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

Archive for August, 2010

Prevent colds with goldenrod

Golden rod (Solidago canadensis or Solidago altissima) indicating the transition from summer to fall. Goldenrod is a pleasant-tasting tea for upper respiratory infections and sinus infections, and can prevent colds and flu.

From late August through September, fields and roadsides turn golden yellow, which marks a kind of fifth season between the end of summer and the beginning of fall. It’s the season of goldenrod. A way to celebrate this fifth season is by preparing a cup of relaxing, goldenrod tea, which also is a great preparation for the cold and flu season.

Readers might get anxious at the thought of celebrating goldenrod season, since it’s mistaken as a common allergen. The culprit of hayfever is ragweed, which has inconspicuous green flowers and grows near goldenrod. Making a goldenrod tea can actually help soothe the inflammation of allergic rhinitis, itchy eyes and respiratory congestion associated with hayfever.

Although many species of goldenrod are native to North America, the most common goldenrod species in the Southeast are Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis, or S. altissima) and anise-scented goldenrod (S. odora). Canada goldenrod has triangular-shaped plumes of inflorescense, and sometimes the flowers stand upright along the arching stems. Anise-scented goldenrod blooms only on one side of the stem, and smells like anise or licorice when you crush the leaves.

Botanists confess that identifying goldenrod species is a challenge. Thankfully, all Solidago species can be used safely; however, S. canadensis and S. odora are more medicinal than others. Before they bloom, they look like nondescript weeds with many lance-shaped leaves traveling up the entire stem, which grow between 1 and 5 feet tall. Sometimes in the top third of the stems a growth forms, looking like a snake that’s swallowed an egg. Called a gall, it’s created by insects laying their eggs in goldenrod.

Native Americans used goldenrod for multiple ailments. The leaves commonly were crushed in a mortar and pestle and applied to burns, boils or skin ulcers. After the flowers dried, the seeds were collected for food.

For political, economic or accessibility reasons, European-Americans have historically turned to goldenrod as a substitute for English-imported black teas (Camilla senensis). After the Boston Tea Party, English tea was boycotted, and goldenrod was one of the American plants substituted; hence, a common name for goldenrod is Liberty Tea. Or, it could have been Liber-Tea.

The anise-scented goldenrod had a run in popularity in the Eastern U.S. during the 19th century. At the time it was called Blue Mountain Tea, and was even exported to China.

At other times, goldenrod was substituted when English teas were difficult to obtain, such as during the Civil War.

The substitution wasn’t a sacrifice. Goldenrod makes a pleasant-tasting tea with mild sedative properties, and serves as a tonic for the respiratory system and urinary tract. Its antibacterial actions help to prevent or address sore throats, upper respiratory or urinary tract infections. Also, goldenrod is a wonderful tonic for people prone to kidney stones. One may use goldenrod as a preventative or to dissolve existing stones, most appreciated by those with experience.

Celebrate goldenrod season with a lovely tonic tea.

Goldenrod tea directions:

Cut the goldenrod stem just above any browning leaves. For fresh leaf tea, turn the stem upside down and strip the leaves and flowers into a bowl. Compost the stems. Chop the leaves and flowers, and steep, covered, two tablespoons of fresh goldenrod in a cup of boiling water for 20-30 minutes. To dry goldenrod for later, bundle 3 stems and hang in a dry, ventilated area. Once dry, strip the leaves into brown paper bags and store in a cool, dry, dark place. Steep one tablespoon of dry goldenrod in a cup of boiling water for the same amount of time. Drink 3 cups a day as an upper respiratory preventative, or in an acute infection drink as often as every 3 hours.

The above article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on August 22, 2010.

Super antioxidants found in local muscadines

Vitis rotundifolia, unripe muscadines. Scuppernongs are muscadines that are bronzeish green, and dark muscadines start off green, as in the photo, and turn purple-black.

What loves a hot, humid summer? Muscadines do.

These rambling grape vines thrive in the Southern heat as no other grape will. They’re so full of vitality they can pull down mature trees. Truly, this is a plant with vigor.

Actually, the muscadine is clever. To propagate, the muscadine needs to produce fruit, which contain its seed, and it needs sunlight for maximum fruit production. Although it isn’t a climbing vine, like English ivy, it compensates for what it lacks. On the forest floor, where sunlight is at a premium, the young muscadines get friendly and hitch themselves to sapling trees. As the tree reaches to the light, the vine rides on its coattails, growing to match the rate of the tree’s speed of growth, so its roots aren’t pulled from the ground. Eventually, the great weight of the muscadine, thanks to its exposure to sunlight enabled by the tree, will take down its companion, finding itself back on the forest floor. The mother vine then will hope her progeny will meet and attach themselves to nice saplings so they can together ride to the light.

Something we can learn from the muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) is longevity, which we also might experience when we introduce muscadine grapes and leaves into our diet.

