Local Heroes

It’s almost time for the first class in my upcoming herbal series here in beautiful Rupert( can’t quite say ‘downtown’) and I am so excited! As indicated in the last entry, I have a lot of ground to cover and many ideas and recipes to share in just two hours. I’ve made, or are making, a number of treats to sample, and a few special blends to take home – hope to see a bunch of locals there! And speaking of locals, although it’s past the season where we can go out looking for plants, many of the herbs we’ll be covering in class do grow closeby – and a number of medicinally important trees, too. (January’s class is Tree Medicine, wherein we explore the medicine and magic of many local species). For the first class, on Cold and Flu prevention and care, let’s have a sneak peek at some of the Local Heroes who will be finding their way into our teas, syrups, chest rubs and more. Have you seen any of these plants growing nearby?


1) Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

eupatorium perfoliatum
This marvelous plant is everywhere in my area! I consider it one of THE best remedies to start with, that very first day of cold/flu, when you’re just starting to feel the achiness and fatigue. Often found growing in damp spots, ear water, the leaf pattern is distinctive – see above – we’ll be looking at them in the wild next summer, for sure. I use in tincture, mainly, for it’s many actions; Boneset helps relieve aches and pains, has some immunostimulant action, can stimulate a fever if need be ( in hot tea, but it’s difficult to drink so I tend to use elderberry and yarrow instead). Boneset is underused, in the general populace, but it’s an extremely helpful and safe herb, in moderate doses. Well worth getting acquainted with.


2) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)


Everyone knows Yarrow,  but I suspect most people think first of it’s ability to stop bleeding (internally as well as on the skin)… yarrow is a time- honoured  and effective cold and flu treatment as well. Served hot in tea with (or without) elderflower, yarrow helps support the body through fever, stimulating diaphoresis (allowing the body to sweat through dilation of peripheral blood vessels) and fighting inflammation. Abundant locally, yarrow offers a range of other actions you’ll learn about from the classnotes. For now, is this a familiar local face? I’m pretty sure  the answer is yes.


3) Elderberry and flower(Sambucus canadensis)


Oregon Herbalist Rosalee de la Foret states that if she only had one herb to use with a cold or flu, it would be Elder; I heartily agree. Elder has been called  a “medicine chest” all in one plant. Both the flower and berry are incredibly helpful throughout these types of illness, offering diaphoretic support, anti-viral actions and gentle immune support. We’ll look at multiple ways to prepare and take elder – in tea, syrups, tinctures and more exotic methods, too (oxymel, elixir). You’ll fall in love – if you’re not already aware of Elder’s amazing medicinal properties.


3) Pine species (Pimus resinosa, strobus, banksiana, nigra and sylvestris) plus a number of other conifers.


I spend a chunk of every winter seeking and collecting resin, as well as making yummy and nourishing things like Pine cake and various teas with fresh needles. In the class, you’ll learn how to make a warming, healing chest rub with our local pine species – needle and resin – and yes, I am baking the cake as well. Real forest medicine. ❤


4 ) Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Common Mullein-1

Another very familiar plant, many people know about infusing mullein flowers into olive oil for ear infections. But there’s so much more to this herb than ears!  A classic respiratory herb, Mullein is expectorant, anti-inflammatory, demulcent (soothing!) and vulnerary (helps heal tissue, such as the raw bronchial passages we all get when we’re sick). Especially with a  dry, hacking cough,  mullein is an incredibly useful herb with colds and flu (and other conditions – wait for the class handouts). 🙂


5) Elecampane (Inula helenium)


Another of my very favorite herbs, I have looked in vain for this one growing locally – I know there has to be some! Elecampane goes into every cold and flu preparation I make, specifically when there is a productive cough, catarrh in the lungs. Expectorant, antimicrobial, anti-tussive, all round amazing. Until I find some, La Foret always has some in stock. 🙂


6) Mallow species (Athea officinalis, Malva neglecta and sylvestris)


This gentle little plant and her showier cousin Althea officinalis are wonderfully soothing for rough, raw, painful throat and lungs. I make cold infusion of the dried roots, and love to simmer the roots in honey, too, for the kind of supportive, healing help that herbs can bring. Mallows are also anti-inflammatory – they don’t just coat the surface, they cool down the heat.

