This time of year as you walk around our city streets, you’re very likely to come across a beautiful tree filled with creamy white, fragrant flowers. Its aroma is so gorgeous that it makes both bees and hurried city folk slow down their pace.
This tree, which tends to go unnoticed when it's not in flower, is our graceful linden (Tilia americana). We are fortunate to have many lindens in our neighborhood — there are even a few streets named after this beauty. Linden makes for an excellent city tree due to its ability to tolerate pollution and harsh urban environments. In addition, it is also an important food source for bees, a wonderful shade tree, and — with its heart-shaped leaves and delightful flowers — brings beauty wherever it grows.
Not surprisingly, linden is one of my favorite herbs to give to people. It has many healing virtues and is also a very safe and gentle remedy for people of all ages and constitutions. In Europe, it was traditionally used in baths for young children before bed to help them have a sound night’s sleep. Stressed-out adults can also benefit immensely from a linden bath.
But if a bath is not for you, a cup of linden tea will do the trick. Well-loved for its soothing properties, it is one of the herbalist’s favorite relaxing nervines, meaning that it helps to soothe and calm the nervous system. It truly is useful for any kind of anxiety or tension, whether it manifests as headaches, nervous tension, restlessness, tense muscles, or poor sleep. I mix it into bed-time blends to help people unwind after a long day and prepare for a deep night’s sleep. Even though linden is so gentle, I have personally found it to be a profound herb for anyone needing better sleep. It mixes beautifully with other relaxing herbs such as oats, skullcap or lavender. Linden seems to have an ability to help you feel how tired you truly are, so that you can finally get the sleep you need.
Beyond its wonderful soothing qualities, linden is a plant that supports a healthy heart. As noted above, linden helps to relax us when we are feeling tense, so it has traditionally been used for the emotional causes behind hypertension and heart palpitations. With its supportive, opening and calming properties linden can help to address emotional issues and stress that may manifest as physical imbalances.
Linden is also a demulcent herb: high in mucilage it imparts a cooling and soothing quality on dry and irritated tissues. This soothing, anti-inflammatory action works on both our internal tissues and our external skin - you use it as a wash or a compress on itchy or inflamed skin.
This beautiful, gentle tree has so much to offer us: from anxiety and stress, to tense hearts and minds, to troubled sleep - it is is a beautiful balm that grows right on our city streets.
Calendula is a quintessential summertime herb – its flowering reaches its peak during the warmest months, and its orange and yellow blossoms look like small suns. Which is exactly why calendula is such an agreeable herb for this time of year, when we all could do with a bit more sunshine, warmth, and color amidst our dark New England days. In the depths of winter, calendula flowers are a saving grace with their brightly colored petals, and their virtues steeped in hot cups of tea.
Like many of our commonly used herbs, Calendula officinalis originates from the Mediterranean region. But due to its hardy temperament, abundant seeding habits, and lovely flowers, it is grown wherever there are gardeners and herbalists familiar with its qualities. Its genus name Calendula relates to its prolific blooming habits, where in the right climate, could produce flowers in every calendar month. Although it is technically an annual plant, this past fall I brought my potted calendula inside to continue its growth under grow-lights, and it has continued to amaze me with its vigor. It has put on new growth and bloomed throughout the whole winter, showing no signs of letting up.
The second part of its scientific name, officinalis, denotes that it is a plant that has an established history of use in herbal medicine. Indeed, calendula is still known and loved for its healing qualities by the modern herbalist. As a lymphatic herb, it stimulates lymphatic drainage, and increases the elimination of waste products from the body. A healthy lymphatic system corresponds to a strong immune system, which is especially important during a long winter, when we are all more prone to colds and flu. Last winter, for instance, I experienced a long-lasting cold that I just could not seem to shake. I took elderberry syrup and rosehip tea, drank bone broths and chicken soup, and slept a lot. But this time, I felt that something else was needed… So I turned to my herb cabinet to locate some summer-dried calendula flowers and steeped them for a long while in a pot of water on my stove. I drank this dark-hued, golden tea, feeling as if it were liquid sunshine, a brew so strong it was almost bitter. My body seemed happy for it, the cold went away shortly, and indeed my mood – after a few melancholic days – lifted.
