Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blog Roll Spotlight: Mustard Plaster at Farm at Coventry

This month's Blog Roll Spotlight focuses on a beautifully photographed and informative essay on making a mustard plaster. A mustard plaster is often recommend for lung congestion and respiratory illness, but I have never before seen such a detailed DIY explanation. 

What I loved about this blog post is that in incorporates so many wonderful aspects of herbalism. Hands on experience, learning from an elder, practical, cheap and most of all, effective. 

You can visit her beautiful blog and see the entire original article here. 

Farm at Coventry blog is written by Susan Hess, who is a therapeutic herbalist, herbal teacher and herbal medicine maker. 

Susan has many wonderful articles on her blog - brew up a cup of tea and stay awhile. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Travel Log: Campeche

I am visiting my dad in Campeche, Mexico. I arrived two days ago and have already been shown quite the "bienvenidos". My dad has lived here for 6 years and has been adopted by a couple of families who have extended their arms to welcome me into their family as well. 

Yesterday we spent the afternoon with a family who has strong Mayan roots. We had botanas (appetizers), cerveza, and then an incredible regional dish called pibi pollo. This meal is traditionally made for dia de los muertos in November and takes two days to prepare! It is cooked underground and is made of corn, chicken and sausage. They had some frozen so I got to have this treat in February. I was also given a wonderful juice made from Chinese bitter orange (naranja agria). 

My host also made some nance with honey and alcohol. This is a very aromatic fruit the size of a cherry with a pit. I'd never had such a thing before but it was really delicious. After dinner they showed me their stash of chocolate. My dad's "brother" buys the raw cacao and then roasts it himself. He takes it to someone who grinds it up with some cinnamon, honey, peanuts and almonds. He and his wife then pound it into a metal circle and it is then used to make hot cocoa.

Cacao with peanuts, almonds, cinnamon, and honey. This circle makes three cups of hot chocolate.
My dad teaches english down here and my first day one of his past students stopped by to meet me. He is learning Reiki and talked a lot about Eckhart Tolle. Very rare! He gave me a reiki session and I felt wonderful afterwards. 

Today we spent the afternoon with the Chilangos. (Chilangos means they come from the capital, D.F.). They made a special meal (as requested by my dad) from huitlacoche. Otherwise known as corn smut, this is a type of fungus that infects corn. It is considered a pest by some and a delicacy by others. It was wrapped in a chicken breast and covered with a creamy sauce made from squash flowers. We started off with tequila (muy suave!) and a really tasty bean dip and then finished with a cappuccino and then various herbal teas. 

This family had a small herb garden where they grew epazote, oregano, tomatoes, lemon verbena, basil, parsley and some fruit trees. Whenever they go back to D.F. they visit an herbalist who gives them kilos and kilos of different herbal teas for common ailments. They are beautiful with barks, flowers and leaves. They showed me dosages by demonstrating if you pick it out of the bag with your fingers pointing towards the ground (fingertips only) or with the entire hand with the fingers facing the ceiling (handful).

One of the herbal teas given to me from the chilangos.
I studied Spanish in college and lived in the Dominican Republic at one time, but although I used to speak bastante bien, I have definitely forgotten a lot! Also because I speak French at home (and I learned these two languages at the same time) I easily get the two languages confused. However I am quickly remembering a lot of vocabulary and everyone has a lot of patience with me! Luckily I can understand almost everything even if I can't speak correctly all the time. 

I've learned a few phrases Campechano. One, which as come in handy a few times already is  "perro milpero". This means dog of the cornfield and refers to the dogs which come home from the cornfields with a few more inches around the waste, after weeks of gluttony.  

I am overwhelmed with how kind everyone has been so far! Right now my dad and I are resting a little bit before heading out to an ice cream store that serves rose petal ice cream. We'll spend a couple more nights here at my dad's house before heading out to travel around the Peninsula. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Photo Friday - Lilies!

 Lilies are often gorgeous plants that range from edible to medicinal to poisonous. Here's a collection of some of my favorite lilies to gaze upon. 

Sego Lily, Calochortus nuttallii. 
The state flower of my home state, Utah. It is a beautiful site to see this gorgeous flower growing in an otherwise desolate landscape! 

Lilium martagon, taken in Geneva Switzerland at the 
botanical gardens. 

Lillium columbianum, taken just outside my cabin. The bulbs are edible and taste somewhat peppery, although I seldom eat them. Too pretty! 

