Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tree Medicine: Willows, the Utilitarians

Paul Strauss calls trees "the big herbs."  When folks think of herbal medicine, they often think of herbs as plants, about 1'-5' in height and do not realize many of the very trees they walk by have powerful attributes as well.  Today I am going to discuss willows.

White Willow, Salix alba

With wispy leaves and branches, a willow is mainly regarded as an enchanting tree we see growing along streams or ponds, the stuff of fairy tales and lore.  Remember the man-hungry Old Man Willow in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings??  Willows have an age old association with the Underworld.  There is far more to willow trees than just mystery and romance.  The instinctive notion that there is something mighty and powerful lurking in such a soft-wooded tree is correct.  Herbalists often talk about willows containing salicin, a plant hormone that is metabolized into salicylic acid.  Salicin was first isolated from White Willow, Salix alba, to compound acetylsalicylic acid, or asprin.  And the word "aspirin" was derived from another famous plant with salicylates, Meadowsweet, whose Latin name used to be Spiraea ulmaria, before it was changed to Filipendula ulmaria.  White Willow, Salix alba, and Black Willow, Salix nigra, are the two primarily used in herbal medicine.

Unlike aspirin, plants with salicylates are not irritating to the stomach nor the rest of the digestive tract.  They have the ability soothe tissues, including healing the irritation caused by aspirin.  Salicylic acid is also well known for being helpful in topical acne treatments.

Plants have a spike in the production of salicylic acid as part of their defense response to being attacked.  This helps the plant to acquire "immunity" if you will to the invading pathogen.  It is called systemic acquired resistance (SAR).  Think of it as a plant's equivalent to antibodies.  Plants can also use salicylic acid to trigger SAR in surrounding plants by converting it to methyl salicylate, which is volatile, and can radiate out to the surrounding periphery with the sun's heat.

The Native Americans and settlers to the "New World" used White Willow and Black Willow to lower fevers, help with rheumatic pains, and pretty much capitalized on their anti-inflammatory, analgesic and febrifuge properties in any fashion necessary.

Being so high in hormones, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants points out that Black Willow was used as a sexual tonic, listing specific indications of "nocturnal emissions, impotence, ovarian pain before and after menses, nervous disorders, and leucorrhea" during the 19th century (pg. 313).  White and Black Willow have both been used for worms in the intestines.

Salicin and other plant hormones are found more so in the young green branches and especially buds of Willows, and not so much in the mature bark.  Mature Willow bark is incredibly high in tannins.  The combination of anti-inflammatory salicylates and astringent tannins is very helpful for a variety of digestive disorders and many plants possess varying degrees of both of these attributes.  Astringents tighten and tone the tissues, making them impervious to pathogens.

Willows also contain fairly large amounts of indolebutyric acid, another plant hormone, and this causes plants to root easily.  Because of this, green willow branches of any willow species can be cut, plunked in the ground, watered and they will immediately grow roots.  You will see the branches produce leaves in 2-3 weeks!  This special function of willows means that you can use tender willow branches to make your own natural rooting hormone to help cuttings of other plants grow roots that would not do so voluntarily, and the salicin helps keep cuttings healthy while they are growing roots.

This characteristic ease of rooting has lead the imagination of many to come up with multiple practical, beautiful and interesting uses of Willows...the most fascinating being planting live canes into the ground and weaving them together as living hedges or fences, arbors, playhouses, trellises and more.  It is like sculpting with plants!  This is much more popular in the UK and Europe; sadly there seem to be few people in the USA utilizing or selling living willow canes for this use.  Maybe that will change in the near future.

Auerworld Palace, Germany, A Living Willow Structure
See more at Jan Johnsen's Blog

Apparently Willows have been used to plant living hedges for eons, dating back to the Middle Ages if not farther.  Willow is also used to control soil erosion along waterways thanks to its prolific root system, and you can even use branches to weave sides for stream banks, raised beds or even make living furniture with the right variety (some grow giant, some stay small).  Because it grows so fast, it makes a good sustainable option for fueling rocket stove thermal mass heaters which require little wood, providing rods for basket weaving (in a variety of colors, no less) and larger branches for making conventional furniture as well.

If you weave a Willow fence in your yard, be sure you are using branches from a variety that does not grow to be a giant, such as White or Black Willows.  Shorter, more compact varieties are suitable for fences.  Not just because of their end size, but because of their water seeking roots.  The large varieties have been known to destroy septic systems, even leaky foundations because of their large, exploratory root systems.  It's generally advised to not plant any trees around septic systems, as all will eventually use their roots to try to get to the moisture, but Willows are particularly fast growing.  Choose the right variety for your particular project and project location.

