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

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PO Box 261, Fredonia, NY  14063


Fredonia, New York


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.

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.

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.

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. 


Mase, Guido. "Herbal bitters: their role in appetite regulation, blood glucose management, and obesity." 2015.

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.

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

Marshmallow Root: Not Just For S'Mores.

Sarah Sorci

photo: Althaea officinalis (marshmallow root). credit: Wikimedia commons

That's right-- marshmallows were once made from a lovely plant of the same name (and still are, if you do it yourself). It's hard to believe that a species of s'more and fluffernutter sandwich fame could be a medicinal ally. However, marshmallow's genus name, Althaea, derives from the Latin and Greek words for cure or heal. Its species name officinalis indicates its wide recognition and use as medicine.  

Medicinal Use
Marshmallow is a European member of the mallow family. Other mallows include hollyhock, okra, hibiscus, and a number of wild edibles-- like this one, common to western NY. Mallows are known for their mucilage—a glorified word for slime. Mucilage helps to sooth dry and inflamed tissue. Anyone who has eaten okra or applied aloe to a sunburn is familiar with this gooey, moistening property. The root of marshmallow is highest in mucilage, though the leaves and flowers are also used.

Marshmallow root tea has been an important companion of mine this winter. When the air gets dry, I am more likely to have dry congestion, sore throats, and nose bleeds. When I noticed a sore throat coming on several weeks ago, I began drinking 1-2 cups of marshmallow tea a day. The sore throat went away quickly without progressing to an infection. Clinical Herbalist Thomas Easley, director of my clinical herbalism program at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, estimates that around one-third of upper respiratory infections could be prevented by keeping respiratory tissue moist and healthy, using a humidifier. Marshmallow root can help towards this end as well.

Marshmallow is also used to moisten and sooth the gastrointestinal mucosa and urinary tract. According to David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism, “All inflammatory disorders of the gastrointestinal tract will benefit from the application of marshmallow root, including inflammations of the mouth, gastritis, peptic ulceration, and colitis.” Of course, the root of the problem must be addressed (no pun intended!). For example, many individuals experience GI issues and inflammation due to food sensitivities.
What is mucilage, exactly? Like the gut-feeding prebiotic inulin, mucilage is composed of complex polysaccharides, or sugars. These sugars make the root mildly sweet, and also nourish our gut flora.

Marshmallow as Food

Many plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) have been used as food around the world. I enjoy nibbling on the mild-flavored leaves and flowers; they make a nice addition to salads, and a fine tea.

To the Romans, a dish of marshmallow root was a delicacy. The Roman poet Horace wrote in Odes, "As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance." In Syria, a dish of marshmallow root and onions has helped those of lesser means to subsist. 

 As far as sweets go, the Egyptians created a marshmallow root candy that was sweetened with honey; it was used to soothe sore throats. The French created pâte de guimauve, which is closer to our modern-day marshmallow. They added an eggwhite meringue, and often flavor it with rose water. Today, commercial marshmallows sold in the US are no longer made with marshmallow root.
Cultivation and Harvest
Marshmallow makes a fine garden perennial with its showy white flowers. I have grown it successfully from seed, and cuttings are a viable option as well. As one might surmise by the marsh in its name, marshmallow prefers consistently moist soil, and can take some shade. I recommend this plant for soggier areas that aren't ideal for plants requiring "well-drained soil."

Leaves can be harvested for food and tea anytime, though I prefer them in spring and early-mid summer. Flowers form in mid-late summer, and can be eaten fresh.  Roots can be dug in the fall or spring. Unlike many herbs, marshmallow is susceptible to pest damage. My marshmallow leaves were laced with leaf-miner tracks this year. However, a little pest pressure will probably not significantly impact root growth.
Though you may see alcohol extracts (tinctures) of marshmallow in the store, water-based extracts (teas) do a far better job of extracting mucilage. This is the best choice particularly for GI issues; mucilage making physical contact with the upper GI tract is helpful for healing.