Mariposa Lily, Calachortus lyallii. This flower is a frequent site during the spring. It likes dry hillsides and the edges of where the forest meets the sage brush steppe. It also has edible bulbs, which taste pleasant, but are quite small. 
This was photographed at Mt. Hood on a trip with Paul Bergner, I've never been able to find out exactly what type of lily it is. Do you know? 
This beauty is a potentially toxic plant that was once used historically, but can easily cause death. False Hellebore, Veratrum viride
Leaves of False Hellebore

Death Camas, Zigadenus venenosus, is aptly named. Even a small taste of this plant has been known to cause death. After spending time with this plant in all seasons, I've learned to recognize it just be the early lily-like leaves that pop up in the spring. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Astragalus: A Supreme Protector

Astragalus Health Benefits
Radix Astragali

Other common names: milk vetch, huang qi 

Botanical name: Astragalus membranaceus

Family: Fabaceae (pea)

Parts used: root

Properties: sweet taste, warming and moist, immunomodulator, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, adaptogen, diuretic

Used for: immune system dysfunction (from frequent colds and flu, to HIV, to cancer), angina, hypertension, hepatitis, fatigue, asthma, prolapsed organs, weak limbs, hepatitis, anemia

Plant preparations: decoctions, cooked with food, powdered, capsules, tincture

Astragalus root is an amazing root that helps to support immune system function, protect the liver and heart. This article will explore astragalus health benefits in both the Chinese and Western Herbalism perspectives. 

Astragalus root originally comes to us from China but it has quickly integrated itself into western herbalism. In a recent poll of practicing herbalists it placed as 16th in the top 50 herbs commonly used by western herbalists. 

It’s important to note that the plant we use for medicine is a specific genus and species. There are over 2,000 different species in the Astragalus genus. Some of these plants are toxic and none are known to have the same qualities as Astragalus membranaceus, although a few are used medicinally. 

Astragalus Medicinal Uses in Chinese Medicine
Since this herb comes to us from China let’s begin by exploring astragalus health benefits in the Traditional Chinese Medicine tradition. 

Astragalus root is considered to be a sweet tonic herb that is slightly warming. It has an ascending energy (which is important; we’ll get to that later). 

It is specifically a Spleen Qi Tonic and a Lung Qi Tonic. Therefore, it is used when there is Spleen Qi Deficiency and Lung Qi Deficiency. I realize that if you are a western herbalist you might be scratching your head at this point! Let’s try to break this down for better understanding. 

When organ systems are mentioned in TCM it doesn’t exactly correlate to our own organ systems. So the Liver in TCM isn’t exactly the liver of our western anatomical or physiological understanding. Generally, the organs are capitalized when referring to the TCM organ. The Spleen in TCM is more closely related to our understanding of the pancreas in that it is strongly tied to digestive function. 

The Spleen is responsible for transforming food and drink into Qi (energy) and Blood. If someone is lacking Qi or energy, we look for dysfunction of the Spleen first and foremost. This way of thinking is directly related to western herbalism in that we almost always address digestion first. If a person isn’t assimilating food correctly, how can they achieve good health? 

After the Spleen transforms food and drink into Qi, the Qi ascends to the Lungs where it is combined with the Lung Qi and transformed into the Zhen Qi, or energy that supports our entire body. 

When the Spleen is lacking Qi the person may experience fatigue and sluggishness, loose stools or diarrhea, poor appetite, phlegm and dampness, weak arms and legs and prolapsed organs (such as hemorrhoids). 

Astragalus root is a Spleen Qi tonic. It brings energy, increases appetite and improves digestion and can lift prolapsed organs. 

Astragalus is also a Lung Qi tonic. The Lungs in TCM are more closely related to our western understanding of the lungs, although there are some differences. The Lungs take in air and create Qi. Lungs house what is called the Wei Qi (pronounced “way”), sometimes referred to as the defensive Qi. The Wei Qi is like a force field for our body, protecting us from invading pathogens (bacteria, virus, etc). When the Lungs or the Wei Qi is weak we are more prone to illness, may have dull skin, and difficulty with breathing. 

As a Lung Qi tonic, Astragalus root is useful for those who are frequently coming down with colds and the flu, have difficulty breathing (such as asthma) or those who sweat too much or not enough. 

In Chinese medical terms, astragalus builds up the protective chi. Imagine that there is a protective shield around your body, just below the surface of the skin, that keep out cold and other external influences. It vitalizes the non-specific immune defenses and wards off infections. This is the protective chi, and astragalus is the premier herb in Chinese herbalism to strengthen it.
-Paul Bergner

Fresh astragalus harvested from my garden

Using Astragalus in TCM
Typically, astragalus root is used as a decoction of the root or it is cooked into food like stew or rice (the root will need to be removed before eating). Most of my TCM texts recommend simmering it for a minimum of a half hour to a full hour. This is a mild, food-like herb that can be taken in larger quantities with recommendations anywhere from 10 - 30 grams (1/3 of an ounce to 1 ounce). 

