Use the form to the right to email Sarah Sorci,                                                  Sweet Flag Community Herbalist.

Or contact Sarah by phone or mail:

PO Box 261, Fredonia, NY  14063

716-997-2007


Fredonia, New York
USA

IMG_4022.jpg

Herbal Writing & Recipes

For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Writing Project: A Nourishing Harvest

Sarah Sorci

As a health practitioner with a background in environmental studies, I often reflect on the disconnect between the wellness community and environmental justice/public health. On one hand, it is important to own the power we have over our own wellbeing. Mindfulness, whole/local foods, movement and getting outdoors, managing stress, and positive relationships play a huge role. And in a capitalist society, our dollar is our vote for a more just and sustainable culture.

On the other hand, Americans live in a nation where regulations favor corporate profit over citizens' wellbeing. We experience daily exposure to toxic chemicals in our lawns and food, water, air, and home products. Communities of color and low-income individuals are most affected by environmental health risks, but have the least access to resources to support wellness and political action.

I believe that a health culture focusing solely on personal responsibility, while ignoring the social and environmental factors that affect us all, is missing the mark. It is a reflection of our increasingly individualistic society-- a society that ranks pretty low in Gross National Happiness. Addressing environmental risks is not only vital for improving physical health; working together as a community to resolve shared issues helps us to feel more connected, and more fulfilled.

I also believe that environmental sustainability requires an intimate relationship with our local ecosystem. Cultures that rely on local plants for food and medicine have a vested interest in the vibrancy of those species, and are much more likely to notice changes and issues that arise. In order for us to safely rely on plants in our local community, we must have access to information about the safety of soils in our gardens and public spaces.

This philosophy shapes a new subscription-based writing project I'm excited to be launching: A Nourishing Harvest. This Patreon page offers 2-3 articles per month connecting the WNY gardening, wild-foraging, and natural health communities with WNY-focused information supporting safe, toxin-informed harvest of food and medicine.

Articles focus on two themes:
1.) Guidance about legal and safe wild foraging in western NY's public spaces.
I believe tax payers should have permission to respectfully harvest plants like invasive Japanese knotweed and dandelions in parks and forests. Many of us rent housing, and do not have access to private property for gardening or foraging. Harvesting invasive species also serves park management intentions. So, where is harvesting allowed? What is the history of use of that park? Is that pretty hill an old garbage dump? Was that recent planting of trees a corn field routinely sprayed with DDT? What are the pest/invasive management practices like? How can the public access herbicide/pesticide application records to know whether that invasive garlic mustard is safe to make into pesto?

2.) Safe gardening and wild-harvesting throughout western NY.
I have received many related questions from students."My lawn hasn't been sprayed in 3 years. Is it safe to grow food there?" "I live in the city and can't harvest from the contaminated soil. Is this potting soil brand safe to use for food/medicine?" "I live 1/2 mile from a corn or grape farm. How much of the spray is getting onto my property?" "Where do local landscaping companies get their topsoil from? How can I know it's safe for raised beds?"

Since I encourage hundreds of students each year to eat wild "weeds" and grow their own medicine, these questions are important to answer as best I can. I searched for gardening books that address safely growing food in our chemical-heavy country, and didn't come up with much. Online articles address gardening safely around heavy metals in the soil-- but what about other chemicals from landscaping, ag applications, and more? I'm excited to learn more from journal articles, interviews with experts, and hopefully testing local soils if funds allow.

Because it's easy to place writing on the back burner as I deal with day-to-day work responsibilities, I'm happy to have found a way to prioritize this work. "I don't feel anxious when I'm writing," I told Patrick recently. "It clears my head, and gets me in touch with what I'm most passionate about."

"Sounds like you should do more of that," he replied.

A $2 monthly subscription to Sweet Flag Herbs: A Nourishing Harvest on Patreon
gives access to all of my writing & research on these topics.

You'll come along as I explore the history and management practices of WNY forests and parks; WNY-relevant information about toxin-aware gardening; interviews with local farmers, landscaping employees, DEC and park employees, soil experts, corporations & more.

Can't wait to share what I'm learning with you!.

Nettle: Soothing What 'Urts Ya.

Sarah Sorci

Thanks to Lewis Blake for being the first person to use this pun in my presence.

My body seems to possess an On/Off switch when it comes to fresh greens. I know I'm not alone. In the winter, Patrick and I keep our apartment on the cool side, and I get out for winter hikes as much as possible. The vegetables I crave are dense, sweet roots in hot soups and stews. Give me all the baked sweet potato fries you can find.

As the weather warms up, things change. I was recently sauteing veggies to go with morning eggs, and cracked open a box of baby kale, chard, and mizuna to throw in. The first handful of greens went straight into my mouth- and the switch was flipped. All of the greens went straight into my mouth. I felt like cookie monster, with kale stems stuck in my teeth instead of chocolate chips.