It was a ray of light during a time of sickness and the winter blues.
Calendula mixes nicely with other herbs, but I would recommend trying it on its own first. Or, you can add a handful of the flower heads to pots of soup or broth as it simmers, which is a traditional way to boost the immunity during the winter months.
Beyond its internal applications, calendula is also renowned for its use as a topical wound healer and balm for the skin. The orange petals have been shown to help wounds heal faster, and increase blood flow and oxygen to the damaged area, helping the body grow new tissue. It has been used with great success as an infused oil or salve in cases of skin inflammation and eczema. A poultice or balm of calendula petals can also help reduce the pain of insect stings and swelling.
If you are growing calendula in your garden, save the dried seeds in the fall to sow the following spring. In the summer harvest the newly-opened and vibrant flower heads and notice the sticky resin covering the calyx, where much of its medicinal goodness resides. Dry these flowers on a screen or on brown paper bags for a few days until completely dry, then store in a glass jar out of the sunlight to use throughout the autumn and winter months. It’s like bottling up the energy of the summer sun to use during darker days.
How to Use:
To make a simple Calendula tea, steep 1 Tblsp. of the dried flowers in one mug of boiled water, covered, for at least 10 minutes. Strain and drink.
To use Calendula in soups or broths, simply add a handful of the dried flower blossoms to any broth or stock that you are making and allow the petals to infuse while the broth is cooking for at least an hour. Strain and use in any soup recipe.
Please Note: Calendula is a member of the Aster (Asteraceae) plant family, which may cause allergic reactions in some people. If you are allergic to Chamomile or other Aster plants, use calendula with caution.
Winter Gladness Tea
This is a perfect mid-winter blend, because it is uplifting, gently aromatic, and full of cheery colors! Sometimes I will add in other herbs such as elderberries or orange peel, but the basic recipe is below - use it as is, or get creative and adjust to your own taste.
This recipe will make 8 - 10 servings.
4 Tbsp. Holy Basil
2 Tbsp. Rose Petals
1 Tbsp. Hibiscus
1 Tbsp. Rosehips
1 Tbsp. Calendula
Use 1/2 - 1 Tablespoon of this tea blend per mug of hot water. Let steep at least 10 minutes, covered. Strain and add honey if desired.
Calendula & Rose Skin Salve
Adding beeswax to an infused calendula and rose oil creates a beautiful salve that can be used topically on dry, winter hands, minor cuts, or patches of eczema. If you add essential oils to your blend you can also create a wonderfully aromatic salve that makes for a lovely gift.
There are a few different methods for making infused herbal oils, but the crockpot method is my favorite and seems to produce the best oil extractions.
1 cup dried calendula flowers
1 cup dried rose flowers (pink or red)
3 cups organic olive oil (or other cold-pressed oil)
~ ¾ cup beeswax pellets
Place the dried calendula and rose petals in a small crockpot. Cover with the oil. Turn the crockpot to low and let steep for at least 4 hours. If at any point the oil starts to simmer and bubble, turn the crockpot off to allow the oil to cool down, and then turn it back on to low. I often do this over the course of 2 to 3 days, turning the crockpot on and off repeatedly, to allow for maximum extraction of the herbs without over-cooking them in the oil.
Strain out the herbs and measure the remaining infused oil. In a double boiler on the stove, mix together the oil and beeswax pellets, combining over low heat. The general rule of thumb is to use ¼ the amount of beeswax to oil, but this can be adjusted according to how soft or hard you want the final salve to be. Check for consistency by placing a spoonful of the combined oil and beeswax in the freezer – in a few minutes you will be able to check its texture; if it is too soft, add more beeswax, if it is too hard, add more oil.
Remove the mixture from the stove and add in 40 – 80 drops of your chosen essential oil(s). Carefully pour into tins or glass containers and allow to set.
This post was originally published on the Cambridge Naturals Blog.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) is a somewhat obscure herb that many people have never heard of before. Although it is indeed a relative newcomer to the Western herbalist’s pharmacopeia, it has been known, used, and loved by traditional Chinese herbal practitioners for thousands of years. A native of Asia, schisandra is a woody vine that produces bright red fruits at the end of summer; these fruits are then harvested and utilized for their extensive medicinal properties.