Herbs are almost always formulated in TCM and rarely used as simples (simples = using just one herb at at time). 

Astragalus root is a part of many formulas and is often paired with Ligusticum and Ginseng. One classic formula that includes astragalus is Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang. 

Astragalus has similar Qi-strengthening properties to ginseng but is less heating and stimulating. It is often said that those younger in years will benefit most from astragalus while those more seasoned with years may find ginseng more beneficial. 

Astragalus for colds? 

You’ll often hear that it is best to take astragalus to prevent colds and the flu but it should be avoided during acute illness. While I would say that is generally true, it is much more complicated. If someone is sick and with a lot of deficiency symptoms, astragalus might be used to strengthen the person’s reserves to boost them towards wellness. 

I frequently combine astragalus with reishi mushroom to improve immunity and instruct patients who easily get sick to drink a daily dose of the two throughout fall and winter. Similarly, it may be included in soups or cooked with grains and eaten on a weekly basis to help the whole family get through the winter without a single cold (people are always impressed with how well they feel and avoid colds and flu.) 
-Lesley Tierra
Healing with the Herbs of Life

Astragalus Health Benefits in Western Herbalism
As I mentioned before, astragalus root has firmly made its way into western herbalism. The root can be bought as an import from China, can be grown in your garden or can be purchased from herb farmers growing it in North America. 

Astragalus root, as well as specific constituents of astragalus, have been studied extensively here in the west and in China for applications against cancer, heart disease, blood sugar imbalances and even longevity

Astragalus Health Benefits for Immune System and Cancer
Astragalus root has been studied extensively for its effect on the immune system. It has been shown to reduce the occurrence of common respiratory illnesses, inhibit tumor growth and bolster immune system activity in general. 

The studies of its use in cancer patients is astounding. It is frequently being used alongside chemotherapy to alleviate the side effects of the chemotherapy treatments. It has also been shown to inhibit the growth of tumors and bolster the immune system1

Research shows Astragalus root stimulates the immune system in many ways. It increases the number of stem cells in bone marrow and lymph tissue and encourages their development into active immune cells. It appears to help trigger immune cells from a “resting” state into heightened activity. One study showed Astragalus root helps promote and maintain respiratory health. It also enhances the body’s production of immunoglobulin and stimulates macrophages. Astragalus can help activate T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells.
-Thorne Research1a

Benefits of Astragalus as an Adaptogen
Astragalus root is considered an adaptogen. It helps to build and restore general health to the body. It is used for those with adrenal fatigue,2 which may manifest as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

I often use it for people who are completely run down. If they are getting frequent colds and flus, that is a sure sign this herb will be of benefit! I often combine it with ashwaganda root. 

I also frequently use this root for people with seasonal allergies. As an immunomodulator it helps to straighten up the immune system, lessening the frequency and severity of allergies. 

Astragalus Health Benefits for Longevity
Astragalus root seems to prolong the life of cancer patients by supporting the immune system and inhibiting cancer growth. Scientific studies have also shown that specific constituents within astragalus are highly anti-oxidant, which slows the rate of aging. 

A telomere is a structure found at the end of a chromosome and is a region of repetitive DNA. Its job is to prevent deterioration of the chromosome. Shortened telomeres are associated with poor health and aging. Astragalus has also shown that it can slow telomere shortening, giving us further clues as to how to promotes longevity. 

Astragalus benefits for the Heart...
Astragalus herb has been studied extensively for its effects on improving heart function, even in patients with extreme cases such as congestive heart failure. It can also inhibit the formation of lipid peroxides and decrease blood coagulation. Another study shows that it can strengthen left ventricular function3,4.  

Astragalus benefits for the Liver
Astragalus root has been scientifically shown to decrease the replication of the hepatitis B virus5. It has also been shown to prevent damage to the kidneys and liver that has been caused by either medications or virus infections. 

Astragalus benefits for the Blood and Kidneys... 
Astragalus is also a blood tonic. It helps to regulate fluid metabolism, and those who consume it regularly are said to rarely suffer from fluid retention and bloating. 
-Ron Teeguarden
Chinese Tonic Herbs

Astragalus regulates fluid metabolism. We see this not only in its diuretic properties but also in its ability to stop profuse sweating. It is also used for night sweats and for edema. 
It has been used to treat nephritis caused by complications from Lupus, especially when used in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs6.

It is also used to build blood and can be considered for those with anemia, especially anemia related to poor digestion. 

