Practice Essential Oil Safety

Practice Essential Oil Safety

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

Essential oils with rocksI love working with essential oils and have for several decades. It’s been lovely to witness their surge in popularity over the past 15 years.  Essential oils are wonderful for diffusing and creating a relaxing aura of comfort. Certain oils like lavender, frankincense, and rose are skin care standards which, when used correctly, are lovely additions to any wellness program

While essential oils are great, consumers must know proper safety.

Without safety measures, bad things happen. For example, I’ve been to a yoga class where a well-meaning yogi dabbed oils directly onto my skin during shavasana to promote relaxation. In theory this would be lovely, but it could cause an allergic reaction for some people. The yogi should be aware of the participants’ sensitivities.

LavendarEssentialOils660In another case, I saw a young woman suffer skin damage from improper use of essential oils. She innocently mixed lavender and tea tree oils into bentonite clay for a face mask. Without additional emollients or carrier oils she blistered her skin. (The correct formulation — after a patch test — would be one cup of bentonite clay, several tablespoons of almond or avocado oil, ¼ cup of raw honey, and several drops of  each oil.)

Even with carrier oil dilution, you can be allergic to an essential oil. And so a patch test, dabbing a drop on your inner elbow and waiting a few minutes for a reaction, is important.

Some top cautions include:

  • Ingestion — Adding essential oils like grapefruit, lemon or oregano into water or capsules for ingestion is dangerous. Straight ingestion of oils can burn your esophagus and damage your stomach lining.
  • Sunlight exposure — Many of these oils are photosensitive, meaning that you should never apply them and go into the direct sunlight.
  • Pharmaceutical interaction — You may experience contraindications between oils and medicine. For example, if you are taking a blood thinner or have blood clotting issues, cross frankincense off your list.
  • Pregnancy — Clary sage should never be used if you are pregnant as it can induce contractions.

medicinal disclaimer 2Users must realize that essential oils are strong. They are the highly distilled essence of the plant. With high-quality essential oils, it’s more is never better. With essential oils less is more. The best rule of thumb is that unless you have your doctor’s permission, just don’t ingest essential oils.



Bittersweet … A Tale of Two Sisters

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

The Sisters’ Shame
We were two daughters of one race;
She was the fairest in the face.
    The wind is blowing in turret and tree.
They were together, and she fell;
Therefore revenge became me well.
    O, the earl was fair to see!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

bittersweetA lot of legends of magic, revenge and sorcery begin with two sisters. Sometimes they are friends.  Sometimes they are rivals.  But an unspoken message in many stories is, “Don’t pick the wrong one!” Increasingly, North American gardeners are finding themselves faced with this dilemma.  The choice may be between a native plant and its sometimes seductive, sometimes invasive sister, introduced from elsewhere.

Bittersweet gives us such a story. American bittersweet, Celustrus scandens, is seen everywhere this time of year in wreaths and dried arrangements. It has tiny vivid orange fruits and arils, each surrounded by an arched areola. The fruit is produced on long, twining stems. During the gray days of fall and winter, Bittersweet is a versatile, reliable provider of warm color in the home.

It is poisonous. At least to people, dogs and cats.  Birds and squirrels may eat the berries unharmed.  Some indigenous American tribes have made medicinal preparations from parts of the plants, which reputedly act to purge the body in every possible way.

American bittersweet, while a North American native, is not actually “true” bittersweet. That attribute was already snagged by its European cousin, “bittersweet nightshade” (Solanum dulcamara).  Yes.  Nightshade.

American bittersweet grows freely throughout most of the eastern two thirds of the United States.  It is a reliable indicator of a wetland habitat. A new variety of American bittersweet is American Revolution bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens ‘Bailumn’), more free flowering than the wild plant, and with much larger fruit.

The related Chinese or oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is becoming more common than American bittersweet, and is spreading throughout the same geographical range. Both have seeds that are widely spread by bird, although Chinese bittersweet also propagates by rhizomes. The plants are very similar in appearance, although the Chinese bittersweet carries her flowers all along the vine, whereas the American bittersweet flowers only at the tips. Both varieties grow on long (15 to 20 feet), trailing and climbing deciduous vines, which use other neighboring plants for support.  Both may girdle and kill the supporting plant, but that is more often the case with Chinese bittersweet.  Her lavish growth is more likely to make her an aggressive and fatal neighbor. That is why the Chinese bittersweet is considered invasive, while the native bittersweet is not. Chinese bittersweet’s lush growth also hogs the light, and kills neighboring plants by cloaking them in darkness.