But before we get into the medicinal uses of the unique schisandra berry, let’s talk about its taste…
As I write this I am chewing on several dried berries and it’s as if a thousand sour fireworks went off in my mouth. Whew! To say that this plant is extremely flavorful is an understatement! I can taste the acutely sour and bitter notes as well as a peppery pungent taste.
Chinese practitioners call it wu wei zi or “fruit of five flavors”, noting that schisandra incorporates all of the five tastes (sour, salty, bitter, sweet and pungent). Because of this distinctive quality it was thought to be an especially important tonic medicine.
In classes I always remind my herbal students that a good way to become better acquainted with a new herb is to tune into its taste. Although we may not realize this simple fact, our taste buds can actually give us a lot of important information about a plant, i.e., how potent it is and how it could make us feel.
Schisandra is a great example of how our tongue can give us clues about a plant’s medicinal action in the body. For instance, when I taste a few dried schisandra berries I immediately feel more awake and invigorated. The intense and sour taste is incredibly stimulating to my tongue (and, for lack of a better word, is very zing-y).
It also clears away all other tastes and leaves my palate feeling cleansed. You can imagine that if this tart, little berry has such an invigorating and clearing effect on the tissues of the tongue, that it might have a very similar action on the rest of the body’s tissues and organs…
Which indeed it does, according to traditional Chinese medicine where schisandra has been an important tonic herb for centuries – used to prolong life, slow the aging process, and increase stamina and energy levels. It was also believed that when used consistently over time, schisandra berry would cause one’s physical appearance to remain youthful.
Scientific studies have validated the age-old regard for this plant, confirming that schisandra can help to reduce fatigue and also support mental concentration. Try chewing on a few dried berries or drinking the tea when you need to study for long periods of time or do focused work. The taste stimulates the mind and helps to keep your concentration steady and focused.
Schisandra is also what we would call an adaptogenic herb, meaning that it helps to reduce mental and physical stress, increase energy, and enhance physical performance when taken over time. Not surprisingly, these qualities make it a great herb for athletes as it helps to increase endurance.
However, even if you aren’t an athlete but want to improve your overall energy levels, schisandra can be beneficial. Even better, like many deeply colored berries, schisandra contains many protective antioxidants that help to maintain healthy cells throughout the body and reduce inflammation.
Finally, another wonderful virtue of this plant is that it supports the liver. Schisandra is a hepatoprotective (liver-protecting) herb. It also exerts a gentle detoxifying action – remember how it makes your palate feel refreshed and cleansed? It has this same purifying effect for the liver, too.
How to Use Schisandra:
· To make schisandra berry tea at home, simmer 1 to 2 Tblsp. of the dried berries in 2 cups of water in a small, covered saucepan for 15 to 20 minutes. This will yield a much more medicinal and flavorful cup of tea than simply pouring boiled water over the herb.
· Try using schisandra tea as an unconventional, but very effective, coffee alternative for an early morning jumpstart, or a caffeine-free energy boost in the afternoon.
· Schisandra blends well with other herbal fruits such as hawthorn, elderberry and rosehips. You can also try substituting schisandra berry in any tea blend that would call for hibiscus.
· Schisandra is also readily available in tincture form, which is convenient when you aren’t able to make a cup of tea.
· Or, just chew on a few dried berries to reap schisandra’s benefits: start with one or two and work your way up.
This article was originally posted on Cambridge Natural's blog.
As an urban dwelling herbalist I like to focus on the issues and challenges that city folks face in their day-to-day lives. Obviously for many people high stress levels due to the demands of modern, fast-paced, caffeine-fueled living are on ongoing problem. Many of us have nervous systems that are depleted and/or over-stimulated which makes us prone to overwhelm, anxiety, and just plain exhaustion.
Of course there are many factors that should be addressed when you are feeling stressed and frazzled, involving adequate sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and making sure you have enough joy and connection in your life.
So how do herbs fit into all of this?
Can drinking a cup of herbal tea or taking a tincture really make any difference in the midst of a hectic day?
Here are three of my favorite herbs for worn out, highly-strung city dwellers whose nervous systems are in need of some love.
