Frankincense: A Sacred Resin
Frankincense is a small, shrubby tree that is native to hot, dry, desert climates. The resin of this fascinating plant — native to India, Oman, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia — has been used for over 5,000 years. It has been highly regarded as a medicine, an aromatic perfume, a ceremonial tool, and was once worth even more than gold.
Perhaps you are familiar with the scent of frankincense — often burned as incense in religious ceremonies. Or perhaps you are more familiar with the essential oil — sometimes referred to as olibanum. The oil is commonly used in aromatherapy for soothing chronic stress and anxiety, reducing pain and inflammation, and boosting immunity.
It is also an ingredient in many natural skin care products because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Frankincense is believed to help protect and heal skin cells and is used to reduce acne, prevent wrinkles and slow signs of aging. It is an astringent, meaning that it helps to tighten and tone loose, sagging or lax tissues. The essential oil can be added to any moisturizing serum as a nice, supportive addition to a daily skin care routine.
Its physical properties also make frankincense a powerful antiseptic; it is used to eliminate bacteria and viruses, and can help disinfect an area — use it as an aromatherapy spritzer or burn the resin for this purpose.
The astringent action of this plant can also help eliminate phlegm and congestion in the lungs. For mucous-y situations that seem to hang around in the respiratory system or sinuses, try frankincense as it will not only help to dry up mucous but will also act as an anti-inflammatory in the nasal passages, making breathing easier.
Finally, when rubbed on the body topically frankincense oil can improve circulation and the symptoms of joint or muscle pain in arthritic and rheumatic conditions. It tends to have a soothing effect for any sort of bodily inflammation.
Let’s speak a bit of the more esoteric and spiritual aspects of this amazing resin… Frankincense is a venerable old tree, in use for thousands and thousands of years. It was so highly treasured that it was brought as one of the gifts of the Wise Men to be presented at Jesus’ birth. The resin was also found in the tombs of Egyptian mummies, used not only as an embalming agent, but also as an offering to help the departed souls make their journey to the afterlife.
Amongst many cultures around the world the fragrance of this resin was believed to increase one’s spiritual connection and intuition. The Chinese called it “fanhunxiang” meaning “calling back the soul fragrance.” It is often used in meditation, since the scent is calming, grounding and pleasant to the senses. It helps one to become more present in the moment and encourages feelings of peace.
Several religions use frankincense incense in their ceremonies. It may be used to prepare the environment for ritual, and is said to call forth the angels and other invisible beings to assist in creating sacred space. Symbolically, the smoke that rises as the resin burns helps to carry prayers and offerings to Heaven.
HOW TO USE
Make Frankincense Water:
Place 4-5 small pieces of resin in a quart sized jar. Cover with boiled water, cap, and let steep for a few hours or overnight. The resulting liquid will be light in color and a bit cloudy. Drink up to a cup or so a day, using your taste buds to guide you on your own proper dosage. This tea comes in handy when you are feeling congested. Many people also drink it to help with arthritic or painful joints.
Use the essential oil topically:
Dilute 10 - 15 drops of frankincense essential oil in 1 oz. of a carrier of your choice (olive, jojoba, grapeseed, or almond oil) and rub onto the skin. This is useful for scarring, acne, wrinkles and painful joints.
Burn the resin:
To burn the dried resin use a small charcoal disc (often sold to use in hookahs). Light the charcoal outside on a fire-proof dish and when it finishes smoking and sparking it should simply glow. Place 1 to 3 small pieces of resin on the charcoal and it will start to burn immediately. The resulting incense is pleasant and sweet and can be used to clear and purify the air.
NOTE: Frankincense should not be used during pregnancy, because of its emmenagogue and astringent qualities.
Rosehips: A Wild Fall Fruit
The Rose family (Rosaceae) is one of the most beloved botanical groups; humans have had a deep affinity for these plants for thousands and thousands of years.
