Saturday, March 31, 2012

Blog Roll Spotlight: Yuba Botanicals

Each month I highlight a blog post from one of the blogs on the Complete Herbal Blog Roll that I find particularly delightful. 

This month's Spotlight comes from a relatively new blogger. I recently found out about Holly's blog and although she only has a handful of posts I love every one of them. 

Her post on Juniper Smoked Hemlock Cheese is a shining example of modern wild food cuisine. What impresses me the most is her enthusiasm for hands on experimentation. She learns a new wild plant from a friend and then promptly begins using that plant in a creative way. 

This blog post isn't filled with "so and so says", but instead is a fresh and contemporary reflection of her personal experience using wild and local foods. I appreciate her ability to break from the mold which is something I hope to cultivate more in my own herbal meanderings. 

For the Blog Roll Spotlight I generally only highlight one post in a blog (which leaves me more posts to highlight in the future!), but you also have to see her recipe for Hair Mud as well. I am looking forward to trying that myself. 

I hope you all enjoy Yuba Botanicals as much as I do! 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Yellow Dock: A pesky weed as food, medicine and fairy furniture

Scientific Name: Rumex spp.
Family: Polygonacea or buckwheat family
Parts used: young leaves, seeds, roots
Plant Properties: cooling/drying, alterative, slight laxative, astringent, iron enhancer
Plant preparations: food, tincture, vinegar, molasses syrup, decoction

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. 

Many of you are probably already familiar with the Dock species even if you haven’t met on a first name basis. The flower stalks of this hearty weed turn to a brown rusty color that jump out against the landscape in the late summer and many stalks are still visible in spring. Its leaves are lance shaped growing out from the base of the flower stalk. Sometimes the leaves are curly at the edges, giving it its popular name “Curly Dock.” There are about 25 species of Dock in the North American continent – some have been imported from Europe.

In the early spring dock leaves are some of the first wild edibles to appear, sometimes even poking out of the snow. At this young stage these leaves and tender and delicious! Besides being high in iron the leaves also contain significant levels of calcium, potassium, beta carotene. They have a slight lemony twang to them, which indicates the presence of oxalic acid. (Which is also found in beets, spinach, and rhubarb leaves.) Because of the oxalic acid found in dock leaves it’s not recommended to eat large amounts of raw greens.

Leaves as food and Medicine
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 acid 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.

Photo by Sunny Savage
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
As far as medicine goes, 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 surprise 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.
Dock fairy table and chairs

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.

Here's a video about making this type of preparation: 

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.

King's American Dispensatory lists the following specific indications for Rumex: 

Specific Indications and Uses.—Bad blood with chronic skin diseases; bubonic swellings; low deposits in glands and cellular tissues, and tendency to indolent ulcers; feeble recuperative power; irritative, dry laryngo-tracheal cough; stubborn, dry, summer cough; chronic sore throat, with glandular enlargements and hypersecretion; nervous dyspepsia, with epigastric fullness and pain extending through left half of chest; cough with dyspnoea and sense of praecordial fullness.

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.

This post is part of the Wild Things Round Up. Visit this link for a lot of really scrumptious and creative recipes for dock! 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Herbal things to do in Seattle (and abouts)

I often get inquiries from people traveling to the Seattle area who are looking for herbal classes, medicinal plant walks and other herbally focused things to do. 

Here is my list of herbal highlights for the Seattle area. If you regularly teach classes in the are or have something else to add to the list please email me and I'll put it on the list. This listing isn't for advertising one time events. 


UW Medicinal Herb Garden
If you only do one thing in the Seattle area, make it the UW Herb Medicinal Herb Garden. It contains hundreds of medicinal plants that are clearly labeled. You'll see exotic plants you never thought you's get a chance to see! This activity is best during the growing season. See this link for more information.

Rhodiola: Photo taken at the UW Medicinal Herb Garden

Washington Park Arboretum
This park is a beautiful stroll throughout spring, summer and fall. It boasts over 230 acres filled with plants and trees. You'll also find the Japanese Garden nearby. More information here. 

