Herbs for Spring Equinox

Herbs for Spring Equinox

The sun is bright, — the air is clear,
The darting swallows soar and sing.
And from the stately elms I hear
The bluebird prophesying Spring.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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

PussywillowThe great wheel of the year turns and faster than you can say “March hare,” the spring equinox or Vernal Equinox is upon us. True to the prose, March would appear to be coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, and none too soon for us Northerners. The first day of spring is a time to celebrate our rebirth and renewal, the soil is beginning to warm and flowers are emerging. When I still lived on a farm, I always knew when the equinox was approaching because a beautiful pussy willow would begin to bud out.  I’d bring in armfuls of the fuzzy catkins and put them in tall vases all around the house.

Now trees are budding, birds are building nests, and flowers are popping up. The earth is trembling with the maternal energies that accompany spring renewal. Drive past a farm and you’ll begin to see baby goats and lambs skipping around fields. The rains are frequent and underground waters are springing upward. The other day I turned over a spade of dirt and discovered earthworms.

Spring cleaning work is calling. There are chicken coops to build, bee hotels, and a hive to put in.

To sooth those work angry muscles, fresh comfrey shoots are appearing. Lovage, perfect for stuffing a chicken, and asparagus, as a side dish, are peeking out. Garlic chives and leeks are readying for soups. Stems of licorice-flavored anise hyssop are waiting to become a soothing tea.

rampMy biggest surprise is three ramps, sending shoots from where I lovingly planted them last spring. My favorite wild spring greens, they are actually flourishing in my yard. I won’t touch them this year, but by next spring I ought to be able to grab a handful for a wonderful wild onion pesto.

Spring and especially the energies of the spring equinox — when the day and night are equally balanced– heralds a great time to cleanse.  It doesn’t have to be harsh, just a lightening up of sorts … a movement towards lighter, fresher foods is called for.

Wild greens like ramps, dandelions, violet leaves, chickweed, purslane, and stinging nettles will soon be everywhere and they’ll make a wonderfully cooling and tonic salad that you can dress simply with a bit of goat cheese, a sprinkle of pink Himalayan salt, olive oil, and lemon. (Remember to blanche nettles quickly in boiling water to remove the sting. Do try them, they are delicious and mineral rich.)

juiceFor a delicious springtime tonic try juicing these same greens with the addition of parsley, Swiss chard and, for a touch of sweetness, an apple or two. You can even add honey and lemon and a couple of carrots. This cooling and refreshing juice will rev up your system and get it feeling fun and frolicsome for the warm days ahead.

Green teas, iced and sparkling, with additions of fresh citrus fruits, berries, cucumber slices, and herbs –like basil, sage, and mint — are a wonderful aid for cleansing a system that’s sluggish from the denser foods of winter. A touch of raw honey during the cooling process will give you just enough sweetness and a lovely constant energy. Or, I use maple syrup in honor of the greening trees. The flavor is rich  blended into tea and healthy, providing polyphenols to calm inflammation and antioxidants to boost the immune system.

daffodilsThe most important bit of spring-cleaning folklore that I swear by is to clean everything in your home in a clockwise direction to infuse it with a constant stream of positivity.  As you clean, you’ll want to infuse rosemary essential oil into your environment for its ability to bring clarity. Meanwhile use lots of lemon oil and lemon juice for cleansing and stress relief. And, of course, in any magical household there would always be plenty of lavender strewn about to bring the best luck.

After cleaning I love to put bunches of daffodils and bright clusters of dandelions in antique blue mason jars and scatter them around the house. They make me happy as they draw the powerful energies of the sun into my home.

moonTonight, with luck, we’ll get to see the magnificent full moon, fittingly named the earthworm moon. Know that this vernal equinox is a time of great energy.  It is the time to write down your most closely held dreams and set some simple and intentional goals.  As the light increases and the warmth returns to the earth, your intentions will gain power and your dreams will become reachable.