Not only does this family produce beautiful flowering plants such as spirea, potentilla, lady’s mantle, agrimony and hawthorn, but also important fruit crops such as pears, peaches, plums, cherries, quinces, almonds, raspberries and strawberries.
What would our world be like without these delights?!
Of all these family members, Rose is the most well-known and sought-after. She is the true queen of flowers.
While most people are familiar with the aesthetic and olfactory beauty of the rose, in this country there tends to be less familiarity with the fruit of the rose, i.e. the rosehip.
I adore using rosehips this time of year, when the scarlet fruits become full and ripe. All roses will develop hips once their flowers fade, but depending on the species they vary in shape, color, texture and taste. The hip of the dog rose, Rosa canina, is often sold commercially for tea. Around our neck of the woods we are lucky to find Rosa rugosa, the beach rose, which produces the most beautiful, large, tomato-like fruits.
Why would we want to use rosehips?
First of all, these fruits are a delicious wild edible. They are nutritive and tart, and can be infused into a tea that is high in many vitamins, especially Vitamins A and C. Even though citrus fruits get all the glory for being a great source of Vitamin C, rosehips actually contain a higher concentration of this important vitamin and are in fact one of the richest botanical sources of it.
We cannot produce our own Vitamin C so it is essential that we obtain it from food. It is needed for producing hormones, neurotransmitters and hormones in the body. Having plenty of this vitamin in the diet has been correlated with a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. In addition, Vitamin C supports the immune system and has been shown to shorten the duration of the common cold. This makes rosehips an excellent addition to fall and winter tea blends.
Like other red-hued herbs and fruits -- such as schisandra, hawthorn, and hibiscus -- rosehips are high in bioflavonoids which have an antioxidant action that prevents free radical damage in the body. These bioflavonoids also strengthen heart and blood vessels.
Perhaps a lesser known use of rosehips are its effect on the digestive system. The hips are anti-inflammatory and soothing, and thus are useful for hot, inflammatory conditions in the gut such as ulcers, colitis or Crohn’s. They are also a gentle laxative that is traditionally used for mild constipation; the natural pectin content has a beneficial, soothing effect on the intestinal tract.
Above all, rosehips are a food. They are commonly harvested to be made into jam and jelly; they can also be baked into pies, used as a thickener for sauces (because of their pectin content), and can even be made into a beautiful soup! (Check out this Swedish rosehip soup recipe I recently discovered…)
HOW TO USE ROSEHIPS
MAKING A ROSEHIP OXYMEL
The combination of honey, vinegar and herbs creates an ancient preparation called an oxymel. This simple medicine dates back to the time of the Greeks and has been used for many different ailments, but most especially for digestive and respiratory issues. Today we can make oxymels as a delicious way to preserve our favorite herbs, or to create a medicinal tonic.
The simplest method of making an oxymel is to mix together equal parts honey and apple cider vinegar and pour this mixture over your herbs to steep. (Use more vinegar for a thinner oxymel, less vinegar for a more syrup-y oxymel.)
Use this tart honey-vinegar concoction directly by the spoonful, or add to seltzer water for a refreshing drink. You can also use it as the base for sauces, marinades and salad dressings.
Mugwort: A Wild Beauty
When I first moved to Boston a decade ago I felt like a country girl in the big city. I’d traveled and lived in several places before, but had never before set down roots in an urban environment. I was used to living amongst trees and woods, and wide-open spaces. Although I loved my new city home, I greatly missed natural open spaces, and forests, and wild places.
So I found consolation in a different sort of wildness: in untamed, weedy plants that sprout up in the neglected areas of town. Of all of these – the dandelions, chickweeds, shepherd’s purses and burdocks that I came to know and love – mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) was the one to capture me the most.
When I first made acquaintances with this lovely creature I knew nothing of the plant, not even its name. I just loved the beautiful shape, tall stature, silvery leaves, and gracefulness as I observed mugwort swaying in the wind, or in the passing rumble of a train.
