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

Archive for July, 2010

Eat your rose of Sharon, hibiscus and hollyhocks

The edible beauty: Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), Athens, GA

Dinner plates typically are covered with the usual vegetable suspects, mostly coming from corn, squash and the nightshade family: potatoes, sweet and spicy peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. Occasionally, the West African okra, from the mallow family (Malvaceae), makes an appearance. If you look around in your garden, you may discover other mallow beauties to add some creativity to supper.

A naturalized mallow common in the South is the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus, also known by Althaea frutex), a deciduous, shrubby tree, which produces flowers of pale purple with dark pink centers, or white with reddish centers. Though the Hibiscus species is likely native to Asia, the name comes from a Palestinian valley named Sharon, which is referenced by the bride in the Old Testament, Song of Songs, 2:1, “I am the rose of Sharon.”

Culinary uses of rose of Sharon make one wonder why we don’t see them more on the plate. Besides the obvious use as a garnish, the flowers of rose of Sharon can be chopped and added to dishes, or left whole for salads. They make colorful, edible, presentation cups for dips. The leaves are edible when cooked, and can be added to quiche or greens. The leaves and flowers can also be brewed as an antioxidant tea.

Medicinally, rose of Sharon’s flower buds contain mucilage, a gooey medicinal compound made of polysaccharides which is found in most species of the mallow family; think of okra’s sliminess. Mucilage is healing to burns, wounds, gastric ulcers, and internal and external inflammation and irritation, such as sore throats or urinary tract infections.

Current studies on the root bark have found promising results for inhibiting the proliferation of lung cancer. The Chinese use the root bark as an antifungal remedy.

Due to rose of Sharon’s long life, prolific seed production and ease of propagation, harvesting the plant is very sustainable. There is nothing harmful known about rose of Sharon, either. Actually, rose of Sharon leaves can be used to indicate harm by serving as an ozone bioindicator, they burn where ozone exposure is harmfully high.

A swamp hibiscus unfurling in Crawford, GA.

Additionally, two North American native Hibiscus plants share the culinary uses of rose of Sharon’s flower. Swamp-rose (Hibiscus moscheutos) and swamp hibiscus (H. coccineus), which both display stunning, hummingbird-attracting blooms of red, pink, cream or white, and are commercially available, add a vivid splash of color to teas and salads. The flowers contain antioxidants and can have a soothing effect on the nerves. Though the leaves are edible, they aren’t quite as palatable as the rose of Sharon.

Another edible and medicinal plant of the mallow family is the hollyhock (Alcea rosea, or Althaea rosea), the iconic flowering towers of the English cottage-garden. Hollyhock leaves can be cooked like spinach, and its flowers can be added to salads. The demulcent root, high in mucilage, makes a wonderful cough syrup.

If you’re starting to get bored with dinners, add a rose of Sharon flower to everyone’s plate, and let the creativity begin.

This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald July 25th.

Edible & Medicinal Garden & Weed Walk at Brick House Studios

The ornamental Datura with a mysteriously bizarre past. Very toxic in small doses, though historically used as medicine.

Mark your calendars and register early to join Holli Richey for the Edible & Medicinal Garden & Weed Walk at the Brick House Studios Saturday August 7th from 10am-2pm. $35, Lunch included.

Participants will meander through the gardens of the oldest standing brick house in Oglethorpe County (c. 1820), while learning the medicinal and edible attributes of the garden flowers and wild weeds.

Included is a gourmet lunch served on vintage tablecloths, either outside in the shade or indoors, depending on the weather. The menu will be offering wild delectable weeds, fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, edible flowers, herbal infusion teas, and refreshing mint & lemon balm “mock”-tails.

Elephant Ears (Taro) at the Brick House.

Space is limited, so register early by either calling or emailing Holli Richey, 404-695-1812;


1892 Athens Rd. Crawford, GA 30630

On Hwy 78, 12 miles east of Athens. On the left. 1.5 miles passed the Oglethrope County line.

Brick House Studios behind a beauty-berry bush

What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday!

Artemisia vulgaris: Is depression related to digestive health?

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) growing in Oconee Forest Park, Athens, GA. The underside of the leaves are silver.

The gut has been called the second brain because of the number of chemical molecules which communicate to the brain, impacting mood, thought, and physiological actions. However, if for every one signal the brain sends to the gut, there are nine signals which travel to the brain, then we might actually say that the gut is the primary brain. With the brain being dictated to by the gut, it is no surprise that when the digestion becomes sluggish, so does the brain and the mood.

