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

Archive for September, 2010

Wax myrtle attractive, useful

Wax myrtle is a popular, native landscaping shrub used prolifically as an evergreen screen. The shrub is endowed with many other useful qualities, though most people have forgotten them. There was a time in America’s history when medical doctors and candlestick makers knew of wax myrtle’s valuable uses.

Medicinally, wax myrtle acts as a stimulating astringent and a nutritive blood purifier, known as an alterative.

In addition to wax myrtle, the common names indicate its historical candlemaking uses: wax berry, candle berry and bayberry.

The name bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, a Northeastern species) might jog one’s memory, as it is a common scent for winter holiday candles. Early European settlers made taper candles from the waxy residue remaining on the surface of the water after boiling the green berries. The wax was then made into dark green candles scented with the shrub’s warming aroma, which was an upgrade from the smell of rancid lard coming from candles made with animal fat.

According to Dr. Francis Porcher, a Civil War surgeon and botanist, during the 1860s the women of South Carolina’s Lowcountry utilized the abundant natural resource of Southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) berries to make large amounts of candles and soap in order to become less reliant on the North.

Medicinally, wax myrtle acts as a stimulating astringent and a nutritive blood purifier, known as an alterative. Finley Ellingwood, an early 20th century medical doctor, wrote, “Wax myrtle is a remedy for those conditions where the vital powers are at a low ebb. It aids the nutrition, stimulating the absorption of food, and promotes the restoration of depraved blood.” He would use wax myrtle during a patient’s convalescence from malaria, and to expel the body of mercury after a toxic calomel (mercurous chloride) treatment.

Ellingwood also suggested wax myrtle for when the capillary circulation of mucus membranes was “feeble,” as in sore, spongy gums or in boggy, sinus cavities indicated by the dark, swollen, puffiness under one’s eyes due to a lingering sinus infection, or chronic allergic rhinitis. Typically, this type of sinus condition is without inflammation and is accompanied by excessive white mucus.

When using wax myrtle medicinally, the root bark is the most potent part of the shrub, but not the easiest or most sustainable to obtain. Fortunately, the leaves, when boiled for at least 20 minutes, also can be used. Although the American Herbal Products Association states wax myrtle is safe, people with hypertension and pregnant women should be cautious if using it.

In Athens, the wax myrtle shrub is easy to find. It’s utilized by local horticulturists at the University of Georgia and at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Graceful, evergreen branches with varying shades of glossy green, narrow, deer-resistant leaves – which have a warm, winter holiday smell when crushed – make the plant a desirable landscaping screen.

Its only drawback is that the branches can split under a heavy snowfall. Otherwise, this low-maintenance, multifaceted plant can help prepare one toward self-reliance.

Originally published in the Urban Forager of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bayberry candle and soap-making recipe: From Francis Porcher’s, 1863 text, Resources of Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural. Being Also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs. Reprinted (1991) by Norman Publishing: San Francisco.

“I have repeatedly seen the wax produced from the myrtle in large amounts. The berries are boiled, and the wax rises on the surface of the water. The boiling should be continued a long time, and the berries stirred and bruised. The wax may be remelted to purify it. Four pounds of this will make forty pounds of soap. The candles made of it are dark green in color…

“…The wax, after being skimmed off the water, should be strained through a coarse cloth to free it from foreign matter. When  no more wax rises, the berries are removed with a skimmer and a fresh supply put in the same water, taking care to add boiling water to supply the place of that evaporated during the process. The wax should be dried, and melted again to free it from impurity.”

For candles, add the berry wax to bees wax, adding strength to the candle and stretching the amount of wax to more candles. Then pour into taper molds, following usual candle instructions for inserting the wick.

Another soap recipe in Porcher’s text which he referenced from the Southern Agriculturist:

“As one of the complaints of soap-makers is the difficulty and expense of obtaining the grease, it will be well for us to avail ourselves of a production of nature, found abundantly in our lower country.

“To three bushels and a half of common wood ashes add half a bushel of unslaked lime. This being well mixed together, put into a cask capable of containing sixty gallons, and fill up with water. In 48 hours the lye will be strong enough to float an egg. Then draw off, and put from 6-8 gallons of it into a copper kettle capable of containing 25 gallons. To this add only 4 pounds of wax myrtle. Keep constantly boiling for 6 hours. For the first 3-4 hours pour in occasionally a supply of strong lye, the whole frequently well stirred with a ladle. After 6 hours boiling, throw 2 quarts of common large grain salt into the kettle; leave one hour more to simmer over a slow fire. The liquor must be placed in tubs to cool for 24 hours. Take out the soap, wipe it clean; put it to dry.

“The produce of this soap when it was weighed the next day was found to be 49 pounds of good, solid soap, from the materials and by the process above mentioned. At the end of six weeks the soap had only lost a few pounds from the evaporation of its watery particles.

“In many parts of our state the myrtle tree is abundant, and from 3 pecks to a bushel may be gathered per day. Would it not be worth the while of the planters to attend to this matter? I am sure it would save them many a dollar.”

Devil’s walking stick has many medicinal virtues

One of the Dr. Seuss-looking plants is called devil's walking stick.

The names of a plant, both common and scientific, describe something about the visual appearance or medicinal actions of the plant. Redroot and bloodroot are red. Yellowroot is yellow. Lamb’s ear and hound’s tongue resemble the anatomy of the animal, if one uses the imagination. And puke weed will, indeed, make one vomit. One has to wonder what the story is behind a plant named devil’s walking stick. The scientific species name gives a clue (Aralia spinosa), if one speaks Latin.