I used to walk one particular route to work that always led me past a population of mugwort. It was an unpleasant and ugly stretch to walk through, full of trash and city grime, but the mugwort always provided a glimpse of beauty and grace with its silvery green glow. It felt like the mugwort was welcoming me to my new city, and whispered to me an important reminder: that I could find beauty wherever I looked for it.
Upon delving deeper into my work with the herbs I discovered many things about mugwort that enamored me with the plant even more. I found out that it is a plant of ancient use and was known as the Mater Herbarum — the mother of all herbs. Mugwort was held sacred by various cultures and thought to be the oldest of plants. In particular it was believed to be a plant that offered protection to humans. It was once common to hang a sprig of mugwort over the doorway — or to burn it as an incense — to keep illness and evil spirits away from the home.
Its botanical name Artemisia refers to the goddess Artemis, hinting at its divine origins. Named after the lunar goddess of childbearing and the wilderness, mugwort is steeped in much folklore about its healing virtues. It has traditionally held a powerful affiliation with the moon and was considered to be a prime herb for women. Artemisia vulgaris has been used to soothe the pain of childbirth as well as monthly menstrual cramping. It may also help to regulate the menstrual cycle to a normal, cyclical rhythm. Herbalist Matthew Wood says that mugwort will restore the injured female nature.
Mugwort’s actions on the body are warming and slightly stimulating. As such it helps to increase circulation throughout the body and to remove stagnant blood (hence its use for the menstrual cycle). In Traditional Chinese medicine a related Artemisia species is made into moxa for use over stiff joints and cold, stagnant areas of the body.
As for its stimulating properties, mugwort is well known for its ability to impart vivid dreams and to promote creative meditation. Many people will find that simply drinking a cup of mugwort tea before bed will have a marked effect on their dreams. Because of this property, however, avoid mugwort when you are trying to get a deep and restorative night’s sleep!
I love what one of my favorite herbal writers, Judith Berger, has to say about this special plant. She says that regular use of mugwort “strengthens our ability to absorb intuitive information as we preserve an aspect of sharpness in our interaction with the complex, topside world.” In other words, mugwort helps us to enhance our intuition in order to better navigate daily reality.
Mugwort can be found growing in disturbed areas and along roadsides wherever humans reside. If you are harvesting the plant for internal use be sure to avoid collecting near traffic-laden roads, or in areas where the soil may be contaminated. Clip the tall stalks so that you are harvesting the upper third of the plant. The best time to collect mugwort is right before its very tiny flower buds open. Hang a bundle of the stalks upside down to dry.
HOW TO USE MUGWORT:
➤ Use 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of dried herb per mug of hot water; let steep at least 10 minutes. Drink before bedtime to increase dreams.
➤ Infuse into vinegar to extract its rich mineral content (mugwort is high in calcium and magnesium)
➤ Infuse into oil to use for topical applications as a warming, stimulating remedy, for cold joints or for menstrual cramping
Caution: As a uterine stimulant and emmenogogue, mugwort should not be used during pregnancy.
MUGWORT DREAM TEA
Here’s a lovely tea that I like to make after dinner to help wind down before bed-time, and to ease me into the dream world:
1 part linden
1 part lemon balm
½ part oat tops
¼ part mugwort
small pinch of lavender
Let steep for at least 15 minutes. Sip mindfully and breathe in the vapor of the tea, and see if you don’t have a very deep night’s sleep, with dreams that you remember the next day…
You probably already know this if you have attended one of my herbal classes, but I love weeds! Yes, I have a great fondness for the plants that everyone tries to get rid of and “keep under control” especially the tenacious ones that keep on growing where nothing else could…. the crack of a sidewalk, compacted and poor soil, the top of a bridge, along railroad tracks, etc.…
I love weeds because they are spunky and resourceful, and in some cases they are beneficial to the local ecosystem. These plants will hold down eroding soil, remove heavy metals, and/or provide greater soil fertility and organic matter. They grow in niches where more delicate plants cannot.
