Herbal Vinegars for Spring

Spring takes Her sweet time here in the North, and while I wait for the full bloom of summer, I always start gathering plants and making medicines that will serve us all well through the next year. First among these are vinegars. While oils for salve are generally next, right now the fresh young leaves and flowers of many plants are begging to be put up in vinegars.   I love them all, and cannot wait till they’re ready for salad dressing, sprinkling on steamed vegetables, and making refreshing cool drinks. The dogs get a Tbsp in their water dish, and some – especially rose – I use diluted for sunburns and rashes, all too common around here I’m afraid.

Vinegars are a wonderful way for those new to herbs to explore  the range of flavour,  techniques of using,  and medicinal uses of plants. While I make them all year round, there’s something so special about waiting for the first nettles and artemisias to reach just the right growth stage for harvesting, something magical about checking the garden every morning to see just how high the comfrey is…  and the spruce buds! I stand by my beautiful white spruce, singing a love song to her magical nourishment and medicine while I gather, and I swear, the birds around us sing along. Later in the season, I’ll make plenty of rose, monarda, thyme, rosemary, sage and basil… and come winter, it’s time to start more white pine needle brewing (one of my very favorites) and the ever-changing but always useful Fire Cider (more on these to come).
The method of  herbal vinegars is so easy, once you’ve made a few, as with elixirs, honeys and pastilles, you’re only limited by your imagination. Here then are a few of my standards – really it would be more accurate to say standards in The Repertoire, because everyone uses them! and the methods for putting them together. I’m putting this in Q&A form, to cover some of the questions I had when I started making these lovely herbal delights many years ago.

What kind of vinegar do I use – white, red or white wine, balsamic, apple cider, raspberry?

Apple Cider is the version most touted for health benefits, and many of it’s fans swear by it. Generally speaking that’s what I use too, as my herbal creations are designed to taste lovely and support health – but I’ve experimented with white and red wine, balsamic, raspberry and some of these funky/wonderful products too:http://www.wildfoods.ca/products-vinegars.html with, well, mixed results. Suffice to say I will not be without a couple of them for cooking – dressings and marinades  but they haven’t always combined well with herbs, tastewise. For our purposes here, let’s stick with apple cider. I’ll share some other funky/delicious combinations in the months to come.

Here’s a brief rundown on what vinegars actually are:

Vinegar is a product of fermentation. This is a process in which sugars in a food are broken down by bacteria and yeast. In the first stage of fermentation, the sugars are turned into alcohol. Then, if the alcohol ferments further, you get vinegar. The word comes from the French, meaning “sour wine.” While vinegar can be made from all sorts of things — like many fruits, vegetables, and grains — apple cider vinegar comes from pulverized apples.

The main ingredient of apple cider vinegar, or any vinegar, is acetic acid. However, vinegars also have other acids, vitamins, mineral salts, and amino acids.”

What are the health benefits of apple cider vinegar?

This is a question I’ve given some thought to; proponents of acv claim sometimes wild and unsubstantiated benefit, most often things like “in combination with a specific diet and herbs, acv worked wonders for my dog’s arthritis”…well, I’ve “worked wonders” with countless dogs myself, without acv – perhaps it was the diet and herbs? The scientist in me always wants to know. Those who claim great benefit from acv can also be confused about the ph-altering effect it has and what the numbers mean(when measuring urinary ph with a strip, higher = alkaline, lower = acidic, and we strive for a neutral middle area, usually 6 – 6.5.) ACV used alone has been touted as helping diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, poor appetite and obesity… and I’m not dismissive, but somewhat skeptical about thee claims. When you macerate HERBS into vinegar, however you most definitely extract some of the plant constituents into the vinegar – and  thus they can be added to the diet as a tonic. Because tonics are used in small to moderate amounts over a period of time to build health in an organ, tissue, system – herbal vinegars can be a lovely means to  add these herbs to your diet . For overt illness, acute or chronic, I prefer to use the more concentrated forms; tinctures, decoctions and infusions, elixirs.

What does “tonic” mean?

A tonic is the term used for  herbs used over time in daily doses, to nourish the body, improve overall health or specifically target an organ or system. For example, hawthorn is a cardiovascular tonic, meaning we take it (I certainly do) in daily regular amounts, to tone and strengthen the heart and blood vessels. Many herbs can be taken in daily amounts as a tonic or in concentrated  form when illness strikes. I drink a cup of elderberry tea almost every day, as an immune strengthener, but when I have a cold I take dropperfulls of the berry elixir throughout the first day.  Adding vinegar to anyone’s diet – human or other animal – is a tonic approach, and we can choose herbs that fulfill the needs we perceive – nettles are important for allergies, dandelion and burdock support the liver, motherwort for the heart and nervous system, rose for digestion and anxiety, milky oats for exhaustion…daily, regular doses.

Which herbs can I use, and what are they good for? Should they be fresh or dried?

To be sure, you can use both. Many people feel a bit more comfortable with dried, and so might think about starting their medicine-making with dried burdock and dandelion root, two beneficial and flavourful varieties. If using dried herbs, please allow more time for them to macerate. I make a burdock root vinegar every fall and take it over the winter; I like to let it sit at least 6 weeks before using. Burdock is very cooling, but I offset the effect of this with spicy warming herbs like ginger and turmeric and clove, throughout the cold months. I often make coat conditioners for dogs using dried calendula, lavender, sage, yarrow and rose.