7) Wild cherry (Prunus serotina)


Another one that many will recognize as a standard ingredient in cough syrups;  Black or wild black cherry is a fantastic remedy for easing the misery of irritating cough, the kind that just won’t let you sleep. The dried bark is used in  syrup or tincture to help give relief, in combination with other relaxing or sedating nervines that allow badly needed rest throughout illness. Both serotina and her cousin Chokecherry, Prunus virginia, are easily located locally.


8) Usnea (Usnea barbata)


Usnea, (or more correctly Usneas, because there are literally hundreds of species)  is everywhere, a beautiful lichen found growing on many of our local trees. Usnea is a powerful antimicrobial herb, with actions that fight both some types of bacteria and many viral infections as well. Another staple to use with chest colds and flu, and not as wellknown as it should be. We’ll be talking much more deeply about all these herbs, this is just a mini- taste of what’s to come.


We’ll also be looking at











Elm spp.



Reishi and other mushrooms



Alder spp.



How to select, prepare and dose for optimal support, and faster recovery time. I’m not sure how we will cover it all in two hours, but I aim to try.

For  any more information on the class, please give me a call, 819-459-1049, or drop an email at catlane@thepossiblecanine.com. I’ll be delighted to help.

Herbal help for colds and flu

The cold and flu season is upon us, and every couple of weeks or so someone at the Earthsong requests help with herbal ideas to help them through the worst of it. Last week a plea came through for  some ideas on prevention, and the ensuing  thread  covered  the usual concepts – watch your diet, make sure you get enough of all essential nutrients, avoid getting overtired, nourish the immune system with gentle support such as astragalus, a little extra zinc and Vitamin C, warming beneficial drinks such as turmeric milk and chai with additions to strengthen immunity…garlic, chicken soup.  But what about those times when all efforts to resist a bug fail, and you find yourself tucked away at home, miserable and sick – as invariably some of us will over the winter? What about the sore throat that makes life a misery, the hacking cough that worsens at night and won’t let you sleep, the misery of clogged sinuses, the body aches, the lingering misery that doesn’t respond to our usual firstline defenses?

Herbal medicine has much more to offer than the usual “garlic and Vitamin C” advice, and can target specific aspects of the individual’s symptoms to offer the strongest natural relief, helping the sufferer get through the duration of the illness with minimal distress. In this article I’m looking at  remedies – some familiar and others may be new – to broaden the choices for those wishing to help themselves back to health. I will discuss the Actions of some popular herbs, with an eye to  sharing how they work, aside from simply telling you “ Elder is good for colds “ we’ll look a little bit at how and why. First theme is this; not all coughs, sore throats, cold bugs overall are  the same. Dry hacking coughs need a different approach from loose, productive versions, and – ideally – call for different herbal strategies. Those studying herbalism here will already be familiar with Actions of herbal medicines, and the importance of choosing specifically, but anyone can learn to think in terms of “what does this herb  actually do  – and  is it optimal for me?”  While we select herbs for their specific primary actions a lot of the time, we also need to be mindful of their secondary effects – and that takes a bit of study. The herb you choose should be optimal for your symptoms and condition – but also work optimally for you overall. As a quick example, people with autoimmune disease may not do well with plants that stimulate the immune system.  But again this can be a matter of dosage and duration.

Review/summary: When someone asks “What can I take for a cold?”  a good herbalist will look at the symptoms the person is experiencing and then find herbs that have Actions suitable to help these symptoms.  How this is done is a very big topic and too much to go into in an article this size, but I’ll be using some terms which may be new, so – briefly – here are some of the Actions we look for (rather than just seeking ‘herbs for colds’).

1)      Diaphoretics – promotes perspiration,  opens the pores,  some promote circulation, others relax tension and some do both – but the idea is, to help the body release      sweat

2)       Demulcents – soothe and ease inflamed tissue (sore throat, for example) moistening, cooling and sometimes relaxing

3)       Expectorants – help to expel mucus from lungs and sinuses

4)       Antimicrobials, antivirals – helps the body to resist or eliminate pathogens

5)       Anti-catarrhals – assist the body to reduce production of mucus, generally from ear, nose and throat

6)      Immune Strengtheners – boost or modulate immune function

7)      Nervines –  the ones we’re using will have a beneficial effect on the nervous system, in this case generally relaxing and sedative, to assist with rest and  sleep

8)       Anti-spasmodics – prevent or minimize muscle spasms, used here in cough remedies to control spasm and help with sleep

