An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Archive for the ‘Athens Banner-Herald column’ Category

Redbuds both beautiful, edible

Cercis canadensis

Redbud blooms, native to Eastern US, are edible, and taste light and sweet.

When a plant vibrantly attracts our attention during a particular time every year, people come to know it as a seasonal indicator. To many people it’s the dogwood blooms that are awaited and welcomed, signaling winter has passed. According to Paul Vestal and Richard Evans Schultes, 20th century ethnobotanists from Harvard, the Kiowa Indians saw the purplish-magenta blooms of the native Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) as a sign that spring had come.

Before the heart-shaped leaves emerge – which are a beautiful coppery iridescence when young – the flowers bloom from smooth, dark gray, naked branches. Often last summer’s dried seedpods still hang from the branches while the tree is in bloom. The irregular shape of the flowers and the seedpods, which resemble peapods when fresh, indicate the redbud is a member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae).

The Eastern redbud also is called the Judas-tree due to stories that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from a redbud species (Cercis siliquastrum) native to Western Asia and Southern Europe.

Although the Eastern redbud is rarely included in popular herbal texts, it provides medicinal, edible and economic uses in addition to its beauty.

Many botanical accounts report that Native American and European American children enjoyed eating the fresh flowers of the Eastern redbud. They are soft and slightly sweet, and add instant color to salads or on cupcakes.

The deep hue of the petals indicates the presence of healthful flavonoids, such as quercetin. Redbud flowers also are popular among bees and aid their honey production.

Fresh seedpods are edible, as well, though they must be cooked and flavored with olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Seedpods quickly turn too astringent to eat if left on the tree too long. Sample one, and you’ll experience all of your saliva drying up in your mouth.

Amplify the seedpod experience, and you’ll have an idea what the inner-bark can do. Tannins present in the inner-bark and root, which account for its astringency, have been used to heal lung congestion and to tonify excessively damp conditions, including diarrhea and dysentery. The Cherokee used an infusion of the bark for whooping cough.

The California redbud (Cercis orbiculata), native to California, Arizona and Utah, is valued by many Native American tribes for basket weaving, as its young branches have a decorative reddish-wine color. A technique of pruning to encourage abundant young, red shoot growth, which is pre-bark development, is called coppicing, and only recommended on trees a least a decade old.

For textile weavers and natural dyers, redbud roots make a red dye.

Redbuds tolerate shade, drought and occasional flooding, but prefer moist, well-drained, sunny spots. Due to their deep taproot, redbuds can be good soil stabilizers.

Although most leguminous plants are nitrogen-fixers, converting nitrogen in the air for the soil to use, redbuds don’t appear to have the root nodules to fix nitrogen.

Easy to propagate from seed, but not long-lived, the redbud is one of our most ornamental, native trees, which gracefully glows along woodland areas during this time of year.

Cleavers for internal spring cleaning

Cleavers in Athens, Georgia, US at the Brick House

Before there was Velcro, there were cleavers, a bristly, weak-stemmed annual with whorls of narrow leaves and inconspicuous white flowers. Arising from its winter bed during the seasonal transition into early spring, cleavers (Galium aparine) embody juicy, springtime vitality.

Growing in areas of moist, partial-shade, cleavers, also known as goosegrass and lady’s bedstraw, typically are thought to have originated in Europe. According to the USDA Plants Database, however, cleavers are considered native to the United States. Whether native or not, cleavers are found throughout the entire North American continent and have been used in Native American medicine.

According to traditional Western herbal healing, cleavers cleanse accumulating toxins from the fluid and its channels, such as the blood, lymph, sweat, bowels and kidneys, which can become stagnant during the colder months.

The fresh, brilliant-green cooling juice released from its stem and leaves contains citric acid, sweet-smelling coumarins (which is not the same blood-thinning compound, Coumarin), and asperuloside, a laxative.

Signs of stagnation for which cleavers are used in order to nudge the fluid channels toward more efficient elimination are swelling of the hands and feet, or nodule-like cysts on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet; fibrous tissue in the breasts; inflammation in the kidneys or urethra, or kidney “gravel”; constipation; and cystic acne.

The Nitinaht people of British Columbia are reported to have used cleavers as a hair wash to make the hair grow long.