But I love to use the fresh plants of spring for these tonic vinegars; my own favorites are motherwort, violets, chickweed, dandelion leaf and flower, garlic chives,  garlic mustard, mugwort – and later of course, all the bounty of summer – sage, monarda, thyme, hyssop, lemon balm, various mints, elderflower, rose and more. I recommend learning the medicinal properties of these plants if you aren’t already familiar with them –  it’s a simple way to start learning the plants and adding some of their medicine to your own diet (or your dog’s!) in small, safe doses.

How do I make  it?

First of all, if you’re using wild plants gathered around your area, a couple of all-important reminders. Rule Number One of all wildcrafting; be 100% sure you know your plants. Even Dandelion has a lookalike( Cat’s ear) and while most of the ones that look similar will not be poisonous, some could have adverse effects and we don’t want to risk that!  I’m a huge believer in learning a little basic botany to help with identification; take that extra moment and make sure you have Artemisia vulgaris, Leonorus cardiaca, Stellaria media. Knowing the Latin names and the  defining characteristics of your plants is not a dry academic exercise – it’s essential. When in doubt, don’t pick.

My pick of the beginner books for understanding basic botany: Thomas Elpel’s Botany in a Day.

And second, please harvest cautiously, never taking from anywhere that might have been sprayed, and not too close to roadsides or houses…I have a wonderful rosa rugosa growing out of a part of my carport that is lined with railway logs – these contain creosote and may contaminate my rose. So, I harvest only from the other bush that is well away from the blocks. You need to know the potential hazards of things like creosote, RoundUp,  and pressure treated wood. Harvest wisely -and always with thanks to the plants. I leave a blessing every time, which is most often a small prayer. Let your own beliefs and intuition guide you in that regard, but be sure to thank them in some way.

Now; here’s what you need to get going. 🙂


a sterile glass jar, pint or quart depending on how much you plan to make

a plastic top or waxed paper

your plant, garbled and chopped

vinegar of choice


label and pen

After you have sterilized your bottle,  place the chopped herb in to about the 2/3 level (lightly packed – too much makes a mess and too little is a weak medicine). Pour the vinegar – heated or not – overtop and use the chopstick to stir it in well.
Cover your plant well, and the use either a plastic lid, or wax paper with a standard ringtop lid. Vinegar should not come into contact with metal or it blackens and is most unappealling. I use wax paper or plastic wrap most of the time as a barrier, but have also found with my Bernardin lids, the plastic coating inside the lid liner prevents contact with metal.  If using empty honey jars, though, I always line with something.

Then, just store in a cool dark cabinet or corner of your cupboard – check every day or so,, shake or stir -and six weeks later you have a beautiful, tasty and mineral rich  medicine. If I’m using roots 0 burdock, yellowdock, dandelion, I might leave it sit two weeks more.

decanting pine needles in apple cider vinegar


This is a topic that seems to divide herbalists a little; some  use pasteurized acv, others use unpasteurized and heat it, and some use unpasteurized as is without heating.I do both, but if I use unpasteurized acv without heating it, I make extra sure I shake, stir and check on my medicine daily. In reading countless forums and articles about this topic I have come to the conclusion that it’s entirely up to YOU. Susun Weed heats her unpasteurized vinegar because “Raw vinegar and herbs can combine to make strange (stinky) alien beasts” – with the greatest of respect for Susun, I have not found this to be so. Many of my herbalist friends feel raw acv is far more medicinal,and I’ve used it by far more then I’ve used either purchased pasteurized vinegar or heated my own. Most definitely if I’m using the end product externally I do not heat it. Susun does make the important point that if you do heat an unpasteurized product, do so in a non metallic pan.

How can I use them?

There are many ways to incorporate herbal vinegars into daily life. I often use them with olive or other oils and herbs to make salad dressings;  you are only limited by imagination and taste preferences. You can always spoon a little over cooked veggies, stir into soups (especially nice with lentils) or just place your daily Tablespoon into a glass of water and drink it down (or sip with an ice cube on a hot summer day) . For my dogs, I put a little in their drinking water, and if they don’t like it, a little might get into their dinner – in which case they don’t seem to notice!

Let’s not forget the topical uses and value of acv, and especially herbal acv – Kiva Rose uses diluted rosepetal vinegar for sunburn and got me started using it this way too. In my house we have two bottles of rose vinegar every summer – one for skin only and occasionally, covering up the odour of cat urine. I rescue cats, and we have bouts of (occasional, thankfully) spraying. I have never found anything as helpful in eradicating the urine smell – or as deterrent to repeat offenses! as a good dousing with rose vinegar.

Many infused vinegars can be used as skin conditioners for dogs, especially after bathing, I like to dilute a mix of yarrow, chamomile, calendula and lavender into a liter of water and rinse well. I often pour a cup of herbal vinegar into my own bath to help with dry flaky skin or dullness. My partner experiences a lot of heat rash working outside in summer; I use diluted rose vinegar first and follow up with a dusting of arrowroot/mallow/ calendula powder.