Bastyr has a beautiful herb garden at their Kirkland campus. Don't miss their reflexology footpath. They also host a nice herb fair in the late spring. 

Eastpointe Native Plant Demonstration Garden 
Part of project of NATIVE (Native Appreciation through Indigenous Vegetation at Eastpointe), this garden uses volunteers to educate the public about native plants and their environmental benefits.
3600 – 136th Pl. SE, Bellevue, (425) 296-6602

King County Master Gardener Foundation 
This website has an extensive listing of gardens, including native plant gardens, found in the area. 

Stores & Apothecaries

Dandelion Botanical Company
Dandelion Botanical Company, located in historic downtown Ballard is a beautiful apothecary with loads of bulk herbs, teas, herbal books and other supplies. I stop in every time I'm in town. They often have wonderful herbal classes on evenings and weekends. 

In Kirkland, WA, this store often hosts herbal classes as well. 

Rainbow Natural Remedies
Located in Capitol Hill, Rainbow Natural Remedies carries bulk herbs and supplements. 

Uwajimaya is an Asian specialty foods store and quite the adventure! 

Herbal teachers in the area

Located 13 miles outside of Seattle in Issaquah, Karen Sherwood is an ethnobotanist who frequently teaches weekend plant programs as well as long term apprenticeships. Her seaweed class in the summer is one of my favorites classes! 

Located 1.5 hours north of Seattle, they frequently have herbal class offerings. 

Dandelion Botanical Company hosts a variety of herbal classes. See their listing here

Olympia Free Herbal Clinic
Located in Tacoma (1.5 hours south of Seattle), this incredibly awesome clinic offers occasional classes and their annual Dandelion Seed Conference which happens in the fall. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Everybody Hurts Sometimes: Relieving Pain with Herbs

Pain, The Great Motivator

The sensation of pain is a great motivator for people to seek help. Whether you practice herbalism for your friends and family or are a clinician, pain is one of the most common complaints we hear. 

Most of us were raised to take over-the-counter (OTC) medicine when we experienced pain. These pills are usually cheap, easy to acquire and take, and are often effective in the short term. The obvious problems associated with OTCs are habitual use due to recurring pain (since they never address the real problem), which gives rise to a myriad of undesirable side effects ranging from digestive problems to death1

It is common in western culture to view pain as an inconvenience. Many people I see want a safe herbal equivalent to OTCs so they can get back to their normal lives. It often takes a lot of coaching on my part to change their ideas and approaches to pain. 

Sometimes this is entirely unsuccessful. I have had clients who don’t want to change how they eat or who don’t want to pay for multiple sessions in manual therapy.  Instead they just want something to take the pain away. I believe people are free to make their own health choices. If they don’t want to address the underlying problem for their pain but are seeking safer alternative to over the counter pharmaceuticals, I help them find this solution.

Many times people have sought me out because they want a more holistic approach to their pain and are open to more drastic changes in their lives. I often work on a two pronged approach, doing what I can to stop the pain now as well as working on the underlying issue.

Many people new to herbalism are simply looking for the safe herbal equivalent to Tylenol and they will have a difficult time finding it. This difficulty gives rise to the erroneous idea that herbs are not effective for pain. As far as I know there isn’t that one (legally available and safe) herb that will stop all pain. Instead, herbs are highly specific to the type of pain. Herbalists will be much more successful in treating pain if they can differentiate the type of pain and the cause of the pain. 

This article is going to examine how we look at pain using traditional humoral and energetic markers. Having been trained as a planetary herbalist with a basic understanding of humoral western herbalism, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the following draws on my own hodgepodge understanding of all these traditions. I will strive to present it in a common language for general understanding.  

Before we can suggest herbs for pain we must know a lot more about the quality of the pain, the onset and severity of the pain, and the location of the pain. Please keep in mind there are a lot of different kinds of pain. Questions asked for chronic pain will differ significantly from questions regarding an acute injury. I trust the reader can draw these apart depending on the situation. 