Precautions? Some sources recommend taking meds a couple hours before or after marshmallow tea, since mucilage could theoretically impede drug absorption. The most experienced clinical herbalists I've talked to don't believe this is a problem.

Grieve, M. "Mallows."
Easley, Thomas. Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine class material. 
Elpel, Thomas. Botany in a Day. 6th edition. 2013.
M Didea.

I had a great time discussing marshmallow root and more on the WNY Peace Center's Talking Peace radio show on 91.3 FM. Thanks to Vicki Ross, Jack Kanack, and Louis for a great conversation!  Visit the Sweet Flag Herbs Homepage to listen to clips from this interview. 

Roses: To Comfort Ye Brains

Sarah Sorci

Rose's quintessential role in human culture may be intuited from its botanical name Rosa, which simply means "rose." While other botanical names describe a plant's characteristics or location of discovery, it seems roses need no such distinction. 

 For over 3,000 years, roses have been cultivated for food, medicine and beauty. Greece, China, Persia and Egypt were home to the earliest rose gardeners. Romans imported shiploads of Egyptian roses to adorn their lavish feasts, and used them for food and (most importantly) as a remedy for wine hangovers. The phrase sub rosa comes from the expectation that gossip shared under a banquet's rose swag would be kept secret. In other words, "What happens under the roses, stays under the roses."

Because of rose's saucy reputation, early Christians shunned the flower along with Roman indulgence. Later, Middle Age monastery gardens used roses for their excellent nutrition and medicine. Prayer beads were made of rosewood or a paste of rose petals-- hence the name rosary.

Though colonists encountered native roses when they arrived in North America, they brought numerous species with them. William Penn added eighteen English roses to his garden. In his Book of Physic for Quaker settlers, he mentions roses many times for food and medicinal use. Author Claire Shaver Haughton imagines his recipe entitled "To Comfort Ye Brains" was a remedy to soothe homesickness. 

Roses as Food
Roses are a delicious food.  All roses are edible, and the petals and hips (berry-like fruit) are the most popular parts for consumption. Rosehips are extremely high in vitamin C. When England's food and drug imports were cut off during World War II, England organized "Operation Rose" to distribute tons of England's dog rose hips annually. The government produced rosehips syrup and capsules to prevent malnutrition, and it was used as medicine in England's hospitals.

This November in western NY, I have enjoyed eating our invasive multiflora rose hips (Rosa multiflora). After a frost or two, they taste like sweet strawberries; just spit out the seeds. Some rosehips are tougher and more mealy-- best for simmered teas and syrups. This herbal syrup recipe can be tweaked to include just 2-3 oz rosehips, 1 cup of honey and water.

In the summer, rose petals are a delicate addition to salads or cooked dishes. Their flavor varies greatly depending on the species; though i prefer the aromatic varieties, use what you have available. Fresh or dried petals make a lovely tea. 

Roses as Medicine
In the 1600s, English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that rose preparations are excellent for "humoring human aches and ouchings." Like North America's native people, today's herbalists turn to the rose family for astringency. Astringents reduce inflammation and improve the integrity of mucous membranes by tightening and toning tissue. Their tannins bind proteins together, reducing leakiness or looseness. Rose petal tea or tincture is a gentle gargle for bleeding gums, mouth sores, and sore throat. It can also help to heal gastrointestinal inflammation, and soothes sunburn and skin inflammation when applied topically. 

For the cardiovascular system, rose's antioxidants and tannins can improve the health of vasculature, reduce heart palpitations, and help to lower high blood pressure. Ffibrous pectins in the fruit support healthy cholesterol levels and gut flora.

As one might guess from its Valentine's Day popularity, roses have traditionally been used to support the emotional heart. According to herbalist Kiva Rose, “Perhaps the most remarkable aspects of this flower are found in its ability to affect the heart and spirit. Long praised for its anti-depressant qualities and ability to open the heart, it has been used across the world to raise the spirits and heal broken hearts." The scent alone is enough to calm and uplift.