 Humans have been instrumental in spreading the reach of Chinese bittersweet.  Her more lavish growth and flowering, and her seeds’ greater attractiveness to birds, have made her a popular introduction.  Chinese bittersweet has been planted in great numbers to control roadside erosion. And all of those wreaths and centerpieces eventually get dusty and start dropping (poisonous) bits around the house.  The next stop is the landfill…where the new plants prosper.

Medical disclaimer

The American bittersweet is, therefore, quickly becoming an endangered plant, while the Chinese bittersweet is sometimes labeled a noxious pest. Its wanted poster is right up there with Japanese knotweed.  Even serene gardeners start considering the nuclear option: RoundUp. And that’s sinister, indeed. More bitter than bittersweet.

Moral of the story: Plant native.

Add Lemongrass to Your Garden Plans

By Peggy Riccio, member, Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America

lemongrassSeptember.JPGLemon grass is probably one of the easiest, cheapest herbs you can grow. You can purchase short, unrooted culms (stalks) at the local Asian grocery stores and simply stick them in the soil in large containers or in the ground.

This year I bought three culms for less than a dollar in July. They were a foot tall with little to no roots. I planted the three in one large plastic container. I left them in full sun, on the deck, and ignored them. Here in Virginia we had an unusually wet summer, so they were watered. By September, the three plants had grown to 4 feet tall and the container was heavy.

I was growing mine for culinary purposes but lemongrass can be used as an ornamental for the summer garden. Its graceful slender foliage is a great thriller plant for large container plantings and its height can serve as a screen for the back of a perennial border or even as a summer hedge.  Plant them about two feet apart to give them plenty of space to let the foliage arch gracefully downward. Grow lemongrass in full sun and rich soil with plenty of water at first to have the roots become established.

Lemongrass is versatile in the home. The fragrant leaves can be used for floral arrangements, even dried floral arrangements, and potpourri. In the kitchen the leaves are best used fresh or dried in a liquid where you can remove before eating or drinking, much like bay leaves. I infuse the leaves in my black tea for a lemon flavor and I use them in coconut curry soup and egg drop soup. When cooking dishes like stir-fry, fish, seafood, chicken, rice, and even baked goods, cut a culm that is at least a foot tall with a half-inch swollen base. Cut below the swollen end, which is what you will use in the dish, and remove the outer, fibrous layers (the remaining culm in the container will re-sprout). Cut to the inner, white heart, which should be soft enough to eat in dishes. If you have too much, store in plastic bags in the freezer.

lemongrassLemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, is native to India and Sri Lanka and hardy to Zone 9. I have to treat lemongrass as a tropical plant in my Zone 7 Virginia garden. As frost approaches in October, I have several options for my plants. Option one: I could drag this heavy container to my office where I have good light to overwinter until next May. Option two: I could cut the culms into small sections and dry or freeze them. Option three: I can dig the plants up, cut down to a few inches, re-plant in small pots, and place indoors at a south facing window. By keeping the soil barely moist, the roots remain alive through the winter so the pots can go back outside next year. Option four: Since the three culms cost less than a dollar, I can do nothing and simply start all over again next year.

This year, I elect option two so I can continue to have hot, lemon-flavored tea during the cold winter months. Next year, I will pay another visit to the Asian market and for less than a dollar, plant lemongrass again for flavor as well as beauty.

Author Peggy Riccio gardens in a typical suburban Northern Virginia home. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a horticulture degree and has been involved in horticultural communications for more than 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. Riccio produces, a local gardening website for the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC metro area. Pegplant offers local gardening news, resources, and information about gardening, gardens, and plants.

Contest 2: The Winner is …

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

In September we relaunched the “Showinner 2w us Your Herb Garden” Contest. Folks were invited to send herbal planting efforts. Names were placed in a “hat” and a winner was selected. Winner Susan Maasch in Bangor, Maine, will receive a copy of the book What Can I Do with My Herbs by Judy Barrett.

About her herb garden Maasch writes:

“My herb garden is right outside my kitchen door. I focus on culinary herbs which we eat all summer and early fall and then dry or freeze for all winter long. We have four kinds of thyme, four kinds of sage, garlic chives, summer savory, parsley, oregano, basil and 40 kinds of garlic from all over the world.

We grow lemon verbena and different mints to use for tea. I use the lavender for my chai tea and to make lavender cookies. The garden is my meditation and joy giving me great flavor and gifts to give others.”

