Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Herbal Medicine: The Elder Queen

Black Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis
©William Needham, The Hiker's Notebook

No doubt you've heard about how "the flu is worse than it has ever been" and "holy crapballs, you better give us your money and get a flu shot that contains mercury (Thimerosal preservative), could very well make you wretchedly sick (though they insist it doesn't), give you Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome (verified by the CDC) or narcolepsy (thanks swine flu jab)!!!!"

I have no doubt vaccines, like most things, started with good intentions.  Obviously nobody wants their children or themselves to die of any disease.  That would be heart breaking and earth shattering for anyone.  But far too many people have experienced first hand that permanently impairing their child's development or their own personal health--mental, physical, or both--for life is a cruel, debilitating, expensive and avoidable consequence in the case of vaccine induced "injuries."  Hence the turn around in the status quo attitude about vaccinations as they are presently administered.  This shift has led to the awful backlash from the vaccine industry labeling anyone who refuses a vaccination as a "threat to society," "dangerous" and a "child abuser" among other ridiculous, bullying, false accusations.

So what if you don't want a shot and you get the influenza virus this year?  Or let's say you do get the shot and you still contract the flu...are you helpless?  At the mercy of fate?  Is there anything you can do?  Is there anything that can shorten the life of the virus?

Smile and rejoice, because the answer is a delicious YES!  Elderberry, the tasty fruit of the Elder Tree, Sambucus nigra, has been proven to kill the virus by disabling its ability to attach and replicate itself in cells, thus shortening the span of the illness drastically.  When I say drastically, I mean the duration is cut more than 50% if you begin taking it at the first sign of symptoms.  So we are talking 2-3 days of misery instead of 7 or more!!!  That deserves a little dance, don't you think?  Our American variety is Sambucus canadensis and is interchangeable, if not a little more medicinal than the European Sambucus nigra.  There is also a blue variety in the Pacific Northwest/West, Sambucus caerulea that may be used as well.

Blue Elderberry, Sambucus caerulea
©2005 Walter Siegmund

Scientific studies seem to not have explored taking Elderberry every day as a preventative, but tradition in Folk Medicine holds that you may do so effectively.  1 tsp. of Elderberry syrup a day is regarded as the generally effective preventative dose for an adult.  Some people make Elderberry jelly and put it on their toast at breakfast.

Elderberry is antiviral, active against the influenza viruses (flu), rhinoviruses (colds) and herpes simplex viruses (cold sores and their below-the-belt equivalent).  The berries of the black variety are a dark purple, indicating their high anthocyanin level.  Anthocyanins are pigments that are antioxidants, and Elderberries far surpass the antioxidant capacity of blueberries, cranberries and most other fruits!  The seeds are slightly toxic but are rendered safe during cooking.  The flowers have no toxicity in any stage.  People make Elderberry pies and jams.  Jellies, wines and syrups are also made.  All of these have the medicinal properties of the berries.

The flowers are also antiviral and they have the benefit of being diaphoretic, which means they will produce or break a fever, as necessary.  You may be familiar with the liqueur's made with Elder flowers!

Elder Flowers

Elderberry syrup is safe to take during pregnancy, is safe for babies (baby doses) and the elderly.  In fact, the lore of the Elder Tree is that it is ruled by the Elder Mother, who guards the gates of Life and Death.  She is the Queen who reigns over the Underworld.  When you think about the flu, those particularly vulnerable to die from the illness are babies, the elderly and the infirmed.  Typically it is not the flu, but its secondary infection friend, pneumonia, that kills in these cases.  The Elder Mother offers her medicinal protection against the primary illness to these fragile people with her berries and flowers.

The bark of the Elder Tree is mildly toxic.  Please do not use it internally as medicine.  It once was a common practice to make a flute from the hollow branches, though making children's cradles out of the Elder Tree was considered foolish, because it was believed that the Elder Mother would steal your baby's life away in the night for cutting down her tree.  There is a variety of Elder, Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa) that is toxic with red berries.  Red Elder is not safe for use of any kind--flute, syrup or otherwise.