This is the primary group of Actions we will be looking for to help with the symptoms of a cold.  All of them are Biomedical Actions; there are other groupings of Actions that are essential for a herbalist, but most who are simply seeking help for a cold will want to start with these. We can use herbs from the above group to warm up and dry moist, soggy tissues and dry up phlegm; or, apply them to help cool down – soothe and ease a hot flamed throat;  relieve tension and pain, especially headache and bodyaches: stimulate  peripheral circulation and help  the body sweat; clear toxic build up from the body;  relax the body and promote sleep, and more. The vast majority of herbs I will recommend are readily available, and once you have used them  on yourself or a family member, you will want to build a herbal Medicine Cabinet and keep them on hand year round. Many, such as yarrow, marshmallow and mullein are useful for  numerous other ailments and conditions, and should be part of any first aid herb cabinet.
It’s important to remember that many of these herbs function on several levels, so the classification below will focus on the primary action in context of the ailment and tissues.

We will look at how to take these herbs – in teas, tinctures, elixirs, syrups, pastilles, steam inhalations, poultices and more.

1)      Diaphoretics. This is the group I often look to first, and the time-honoured elder/yarrow/peppermint tea falls into this category.  The term refers to the action of some herbs to encourage or promote sweating.  The action of opening the body, helping perspiration to flow, is achieved in part by the process of stimulating circulation of capillaries near the surface of the body.  Best taken in hot (or at least warm) tea, sipped throughout the day, diaphoretics include the great multi-taskers Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Elderflower   (Sambucus Canadensis) used in combination or alone, depending on what you have on hand. One of the great things about learning the Actions and Energetics of herbs is you don’t need to go look up what to use for what, and rush out to the store – if you have  Peppermint, use that, and if it needs warming, add ginger!  But yarrow and elder (flower and berry) are two herbs I’m never without. One of the great combinations for flu and colds with fever.
In the course I completed last year from Dominion College, just about every single herbal  treatment for any kind of cold and flu was infused and then “poured hot upon ½ teaspoon cayenne”. At the time I found this a little quaint, and I still think not every cough, cold, sore throat and upset tummy needs it, but in cases of blocked sinus with headache, deep lung congestion/infection fever with a real need to sweat, I generally do infuse the yarrow and elder and pour it hot over cayenne. Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)  should not be included in the diaphoretic tea formula if there is any evidence of stomach ulcer, and I am cautious if there is a history of cardiac problems like arrhythmia; otherwise, use as needed. Ginger is warming, and diaphoretic when added to hot water or the tea, too. Make sure you rap up really well to help the sweating process too!

Looking more deeply, in the next installment, we’ll see that some Diaphoretics are classed as relaxing and others, stimulating. How to work with Vital Actions and symptoms is a whole article unto itself; for the purposes of this article, elder and yarrow can be used together to gently promote perspiration in most common colds and flus.

Some other  common herbs (not an exhaustive list) with diaphoretic action include:

Angelica (Angelica Archangelica)

Hyssop  (Hyssopus o.)

Pleurisy Root (Asclepius tuberosa)

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Catnip (Nepata cataria)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Sage  (Salvia o.)

 Basic recipe

To make the tea, simply place a teaspoon of each herb  in 8 ounces of boiling water, cover,  and steep for 8 – 12 minutes. Serve warm with raw honey, if desired. To make an infusion – greater medicinal strength –  use a half ounce of each in a pint of boiling water , and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes, strain and serve at about 3 ounces every half hour. I use tea for milder colds and the stronger infusion for more severe cases or at the onset. Often with phlegmy, ratting cough I will add the ginger or cayenne as well.

  Immune Strengtheners

Ask the average person what to take for a cold, and the first answer is either VitaminC  and/or  echinacea.  The idea here is to provide a stimulating effect to the immune system, to help the body fight infection. And that is something Echinacea does indeed do well. However, many other herbs stimulate, modulate, balance and strengthen the system, and Echinacea may not be the right one for the individual. Studies have shown best results when Echinacea ( angustafolium) is taken in tincture, right at the onset of symptoms, and in doses higher than the label indicates, sometimes as much as three times higher.