Harvest the above-ground parts while they’re bright green, before the weather becomes too hot in late spring when cleavers become stringy, yellowed and has gone to seed. On a daily basis while locally available, gather a handful of cleavers – carefully removing co-existing plants unless it’s chickweed (Stellaria media), which has properties similar to cleavers – and either juice them, or chop the herbs, putting them in a pitcher and pouring about 32 ounces of boiling water over them. Allow the cleavers to steep for 8-10 minutes. Strain and drink a couple cups a day. Cleaver tea smells like spinach-water and tastes like grass, so one might want to add lemon juice for flavor.

A member of the Madder family (Rubiaceae), the same family with coffee, cleaver seeds can be roasted as a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

One can experience spring by drinking cleaver tea, bathing in cleavers, or wearing sprigs of cleavers, which make a natural springtime corsage, adhering to any article of clothing when applied.

Paying attention to the plants of the season, and accepting their gifts, brings us closer to the natural, healing rhythm of Earth.

Dig dandelion roots in the fall

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, leaf and root can protect the liver from toxic chemicals.

Everybody knows the ubiquitous, perennial dandelion, but not everybody appreciates dandelions if they take up residency in their yard. Becoming familiar with dandelion’s uses might lead someone to think twice before taking a dandelion’s life.

In the most jovial of uses, dandelion flowers are a favorite childhood material for necklace making, and the geometric seed-globes provide an endless source for blowing wishes.

Used as food and medicine for thousands of years, dandelions are a standby for herbalists and wild food foragers. Originally native to Eurasia, common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) was introduced to North America in the mid-17th century. Due to dandelion’s skill in self-propagation, its introduction to the New World was likely an intention of the human and of the plant.

Medicinal actions of dandelion could be summed up as simply cleansing. The leaf and root are considered an alterative, meaning they cleanse the blood of waste debris produced by our immune system and metabolism. Back when doctors used plants for medicine, they utilized dandelion for treating cases of “autointoxication,” a self-poisoning condition resulting from sedentary lifestyles, and diets of refined flour and high saturated fat.

Recent research demonstrates dandelion leaf and root protect the liver from heavy toxins, such as carbon tetrachloride, also known as Freon. My auto mechanic explained how he digs dandelion roots from his yard to brew, which he learned from his grandmother. As an auto mechanic, exposed to toxins, his dandelion brew is great for his liver.

Dandelion’s saw-toothed leaves are diuretic and high in potassium salts, supporting kidney health. The vitamin-rich leaf is higher in vitamin A than carrots, and also contains vitamins B, C and D.

Spring greens are tasty in salads, tossed with dandelion flowers for a splash of color. From late summer into fall, leaves grow bitter, which fosters good digestion. Add bitter fall leaves to sweet vegetables like beets, parsnips and sweet potatoes to balance the flavor.

Dandelion roots stimulate the release of bile from the gallbladder, which helps to prevent gallstone formation, and has historically been used to treat existing gallstones. The taproot also is a gentle liver tonic used in chronic hepatitis. Current research demonstrated dandelion root induces apoptosis, or cell death, in leukemia cell lines.

Dandelion roots contain inulin, a nonstarch polysaccharide fiber technically called fructo-oligosaccharide, which prevents fluctuations in blood sugar levels, while also feeding the good flora bacteria in the gut. Good intestinal bacteria play a significant role in a healthy immune system.

Fall is the best time for dandelion root digging due to the significantly higher inulin content. Fresh roots are best, and can either be boiled, also called decocted, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or additive. An herbal colleague makes dandelion root ice cream, which is surprisingly delicious.

After a cost-benefit analysis of herbicidal consequences versus dandelion’s virtues, hopefully one will concede that it’s better to round them up with trowels and spades, and eat them, rather than using chemicals.

This article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, November 21, 2010.

Dandelion Recipes:

Roasted Dandelion Coffee: Roast cleaned dandelion roots on a cookie sheet for 4 hours until the roots easily snap and the insides are brown. Use a coffee grinder to grind the roots. For interest, add cardamon before brewing the dandelion coffee.