Celebrate by starting the gardening season. Plant seeds right now, even if it’s just a pot or two on your sunniest windowsill. Write down a wish or two on some recycled paper and place it into your potting soil. As you nurture your seedlings, you are nurturing your dreams.medicinal disclaimer 2

Wishing you the most delightful, joy-filled, creative, and abundant spring!

Ramps: Sleek, Leeky Wild Child

Ramps: Sleek, Leeky Wild Child

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society11196256_10205434518374052_5210545135335455851_n

Listen, children, and I will tell you how an onion by another name gave us the name of the city of Chicago.  The onion in question, Allium tricoccum — also known as ramps, spring onion, ramson, wild leek and wild garlic — is an eastern North American native with an extensive roster of European and Asian cousins. “Ramson” is its English cousin, and Allium tricoccum is sometimes called by that name in the New World as well. “Tricoccum” refers to the plant having three seeds.

As an onion, ramps grow as a perennial bulb, and they grow wild wherever their habitat hasn’t been degraded. Often the first greens of spring, both the scallion-like stalk and the leaves are edible. The harbinger of spring, ramps are cause for various festivals in April and May, notably in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.  In some parts of North America, ramps have been over harvested, and foraging for them is limited by local law.

Early French explorers found a marshy area, lush with ramps, near Lake Michigan, along a river named by local native tribes after their word for ramps, shikaakwa.  It was somewhere in translation from that to English by way of French that this became “Chicago.”

Their timing may be the reason they’re a frequent component of spring tonics. Cherokee, Ojibwa and Iroquois people have used ramps in decoctions to “clean you out” for spring. High in vitamin C, ramps may have saved a lot of folks from scurvy after a long, hard winter.

20160326_182218More garlicky than scallions, stronger than leeks, ramps have been very trendy for some time, and available in upscale grocers for a hefty price (something along the lines of $20 a pound).

To forage sustainably harvest as the Cherokee did and do: leave the bulb.  Use a sharp tool (the handy hori hori knife is perfect) and carefully cut away stalk and leaf.  And don’t take more than you need. After all, ramps are glorious, but how many can you grill, pickle and sauté before you incur ramp fatigue? Glory in what is in season, in moderation, and life is good for you…and the ramps.

Previous posts on ramps are available here.
Ramp-ing up for Spring 
Forage for and Enjoy Ramps

March 2019 Webinar: Making Herbal Medicine

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

webinar March 2019Herbs have played an important role in medical history and continue to play an important part in medical research. Through the years different techniques have been used to transfer healing properties to vinegar, glycerin, tea, alcohol, etc. These infusions can then be combined with other ingredients to make salves, poultices, rinses, and more.

Learn about these at 1 p.m. (eastern), March 20, during The Herb Society of America’s first spring webinar. In Making Herbal Medicine guest presenter Susanna Reppert-Brill will share the basics of herbal medicine. External and internal applications will be explored.

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 the cost of membership if you join by April 4th.

About Susanna Reppert-Brill

Susanna grew up around her mother’s shop, the Rosemary House. After graduating from Penn State University she became the store’s manager. In response to the increasing number of questions on the medicinal use of herbs she completed a course at David Winston’s Herbal Therapeutics School of Botanical Medicine. With four decades in the herbal business, Susanna’s love of herbs and their many uses shines through. Susanna is the one most likely to answer your “quick question” on the phone or in the store but is also available for full personal consultation. She continues to develop her herbal knowledge of all the amazing and practical uses of plants.

About The Rosemary House

The Rosemary House is located in Mechanicsburg, PA. It is a specialty gift shop featuring herbs, teas, and assorted gifts. Established in 1968, they delight in sharing their love of all things herbal. From culinary herbs, to medicinal uses, to fragrant soaps and candles, and a wide range of flavorful teas, Rosemary House offers a wide range of products. In addition to the gift shop, there areherb gardens in the back that are open to the public from dawn to dusk. Throughout the year, they offer a variety of classes, afternoon teas, workshops, and bus trips. Learn more at http://www.TheRosemaryHouse.com



Witch Hazel Casts a Spell…And Clears Up Acne, Maybe

By Kathleen M. Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

witch hazelI suppose every family has universal cure, the thing you apply or ingest that will cure whatever ails you. My family had several. My German grandmother advised a generous dollop of blackberry brandy for internal upset, for being stung by a honey bee, for arthritis pain, and she recommended a rocket-fuel type disinfectant called Germ-Trol for everything else.  My Tennessean father-in-law was a firm believer in sea water (used externally) and apple cider vinegar (taken internally).