My feeling is, this aspect of herbal cold care is very personal.  Astragalus, reishi (and other) mushrooms and elderberry are better choices for many individuals,and one should exercise caution even with these, if the patient has an Auto-immune condition (diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Grave’s , lupus). I tend to fall back on Elder – but this time emphasize the berry, in tincture or elixir, taken in fairly high dose but at intervals throughout the day.  While the flower helps move fluid with it’s diaphoretic action, the berry goes to work strengthening – balancing, really – the immune system,  so my standard approach is to add a teaspoon of elixir or dropperful of tincture 3 – 5 times daily as needed. Elderberry tincture is a must-have for any herbalist and readily available, but elixir is something we make ourselves, and so I include the recipe here. I first learned how to make it from Kiva Rose, so I reference her recipe here:

Elderberry Elixir

By Kiva Rose



For your elixir, it’s helpful to have on hand:

▪    A pint canning jar (or other glass jar that seals well)

▪    Fresh elderberries (dried can be used as well, simply use about a third of the amount, or about 2.5 oz to follow the 1:5 proportion method for dried plants).

▪    About a pint of high quality brandy (the better the brandy, the better your elixir will taste), depending on whether you’re using fresh or dried berries.

▪    Appr. 1/3 pint of raw honey (or to taste, as you prefer)

▪    A good stirring spoon


Step by Step Instructions

  • •    First, fill your jar all the way to the top with fresh elderberries.
  • •    Now, pour the honey in slowly, stirring as necessary, until the berries are well coated.
  • •    Next, fill jar with brandy, stirring as you go, until all air bubbles are released.
  • •    Now cover the jar with a tight fitting lid, and shake carefully to finish the mixing process.
  • •    Let macerate in a cool, dark place for four to six weeks (or as long as you can stand to wait.
  • •    Strain, reserving liquid. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.


Take 1/4 – 1/2 dropperfull of Elixir every two to three hours at the first sign of illness. You MUST take the Elixir frequently rather than having a bigger dose further apart, it just won’t work that way. Use the same dosage if you are actively ill. For a general preventative dose, I suggest 1/3 dropperfull every four hours or so.”

This basic recipe is the one I use for all kinds of other elixirs that are wonderful to have on hand for a cold or flu; I like to use ginger, rosehips, sage, pine as well as elderberry, and add them in as needed, too.


In this category we have one of the classic cold/flu remedies, often taken in soup or honey – of course I’m thinking of garlic! In treating our own or loved one’s cold by working on all the levels,  we want to include herbs that inhibit or help kill off the  virus and/or bacterial agent responsible for it. Garlic is great in home made soup, added not long before serving, or in honey, or as part of a “Fire Cider” vinegar recipe to clear sinuses and open the upper respiratory tract. But garlic again is not for everyone, it can upset some people’s stomachs or be generally too warming (just like ginger and cayenne).

To make Fire Cider, and I’m not sure where I learned this because recipes abound! But the jist of it is, to use something like the following (and you can certainly experiment, no hard and fast rules here):

Take about 1/3 cup of grated horseradish (and be careful with the stuff, it is HOT!) a quarter cup chopped organic garlic (if you can get organic) and a half cup each chopped onion and ginger. Place all in a sterile quart jar, add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and cover all with a good quality apple cider vinegar.
Cover tightly and let it sit for about 6 weeks, a minimum of four and up to 12.

Once  it’s opened, you simply strain into another sterile jar, or separate into two if you plan to keep them separate for different uses. Now you can use the Cider mixed with honey to help clear sinuses and for the strong antimicrobial power of garlic and horseradish, you can use it as a compress on the chest, you can even try a little bit (start small, a half teaspoon) straight up if you need a jolt of something HOT to clear congestion.

 Garlic (allium sativa) is wonderful if your constitutional type does well with it. Two recipes I use extensively( I sometimes have problems with garlic but love it so much I use it anyway) are Garlic Honey and Garlic Soup. For the honey, simply peel  all the cloves from one head of garlic; chop coarsely, and place into a sterile pint jar. Pour a good, preferably raw local honey over top, mixing well with a knife or chopstick. Let it sit for about 3 weeks and you have a lovely medicinal honey.Take a teaspoon straight up for relief of sore throat and sinus congestion.

NOTE: Fresh chopped ginger,  monarda, sage, thyme and many others make excellent honeys as well!

For the soup – this is one I’ve made for about 30 years now so I have to admit I don’t recall where I got the basic idea from. I vary it up all the time, and I love it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you love and tolerate garlic, do try this; the cooking eases it’s pungent raw taste (and so it’s not as sinus-clearing) but combined with chicken broth it does pack a healing punch for colds and flu. And, many find it delicious.

