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

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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.

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

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.

Sources
Grieve, M. "Mallows." www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mallow07.html
Easley, Thomas. Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine class material. 
Elpel, Thomas. Botany in a Day. 6th edition. 2013.
M Didea. https://www.mdidea.com/products/new/new03707.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Althaea_(plant)

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

History
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. Invasive multiflora rose is an excellent choice in WNY, since harvesting the flowers and hips can prevent this plant’s spread.

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.

Sources
De la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs. 2017.
Krohn, Elise. http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/rosehips
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.

History
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
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.

Cultivation
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.

Sources
de la Foret, Rosalee. http://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/bee-balm.html
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." http://bearmedicineherbals.com/monarda.html
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. 
"Nicolas Monardes." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicol%C3%A1s_Monardes

St. John's Wort: Feast of Fires

Sarah Sorci

 


History
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. 

Identification
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.

Properties
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.

Interactions
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.

Sources:
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.