the virus, Boneset relieves this pain.
For anyone who lives around Boneset, I strongly suggest gathering a good amount of the leaves and unopened flower heads when you have the chance. They dry pretty easy and are helpful for respiratory viruses. They are also useful as a diaphoretic, to help bring on suppressed fever. (It is important to know when to break a fever versus when to suppress it).

White snakeroot-Eupatorium rugosum-(Ageratina altissima)

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, formerly Eupatorium rugosum) is mentioned here because of it poisonous infamy. And once again, there is some complexity with both its common and botanical names. There are many ‘snakeroots’, so it is important know which snakeroot one is handling. The botanical name was Eupatorium rugosum, which is still commonly used, though most newer field guides call it Ageratina altissima (I’m not sure why the species name was changed as well).
This plant is infamous for causing thousands of deaths of early colonists, as well as much livestock. This was especially true in the Ohio River Valley around the early to mid-1800’s.  In humans, the disease was eventually named ‘milk sickness’, in other animals ‘the trembles’. The cause of the illness was livestock ingestion of this plant, and if their milk was drunk, or the meat eaten, the poisonous chemical tremetol would be ingested, leading to the series of symptoms that was often fatal. There is a lot more to say about this disease, but I will leave it up to other sources (Wikipedia has a good write up) and this link ( which contains an interesting article written around the time people were afflicted with milk sickness.

This plant is common on the borders of the woods where the land has been disturbed. Sometimes it is a dominant plant there. It is the weediest of the plants mentioned here.

A Few Final Odds and Ends

All of these plants attract many butterflies and other insects. The next time you are near them when they are in flower, take a look in the flower head to see the diversity of the critters within.
Also, the Joe pye weed’s make lovely regal garden plants. If you have the right situation for them, they stand out nicely, but remember, they are big plants and need plenty of room. And remember all those butterflies they attract.

If you’ve made it this far, you should be considerably more informed about this group of plants. I hope that this information increases your admiration for these handsome, historically rich plants.

The Eupatorium Story; Joe Pye Weed, Boneset and White Snakeroot-Part One

January 15th, 2012

Boneset (Eupatrium perfoliatum, white flowered) and Joe pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum, purple-flowered)

This blog highlights the genus Eupatorium. Why Eupatorium? First, there is a story involved (isn’t there always?). Second, I think the genus Eupatorium and the name changes it has gone through are useful teaching devices to learn more about botanical names. Third, to help sort out the medicinal actions of this group of plants. And lastly, they are handsome helpful common plants, a good one get to know better and appreciate.

For this article, I am going to focus on the Eupatorium species that are the most relevant to herbalists. They are
1. Boneset-Eupatorium perfoliatum
2. Joe pye weed-Eupatorium (Eutrochium) purpureum, E. maculatum, E. fistulosum
3. White snakeroot-Eupatorium rugosum (Ageratina altissima).

A note on the word Eupatorium. It comes from King Mithridates VI of Pontus, also known as Eupator Dionysius. He lived circa 120-63 BC and has a very colorful history. The reason he is brought up here is that he fits into the herbal world through a concoction (little used today) called Mithridate, which is a poison antidote. Here is a bit of his story. His father was also a king who was killed by poison (a popular method then), and so as he ascended the throne he naturally worried about a similar fate. He tried to tilt the odds in his favor by continually taking very small amounts of a number of poisons. And it was also rumored that he had a special concoction that was a mixture of many substances that he drank to become resistant to being poisoned. There is much speculation on what these substances were, and you can see competing accounts of the ingredients if you look it up.
Here’s where it gets interesting (dare I say, ironic). Mithridates was a territory-expanding type of King, continually stepping on the toes of his Roman neighbors. When the Romans were sure to defeat Mithridates, instead of being captured he chose to kill himself, by poison. Unfortunately (get your ironic hats on) he was not able to kill himself as he was inured by all the years of taking sub-lethal doses of these poisons. (Not true for his family, who also took the poison before capture, they all died). So instead, he asked a guard to stab him to death with his sword. Not the cleanest way to die, but it worked well enough. And so, for many years afterwards, his special Mithridate formula was sought by those in similar circumstances (meaning, fear of being poisoned). Another variation of this drink (Galen wrote a book about it) is called theriac. Which lead later to the English word treacle.
It is hard to now how much of this tale, or formula are true, but it is well published, including accounts written around the time of his death.
I am not sure why this genus of these plants is named after him, but there are some poisonous Eupatoriums, such as White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum aka Ageratina altissima), so perhaps there was a poisonous species in his formula?
And so, Mithridate lends his name to a couple of plants

My Story

Here is the story behind my interest in these plants. It starts with Eupatorium purpureum, now Eutrochium purpureum. As someone who likes to be sure of a plant’s botanical identity (whether I am gathering it for medicine or not), I was reading up on the distinctions between the most commonly noted Gravel roots used in medicine, which are Eupatorium purpureum and Eupatorium maculatum. I also wanted to know about any similar looking plants so that included Eupatorium fistulosum. These are all commonly known as Joe pye weed.
It seemed that E. purpureum was a pretty common plant, and so with my field guides I began looking at these plants in my region and noticed right away that none of them fit the description of the ‘official’ species. I started asking knowledgeable folks and looking for drier habits it seemed to prefer, but just could not find it.

7Song and Joe pye weed (E. purpureum) finally, after many years of looking. Mark Twain NF, MO. July 15, 2007

I hear folks occasionally call various Joe pye weeds, Eupatorium purpureum, which are not (see Botany section below). Sometimes I say something, sometimes not, to avoid being even more of a killjoy than I already can be. But what is apparent is that herbalists are sometimes gathering Eupatorium maculatum rather than E. purpureum.

This is not a debate about which one is a better medicine, as I am not sure how to judge that without using them both regularly and recording the results. In the older texts, Eupatorium purpureum is mentioned much more than the others, which is why I was looking for that species. There is more about this under ‘Medicinal Uses’ below.

This story now moves to the Ozarks where I was driving along a dirt back road with a couple of students. Now one thing I want to say about this part of the country is that in my short time there, I saw more unusual plants than I usually see elsewhere. Here is where there is Echinacea purpurea still growing wild, and I saw Polygala senega for my first time and came across Eryngium yuccifolium and Grindelia lanceolata. All interesting plants to me. And so my eyes were open for other unusual botanicals. And as we were driving along and cresting a hill there by roadside, bordering the woods, was a Eupatorium patch that looked like it should have been lower down near the streams.
And so I jumped out of the car, and began counting the florets; 7 in this one, 5 in that one, good so far. Then I started going to individual plants in the area and counting from different plants to make sure it was not an individual anomaly. Nope, the number of florets was consistent. Next, was the stem hollow? (Please don’t be hollow…). And sure enough, not hollow except a bit at the nodes. And the coloring, purple mainly at the nodes. Yes! After so after many years of counting florets and smelling crushed up leaves, here on this Ozark back road, was Eupatorium purpureum. And like other Joe pye weeds, full of butterflies and other insects.
I then spent some more time making sure it was the correct species, taking photos, and digging up some roots (it was a good sized stand and expanding).
And that is my Eupatorium purpureum story.

Sweet joe pye weed (E. purpureum). Mark Twain NF, MO. July 15, 2007