To close, here I will give you a recipe to make your own rooting hormone from any variety of Willow.

How to Make Your Own Willow Rooting Hormone

Cut a large handful of young, green willow twigs (new growth) about 5" long, preferably with buds on them.  If there are leaves and not buds, strip off the leaves.

Cut the twigs into 1" pieces and place in a quart mason jar.  It should be around half full.

Boil water in a kettle.  Once it is boiling, remove from the heat and pour over the twigs, filling the jar.  Let steep for 12 hours, then strain.  Alternatively, cover twig pieces with cold water and let them cold infuse for several days before straining.

To use, stand your cuttings to be rooted in the willow water for about a day and then plant in soil, or water cuttings placed in soil a couple of times with the willow infusion.

You can keep your rooting hormone for reuse by putting a lid and label on it and storing it in the fridge for at least a month.

This information is for educational purposes.  It 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, March 9, 2013

Oneirogenic Herbs: Masters of Dreaming

Oneirogenic is not a word you come across every day.   It is used to describe a plant that induces lucid, or at least vivid dreaming when you sleep.  The dreams often are profound.  Sometimes they illustrate present circumstances, hashing out the psychological and spiritual knots for you; less often they can illustrate events "that have not yet come to pass..." (Galadriel's voice there).  Different oneirogenic plants will take you to distinctively different dream worlds, if you will, with their own unique landscapes and/or moods.  They are rich with symbolism; our subconscious mind thinks with symbols.

I've mentioned before how plants can work on the mind-body-spirit connection to bring about wholeness and healing.  The dream world is just another route that some plants are able to work through.  In dream state, when we recess partially back into the fullness of who we are outside of this limited material reality, our rational linear mind is out of the way and our subconsciousness takes over, sorting through events and issues for us.  Some plants are teachers that work through dream time.

Cultures the world over have discovered green allies where they live that are dream-inducers.  It's not witchcraft, it's not voodoo, it's really just the natural way of some plants' medicine.  And if you are willing and able to listen to what they have to show you, you can benefit from dream medicine.  Shamanic plants are a natural phenomenon, though not all people have the strength nor understanding to use them.  Here we will discuss a few oneirogenic herbs and some of their other medicinal properties.


Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris

Ah, Mugwort.  One of the most common of the Artemisias (vulgaris means common) and possibly the most well known dream inducing herb.  Mugwort is the cousin of Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, the most famous (or should I say infamous) of the genus.  Wormwood is one of the main herbs in Absinthe, giving the drink its famous green color and its name.  But woe to the person who uses Wormwood without caution.  It is a powerful vermifuge (expels parasites) and contains large amounts of thujone which is toxic in high doses.  Mugwort, on the other hand, does not have the toxicity of Wormwood, though all Artemisias do have vermifuge properties to varying degrees.

Mugwort (and Mugwort species similar to A. vulgaris that grow in other countries) is the plant used in moxibustion , which is the practice in acupunture of smudging (burning/smoldering) the plant material over an acupuncture needle/point to remove a blockage at the acupuncture point and open the channel by stimulating circulation.

Mugwort is famous for inducing dreams.  Primarily the fresh plant is used.  You pick a sprig and place it under your pillow while you sleep at night.  The dried herb is commonly used in dream pillows, but it is not as effective as using the fresh plant.

The dreams brought on by Mugwort tend to deal with boundaries and protecting the "wounded feminine" (à la Matthew Wood, confirmed by my own experience) side of a man or woman.  They have a neutral feel to them while you are dreaming, upon waking and reflecting on the dream, they tend to, at least in my experience, have a serious tone that exposes the shadows.  Artemisias are all associated with Artemis, or Diana, the virginal goddess of the hunt.  Her aim is true and she is a tireless warrior.

Speaking of tireless, there are times when Mugwort will not allow you to dream, instead she will keep you awake.  The solution to this is to remove the sprig of Mugwort from under your pillow.  Maybe even change the pillow case if the scent of the plant still lingers and keeps you alert.  This will mainly happen if you are trying to use it for a second or third night in a row, or are going to bed with a racing mind.  Mugwort will give you specific messages but when used multiple days in a row may cease "working" because you are expected to take time to digest what lessons have been presented.