Those who have experienced nettle's sting first-hand (Urtica dioica) may be surprised to learn what a delicious, tender edible green it is. It's stinging hairs contain formic acid-- the same chemical that gives fire ants a dreadful reputation. Its botanical name Urtica comes from a latin word meaning "sting" or "burn." However, when the plant is cooked, dried, crushed, or massaged with dressing-- anything to damage the hairs-- the sting disappears. Now you have one of the most vitamin-, mineral-, and chlorophyll-rich greens out there. I prefer the flavor of nettle over spinach, and it is far more nutritious.

History & Use
Nettle has been used for food, medicine, and fiber for thousands of years. During World War I, the German Empire used nettle fiber to make uniforms in the wake of a cotton shortage. German uniforms examined by the Allies were about 85% nettle fiber. During WWII, the British government requested the harvest of 100 tons of nettle; the chlorophyll-rich plant was used to dye uniforms for camouflage (Vance).

It can be overwhelming to summarize nettle's medicinal uses. Herb books often give a laundry list; Hippocrates and his students noted 61 different uses (Vance). This is partly due to the incredible nutrition offered by this plant. Its magnesium may relieve cramps, and adequate nutrition in general may lift fatigue, strengthen bones and hair, and improve breast milk flow. 

Many of nettle's uses have stood the test of time. Galen recommended nettle to support menstruation in the second century. From ancient Egypt to Nicholas Culpeper's 17th century writings, nettles was used to ease arthritis, gout, and other joint aches. Nettle is eaten or drunk for this purpose-- and has also been used externally for thousands of years to relieve joint pain.

In a practice called urtication, fresh nettle stalks are brushed against the skin. The effect is similar to bee sting therapy: the sting stimulates blood flow to the area, potentially rebooting the healing process in stiff, old injuries. Though it sounds like a medieval torture method, I've noticed relief for achy joints after pressing tinctures or working in the garden. First Peoples of Ecuador, Canada and the US reportedly employed urtication, and Roman soldiers are said to have brought nettle along on marches to soothe their tired legs.

Nettle is also used internally to support seasonal allergy symptoms-- perhaps due to its histamine content (de la Foret). Fresh nettle is generally considered superior to dried for this purpose. Luckily, nettle is easy to grow in a moist, partly shady area.

More on Preparation
Though I love dried nettle tea, tea from fresh nettle is truly special. It has a mildly sweet flavor that reminds me of cucumber melon. Mineral-rich teas like nettle should be given a long steep. 4-12 hours is ideal; 1 hour will do. The color change over the course of a long steep hints at the superior extraction that comes to those who wait. A long steep pulls out the plant's minerals, sterols and mucilage, resulting in a richer, thicker-bodied tea that soothes the throat and GI tract.

Sources: 
de la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs
Vance, Kassie. "History of Stinging Nettle." Dr. Christopher's Herbal Legacy.

Violets: St. Valentine's Ink

Sarah Sorci

I've been keeping an eye on the patches of violets poking up in our lawn, waiting for the right time to pick some leaves and flowers for salads. Though frequent bouts of cold this March have singed the leaves, new growth slowly emerges. 

This plant knows how to hedge its bets. In addition to the deep purple flowers that will blossom soon, violets produce underground cleistogamous flowers in the summertime. These blooms are self-fertilizing, and never open (Erichson-Brown, 329).

Violets and St. Valentine
Though many think of roses for Valentine's Day, violets were traditionally the flower of choice. This is partly due to St. Valentine lore. The priest was persecuted by Claudius of Rome for his beliefs and work. St. Valentine wrote messages of encouragement to other believers while in prison. The story goes that Valentine crushed violet flowers growing outside his cell window to make ink to write his letters. A cooperative dove is said to have delivered his loving messages.

Valentine was executed on February 14th, 269 A.D. His death coincided with pagan festivals of Lupercalia honoring Juno, the Roman goddess of love, marriage and fertility. Thus, St. Valentine's holiday became associated with these values as well. Violets played an integral part in Valentine's Day until quite recently. "It should... be noted that well into the 1930s, New Englanders still preferred their Valentine's box of candies topped with a bouquet of violets" (Beredjiklian). Violet's heart-shaped leaves certainly seem apropos

Backyard Superfoods (aka Real Food)
Like so many wild edible plants, the nutrition content of violet leaves and flowers blows grocery store produce out of the water. In one study, springtime leaves of the "common blue violet" were found to contain 264 mg of vitamin C per 100 g leaves, compared to oranges' 50 mg per 100 g. Violet leaves were found to contain 20,000 mcg of vitamin A per 100 g, compared to 8,100 mcg per 100 g in spinach (Zennie and Ogzewalla). 