Garlic Soup ( bugs-be-gone)

You need:

about 4 whole bulbs of garlic, up to six if you’re a freak like me

3 Tablespoons good olive oil or butter

about a quart of home made, rich chicken or turkey stock

4 egg yolks

plus whole plain yogurt, chopped almonds and lots of parsley to top

All you do is:

Crush the cloves and slip off the skins, Toss the smushed cloves into a Dutch Oven size saucepan (stainless steel, cast iron or enamel, please) with the oil and saute oh- so -carefully, making sure not to brown (browned garlic is bitter tasting). When the garlic is soft, add the stock and simmer about half an hour, again very gently. Cool, and then squeeze the stock through cheesecloth or a sieve, into a bowl.

in a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until thick, with a whisk and pour into the large pot. Start slowly beating in a Tbsp or two at a time of the now cooled garlic broth. When you have about a half cup beaten in, you can add the rest of the broth is a steady drizzle. Heat to the boil, and remove. As soon as it’s cooled but still nice and warm, serve in large bowls topped with a dollop of yogurt, chopped almonds and parsley.

If you like, you can add salt; other herbs to taste, of course, but I prefer it straight up. Good tasting medicine!

A couple of lesser-known  but very important anti-microbial herbs deserve mention here as well. These include Usnea (Usnea barbata, around here anyway), a lichen found all over the world, and commonly referred to as Old Man’s Beard. It offers strong antimicrobial action and is useful in all kinds of cold and flu preparations.  It helps remove bacterial infection and inflammation in the mucus membranes and thus clear the lungs of heat and fluid. Another herb not as commonly known outside the herbalist’s community is Osha (Ligusticum porteri,) sometimes known as Bear Medicine. Osha is found in the Southwestern USA and in some parts of the Rockies; Osha is diaphoretic , anticattarhal and expectorant (here we go with the overlap of Actions) and helps clear mucus from the lung. The root is extremel y powerful medicine for the lung but this is not a herb widely found in commercial use, and  so you may need to look around a bit for a source.(Mountainrose  Herbs is one, resources at end of the article) but well worth the effort.

Usnea barbata

Osha Root (ligusticum porteri)

You can try both Usnea and Osha in tincture, but  they are bitter. This lovely recipe from Jim McDonald combines both, with the added punch of Echinacea- and tastes much better. Thanks to Jim for letting me share this.

Oshanasnea Maple Cough & Cold Syrup

This is a really nice cough & cold syrup… while some people use honey and some people use a simple syrup made with sugar, you simply can’t beat the flavor obtained by combining Osha and Maple Syrup.  This stuff is drinkable…

While the only musts here are Osha and Maple Syrup, this is the formula I first started with.  I often play around with it, and can say that either replacing the Usnea with Wild Cherry Bark (or just adding it to the rest) also tastes pretty darn good…

Combine, in equal parts:

~Osha tincture

~Echinacea tincture

~Usnea tincture

Add 1 “squirt” (about 30 drops) of this combined tincture to each tablespoon of pure Maple Syrup (any grade will do, but Grade B has the strongest Maple flavor).

This syrup can be used as needed as a cough and cold remedy, and is quite delightful in flavor and effect (i.e. your kids aren’t likely to complain…)”


This category  refers to those herbs that offer soothing, inflammation-easing properties and can reduce the pain of a sore throat or irritated, inflamed sinuses or bronchial tubes.  Demulcents contain high amounts of mucilage, which in turn creates that slippery, slimy feel these herbs produce when combined with water or honey. Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)  and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)  are most often used in pastilles, syrups,  electuaries and teas  to help relieve some of a cold’s most difficult symptoms. A wide range of plants have some demulcent properties, but for colds these tend to be most popular and effective. They can be used alone, or in combination with cooling astringents such as rose and/or antimicrobials like sage. When I  first started making my own herbal pastilles, I used mostly slippery elm with licorice and rolled the  “dough” onto a marble board like one does for cookies,  then cut out the lozenges with a cap from a soda bottle. This makes pretty pastilles but is time consuming! The method I use now can be found here:


Marshmallow,  Althea  officinalis, in flower

You can of course, make a tea with slippery elm or a cold infusion with mallow, for example. They combine well in formulas for lung catarrh and cough, and are indispensable allround for easing the discomfort of raw, inflamed tissue.