Avoid using internally during pregnancy.

File:Silene-capensis.jpg
By Sqpi177 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Xhosa, Dream Root, White Ways/Paths, Silene capensis, Silene undulata

Xhosa is a plant from South Africa with delightfully scented flowers.  The root is used as an oneirogen.  The name "White Ways" comes from the dreamscape this plant offers, which is often white, the mood cleansing and pure, and it is reported that on these "White Paths" you can communicate with ancestors.  Thus, no surprise, it has historical shamanic use by the female diviners of the Xhosa people of South Africa.  However, Xhosa is known to only open the White Paths to people receptive/sensitive enough to do the work.

The Xhosa root is the part used.  It is high in saponins, or foaming agents.  A traditional preparation involves mashing the root and mixing it briskly in water until foam forms.  Then you eat the foam until you have a feeling of fullness and ultimately burp, and repeat this process with the same cold infusion of the root.

It does not seem to matter what time of day you consume Xhosa, as you will have the dreams the following night even if you ingested it in the morning.  This plant may be taken multiple nights in a row (usually three) with increasing effects.  It does seem to matter that you avoid meat before taking the herb, and resume eating meat afterwards, for maximum benefit.  This is traditional practice.

Using dried root seems less successful than using fresh as an infusion, but it can be used.  I would suggest grinding it up and letting it sit in the water to re-hydrate for a few hours before making the bubbles.  The fresh or dried root can also be chewed instead of mashed and foamed up in water, with excellent results.

Xhosa gives no reported side effects besides a feeling of well-being and lightness of heart the next day.



Dog Grass, Dream Herb, Leaf of God, Calea zacatechichi, Calea ternifolia


Calea zacatechichi is a hot-climate bitter and astringent plant that grows in Central America, Costa Rica and elsewhere.  The Chontal Medicine men of Oaxaca, the people known to use this plant, give Zacatechichi the name "Leaf of God."  They state it sharpens and clears the senses.  It also has important uses beyond is oneirogenic effects.  Bitter is the key, as bitter plants work on the digestive cascade, priming it to receive and digest food.  Thus, for this purpose it may be used before meals.  Zacatechichi (means bitter grass) has uses for a variety of digestive complaints, especially coupled with its astringent nature which aids in cases of pathogen-induced diarrhea.  It is a febrifuge as well.  Zacatechichi also gives a feeling of euphoria when ingested.

Apparently the state of Louisiana and the country of Poland have banned human consumption of this plant.  A plant that makes you dream just enhances a natural function you would already be doing while asleep.  The suppositions that 1) feeling euphoric and 2) lucid dreaming is worth banning are crusty notions of the eternally failing "War on Drugs," pharmaceutical companies' interests and residual Puritanical religious taboo (aka the Axis of Evil for human consciousness).  But I digress.

As a dream inducing plant, Zacatechichi is taken before bed because it will make you sleepy, and is used in a two or threefold manner.  The traditional method is thus:  first, before bed, an infusion is made from the leaves.  It is very bitter.  Second, a cigarette is rolled out of the leaves and smoked.  Reportedly you know you have ingested all the plant material necessary when a state of relaxation is reached in which you can hear and feel your heart beat, strong and slow.  Then, a leaf of the plant is slid under the pillow and you drift off to sleep.

Reportedly the dreamscape is ultra vivid, as with many oneirogens, and I've read about others experiencing a suspension of time, as if much more time is "lived through" if you will, in a night than the normal dream process would allow.  There are no reported side effects the next day, only a persisting feeling of wellness and peace.

Most people opt for solely smoking the Zacatechichi cigarette, but if you wish to follow tradition, gather your wits and drink the tea first...cheer yourself on with the saying from San Salvador Island..."What goes in bitter, comes out sweet and what goes in sweet comes out bitter."  Translation: bitters do good things in the body, sweets do bad things.

May sweet dreaming visit you tonight...

This information is for educational purposes.  It 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.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Inherent Handfasting of Permaculture and Herbalism + Lasagna Raised Beds



"Uhm...what is perm-uh-culcher?"  That is something that I have been asked quite a few times.  Permaculture is basically the practice of utilizing the resources and layout of the land in sustainable, ecologically beneficial, self-supporting, and eco-restorative ways.  This includes all sorts of practices from using rain barrels, building grey water filtration systems, monopolizing on microclimates, to growing "food forests" and building permaculture beds that build the soil structure and its moisture retentive value rather then degrade and erode as plowing and rota-tilling do.  Other permaculture activities include worm farming, bee keeping, composting, companion planting, natural building....and many, many other concepts around and in-between that I am definitely not a guru on (but maybe one day?).  Sepp Holzer is a famous permaculturist from Germany that has managed to utilize his habitat in the Alpine regions to allow lemon and peach trees to grow...and they continue to come back year after year.  Yes, I said lemon trees and yes, I said in the Alps.