Although I will highlight some of my favorite plants for pain, this article will be more about understanding the energetic qualities of pain, rather than a general review of the materia medica used for pain. However, I won’t stray too far into the philosophical mechanisms of pain and it is my hope that the reader will leave with practical applications for pain. 

Determining the quality of pain
For many laypeople pain is pain. 

For the traditional herbalist “pain” is a general word that needs to be explored more fully. To better understand the quality of pain we can look for insights into the thermal energetics (cold vs. hot), the humidity (damp vs. dry), whether the pain is from excess or deficiency, and whether there is an influence of spasms (wind) or of stagnancy. 

Cold vs Hot
Understanding whether the pain is influenced by hot or cold can be an important distinction in differentiating pain. Pain being influenced by cold or hot is not a woo-woo or ethereal concept. People with arthritic pain will tell you it’s worse in the winter when it’s cold. Or someone may know they tend to get pounding headaches in the heat of the summer.  Sometimes pain induced by an imbalance of temperature can be even more obvious, like pain from a sunburn, which typically feels hot.  

Aloe is a wonderful plant to sooth
the pain of sunburns, ulcers and herpes sores,
all are considered hot conditions. 

Here are some general questions one may ask to determine the temperature of the pain. 

Do you prefer cold/warm temperatures? 
Is your pain increased with coldness/warmth? 
Is pain ameliorated with cold/warmth? 
Do you notice more discomfort in the winter/summer? 
Palpating the specific area of pain, does it feel cold? 
Does it feel warm? 
If pain is systemic, do you tend to feel cold or warm?

Of course answers are seldom black and white. The person may feel cold in their extremities, while the area of pain is hot or vice versa. In general we want to address acute situations before more chronic or constitutional considerations. 

For pain associated with coldness. 
The person who has systemic pain associated with coldness generally has a pale complexion and may be cool to the touch. They may have a dislike or even fear of the cold. I often hear from these people that they have trouble sleeping at night because they are so cold. They typically are wearing more clothes than anyone else in the room. Their tongue may be pale in color. If they have a coating on the tongue it will tend to be white. Their pulse may be slow. Pain associated with coldness tends to be chronic like arthritis or pain from fibromyalgia. The pain may be be dull or achy and constant. 

Plan of action
Generally these people can benefit from warming herbs. Warm teas, cooked whole foods with lots of spices and warm baths may all be helpful. Circulatory stimulants are commonly used for this type of pain and include ginger (Zingiber officinale), turmeric (Curcuma longa), cayenne (Capsicum spp.), bee balm (Monarda spp.). 

For Pain associated with heat
Signs of constitutional or systemic heat may include a completely red face, loud voice, fast pulse, red tongue with possible yellow coating. They may thrive in cooler temperatures and complain of wilting in higher temperatures. Other heat signs in the body may include ulcers on the lips, mouth, stomach or intestines. 

St. John's Wort eases nerve pain and pain caused by herpes lesions. 

Pain associated with heat might be radiating, throbbing, hot to the touch, and intense. Acute injuries often have some element of heat to them. Sprains or burns will often be warm to the touch. 

Plan of action
For systemic pain, bitter and heat-clearing herbs may be of benefit here. Herbs containing salicylic acid such as willow (Salix spp.) and meadowsweet (Fillipendula ulmaria) fall into this category nicely. Nerve pain often falls into this category and herbs like St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum) and Cow Parsnip (Heracleum spp.) can be of great benefit. 

Pain associated with heat often has some element of inflammation present. We have amazing anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric (Curcuma longa), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and on and on and on. Usually diet and lifestyle will need to be reviewed as well.

Acute injuries (sprain, strains, bruises) benefit from the topical application of herbs such as liniments, poultices, fomentations etc. Hydrotherapy, which has a long history of traditional use, and herbal baths/soaks can be of great benefit as well. Blood-moving herbs can both relieve pain and reduce swelling. I often reach for a blend of arnica-infused oil and arnica liniment for acute pain in closed skin traumas. 