Cultivation & Wild-Harvest
Though North America is home to twenty-six native rose species, most of the thousands of rose cultivars are non-native. These roses can be tricky to grow, prone to disease and pests. However, our native roses are much more resilient in their native ecosystem, and there is renewed interest in growing these species. If you plan to consume roses, be sure to use plants that have not been sprayed with pesticides.

Identifying wild roses: Wild roses have five white or pink petals, while garden cultivars may have many more petals. All rose flowers have a single thick pistol (female part) in the middle, surrounded by many stamens (male part). Rose leaves are serrated and alternate up the stem. Look for thorns and viney canes.

De la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Krohn, Elise.
Rose, Kiva. "Rambling the River: My Love Affair with the Wild Rose". 2008. 
Shaver Haughton, Claire. Green Immigrants. 1978.

Good Herbalism: Matching Plants to Your Body

Sarah Sorci


Holistic medicine doesn't attack a disease—it supports a whole person.

I am often asked questions such as, "What is a good herb for sleep?" or "Do you recommend turmeric for joint pain?" The answer to these questions is always the same: "Depends!"

For any ailment or imbalance, there is a slew of herbs that a google search deems helpful. However, each herb possesses unique qualities, and will help different individuals and symptoms.  Around the world, traditional medicine has developed excellent methods of matching herbs to individuals. Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) involve identifying symptom patterns in the body. When an herb's qualities and actions are also understood, we can more effectively match plants to people.

Example 1: Ginger and peach leaf are two digestion aids. However, ginger is warming, drying, and circulation-stimulating. Peach leaf is cooling and moistening. If a pregnant woman with morning sickness is flushed and overheated, giving her ginger is probably a poor choice. However, cooling, soothing peach leaf is specifically indicated for this woman's symptoms, and is commonly used during pregnancy. 

Example 2: A thin individual with poor circulation, constipation, dry skin and a racing mind is experiencing vata imbalance, according to Ayurveda. Vata is characterized by patterns of coldness and dryness throughout the body. If an individual simply takes a laxative for constipation, they will ease one symptom, but the imbalance will go unaddressed. However, using warming spices, plenty of healthy oils topically and in foods, and gentle exercise can help "warm and moisten" the body, moving this individual towards balance. 
Example 3: An individual is experiencing fatigue yet difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, high levels of stress, and dizziness. They are likely experiencing "Qi deficiency," according to TCM. While they could take a medication to help with dizziness, they would be missing an opportunity to rest and nourish their depleted adrenals, helping to heal the root of the problem. A more effective approach may include abstaining from coffee, turning off electronic devices at 8pm to encourage relaxation, morning meditation, and taking ashwagandha root to replenish the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathoadrenal system (thus helping digestion, sleep imbalance and more).
This fall, I look forward to teaching a 5-week class through Hamburg and Orchard Park Continuing Education programs, entitled “Herbal Medicine for Body Type.” We will borrow from Ayurveda, TCM and traditional western medicine to identify our own body’s tendencies. We will use our senses to determine what an herb’s effects might be in the body. (For example, bitter herbs are cooling digestive stimulants. Sour herbs often tone and tighten tissue). We will discuss a number of herbs in-depth, learning which body types/states they are most appropriate for. All plants discussed can be easily grown or sustainably wild-harvested in western NY. I look forward to learning more alongside students as we discuss this material!  

pictured: Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Gong Garden, Fredonia NY

Bee Balm: America's Muppet Flower

Sarah Sorci

First of all, do you see the Muppety resemblance

In my opinion, bee balm (Monarda spp.) is an underused gem in the herbal world. There are roughly 16 species of Monarda, all native to the US and Canada. Common names include wild oregano, wild bergamot, Oswego tea, horsemint and more. You may have seen bee balm growing in home gardens, or for sale at a local nursery-- and for good reason. As one might surmise from its common name, bee balm is an excellent supporter of pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths. Its bright, showy flowers make it a superstar in the native garden.