Astragalus Benefits for Healing Topical Infections
Astragalus herb can be taken internally and applied as a poultice to address infections from wounds.  

Botanically Speaking
Astragalus is a perennial member of the pea family. 

It grows from 3 to 5 feet in height with sprawling stems. It likes to grow in sandy soils that drain well. 

The flowers appear in racemes of yellowish whitish pea flowers. 

The roots can be dug in the spring or fall after four years of growth. The taproots grow 3 - 4 feet into the ground. One healthy plants yields about 3/4 of a pound of root. 

I've been growing astragalus in my garden for the past couple of years. The above photo is from my first harvest. The fresh root was barely fibrous and quite sweet! After chopping and drying the root it was barely enough for one decoction! So, I either need to grow an entire row of astragalus every year (we go through about five pounds a year), or continue buying it from Mountain Rose Herbs. 

Using Astragalus
Think of astragalus as an herb that slowly builds the system. Don’t expect immediate results. Because it is a food-like herb it is recommended to take it daily, in large amounts for an extended period of time. 

While astragalus is traditionally used as a decoction or cooked with foods, western herbalists have started tincturing the root as well. Herbalist David Winston recommends 40-80 drops of a 1:5 astragalus extract three times per day. 

In the past, high quality astragalus was believed to be the large flat tongue depressor looking roots, the more yellow in color the better. I’ve since learned from Roy Upton that these roots are often manipulated with yellow dyes. 

I like to buy the sliced roots for my soups (since they are easy to remove) or the cut and sifted roots for use in tea blends. 

When I recommend astragalus herb to people I use the standard dosages as put forth by TCM (10-30, sometimes even up to 100 grams). It is difficult to get this dose using a tincture or capsules. 

Remember when using the root in food (soups, rice, quinoa, etc) you will always have to remove the root since it is too fibrous to eat. 

During the winter months, my husband and I often drink chai blends and I add 60 grams of astragalus root to each batch (30 for each of us.) Here's one of my favorite chai recipes. 

Astragalus root has specific and powerful applications for cancer and immune system support, however because it also contains so many protective properties (heart, liver, kidneys) it is a wonderful herb to consider for preventive care. Cook it into your food, enjoy chai tea made with astragalus, eat the powder with honey and ghee... so many ways to enjoy this root. I'd love to hear your favorite astragalus recipes in the comments! 

Astragalus Side Effects
Astragalus herb interacts with recombinant interleukin 2 and recombinant alpha interferon 1 and 2. It is speculated that astragalus would interfere with those on immunosuppressive drugs. 
As per TCM astragalus is avoided when there are heat signs or yin deficiency signs. 

  1. Astragalus injection supplemented with chemotherapy could inhibit the development of tumor, decrease the toxic-adverse effect of chemotherapy, elevate the immune function of organism and improve the quality of life in patients.

    1a. PDF from Thorne Research
  2. Astragalus contains compounds which slow cell aging through reduced telomere shortening rate, oxidative stress and increasing DNA repair ability.
  5. Astragalus may promote recovery from viral hepatitis and inhibit hepatitis B virus replication. 
  6. Astragalus amplifies the therapeutic effects of cyclophosphamide in the treatmeant of Lupus Nephritis.

This article was originally written for If you like the article, you'll love the community and education at

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Indulge! Chocolate syrup with elderberries and rose hips

I am going to be 100% honest with you all and admit we've been quite indulgent lately. Between my longings for spring and the fact that February is my husband's birthday month, not to mention Valentine's day... well, in reality we never need that much of an excuse to indulge anyway. 

Our challenge is finding decadent treats that truly feel like an extravagance, yet are still overtly healthy. Neither my husband nor I like to eat a lot of sugar and I eat a pretty low carb diet. That rules out a lot of conventional treats! 

But, honestly, it bores me to focus on what I choose not to eat. Instead, I like to look at each meal, wondering how much delicious "food as medicine" I can pack in there. 

The following syrup is antioxidant-rich, combining the known health benefits of cocoa with the beneficial medicine of elderberries and the nutrient-rich rosehips. Many of the ingredients are also aphrodisiacs and have been used for hundreds of years to spice up one's love life. 

Drizzled over coconut pancakes and served with Astragalus and Reishi Chai, this can satisfy many of our indulgent cravings. 

What's in the syrup

Cocoa powder
Chocolate lovers seldom need encouragement to indulge in a few dark squares but chocolate is not just a guilty pleasure. Pure cocoa is rich in antioxidants, helps to support heart health and increases libido. For the most health benefits get at least 70% cocoa products or use 100% cocoa powder.

 Learn more about the history and benefits of cocoa here plus see my dark chocolate rose truffle recipe. 