Herbal medicine has a class of herbs to address digestion, and thereby mood–in fact, some say it is what herbal medicine does best. One of the herbs for a particular type of indigestion and depression is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Though it isn’t a Middle Earth-Lord of the Rings remedy as its name sounds, it is an old remedy of Europe, Asia and Africa used for thousands of years, which has naturalized as a weed in North America. A species native to the western U.S. (Artemisia douglasiana), can be used interchangeably.

Mugwort is a warming, aromatic bitter, containing caffeoylquinic acids (some of the same constituents found in artichoke (Cynara scolymus) which protect from lipid peroxidation), essential oils, and sesquiterpene lactones, which reduce inflammation and improve the cellular structure of smooth muscle of blood vessels, helping with atherosclerosis.

The pattern of disharmony that calls mugwort to mind is termed the “Classic Liver Pattern”. The person has difficulty digesting fats, though craves fatty junk food, and tends to feel hung-over from the lack of digestive power. The person wakes in the morning feeling worse, and has low energy. This is a good indication for mugwort, particularly if associated with depression.

According to Galenic medicine, the liver is the source of blood, vitality, and emotions. When the liver is cold, damp, stuck, then the emotional body also feels depressed, sad, slow…blah. Herbalists see this type of atonic depression as a whole-body experience, where the person is stuck, they slow down, and they also really feel the depression in the digestion.

For women, mugwort is used in cases of congestive dysmenorrhea, when a woman feels a dull, heavy, downward dragging energy in the pelvic area prior to menstruation. This is due to the dilation of veins in the uterus.

Mugwort is either used in teas or tinctures. When it is brewed or tinctured, it creates a beautiful, dark color which is spicy and bitter at the same time. In acupuncture it is burned in rolled cones or sticks for moxabustion, where it is applied to areas experiencing stagnation. Mugwort is a short-term remedy, and is best used in combination with other herbs. Avoid it during pregnancy.

A long tradition exists of using mugwort to enhance dreams. People place the herb in dream pillows or simply in the pillow case to induce more vivid dreams. There is little science to verify this folkloric use, but there is no harm in trying it.

I would advise you against planting various Artemisias in your garden unless you have a very large space for it. Most Artemisias will spread considerably. Though they have attractive foliage, they won’t be so attractive when it takes over other plants considered dear to the gardener.

Hawthorn is good for the heart

Hawthorn berries (Crataegus sp.), from Dawson County, GA

For people who aren’t sure whether herbs are safe or effective, the herb hawthorn, which has been used medicinally for centuries, has been through the evidence-based wringer and received approval from medical research to safely treat heart disease, angina, arrhythmia and hypertension. Hawthorn is also approved by the German Commission E, a strict governmental regulatory agency on the therapeutic use of herbs.

Random-controlled trials have confirmed hawthorn’s efficacy in treating heart disease symptoms, namely exercise intolerance, such as shortness of breath and fatigue due to the weakening of the heart muscle and the heart’s inability to efficiently utilize oxygen. Hawthorn helps the heart consume oxygen more efficiently. Participants subjectively report a greater sense of well-being, and scientists objectively note a reduction in signs of chronic heart disease.

Clinical trials show that hawthorn improves coronary blood flow by increasing the integrity of blood vessel walls. In rats hawthorn has counteracted heart muscle dysfunctions which occur when the heart experiences a pressure overload. To accommodate the pressure, the left ventricle of the heart begins to structurally remodel, losing its adaptive capacity. In the study, hawthorn modified the left ventricle remodeling disease process, and helped restore the heart muscle’s structural and functional health.

The medicinal compounds found in European hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, or C. laevigata, formerly C. oxyacantha), native to Europe and North Africa, are flavonoids and oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs). North America has several native hawthorn species, some of which grow in Georgia. Since much of the research on hawthorn occurs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the chemical make-up of native species has not been analyzed and compared to the non-native species; however, herbalists have used various species of hawthorns interchangeably. In fact, if you were to purchase capsules of hawthorn, it is likely the botanical name reads (Crataegus sp.)–“sp.” means species unknown, or a mix of species. The theory is that Crataegus species have similar medicinal compounds because they freely hybridize with each other, making identification difficult even for botanical experts.