We humans spent much of our history eating wild greens; this level of nutrition was the norm. Over time, agricultural practices have reduced the amount of nutrition we obtain from fruits and vegetables. Most farmers and seed companies breed plants for easy shipping and packaging, "mild" agreeable flavor (read: watered down), and other economic interests-- not dense nutritional value. Produce is harvested prematurely and shipped thousands of miles, drastically losing vitamin content on the ride. Overworked, conventionally fertilized soil is degraded of nutritional content and healthy bacteria and fungi, affecting availability and absorption of crops' nutrients.

It has dawned on me that what we call superfoods are just foods with a more historically "normal" nutritional content. Superfoods are real food. Kale is a "superfood" because brassicas haven't been bred too far from their wild counterparts.

Of course, we should feel good about eating fresh produce from whatever source is available to us (particularly if it's home- or locally/sustainably grown). But if we can add wild violet and dandelion greens from an unsprayed lawn to our salads or soups, we will have greatly enhanced the nutritional value of that meal.

Violet as a Spring Tonic
Herbalists often talk about spring tonics-- highly nutritious, often "weedy" plants that give our metabolism and waste excretion a kick. Some stimulate liver function; others get our lymph moving. Violet leaf is known for "relieving congestion in the lymphatic and respiratory systems" (Easley). Indeed, after a dry winter, violet's mucilaginous, pleasantly slimy quality can soften and move lymphatic fluid and dry congestion.

Dr. John Gerarde's 1597 writings are a testament to the centuries-old uses of violet for its cooling, moistening properties:

"The floures are good for all inflammations, especially of the sides and lungs; they take away the hoarsenesse of the chest, the ruggednesse of the windpipe and jaws, the extream heate of the liver, kidneys and bladder; mitigate the fierie heat of burning agues [fever]... and take away thirst" (Erichson-Brown).

That slimy mucilage is soluble fiber, which is used to support cholesterol management and healthy gut flora populations (Blankespoor). I love adding violet leaf+flower to teas, since steam helps to move respiratory congestion as well. To get the most out of violet's nutrition and mucilage, violet is best prepared with a long steep (4-12 hours). The tea can be reheated after straining.

Violet for Skin Support
Violet leaves and flowers are a staple for herb-infused salves. Mucilaginous, nutritious herbs are softening and moistening for the skin, or emollientClick here for a simple recipe for making herb-infused oils for topical use.

Safety
Since there are some violet lookalikes, I suggest harvesting violet when it's in flower. The purple blossoms have a distinctive tail coming off the back. Depending on where you live, the forest may contain violet species that are rare, and even questionably edible in quantity. Harvesting common blue violets in springtime lawns is a safe bet as far as edibility and sustainability (Blankespoor). 

According to Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, "The exact dosage is not especially important since it can safely be consumed in large quantities. As a gentle food herb, violet is generally safe for elders, youngsters, and people who are taking pharmaceuticals."

Sources:

  • Beredjiklian, Norma. "St. Valentine's Violets." The Violet Gazette, Winter 2001, V2-1,P7

  • Blankespoor, Juliet. "Violet's Edible and Medicinal Uses."

  • Easley, Thomas. "The Modern Herbal Dispensatory." 2016.

  • Erichson-Brown. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey With Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes.1979. 

  • Zennie, Thomas M. and Dwayne C. Ogzewalla, 1977. "Ascorbic acid and vitamin A content of edible wild plants of Ohio and Kentucky." Economic Botany, 31: 76-79.

A Tool for Sustainable Harvest

Sarah Sorci

This chart first appeared in Reciprocal Roots Magazine's winter edition-- WNY's publication for herbalism and ethnobotany. Click here to check out the full magazine!

When it comes to wild-harvesting edible and medicinal plants, I've heard blanket rules regarding how much plant material can be ethically removed from a site. For example:

"Take no more than 30% of a stand of wild plants."

These rules may be a useful starting point. However, as we learn more about medicinal plants' behavior and stories in our ecosystem, harvesting practices should become more refined. Is the plant native? Invasive? Is it abundant in western New York, and regionally? How quickly does it reproduce and regenerate? Can I easily grow it in my own garden?

The chart below summarizes my approach to sustainable harvesting, based on observations and learning from others. Please feel empowered to allow your own experience to refine your plant relationships and wild-harvesting choices. Your nook of our ecosystem may be different from mine. 

https://mailchi.mp/6af66261e048/sustainable-harvest-chart-late-winter-classes-events-home-apothecary-registration

Western NY's Native Spice: Spicebush

Sarah Sorci

Patrick and I are hunting for land to purchase, hoping to fulfill our vision of homesteading and on-site herbal education. We have spent many hours wandering through private woodlands for sale in northern Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties-- what I like to think of as Glorified Trespassing. It's been a nice opportunity to experience western NY forests outside of our well-worn hiking trails. 

When I encounter spicebush (Lindera benzoin) growing under hardwoods, I feel a little thrill. I pluck a leaf, crunch it between my fingers, and inhale the aroma deeply. Spicebush possesses one of the most pleasantly intoxicating scents I have ever experienced. The fact that this shrub is native to my home region makes it particularly sweet. 