There are many versions of Elderberry syrup on the market today which you can find at any health food store.  Store bought syrups taste fair, but they are delicious if you make them at home with cinnamon, ginger and honey.  At the store you can also find tinctures of Elderberries, Elder Flowers, and teas.  Jams are sold, wines, and liqueurs, though they are harder to find.

Every year when my daughter has started with a runny nose, I have given her Elderberry syrup.  So far, both times it has happened, the runny nose was gone within 24-48 hours and no other symptoms developed.  When she was under one I would take Elderberry syrup as a preventative through the winter and she would get it through my milk.

A guideline for dosing of syrup when you have contracted a cold or the flu is 1 Tbs for a teenager/adult, every 2-3 hours for the first two days, and then cut back to 1 tsp 3-5 times a day until symptoms are gone.  For children ages 2-10 would be around 1 tsp. 3-4 times a day at onset, then cut back to 1/2 tsp. 3-4 times a day, the more frequent dosing for older children.  You can also follow the dosing on the bottle (which tends to be around 1 tsp., 3-5 times a day) but I think it best to take higher doses for the first couple of days as the virus has had plenty of time to incubate and take hold before symptoms appeared, unbeknownst to you. Mothers of newborn babes can take the syrup at adult dosing levels and the babies will receive it through her breast milk.  It is a safe and effective form of administration.  Babies around 12-23 mos. can have 1/4 tsp 2-3 times a day.

Keep in mind dosing can be flexible, especially for older children and adults.  A slice of Elderberry pie is obviously much more than the equivalent of a few teaspoons of syrup a day and is completely safe to eat.

It is important to remember that children under 1 are not supposed to have honey.

I also recommend the homeopathic Oscillococcinum.  One year I had that but not Elderberry syrup on hand and it was very successful at alleviating symptoms.  There is also a coupon on their website! Yeahhh rock on.

I hope this flu season is now a little less scary for you.  If you'd like to learn about more antivirals, how to make syrup, or make it formulated to alleviate a variety of cold and flu symptoms, please sign up for the Cold & Flu Herbal Care Intensive that I am teaching at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio!  You can read more details under the post Herbal Medicine Courses for Winter/Spring Semester 2013.

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Sumac
Staghorn Sumac
When I say the word, "Sumac" many of you might think "poisonous!"  In fact, Rhus vernix, or Poison Sumac, is just one species in a large genus that contains many safe and medicinal varieties such as Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) and others of the red berried nature.

So let's get to the $1,000,000 question, how do you differentiate the poisonous variety?  There is a lot of confusion out there if you google pictures on the internet.  Knowing your plant ID is important, and Sumac makes it very easy for us to differentiate the poisonous plant from the non-toxic ones by the berries.  Poison Sumac fruits greenish-white berries that are sparsely scattered together. The safe varieties produce red berries in compact, clustered heads.  White berries are often (not always) a trademark of toxic plants--Poison Ivy bears white berries too.  "Berries of white, take flight" is an old adage.  Poison Sumac also enjoys mucky, swampy areas while other varieties tend to grow along roadsides, field edges and wood lines.
Poison Sumac

Poison sumac has an acrid sap that causes contact dermatitis.  Upon exposure and depending on your sensitivity, as with Poison Ivy, one can have an obnoxious rash or a more severe allergic reaction.  So it's best to know what species of sumac you are dealing with before clearing the landscape and especially before making medicine.

Let's talk about 3 of the varieties of safe, red-berried Sumac I mentioned earlier:  Smooth, Staghorn, and Winged.  Smooth Sumac is named such because the red berries are smooth.  Staghorn and Winged Sumacs have red, fuzzy berries.  Staghorn Sumac got its name because it grows very tall, bold, with the berry head growing in an upright fashion like antlers.  Matthew Wood points out that Sumac growing on the edge of the woods where the deer hang out classifies it as a "deer medicine"--a kidney medicine.  Winged Sumac derives its name from the leafy "wings" that grow along the branch between leaflets, kind of like a flying squirrel's "wings".