Everyone’s heard about the benefits of red wine, with the goodies being in the skin. All berries that are red, blue, purple and black have anti-aging polyphenolic flavonoid compounds called anthocyanins. The black-purple berries of the native Southeastern muscadine vine have more anthocyanins than any European grape.

The bronze-colored muscadines are called scuppernongs, and have less anthocyanins, than the black.

Besides anthocyanins, other polyphenols in muscadine, such as ellagic acid, maintain health for every part of the body by a protecting gene expression and inhibiting cellular damage from free radicals. Increased immune, heart and brain function and decreased inflammation contributing to cancer development are some of the remarkable, longevity-promoting effects of muscadines.

Muscadines have been cultivated in the South since the 16th century, and they’re also invasively abundant. It’s a puzzler why this grape isn’t more popular. University of Georgia researchers at the Nutraceutical Research Laboratory are working to promote Georgia’s agricultural crop of muscadines for export, providing research that the muscadine is more potent in antioxidants than the high-priced, imported, exotic Acai berry.

Value-added muscadine products, such as wines, jams and juices, will increasingly find a market. Entrepreneurial community gardens might cooperatively find a boost by cultivating muscadines as produce and for value-added products. The grapes, which have a tough skin and tolerate the Georgia climate, have a long shelf life, and ship well. Growers need to know that nonhybridized varieties require a male and female vine to produce fruit.

The leaves also contain polyphenols and make a delicious, locavore substitute for Greek stuffed grape leaves, known as dolmas. Harvest 20 to 30 of the largest muscadine leaves, brine them, stuff with a millet-raisin mixture, roll and steam, and you have healthy hors d’oeuvres.

Stuffed muscadine leaves, local dolmas

Recipe for stuffed muscadine leaves. Based on a recipe from Wildman Steve Brill.

Pick 30 of the largest and prettiest muscadine leaves you can find. Rinse them well. Cut off the stems. Brine them for a few minutes in 2 quarts of boiling water with 2 tablespoons of sea salt. Drain, and then rinse them again in cold water. Set them aside.

Stuffing: Mix together 2 cups of cooked millet or brown rice; 1 cup of feta; 1/2 cup of raisins chopped into smaller pieces; 2 tablespoons of chopped green onions; 2 tablespoons of parsley; 2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts (excellent ingredient); 1 teaspoon of rosemary; 1/2 teaspoon of paprika and sage; 1/2 teaspoon of salt; a 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.

To stuff the leaves begin with the stem side toward you. Put a small spoonful in the center of the leaf. Shape the stuffing into a inch & a half log going across the leaf. Fold the right and left sides of the leaf over the stuffing. Roll the stem-side over the stuffing until it meets the tip of the leaf. Spear them through the middle with toothpicks.

Steam them in a large enamel pot. Add 4 cups of stock or water to the pot, 8 cloves of peeled garlic, and chopped ginger. Find a steaming basket or shelf to place the stuffed muscadines on. Steam for 30-40 minutes. You could cook in a large skillet on the stove top, or bake them in a casserole dish. In both cases you would add the stock or water to the cookware.

Make the sauce in a blender with 1/4 c almonds, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 c tahini, 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger; 6 cloves of peeled garlic. Spoon over the rolls after they are on a buffet platter or served on a plate.

These stuffed muscadine leaves (dolmas) are really good. They were a hit at my last herb walk and wild foods lunch. Don’t expect them to taste the same as Falafel King’s, though, which are a delicacy. The way they are made is different.

Let me know if you make this.

This article originally appeared in my Sunday Urban Forager column of the Athens Banner-Herald, August 15, 2010.

Cool off with all-American sumac

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), a refreshing lemonade-substitute.

If you’re a Georgia locavore, eco-consciously choosing to eat food grown locally, then you need to know sumac. It makes a refreshing lemonade substitute. While the Asian-native lemon is grown as close as Florida, the citrus crop is in the top 25 fruits with the highest pesticide load, spoiling our water and our health—consumers and farmworkers. As a substitute, any of the red-berried sumacs can be used interchangeably, though smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is “the only shrub or tree species native to all 48 contiguous states.”

As a common roadside shrub, smooth sumac is easy to identify from its tropical look, having pink, hairless stems, and shiny compound leaves comprised of oval leaflets. The females have red berries rising above their leaves. Once you see the berries, you’ll know it’s not poison sumac, which has white berries drooping below the leaves, and a swampy habitat.

Year after year, sumac marks the change of seasons for North American inhabitants: blooming yellowish-white at blackberry-picking time, forming large ruby seedheads during late summer’s harvest, and, when the salmon are spawning in the Pacific Northwest, sumac becomes flames of scarlet leaves in the fall. In the winter, the elongated, pyramidal seedheads stand like darkened torches along roadways.