Blossom color varies depending on the species; Monarda didyma (pictured) is a taller plant with striking red blooms. Monarda fistulosa has lavender-colored petals, while Monarda punctata has stunning spotted flowers highlighted by white or pink upper leaves. Look for M. punctataM. fistulosa and more at Lockwood's Garden Center in Hamburg, NY.

Monarda was named after a 16th-century Spanish physician named Nicolas Monardes. Monardes is credited for writing the first herbal medicine book about plants of the New World. The title of his seminal work translates to "Joyful News out of the New Found World". Interestingly, Monardes never set foot in the Americas. He learned about these New World herbs on the docks of Seville, talking with merchants, soldiers, government officials, missionaries and women returning to Spain.

Monardes' informants undoubtedly learned much about Monarda from America's native people. it was used medicinally by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Hopi, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Menominee, Ojibwa, Winnebago and more. Their uses for Monarda are still practiced today.

Medicinal Properties
Like many other mint family plants, Monarda leaves and flowers are deliciously aromatic. According to clinical herbalist Rosalee de la Foret, "All [Monardaspecies] be used interchangeably, with the taste of the plant giving us insight into its potency. Generally, the spicier the plant, the more potent it is." Monarda fistulosa, M. punctata, M. menthifolia, and M. didyma are the most common species used medicinally. How convenient that several of these are common garden varieties!

Like other aromatic herbs, Monarda's essential oils support healthy digestion, easing bloating, cramping, and other discomforts. Bee balm is also an excellent supporter during cold and flu season. Hot Monarda tea can loosen congestion in the upper respiratory tract, and Monarda tea or honey can soothe a sore throat.

Aromatic plants are also antimicrobial. Both Monarda and thyme (cousins in the mint family) contain high concentrations of thymol, an effective antibacterial agent used in oral care products. Drinking Monarda tea can ease mouth infections, or simply freshen the breath. Bee balm is also strongly antifungal. Internally, it is highly effective for candida overgrowth and vaginal yeast infections. For topical infections, de la Foret recommends applying the tea to infected areas, as well as taking the tincture or tea internally.

Herbalist Matthew Wood points out that, like its relative lemon balm, Monarda is a gentle nervous system relaxant. Wood recommends it for those experiencing anxiety or nervousness. 

Use bee balm any way you like! It's delicious and safe for regular use. Try a making hot or iced tea, Infused vinegar or honey, tincture, or infused oil or witch hazel for topical use. The dried herb in an excellent and native culinary spice.

What is my favorite herb-infused vinegar I've ever made? Bee balm leaf + flower! Not only is it deliciously aromatic, but using red Monarda didyma results in a stunning magenta vinegar-- even if the flowers are the minority of your plant material. Here is a simple recipe for Herb Infused Vinegar.

Are bee balm cultivars safe to use? In my experience, if the bee balm plant smells delicious and potent, it is fine to use internally. This is not the case for cultivars of all medicinal plants, such as yarrow. (I do not use colorful yarrow cultivars internally due to higher concentrations of an unsavory alkaloid).

Use Monarda in moderation if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Bee balm enjoys consistent moisture and part-sun to full-sun exposure, though I have seen it thrive in part-shade. It is prone to mildew, and some species and cultivars are more prone than others. In my experience, M. didymaholds out much better than M. fistulosa-- but both are worth having in my garden.

When I start seeing signs of mildew, I simply cut back the tall stalks and use the soft aerial parts for food and medicine. I toss the tough central stalks and mildewy leaves into the compost. Like other mint family members, your Monarda will leaf out again relatively quickly, if it is happy. The new growth will hopefully be mildew free-- at least for awhile. According to Seattle Times garden writer Valerie Eston, growing Monarda in the moist soil it prefers results in less mildew, ironically.

de la Foret, Rosalee.
Easton, Valerie. "Bee balm, bergamot or horsemint; it’s all pretty and healing." Seattle Times. July 2, 2011.
Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. 1979.
Rose, Kiva. "Monarda."
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. 
"Nicolas Monardes."

