Jewelweed: The Kindly Beauty of the Bog

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

jewelweedLike my ancestors, I live in a bog. But I have a lot of company, and some of that company is breathtakingly beautiful.  One of the most beautiful plants you will ever see hides in plain sight and grows so generously and extravagantly that it sometimes is overlooked. But it lives up to its common name: jewelweed.

Orange jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, is a member of the balsam family, and a North American native, as is the less common yellow jewelweed, Impatiens pallida.  It is an annual that blooms from late spring to early fall, flourishing next to ditches, creeks, and damp woodlands. Like other varieties of Impatiens, it is also sometimes also called, “touch-me-not” because when it sets its seed capsule the slightest touch will send those seeds flying.

The seed capsule is why there are so many naturalized colonies of jewelweed, not just in North America, but throughout northern and central Europe, where it was introduced. Jewelweed propagates so enthusiastically that it can actually compete with that aggressive menace garlic mustard.

The plant grows 2 to 5 feet high, and the flowers tremble at the end of delicate stems, suspended and glowing. Although tiny, the flowers present a sort of orchid appearance, one sepal adopting a pouch like shape and another a spur. There is nothing more beautiful than a hummingbird, suspended in mid-air, delighting in jewelweed flowers. And hummingbirds do love their jewelweed and its nectar. Some long-tongued bees also enjoy the pollen. And some bumblebees will nibble the end of the flower spur to make a handy nectar dispenser.

Of course, jewelweed loves its pollinators, since cross pollination is required to set seeds from those showy flowers. But jewelweed also has a Plan B, smaller cleistogamous flowers that never open are not pollinated, and yet can set seeds with much less energy investment from the plant.

Jewelweed is often found in the same area as spring ephemerals, like skunk cabbage, but is also frequently found with a tougher customer: poison ivy.  This is particularly extraordinary, because the juice from crushed jewelweed has long been known by Native Americans and modern landscapers as an antidote to poison ivy’s rash-producing oil. Jewelweed juice also calms the itch of stinging nettles and insect bites. The sap of jewelweed may also have antifungal properties.

You can simply harvest and crush a handful of leaves fresh as needed, or brew the leaves into a poultice tea. If you have a serious and widespread case of the miseries, you might try bathing in a tub with jewelweed tincture or tea. The leaves can be used fresh or frozen, but appear to lose their efficacy if dried.  There are some traditional uses of jewelweed as a diuretic, but this “water pill” effect can interact with other medications.  Do not ingest jewelweed without consulting with your doctor.medicinal disclaimer 2

If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in a bog and to have the luxury of naturally propagating jewelweed, you can purchase seeds from Amazon as well as a selection of jewelweed-infused salves and soaps. But the hummingbirds will be disappointed if you don’t plant jewelweed.jewelweed

Skunk Cabbage: Ephemeral, Alchemical and Smelly

Skunk Cabbage: Ephemeral, Alchemical and Smelly

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Wild plants can be clever.  Some wild plants are very clever.  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), also known as swamp cabbage, clumpfoot cabbage, meadow cabbage, or polecat weed, is crazy smart. Yes, smells a little like a skunk if you trample its foliage.  But that’s not the alchemical wonder that allows the plant to survive the winter.

In these dark days of the early New Year, if you check out bogs and damp hillsides in Eastern Canada and the United States, you may see skunk cabbage employ its defenses against the cold: it produces its own heat! You can see where, around its base, the skunk cabbage has melted the snow. As one of very few thermogenic plants, the skunk cabbage can produce warmth through cellular respiration. That heat can boost the plant’s internal temperature an average of more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the temperature of the air around the plant.

The skunk cabbage is more closely related to calla lilies than cabbage, and its flower presents a sort of calla lily profile. When the skunk cabbage makes its move in the early spring, it sends up bare dark mottled purple flower spathes through the mud. A western variety of skunk cabbage produces yellow flowers. Within the spathe is the knobby spadix, with the skunk cabbage’s actual flowers. These flowers share a skunky aroma with the foliage, and the warmth produced by the plant may help broadcast that scent for all the early pollinators.  They find the aroma delicious. And some pollinators, drawn to carrion when they can find it, make do with the warm, smelly flower spathe.

The emerging flower looks a little like the man-eating plant, Audrey, from Little Shop of Horrors, but skunk cabbage is not carnivorous. And, while some insects adore it, skunk cabbage is very unpleasant for mammals to ingest: it produces a burning and choking sensation in small quantities, and larger quantities can be lethal.

