Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Echinacea: Reclaiming this powerful plant

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to read about Echinacea Benefits.

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Review

The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production by Peg Schafer

Over the past few years I’ve started to grow some Chinese medicinal herbs. Astragalus, codonopsis and baical skullcap were herbs I just couldn’t imagine being without. This year was my first harvest and I was a little disappointed about the yield. Two years of effort brought forth very little roots. If only I had had this beautifully photographed and incredibly informative book to guide me, I would have easily avoided mistakes! 

This book is written for both the casual home gardener interested in growing a few plants and the farmer interested in entering the market of Chinese Medicinal Herbs. 

Authored by Peg Schafer, who is not only a pioneer and authority on the subject (after having been an organic Chinese medicinal herb farmer for over a decade), but also who has a gift for writing in an engaging and very clear manner. 

Part I of this book starts off by addressing many common concerns about growing Chinese Herbs. Why would someone be interested in growing Chinese herbs? Are they as potent as plants grown in China? Will the grower be introducing invasive species? Is there a market for these herbs? 

In her concise yet thorough manner, Schafer addresses all these concerns. 

Why grow Chinese plants?
As Schafer points out, there are many reasons to grow Chinese herbs. First, there is a lot of concern about the quality of herbs coming from China. Plants in the wild are being over-harvested and all plants coming out of China could potentially be exposed to pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Secondly, there is a growing concern about the availability of herbs from overseas. By learning to grow our own we ensure our access to these plants no matter the political climate. 

Are Chinese plants cultivated in the west medicinally potent?
I often hear from practitioners that the most potent Chinese herbs only come from their native habitat. Peg Schafer has an interesting analogy about this hypothesis in relation to wine. Not too long ago it was thought that the best wines could only be grown in the French terroir. However, after years of experimentation, the western coast of the United States has proven its ability to grow wines just as coveted as the French. 

Moving beyond analogy, Schafer addresses the concern of cultivated vs. wild plants by sharing her specific ways of growing potent plants. (Tip: growing medicinal herbs is nothing like growing vegetable crops!) She backs up her claims with scientific testing (her herbs vs. imports) as well as organoleptic testing by Chinese Medicine Practitioners. 

Covering the basics
Although this book is mainly geared towards Chinese herbs, any herb gardener will find the first part of this book full of interesting tips. From building the soil, to managing the crops, to harvesting, to seed collecting, Schafer expertly covers many areas of organic herbal gardening. 

Fresh codonopsis root

Specific Plants (79 of them!)
In part 2 Schafer delves into specific cultivation techniques for 79 different Chinese plants. This section covers germination requirements, troubleshooting techniques, harvesting methods, processing methods, beautiful photos and even medicinal information for each plant. 

All of the information presented in the book comes from Schafer’s years of direct experience on her own farm and is a treasure for western dwellers who have grown fond of Chinese herbs, although I wouldn’t limit this book to strictly Chinese herb growers as the western herbalist will also find many familiar plants among the pages, such as Angelica sinensis and burdock (Arctium lappa). 

I’ve been pouring over this book for the past couple of weeks and, while the ground is covered in snow, I am already dreaming of my spring garden and the Chinese plants I will grow there. With Schafer’s informative book in hand I know I’ll have a lot more success growing my favorite Chinese herbs. I am looking forward to a garden full of peonies and codonopsis and skullcaps and on and on. 

To purchase this book and support Schafer’s important work (and farm), buy it from her directly at: 


Part One: Cultivating to Conserve Connecting with Quality Asian Botanicals
Chapter One: Farming to Be Part of the Solution
Evolving Herbal Traditions
Risks to the Future of Herbalism
Solutions for Continued Availability

Chapter Two: Herb Quality
Wild Quality
Assessing Herb Quality
Regulating Herbs
Like Fine Wines . . .