Hawthorn, or Washington Thorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum at Oconee Forest Park behind the UGA Intramural Fields, Athens, GA

Growing in the woods of the UGA Intramural Fields and occasionally on UGA’s campus is a small-tree hawthorn species with long, thin thorns so strong and sharp you could use them to pierce ears. This showy native species of hawthorn looks to be Washington thorn (C. phaenopyrum), which has white flowers, beautiful red berries, and crimson foliage in autumn. Washington thorn was a colonial plant used at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and as a living fence at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The leaves, flowers and berries are medicinal. The fresh flowers contain the highest amounts of OPCs and flavonoids, but not when they’re dried. The berries, fresh or dried, are secondly most potent, and the leaves, fresh or dried, follow closely behind in comparison of active constituents.

Many companies provide capsules of hawthorn for medicinal doses; however, for prevention, I make a syrupy jam using either raw or dried berries with honey, which is delicious and super healthy. Adding the leaves and fresh flowers to a tea can give the cardiovascular system a boost. Please consult with your primary practitioner before adding herbs to your health plan.

The above article appeared in Athens Banner-Herald July 18, 2010.

Recipe for Hawthorn & Berries Ginger Jam: Excellent for cardiovascular, capillary and vision health. Designed by the Willow Oak Flower & Herb Farm herbalist Maria Price-Nowakoski in Severn, MD.

  • Use 2 cups of dried berries of all of one of the following, or a blend: Hawthorn berries, elderberries, rosehips, bilberries. Add a half of a tablespoon of thinly sliced ginger. Place berries & ginger in a saucepan, cover with water, then add 2 cups of water. Simmer until the water level just covers the fruit. Remove from heat & let cool. Puree in blender. Return to pan, add honey to taste. . Warm until you can just mix the honey thoroughly. Store in the refrigerator or freeze.

Native vs. Exotic isn’t a simple argument of Good vs. Bad

Kudzu blooming in Athens, GA

When one walks among a forest of native plants, plants who have lived together for hundreds or thousands of years, there is an obvious feeling of harmony that is different from what one feels when walking among a forest covered with honeysuckle, kudzu, multiflora rose, Japanese knotweed and privet. In the forest of ancient harmony, it appears plants are each given their respectful place of existence, room to grow and breed unimpeded by aggressive competition from other plant species. The healthy balance of this forest isn’t based on the behavior of what is above, but actually, the health depends on what lies below the surface: the relatively undisturbed soil and hidden mycelium of the forest Fungi Kingdom.

The Fungi Kingdom is perhaps the oldest group of living species, which made the earth inhabitable for plants. Fungi consist of the visible fruiting bodies called mushrooms, and the threadlike mycelium network underground and throughout decomposing matter, such as fallen trees. According to mycologist Paul Stamets, roughly eight miles of mycelium is living in one cubic inch of ground. Stamets also describes underground mycelium’s neurological network like the Internet, constantly giving and receiving information. Mycelium know when we are treading on them.

Fungi, unlike plants, contain no chlorophyll, though they do use radiation-as plants use light-to convert elements into food, and their byproducts during this conversion are what makes soil by which plants can live. Rotting mushrooms feed microbes, which in turn feed the forest. The relationship of symbiosis is very important when it comes to the Fungi and the Plant Kingdom. Many native plants depend on particular mycelium species in the soil in order to live, making them difficult to transplant or propagate, and thus threatening their population status.

The symbiotic relationship makes plants sensitive to habitat destruction from farming or prior farming and development-roads, subdivisions, strip-malls, cities. Once the soil habitat for particular mycelium is disturbed, the native plants living in the symbiotic relationship will struggle to live. Plants who are not sensitive to particular mycelium species, and perhaps attracted to nitrogen-depleted soil are opportunistic, and easily become invasive when the healthy balance is disturbed.

Other opportunistic species are viruses and microbes. In our gut is approximately three-five pounds of bacteria, which provide a foundation for our immune system. A disturbance in the friendly bacterium’s habitat can allow opportunistic pathogens to thrive. As Louis Pasteur, father of the germ theory, exclaimed in epiphany, “It’s the milieu!” Germs, microbes, pathogens take advantage of a weakness in the environmental system and proliferate. This is a similar pattern of behavior in invasive plants.

When we see invasive plants, we are seeing a symptom of ecological disturbance, not the cause of ecological disturbance. The total ecology, or relationship of organisms and elements, is far-far-far more complex than people understand. It is not as simple as pulling out privet and planting native species, as if that would perpetually remain a native-only plant place.

To rid the area, no matter how small or large, of invasive plants would require toxic herbicides, causing further ecological distress, or an introduction of a predatory species– which I assert is always a short-sighted and regretful idea–and constant vigilance in tending the “natural” native garden. Birds, animal fur, clothing and wind will continue to disperse seeds, making the maintenance of a native-only plant place a constant, resource-draining effort. And underlying the whole attempt, literally, for the survival of the native plants is the necessary re-establishment of the symbiotic mycelium.