When the seeds are produced, the skunk cabbage drops the hard little pellets into the surrounding mud.  Where it grows happily, the skunk cabbage produces dense colonies. But by the time the trees start to produce their canopy of leaves above, the skunk cabbage withdraws back into the ground.  The leaves begin to disintegrate and then disappear.  And the roots of the skunk cabbage dig down deeper and deeper into the bog.  A mature skunk cabbage has developed such a deep root system that it may be impossible to dislodge. As the skunk cabbage disappears, its common companion plant, jewelweed, takes over the spotlight.

Iroquois medical botany has employed skunk cabbage as a treatment for coughs and headaches. One unusual use was to cause the teeth to fall out from the mouth of a dog or person who may have bitten you. To effect this rough justice, apply the crushed leaves on the bite as a poultice. A tea made from the dried leaves of skunk cabbage could be taken internally to ease constipation, or applied topically to cure a strong under arm smell. It would certainly mask it.

For a time in the 1800s, skunk cabbage was included in pharmacology and a preparation from its roots was sold as a drug called dracontium to treat a variety of ailments.

But I would say, if the plant has used everything including alchemy to be left alone, it’s better to leave it alone.

Frankincense and Myrrh Treasures of Kings

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Gather, children, and hear the story of the Three Kings.   August personages (wise men or “astrologers”, in the New English Bible), these eminent men traveled far to find Jesus, and when they found him, according to the Gospel of Matthew, “they opened their treasures and offered him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.” While the names and number of these wise men are not specified in the Gospel, this is the origin of the story of the Three Kings.  January 6, the feast day of the Three Kings, also known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany, has become a gift-giving celebration in many traditions.

Frankincense (from the Old French for “Noble Incense”), comes from the resin of any of a number of small, scrappy desert trees of the genus Boswellia.  These trees are so hardy they can grow on solid rock.  Resin is produced and harvested when the bark is slashed, producing “tears”.  These resins can be harvested two or three times a year from mature trees. It from this practice that Frankincense derives it’s Arab name, al-lubān, and al-bakhour, which translates to “that which is milked.”

Frankincense has been harvested and valued for over 6,000 years. Murals depicting the import of Frankincense are found in the Egyptian tomb of Queen Hatshepsut. It is mentioned often in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

This resin comes at a cost to the trees: they survive, but are much less likely to produce viable seed.  Frankincense producing trees are in decline, in part because of overharvesting, but also because their habitat is increasingly being converted to agriculture.

What makes this tree sap the gift of kings? Frankincense has antibacterial properties, was used in the Egyptian mummification process to cleanse the body, and its essential oil is used in some perfumes. But it is the use of burnt frankincense resin to mark spiritual awakening and progress that makes it something really special.  Holy, in fact. In the Hebrew tradition, the scent of burning frankincense represents the name of the divine.  Christian and Islamic traditions also anoint infants and initiates with frankincense-infused oil.

Like frankincense, myrrh comes from the resin harvested from gashed trees; in this case it is from the genus, Commiphora. Its name derives from the Arabic word for “bitter.” Like frankincense, the scent of burning myrrh has been associated with spiritual attunement and growth, and the two resins are often found in combination. Myrrh has also long been used for its antibacterial properties. It is still used in dental preparations and veterinary medicine to reduce infection and inflammation. It may act somewhat like opium in easing pain.

While the gospel of Matthew mentions the presence of myrrh at the beginning of Jesus’ life, in the gospel of Mark it appears at the end of Jesus’ life as well.  As he is dying on the cross, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, in an attempt to dull his pain. He does not drink.

The Gospel of Luke, chapters 23-24, tells the story of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee, who (along with his disciples) ventured forth at dawn on the morning after the Sabbath to anoint his body “with the spices that they had prepared.” The names and origin of those spices are not known. But there is a tradition that those spices included the frankincense and myrrh from Jesus’ cradle gifts.  Who knows?  The idea has a round and satisfying shape to it.



Herbs of The Twelfth Night

Herbs of The Twelfth Night

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

“Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.”

— Traditional English Carol Author Unknown

kettleTonight is Twelfth Night and I have a few friends dropping by for a wassail party! If you’ve never had the pleasure, Wassail is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Winter Solstice and Christmas celebrations and the serving of it can continue well into Twelfth Night and beyond. I personally love to drink wassail all winter long, because it is so spicy, slightly bittersweet, satisfying, and warming.

The earliest versions of wassail were warmed mead or ale into which roasted clove-studded crab apples were dropped. After they were heated for a bit, the apples burst into the pot, creating a glorious, delicious, and frothy mixture known as ‘fuzzy lamb’s wool.’

In later years, this drink evolved to become mulled cider, ale and claret whisked with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toasted fruitcake to sop it all up.

crabapplesOn Twelfth Night, known to Christians as the Epiphany…wassailing is a time to engage in bit of revelry and celebration before the Christmas tree comes down. Twelth Night festivities were usually overseen by a designated “Lord of Misrule,” who presided over what was known as the “feast of fools,” traditionally a night of wanton drunkenness, caroling, and wild partying.