Euell Gibbons’ Dandelion Wine: “Gather 1 gallon of dandelion flowers on a dry day. Put these in a 2-gallon crock and pour 1 gallon of boiling water over them. Cover the jar and allow the flowers to steep for 3 days. Strain through a jelly cloth so you can squeeze all the liquid from the flowers. Put the liquid in a kettle, add 1 small ginger root, the thinly pared peels and the juice of 3 oranges and 1 lemon. Stir in 3 pounds of sugar and boil gently for 20 minutes. Return the liquid to the crock and allow it to cool until barely lukewarm. Spread 1/2 cake of yeast on a piece of toasted rye bread and float it on top. Cover the crock with a cloth and keep in a worm room for 6 days. Then strain off the wine into a gallon jug, corking it loosely with a wad of cotton. Keep in a dark place for 3 weeks, then carefully decant into a bottle and cap or cork tightly. Don’t touch it until Christmas or later” (pp. 81-82).

Gibbons, E. (1962). Stalking the wild asparagus. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Co.

Partridge berry for women’s health

Partridge berry, Mitchella repens, an edible berry in North Georgia.

Just beyond the city sidewalks and landscaped developments, where the soil is relatively undisturbed, one can discover plants which contain stories of cultural interaction for the sake of healing. Partridge berry (Mitchella repens), a charming groundcover native to eastern North America holds within its evergreen leaves and scarlet berries nature’s best-kept secret for women’s health.

Partridge berry trails along the forest ground with attractive opposite, dark-green, oval leaves, with a thin white vein. Delicate pinkish-white, furry flowers bloom in pairs from spring through mid-summer, later forming edible, red berries, noticeable into the winter months. The berries are often the distinguishing, identifiable feature hikers notice in the woods.

As a food, the edible berries, though bland, can be prepared in cakes, beverages, or dried for storage. The scarlet-red color indicates the presence of antioxidant polyphenols. The berries may not be super tasty, but they do offer some wild-plant nutrition.

Although a valuable plant among American Indian women of several nations whose knowledge was shared with generations of American women from other cultures, partridge berry has been neglected by the biomedical community for the last eighty years, and remains in the category of domestic medicine, a term for medicine practiced within the home.

Through the late 1800s and early 1900s, pharmaceutical companies offered Extract of Mitchella, or partridgeberry, for women’s health. Early medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies based their knowledge of partridge berry on its reputation as a long-standing traditional remedy among American Indian women for regulating menstrual cycles, easing pain, and preparing a pregnant woman for labor.

Ethnobotanical accounts of American Indian use of partridge berry state the whole plant was also used as an antirheumatic remedy for stiff joints and muscular pain, as a sedative for insomnia, and as a gastrointestinal aid for stomachaches.

After a superlative reputation stemming from centuries of medicinal use for common complaints among women, partridge berry’s curious omission from medical research leads one to question. In 1916 and 1918, researchers Picher and Mauer performed experiments using partridge berry extract on isolated uterine muscle, finding no effect, according to John Crellin and Jane Philpott’s text, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants (1990). Did one or two experiments performed almost a century ago on a tissue sample negate the wealth of traditional use in live women?

If one were to harvest partridge berry for medicinal use, be extremely careful to tediously cut the stems, and leave the roots intact in the soil. This plant is threatened in some states and is not exactly easy to cultivate. I don’t recommend anyone to take partridge berry, anyway, without consulting her health practitioner.

Cultivating partridge berry in shade gardens is a challenge in the South due to its preference for rich, moist soils, and frequent watering requirements in order to become established. If one conscientiously tends to its needs, partridge berry rewards with its year-round beauty and its traditional medicinal significance.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, November 14, 2010.

Ginkgo biloba enhances brain and circulatory function

In the realm of long-lived trees, Ginkgo is among the oldest. Some Ginkgos in East Asia are more than 4,000 years old. This tree’s method of longevity provides answers for humanity’s alchemical anti-aging quest.

Ginkgo biloba's beautiful fan-shaped leaves turn canary-yellow in fall. The leaves turn from tip to stem.

Ginkgos’ abundance in antioxidant flavonoids can serve humans when they ingest them, but they are vital to the plant’s developed ability to protect itself from environmental stressors. Flavonoid compounds predominate in the surface of plants serving as an exterior structure, counteracting oxidative stress from pollutants and, more interestingly, acting as communication molecules, much like our own hormones, to warn the plant of threats.

Current research suggests plant flavonoid compounds can communicate with human hormone receptor-sites and actually lower cortisol, a primary hormone associated with stress.