Identification & Cultivation
Spicebush is an early bloomer, revealing yellow flowers in early- to mid-spring. Like its aromatic cousin sassafras, spicebush is dioecious, with male and female plants. Female flowers are aromatic and produce small, bright red fruit called drupes. The twigs and drupes are aromatic like the leaves; give them a scratch with your fingernail to release the scent. 

I was happy to learn that deer avoid spicebush for forage, like other "overly" smelly herbs including lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme. I typically find spicebush in part-shade, making it an excellent choice for shady gardens. Spicebush can handle full sun to full shade, and the yellow autumn color may be brighter with more sun exposure. Spicebush may reach 12' in height and width, and occupies agricultural zones 4-9. Be sure to plant both male and female plants if you're hoping for drupes. 

Traditional + Tasty Uses
Native people were acquainted with spicebush long before white colonists arrived. Cherokee individuals drank spicebush tea as a general tonic, for menstrual discomfort, and as a cold remedy. Mohegan kids chewed spicebush twigs for deworming, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) used it to open the pores and gently lower fever.

Spicebush isn't often mentioned in new herbal medicine books. The uses described by white US physicians of the 1800s reflect the health challenges of their time. Spicebush was recommended for managing fevers, for dysentery, and expelling worms in children. (I wonder where they learned that from?) Several publications of the time brush spicebush off as a 'layperson's herb,' best known by country folk. The Civil War left southerners seeking alternatives to black tea, and spicebush leaves were popular. Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have used the powdered berries as an allspice substitute.

Today, Americans' health challenges have changed, and so have our reasons to turn to spicebush as a remedy. When we ingest aromatic herbs or spices-- including those in our kitchen pantry-- we can bet on some digestive support thanks to the volatile oils. The aromatics of these "carminative" herbs may stimulate capillary blood flow in the GI tract, and ease bloating by moving gas through the intestines. (Of course, a chronic issue should be investigated for root causes.) A 2008 study points to spicebush's potential anti-fungal properties. The bark extract "strongly inhibited" the growth of a fungus associated with athlete's foot, and Candida albicans.

Preparation

  • To make a tea of the leaves, pour 1 cup boiled water over 2-5 tsp chopped herb (fresh or dried). Cover and steep 10-20 min. Strain and enjoy.

  • To make a bark tea, I chop fresh or dried twigs with pruners or kitchen shears; they break easily. Simmer 1-2 Tbsp twigs per cup water, covered, for 8-10 minutes. Allow to sit and steep 30 min. Strain and enjoy.

  • I enjoy adding fresh or dried drupes to chai beverages, or simmering around 1 Tbsp/cup water for 15 min and and drinking solo.

The drupe has both sweet and savory applications. Use like allspice in a variety of sweet baked goods. The peppery bite of the seeds makes drupes a nice choice for marinades and rubs. A coffee grinder works fine for making a powder, if that's what you need.

Sustainable Harvest 
If you read my article about invasive plant medicine, you know that there are abundant, vigorous medicinal plants we can respectfully harvest with minimal concern about ecosystem impact. Reducing the population of Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard may even be doing the ecosystem a favor. 

Spicebush, on the other hand, is not a wiley invasive. Though I have found it to be locally abundant enough to feel comfortable using it, I am careful to make harvesting decisions that do minimal harm to the plant or population, to my knowledge. Tips:

  • Harvest from areas where spicebush is abundant.

  • When harvesting leaves or twigs, take several from each plant, rather than significantly impacting one plant. Remove those that seem to receive less sunlight, in hopes of having the least impact on the plant's photosynthesis.

  • When harvesting twigs, snip just above a node (where branching or leaf growth happens). Leaving a long nub above a node may increase the risk of infection.

  • When harvesting drupes, I feel best about taking 20% or less. Leave some for the birds and other wildlife. Plant some drupes+seeds nearby.


Wildlife + Spicebush
Spicebush drupes are eaten by various bird and small mammal species. The plant offers shelter for these critters as well. Approximately ten native moth and butterfly species, small bees, and flies are attracted to the flowers, which serve as a nectar source at a time when little else is blooming.

Spicebush and its close relatives serve as hosts to spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. This species' existence depends on these plants. Let's harvest with care, and cultivate when possible.


Sources:

  • www.dispatch.com/entertainmentlife/20180211/native-plants-spicebush-favorite-feast-for-wildlife

  • Lloyd and Lloyd. Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887. www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/dmna/lindera.html 

  • Millspaugh, Charles F. American Medicinal Plants. 1974.

  • www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=d890

  • www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/7-herbs-that-grow-in-shade-spicebush

  • www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/pages/110329.html?noredirect=on

The Age-Old Wisdom of Pumpkin Spice

Sarah Sorci

In a nation ruled by McDonalds and Pepsi, Americans know we have room for improvement as far as health goes. However, I would argue that there's something big we're getting right. That thing is pumpkin spice.