Twelfth Night was also a time to “wassail” the orchards. The purpose of wassailing the orchards was to feed, protect and honor the fruit trees to help ensure a fine autumn harvest. I wassail our trees almost every year because I love the feeling of continuing to partake in this age-old ritual of joy, magic, and survival.

Historically, the ceremonies used for wassailing varied from village to village but were similar in intent. The wassail was carried from house to house in a traditional bowl carved of white maple. In addition to the Lord of Misrule, a Wassail King and Queen led the revelry from one orchard to the next. The villagers formed a circle around the largest apple tree, the Wassail Queen was lifted up into the boughs of the chosen tree to hang pieces of toast or fruitcake soaked in wassail in the branches as a gift to the trees and the robins, and other sprites that frolicked among them.

wassailMy recipe for Wassail begins with a base of hard cider, claret or mead. Then I add brandy or Madeira. I have no real measurements because this is almost always created with personal tastes in mind. I usually add clove-studded apples, lemons, dried cranberries, oranges, sweet butter and honey instead of sugar. If I’m in the mood I’ll use some real maple syrup for sweetening in honor of the traditional maple bowl used to serve the wassail in earlier times. Once I bring this mixture to a slow simmer in a large copper pot it will be time to add the fragrant spice blend. (Please note that if you like this can be made easily in a crock pot.)

Note, mulling spices are absolutely delicious AND they are thought to be full of compounds that promote healing and immune support. Every herb and spice in my wassail blend serves the dual purpose of being tasty and immuno-supportive. Rosemary is delicious, but it’s also known for its anti- inflammatory qualities. Cinnamon and clove have been historically used for their warming, soothing, and pain-reducing abilities.

Cardamom, coriander, allspice and star anise are traditionally used in herbal blends to support digestion and ease the pain of inflammation. Orange and lemon peel are thought to help loosen excessive mucus in the lungs and possess anti-microbial qualities.
I’ll generally put about a teaspoon of each of these into an organic muslin bag. Then, straight into the pot they go. After simmering for about 30 minutes the wassail will be ready to serve. The natural accompaniments for this beverage are the hard cheeses like cheddar and gruyere, spicy sausages, jam, gingerbread, fruitcake, buttered toast … and, of course, singing and dancing.

One of the delightful things about the wassailing tradition and the accompanying Twelfth Night celebration is that it gives Jim and I one last chance to turn on the Christmas lights, light a fire in the copper cauldron and sing our favorite seasonal carols in the company of our dearest friends and neighbors.

Does the traditional wassail ritual work its magic? I will say that last year I was not able to wassail my trees because I was out of town on Twelfth Night and guess what? Only a few pithy apples appeared this year from my two old heirloom trees and my young trees lost their fruit too early.

Can you guess where I’ll be this night?

Top 10 Herb Society Posts of 2018

The Herb Society of America’s most viewed blog posts of 2018 were the following. Written by a number of contributors they aimed to promote the essential experience of herbs from cultivation and use to learning and research, for members and the public throughout the United States.

1.       Elderberry – Scary and Delicious
2.       Mullein: Candles for Witches and the Cowboy’s Friend
3.       Add Lemongrass to Your Garden Plans
4.       Herb of the Month: Mexican Tarragon
5.       Jimson Weed is an American Patriot
6.       Chicory, Scrappy Yet Elegant
7.       Spooktacular Herbs for Halloween
8.       A Bewitching Reflection on the Season
9.       Looking to 2019 Herb of the Year: Anise Hyssop
10.   Celebrating Winter Solstice

Mistletoe Magic and Mystery

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

MistletoeI have nothing against the Druids.  But it must be said that (apart from the practice knocking on wood for good luck) they have contributed little to our way of doing things. Christmas is the exception. Holly and ivy and Christmas trees are all Druidic legacy.

Another persistent and peculiar Druidic Solstice custom involves the fertility magic conferred by the ironically parasitic plant mistletoe.

More than 1,000 varieties of mistletoe exist around the world. Among their many names are birdlime, all-heal, golden bough, drudenfuss, iscador and devil’s fuge. All are plant parasites. The European mistletoe, Viscum alba, is most commonly found on apple trees, poplars, willows, lindens, and hawthorns.  North America’s oak mistletoe finds its hosts among a host of deciduous trees, and is named Phoradendron, Greek for “tree thief.”

The growth of mistletoe is slow, but persistent. Once established on a tree mistletoe will syphon nutrients from the host plant. It returns nothing.  In fact, mistletoe will sometimes give up its own photosynthesis and drain the life from its host. It may produce its own branches and leaves, growing from the host plant’s stem or trunk.