The uses for herbal vinegar also include spraying countertops as a disinfectant, and your kitchen will smell lovely when you’re done (I especially love lemon thyme for this!)

But – more on all of this in later posts – here I am focused on Spring things – and before it is summer, I’d better get posted. Upcoming vinegar posts will talk more about health benefits of various plants; extraction of constituents in acetic acid (vinegar), use of different types of vinegar (rice, white and red wine,balsamic, maple, chokecherry and Canada plum)  and bottling ideas.  But right now, we have to get out and get harvesting!

After a glorious couple of weeks harvesting your dandies, violets, spruce tips, mugwort and so on; you end up with something like this; a cabinet filled with lovely-tasting vinegars that add to your health, culinary creativity and connection to the earth. Enjoy, experiment and share what you find. I will keep on sharing mine, as I go.



Susun Weed’s discussion forum and articles on vinegar

Kiva Rose’s blog   http://www.bearmedicineherbals.com

Rosemary Gladstar, assorted writings

Lila and Lilacs

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of my beloved dog Lila’s passing. She was thirteen and a half. I found her in May, 1995, and I lost her in May, 2008. It was, as the song says, not enough. She was the friend of my heart, comforter in sad times and jubilant celebrant of everything else (good, great, ordinary). I’ve always associated her with the scent of the lilacs, and lilacs do symbolize love – on the day she died and we took her still small body to be cremated, I picked a bouquet of white lilacs to go with her. Every year I take a few blossoms into the house to honour her memory. Every May 26 a flood of poignant, painful and beautiful memory comes back to fill my heart. I have never had a friend in human form to parallel what Lila and I shared. She was, truly, my Anam Cara.

So this year, again we’ve had a strange lilac season, I will need to read on this plant and see if it is normal not to bloom every few years; the mauve one which usually produces a glorious abundance of flowers, has  brought forth almost none this year.  We have two white lilacs, and the large one also barely produced.
But yesterday, the little white bush – struggling as she is under the branchings of a white pine – decided to honour the day by bringing out just two – but two perfect – panicles of double cluster white flowers. I took a couple of pictures:

and then, I made a flower essence from a few of the clusters:

and went off to Wakefield, to purchase supplies for my medicine-making adventures – organic olive and almond oils, apple cider vinger in glass bottles, real vanilla extract, vodka, brandy and another box of jars. Although spending money is tight right now, I had to stop at the Farmer’s market to look at the assortment of pies, cheeses, ciders and so on that are usually on offer this time of year.

I did need honey, so stopped at a booth selling the large jars I prefer, and a whole range of herbal honeys – mint, ginger, lemon verbena, sage — and then I saw it – a type of honey I’ve never seen before, and was quite amazed to find – well, look!

Oh yes, that was the echo of my dog’s sweet playful soul, in my heart and ear, and I scrambled up three toonies to pay for it. I have not even tasted this gift of sweetness yet – but I know, it serves as a reminder to me that sweetness and loveliness were Lila’s gifts and she would not want me to be so sad – she would  want me to be happy, tending my garden and making new things and…remembering.

So, after a remembrance day of much emotion I left off with sweetness – of honey, lilacs, and the memory of a dog who was so much more than a “pet” to me…and whose memory, needs to be so much more than tears.

Breaking into Blossom

There are moments – hours, and if I’m lucky, whole days where life feels like this, in the Hills in the Spring….that is to say, BEAUTIFUL. Every year it amazes me exactly the same way as in years past; one day we have endless acres of snow, then there’s some wild runoff and crazy steaming energy from the ground, it’s impossible to walk anywhere –  then it’s brown and drab for about a week, and then…  Paradise is upon us. Every day a new bird – Mourning doves, grackles,  robins, phoebes, goldfinches, orioles,  rose breasted grosbeaks, many sparrows and warblers, the meadowlark, mockingbird, great blue heron and more. A riot of colour at the feeders, and song on the air.  The Harrier in his ghostly grey-white phase soars lazily over the back field, hunting, watching, riding the breeze. At dusk, a variety of owls call softly across the open fields, and sounds arise from the willow-lined stream that even after 22 years in this area, I can’t identify.

The air itself is new and happy.

Every day; new shoots in the forest, buds opening everywhere, my perennials leap from the ground in a miracle of beauty; dandelions  explode on the grass, baby plants unfurl from their small starter homes to astonish me every time with the range of  uniqueness and longing for the earth. This is also a busy busy time; gardening chores, pulling up some plants (teasel) and moving others (mullein, she will grow where she pleases, and never anywhere convenient)  gathering dandelions and tender nettles for tinctures, vinegars and tea. There never seem to be enough time, even if I had nothing at all else to do, there’s never enough time. The trick – I am learning! Is to select the few key things that I really cannot miss doing, and do them. I can’t do all of it, so I need to be strategic. Here, then, are a few of my spring-things for this Turn of the Wheel. It varies, according to many factors,  but this is the song of my time right now, this Quickening, this glorious Spring of 2012.