Additionally, many of these so-called weeds make for good foods and remedies for humans. So, before you decide to remove a weedy creature from your garden or lawn, please consider all of the above qualities and appreciate the vitality that is found in wild plants!
Now, onto Chickweed, one of our delightfully weedy plants that can be seen around town.
First and foremost, chickweed is an abundant wild edible. It makes for a refreshing salad green and is a traditional spring tonic. It is very nutritious, being high in chlorophyll, vitamins A & C, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Chickweed is a wonderful herb to help support the liver and the whole lymphatic system. Traditionally it is used to remove metabolic wastes and excess fats from the body.
If you make a tea of chickweed you might notice an interesting property that it has: when you pour hot water over the dried leaves you’ll see a foamy substance that rises to the top. This is because chickweed contains saponins, which are soap-like substances that increase the permeability of cells. This quality helps our human bodies to absorb more nutrients while also helping us to break down waste products, including excess mucous, toxins and fat cells. This makes it a perfect spring herb to turn to when our bodies need to wake up — and lighten up — after a long winter.
On the herbal spectrum of actions chickweed is considered to be a cooling and demulcent herb. It is soothing and moisturizing for the body’s tissues, both internally and externally. Chickweed can be used for any sort of hot, inflammatory condition such as colitis, sore throat, itchy or inflamed skin, or even stings, burns and sunburn. I think it is especially wonderful for irritated and red eyes. A simple poultice of fresh chickweed placed over the eyes will bring cooling relief.
Now in early spring is the time to scope out wild chickweed; before too long it will start to fade in the hot summer sun. Watch out for its dainty white, star-shaped flowers, and brilliant green leaves. It may be an over-looked plant but once you learn how to identify chickweed you will be surprised to see it growing abundantly, spreading like tiny stars across the city.
HOW TO USE CHICKWEED:
There may not be an herb as striking and gorgeous as passionflower. Its circular, whirling, complex blossom is breathtaking. And although it seems to be an exotic species that comes from a far off place, it is a plant that is native to the southeastern part of our country.
Growing up in South Carolina I have vivid memories of passionflower vines from my childhood. My grandparents grew them outside of their home, and we also found them growing wild along the edges of the streets where we walked. My cousins and I would stop and exclaim if we found a passionflower in bloom. It always seemed like a little piece of magic that we stumbled upon at those times — something intensely beautiful and mysterious that stood out like a spark in the landscape.
Going back south for visits I frequently spy tangly nests of passionflower vines growing in ditches along the roadside. Sometimes they find something else to climb upon; other times they spread out in unruly waves along the ground.
Vining plants are unique in their growing habits, unlike trees and shrubs and flowers that are naturally upright and keep to themselves. Instead, vines are climbers and creepers, stretching out their tendrils and elongated stems in order to seek another form to cling to. Such is the case with passionflower, which has delicate, tightly-wound, grasping tendrils. When given a trellis or other support to grow upon its vining beauty is most fully expressed.
The lovely, complex flower structure of Passiflora make it a sought-after ornamental plant. (See the growing details below if you wish to try your hand at cultivating it.) Its fruit is edible and is sometimes referred to as “maypop” because of the popping sound it makes when pressed. If you open up a ripe fruit you will discover an edible inner flesh that is juicy and sour, and filled with dark seeds.
Passionflower has a long history of traditional use. It is perhaps most well known for its calming influence on the nervous system. Herbalists use the plant for anxiety, tension and nervousness. It is a wonderful remedy for people who get over-stimulated and are tightly wound. (I like to think of its tightly coiled tendrils as a metaphor of this feeling.) How it works its calming magic is not exactly known, but it is believed to increase levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain which creates a relaxing feeling in humans.