Arnica cordifolia

For visibly hot traumas like burns, cooling herbs work exceptionally well. Even someone who couldn’t identify a dandelion correctly can tell you that aloe relieves the pain of burns. I also use aloe for herpes sores as it can stop a blister from forming, can relieve the pain and help to heal the blister. 

Ice is often recommended in western science for acute injury. Ice is topically anesthetic and will temporarily numb pain. It constricts the tissue, slows circulation to the site of the injury and may lessen swelling. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine historically does not recommend ice.  I also do not recommend ice even in acute injury. Ice congeals the blood and creates stagnation. A recent study demonstrated that icing an injury stopped the growth hormone, which is essential to healing2

Discussing the topic of icing an injury among modern day herbalists raises a lot of controversy from all sides of the issue. The best we can do is research the issue from different perspectives and then rely on our own experience from personal application.

Pain associated with dampness is pain increased with humidity (humid environments, rain) and a feeling of heaviness, especially in the lower limbs. Dampness can often be a component of arthritic pain. The area affected may feel damp and appear swollen. Pushing on the tissues may leave an indentation for an extended period of time. 

Plan of action
Dampness usually presents with a hot or cold component that also needs to be addressed for the individual. Dampness can accumulate through environmental factors, such as living in a damp environment, or as a result of cold digestion. Herbs that drain dampness (diuretics) or transform dampness. Dietary intake can also be an important part of controlling dampness. 

Dampness may be involving the lymphatic system and in these cases herbs that move the lymph are helpful. Sweating therapies can also be of great benefit. 

Dryness can also manifest with arthritic pain or joint pain. Joints may crack and have a sensation of friction. The person will also most likely have other signs of dryness such as dry hair, dry skin or dry mucosal membranes. 

Plan of action
Demulcent herbs or yin tonics and an increased intake of healthy fats and essential fatty acids are indicated. 

Chronic excessive pain will most likely be paired with someone who tends toward an excessive constitution. The pain may be increased after eating and be aggravated by pressure or touch. Eliminating herbs such as those found under the alterative classification can be helpful in treating constitutionally. 

Acute injuries such as sprains will fall under this category as well. 

Cottonwood buds can be made into a liniment or salve and are great for
painful bruises, sprains and strains. 

Pain associated with deficiency may be dull, chronic, relieved by pressure, better after eating and accompanied with fatigue. These people can use building and tonifying therapies such as adaptogens, wholesome foods, blood builders etc. 

Pain associated with wind is pain caused by spasming or constricted tissues. Pain that moves around may be due to wind. 

Plan of action
Herbs excel at relieving pain associated with constriction and spasming whether it is muscle spasms in the back or neck, menstrual cramping, or even pain associated with the passing of kidney stones. From a modern perspective we know that many people are deficient in magnesium and symptoms of this include muscle spasms. 

Valerian - wonderful for spasmodic or "wind" pain.

Applying heat and herbs topically and taking antispasmodic herbs internally can work wonders on relieving pain. When indicated magnesium supplements can help relieve pain and the underlying cause of the pain. Antispasmodic herbs I use frequently include valerian (Valeriana officinalis), lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and cramp bark (Viburnum opulus.) 

Stagnant pain is usually fixed and throbbing. The person can point with their finger to the exact location that is a problem. The area may feel hot or cold. 

Plan of action
Move the stagnancy with a category of herbs called blood movers in Traditional Chinese Medicine and that often fall under the category of emmenagogues in western herbalism. Stagnancy is usually accompanied by a deficiency or an excess as well as a thermal imbalance and all need to be addressed as well. 

Onset of Pain
Knowing the onset of pain can help determine the underlying cause. It can also help the practitioner understand the severity of the situation. 

One of the most powerful gifts we can give our clients is the gift of awareness. Helping a person to be conscious of their body, knowing how the pain starts to manifest, what triggers it and what makes it better can go a long way in empowering them to get out of pain.