The red berries are tangy and delicious, containing malic acid that is found in apples and can be used to make a delicious, lemonade-like tea.  Because it is water soluble, a heavy rain will wash away all the taste (and most of the medicinal attributes), so one harvests the ripe berries before the rain comes or after it has been dry for a while.  However, if it is towards the end of the season and a big rain comes, you can say goodbye to harvesting for the year.  I postponed picking Sumac once and a hurricane came through.  After waiting about two weeks afterwards and it had been relatively dry, every single red Sumac cluster I could find was absolutely tasteless. 

If you look at the anatomy of the berry, especially that of Smooth Sumac, it looks like a red blood cell.  This is our first clue to one of Sumac's main medicines.  The red exterior is a blood red tacky, tangy, almost oily covering hiding a perfectly kidney shaped, tiny black seed.  So, blood and the kidneys, what is the connection there?  Sumac is superbly helpful in kidney anemia as was taught to me by Phyllis Light.  Sumac helps build blood because its action on the kidneys encourages them to release the hormone erythropoietin.  Erythropoietin is made by the kidneys and signals your bone marrow to produce more red blood cells.  

Phyllis also teaches that it brings the element of earth into watery conditions.  Indeed, Sumac will stop excess of fluids from the sinuses, armpits if you sweat too much, heavy menstrual flow, excessive salivary secretions or urination, etc.  Earth dams water.  She also considers it a great substitute for Elderberry with influenza and often combines the two together.  Sumac also helps the loss of water/diarrhea side of the flu.

The tangy Sumac berry is still used widely in the Middle East as a spice and seasoning.  So here, once again we have a food that can be medicine.  It is delicious on meat, in salad dressings, and makes a delicious infused vinegar if you macerate it in apple cider vinegar.  It is great to add in jellies or jam.  The tang of the Sumac cuts the sweetness of the sugar content and creates a more complex and satisfying flavor.  Herbal medicine can certainly compliment and boost your culinary skills to manage not just food's flavor profile but also your personal nutrition and health better.

Maybe you will be interested to see what types of Sumac grow near you!  The berries redden and ripen near the end of August, give or take a couple of weeks depending on your location.  There are male and female plants and only the females produce the berries.  Maybe this year you can safely enjoy this plant that the Native Americans used and cultures around the world still employ in their daily lives.

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Alehoof


Also known as Ground Ivy and Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea is my all time favorite yard herb and I believe quite possibly the most under used and invaluable herb today.  Also not found on the market anywhere.  It is often found sprawling over your garden beds and under bushes and pine trees.  Ground Ivy is a familiar face with a very familiar musty, menthol scent.  One man had a spark of recognition as he smelled the crushed leaves I handed him and said, "Oh!!  That reminds me of playing football when I was a kid and having my face smashed in the dirt!"

I personally remember it from my childhood and running through fields with my cousins with little baggies looking to make perfume.  We picked any stinky plant we could find.  Mainly Ground Ivy.  It was the prevailing scent anyway.

Ground Ivy grows year round, only disappearing if there is a really harsh winter.  It will tolerate being buried in the snow for a long time.  The only time I've seen it disappear for good in the winter was in Massachusetts, but then again we were constantly buried under 4 feet of compacted snow there, so I really can't say if it went away fully.  You will often see it growing with Violet.  They like each other and the same environs.  It loves temperate, tree laden regions though it will sport itself in the sunshine if the ground retains enough moisture.  It grows from Oregon to Virginia and most places in between and beyond.