We often hear that elderberries are anti-viral and scientists say that it is the high flavonoid content that can disrupt viral activities. A diet rich in flavonoids promotes health in a myriad of ways such as supporting eye and heart health, reducing inflammation in the body and preventing cancer.

Rose hips
Another flavonoid-rich herb that also has high amounts of vitamin C. Roses have long been associated with the heart, passion and love. 

Who doesn't love cinnamon? What a wonderfully sweet and deliciously spicy treat! It's amazing to me that such a taste comes from tree bark. Cinnamon is known for many health benefits, including its ability to regulate blood sugar. A wonderful addition to any sweet treat. Cinnamon can also help to regulate body temperature (great for those with cold hands and feet) and can relieve digestive complaints and even arthritic pain and menstrual cramping. 

The nutmeg spice is the seed of the nutmeg tree. Nutmeg has long been used as a culinary spice as well as for its medicinal qualities. Nutmeg can promote digestion, be used as a sedative and to promote sexual health. Here is a very interesting blog post from Mountain Rose Herbs about nutmeg.

Bulk organic herbs, spices and essential oils. Sin

Here's how to make this luxurious treat! 

Chocolate Syrup with Elderberries and Rose hips

1/2 cup of elderberries
1/2 cup of rose hips
2 cups of water
2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder (look for organic, fair trade and 100% cocoa)
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Honey to taste

Simmer the elderberries and rosehips in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes. Strain well. 

Whisk in the cocoa powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. 

Add honey to taste while the mixture is still warm. Mix well. 

This syrup can be drizzled on ice cream, bananas, or enjoyed on coconut flour pancakes...

Here's a recipe card you can download and print off! 

Coconut Flour Pancakes 
(a variation from Bruce Fife's book, Cooking with Coconut Flour)

4 eggs
2 tsp honey
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup coconut flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup crushed walnuts if desired

Whisk together the eggs, milk, honey and salt. 

Add the baking powder and coconut flour. Mix well. 

Add the melted coconut oil and the walnuts if desired. 

Once your batter is mixed well, pour it onto a hot griddle in desired pancake sizes. 

Enjoy these pancakes with freshly whipped cream (we shake cream in a mason jar until it is thoroughly "whipped") and a garnish of orange zest! 

When you take your first bite of this delicacy please don't pay any attention to the fact that this meal can support your heart health, boost your immune system and prevent sickness or give a zing to your zoom. Just enjoy that incredibly flavor. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Photo Friday ~ Herbal Panoramas

Evening primrose growing alongside a
waterfall near Escalante, Utah
A few months ago I had this great idea to share my favorite photos every Friday. And it really was a great idea. The only problem is that I took it a little overboard (welcome to the story of my life). Originally I had thought I would post one or two photos of plants. Maybe a couple of sentences to go along with it. Super simple, but elegant and it would only take 15 minutes or so each week. 

But no, I couldn't stop there. I had to add more photos and more descriptions until my simple photo Friday turned into a couple hours of editing work for me. And in case you didn't already know, I have enough on my plate! 

So, there has been an absence of photo Fridays. But I still think it's a good idea as long as I can tame  my over achiever qualities. We'll see. 

To shake things up a bit I am not choosing a particular plant this week, but instead some herbal panoramas. Beautiful scenes I've been privileged to witness over the past couple of years. 

I'll be honest, my main motivation is that I have spring fever. I was editing video yesterday for my Plants in France series on and seeing the abundance of green growing things with birds chirping in the background just about did me in. Does summer really exist? Will it one day be summer again? I had to surround myself with more greenery. So here you have it. 

Wild rose growing outside of Escalante, Utah. My paternal family settled here over 100 years ago. 

Elder flowers near Escalante, Utah

Dandelion meadow in the French Alps. The cheese from the cows grazing these fields was amazing. 

Bistort in the French Alps

Yarrow meadow on Canyon Ridge in the Methow Valley

Nettle growing on Lake Geneva in Evian (think water) France

Spice market in Bonneville, France. The birth city of my handsome French husband. 

I was amazed that nettle grew everywhere in France. 

Linden growing outside of a medieval village in southern France. 

Outside of Jardin du centaure, a beautiful medicinal herb garden in central France. 

This is the entrance to their small shop. 

My husband and his uncle walking along a trail on a volcano in central France. The white flowered shrubs are elders. 

Douglas sunflower with the snowy north cascades in the background. 

Elephant's head in an alpine meadow. One of the most beautiful places I've seen, except for the fact I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I guess there are plusses to winter, no biting bugs. 

Lycium growing at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. 

Well, I still did more than I intended, but small steps right? I hope you enjoyed the scenery!