Like probably every other herbalist on the planet, I’m gathering flowers, leaves and roots for tincture, vinegar, oil and to use in many varied and delicious recipes. The flowers are macerated in almond oil for a few weeks, wrapped in a napkin and set on a sunny window, for massage oil- also to combine with goldenrod, poplar, willow for a deeply healing muscle salve. Leaves soak in unpasteurized apple cider vinegar ( use only vinegars stored in glass) and then strained, mixed with olive oil for dressings, added to steamed veggies, or taken in a glass of water daily as a nourishing and restorative sprig tonic. Tinctures of leaf, leaf and spring root and root alone brew into medicine that will relieve edema, tonify digestion and liver, and add  a range of nourishing minerals to the body. They’re not here for long so I tend to make medicine quite vigorously right now. 🙂 And don’t forget to chop the leaves finely into your dog’s food – they need spring tonics too, and old ones can really benefti from the digestive tonic and liver support. More on “d’lion” as Susun Weed says, to follow. We all know this plant – we all have our own tales to share.

Birch elixir and oil – I found a downed tree just a couple of weeks ago and made birch twig elixir –  as the leaves come out, it’s time for an oil and straight tincture. So many uses, I will do a full entry in the weeks ahead.

Young Nettles: Tincture, and three of us here are on it (allergies!) but also  wonderful in pesto, soups, stews and more.

Teasel Root: Some of my Facebook friends will be tired of hearing me moan about this process – digging, washing, chopping and tincturing. Well – it’s worth it! Powerful medicine for so many issues, a specific for Lyme disease,and with all the ticks I fear more dogs (and humans) will be infected.

Willow oil (and besoms, wands and runes) – salicin is present in all our willow species, and the connotations with the Moon, the Night, the dark feminine is omnipresent.

Mugwort: I use the young plant in vinegar.(I just ate a few bitter young leaves, too). Make a dream pillow for prophetic nighttime oracles, and tincture some in vinegar for a whole host of healing uses. (Did you know I was going to say – more to follow?)

Motherwort and Comfrey are high on the harvest list too, but I will wait until they both flower to take leaves for medicine.

Forest beauty – here’s what I found on my most recent walk.

Violets, everywhere, all description, beautiful, healing and such a harbinger of Spring. This first one is Viola pubescens, edible, medicinal and soo pretty. Other varieties abound.

Asarum canadense – Wild ginger – a full monograph to follow.

Caulophyllum thalictroides – Blue Cohosh.

My beautiful home…forest and field, village and beyond.

The forest opens herself every day more and more deeply. Spring sings in the North – a wild, ancient, healing and beautiful song. We are so blessed to walk upon Gaia and  learn Her song. Mitakuye Oyasin!

Enchanted Forest Midsummer: Herb walk in the Gatineau Hills

I’m excited to offer this fun and informative event, just before Midsummer this year, a full day if you’re up for it, or you can do the halfday and head home when you’re ready. The idea is, we’ll star in one area of the forest, known for plenty of Solomon’s Seal, mullein, wild geranium, ginger, cohosh and many medicinal trees…wind our way over to my house for lunch and check out the herbs in my garden – comfrey, plantain, nettles, echinacea, mallows, hyssop, mugwort, yarrow, calendula and many more- many will know but still fun to discuss. Then we’ll wind up going to Dakota’s field, a wide expanse of farmland that segues into a magical little forest at the edge of Johnson’s Lake..filled with goldenrod, elder, vervain, boneset, loostrife (yes it has uses!)  gravel root, self heal, St John’s wort and more.
If anyone is up for a glass of wine in Wakefield afterwards I’d be open to that too.

Sunday June 17.  No fee, but donations to cat rescue are appreciated. Donna and I will make lunch. She’s a better cook than I am, and I’m no slouch in the kitchen if I say so myself.

Yes, this is a general herbwalk – applications for humans and animals will be discussed. Bring notebooks, sunscreen, a hat, and water.

Details will follow, but I appreciate some idea as to who is coming.


Vervain (Verbena hastata)


Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)


Harvest of Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) ready to be made into oils and tincture



Dakota says hello!

Namaste, Catherine

Breaking into Blossom

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

James Arlington Wright

Engagement, or stepping out of Avalon

This afternoon I sit in an old and well past- it’s- day bamboo chair; once deep green and comfy, now weakened and  faded from years of rain. I remember this chair when we first brought it home, back at the household we lovingly (and sometimes, not so lovingly) referred to as The Swamp; back in the days before I had Internet, and thought people who did were weirdos with no life. (Famous last words). I remember how many years I spent outside, often in a tent to shield me from the surreal swarms of insects (it really was a house sitting by a swamp) reading Peterson Field Guides and studying my Tarot and astrology texts…taking for granted that my chair would always be there, and my time away from “the world” a gift and a burden to both revel in and bear.

Today I think I may have sat in that chair for one of the last times. Clearly, it is not going to hold up much longer. Like an overused muscle, it’s grown stretched and  weak and  fragile, and it will likely not last the summer. I sat in it anyway, occasionally conscious of the risk, it would not be a comfortable thing to fall through – no, not a nice experience at all.

I read through a list of Things to Do, sitting in that chair, Danny on a blanket by my side.  Classes to  catch up on – papers to mark, potions to make. DUSTING. Making dogfood. Visit Dakota.  I write “find replacement for chair” on the list. Some part of me does not want to let it go.