Pumpkin spice teas, lattes, beers and more hit western New Yorkers when the air gets crisp and dry. My hands and feet are already struggling to stay warm; I was mocked in early October for wearing sub-zero puffy mittens. Luckily, the tradition of using spices that are warming, virus-fighting, and moistening in cool weather has followed us into the new millennium. Here I will share medicinal properties of a few of my favorite pumpkin spices. Check out the recipe below for spiced hot chocolate, which is a staple in my morning routine.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or cassia)
It's a remarkable coincidence that one of America's most popular spices in sweet baked goods helps to moderate blood sugar spikes. According to clinical herbalist Thomas Easley in The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, "Modern research has shown that cinnamon increases the capability of beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin, reducing blood glucose levels in diabetics." In combination with healthy diet and lifestyle choices, cinnamon bark is commonly used to support insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. (Sadly, this doesn't justify regular consumption of cinnamon-laced pie.)

Cinnamon is stimulating to the digestive tract, helping us to digest heavier winter foods. It also aids circulation throughout the body. Herbalist Rosalee de la Foret recommends cinnamon when an individual has a fever, but feels cold and is shivering. Cinnamon is also moistening (mucilaginous), which can help to soothe dry throats and sinuses in the winter. Since tissue that is dry and cracked is more susceptible to infection, moistening herbs may gently steer us clear of illness.

 Many herbalists recommend sticking with Cinnamomum verum when using larger, medicinal doses of cinnamon. However, C. cassia from the grocery store works just fine for casual use.


Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
Ginger is used medicinally around the world, including in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and more. It's easy to tell from the taste that ginger offers a "warming" effect in the body. Ginger stimulates circulation, and is particularly well-suited to those who consider themselves cold-blooded. Ginger is used to relieve the discomfort of stiff joints, and research has demonstrated its anti-inflammatory support for osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis (de la Foret). Research suggests that ginger is "as effective as ibuprofen for reducing the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis" (Easley). By stimulating digestive function and circulation within the GI tract, ginger is widely known as a supporter of nausea and bloating as well.

Ginger is a gem during cold and flu season. Easley notes ginger's "potent antiviral" properties, and its enhancement of immune function. When she has a cold, my friend Jessica swears by an inch of fresh ginger root chopped and made into a strong tea. Because ginger stimulates expectoration and thins mucous, I find it useful for easing symptoms of a cold, and possibly helping to avoid secondary infections like pneumonia.

Fresh ginger root is a regular addition to my teas and cooking in the winter. We buy a pile of organic ginger from a local food co-op or Feel Rite, and it keeps on the counter for weeks. Ginger is also easy to grow yourself! This website offers tips. Be sure to bring your pots outside to a part-sun/part-shade location in warm months.

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
Like cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg warms and stimulates the digestive tract. Yoga of Herbs author Vasant Lad recommends nutmeg for increasing the absorption of nutrients in the gut.

Nutmeg is uniquely relaxing and calming compared to other pumpkin spices. It was traditionally used as a remedy for insomnia, and can be used to relieve nervous tension (de la Foret). Its antispasmodic (muscle relaxing) nature may be responsible for nutmeg's ability to gently lower blood pressure.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Western New Yorkers are lucky to have a native pumpkin spice populating our woodlands. Stay tuned for more info about spicebush next month!


Talk to a practitioner before using these herbs in medicinal doses to support a health condition, during pregnancy/breastfeeding, or in combination with medications. However, pumpkin spice in moderation should be safe for just about everyone. What could be a concern is the food harboring the pumpkin spice-- highly sweetened (and often artificially flavored) muffins, commercial coffee drinks, and more. While tasty, these should be consumed as an occasional treat at most. The recipe below is an alternative that you can enjoy at home. 

Sources
1.) de la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
2.) Easley, Thomas. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. 2016. 

Invasive Plant Medicine

Sarah Sorci

A version of this article was printed in the first issue of Reciprocal Roots Magazine-- WNY's first ethnobotany/herbalism magazine! To obtain your digital or print copy, visit this website.   
 
photo: Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) thanks to wikipedia commons


In ecology circles, the mainstream attitude towards invasive plant species can be summarized in one word: "Boo!" There is evidence that some invasive species have a directly negative effect on the survival of certain native wildlife species. Reduced biodiversity, sometimes correlated with the presence of invasive species, is also bad news for the resiliency of an ecosystem.

However, as an Environmental Studies major in college, I questioned the preservationist approach of trying to keep things "the way they are," or as we imagine they should be. Isn't change the only constant in nature? Haven't seeds always migrated long distances via wind, water, and migrating creatures? While I never wished to justify careless and unsustainable human behavior, I suspected that preservationism was yet another product of the human ego-- presuming to know and act in the best "interests" of an ecosystem, while subtly indulging our own preferences instead. 

Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott offers an interesting contribution to this conversation. While I do not resonate with every sentiment put forth, two well-researched points stirred me deeply, and are worth sharing:

1.) Invasive species are simply indicators of an unbalanced ecosystem. They are not the cause of imbalance. 

In a world being drastically altered by global climate change, habitat loss, acid rain, monoculture and more, some native species that once thrived are no longer well-adapted. Where invasive and other non-native species grow prolifically, they are better able to cope with these altered conditions.  

Scott shared research suggesting that even when invasives are removed and natives are offered their "traditional" space, some still will not thrive. Further, research demonstrates that many invasives have a remediating effect on contaminated land and water. In the absence of natives, invasives can prevent erosion and enrich the soil. When we see a large stand of kudzu or mugwort, it's possible that the story we tell about these "menaces" isn't capturing a bigger ecological picture. 

2.) The war on invasive species is fueled by corporate interest. 

Addressing root causes of flourishing invasive species would require paradigm-shifting changes that our culture and politics avoid: halting habitat loss due to development; prioritizing ecosystem health and climate change action over economic interest; enacting policies that would force truly sustainable practices upon polluting companies and farms. Instead of going this route, the war on invasive species has been an opportunity for herbicide companies to profit. The federal Invasive Species Advisory Committee is headed by a Monsanto employee. Many state organizations established for invasive species management are also closely tied to chemical corporations; for example, the California Exotic Pest and Plant Council was started by an executive of Monsanto (11). In 2006, of the 1 billion dollars allotted federally to combat invasive species, around 75% went toward herbicides and pesticides. Habitat restoration-- a root cause healer-- garnered the least financial support at 42 million dollars (12).

I share these points not to suggest that invasive species are harmless. Rather, I wish to promote a shift towards root-cause solutions, moving away from adding more toxic chemicals to our soil, water and air.

Invasive Plant Medicine
Scott's book offers detailed information about medicinal properties and ecosystem services offered by WNY invasives like Japanese knotweed, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, bittersweet and more.

Have you seen purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, pictured above) flowering along WNY roadsides in August and September? Though this plant has been described as "taking over wetlands," Scott claims that existing scientific evidence did not support this story at the time of publication. Instead, Scott points out that Lythrum absorbs excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, prevents erosion in disturbed areas, and is very popular amongst pollinators.

No matter the ecological case, a tea or tincture of purple loosestrife leaves & flowers can support the immune system, respiratory congestion and much more in the human body. Be sure to harvest in a location whose chemical history you are more more familiar (and comfortable) with.

It is just about time to harvest multiflora rosehips in WNY! For info about properties and uses of roses (both invasive and otherwise), check out this article.

Source:
Scott, Timothy Lee. Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives. 2010.

Scullcap: Putting My Calm Hat On

Sarah Sorci

For those who aren't well acquainted with me, I can be a bit of an over-scheduler. ("Um, a bit?" says my guy Patrick.) I ran myself ragged as a high school kid with sports and dance classes, music, AP classes, and squeezing friends and family into my spare time. College wasn't much better. "Play with me!" called my dear friend Kelsey to her three frazzled apartment mates, who enabled each other to work too much and enjoy too little. My kind and relaxed french horn professor, David Nesmith, interrupted our private lesson one day to read me "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver:

"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves..."

I nearly cried.

I've gotten better over the past decade. Farm work helped: I spent three years working part time on small organic farms, letting my work schedule and activity be shaped by the weather and the seasons. I had plenty of time to rest, explore, be creative, and hike outdoors. After a productive week at Gong Garden Farm in Fredonia, my friend and former "boss" Sarom decided to spend a day making bracelets on the porch with her 4-year-old daughter and I. "Should I be weeding?" I asked. "No," said Sarom. I didn't realize I'd been anxious for years until I gifted myself a balanced lifestyle, and it felt great.

When I started my holistic herbalism practice three years ago, it was easy to fall back into the overly-busy pace. My anxiety reached a peak last spring, juggling two part-time jobs and keeping up with teaching and consultations. After a few months of anxiety, my body forms a habit of waking up anxious and staying that way-- regardless of whether the to-do list is still overwhelming. My chest feels tight and constricted; my mind feels partly spaced out, and partly like it's physically buzzing. When my nervous system gets tapped like this, I try to continue activities that help me feel sane: meditation/prayer, journaling, walking and gardening, social time. When nothing I do seems to shake the anxiety habit, I turn to herbs like scullcap for extra support.

Scullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Scullcap (or skullcap) is a non-aromatic mint family plant that is native to rich US woodlands. I chose to write about scullcap this month partly because I've found it so easy to cultivate. I planted some seeds directly in my garden, some seeds in a pot, and some greenhouse seedlings in my garden and in pots. Some plants are getting more sun; some are getting more shade. All have done splendidly. While rabbits and leaf-miners nibble other plants in my garden, nothing has touched the scullcap. 

