Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blog Party! Summer Weeds

Yay to Darcey for getting the blog parties rolling again. You can see the whole listing at her wonderful blog:

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)

I love to love yellow dock.

This pesky weed that is despised by so many offers us so many uses whether it be nutritious food, potent medicine, or even beauty in the way of a brilliant yellow dye or a unique flower arrangement.

Leaves as food and Medicine:
Yellow dock grows all over the United States. It is in the buckwheat, or Polygonaceae family along with rhubarb and sheep’s sorrel. Where I live in the Northeastern Cascades of Washington State, yellow dock leaves are some of the first to appear in the spring. I’ve even seen them growing right out of the shallow snow in the late winter/early spring.

The young leaves are a wonderful spring green. You can eat small amounts raw in salads, or cook them in soups or quiche. Because the leaves contain oxalic acids it’s best not to overeat them raw, and avoid them completely if you have a history of oxalate kidney stones. The leaves are slightly sour when young, becoming increasingly so as they get older.

The cooling and astringent leaves can be used topically to reduce swelling from irritations. I’ve used them on cold sores with varying results as well as stinging nettle rashes with better results.

Yellow Dock Frittata:
This breakfast can be made with any wild greens, but yellow dock gives it a nice lemony taste.

1 cup yellow dock leaves, steamed and well drained
6 eggs
2 Tbsp. Raw cream
salt and pepper to taste
1 medium potato
½ minced onion or leek
2 tbsp. butter
1 cup grated goat cheese
1 tsp. dried basil
1 T mustard

Peel and finely chop the potato. Sauté onion in butter until tender in a cast iron skillet. Add the potato and sauté for about 5 minutes. Whisk eggs, cream, basil, cheese, mustard, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Add the yellow dock greens.

Preheat the broiler in your over.
Add the egg mixture on top of the potatoes and onions. Cook on low heat on the stove top for about 10 minutes until the bottom of frittata is set, but top is still runny.

Put skillet under the broiler for about five minutes or until the top portion is nicely browned.

Seeds as food and decoration:
During the spring and summer, long green flower stalks spring up from among the leaves. By June they are fully formed and by July or August they are abundant rust colored seeds. These are easily recognized in fields and growing alongside the roads. They seem to beckon me each year to harvest the bounty.

To harvest the seeds I cut down the seed stalks and place them in a paper bag. I then keep this bag on its side and leave it outside overnight. You’d be amazed at all the creatures that make their home in the yellow docks seeds. I encourage them to leave peaceably in this way.

The next day I pick through the seeds removing any debris and old leaves. These seeds can then be ground with a mortar and pestle or in food processor.

Why go to all this trouble you ask? Why dock seed crackers of course. My mentor Karen Sherwood taught me this recipe and years later it’s still a favorite in our house.

Dock Seed Crackers:
one cup of dock seed flour
one teaspoon of salt
and one cup flour of your choice. (My favorites are whole-wheat pastry flour and rye flour.)

1. Mix in enough water to make pliable, but not sticky dough.
2. On a well-floured surface, roll dough as thin as possible. Cut into desired shapes or transfer it whole to a well-oiled cookie sheet.
3. Bake for 10 -12 minutes at 350 or until crisp.
4. I love these hearty crackers with goat cheese.

The flower stalks also make a fabulous addition to flower arrangements. You can use them when they are green, or later when they are fully mature. I’ve seen them placed with other flowers or even as decoration on their own.

Roots as medicine, dye and fairy tables:
The root is the most commonly used portion of yellow dock. I harvest the roots in the late summer and early fall. They like to grow in hard rocky soil. (Or maybe we just have an abundance of hard rocky soil and it happens to grow there.) In either case I have found that a digging stick is oftentimes more helpful than a shovel in getting the roots up.

The root is a long taproot that has a brown outer covering. Underneath this brown sheath is a brilliant yellow that will knock your socks off. It’s no surprised that this was traditionally used as a dye. When you slice the root you will find growth rings similar to a tree. By counting the rings you’ll discover how old the plant is.

These brilliant yellow slices with beautiful rings rippling out make fabulous fairy furniture. You can create your own designs with a young friend. Although the color will fade as they dry, these slices can also be used as temporarily colorful earrings and necklaces.

Yellow dock root is bitter, astringent and cooling making it a great choice for clearing liver heat with signs of slow digestion that can include a lump or heavy feeling in the abdominals along with constipation. Generally described as an alterative, yellow dock (as are most alteratives) is indicated for clearing damp heat conditions.

Yellow dock root contains small amounts of anthraquinone glycosides, that are believed to stimulate the bowels as a laxative. Also being a bitter herb it helps to stimulate various digestive juices which in turn stimulates the peristaltic action of the bowels. Whether yellow dock acts directly on the bowels, or supports healthy digestion through its bitter properties, the result is a gentle effect to clear food stagnation and get those bowels moving.

It is also appropriate for damp heat signs in the blood that surface on the skin such as oozy, wet, red (hot), irritated rashes. I’ve read several accounts of it being used topically as a wash for ringworm.

It is commonly thought that yellow dock contains high amounts of iron and is frequently used for anemia especially anemia associated with pregnancy. There is a growing consensus however, that yellow dock does not actually contain large amounts of iron, but rather it helps the body to better utilize iron. When we view yellow dock in this fashion it makes sense to combine it with nettle leaf or to make a concoction of the root with an equal part of black strap molasses added.