Through multiple mechanisms Ginkgo enhances brain function. Ginkgo has been shown to actually support and enhance the function of neural tissue by protecting neurons from damage, and also regenerating neurons.

Ginkgo leaves protect the brain and cardivascular system from oxidative stress, and actually enhances brain function.

In a college town, many can identify with the consequences of burning the candle at both ends: forgetfulness, depression, general cerebral insufficiency. Ginkgo is used to restore brain function in generally healthy adults experiencing mental exhaustion or attention deficit.

Research shows Ginkgo has prevented beta-amyloid plaques implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, and has enhanced neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a significant memory area of the brain.

Ginkgo’s circulatory support enhances the blood flow by preventing damaging oxidation to lipids, or fats, in the arteries and capillaries. Studies show Ginkgo-treated red blood cells become more slippery and flexible, less sticky, which ultimately prevents atherosclerosis.

Ginkgo didn’t become internationally known for circulatory and brain support until German physician Dr. Willmar Schwabe studied its effect on circulation, oxidation and brain health. Schwabe’s extract is known as EGB761, and is the reason why Ginkgo is the most studied plant medicine in Europe.

Currently, controversial banter exists between one camp claiming the only therapeutic benefits from Ginkgo leaves can be obtained from laboratory-isolated compounds, and standardized extracts of 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent erpene lactones. The other camp states harvested young leaves from “wild” trees also are effective in supporting brain and circulatory health.

Traditional Chinese medicine utilized the seeds, which are more like nuts, more than the leaves, and each part offers different medicinal properties. The seeds are removed from the stinky flesh of the female fruit, then cooked, and utilized for lung ailments. A Chinese restaurant in the Washington, D.C., area serves Ginkgo seeds as a tasty appetizer.

Antioxidants within Ginkgos provide the power to withstand urban pollution, and grant them the approved status of acceptable trees for city streets. If they’re male, that is. Female fruits smell like rotting flesh in order to attract animals to serve as seed distributors. Although this works for the tree, it’s off-putting for the human olfactory senses.

Ginkgos offer a gloriously uniform, canary-yellow brilliance in the fall, which flutter down, covering the sidewalks, so that above and below is completely gold. During this mesmerizing phenomenon, it is the best week to be strolling through downtown Athens.

This article originally appeared in the Urban Forager Column of Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, November 7, 2010.

Sweetgum used to treat hypertension

In my assessment, the most undervalued native tree is the sweetgum. Due to its abundance – and to the sweetgum’s fruits, which look like miniature, medieval torture devices that litter the ground and clog lawnmowers – the sweetgum is condemned by many as a trash tree. Others might have a NIMBY response to sweetgums: they appreciate them along the highway, just not in their backyards.

Star-shaped sweetgum leaves turn a rainbow of colors in the fall, indicating its complex chemistry. Liquidambar, or sweetgum, is one of the sacred sources of Mayan copal resin.

A few features about sweetgums, though, point to this tree being more interesting than current conventional wisdom perceives.

During the fall, few trees offer the spectacular multi-hued, rainbow of color seen in the sweetgum’s star-shaped leaves. From shiny green, to yellow, to red, to deep eggplant-purple, sweetgum’s color spectrum appears to be indicative of its complex chemistry.

Within both common and botanical names of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), we can gather that the tree offers a liquid, resinous, sweet-tasting gum. In the old days, the balsamic resin was called American styrax, or storax, and used as a natural chewing gum. The balsam resin is harvested by making a gash inside the inner bark so the liquid can ooze out. The balsam resin is medicinal, and further processing can produce tinctures and gums that also are medicinal.

Traditionally Native Americans used the resin and inner bark as an aid for wounds, sore throats, coughs and in treating infectious diarrhea. Chemical analysis has found astringent tannins and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory compounds in sweetgum, which make it effective in treating skin and mucosal infections. The leaves also contain many of the medicinally active compounds.

Ethnobotanical research by the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research documents Liquidambar styraciflua, or arbol de estoraque, as one of the sacred sources of copal resin used for incense and burned during religious ceremonies. South Carolina Civil War surgeon and botanist writes that sweetgum incense was used in Mexico as an “excitant of the mucous system” and antimicrobial for infections of lungs, intestines and urinary tract.

Sweetgum balls look like miniature medieval torture devices.

Archeological research of pre-Columbian Aztecs discovered evidence of a large trade of Liquidambar for incense. “Trash tree” is clearly a perception.