A cost-benefit analysis would help here. We need to recognize some of the phytoremediation benefits of non-native, invasive species, such as with mimosa as a nitrogen-fixer, or purslane as an absorber of PCBs, or lamb’s quarters as a re-vegetation plant for mining sites and absorber of organophosphates. Furthermore, once invasives become the predominant species, they are performing the ecological benefits of erosion control, holding up our creek banks, and converting CO2 from our atmosphere into oxygen.

My Athens Banner-Herald column has received some criticism when I write of the virtues of an exotic, or a non-native, invasive species, for instance, with mimosa and purslane. One of my graduate school teachers, the eminent Dr. Jim Duke, retired from the USDA, and author of nearly 100 books on medicinal, economic and agricultural plants, as well as ethnobotany, and who developed and maintains the valued Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database, definitely doesn’t think that the U.S. should plant more kudzu, but he does recommend that we utilize the kudzu for biodiesel, food, phytoestrogen isoflavones-important for women during menopause, and as a medicinal aid for alcoholism. We should not pollute our water through the massive, and expensive, application of herbicides, trying to eradicate kudzu, or introduce a pest which has unintended consequences.

We need to utilize the plants growing abundantly around us, and to do that, we need to know what their benefits are. Through the gained knowledge from research of invasive species, we can learn how they are medicinal substitutes for threatened native medicinal plants, for example Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a medicinal substitute for the threatened goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). To me that sounds like sustainable practices of plant harvesting, and sustainable stewardship.

Finally, the term “native” is quite arbitrary. Humans have been trading plants since we were able. Plants provide life-saving medicine, and have inspired seed swaps and spurred the global marketplace; the need for healing bridged the divide of differences. For example, in the 8-9th century, Emperor Charlemagne developed relations with Arab Muslims, who were more medically advanced than the Roman Empire, and instructed his officers to collect medicinal plants to bring back to Christian monasteries where they were grown in physic healing gardens. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is one of those plants. In fact, it’s a custom in the old world of the Middle East to travel with a plant. Furthermore, if one looks specifically at the pre-Columbian history of America, one will see the trade of plants from east to west, north to south. Some of these plants naturalize in their new environment, essentially “going native”, and can become included in human botanical texts of native species.

Almost all plants are designed to disperse their seeds or spores through various mechanisms. It’s the compensation for being rooted to a place, the way to travel and increase one’s progeny. In untended circumstances where the human is not the gardener, the seed grows where it can.

Within a paradigm of a whole webbed universe, as in Cherokee stories, it might be said that the seed goes where it is called. For instance, poison ivy, a North American native, could be considered “invasive” today because it isn’t a desirable plant to most humans, and, being spread by birds who eat the berries, it shows up all over the eastern U.S. In Cherokee stories of natural history, there are 7 tribes of plants. One of those tribes is the warrior tribe who protects other vulnerable plant tribes from animal predators, or helps restore an area from disturbance. Poison ivy is the chief of the warrior tribe. Blackberries and smilax are also native American plants in the warrior tribe. In this perspective, poison ivy is doing its job, trying to keep humans away from more vulnerable plants, or helping a disturbed area to heal, which is why it’s so prolific in the eastern United States. Next time you see poison ivy growing, notice where you are. What disturbances have taken place? What plants might the ivy be protecting from you?

Pay attention to the plants that begin to reclaim an area that’s been developed. My mind goes to the old houses on secondary roads covered in kudzu, or the weeds coming up through the sidewalk cracks. These are called invasive, but they also demonstrate how awesome is nature’s power of reclamation and, hopefully, restoration.

To learn more about the importance of mycelium, watch Paul Stamets at the 2008 TED Conference on the vodpod video in the right sidebar.

To learn more about Dr. Jim Duke’s solutions for kudzu, visit his Green Pharmacy website.

Holy basil as an antistress adaptogen

The Restorative Peace Tea Formula: Holy Basil, Wood Betony, Skullcap, Passionflower, Hibiscus and Calendula

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), also called tulsi, has been used in India for over 3,000 years, and is rapidly increasing in popularity in America. Hindus grow the holy basil plant in a prominent place in their courtyard or home, and consider the herb to be sacred to the god Vishnu. During morning and evening prayers, holy basil, which is reputed to have cleansing energy, is used to bring health and spiritual purity to the one in prayer and his or her family.