Expectorants, Anti-Catarrhals, Anti-Spasmodics

These three types of Action are grouped together  because they are often used in formulation (along with a Demulcent herb) to address the nasty coughs and lower respiratory discomfort of colds.  Briefly, Expectorants help expel mucus from the lungs while anti-catarrhals work on the sinuses and throat to thin and expel build up.  There are a range of herbs that perform these  functions and it can be confusing to know which to select.  I would suggest assessment of the type of cough, and choosing from herbs that loosen a tight chest and those that assist in drying up a boggy, rattly one. The chief herbs I use  for coughs and lung inflammation due to a cold are:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – anti-inflammatory, expectorant, demulcent, mildly sedative –  the  dried leaf is one of the best allround medicines for respiratory conditions. David Hoffman suggest combining it with Lobelia, Coltsfoot and White Horehound; I avoid Coltsfoot because of the PLAs (pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which my herby friends will know are the same compounds present in comfrey and can make ingestion of those plants problematic). Take 1-4 mls of mullein leaf tincture three times a day, or make an infusion of the dried leaf – 1-2 tsps  in a cup of boiling water – three times a day. Mullein is especially helpful for tight, dry coughs where little mucus is produced.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) – expectorant, diaphoretic and anti-bacterial, the rhizome of elecampane is called for when the lungs are boggy and there is a lot of phlegm coming up. Hoffman recommends 1-2 ml of the tincture 3 times a day.

Wild Cherry(Prunus serotina) – a very popular ingredient in cough syrups, wild cherry bark has a sedative effect on the cough reflex, easing the misery of  repetitive coughing. Use in syrup, or take 1-2 mls in tincture up to 3 times a day.

Angelica (Angelica Archangelica)- the dried root is also diaphoretic and so useful in coughs with fever – a Teaspoon of the dried root decocted in a cup of water, can be taken up to 3 times a day for cough with fever.

White Horehound (Marrubium vulgarum) – an expectorant herb with antispasmodic and bitter (digestive) properties,  hard to take in infusion but good in syrup or tincture (down the hatch!) Use alone or in combination; alone take/give 1-2 ml of tincture 2- 3 times a day.

And to help with the painful spasm of repetitive coughing, Lobelia (lobelia inflata) in a formula helps lessen the severity of  the attack without entirely suppressing the cough. All of these herbs can be taken in tincture form individually or in a formula, in syrups, electuaries and infusions, although some, like Horehound, are notoriously bitter. The point here is, to research and learn about all the Actions  useful for helping with colds and flu, not to be comprehensive I any one area. MANY herbs possess expectorant, anti-catarrhal, mucolytic or anti-spasmodic actions, which we choose and how we use them depends on the type of symptom. Is the cough dry and hot? Loose and watery? An assessment of the type of symptom is our tool for choosing a herb or combination that will help most effectively.

Relaxing Nervines

This group is included here because during the acute stage of a cold we so often cannot sleep well; partially due to the long days spent doing much less a than we are used to, and partially because symptoms will worsen at night and we cannot sleep due to coughing and unpleasant congestion. Once we’ve eased those symptoms with poultices, steam inhalations,  soothing pastilles and cough syrups, we may still require a little help drifting off (and staying there).

This category is called “relaxing” nerviness, because, well, not all nerviness actually help  relax us. Think of nervines as herbs which have a beneficial effect on the nervous system (generally) and you will see that some, like caffeine (in moderate doses!) actually perk us up. Those are Stimulating nervines – so the ones that help us unwind,  that relieve tension and soothe, are the relaxing sort. From this group I generally use…

Chamomile (Anthema nobilis)

Skullcap (Scutalleria lateriflora)

Motherwort( Leonorus cardiaca)

Vervain  (Verbena o.)

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnate)

Rose (Rosa rugosa)

Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

Mugwort  (Artemisia vulgaris)

My own sense of which nervine to choose if you or a loved one has difficulty sleeping through a cold (and sleep is so badly needed when the body is healing) is to select from whichever herbs you know to be effective and helpful. During an illness is not time to experiment and risk an allergic reaction, or as in the case of valerian, a reaction opposite to what one is hoping for. I like a tea made from chamomile, skullcap and passionflower, but have also used motherwort, rose and sage when that’s what I had. Teas, warm, rather than tincture  are my preferred method of administering nerviness. Try one of these straight up, look for a good commercial blend such as BIJA, or blend up your own. And rest easy!