Chapter Three: Cultivation in the Nursery, Garden, and Field
Seed Starting and Propagation
Managing Your Soil
Seasonal Care
Managing Invasive Plant Risk

Chapter Four: The Harvest and Marketing
Harvesting Medicine
Drying Herb Crops
Storing Dried Herbs
Shipping Fresh or Dry Herbs
Collecting and Saving Seed for Sowing
Selling What You Grow
Good Agricultural Practices
Make Alliances

Chapter Five: Conservation and Global Trade in Medicinal Plants
Current Status: Factors and Reasons for Concern
Who Needs Protection?
Protective Measures
How Effective Are the Protective Strategies?
Cultivate to Conserve
How to Be Part of the Solution

Part Two: 79 Medicinal Herb Profiles

ISBN: 9781603583305 Year Added to Catalog: 2011
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: Full Color Throughout
Dimensions: 8 x 10
Number of Pages: 336
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green
Pub Date: December, 2011
Retail Price: U.S. $34.95 / Canada $38.50
Category: Gardening & Agriculture

Baical Skullcap

Monday, December 5, 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

Valerian on Photo Friday

Valeriana officinalis growing
on a volcano in Central France

Today's Photo Friday is one of my favorite plants, the notorious valerian. 

I rely on valerian often in my life to help with muscle pain and spasms in my back, for menstrual cramping and for relaxation and sleep. I am a valerian girl. 

While valerian is a relaxing nervine, sedative and anti-spasmodic to the majority of people, a significant amount of people react in the opposite way to valerian. Instead of settling in for a deep sleep they find themselves agitated and very awake. 

I recommend starting out with low doses of valerian to figure out which category you're in. 

I use valerian tincture in fairly large doses for myself. Two dropperfuls at night will konk me out almost immediately. 

I also use it as a fomentation for back pain and muscle spasms. I generally combine it with ginger. 

One of the best uses of valerian is for those dry spastic coughs that often accompany the end stages of a cold or flu. You know those annoying coughs that often become worse when lying down, preventing sleep. 

To address these debilitating coughs I do two things. I take marshmallow root and/or linden leaf/flower infusions during the day to address the dryness. Then valerian root tincture at night to stop any residual coughing. For myself,  I just keep dosing the tincture until I pass out. This generally means two dropperfuls initially and then a dropperful as necessary. 

Various species of valerian can be used with similar results. I'd love to hear what species of valerian you're using. 
Valeriana sitchensis growing on Mt. Hood
in Oregon. 

Valerian sitchensis grows wild in the mountains above my home, but since I also grow Valeriana officinalis in my garden, I rely on that for most of my medicine. 

I planted this Valeriana officinalis a couple years ago. I purchased the sprout from Crimson-Sage Nursery and then planted it without really knowing what to expect. 

At the time it was about 12 inches tall. 

By the second year this valerian was easily 8 feet tall in my garden. 

The valerian is the tall green stuff at the
back of the planting box. 

Besides offering fragrant and beautiful blooms it also supported some great wildlife viewing opportunities. Here's a goldenrod spider having a little snack. 

The goldenrod spider can change it's color from yellow to white depending on it's
current flower home. (As you might imagine it is yellow when found on goldenrod flowers.)

I've tinctured the flowers of valerian but haven't had a chance to use them yet as medicine - have any of you? Please share in the comments below. 

Valeriana officinalis leaves

This fall I dug the roots of the valerian I had planted two years ago. It was easy to split the plant in two and then replant the second half. 

If you don't do this occasionally with the valerian in your garden the roots will become more woody and have less essential oils. 

Depending on who you ask, valerian roots can smell deeply earthy or like gym socks.   

When harvesting and preparing the roots for medicine  we want to process them minimally to avoid damaging the volatile oils in the plant. 

To make a tincture I put the roots in a bowl of coldish water and gently swished the roots around. This was to get most of the dirt from the roots. I didn't scrub the roots. 

The result was mostly clean roots. I chopped these finely and then tinctured at 1:2 at 75%. 

When this is done macerating I'll filter this really well to capture any stray pieces of dirt that made it to the batch. 

Valerian is easy to grow, can also be wildcrafted and provides effective relief for pain and sleeplessness for most people. I've relied on valerian so many times for aches and pains and periods of insomnia that I have a strong love affair with this potent smelling creature. 

Further resources: 
Mini-monograph on valerian (with a story about cats)
Another small monograph on valerian

Very thorough monograph on Valerian (by ABC) pdf