St. John's Wort: Feast of Fires

Sarah Sorci


From Greek and Roman mythology to German Rosicrucians, St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) was believed to be a sacred herb of the sun. Its botanical name, Hypericum, comes from the Greek god Hyperion, father of the sun god Helios. In Rome, Hypericumwas burned at the Festival of Fires, the summer solstice ritual. On Midsummer Eve, Romans danced and sang around bonfires, offering St. John's Wort garlands to the flames and bidding Helios to continue blessing the earth with sunlight. In colonial America, Rosicrucians fleeing persecution continued this ceremony. The Pennsylvania Dutch also believed in the herb's power to "discipline the Devil on Midsummer's Eve" (Haughton, 351).

As the Christian Church became interested in controlling pagan rituals, summer solstice was deemed St. John the Baptist's birthday. Thus, the Feast of Fires became St. John's Feast, and Hypericum adopted St. John's name as well. 

It is no wonder that St. John's Wort has been associated with the sun. Its bright yellow flowers bloom in early summer, and the plant prefers full sun exposure. When Hypericumleaves and flowers are held up to the light, one can see small translucent circles that look like small suns. When one has found the Hypericum species most commonly used for medicine-- Hypericum perforatum-- some of these tiny circles are filled with a dark red medicinal oil. (Observe the tiny dots on the petals above). When a leaf or flower is crushed and rolled between the fingers, red or purple oil streaks are left on the skin. Check out this site for more info about identifying St. John's Wort. 

Hypericum perforatum is a common wild plant in New York State. As an abundant non-native species, my conscience feels at ease about harvesting-- especially since removing leaves and flowers does not kill the plant.

While St. John's Wort's uses are numerous, the herb is most popularly used internally as an antidepressant. In Germany, St. John's Wort is prescribed twenty times more frequently than pharmaceuticals for depression. This is due to its effectiveness and relatively fewer side effects (Duke and Foster). It is a gentle sedative and antispasmodic, helping some to ease insomnia and anxiety.

St. John's Wort has notable pain-relieving and healing properties, particularly for the nervous system. It is used to support neuralgia, sciatica, and healing after nerve damage. Externally, the leaves and flowers are infused into oil for healing wounds, bruises, and burns-- even sunburn. Interestingly, St. John's Wort may also cause sun sensitivity in some. This photosensitizing property has been used in cancer treatment: cancer cells are exposed to hypericin oil, and then exposed to sunlight to induce cancer cell death. 

Finally, St. John's Wort has been studied extensively for its antiviral properties. In vitro, St. John's Wort's constituents have shown antiviral activity against strains of the flu, Herpes simplex 1 and 2, and many more. It is used internally and topically during Herpes outbreaks, including cold sores.

Though some companies extract and sell one St. John's Wort constituent-- hypericin oil-- studies indicate that other chemicals in the herb are also medicinal. This is one of many examples of what we lose when we isolate one plant constituent for simplicity and ease, rather than working with plants in their whole form.

St. John's Wort may be herbal medicine's biggest culprit for herb-drug and herb-herb interactions. Its effect on the liver may change the rate of drug metabolism, among other effects. Medscape is one online source offering a list of drug interactions. I recommend consulting a practitioner before combining St. John's Wort with pharmaceuticals or other herbs. Most US doctors do not learn about medicinal plants in their training. An herbalist can provide more detailed information to share with your doctor about St. John's Wort.

Bone, Kerry and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. 2nd edition. 2013.
Duke, James and Steven Foster. Peterson's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. 2014.
Haughton, Claire Shaver. Green Immigrants. 1978.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003.

