Four Thieves Inspire Flu-Fighting Soup

Four Thieves Inspire Flu-Fighting Soup

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

flu soupLast winter the urgent care center diagnosed me with the flu, I’ve never been quite as sick as I was for that month. I spent several days in bed and using all herbal remedies to support healing. Daquil/Nyquil just made me feel worse and went straight into the garbage.

I started with homemade bone broth. Herb and spice-spiked chicken broths are well known to promote the movement of nasal congestion and thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. I feel better with every bowl I eat, proving the old adage: Let your food be your medicine.

For a powerful immune-boosting soup I take cues from the Legend of the Four Thieves. In this story, aromatherapy, herbal, and alchemical worlds collide and take on mythical proportions. The legend takes place when the bubonic plague hit Europe and killed large percentages of the population.

flu woodcutSupposedly four thieves from Marseilles were robbing plague-ridden corpses without getting sick. They are thought to have been perfumers with access to and knowledge of essential oils, herbs, and spices.

At their trial the King offered the thieves leniency in return for the formula that protected them from the plague.  Their list included lavender, sage, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, onion, mustard seed, cloves, oregano and lemon.

While the legend has never been confirmed and their recipe is interesting, all of the herbs and spices (except eucalyptus) read like a delicious and immune-boosting chicken soup recipe to me; so into the stock pot they go. If I’m lucky enough to have fresh stinging nettles that’s a mineral rich bonus.

To serve I top each serving with whole basil leaves, hard boiled eggs,  a dash of Himalayan salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime. I can’t help but feel better with every bowl I eat. Legions of Jewish and Asian grandmothers absolutely knew what they were doing.

Another application of the legend is a Four Thieves spray. I make it with white wine vinegar and essential oils — lemon, lavender, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and eucalyptus. My formula is three cups of vinegar and 20 drops of each oil.  To use it I shake well and spray counter tops, cellphones, and other surfaces.

These same oils can also be diffused in an essential oil diffuser. Likewise, mixed into a body cream or lotion, eucalyptus oil, lemon, sage, and lavender oils (no more than three drops of each oil!) make a soothing, aroma-therapeutic chest rub.

medicinal disclaimer 2I hope we’ll never need these recipes to protect from anything as serious as the bubonic plague and I hope that none of you catch any of these awful bugs that are going around this winter.  However, if you do, treat yourself to soothing herbal self-care and pampering.

Herbs for Flu Symptoms

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

Holiday merriment is over and winter has begun in earnest. As a way of winding down, so many of us seem to get sick in January. I believe that, sometimes, catching a bug is the body’s way of getting us to relax. Periods of hibernation, or seasonal contemplation as I’ve taken to calling it, are a must for keeping our bodies resilient.

Over the years I’ve learned to use lifestyle and herbal allies to minimize my symptoms and overall discomfort.

My mother taught me many years ago that the most important thing to do when ill is to pamper yourself. She would bring breakfast on a bed tray, served with pretty dishes and with a bud vase with flowers.flu tea pot

The other thing my mother was insistent about was using a bit of lip gloss, facial moisturizer and a touch of perfume while wearing lovely pajamas. She’d brush out my hair until it was shiny, touch up my lips and face (a big help because then your skin will resist chapping) and put just a drop or two of one of her lovely perfumes on my wrists and neck.

When I looked in the mirror I looked better than I felt and you know what? I started to feel better.  Simply taking the time for a bit of self-care seems to support the healing process.

Over the years I’ve added herbal baths to the regimen. I mix a tablespoon of sweet almond oil with three drops each of essential oils of lavender (relaxing), rose oil (anti-inflammatory), and sweet birch (to promote sweating). This really seems to help with congestion, aches and fevers.

Always use carrier oils for essential oils in your baths. Even in the smallest amount, essential oils are strong and need the emollient qualities of an oil like almond or olive to serve as a soothing delivery system on your skin. flu tea

While soaking I sip a tea made with cayenne pepper, lemon peel, orange peel, dried mustard, fresh ginger, preserved ginger,  dried sage, cardamom and honey. I put a quarter of a teaspoon of each ingredient into a teapot of boiling water and let it steep. Then I strain and add local honey to taste. This tastes better than it sounds and helps loosen congestion.