This common garden plant is known more for its culinary uses than its medicinal properties, but little do most people know what a treasure trove this herb is. There’s an old saying, “Why should a man die when sage grows in his garden?”…referring to the belief that sage promotes a long and healthy life.
Personally I find sage to be one of the best plants to help me immediately feel calm if I am nervous or anxious. The tea is highly aromatic and comforting, soothing to both the mind and the digestive organs (much of the nervous system is in fact housed in the gut). Sage essential oil can be used (diluted) to calm an over-active or overwhelmed mind, or inhaled before meditation to help you stay centered and focused. Traditionally sage was believed to have the ability to enhance inner wisdom and insight, thus one who is wise is called a “sage.”
Besides being a wonderfully calming cup of tea, sage can also be used in cases of stress-induced headaches, and may also be useful for some people who have sleep issues due to anxiety.
To make a strong cup of sage tea use up to 1 Tblsp. dried herb per cup of hot water. Let steep for 10 minutes. Add a spoonful of honey if you wish. The essential oil of sage can be diluted in a liquid spray and spritzed to impart its calmative properties.
Sage should be avoided during pregnancy, but soon-to-be mamas can benefit from our next herb…
Oats are incredibly nourishing. You probably know them as the hot morning cereal that has been an important staple crop of Northern European peoples for centuries. But besides being a nourishing food for the whole body they are specifically nourishing for the nervous system. Oats are a trophorestorative herb, which simply means that they feed nervous tissue and help to restore normal nerve function and vitality.
A tea or tincture of milky oats helps people to come back from nervous exhaustion and over-work. Oats help calm frayed or shattered nerves, and ease anxiety and emotional instability. Truly, this is one of my absolute favorite herbs for it is so gentle but so powerful at the same time and makes a noticeable difference for anyone who is stressed, constantly upset, overly sensitive or depleted and worn out. Herbalists have also used oats successfully to help calm the agitation from coffee or cigarette withdrawal.
If using the tincture, be sure to look for Milky Oat tincture, which means that the oats where harvested at a time when the seed yields a milky substance when crushed – this is where much of its nutritional and medicinal value lies.
If making a tea, use one big handful of the dried oat tops per quart of water. Pour boiled water over the herb and let steep overnight to extract as much of the medicinal qualities as possible.
One word of caution about oat – while it is one of the safest and most gentle of herbs, it may not be suitable for people who have severe gluten intolerance due to cross-contamination from gluten-containing grains.
TULSI or HOLY BASIL
Ocimum sanctum and O. tenuiflorum
Recently tulsi has become the darling of many Western herbalists, and for good reason – in Ayurvedic tradition it has been a revered herb for thousands of years, called the “elixir of life” and used for everything from respiratory problems to beautifying the complexion to keeping evil influences away from the home. Western herbalists now know and love this herb (a close cousin of culinary basil) for its use as an adaptogen, which is a technical way of saying that it helps us adapt to and overcome everyday stress.
Like sage, tulsi is great for anxiety and overwhelm and will help you to RELAX. Used over time it can also increase energy and endurance. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that tulsi will move an individual towards whole health and vitality, protect against disease and gladden the heart. Overall it is a wonderful (and delicious!) herb that will gently reduce feelings of stress and is a delicious addition to your tea stash.
To make a strong cup of tulsi use up to 1 Tblsp. of dried herb per cup of water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes. Tulsi also makes a wonderful iced tea during the summer months – keep a pitcher in the fridge to drink throughout the day.
Try your hand at incorporating one or all three of these herbs into your life, and see how they support you during busy, stressful times. I’d love to know how they work for you – feel free to let me know in the comments below!
There are so many amazing – and usually overlooked -- plants that grow right at our doorsteps, in sidewalk cracks, and throughout abandoned city lots. Many of these plants, often condemned as “weeds”, are in fact wonderful examples of how plants can survive, and even thrive, in the harshest of growing conditions. Have you ever wondered how those tenacious dandelions manage to grow in sidewalks where soil and water are not easy to come by?....
Many of these so-called weeds are medicinal herbs that possess healing properties or are nutrient-rich wild foods. Humans have had a relationship with these plants for centuries, using them to stay healthy, strong and nourished.