 Very Helpful Things

1)      Some kind of herbal steam is often a lifesaver for me when I’m congested and can’t sleep. I generally throw in a handful of whatever I have that is anti-microbial and stimulating (mucolytic) and that often means thyme! Eucalyptus is another perennial favorite, and I have had great results with an interesting blend from Kiva Rose, who suggests the following:

1   Part Bee Balm (Monarda spp. the spicier the better)

1     Part Moonwort (Artemisia spp.)

1     Part Rabbit Tobacco/Cudweed/Everlasting  (Gnaphalium spp. and related species.)

You can just take anywhere from a pinch to a small handful (depending on your tolerance of the smell and the strength of your herbs) of each and toss it into a small pot of just boiled water (about a quart) and cover for a few minutes. Then take a towel and place your face (carefully) over the open pot. Be careful not to burn yourself but to get close enough breathe in a lot of the vaporized essential oils. Try to stay under there as long as the water is hot and there’s plenty of steam. If you can’t, take short breaks while covering the pot and then go back under.”

This was an interesting one for me, as I have both Monarda and Mugwort in my garden and Everlasting grows wild around here everywhere. I recommend trying this bled if you even have two of them, but all three are easy to find and or grow – and have myriad other uses in your medicine as well. (NOTE: this summer I faced one of the worst, no THE worst allergy season in my life,and used rose petals, sage, mugwort and lemon thyme regularly for easing  relentless sinus misery. It was absolutely lovely and smelled divine too. Highly recommended).

 2)      Compresses and Poultices; the classic is mustard or onion, but compresses (gauze or other material soaked in a hot infusion of the herb and applied to the chest) or poultices ( chopped warm herb applied to the area and held in place with flannel or other cloth) can be made from a multitude of plants.

Here’s the classic method of making an onion poultice – I include this because it uses simple and readily –to-hand ingredients, and is amazingly helpful.

Materials needed:

• One medium  onion

•  2 Tbsps  ground corn meal

• Apple Cider vinegar, 2 Tbsps

• Cheese cloth

• Flannel, wool scarf, or cloth

• Small amount of Olive oil


Peel the onion and place into a skillet that has been coated with the tsp  of vegetable oil. Bring the skillet to a medium heat and sauté until they are clear.  Do not brown.

Sprinkle in the of cornmeal and vinegar.  Stir well until the onions are mixed  – you want a  poultice that holds together and won’t fall apart once it is placed on afflicted area. Take the pan off the heat. Cut a piece of cheese cloth (or old cotton T-shirt) twice as big as the area to which the poultice is to be applied. Drop some onion poultice onto the cloth and fold it in a neat package. Make sure that the poultice is at least 1/2 inch thick and not so hot as to burn the skin.

Place poultice over the area to be treated and  cover with flannel or wool. Keep on at least  20 minutes or until the poultice is cool.

3) Rubs

No article covering herbal remedies for the common cold would be complete without a mention of chest rubs – which can of course also go on the forehead, back of the neck and head, anywhere the sinus pain manifests – being cautious not to get it in the eye, and avoid using the hotter versions (eg with cayenne) around the face. A basic herbal rub I make and use a lot in the winter is made with pine sap infused into olive oil mixed with beeswax and a few drops of eucalyptus oil added as it cools. But I will happily use any sap from our  many local conifers, including Hemlock, White spruce and my favorite, Red Pine (for this purpose).

To Sum Up…

A long but still very introductory look at  herbs and the Actions we seek for helping with cold symptoms. Instead of thinking “I have a cold, better get the garlic and Echinacea” we can consider what symptoms we have, and what Actions are needed to address them. It’s much easier in the beginning to think about actions for specific issues, rather than memorize long lists of which herb does this (especially given that the average herbal lists about 15 Actions beside each one!)  I hope this article is helpful in thinking about herbs this way. Some excellent resources, many of which I used in putting this together, below.

Have a healthy winter!




Jim McDonald’s site is a goldmine of resources on so many aspects of herbalism. Do check out his marvelous collection of articles (under the Link Seeds and Stems, bottom of the page). I thank Jim for all his hard work and the Osha syrup recipe, too.


A great supplier of all kinds of herbs, including the harder-to-find Usnea and Osha.


You all know I’m a huge fan of Kiva’s beautiful blog and approach to herbalism. This blog is such a gift, really a course in itself for those new to herbalism altogether, or like me, new to this way of practising it. Indebted on many levels – do check this out, please.

Dominion College – coursework for the Chartered Herbalist programme


Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman

The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Matthew Wood

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

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