Once a host tree loses leaves in fall, mistletoe — which produces a “witch’s broom” tangle of evergreen foliage — is clearly visible. In the deep midwinter, this green makes mistletoe a star.

mistletoe 2When happily in position, mistletoe can propagate itself.  It produces flowers, and later waxy white drupes or berries. Those berries are beloved by birds. The berries are filled with a thick, sticky gel, cradling the seeds of the mistletoe.  Birds’ beaks are sticky after eating the berries. As the bird cleans its beak by raking it against the bark of a tree, seeds from mistletoe are deposited into the new scratches and begin to grow. Or mistletoe seeds may find a new home after passing through the bird’s digestive track.

Tasty to birds, the berries are highly toxic to humans.  That’s one reason why “mistletoe” sprigs at stores will be genuine plastic. The old custom of kissing under the mistletoe requires removing a berry for each kiss, and a loss of the plant’s powers after the plucking of the last berry.  But I have found that magic lies in intention, not technicalities.

Modern study suggests that the mistletoe, while needy and controlling, is not a bad neighbor.  Woodlands containing mistletoes are hospitable to birds, animals and insects, probably because of the housing made available in the dead or dying host plants. This makes it an ecological “keystone” species. There is promising research underway using mistletoe to derive treatments for cancer in humans.




Celebrating Winter Solstice

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

solstice candleThe Winter Solstice is once again upon us, that eternally dark and longest night of the year. If I travel even 150 years back in time it’s easy to understand why our ancestors celebrated the Solstice.

December was the time when the harvest had been brought in and put to attic and cellar, the garlic was hung from the rafters, the herbs were dried, beans dried and hung, the onions braided and potatoes and other root vegetables stored. The meat had been preserved in salt, spice and fat, waiting to be turned into warming soups, jerky, and stews.  The breeding animals would be tucked away safely in the barn, spending the wintry months growing round and fecund. The wood for the hearth fire had been gathered, split, and stacked. The precious beeswax and bayberry tapers would have been dipped and placed into special candlesticks, ready to bring their magical light and extraordinary scent to illuminate the longest night.solstice fire

Long ago on Solstice eve we would have harnessed the horses and gone caroling into the woods to cut fragrant pine and balsam boughs to decorate our homes. We’d fell the Yule log…an entire tree that was meant to burn a bit each day for the entire 12 days of Christmas. A little piece of the previous year’s Yule log was always kept to light the fire each day and making a wish upon it was thought to bring the best luck of all for the coming year.

Solstice is one of our oldest feasts, a centuries-old, pre-Christian ritual celebrated at the same time each December as the wheel of the year circles slowly.  Celebrating the Solstice entices us to give in to the most human of desires for love, celebration, and connection; for as the sun moves back towards the earth we rejoice that soon the coldest, darkest nights will slowly begin to fade into light and the warmth will return once again to coax the greening from the silent, frozen earth.

solstice owlTonight is our annual Solstice celebration, a party that my sister and I have thrown together for more than 20 years.  We have planned the most glorious meal and there will be a beautiful fire in the old sugarhouse kitchen where we’ll make wishes on a bit of last year’s Yule log.

There will be plenty of little children to introduce to the wonder of “owling,” one of my son’s and nephews’ favorite childhood memories. We’ll bundle up and walk quietly through the snowy woods in the hopes of seeing one of the beautiful barred owls that live on the property. If you are lucky enough to see this beautiful creature, you will do so after he swoops past you. The magic of the owl is his ability for silent flight, you’ll often feel the wind from his wings, but hear him you will not.

solstice eggnogThe last thing we do is carry two glasses of eggnog down to the river where our parents’ ashes are scattered, to raise a toast to them and simply remember them with gratitude for all that they shared with us.

This Solstice eve, as I enjoy the laughter and comfort of my friends and the warmth of my sister’s hearth, I have made several promises to myself and several wishes…….

I promise that I will not feel guilty for what I have, but I will share even more of it and waste even less of it. I will continue teaching people to garden well, to grow their own food, to preserve it as I do, and how to use the healing herbs growing all around. I will figure out a way to teach people how to cook and I will find a soup kitchen to serve in like my mother did so long ago. To grow and provide food is to provide room for love to flourish and sometimes we get so busy that we forget all about that.

solstice gardenI love sharing a fabulous feast with my friends, but as I look around this year and see what others do not have, I cannot help but think so much about the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice. We have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our world, to live with each other and to be self- reliant. As herbalists, gardeners, and parents we have a magnificent, magical gift that we can give to the world this year. We can teach the least of them to fish, or in my case garden, so that they can feed themselves and their families forever.

In this season of light, on this Wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves and as brave as I know that you are.