So here’s a brief run down of four of my favorite urban street plants and their medicinal and edible uses:
With broad, fanning leaves and a stalk of magenta thistle-like flowers, burdock is a noticeable plant in many corners of Somerville. The root is much esteemed as a food and can be harvested in early spring or late fall to eat sautéed or roasted, much like carrots. It has a sweet, meaty flavor that is very fortifying. Medicinally burdock is a plant that is incredibly nourishing for the body and gradually helps to re-build overall strength and vitality, especially in cases where someone is depleted and run down from stress. It is also great for skin issues such as itchy, rashy skin, eczema and acne. Burdock helps to clear out toxins from the system (which can manifest as skin problems), and supports liver function. This herb is best taken consistently over the span of many months for noticeable results, as it is slowly building and nourishing.
The ubiquitous dandelion is found all over town. This cheerful yellow flower, the bane of many gardeners, blooms from early spring throughout the growing season. It seems that the more you try to weed it out, the more it will grow back. Dandelion is a persistent and prolific plant, but fortunately so, for it is one of the single most beneficial herbs for humankind. Both the leaves and the roots are used medicinally to support liver health. It is also a prime herb for digestion – with its very bitter taste it stimulates our gastric juices, prepares our bodies to digest food, and helps with the assimilation of fats and nutrients. I find that drinking a tea of dandelion over several days helps me feel fresh, happy and invigorated, as if my liver were thanking me for treating it so kindly. Dandelion leaves and flowers can both be added fresh to salads, a beautiful way to use the abundance of this plant during the growing season.
What an adaptable creature this humble weed is – you will see plantain growing in sidewalk cracks, waste lots, abandoned areas, places with poor soil, little soil, pollution, i.e. in places where most plants would not even think about growing. Fortunately for us this inconspicuous herb is a kind friend for humans, and many herbalists call it the Band-Aid plant or the First Aid plant. Indeed, plantain helps us with all sorts of minor issues and can be used topically as a poultice for wounds and scrapes, sunburn, itchy bug bites and even poison ivy. (It once helped me quite well with a bad case of poison ivy outbreak.) Next time you become mosquito food, try placing a crushed (or chewed up) plantain leaf on the area that has been bitten – see if you don’t notice that the itch and swelling is relieved almost immediately.
Mullein is a plant that you will see growing throughout much of the US, and although it is not a native plant it has now become naturalized throughout much of the country. Another name for this useful plant is Lungwort, which gives a clue that it has traditionally been used for all diseases of the lungs and upper respiratory system. It has helped people with asthma, coughs and pneumonia, mostly by use of an old-fashioned steam bath. Furthermore, the beautiful yellow flowers that bloom on the mullein stalk are still used to this day to treat ear infections, especially in children. This is one of my favorite plants, and at this time of year you can see the two-year-old mulleins blooming along the highways and in forgotten area.
When it comes to harvesting any plant material in the city, please do use your good judgement. Gather plants that you know are growing in clean areas, away from road traffic and pollution, and also consider the soil quality. As always, you want to be mindful of the health of the surrounding environment when you are collecting plants for edible or medicinal use. If you are unsure, do not collect. A win-win situation is to ask gardeners and farmers if you can come and collect their pesky (but useful) "weeds".
Happy plant harvesting!
This post was originally published on the Somerville Urban Ag blog
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) can now be spotted blooming along roadsides and railroad tracks, forest edges and in fields. This cheery plant, with yellow petals that embrace the sun, is one of my favorite herbs. Hypericum is a plant of ancient use, one that has been a protector and healer of people for centuries. Folklore dictates that the herb wards off evil influences and protects against harmful unseen forces.
While we may not use it in the same way as it once was, St. John’s Wort continues to offer physical, emotional and spiritual protection for modern humans living in a world with its own challenges and harmful influences.
In recent times St. John’s Wort has been popularized for its ability to lift the spirits and to alleviate mild depression and seasonal affective disorder. In my experience it is indeed very useful when one feels melancholic, especially in the deep winter months. It seems fitting that such bright yellow flowers would be uplifting in darker days, especially Hypericum flowers that start to bloom right at the peak of summer, when the days are longest. If you are someone who suffers from seasonal melancholy or from “the blues”, you might consider bringing this joyful, light-filled herb into your life.