Ground Ivy has square stems, being in the mint family.  It blooms in the springtime and there seem to be plants that carry male flowers and those that carry female flowers.  The flower is pretty, light purple and looks like a person hanging their head down in a weary fashion.  The male flower's anthers form two unique white X's affixed to the upper petal (the "head" of the figurative flower person), one where sinuses would be and another father down on the throat.  X marks the spot as I see it.  

This plant is fabulous for sinus infections and is a sustainable and more gentle alternative to Goldenseal.  It will dry up a post nasal drip that is causing a sore throat.  I really enjoy it during allergy season to control rhinitis.  It is cooling and sops up all that snot.  

Widely regarded as safe, Ground Ivy has been employed to treat a plethora of conditions throughout history.  It is a panacea of sorts. 

Like many medicinal plants, it has been used as a food, the leaves eaten fresh in a nice green mix salad.  Maude Grieve in her Modern Herbal points out that French peasants ate a little "hairy tumor" found on the leaves sometimes in the fall, which she notes has a concentrated flavor of the plant.  This reminds me of Chaga mushroom on Birch trees, which extracts the cancer-and-other-disease-fighting betulinic acid from the wood, which otherwise would not be digestible by humans, into its fruiting body.  Whatever fungus it is that makes the growths on the Ground Ivy leaf seems to do something similar--concentrate its medicinal powers.  So if you come across some leaves with little "hairy tumors" don't cringe--rejoice!  It's edible, and probably twice as medicinal. (Update July 2013:  So this past Spring I noticed these tumors growing on some Ground Ivy and I got all exited.  Most had a red flush to them which I found interesting.  They were really almost crunchy, best when tender and small, but if large were tough, fibrous, pithy... over all unappetizing.  And also, I discovered that this tumor is not caused by a fungus as I had assumed, but by a little grub that is not noticeable in the small stage.  HAHA oh man...I chalked it up to eating "more protein".......and maybe still get a little grossed out that I ate that.  I don't even know what kind of worm it was!  Whatever, they eat insects all over the world so.......  I can say that the small nodules were very high in the unique essential oils of Ground Ivy, and that would make sense as it would be a defense response of the plant.  The larger ones were worn out if you will, over all lacking in menthol and flavor.  Also, the little worms, as they get bigger are encompassed in a tiny, circular, almost impenetrable dark shell unless you exert good force to crack it...I imagine it is produced by the plant but am not sure.  Maybe the worm does it?  The little plant tumor on the whole looks like fibrous tissue, and I would take it to be a rather significant signature for fibrous tumors or fibrous/knotted tissues in the body, perhaps particularly if caused by a pathogen re: warts? something?  I would be keen to know if it would have any affect on such conditions.  The red flush  atop the tumor could indicate heat, or blood, or both.  Makes me think of piles.

.....Alas, I'd really like to know what that little grub is.)

Ground Ivy bears the name Alehoof because it was used to give ale a better flavor, preserve and clarify it.  "Better flavor? But--it's stinky," you say?  Well, I can say a tincture of it in brandy is actually rather delicious!  Its flavors practically transform into minty, stimulating deliciousness.  So one of these days, I'll make some beer and add Ground Ivy.  They used to use a lot of different herbs in beer, making it more stimulating and, dare I say psychedelic, until the Protestant Reformation came along and sedating Hops were promoted as a preservative in place of the other herbs.  Thanks for that one...Hops also has full blown replicas of estrogen which makes things grow--bad for beer bellies and swollen prostates in middle aged men.

Among Ground Ivy's more wonderful powers is its ability to remove soft heavy metals from the body that accumulate.  It was employed with great success for Painter's Poisoning, or lead colic, during the lead paint days.  Perhaps that's useful to know today given the mercury laden light bulbs and flu shots being pushed on the masses.

It is wonderful for colic in babies, and their fussy digestive pains in general.  When I had my daughter, I started out using Catnip for her digestive complaints which is frequently used for babies' tummy troubles, but when I switched to Ground Ivy the difference was remarkable.  It worked much, much better for my baby and seemed to have a nice, soothing effect overall.