Permaculture and Herbalism co-mingle because they are both natural ways of living that benefit each other.  "Permies," or folks who utilize permaculture practices, have an interest in propagating/incorporating healing plants for self sufficiency and ecology's sakes; folks who have a natural interest in healing with plants by proxy have the desire to grow plants in low-impact, ecologically restorative ways, to ensure the plants that heal are as healthy as they can be for their own benefit and that of those who use them as food or medicine.

So, would you like to learn how to make a permaculture bed that you can direct-plant your herbs, flowers, or vegetables into this spring?  Yes?  Let me introduce you to the "lasagna" style raised bed...



In case you have never made nor eaten lasagna, it consists of layers of sauce, cheese, noodles, repeat.  And then it is baked in the oven.  "Lasagna" raised beds are made by using different materials that will be nutritionally beneficial and/or moisture retentive and layering them between dirt.  You can start lasagna beds in the fall, adding lots of compost-ables, covering it with landscape fabric and let the worms do the work until the next spring ("baking"), but you can make the lasagna beds ready for immediate planting by using already composted materials.

So, you buy some top soil and have it delivered.  Then you buy some bone meal (calcium and phosphorus which your plants need to fruit and flower), obtain some composted chicken or horse manure,  worm castings, lime, sawdust (as long as it is free of treated wood which is toxic!!!) or old, rotting wood from the woods, and a big stack of newspapers (no glossy pages--the ink has heavy metals), or pull up the old moving boxes from the basement that you don't know what to do with (remove the tape).  Oh, and get the watering hose ready.

So, since you are not disturbing your soil, its structure will stay in place, and be enriched by what you are about to place on top of it.  But note the grass.  Who wants grass in their raised bed?  No one.  So, we must kill the grass.  But not with pesticides!!  This is what the newspaper and/or boxes are for.  After taking out the glossy pages from the newspaper and discarding them, and/or the tape from the boxes and discarding that...lay the cardboard flat on the ground (cut the box down one side to make it a flat piece) or layer the newspapers multiple sheets thick (~5-10 pgs).  As you put them on the ground, spray the paper/cardboard with the watering hose.  This not only weighs down the paper/cardboard so it will not fly away if the wind kicks up, but the moisture helps get it ready to compost over time as well as invites little worms up the the surface.

Now, while the paper/cardboard is still wet, shovel a layer of top soil a couple of inches thick on top.

Next sprinkle a light layer of composted manure.  You want it to be the oldest composted manure you can find so the nitrogen has mellowed a bit.  Manure is intense so resist the urge to add more because "it doesn't look like much...."  You don't want to burn the roots of your plants.  Many places will let you haul composted manure away for free because their piles get so large over the year.  Call around.

Next spread bone meal (following sq. foot recommendations on package) and/or crushed egg shells.

Then, sprinkle a generous layer of saw dust (free of treated wood) or rotten wood from the woods.  This helps the soil retain moisture.  You can also add a layer of coir here, which is the husks of coconuts.  Avoid peat moss.  It not only is rather destructive to the environment to harvest, but it also encourages algae growth and squelches soil aeration.  Blegh.  Maybe mix in your worm castings and compost to this step!!  Mushroom compost is great if you can find it.

Otherwise, add worm castings and/or vegetable/leaf/mushroom compost on top the the sawdust.

After that, sprinkle a dainty layer of lime.

Also consider adding in grass clippings from a pesticide free lawn and your coffee grounds and banana peels from morning breakfast.

Top it all off with a final, generous layer of top soil.  Voila!  You are ready to plant.  In the following year, your lasagna bed soil structure will be optimal, but it will grow plants delightfully well in the first year.

Don't forget to mulch around your plants!  It keeps down weeds and helps keep in moisture on a hot summer day.

Also, if you make these in the fall to overwinter and use the next year, you may add more compost-ables (leaves, vegetable scraps, lawn clippings) and less dirt.  Don't forget to cover it up with landscape fabric!

Enjoy practicing Permaculture!  Plant some herbs!!!