Historically among many American Indian nations, the young shoots of sumac were peeled and eaten raw, and the berries were either chewed as a thirst-quencher, or brewed as a drink. Also, sumac berry, leaf and root were used for life-threatening conditions, such as dysentery, kidney ailments, tuberculosis, and fevers. Not only is sumac astringent, but studies show it’s highly antibacterial. Other internal uses were as a blood tonic, or to chew the berries or leaves for sore throats, to stop bed-wetting or as a remedy for vomiting, or to make an infusion from the bark for a mother’s milk to flow more abundantly. Externally sumac was a wash for sore eyes, skin, and itchy scalps.

A popular use for sumac among Indian nations was to smoke the leaves. Reddened sumac leaves were harvested in the fall, then de-veined, dried and powdered for either a flavorful additive to tobacco, or a tobacco substitute.

Economically, sumac was valued for dyes, leather tanning, and ink among early European Americans and American Indians. Its berries make a dull, red dye, and its roots and inner bark make a yellow and brilliant black dye.

Sumac glabra, smooth sumac, in a vase and brewed as a drink in a pitcher for the Brick House Medicinal Plant Walk & Wild Plant Lunch.

As a beverage, which looks and tastes like pink lemonade, sumac berries have a cooling, refrigerant quality appreciated on hot days. To make this Americana drink, I grind red sumac berries in a coffee grinder and add them in a large bowl of water, which I place in the fridge overnight. In the morning, I strain the mixture through a coffee filter and either drink as is, or sweeten with local honey.

Making a carbon-reducing step closer to self-sufficiency, you can harvest sumac from wild stands, or you can find sumac commercially, and easily grow an ornamental colony in your own yard.

Lifting her glass of sumac-mint "mock"-tail, Joyce from Alpharetta, GA came up for the day to enjoy the medicinal plant walk and the wild foods lunch. Cheers!

Elder offers a dose of preventative medicine

Sambucus canadensis, elderflowers along 316 heading west.

The elder tree is in an honored class of plants reaching a legendary, supernatural status. European folklore surrounds elder with stories of its powers, rumors of it being the tree from which Judas hanged himself, and warnings to anyone who treats it disrespectfully, as it is a protector from evil and home to the fairies.

Before harvesting any part of elder, the custom is to make an offering to the spirit of the plant. Reading of such superstitious hocus-pocus, skeptics will likely dismiss the plant, needing to experience its medicinal qualities to become true converts.

Early summer displays elder’s (Sambucus nigra, European, and Sambucus canadensis, North American) white, lacey, flat-topped blooms along roadsides. As the summer peaks, the flowers give way to sprays of pellet-sized purplish-black berries. Elder loves moist areas; I’ve found it growing along the pond at Oconee Forest Park in Athens, and in wet ditches along roadsides. According to Dr. Michael Dirr, elder will tolerate dry soils, but has an “unkempt habit” and easily naturalizes, giving elder a weed status in his book.

Traditionally, elder is considered a blood tonic among Europeans, American Indians and Appalachian people. Without knowledge of the mechanisms of the immune system, people theorized illness came from “bad blood”. Blood tonics, as a historical class of herbs, are excellent immune boosters and cancer fighters. Externally, elderflower water was popular among European women for removing freckles and sunburn.

As Civil War medicine, according to Confederate surgeon Dr. Francis Porcher (1863), elder leaves were heated in lard as a salve for wounds and sprains. Dr. Porcher also reports the berries make better spirits than the finest malt.

Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) at Oconee Forest Park in Athens, GA.

Current research reveals elderberry and flower’s antiviral efficacy on influenza, colds, sinusitis, and Herpes simplex and zoster. The flavonoids of elder contain immunostimulatory properties for influenza A and B. An in vitro study on H1N1 demonstrated how elderberry flavonoids would bind to and prevent H1N1 infection, by blocking the virus’ ability to infect host cells. Studies suggest elder’s immunostimulatory properties can be transferred to help with cancer and AIDS.

In cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), where therapeutic options are limited, elder is an alternative to antibiotics by preventing some of the mechanisms for Staphylococcus aureus to survive.

Elderflower’s flavonoids could be effective in the prevention and treatment of insulin resistance, stimulating insulin-dependent glucose uptake. The berries’ polyphenol antioxidants help lower the risk of metabolic diseases and cardiovascular illnesses.

The flowers and berries are edible. Berries make delicious jams and syrups, which kids love, and elderberry wine for the adults. When they’re ripe, though, I just like to add them to my yogurt, getting an ounce of preventative medicine for the day. Steep the flowers as a tea, or fry them as a fish-tasting fritter.

When harvesting elderflowers, lay the flower tops on plastic garbage bags for an hour or more to rid the flowers of resident insects. The bugs cannot tolerate fumes coming from the plastic. Berries don’t need the same treatment.

And please remember to respect your elder, making an offering of thanks to the elder tree spirits.

This article originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald, August 1, 2010.

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