Maasch started herb gardening about 46 years ago when urban and suburban kids were inspired by the back to the land movement, holistic living, Earth Day, and “general hippie values” of the 1970s. She hasn’t stopped.winner

“I love the labor, the earth in my hands, the rewards of growing my own food and herbs including the tea we drink,” she says. “I always say the garden is a visually beautiful place to be and when I enter it I leave the world and all its troubles behind. I am somehow transported to the moment and a place of peace in a way nothing else does for me.”

300 Posts Published by Herb Society Bloggers

300 Posts Published by Herb Society Bloggers

hsa-logo-seal-364On Wednesday, October 31, 2018, we published our 300th blog post for The Herb Society of America.  With today’s post the counter rolls to 301. The first post, published five years and nine months ago in February 2013, was written by Holly Cusumano of HSA’s Philadelphia Unit. The latest is by Beth Schreibman-Gehring of the Western Reserve Herb Society Unit in Cleveland.

The award-winning blog built momentum after July 2015 when Paris Wolfe became the first Blogmaster, a role she continues today. She both writes original posts and works with numerous writers to bring twice weekly posts to HSA’s social media audiences.

This success is possible because of the writers and readers who participate and support the blog and The Herb Society. The blog’s mission is quite simple … to promote the essential experience of herbs from cultivation and use to learning and research, for members and the public throughout the United States

  • to protect botanical heritage,
  • to steward scientific diversity and
  • to promote personal enjoyment.

For blog followers and readers who don’t already belong to The Herb Society of America, the organization is a non-profit founded in 1933 with more than 40 units located in seven regional membership districts. Two of The society’s most important activities are found in the GreenBridgesLogo_LoGreenBridges™ Initiative, a pollinator protection program, and Notable Natives™, a native herb conservation effort.

Whether you are looking for a local unit to join or if you are simply looking for a trusted resource for information on herbs, The Herb Society of America community is your connection the world over to help you learn and to share your ideas, knowledge, and observations with other herb enthusiasts.

Get to know us better at Better yet, become a member. And, keep reading as we reach for 400 posts over the next year.

Thank you.

A Bewitching Reflection on the Season

A Bewitching Reflection on the Season

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


Will you follow me? Yes, I know that the woods are dark, but isn’t the smell intoxicating this time of year? The leaves are wet and seductively sour, sweet ripe apples are still hanging on the cool bare branches and the musky scent of deer lingers all around us in the still night forest.

The winds are stirring tonight and if you listen carefully they will tell you anything that you need to know. Take a deep breath, notice the smells that come to you. Yes, we are in the deep woods and there are the familiar sounds of animals curling in the brush and the musky, sweet smells of wet leaves, mushrooms and windfall apples.  An owl flies past, wings strong and silent and suddenly the shriek of its prey breaks the still, dark night yet another part of the great dance among the strands of the web of life.

Come gather with me around this friendly balefire. The flames smell absolutely wonderful, burning brightly with the magical woods of apple, oak and ash and scented with fresh branches of lavender for peace, white sage for cleansing and purification, mugwort for protection and rosemary, for remembrance!  It’s a beautiful evening, cool and crisp and I’ve laid piles of fragrant fresh hay all around so we can sit.

cauldronI hope you’re hungry, because I’ve brought homebrewed hard cider  infused with nutmeg, fresh honey and apples. The cauldron is filled with steaming hot pumpkin soup, laced with golden sage, curry and cumin and the last of the season’s sweet corn is roasting by the edges of the fire waiting to be drenched in the melted butter that has been laced with the disarmingly robust flavors of earthy black truffles, chilies from the garden and salt.

The waning moon is hanging by a silvery, slivery thread in the sky and the woods are quiet, except for the disconcerting sense that we are not alone. We’re probably not. It’s All Hallows Eve or All Souls Night, also known as the great Celtic feast of Samhain, the gateway between autumn and winter in the Northern Hemisphere that draws us into the darkest time of the year.  This is the time of year when the veil between the worlds becomes especially thin and the place where all souls can meet is the easiest for us mere mortals to see. I love this time of year, because I always feel so alive and connected to the wisdom of those who have walked before me.