The center of my mother’s home remedies was witch hazel.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered the shrub/small tree Hamamelis virginiana, This North American native plant is the source of the miracle-in-a-bottle readily available at every drugstore. The plant blooms in the fall, about the same time that the leaves turn color. The deciduous trees are compact, topping out at 6- to 10-feet tall.  They grow readily pretty much anywhere, although, like everything else, they prefer loam to clay, and appreciate adequate drainage. They have no pest nemeses.

Another Hamamelis species, Hamamelis vernalis is native to the Ozarks, and has smaller but wonderfully fragrant flowers in a range of colors. They bloom improbably early in the spring. I now have a thicket of them in my garden, and they are gloriously in bloom (it’s February), in what is probably the middle of a Northeast Ohio winter. The flowers look like fringed forsythia. One of the nicknames for Hamamelis vernalis is “winter bloom.”

Sadly, the name “witch hazel” comes, not for any association with witches, but from the Anglo-Saxon word for “pliable”.  The slender stems and branches are very bendy. This has made them a convenient tool for those who claim dowsing or divining powers, and who use sticks to detect water or treasure. But that’s stretching the “witch” angle.

Witch hazel preparations are a gentle but powerful astringent. The bark of Hamamelis virginiana may be macerated or distilled. It can be marketed straight, or combined with glycerin, rose water, citrus extracts, or other beneficial plants, like Aloe vera. Americans have used witch hazel stems boiled in water to sooth skin complaints since long before the arrival of European settlers. New Englanders began steam distillation, marketing the product in the mid-19th century.

The tannins found in the bark of the witch hazel provide the astringent quality sought after by users.  Unfortunately, distillation destroys those tannins. So any benefit from commercially available preparations probably comes from the alcohol found as their second ingredient, after water. But you know what?  Alcohol is a pretty good astringent.  And magic is mostly a matter of intention.

New Jersey Tea: Making You an Offer You Shouldn’t Refuse

New jersey teaBy Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, is an Herb Society of America Native Plant of 2019. A member of the buckthorn family its common names include wild snow ball, snow bush, red root, mountain lilac, and California lilac.

New Jersey Tea is a short, woody plant, growing less than three feet tall, with a cloud of tiny white flowers. It flourishes in full or partial sun in zones 4 to 8. The nitrogen-fixing roots grow stubborn and deep making the plant drought resistant, but also difficult to transplant. Because root growth comes first, the plants seem slow to establish. Seeds are available, but require stratification (refrigeration) and scarifying (nicking the seeds’ outer surfaces) to help germination.

The leaves of New Jersey Tea, unsurprisingly, have traditionally been used to brew a caffeine-free tea. They have a mild wintergreen fragrance which can be refreshing.  Historically the main virtue of New Jersey Tea was that it was free, did not have to be imported, and could not be taxed by the Crown. That made it a patriotic beverage choice during the American War of Independence.

Deer and bunnies are fond of the stems and ground birds, like turkey, enjoy the seeds.  This is all good news or bad news, depending on your feelings about feeding deer, bunnies, and turkey from your garden.  Insects are drawn to the flowers, which support a variety of wasps and flies. Caterpillars of moths and butterflies feed on the foliage.

New Jersey Tea is now planted widely for erosion control and hillside stabilization because of those stubborn roots and because, as long as it has adequate drainage, the plant is vigorous and undemanding. As the vigorous root system, once established, is prone to producing suckers, New Jersey Tea can quickly produce a thicket.