Rich in minerals yellow dock infuses well in apple cider vinegar. This can be used as a base for salad dressings, or simply taken before meals to aid digestion. Additionally it can be taken to relieve food stagnation and constipation following a meal.

Besides vinegar and water, yellow dock root can also be extracted in alcohol. This year I hope to infuse the root in honey.

Although I have no experience with this myself, it’s worth noting that historically yellow dock salve was used externally on tumors.

Last fall I made a video about harvesting yellow dock root and then infusing it in vinegar. You can watch this at www.herbmentor.com.

I love to love yellow dock. It is abundant, easy to harvest, and has such a rich history of use for practically every portion of the plant.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Morels and two beauties in the Figwort family

We headed out to the forest today to gather morel mushrooms. My husband brought home a decent amount, but my luck was more in the plant kingdom. It was a hot and dusty day and I headed down to a creek to cool off and found some monkey flower and American speedwell (Veronica americana). Both of them are in the Figwort family, both like to live near streams, and neither of which I had seen in the wild before.

Monkey flower became a dear friend of mine this winter while I was, in technical terms, freaking out about our steep, curvy, icy driveway that I was sure to plummet over the edge of every time I needed to leave our cabin.

Kiva, an herbalist living in the wilderness of New Mexico has the following to say about Monkey flower: (excerpted from her fabulous post on nervine differentials)

Monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.) - Neutral, moist - Flowering tops - Sweet

For sadness and stress accompanied by a sense of joylessness and lack of wonder. A true sunshine remedy that brightens the spirits and can alleviate mild to moderate depression. It has also proven helpful for when someone is wound up on stimulants of any kind, to bring them back to earth from a hyped up, strung out place. Likewise, it can very useful when someone is hysterical to the point of being paranoid, unreasonable and frantic. It won’t sedate them into a stoned out kind of place, merely bring them back to the present moment and solid ground. I’ve also seen it help alleviate chronic insomnia with restlessness and frequent waking.

I am less familiar with American Speedwell or Veronica americana. Another figwort this has opposite leaves and blue flowers with four irregular petals and two stamens. (Most figworts have four stamens).

It's a tasty potherb and is also used as a diuretic, astringent and expectorant for unproductive coughs.

And lastly here are some beautiful morels. You can read more about our adventures on the blog my husband Xavier is overseeing at: http://fourseasonsprehistoricprojects.blogspot.com/

Monday, June 1, 2009

Relishing in the abundance of the forest: Arnica

I made it home from my month-long trip to California just in time to see the arnica blooming on the forest floor outside of my home. Today I was able to grab my gathering basket for a little stroll along the arnica paths to harvest some for liniment and oil. I also did a video for Herbmentor that should be up soon.

Arnica has many different species, and I don’t try to differentiate between them. It is a member of the Compositae family and when it goes to seed, it looks much like dandelion.

They have rhizomatic, roots which helps them to spread out inLink such dense patches. The leaves can be heart shaped, or sometimes are a thinner lance shape. The stems and leaves of this particular arnica are hairy, but I’ve read they can also be smooth. They can have 2-4 pairs of opposite leaves on the stem, with another pair of leaves at the base of the plant.

Arnica is hands down my choice for traumatic injuries such as bruising, sprains, strains, and even the trauma of broken bones. It is a magical plant that quickly clears blood stagnation, reduces swelling, and thereby decreases pain and increases healing time. It does this by dilating blood capillaries to increase blood flow to and from injuries.

It’s also great for achy muscles that have been overworked, or are chronically sore. Again, because it opens up circulation to an area and reduces inflammation it can also be used for arthritis (especially osteoarthritis) and bursitis.

Because arnica is a topical irritant, it works best on closed wounds, so if I have an injury with bruising and a cut or scrape I reach for something else. I’ve never had this happen to myself, but some people have reported a rash with extended use.

Most herbalists agree that arnica could be used internally, but only with A LOT of caution. Side effects include cardiac arrest and internal bleeding. Michael Moore, in his book, Medicine Plants of the Pacific West, has interesting notes about using it for sore throats, and other internal uses. Of course it is often used internally in homeopathic doses.

Arnica is ready to harvest when it is in full bloom, and looking vibrant. To harvest arnica I use a pair of scissors to clip the stem a couple of inches above the forest floor leaving a pair of leaves intact. I like harvesting arnica without gloves smelling the rich scent of arnica on my hands. It's smell is not unlike the sap of the pine trees which is where it likes to grow.

Arnica rhizomes help to aerate the soil, so I walk along the edge of arnica patches clipping a plant here and there to add to my basket. Also, because they can help reduce soil erosion I harvest arnica on flat surfaces, rather than hillsides.

Today I’ll be making both a liniment and oil. The liniment (an alcohol extraction) I made shortly after harvesting, but I let the arnica wilt a bit longer before infusing them in oil.

Arnica can easily be spoiled in oil, so I really baby this one by stirring every day, leaving a cloth lid on for about a week, and being extra sure there is no plant material above the surface of the oil. (Good tips for whenever you are making infused oils from fresh material.)

I often combine arnica with other plants in my salves, but I also like it as a simple with some lavender essential oil.

Further reading:

Medicine Plants of the Pacific West, Michael Moore
From Earth to Herbalist, Gregory Tilford