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all of my ancestors are behind me. Be still they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands. “Linda Hogan

Samhain is a special time for me because it’s a moment that I simply stop for a long period of quiet reflection. Samhain or as you’ll know it Halloween, is the Celtic New Year and I am definitely all witch, or all Rosewitch as my husband teasingly calls me! Don’t worry; I’m a good witch to be sure. I really do believe in magic. Samhain is my time for deep reflection and divination, the time to honor endings and a time for us all to cast powerful new wishes and create empowering dreams for the new year.

tea spoonsTonight, witches all over the world will look to the night sky while casting spells for dreams of peace and a prosperous world for everyone. We’ll bless and say prayers of gratitude for our ancestors. We’ll give thanks to mother earth and her green blessings that sustain us and keep us healthy and vital. Our creed is to harm none; we are the keepers of the earth’s most magical secrets. For years we’ve been the healers, the quiet herbalists who walk unnoticed among you.  We tend the gardens. We mix and brew the teas that heal and the potions that make life just a bit more interesting. Our recipes are passed down to our children hidden in our cookbooks and on bits of paper tucked away in old books. They are hidden in old bibles and hymnals along with tiny bits of pressed herbs and flowers.

We are the keepers of the older ways, the wiser ways.

For years we’ve lived cloaked in secrecy, afraid to be known.

No longer. The world is clamoring for our juicy green magic.

sage bundles

Yes, sometimes I think that people are afraid of us simply because our very nature is so earthy. Magic for me is happiness, playfulness and tenderness. It’s also about knowing that there are some things that you can control and many things that you can’t. It’s about acceptance and taking care of others as you would want to be cared for yourself. It’s about living powerfully with all in the world, not being afraid to see all that the world has to offer. It’s about tolerance. It’s about being at peace with the dualism of creativity and destruction. It’s about creating your own reality, not waiting for it or someone else to create you. Our gardens do that naturally year after year. Mother Nature is our greatest teacher. She understands the nature of magic inherently. She alone can show us how to evolve or die.

Am I truly a witch? I’ve known these things about myself for my entire life, since the first time I lay in the grass and watched magic unfold as I blew on the seeds of a dandelion. Am I a witch because I seek out the herbal knowledge that this fast-paced world seems to no longer have time for? Is it because the change of the seasons quickens my blood?  Is it because I follow the rhythms of the earth, honor the turning of the wheel of the year?  Because I believe more in the energy and the potency of the green recipes handed down from all the wise women who came before me? Because I would always choose the old ways first? Because I will not quickly forget the knowledge and the wisdom of those who came before me?

Here is what I know to be true.   I am an herbalist who instinctively knows that regardless of how many positive strides are made by western medicine, that there will always be a need for green magic and nature in the healing process. I will be here holding the space of the wise woman. I am the kitchen witch who loves nothing more than to spend long days in my gardens tending the healing herbs, fruits and vegetables, promoting healing through herbalism, flower and gem essences, aromatherapy and Reiki, while brewing delightful herbal potions to help keep you healthy, gorgeous and sexy all over, inside and out!

Witch broom

I dream of a world where we are completely connected to our mother earth and each other again. I’m finally beginning to see it appearing, even among all of the current madness. There are farmers markets on every corner, where we gather together to buy our fresh foods for the coming week. I can’t walk into a bar without being offered the latest craft beer or mead, in fact I’ve even begun to make my own beer and cheese again because everything I need is available for me to do so. We knit, sew and weave our own textiles. We keep chickens and bees. We make candles, soaps, herbal medicines and perfumes. Backyard herb and vegetable gardens have sprung up everywhere and so have community gardens. Every city that I’ve been to recently has its own delightful distillery.

What’s next? Maybe the return of the community bread and stew oven? And why not? One fabulous by-product of the last 20 years is that so many of us are finally cooking again. My phone and more often lately my email is pinging constantly with questions about herbalism, Reiki and natural healing. It seems that we are begging for all of the older knowledge that is tried and true. The old ways may be slower, but there is no better prescription for health and wellbeing than the food that you put on your fork, the water that you pour into your glass or the magical Cocoamicrobes found in a spade full of rich brown dirt.

If that’s not magic alive and afoot, I don’t know what is!

So, come dance under the moon with me tonight.  There’s truly a little witch in every woman and here’s a copper mug filled with my favorite steaming brew to help you find yours!  It’s made from steaming almond milk and fragrant dark chocolate, raw honey, my homemade rose syrup for love and healing, allspice for a year full of good luck, cinnamon for health, chili to warm you, a touch of vanilla for creativity and a lusty shot of herb infused amaro to enable you see between the worlds. I’ve also grated the last bit of my contraband Tonka bean from Paris over the top because who wouldn’t desire more love and prosperity in the New Year?

Sip it slowly, savor its smoky aroma and make a wish. Now tell me, what spicy magic would you like to create in your life this year?

Blessed Be ……. Beth