The upper parts of passionflower — the leaves, stems and flowers — are also a common remedy for insomnia and sleep issues, acting as a mild sedative. Many herbalists like to recommend it for people who cannot let go of their endless thoughts at night, preventing them from getting sound sleep. Passionflower helps the body and mind to wind down a notch, letting go of nervous energy in order to more fully relax. Likewise, because of its calming and anti-spasmodic properties it is often used for tension and pain. It can be particularly useful for menstrual cramping and PMS crankiness. (Again, think of a grasping tendril relaxing its coil just a bit.)
On a personal note, much of my experience of passionflower comes from being around the living plant. Many years ago I worked in a greenhouse that was full of hundreds of different species of plants from all over the world. I remember one particular week when I was feeling stressed and restless because I was wanting to do and be more than what I was currently doing and being! I felt drawn to the potted passionflower vine that we had growing in the greenhouse. At the time I did not know of its herbal uses but I felt compelled to be near its beauty — perhaps because I was reminded of my childhood experiences with the plant — and I even spent some time drawing it. I discovered that to me this beautiful creature represents a balance between seeking/longing/reaching (represented by its outstretched, grasping vines) and exquisite poise and grace (represented by its otherworldly flowers). For me, simply being around the passionflower and spending quiet, still moments with it helped to calm my own longing, anxiety and restlessness, making me feel more at ease with the present moment.
HOW TO USE PASSIONFLOWER:
The aerial parts of Passiflora incarnata are used — leaves, stems and flowers — which can then be made into tea or tincture.
Use 1 - 2 teaspoons of the dried leaf in 8 oz hot water for tea; steep for 10 minutes. Passionflower blends well with other relaxing herbs such as lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, skullcap and California poppy.
The tea is not palatable to every tongue, so the tincture is also a good option, especially for sleep issues. When using the tincture start with 1/2 of a dropper-full 30 minutes before bed and increase the dosage from there if needed.
Cautions: Avoid passionflower in combination with other pharmaceutical sedatives, and do not use if pregnant. Also avoid this herb with low blood pressure. As with all herbs, please remember that every body is unique, and we all respond differently.
HOW TO GROW PASSIONFLOWER:
My friend Jenny Hauf, herb grower extraordinaire and owner of Muddy River Herbals was kind enough to write up some growing instructions for those of us who’d like to grow Passionflower this summer:
This sun-loving semi-succulent vine prefers relatively dry soils and can grow up to eight feet tall, so be sure to provide it with a trellis. While Passiflora incarnata is the hardiest of the passionflowers, New England specimens benefit greatly from a protected space. South-facing walls and stone fences provide ideal habitat, as they trap and conserve heat and create a microclimate warmer than the surrounding area. Passionflower should be heavily mulched to insulate the roots from our often harsh winters. It will struggle and be at risk of winterkill if planted in heavy clay soil, frost pockets, or exposed areas of the garden.
To grow from seed, soak in warm water for two to seven days, scarify by nicking with a knife, and keep in a warm, well-lit place until seeds germinate. (An especially sunny window by a radiator works nicely.) Sow at least double what you hope to plant in your garden, as the seeds have a low rate of viability. It's a finicky germinator, taking between a few weeks and a few months to sprout, so be patient. While passionflower isn’t the simplest of plants to grow, especially here in New England, if you have the right space and enough love to give it you will be rewarded with its powerful, storied, and mesmerizing medicine.
Burdock is a beautiful, large-leafed plant that pops up in areas where humans live. You’ve seen it growing around our city environs in Cambridge and Somerville — I’m certain of it!
Burdock is generally called a “weed” since it likes to grow in places where it was not planted. Often overlooked, it is actually quite a lovely plant, when you take the time to admire it. The bright magenta flowers could easily be mistaken for a kind of thistle, and burdock is, in fact, closely related to thistles (a part of the Asteraceae family). The flowers are covered with prickly burrs, which interestingly were the inspiration behind the invention of Velcro! Get close to some of these clingy flowers and seed heads and you will see what I mean…
Burdock is a resourceful creature and can thrive in places where many other plants cannot. Part of its tenacity and strength is due to its long taproot, which burrows deeply down into the earth. With this advantage burdock can reach precious micro-nutrients that are often inaccessible to shallow-rooted plants.