St. John’s Wort also has a great affinity for the whole nervous system. In particular I have found it most remarkable for its ability to help with feelings of nervousness, anxiety and vulnerability. I have used both the flower essence and the tincture with very noticeable results to help myself feel protected, safe and centered when I otherwise would have felt anxious. In general, I find that St. John’s Wort is an amazing support for sensitive people who tend to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in new social situations, or who need to feel deeply more protected in order to express their true selves.
St. John's Wort is a slightly bitter herb, which makes it beneficial for the digestive organs by stimulating gastric juices and bile flow. It also affects the liver, speeding up the metabolic process and removing toxins from the system. And so, a word of caution when using Hypericum: if you are taking any pharmaceutical medications it is best to avoid use of this plant. St. John’s Wort increases the activity of liver enzymes that metabolize drugs so using this herb in combination with any medications is not recommended.
Traditionally, this beautiful plant has also been used externally as a wound healer. The infused medicinal oil, red from the crimson-hued juice of the flower buds, can be rubbed into the skin. This oil has been used with great success to help with the pain of burns, sore muscles, sciatica, damaged nerves, as well as the excruciating pain of shingles, which I have seen it work wonders for.
To experience for yourself the medicinal qualities of a St. John’s Wort plant that you come across, crush an unopened flower bud between your fingers. It will leave a deep red stain on your fingers. This pigment is the bioactive compound hypericin, where much of Hypericum’s medicine resides. Then, take one of the plant’s leaves and hold it up to the sunlight. Can you see small window-like holes in the leaf? This is another good way to identify the plant--not many leaves are able to let the sunlight shine right through them.
St. John’s Wort may be used in tea or tincture form, but remember that if you are on any medications ingesting the physical herb is not recommended. The infused medicinal oil can be used topically, and is a wonderful addition to any home apothecary for use on minor wounds, burns and sore muscles. As a flower essence St. John’s Wort is especially beneficial for sensitive people, providing emotional protection, healthy boundaries, and the ability to share one’s own unique inner light with others. This beautiful plant, so abundant at summertime, has many gifts to offer us. I encourage you to seek out St. John’s Wort and to welcome it’s joyful, healing qualities into your life.
Calendula blossoms are like small suns. Especially as they open up in water, their petals extend outwards from the center and uncurl into yellow rays. Likewise, in the depths of winter, calendula flowers are a saving grace with their cheerful faces, with their medicine steeped in hot cups of tea.
Recently I experienced a long-lasting cold that I could not seem to shake. I don’t get sick often, but when I do it tends to be significant – a signal from my body to ease up and simply rest. In these instances I try to curb my activities and slow down. I take elderberry and rosehip tea, drink bone broths and chicken soup, take hot showers, breathe in essential oils, sleep a lot. But this time, calendula spoke to me, quietly and persistently…. So I rummaged through my herb cabinet to locate some summer-dried flower heads and steeped them for a long while in a pot of water on my stove. I drank this dark-hued tea, feeling as if it were liquid sunshine, a brew so strong it was almost bitter. My body seemed happy for it, and indeed my mood, after a few melancholic days, lifted.
Calendula is known as a lymphatic herb, one that helps the lymph from getting stuck or stagnant. This is a useful thing during a long winter, when a bit of sunshine and movement are much needed. Calendula mixes nicely with other herbs, but I would recommend trying it on its own first. Or, you can add some of the flower heads to pots of soup or broth as it simmers along – a traditional way to avoid cold and flu during the winter months.
Calendula is a very prolific grower and blossoms almost continuously through the growing year, one of the reasons for its name, which comes from the fact that in many locales it flowers almost every calendar month. Save the dried seeds in the fall to sow the following spring. In the summertime, harvest newly-opened and vibrant flower heads and notice the sticky resin covering the calyx, where much of its medicinal goodness resides. Dry these flowers on a screen or on brown paper bags for a few days until completely dry, then store in a glass jar out of the sunlight to use throughout the autumn and winter months. It’s like bottling up the energy of the summer sun to use during darker days.