Scullcap is known for its relaxing effect on the nervous system. According to clinical herbalist Thomas Easley in The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, scullcap  "helps to calm brain function and is helpful for insomnia and chronic stress" (301). Like other gentle nervous system relaxers, including chamomile and passionflower, scullcap also has a bit of a muscle relaxing effect. While this can contribute to a general sense of relaxation, I particularly like this combo when folks have trouble sleeping due to stiffness or physical discomfort.

Scullcap can be particularly useful when the nervous system is overly sensitive to stimuli, or twitchy. I have added it to a formula to support a client's hand tremor (along with diet and lifestyle changes), and other herbalists report usefulness in supporting mild Tourette's, heart palpitations and more (Rogers, 2017). However, Dorothy Hall points out that "it is not a tranquilizer that blunts our sensitivity, or reduces stress reaction," but rather has a balancing effect (Rogers, 253). With clients, I always emphasize the importance of healthy diet and lifestyle as a foundation; using herbs like a band-aid will not ultimately be effective.

Since many herbalists prefer fresh scullcap over dried for its potency, it's fortunate that it is so easy to grow. While herbalist Robert Rogers, RH believes that dried scullcap has no effect, Thomas Easley considers dried scullcap to have more of a sedating action than a fresh tonic. When I brewed dried scullcap tea recently, I used leaves that were a few years old, and dumped in extra scullcap to compensate for potentially lower quality. One cup left me feeling like I'd had a beer. 

In my garden, scullcap began flowering a couple weeks ago-- the perfect time to harvest the tender aerial parts. I made an herbal tincture for easy dosing and preservation. If you would like to learn how to make herbal tinctures, look for an herbal tincture making class on the "Classes and Events" page, or get in touch for a private consult.

Sources:
Easley, Thomas. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. 2016
Rogers, Robert, RH. Herbal Allies: My Journey With Plant Medicine. 2017.

Beautiful Bitters

Sarah Sorci

Once upon a time, humans ate a diverse array of bitter leaves and roots from the wild plants surrounding us. We enjoyed the benefits of their vitamin and mineral content, fiber, antioxidants, prebiotics-- and also their bitter constituents. In fact, our gastrointestinal system (and several other systems) developed a complex relationship with bitterness over time, and came to depend on this flavor for healthy functioning. 

As humans are wont to do, we believed we could "improve" upon these wild plants. Agriculture now produces greens that have lost most or all of their bitter flavor, and are more tender and juicy (i.e. watery). As sometimes happens with human "advancements," research now suggests that we would have been better off leaving the bitterness in those greens alone.

Ask any herbalist to describe the effects of bitterness on the body, and s/he will offer a laundry list of gastrointestinal benefits. Simply tasting bitterness on our tongue gears our bodies up for effective digestion. It triggers salivation, important for digesting carbohydrates. In the stomach, the secretion of pepsin and HCl are stimulated, ensuring that our "digestive fire" is stoked, and that we have adequate stomach acid to break down proteins and kill pathogens. Digestive secretions from the pancreas, and bile from the gallbladder, are also revved. Bile works like detergent on dietary fats; it breaks lipids into smaller, more manageable particles for the gastrointestinal tract to handle, and allows fats to be better absorbed and metabolized. Finally, bitters stimulate peristalsis in the small intestines, encouraging healthy movement and excretion of waste. Improved breakdown and absorption of nutrients means we are getting more out of our food.

New research is demonstrating that the benefits of bitters go deeper. In this excellent article, Clinical herbalist Guido Mase, Director of the Vermont School for Integrative Herbalism, reports bitters' role in healthy blood glucose levels, appetite regulation, weight management, cardiovascular health and more.

The receptors in our body that respond to bitterness are called T2R receptors. T2R stimulation has been shown to slow down the movement of digested material through the GI tract. This slower delivery of carbohydrates to the intestines results in feeling full longer, and helps to moderate blood sugar spikes after meals.

"Unlike most stimulus/receptor pairs in human physiology, the expression of T2Rs increases (to a point) the more stimulus is presented: that is, the more we taste bitter, the more we are able to experience its effects" and grow more sensitive to its flavor (Mase). Research shows that women and kids have significantly lower rates of obesity when they perceive higher levels of bitterness. Individuals with greater bitter sensitivity also have improved blood sugar control. Interestingly, those who have systemic inflammation are more likely to detest the taste of bitters-- but would often greatly benefit from their effects (Mase).

Bitters are typically taken just before meals. This may mean adding bitter dandelion or arugula greens to salad, drinking dandelion or chicory root tea in the morning, etc. According to clinical herbalist Thomas Easley, Director of the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, a taste of alcohol can have a stimulating effect on digestion as well. For this reason, he likes digestive bitters in the form of alcohol-based tinctures. A good bitters formula generally contains a strong bitter or two (ex. gentian, wormwood, motherwort), plus nutritive bitters rich in prebiotics (ex. dandelion root and/or leaf, burdock root, chicory root). I like adding aromatic digestive aids like orange peel, angelica (a bitter aromatic), ginger and/or fennel. 