Another traditional use by Cherokee Indians was to make a tea infusion of the inner bark as a sedative to calm the nerves.

Recent pharmaceutical research found that an alcohol extract of sweetgum reduced angiotensin II signaling, thereby reducing hypertension. The researchers isolated chemical constituents, benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate, and discovered they served as antagonists for angiotensin II-induced hypertension. Will this trash tree be revalued as a native treasure?

Although sweetgums are prolific and long-lived, they are sensitive to urban sprawl and drought. According to a North Carolina State University study of sweetgums growing in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, foliage is damaged from phytotoxic levels of troposheric ozone. We might regret that we didn’t appreciate the sweetgums while they were common.

In the Athens area, a walk around Memorial Park Lake offers a chance to take in the sweetgum’s beauty.

This article was originally published in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday, October 31, 2010.

Pawpaw used in cancer, head lice treatments

As for showy fall color, the Pawpaw isn’t glamorously breathtaking, but this time of year makes the yellowing of the leaves in mid-height understory an easy way to identify and stake-out Pawpaws in order to harvest their fruits the following summer.

The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and Smallflower Pawpaw (Asimina parviflora, Annonaceae family) are small trees or shrubs found in the mid-height understory of undisturbed soil. Large, pointed-tip, oval leaves with fishbone-like veins grow in an alternating pattern on rusty brown stems. Smallflower Pawpaw has smaller flowers and fruits and is shorter than Common Pawpaw. Smallflower also grows in drier soil than Common Pawpaw. For more images of Smallflower Pawpaw visit http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/trees/aspa.html.

The Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Annonaceae family) is a small tree or shrub found in rich, moist soil that has been undisturbed. Large, pointed-tip, oval leaves with fishbone-like veins grow in an alternating pattern on rusty brown stems. The stem and leaves, when broken, give off a slightly unpleasant odor, which tree expert Dr. Michael Dirr describes as “fetid.”

Cup-like, six-petaled flowers bloom in the spring. These inconspicuous, dark-burgundy beauties, are indicative of the unknown delicacy awaiting the forager-in-the-know come summer.

In early North American history, the Pawpaw fruit was common and widely known.

Nineteenth century medical botanists reported that African-Americans and Native Americans relished the custardy Pawpaw fruit for its taste, and also for its reported sedative and laxative effect.

Ethnobotanical accounts of Native Americans document various nations preparing mashed, fresh Pawpaws into cakes and then drying them for storage. The dried fruit was taken on hunting expeditions as dried fruit leather, or was soaked in warm water to either prepare as a sauce or to add to a corn meal mixture.

Pawpaws generally fall from the tree before they ripen. The forager gathers the fallen fruits, and ripens them outside because – at risk of losing some readers who were otherwise interested – I must disclaim, their smell is overpowering indoors. When the fruits turn from pale green to tamarind-brown, they’re ripe. The exterior is a fairly-tough peel, but the inside is soft and delicate like bananas.

The fruit has attractive, dark, reddish seeds with hard, shiny seedcoats. Be careful to remove the large seeds before eating Pawpaws because they’re considered to be a vermifuge (kills vermin or parasites), which means they’re toxic by most accounts. Powdered seeds, for example, were applied to a child’s head for lice control.

The destruction of habitat has drastically limited the quantity of Pawpaw fruit available. Local food and native plant enthusiasts are bringing back Pawpaw fruit through planting and providing the fruits at local markets. Pawpaws don’t tolerate the jostling required for grocery stores, so Pawpaw farmers must sell the fruits directly to customers as they ripen.

Pawpaw twigs are a source of annonaceous acetogenins, which have been used as an alternative treatment for certain cancers. Recent laboratory research at Purdue University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science found that extracts of Pawpaw are “among the most potent of the 3,500 species of higher plants screened for bioactive compounds,” and proven to be an effective antitumor compound, as well as a treatment for oral herpes, and a pesticidal shampoo for head lice, fleas and ticks, already known in folk medicine.

Pawpaws make a case for protecting undisturbed forests as a source of economic and medicinal resources. The curious fruit also presents an argument for learning traditional medicine.

This article was originally published in the Urban Forager Column of the Athens Banner-Herald, October 24, 2010.

Tag Cloud

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 145 other followers