I watched a  Red Admiral butterfly flit around  Daniel, land on his side and explore his warm, sun-kissed  fur without him so much as waking up.

Watched a trio of ravens  sort out some sort of dispute – way waay up in the skies above. It ended with them all heading off in different directions. It felt significant.

Jotted some stuff about the Birch family and notes for my journal…read through Chapter Two of the Earth Path, for my forums discussion. I could live like this forever – reading, gardening, making lists, watching birds.

It crosses my mind, I am not engaged as I should be. It crosses my mind, I’m really in my own Isle of Apples here,  blogging and working … watching butterflies…

It  further crosses my mind that it might be I am hiding out, avoiding  the world; still,  there is much that can be done right here, in this shimmering  plot of beauty and peace in a busy, crazy, hurting world.

Is my distancing from the world turning me into a faded version of my former self, like my sturdy old chair reduced to a shadow of its former self?

I don’t think so, although some aspects I can spend more time on. I’ve been working very hard, and so disillusioned with humanity I am happier here in my crystal isle. But, still without blowing my own horn I think I’ve developed in many ways, too. The still small voice can only be heard in silence…I don’t know that I would ever have been able to address deep personal issues if surrounded by the distractions of citylife. I might just have run from it all as it happened – the deaths, changes, disappointments and outright disillusionments that characterize pretty much everyone’s life, mine no exception. Instead, I’ve engaged it all – as it happened, and in some cases, ongoing.  The process of some pain is lengthy, the changes will be beneficial or not according to how you handle it. I deeply believe that my solitary life enabled me to engage with pain, loss, even evil in such a way as to stand stronger now in my fifties than ever before. And, I might well have been crushed with the weight of some of it. But, here I sit, in authentic gratitude but still prickly with longing and burning for knowledge. That’s a good place to be in midlife. I am not interested in a lot of change to the way I live.

Engagement is always a hot topic…should we, seekers and contemplatives and Greenmen and Wisewomen all – embrace the cloistered life, live and learn and heal -building in ourselves the mediating power to bring from  Above (or within, or  wherever you feel Heaven to be)  all that we can to help relieve the  suffering of this world? Or should we be actively, socially engaged – daily out there, facing and challenging and working with the bloody mess that it is, to bring change, comfort, and hope?

I think there’s room for both, and sometimes, creatures like myself who do better when alone, might well have our capacity to contribute destroyed by a forced engagement with “the world” ..similarly, those who thrive on contact might go a little crazy if left to an endless cycle of seasons and forests and long, quiet nights. We do what we can. …we do as we must.

I watched the butterfly float away… to my amazement a black squirrel popped his head over a patch of nettle not four feet away, winked at me, and disappeared again. Daniel stayed sleeping.  The world went on.

I have decided, though – one thing for certain. However slowly, I do need to re-engage a little bit. I’m planning some Herb Walks this summer, local and free (except for donations to the cat rescue, I will always accept that). Maybe followed by potluck and conversation, maybe a regular group that meets to share discussion, wildcrafting, potions. I also intend to start even one day a  month, a free clinic in Wakefield or Ottawa, for those who need help with their  animal companions but cannot pay. It will mean I spend a day or two every month in the company of people other than Alex. It will mean I have to dust myself off at least a  little bit, go into town, the village, step away from this desk, garden and forest. I admit to some trepidation, but excitement as well. Seeing people and dogs “in real life” is a long awaited privilege for me.  I think a couple of trips to the National Gallery this summer are in order, too. Maybe some wine.

And while I’m at it – I’ll buy a new chair.

Top Ten Local Herbs in my (human,canine,feline) Repertoire

A couple of weeks back I composed for The PossibleCanine blog, my top ten herbs for dogs (I think I actually wrote on thirteen, math was never my strong suit).  At the same time I am writing up for my course at NAIMH, ten herbs I use most often for people (that’d be me, my partner Alex, and various friends who call or email for ideas about common ailments and complaints.)

Now that took a little evaluation. Some herbalists I know, myself included, get a little – not exactly weary of the standards, we do love them all – but excited about new finds might be a better way to put it. I certainly love researching and testing out local wild plants, for example my write up on trout lily –  recent obsession with (true and false) Solomon’s Seal, Balmony ( turtlehead) and Birthroot (how beautiful a name is that?) and as much as I focus mostly on local plants I am  not about to give up my cupboard of spices, my turmeric chai, my Shatavari and astragalus.  But really – when it comes to everyday medicine – what DO I  actually, daily, week in and week out, use most? I finally got it narrowed to ten for Paul’s course – I include them here – and, an honorary five extra for those I just could not do without either.

My beautiful friends, you are the core of my learning, and without you, I’d be starting all over.

1. Marshallow (Althea officinalis) and related mallows (Malva neglecta, sylvestra, and alcea) – used all the time here for reflux and other tummy upsets (cold infusion of the dried root) also leaf and root for bladder infections (human and feline,mostly) as part of a formula for coughs and sore throats, in honey, salves and infusions.Most tender and beautiful of flowers, I adore her soft silvery green leaves and gentle pink and white flowers. There’ll be a lot more on the mallows in this blog in the days ahead.

2) Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – in almost every salve I make, also use the tea and tincture for lymphatic clearance with chronic or acute infection, steeped in vinegar with other herbs for skin toner and coat conditioner, fresh flower in salads, dried, oil, infusion – so many ways. Easy to grow and beautiful in every way.

3) Hawthorn (Craetagus spp) Fresh flower and leaf dried in tea,  dried berries in brandy -this is one of my daily tonics for cardiovascular support. I take it daily as does my senior dog Jasmine. Delicious, heart-healing and lovely in every way.

4) Yarrow (Alchillea millefolium) SO many uses it’s hard to list them all, but the dried whole plant gets used as infusion, hot, for helping sweat out a fever, the cooled infusion for all manner of skin ailments and wounds or bruising; I make oil,  tincture and add to vinegars for topical use. A compress applied about 5 times over a 24 hour period just took a very nasty shin bruise from major to barely noticable. I love yarrow.

5) White pine and related species (Pinus strobus et al)  I don’t call this my Ally for nothing. The rubs I make with mixed evergreen resin are so gorgeous I apply them to my wrists just to breathe in the beauty. Making an infused balm a la Kiva Rose (with Juniper berries) right now,it’s been steeping a month in almond oil and the scent is indescribable.Pine needle vinegar is a must around here; I also just made my first elixir. Salve for splinters and sore aching joints, in a rub for chest complaints, all Pine medicine is like taking the forest into my heart.  I mix with elderberries and local honey for a crack- of- dawn tea that starts my day with a prayer to the earth in my belly.

6) Elder (Sambucus nigra, canadensis) Sometimes I feel like everything that can be said about elder has been; I use the flowers and berries in a wide variety of ways, from  hot infusion for fever and colds to daily cup of the berries in tea as an alterative and hepatoprotective, to vinegars, salves and ointments,  the ubiquitous elixir and syrup, and in plain old tincture.  Elder has vastly more healing action than if popularly realized. I give it to my arthritic dog, my allergic cats and anyone nearby who has a cold, flu or is just feeling rundown. Few things are as exciting to me as finding a pristine stream  running out of one of our countless small lakes, and the banks are lined with gorgeously blooming elder trees.  Well worth getting to know, if you don’t already, or think of her powers as just a cold remedy. This one has endless tales to tell.

7) Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – what’s not to love? Right now is dandelion harvest time, and as usual I’m making tincture and vinegar from the leaves and roots, eating them in salads and fritters, drying root for use later on in stews and soups. A classic bitter tonic, dandelion supports the liver, acts as a diuretic, is a powerhouse of nutrient and the flowers are loaded with a variety of antioxidants. My whole lawn in covered in the most beautiful blooms! As soon as I’m done here I’m going to gather.

8) Self heal (Prunella vulgaris) –  this little unassuming beauty is useful and healing in so many ways, I have a full monograph planned. How something so familiar and supposedly ordinary can have so many levels of generosity and healing always amazes me.

9) Trembling aspen/balsam poplar (Populus spp) oh how I love this tree – the scented buds bringing resin for tincture and oil, pain relief, and urinary tract tonic, healing and beautiful to smell and behold – and most of all I think I love the song – nothing quite as rejuvenating to me as a  long summer afternoon with just the rustling of the aspen, a hawk circling overhead, and the scent of the garden close by.

10) Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) everyone loves the flower oil for dog’s ears, and most use the dried leaf in respiratory formulas, but I’ve discovered a whole world of use for mullein, some of it from Matthew Wood. As with all of these I’ll share what I’ve  found in upcoming entries. Good thing there’s so much of it wild around here – and this one in a pot in my back yard as well.

The next five I use a lot, and couldn’t do without;

1) Chamomile – always on hand for tummy upset, nervous pups and skin ailments. I’ve even learned to love the tea. 🙂

2) Wild Rose –  rose vinegar and elixir have become summer essentials here – but there’s so much more. Entry – or entries – to follow.

3) Skullcap (Scutalleria lateriflora)  always on hand for thunderphobic dogs, tension headaches and sleepless nights with too much on my mind.

4) Burdock (Arctium lappa) – another medicine chest plant, I use with many liver and skin issues,  in tinctures, vinegars and poultices…

5) Vervain (Verbena hastata) – this is the plant that single-handedly relieved my gnawing nerve pain from the way I sit at my desk. I owe her greatly.

Followed closely by milk thistle, stinging nettle,St. John’s wort, evening primrose, comfrey,  monarda,  mugwort, motherwort, catnip, sage and goldenrod.

Down the road but still well represented here – Cleaver’s, gravel root, boneset, juniper,  birch and milky oats.

I think I probably better stop now. 🙂

As I go deeper into Plant Medicine, I learn to make the fullest use of each ally – the ones that -daily, weekly – ease bruises and inflammation, clear stuffy noses, calm frazzled nerves, settle upset tummies and literally lift nasty splinters out of bare feet and tender fingertips, keep gums healthy and bones strong and headaches at bay. How to grow, care for, harvest, and use the Allies – make everything imaginable from them,  learn their Actions and Constituents and Energetics and how to pair them for optimal or more expansive benefit. I work more deeply than every with these familiar healers – all the while exploring riverbanks and open fields and woodland corners for such things as Herb Robert and Agrimony and Skunk cabbage and Wood Betony and Baptisia….Speedwell…the list goes on and on and on.