Make sure to take some seed catalogs into the tub as well because dreaming of new spring gardens always helps any herb lady feel better!medicinal disclaimer 2

HSA Webinar: Touching your Senses with Herbs

By Jen Munson

bill varney - blog artwork-minLiberate your senses. Learn how herbs enhance your life through your senses in home, garden, kitchen, and bath. That’s the topic of the 2019 HSA webinar series kickoff at 1 p.m. EST, January 28. In Touching all of your Senses with Herbs, William Varney will talk about the power herbs and flowers have to restore balance between your mind and body. The monthly webinar series is a wonderful way to learn from others across the country.

HSA webinars are free to members and just $5 for non-members. Register here. Contemplating membership? As a bonus, HSA will credit the $5 webinar fee to membership cost if you sign up by February 12.

Varney is the founder and former owner of Fredericksburg Herb Farm which he sold in 2007 to start his current business URBANherbal also in Fredericksburg, Texas.

URBANherbal is an evolution of the Varney family business which originally started in 1985 as an herbal apothecary known as Varney’s Chemist Laden. The business initially distinguished itself by offering unique and natural products such as toiletries and small potted herbs. It has evolved to include edibles like vinegars and seasonings, as well as toiletries and potpourris. You can find these at

Varney is a co-author of Herbs: Growing & Using the Plants of Romance and Along the Garden Path. A self-taught kitchen guru he has cooked at The James Beard House in New York City, has appeared on The Food Network, and has been featured in many publications.



Hellebore, Secrets of a Dark Lady

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

helleboreIn the language of flowers, hellebore means, “calumny (false accusation) slander.”  The name, hellebore, is derived from the Greek ἑλεῖν (heleîn), meaning “to injure.” In French, hellebore is called “Herbe aux Fous”, which I think means something like “crazy plant.”

What on earth did hellebore do to deserve this?  Maybe it’s the suspicion of identity theft:  in spite of common names like winter rose, Christmas rose, and Lenten rose, hellebore is not really a rose.  Many of its approximately 20 varieties are poisonous. And one variety is called stinking hellebore.

But let’s be fair. Hellebore is an evergreen, flowering perennial, in the family Ranunculaceae. It loves shade, where it flowers early and happily.  Those flowers are lovely waxy cups of five sepals, in shades of cream, orchid and sometimes a dusky purple, often with greenish highlights. Some varieties, with names like onyx odyssey, have sepals that are nearly black.  These sepals stay pristine and lovely for weeks or months, surrounding the true petals.  Those petals produce nectar, and I have seen honeybees stumble away from hellebore flowers so overloaded with pollen that they can scarcely fly.

And hellebore is deer resistant!

Since life, especially in the garden, is given to paradox, this poisonous plant has reputedly been a good antidote to poison, at least in livestock.  It is the root that is harvested and prepared, with a sliver inserted in the ear flap of a stricken animal, to be left there for days. But eating the plant itself is known to poison cattle. The plant actually contains powerful poisons called crystalline glucosides.

Hellebore has had its magical uses.  It has been used in rituals to repel evil from the flock.  There is a French story about a wizard who rendered himself invisible by scattering an obscuring cloud of dried hellebore powder.

Perhaps, because it is available as a garden flower very early in the garden year, and perhaps because of its lovely flowers, many have tried to bring the flowers inside as a cut flower or even to use them to adorn young women. These efforts are doomed, unless you know the secret which I am about to share with you:  Go for maturity!  The blossom with those masses of intricate, fibrous stamens at the center?  Lovely.  Don’t pick those.  Go for the blossoms that have shed those stamens and are starting to set seed.  Those beauties can last for days, even out of water.  Perfect for ornamenting a French braid or up do. Of course, discretion in this case is a luxury only available to those who grow their own hellebore.  Hellebore flowers ordered from a grower may not have reached the stage of middle-aged stability.

Or, you can always try one of the other available methods to keep hellebore from wilting, like inserting a pin in the cut end of the stem, or dipping it in boiling water.  But you know what I think.

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.