Ground Ivy has a history of use in cancer and in modern preliminary studies on the essential oil, the non-toxic but powerful insecticidal Gleheda (a lectin, or sugar-binding protein)  "preferentially agglutinates" to red blood cells carrying the Tn antigen.  Cancer cells are known to carry the Tn antigen.

The juice of the leaf applied to the eyes has a long historical use for clearing up cataracts in humans and animals.

Anyway, I could go on, but this is probably a good place to stop for today.

Now go, make friends with Ground Ivy!!

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Herbal Medicine: The Tooth of the Lion

If you want to start learning herbal medicine, look no further than your front yard.  Perhaps you have "been at war with the weeds" and every year expressed frustration and anger at the relentless, sunshine-y flowers and toothy leaves of the much ill-scorned dandelion.  It is interesting that Dandelion can evoke anger, I've watch extended family have really harsh reactions to seeing a Dandelion cropping up in their sidewalk or yard, but that speaks to the plant's medicine:  a liver herb!  In Chinese medicine the emotion of the liver is anger.

It never ceases to baffle me when I think of how modern American society has been indoctrinated to think that a good lawn consists of nothing but the greenest grass pampered with scores of chemical fertilizers and pesticides contributing to the pollution of our land and waters with nitrates and exogenous estrogens.  But that's a big topic for different day.

I will go back to the concept of a "healthy" lawn.  When you learn that many of the weeds in your yard are actually powerful medicines and often foods, suddenly the idea of a "healthy" lawn ties the health of your organism to that of the ecosystem that is your yard and beyond.  Disclaimer here that some plants can be toxic or deadly, so it's good to know them as well, and be positive of your plant ID, for obvious reasons.  But like so many herbalists often do, I'm going to start you with Dent de Lion, or the Tooth of the Lion, otherwise known as Dandelion.

Dandelion is a food, and has been for as long as man has been around to eat it.  Many cultures still consume Dandelion greens and Italian immigrants to the US have not forgotten this practice.  You eat the greens in spring and fall, but the summertime heat lends them an unpalatable bitterness.  They are great in a salad.  The greens are high in potassium and contain sodium and many other minerals.  Dandelion is a diuretic, so the fact that the greens contain potassium is invaluable as the potassium is not leached from your body when diuresis is stimulated.  The French have another pet name for this herb: pissenlit, or piss in the bed.  So don't give it to your kids before bed!

The root is often roasted and used in place of coffee, usually combined with chicory root.  This combination does not contain caffeine, but both being liver herbs gets your liver energy up and moving to get you going for the day.  Dandelion helps regulate stomach acid and its action on the liver stimulates the flow of bile- helping digest fats, and its cholagogue action helps move stagnant bile from the gall bladder.  It is excellent for gallbladder pains and gas pains.  So if you have emotional life events you have held onto (bile=anger (bilious, anyone?) and is stored in the gallbladder), Dandelion is the gentle mover to relax and release the literally stored tension.

When I take Dandelion root tea, then next night I have dreams of moving water in childhood settings, or moving water juxtaposed with characters from my past that caused issues I struggled with at the time.  In dreams water represents the subconscious and emotion, stagnant water is stagnant emotion, flowing water is emotion that is moving healthily.  I think it speaks to Dandelion's gentle and marvelous ability to release stored and stuck bile, and is a testament to the mind-body-spirit relationship that plant medicine--living medicine, helps restore to balance.

Dandelion moves damp heat from the digestion, which can be one of the trickier issues to resolve.  In fact, damp heat can cause the back up of bile; hot, damp, inflamed tissue keeps the ducts from working properly.  Next thing your know, your liver isn't releasing as much bile as it needs to and then you aren't digesting your fats properly and then--oh then--no one wants to talk about the gas, pains......farts.  Embarassing.  And the inflamed tissue can also prevent the downward action of digestion, and acid reflux develops!!  And then you take an antacid which suppresses your acid production and keeps you from absorbing calcium properly and then---oh well, you see how these things can develop I think.