Red flags for pain include sudden pain down the left arm accompanied with nausea (possible heart involvement), sudden vomiting followed by pain (possible appendix troubles), severe lower back pain that is constant and accompanied by a fever (possible kidney infection), sudden pain accompanied by any other persistent symptoms such as vomiting, extreme fever, constant diarrhea, bladder dysfunction etc. All of these should be handled by someone with the appropriate experience, most likely a medical physician.

 Lobelia - relieves muscle tension and spasms. 

Severity of Pain
The subjective experience of pain is often measured on a 1-10 pain scale. Here’s how I like to break this down. 

1 - 3 pain scale: Pain is noticeable but the person is able to ignore it for the most part and perform regular functions of daily life. Not normally a big concern for them. 

4 - 7 pain scale: Pain encroaches on their ability to perform daily life activities. Oftentimes they need some sort of pain management in order to function or else they must limit offending activities. 

8 - 10 pain scale: Life is becoming intolerable. Pain inhibits their normal daily life activities. Bed rest or large doses of pain medications are necessary. 

This pain scale can fluctuate tremendously and apply to constant pain or intermittent pain. Pain may be worse in the morning, worse at night, worse with a specific activity, worse at a particular time of the month in a particular season and so on. 

Getting a subjective record of pain is important not only for understanding the current situation but also for recording improvement or digression. It’s very common for people to report “no change” in their pain, although they show significant improvement when asked to quantify their pain on a scale.  Being able to demonstrate this to a client will help them to be optimistic about their path to wellness and keep them on track. 

Location of Pain
The location of pain can give us an obvious understanding of whether we are dealing with a headache or an ulcer. Very helpful! 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine the location of pain can help point to the underlying problem. Studying acupuncture meridians can be a helpful field of study. Some herbs are specific for particular areas of pain and specific types of pain. Studying simples and herbalism through the eyes of an eclectic physician can also be a useful guide to relieving pain. 

Reality Check
These energetic considerations are presented in a black and white format for an introductory understanding. People seldom present with one manifestation and are more commonly seen with a multitude of influences. An herbal formula created specifically for a particular person is often the most powerful means to stopping pain. 

Instead of a dogmatic truth to follow, I offer the above guidelines as something to refer to as a general understanding when understanding a particular person’s pain. These basic guidelines may provide additional assistance when a pain protocol is not working. 

For example, if someone consistently relied on willow bark as a general pain reliever but found that it wasn’t working in a particular instance, a further look into to the energetics of the situation as well as the person,  will hopefully guide them towards greater success. 
I want to acknowledge that there are also low dose botanicals that can be used to relieve severe pain. The application of these potentially toxic plants are beyond the scope of this article. 

The Underlying Cause
When someone’s major complaint is pain I am ideally applying a two pronged approach. Of course I want to relieve their pain soon, but I also want to address the underlying cause of the pain. The reasons for pain are as varied as the people you’ll see so I will cover only a few reasons that I see regularly. 

Sometimes by addressing the pain energetically we can also address the underlying cause. For example, if a person is experiencing pain because they have excessive coldness then applying warming and nourishing/building therapies may relieve their pain as well as the cause of their pain. 

Insulin resistance is rampant in this society and is an inflammatory disease by nature. It can be a factor in a number of pain problems such as gout, kidney stones and even arthritis. 
Food intolerances can also lead to a variety of painful conditions including arthritis, debilitating bowel problems and headaches. 

Structural imbalances can play a large role in pain symptoms. Referring people to trusted specialists in this area can be very useful. This may include structural integration, yoga, pilates, network spinal analysis, feldenkrais etc. 

Stress and emotional challenges can play a huge role in pain and should never be overlooked.

Acute or chronic pain can be a vulnerable experience. The more we know about the pain the better we can help to both relieve a person’s current symptoms and prevent the pain from reoccurring. 

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This article was originally published in the Plant Healer Magazine. This quarterly digital publication delivers some of the best contemporary herbalist content.