Spring Medicine Part One – Adder’s Tongue

This far North, Spring is slow to arrive and sudden in her fullness. Every year about this time we have a few early- risers; notable among them Trout Lily,  Trillium (Birthroot) Bear Garlic (ramps) and Wild Ginger. In my garden, Monarda, Yarrow, Teasel, Comfrey, Vervain, Marshmallow, Hyssop,  Mugwort, Motherwort and Stinging Nettle are pushing their way upwards. The ubiquitous (but no less glorious for that) Dandelion offers a field of antioxidant rich,medicinal and scrumptious blooms, leaves and roots for oils and fritters, vinegars and tinctures and salads and more. All of this friendly, familiar, immediate and  generous medicine is greeted with much  love and anticipation after a long Canadian winter of snow, snow and more snow. Still, the call of the wild is strong. I want to know the medicines that sustained natives of this area long before my ancestors arrived. I want the forest’s bounty – just a taste, if you please.

As I make my way up the long slope of field that faces East of my house, I anticipate  a woodland scene of dappled light and a floor fully carpeted with the yellow lilies and burgundy and white Birthroot flowers. Fuzzy baby Mulleins will seemingly double in size with every visit. Ferns of all description raise their incredibly resilient fronds to greet the growing sun, every where. Cohosh is awakening too, turning from the wrinkly blackened stalks and shriveled leaves of late winter to the unmistakable healing plant that so loves this rocky forest.

Some of these plants have been used in modern herbalism (Cohosh) some not so much anymore (Birthroot) and some seemingly very little if at all (Trout Lily).   Since I’m always drawn to the obscure, the overlooked and the forgotten, I’ve been keeping notes on some of the lesser-used plants as well as the more popular ones. Ever eaten a Trout Lily corm?  No – me neither, but I’m sensitive to everything and working up to a plant that is wellknown as a potential emetic.  Since these beautiful plants are everywhere I thought I’d share a few notes from my journal on them. They do have uses for humans, but mostly, bears and deer love to eat them. And, they certainly brighten up the still-greyish forest floor with their loveliness.

Trout Lily/Adder’s Tongue

Erythronium americanum

Lily Family (Liliaceae)

Common Names: Adder’s Tongue, Deer’s Tongue, Fawn Lily, Dogtooth Violet

Found: All over North-eastern Canada and the States

The nodding yellow flowers and unmistakable mottled leaves of Erythronium are a hallmark of Spring  in the Gatineau Hills. Most of the common names applied to this flower refer to the mottling; my favorite is Fawn Lily.  While not popular as a herb anymore,  Erythronium has its uses. First, it is edible although some people will have a rather unpleasant reaction – trout lily can be emetic, so consuming large quantities is not a good idea. The larger leaves should be steamed and the smaller ones, and the corms, eaten raw. But as with any wild food – start slowly. I personally test a plant dermatologically by crushing a small piece and applying it to my arm. If I get a response – often a rash – I don’t eat it. Many people do eat the leaves, corms and flowers of this plant. Since it is very easy to identify, I don’t feel worried about sharing this. (Anything you ever sample in the wild must be 100% positively identified).

As well,  trout lily does have medicinal applications.

Clinical Actions:

Emollient, Emetic, Anti-scorbutic (fresh) antifungal/microbial

Trout lily was indeed used by many Native Americans for a variety of purposes. Perhaps most perplexing (but commonly mentioned) is the idea that the leaves are contraceptive. (One site I visited claims the reason this worked is the women who ingested them were too busy throwing up to have sex – interesting, but probably not the truth). Sources I used have been pretty consistent; Alma Hutchens cites it’s use “made into a tea with Horsetail ( Equisetum hyemale) for conditions of bleeding, ulcers of the breast or bowel; or tumours or inflammation therein”. I suspect the anti-hemmorhagic action comes form the horsetail, as I haven’t seen this mentioned in regard to trout lily anywhere else, and horsetail is wellknown as an astringent.

She goes on to state that the root and leaves simmered in milk are useful for dropsy, vomiting (which is odd, as the root is highly emetic according to other sources )and bleeding from the lower bowel. Further, the plant “boiled in oil is a panacea for wounds and inflammation” – hhmm, I am wondering about a salve?  Hutchens mentions bruised fresh leaves applied to skin ulcers, best if the tea is also taken internally. I’m willing to go with external application for now. J.T.Garrett says
the roots were used in Appalachia by “squeezing the juice and combining it with crushed leaves for a skin and hair softener”.

A brief mention in Mrs.Grieve reiterates the same ideas; use leaves externally for “swellings, tumours and scrofulous ulcers.” Modern research has not yielded a lot about Adder’s tongue; I did find  commentary about one constituent, but not a lot of follow-up.  Researchers have found “active substances in the plant ( alpha-methylene-butyrolactone, or tulipalin) inhibits cell mutation and could be useful in fighting cancer.”