When I lived in Maryland, I frequented an Indian grocery store where the owner grew a holy basil plant in his store for spiritual purposes. Being one who’s interested in people’s relationship to plants, I asked the owner about his plant. He told me it was for health and good luck.

Though some Americans carry on the Hindu spiritual tradition with holy basil, the herb’s medicinal popularity is mostly due to its qualities as an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens are a special class of herbs which, in addition to dietary and lifestyle practices, have the ability to help people cope with stress physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The individual herbs within the adaptogen class are not one-size-fits-all. Each herb has qualities suitable to certain individuals’ physical, emotional, mental and spiritual responses to stressors.

As an adaptogen, holy basil is being used internally for its antistress effects. Holy basil is used to protect neurons from the negative effects of stress, and also to reduce stress-related secretion of the hormone cortisol, which is a necessary hormone involved in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex negative feedback loop, but sustained, high levels of cortisol release can cause health problems over time.

One of the responsibilities of cortisol is at the tail-end of an illness; cortisol levels will increase to signal to the immune system to “cease-fire”. During periods of stress, cortisol levels also go up. In the case of excess cortisol secretion during stressful times, the immune system is lowered, making one more susceptible to getting sick. Also, the reserves of energy we have to get us through stressful times becomes drained, or depleted, which needs to be restored in order to decelerate the aging process, and health problems associated with aging.

Holy basil has many other health-promoting uses. It contains antioxidants, and can protect against radiation. In a randomized placebo-controlled single blind clinical trial of people with non-insulin-dependent-diabetes-melitius (NIDDM), holy basil showed a hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effect on fasting and postprandial (after eating) blood sugar levels, and suggests holy basil for adjunct therapy for NIDDM.

Holy basil has a wonderful, smooth flavor, and makes a really great tea, which is why it’s an ingredient in my Restorative Peace Tea formula. Though related to the culinary sweet basil and Thai basil, holy basil is less of a cooking herb–though you can cook with it, and there are recipes out there for it.

Last year I began growing holy basil from a couple of plants I bought. I saved the seeds over the winter, and sowed them this spring. Now I have 30 or 40 holy basil plants. It’s that easy. Hindus plant the the seeds in blessed soil, and water it with sacred water. I confess that I didn’t go through any added ritualistic measures with my holy basil plants, but I love them, and I think they know that. I sprinkle them with Espoma Plant-Tone fertilizer for organic gardening. They really respond to it.

A species of holy basil (Ocimum gratissium) is considered very invasive in some places, such as Hawaii, so be careful with which variety you get.

Is chronic pain your teacher?

After years of working in plant nurseries, vintage book stores, moving boxes of books and digging gardens everywhere I go, I periodically have lower back pain. When in the grips of it, it feels like eternity, but eventually it lessens. Certain chairs or car seats aggravate it, especially after lifting something heavy, or carrying around my bag of books.

I know the lower back pain is telling me something. It’s my teacher, and it’s saying: “You don’t need to carry such a heavy burden. Lighten your load. Make more trips. What’s your hurry? What are you trying to prove? Relax.” My lower back pain is also teaching me to do Tai Chi, to be conscious of my posture, to walk my dog with a great awareness of my body, to wear good shoes, drink water and appreciate when I feel pain-less or pain-free, or just simply feel good.

I don’t take pain killers for my back, neither over the counter, nor herbal, nor the kind allowed in California, for that matter. I mostly concentrate on lifestyle actions, positive thoughts, breathing, and drinking nervine-adaptogen tea, which helps soothe my nerves and lessen the stress contributing to muscle tension and spasms. Massages and Epsom salt bath soaks can also help quite a bit.

I enjoyed an article from AARP magazine, which looks at holistic treatments for chronic pain, especially Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), also called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome and Causalgia. I suggest you read the AARP article. It’s written by someone who developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and healed herself.

CRPS is constant, unremitting, severe pain that worsens instead of improves over time. It can occur after an injury that didn’t heal correctly. Many people living with CRPS experience a significant loss in their quality of life primarily because of the pain, though also because frequently the only treatment suggested for CRPS is pain killers, which are addictive, and for a pain that is constant and unremitting, they are life-robbing.

But what else is there? Some people experience spontaneous remission from the pain. This phenomenon is worth looking into further. Meditation and mindful movements, such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander Technique can help significantly, and perhaps change the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for developing the inappropriate pain response to a past injury.

Even though the chronic pain can be unbearable, it can also be a teacher. Listen to it. What is it telling you to pay attention to? Are you ready to be the student?

PDF of the AARP article is linked with permission from AARP.

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