Dandelion: Lion's Tooth

Sarah Sorci

A little history
Before Europeans came to North America, the dandelion we know so well- Taraxacum officinalis- was non-existent here. (There is a rare dandelion native to California,Taraxacum californicum). Common dandelion is likely native to Asia, where it is still an important remedy in Chinese Medicine. Dandelions had spread throughout Europe before written history began. The entire plant is edible, and there are records of its use as food and medicine by the Greeks, Romans, and Anglo-Saxon tribes.The Celts may have been the first to ferment the blossoms, making dandelion wine. In Japan, over 200 dandelion cultivars are used as ornamental plants. Japanese florists use white, orange, black, and copper varieties of the flower in their arrangements.

Dandelion's common name derives from the leaves' jagged appearance. The Normans called it dent de lion, or "lion's tooth." English speakers twisted the name into what we know today. The plant's botanical name, however, reflects its long history of medicinal use. The genus name comes from the Greek taraxos for "disorder"—and akos for "remedy." The species name, officinale, refers to its widely accepted use in medicine.

Indeed, dandelion was an important plant for the Puritans migrating to New England. So why wasn't it included in colonial accounts of horticulture in the 1600s? According to Claire S. Haughton's Green Immigrants, "The dandelion was not an economic plant, but a common green for the stewpot, a 'dosing herb.' And so its seeds were among those each woman was expected to take with her for the family's garden plot." Though much of written history documents trade and financial dealings, dandelion serves as a reminder that a plant's (or person's!) value does not necessarily depend on their monetary contribution to society.

After forests were cut, little dandelion fruits traveled like Mary Poppins via fuzz umbrellas to newly cleared areas. Garden space was no longer devoted to this wild, readily available plant.

Dandelion Leaf
Dandelion leaf is bitter-- more so as the season progresses. Bitterness has been called a lost flavor in American culture. As herbal medicine teacher CoreyPine Shane points out, "Beer and coffee are our last remaining bitters. And when you add cream and sugar to coffee, you lose the bitterness." In fact, we are losing more than flavor when we exclude bitterness. Tasting bitterness stimulates salivation, gastric secretions, and intestinal peristalsis. Bitterness can also stimulate secretion of bile for proper digestion of fats. Healthy digestion improves nutrient absorption, and has even been shown to improve immunity and mood (Romm).

Dandelion leaf is also used to remove excess fluids from the body. According to David Winston's Medical Herbalism, "Dandelion leaf is a powerful diuretic, with an action comparable to that of the drug furosemide. The usual effect of a drug that stimulates kidney function is loss of vital potassium from the body, which can aggravate a cardiovascular problem... Dandelion leaf, however, is not only an effective diuretic, but also one of the best natural sources of potassium. It is thus an ideally balanced remedy."

If you aren't looking for this diuretic effect, no problem. Skip the large doses of tincture (alcohol extract) and use it like the highly nutritious food that it is. Add some fresh dandelion leaves to your salad or stew, mixed with other veggies.

Dandelion Root
The root of dandelion is sweeter and richer than the leaf. Just like burdock root, dandelion root is an excellent source of inulin, a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex, fibrous carbohydrates that pass to our intestines only partially digested. Our beneficial gut flora are nourished as they finish the job.

Dandelion root is a lovely liver supporter. A happy liver can promote effective digestion, hormone balancing and healthy skin. Herbalists have also used the root to ease arthritis symptoms. It may help by reducing pressure in the joints by removing excess fluid, increasing nutrient absorption, and/or modulating inflammation (de la Foret). 

Dandelion root makes a tasty, caffeine-free "coffee substitute." During the Civil War, southerners used herbs like dandelion and yaupon holly while coffee and other imports were cut off. For simple instructions for roasting and simmering your dandelion root beverage, visit this LearningHerbs webpage.

Before using dandelion medicinally, talk with a practitioner if you are taking a medication or other herbs. Be sure to harvest in chemical-free lawns and fields.