Did you know that you can easily make quality herbal tinctures in your kitchen? Check out the tincture making class coming up at beHealthy next month if you'd like to learn more.

Precautions?
Bitters are good for nearly everyone. Our bodies are "designed" for them.

The beautiful thing about bitters is that a very small dose will do the job. 15 drops of a bitters tincture on the tongue isn't enough to be a concern as far as herb-drug interactions, for the vast majority of folks. (Talk to a practitioner to confirm this.) Individuals who might be advised against bitters include those with extremely dry constitutions, or those with serious liver diseases who are working on nourishing (not stimulating) the liver, and regenerating liver cells. 

Source:

Mase, Guido. "Herbal bitters: their role in appetite regulation, blood glucose management, and obesity." 2015. www.americanherbalistsguild.com/sites/default/files/bitters-mase-2015_1.pdf

Linden: The Honey Tree

Sarah Sorci

In the WNY neighborhoods I feel most connected to, linden trees (Tilia spp.) abound. A few doors down from my village of Hamburg apartment, a compact linden adds sweet fragrance to my street every June. In the City of Dunkirk, where I manage the Dunkirk Farmers Market, I park my car next to a towering linden every week to erect a 'Market today!' sign on a busy corner. I've seen linden trees lining streets in the city of Buffalo, and exit ramps off of the thruway. 

History & Culture
In parts of Europe, linden is known as "lime," which derives from the middle English lind for ''flexible' or 'lenient.' Linden is the national symbol of Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and the trees serve as traditional community gathering space. According to clinical herbalist Guido Mase, "Villages would hold court under their branches, confident that the tree would ensure justice, but also bring peace and an amicable resolution to conflict. In many villages, the practice continues today" (2013). The International World War Peace Tree in Darmstadt, Indiana is a linden as well. After World War I, German immigrants planted this tree as a symbol of their loyalty to America, and their hope to foster harmony in their new community (Davis, 2008).

Medicinal Use
Linden's heart-shaped leaves hint at its medicinal benefits for the cardiovascular system. Similar to gentle herbs like hawthorn and motherwort, linden can be helpful when an individual is experiencing anxiety and/or stress with cardiovascular symptoms, such as palpitations and high blood pressure. According to Thomas Easley, who directs my clinical herbalism program at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, "linden is a soothing nervine that relaxes tension and reduces blood pressure... It is a very pleasant-tasting herbal tea and is a valuable but underused remedy" (2016). 

Like other remedies that support the physical cardiovascular system, linden has also been used to support the emotional heart. According to Mase, linden tea "is also thought to foster love and an open heart, alleviating impatience and anger" (2013). 

Another quality linden shares with motherwort and hawthorn is its use to support digestion. Linden's volatile oils help to relieve gas and cramping, and its mucilaginous, soothing nature helps to heal inflamed tissue. After sipping a moistening, soothing cup of linden flower tea, one can imagine the genetic link that places marshmallow root and linden tree in the same mucilaginous family (Malvaceae). 

Though linden can be prepared as a tincture (aka alcohol extract), I prefer preparations that better showcase its deliciousness. Add a healthy handful of flowers to a quart of hot water for tea, making sure to cover your container to preserve the aromatic oils. Or try infusing linden into honey, vinegar, or an herbal syrup.

In Sicily, the famous honey of the Hyblaean Mountains is so fabulous thanks to the linden trees populating the slopes. Those who have harvested linden flowers know that the sound of pollinators abuzz is part of the experience. Tilia has been called the "honey tree" for these reasons. If you are a beekeeper, you might consider adding a Tilia species to your property. (Bonus points for choosing a native species).

Identification and Harvest
There are over 30 species of linden; American species are generally known as basswood. The first thing I realized about linden is that I had been mistaking the "bracts" on their flower stems for the papery part of maple seeds-- those helicopters that spin to the ground. The bracts are medicinal too, and should be harvested along with the flowers around late June. You can also tell linden by its toothed, mostly asymmetrical, heart-shaped leaves, which can vary greatly in size depending on the species. The leaves and seeds are apparently edible, though I have not tried this.

If you are interested in growing Tilia at home, all species can be propagated by cuttings or grafting. Though they can be grown from seed, seeds must be planted immediately when fresh to avoid an 18 month dormancy. Linden grows quickly, but its tastiness may be enjoyed by insects as well.


Sources
Davis, Rich. "Family still tends to WWI 'peace tree'". Evansville Courier & Press. May 25, 2008.
Easley, Thomas and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. 2016.
Keeler, Harriet L. Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. 1900. pp. 24–31.
Mase, Guido. The Wild Medicine Solution. 2013. 
 "Honey."Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_World_War_Peace_Tree
https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_tiama.pdf