Like other liver herbs, Dandelion helps skin complaints, speaking to its alterative nature.

The flowers are useful as well and are used without the calyx (it's bitter) to make wine, I've even found a recipe for them in hushpuppies which was tasty.

In the store you might find a tincture of Dandelion roots, or of the leaves, or of the whole plant.  The leaves are more diuretic, the roots act more on the liver and gallbladder, the entire plant is a fabulous synergistic whole.  Of course, you can always do what Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine said and "Let your medicine be your food and your food, medicine."

I think he was very wise.

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Image source:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Herbal Medicine 
Courses for Winter/Spring Semester 2013

What people are saying...

"Very organized.  Great notebook reference that comes with the class.  Will suggest to others."

"It's so nice to finally be able to take a course in herbal medicine!  Branwen was extremely informative of the content, made the material very interesting and was very organized.  I look forward to the next course!"  --Alexandra

Classes are held in the Art Studio Front Room of the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio.  Per the Center’s policy, classes must be paid in full prior to the start date.  Checks or money orders are made payable to the instructor, Carla Hunolt.

You may register for classes at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center’s website:

Cold and Flu Herbal Care Intensive

This is a two part class divided between the first and third Saturday of February 2013 when winter is not quite over--cold and flu season will still be going!  Come and learn how to take the misery out of these common viral ailments.

Class one covers herbs traditionally used to alleviate colds and the flu, as well as common secondary infections that may accompany them.  Class two will be Q&A and hands on medicine making of syrup and tea to take home.

Class notes will be provided but you may want to bring a pen or pencil and paper to do some extra note taking.

Ages 16 and up
Saturday, February 2    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, February 16    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Class $100 + $30 Class Supply Fee = Total $130

Beginner’s Introduction to Herbal Medicine:  A Comprehensive Course

This is a 6 part course for the beginning student who wants to learn about traditional herbal medicine in depth. Here we take the lessons of a typical 9 month Foundations course and condense it into a serious study, without the 4 digit cost. 

We will cover forms of administration, tissue states, properties of applicable herbs, digestive, allergy and wound care as well as make remedies to take home.  Remedies will include tinctures, tea, vinegars and a salve.  We will cover tongue diagnosis and more.  There will also be a plant walk in May!  Class notes will be provided but please bring a pen or pencil and paper to do some extra note taking.

This class is fitting for anyone who wants to learn about how plants work in the body, is mystified and confused standing in the supplement isles at health food stores, and/or would like to be empowered with a foundation for caring naturally for their basic health and that of their loved ones.

Ages 21 and up
Saturday, March 2    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 16    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 6    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 13    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, May 4    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Saturday, May 18    10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

Class $300 + $75 Class Supply Fee = Total $375

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

 Henry David Thoreau 

About the Instructor

Carla “Branwen” Hunolt

Growing up on a small farm in the country, I have always had an appreciation for the different ways the Earth supports life.  6 years ago, I had the opportunity to embark on the study of Western Herbal Medicine.  It was a time of great expansion, transformation and excitement.  The plants continue to influence and affect my life every day.

I am a graduate of the clinical Community Herbalist program at Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, VA and have studied with Appalachian Herbalist Phyllis Light.  I am blessed to be married to a man who is also an herbalist and for 19 years has worked on all sides of the industry.  My quest continues through the inexhaustible world of plant medicines by studying texts from some of the great and forward thinking Western herbalists of modern day as well as the Folk, Native American, Renaissance era and Eclectic traditions.

My desire is to share the wisdom of the ages with those who seek to remember what our modern culture has forgotten.

“Surely it makes a garden more romantic and wonderful to know that…every flower in the garden from the first Snowdrop to the Christmas Rose, are not only there for man’s pleasure but have their compassionate use in his pain.” 

Hilda Leyel, Founder of the Society of Herbalists