Herein lies much of burdock’s goodness: Because of its deep earth diving, the roots contains many nutrients and minerals, as well as inulin, a special kind of storage carbohydrate (prebiotic). Inulin happens to be wonderful for the human digestive tract because it feeds and nourishes our beneficial gut flora. Taking burdock root is a good idea when there is any sort of digestive issue, especially when the good gut flora needs some support.
When taken as food, tea or tincture, burdock (slowly) acts upon the digestion and liver. It helps the system to better digest, and assimilate fats and oils — these are then more easily distributed to the skin, hair and internal tissues. Burdock is often a popular choice for helping resolve any sort of eruptive skin problem such as acne, rashes, or eczema. I will often pair it with red clover to help support the removal of waste products that may be improperly eliminating through the skin instead of through other channels. Traditionally this cleansing action led burdock to be known as a “blood purifier” because it helps to detoxify the body and blood by stimulating the release of waste products from the cells.
Burdock root is a gentle and nutritive tonic that helps to restore one’s natural energy and to overcome states of depletion. Not that long ago it was also used as a natural aphrodisiac! However, one important thing to know about burdock is that although it can have a very deep and profound effect on the body, it works slowly and must be taken with consistency over time. A few doses of burdock will not do the trick — this is an herb that needs to be used with commitment over several months. In exchange it will show you its ability to nourish depleted bodies, provide increased energy, and improve the function of the digestive system. Judith Berger — one of my favorite herbal writers — states, “The root’s style is almost tortoise-like as it patiently wades through tired organs, pulling poisons, chemical residues, and contaminants which slow down the lymphatic, digestive, and urinary organs.”
If you are looking to harvest your own burdock once the growing season returns, keep in mind that it is a biennial. Be sure to gather one-year-old plants in the fall, or two-year-old plants in the spring, i.e., any time before it has flowered. You want the energy of the root to still be underground rather moving upwards into the flowers and seeds.
HOW TO USE BURDOCK:
There are many ways to enjoy the sweet and earthy taste of burdock. You can eat the fresh or cooked roots, take it as a tincture, or drink it as a tea. If taking it as a tea, it will need to be simmered on the stove in order to draw out all of its benefits. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of the dried root to 1.5 cups of water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover with a lid, and let this cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Then strain and drink.
Another wonderful way to use nutritive burdock root is to steep it in apple cider vinegar. Vinegar is an excellent medium for drawing out the mineral contents of plants. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the dried root (or twice this amount of the chopped fresh root) in an 8 oz. glass jar. Cover with apple cider vinegar and let this mixture steep at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. Then strain out the roots, place the remaining liquid in a clean, dark bottle, and use this earthy mixture on vegetables or salads. I like to store my herbal vinegars in the fridge for the longest shelf life. Use this up within 6 months.
This post was originally published on Cambridge Natural's blog.
Lemon Balm: The Gateway Herb
Lemon Balm is a cheerful little plant. With uplifting, lemon-scented leaves and tiny sweet white flowers, it is a pleasant addition to any garden or kitchen apothecary. I have never found anyone who does not enjoy lemon balm, so I call it a “gateway herb.” Even the most wary newcomers to herbs fall in love with its scent and taste, and then become open to trying many more new and unusual herbs…!
Both bees and humans find this plant irresistibly attractive. In fact its Latin name Melissa refers to “bees” — these insects will flock to it whenever it is in bloom.
Lemon balm is originally from southern Europe but is now widely cultivated around the world. Like many mint family plants it is a very prolific grower. If you have limited garden space, you may want to place it in a container so that it does not take over the whole garden. (However, I don’t think that that would be such a terrible thing if it did happen...)