Aside from erosion control, gardeners should seriously consider adding this native to their landscaping, as a sensible alternative to non-native plants that have become suburban standards. These non-native plants (including Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry, and Asian Honeysuckle) do not support wildlife and may become invasive at the expense of native plants.

Flowers of New Jersey Tea can be used in making a light green dye. The rest of the plant yields a dye of cinnamon red. The root bark has long been valued for medicinal uses, often in treating bronchial ailments, and it has an astringent effect. The flowers and developing seed pods of New Jersey Tea can be used as a fragrant soap or body wash, even producing a lather when combined with water. One of New Jersey’s common names is soap bloom. It is sometimes used as a hair tonic.

Why is this plant named after the Colony, later State, of New Jersey? My sources remain silent on that point. But I plan to make New Jersey Tea a home here in what became the Western Reserve of the Ohio Territory.  I may even try it as soap.


2019 EdCon Scholarship Available to New HSA Members

2019 EdCon Scholarship Available to New HSA Members

By Jen Munson, Education Chair

Conference 2019 scholarshipThe Herb Society of America is now accepting scholarship applications for its Mad for Herbs in Mad City Annual Meeting and Educational Conference June 13 to 15 in Madison, Wisconsin. The scholarship (value $325) is sponsored by Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm in Door County, Wisconsin.

If you are a new Herb Society member (less than 2 years) and need financial assistance to attend the June event, see application instructions below. The scholarship criterion is simple and the application process even simpler.

Who May Apply

Qualified applicants should meet the following criteria:

  • Be an active member of The Herb Society of America for two years or less.
  • Have never attended an HSA Annual Meeting of Members and/or Educational Conference
  • Be able to arrange for lodging, transportation, and meals (outside of those covered by registration)


The Application

In 300 words or less explain your interest in attending the conference and why you are the ideal candidate. Email your interest to jenmun08@gmail.com on or before March 15, 2019.

What is Covered?

This scholarship covers three days of learning opportunities including the annual meeting, preconference reception, speaker presentations, awards dinner, as well as breakfast and lunch on June 14 and 15. The scholarship is not transferrable.

About Our Sponsor Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm

fragrant isle lavenderFragrant Isle was founded on a dream by Martine Anderson. Martine lived in the south of France and long dreamed of having a large lavender garden. After retiring to Washington Island, in a remote area of Wisconsin that is only reachable only by ferry, Martine and her husband, Edgar, looked for a business in which to invest. When nothing seemed suitable Martine’s dream became a reality. In 2013 Fragrant Isle opened their doors with nearly 9,000 lavender plants and today their operation has grown to 20,000 plants, a retail operation, online shop and more. Find them online at https://fragrantisle.com/


Register for HSA’s 2019 Educational Conference

By Jen Munson, Education Chair, HSA

conference 2019Registration is open for The Herb Society’s Educational Conference and Annual Meeting of Members (EdCon). This year we head to Madison, Wisconsin, June 13 to – 15.  The host hotel is the Premier Park Hotel in Capitol Square. Register by April 15th to take advantage of early bird discounts. Click here to register now.

The conference kicks off with a preconference reception at the University of Wisconsin’s Allen Centennial Garden. The garden is a living laboratory and public botanical garden for UW-Madison students and surrounding communities. The garden’s Executive Director Ben Futa will welcome attendees to the garden while docents will be on standby to answer questions.

EdCon officially opens with the annual meeting with updates from the Board of Directors and committee meetings.

Of course, EdCon wouldn’t be complete without national speakers and award-winning authors covering a range of topics from spices and cheese and tea pairings to at risk medicinal plants. Download a list of speakers.

In Madison you’ll find more than 200 miles of walking trails, free weekly concerts, a funky restaurant scene, interesting cultural events, and vibrant farmers’ market. The youthfulness of this city is fueled by the University of Wisconsin-Madison which occupies 933 acres along Lake Mendota and supports multiple greenhouses in addition to the Allen Centennial Garden, and a nearby 1,200-acre arboretum. Click here to learn more.