Lawns, Gardens, and Farming
Though not native, dandelions offer benefits for gardens and agriculture. Haughton writes, "[Dandelion's] long taproot is nature's way of aerating the ground for the short grass roots, thereby encouraging greener lawns and greater beauty. It also brings up from the depths elements that are not available to shorter-rooting plants." Interestingly, dandelion flowers also exude ethylene gas at sunset-- the same gas given off by ripening fruit. Dandelions have been used in orchards to increase the rate of ripening.

Finally, herbalist Rosalee de la Foret makes an excellent point in her new book,The Alchemy of Herbs: "Because this is such a delicious and medicinal plant, it completely confounds me that so many people despise it. Instead of rushing out with their harvesting tools to enjoy this free food and medicine, they spray harmful chemicals to kill them. Many of those herbicides are known to promote cancer, poison our soils and waters, and kill countless birds and bees." If we are going to rid our lawns of dandelions, may we consume every last one!

de la Foret, Rosalee. The Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Romm, Aviva. Herbs for Digestion: The Bitters. Natural MD Radio. 
Winston, David. Medical Herbalism. 588-89.

Witch Hazel: Bending Towards Water

Sarah Sorci

In hunting for the origin of witch hazel's name, I expected a juicy story about a witch named Hazel. Instead, the name comes from a traditional practice called "dowsing." Dowsing was a method of locating good sources of groundwater using Y-shaped branches. The name is believed to have come from wych, an old Anglo-Saxon word for "bend," and the Middle English wicke for "lively." Indeed, the dowsing stick is said to point downward towards the groundwater below, as though having a mind of its own. The Mohegans may have been the first to show English settlers to dowse.

It seems fitting that witch hazel is commonly found along the banks of running water. In western New York, it is rare to hike along a creek without spotting this shrub. Witch hazel's abundance in the northeastern US surely led to American Distilling's location in East Hampton, Connecticut. They are the world's largest witch hazel producer, with products like Dickinson’s. Today, they are still supplied by local wild harvesters.

Witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants approved by the FDA as an ingredient in non-prescription medications. This is not because witch hazel is safer or more effective than other medicinal plants (FDA approvals are heavily influenced by money and politics, often at the expense of long-term wellness and public health). But, it certainly is an effective astringent.

What exactly is an astringent? Astringent plants often contain tannins. If you have ever tasted strong black tea or an unripe apple, you are familiar with the dry "pucker" sensation of astringency. Tannins bind proteins, tightening and toning tissue. When astringents come into contact with a cut on our skin, it can help to bind the broken tissue back together, and reduce inflammation. I use astringents more gentle than witch hazel for inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, or to tone other body systems. They may be gargled to reduce inflammation in the mouth and throat.

Astringents are also drawing. They can pull wooden slivers or poison ivy's urishiol oil away from the skin-- though I would wash a poison ivy-affected area with strong soap as soon as possible. Those with acne-prone skin that is oily may apply witch hazel to reduce inflammation. (Remember-- diet and lifestyle will do more for acne than anything applied topically.) The Osage people used witch hazel bark to treat skin sores. The Potawatomi steamed witch hazel over rocks in sweat lodges to ease sore muscles. The Hadenosawnee (Iroquois) brewed a tea to treat coughs and dysentery. Witch hazel has been applied to bruises, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids as well.

Drinking witch hazel bark tea has generally fallen out of favor. The tannin content-- while medicinal when used properly-- can be irritating to the stomach. In rare cases, internal use may cause liver damage. Exernally, witch hazel is widely considered safe.

The beauty of making our own witch hazel bark extract is that we can avoid making a noticeable impact on the plants. Though I am impressed by how much wild-harvesting information American Distilling offers on their website, industrial witch hazel is made by cutting down whole trunks. Instead, we can snip just a few twigs from each plant. We can think like a farmer, and prune. Which twigs are being shaded out? These are the least useful to the plant, and can be snipped first. 

Click here for a Wild Crafted Witch Hazel recipe.

Mandriote, John-Manuel. The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. The Atlantic. Nov 2012.
Tilgner, Sharol. Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth. 2009.