The best research I was able to turn up shows tulipalin – so named for it’s presence in tulips and wellknown  for its propensity to irritate skin – is an anti-ulcer agent, capable of ameliorating peptic ulcer distress and general irritation of the upper GI tract. Tulipalin is also antimicrobial and fungitoxic…for those with an interest in the biochemistry.

I will try a fresh leaf poultice, first.

Some lovely photographs here: http://www.wildwoodsurvival.com/survival/food/edibleplants/troutlily/index.html

Single leaf of a young plant. Trout lily can take seven full years to bring forth a blossom.

We return from our walk with a few fresh leaves and flowers. The lilies will not last long once the sunlight grows stronger.  Spring comes to the Gatineaus – kisses our sleepy hibernating eyelids with a splash of mottled leaf, elegant yellow flower, and the memory of bears waking for a long awaited breakfast.   Danny sighs and plops down on his bed for a snooze after much exuberant sniffing and marking. I sit with the flowers awhile, thinking of my ancestors who settled this area, and of the life that went on here for thousands of years before their arrival.  Were the Hills this sweet and serene,the stream this enigmatic, did the trout lilies long to be made into medicine?  I sit in a tunnel of time remembered in the soul of this one simple flower…diving deep, and surfacing.


The Cherokee Herbal:Native Plant Medicine from the Four directions…J.T. Garrett

Indian Herbalogy of North America…Alma Hutchens

A Modern Herbal…Mrs. Maud Grieve

King’s American Dispensatory, via Henriette’s Herbal:  http://www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/index.html


Midsummer Musings

Re-posted from last Midsummer (2011)

The early morning sun, high in the North, burns a blaze of fiery orange as he rises above the crest of rocky, densely forested hills to the East. A haze hangs over everything; the dogs are listless from the get-go, the air is redolent with new mown hay, and even the robin seem too lazy to sing his usual morning song. I’ve been at work for three hours now, and done not half of what I usually accomplish. I’m sweaty, a little grouchy but deeply blissed out at the same time – it’s a humid, pre-storm morning in the Gatineau Hills, squarely between the Fairy magic of Midsummer and the glorious revelry of Lammas.

We had a lovely and magical Midsummer this year. Alex drove me around looking (in vain) for St.John’s wort, but I did gather a little yarrow, and plenty vervain, cinquefoil and rue… made a solar cross myself from vine in our back yard (I’ve made many before but purchased the materials)…started all my rose work….a lovely time. I miss having a circle with fellow Pagans, but I never let that stop me from deep celebration and attunement.

A few Midsummer pics:

Solar Cross in Eastern window

At Midsummer, reflection on purification, reinforcement of protection, and above all, fairy-magic.
It was a good one, this year, and I hope yours was as well.


A woman of indeterminate age walks slowly and carefully through the long wet grass; barefoot, the feel of the soft moss and small flowers under her feet, but gently she passes so they spring back unharmed. A woman of mixed and unusual background; not old, not young, with memories flooding from centuries past, memories not so much forgotten as stolen, buried, ripped from her heart by the forces of modernity and culture. In the lengthening morning she walks to what will be her garden, the one that brings food and medicine all summer and into the cold months. As she does, she passes through the much larger area of eyebright and cinquefoil and yarrow and selfheal, by the ferns and the hawthorn and apple and pine, the presences that arrived unbidden, of their own soulful accord, to nourish and make medicine and bring balance, along with that which is cultivated, teachers and protectors and guides all..

A woman of great age, as souls go, calling back the birds to a small parcel of land almost stripped of it’s wildness by two centuries of isolation and taming- much like her own body, once structured and imprisoned and implanted with the necessities of modern acceptability, now grown wilder and warmer with nourishment instead of punishment. The house and acre, surrounded by farmland, had been manicured and polished to a picture perfect image, just six years ago – weeds contained, imported prettiness strategically planted to provide colour co-ordinated blooms every season in perfect timing. And she did love it’s blossoming beauties every year, but marveled at how readily the Wild stepped in and corrected it all. She marvelled at the lack of birds,initially, it seemed strange in a wildish countryside… and the huge effort required to keep the white peonies and salmon pink poppies and rounded or steepled cedars just so. But as she herself fell into wildness and longing and freedom of soul, so too did the manicured parcel of land begin first to whisper, then to sing, and finally to burst forth in shouts of reclamation and joy.

And the birds came back, and the herbs arrived, one by one, some shy and unassuming, some rough and tumble in-your-face, and some just treasures of exuberant beauty and presence.

And now, the gateway opened, the Woman of Indeterminate Age but Ancient Lineage walks a straight line to the pulsating centre of the soul of the land. Under her feet, plantain and chickweed and club moss and earth. Over her head, sapsuckers and orioles and songbirds of every description. All come home, all sung home by the opening of the wild heart, that aches and burns and pours forth love and is finally, incredibly free. All bursting with hope on this warm and sunny day in the Avalon of the Heart, externalized in an island far from it’s origin. Earth sea and sky, the four directions, the layers of life opened again. She stoops to pick a flower she needs to learn about. She stops to thank the mourning dove for her song and gentle presence. There is much to do and the day is young. But a morning like this must not be missed. Before the day is passed, a new dance will begin.

A dance of rapturous love for the living earth, a paean of praise to the Mother….
but above all, a remembrance.