The reason behind the name is clear once someone tries to grab the stem. Each spring, in filtered light along the edge of woods, a quick-growing, pithy stem shoots up, punctuated in segments with very sharp spines that are hard to notice until it’s too late. At some point, someone must have exclaimed, “This must be the devil’s walking stick!”

From a distance, though, the plant belongs to the category of silly-looking Dr. Seuss plants. A single, slender stem, which can reach 20 feet tall, is topped with huge, divided leaves collectively in a diamond-like shape. At the very top, in early summer, a giant puff of yellowish-cream-colored blooms attracts hundreds of wasps and butterflies. By fall, the flowers become berries that turn from green to purple-black, weighing over the skinny, shrub stem. The stems to which the berries are attached also turn from green to magenta. In the winter, the whole plant dies back to store energy in the root and send up colony sucker shoots the next spring.

The botanical family to which devil’s walking stick belongs is Araliaceae, or the ginseng family, but devil’s walking stick hasn’t been found to have quite the vitality-enhancing qualities of ginseng.

Instead, devil’s walking stick, native to the Southeastern U.S., keeps a low profile as a remedy for toothaches – another name is toothache tree – and rheumatism.

Cherokee Indians and old-timey Southern herbalists have used the inner bark and berries as anti-inflammatory pain relievers for aching, arthritic joints and sore, decaying teeth with inflamed gums.

Eating a couple of the purple-black berries raw is OK. In order to eat more, Tommie Bass, a Southern Appalachian herbalist, recommends cooking them first, and then making them into jelly.

Their taste is a little tingly and bitter. The color of the berries indicates they are a rich source of antioxidant flavonoids. Infuse them in brandy to use as an aid for rheumatism.

Cherokees also used roots in a salve as a dermatological aid for sores and swellings, such as boils.

Since the strangely ornamental native plant is an attractor of birds and pollinating insects, one might consider adding it to a butterfly garden where it will receive afternoon shade.

To propagate devil’s walking stick, gather the berries and plant in the fall or spring. Another option is to dig up a sucker and transplant it in the spring. The plant will form a colony, so give it a space where that won’t be a problem.

Upon Reflection: Honor Woodard’s new work

Honor Woodard, Laurence Holden, and Thomas Rain Crowe at the Wilderness Society in Sylva, NC.

Art reflecting the relationship of people with nature.

Evening primrose oil treats several ailments

The entire plant of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is edible, and a good source of GLA, an essential fatty acid.

As the sun lowers toward the horizon, the yellow evening primrose prepares to bloom. For those who like to be enchanted by nature, gather a few friends at twilight, and wait for the blooms to open right before your eyes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is native to North America, and is no relation to the English cowslip primrose (Primula veris). When evening primrose makes an appearance in the spring, it is a low-growing, basal rosette mass of leaves speckled with red. Throughout the summer, a very leafy reddish stem grows up from the center of the basal rosette, eventually reaching 3 to 5 feet.

The four-petaled, yellow flowers are unusual in that they flower at the end of a long pipe attached to a tube-shaped ovary, which will become the seed-containing fruit. Within the seeds of the evening primrose, a valuable oil is held. I eat the whole fruits to get the oil.

The entire plant is medicinal and edible. Currently, however, the seeds are the most used part of the plant. The oil found in evening primrose seeds is high in gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid (EFA) converted from linoleic acid by an enzyme called delta-6 desaturase.

Some people inherit an abnormality in EFA metabolism because they lack the delta-6-desaturase enzyme needed to convert linoleic acid to GLA.

This creates problems since GLA prevents proinflammatory eicosanoids, such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, from becoming excessive and causing chronic illness conditions associated with inflammation, such as atopic eczema, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, PMS and breast pain.

Since the 1980s, many clinical trials have shown efficacy in using evening primrose oil to treat atopic eczema, an escalating condition among children.

Trials reported that after administering evening primrose oil for four to eight weeks, the roughness, redness and itchiness of the skin was reduced. After discontinuing the evening primrose oil, the improvements remained, and the condition did not revert back to the pre-evening primrose state. Studies indicate evening primrose is less effective in people who have received frequent corticosteroid treatment.

Another interesting use of evening primrose oil is in the treatment of the neurological effects of alcoholism. Long-term alcohol use decreases linoleic acid in the blood, and creates a deficiency in EFAs, which isn’t good since EFAs provide the structure for nerve conduction. Alcohol use also blocks linoleic acid from converting to metabolites used in brain structure. Further, alcohol increases the manufacturing of proinflammatory prostaglandins.

Administering GLA and other EFAs has seemed to minimize the negative effects of alcohol.

Medicinally, Cherokee Indians have used an infusion, or tea, of evening primrose leaves to stimulate weight-loss. The Ojibwa soaked the entire evening primrose plant in warm water and applied it as a poultice to burns.

As food, Cherokees also cooked the spring leaves as vegetable greens, and boiled the fall roots like potatoes.

The Gosuite of Utah ate the tiny, oil-rich seeds, which is the most direct, and cheapest way of getting your GLA.

The above article originally appeared in the Urban Forager column of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, September 5th, 2010.

Wild yam heals muscle spasms

Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is native to North America. Because it's the root that's harvested, people need to harvest sustainably. Use organically cultivated when possible.

Wild yam is one of the heart-shaped leaf plants for which I have an affinity. Something about seeing its whorl of perfect green hearts with deep, defining veins, yellowing in the fall, twirling up trees and over logs, warms my own heart. Favorite places for wild yam to grow in Athens are in Oconee Forest Park behind the intramural fields and at Sandy Creek Nature Center.

Over the past few decades, our North American native wild yam vine (Dioscorea villosa) has gained a partially erroneous reputation as a natural progesterone substitute with big-time medical applications. Along with estrogen, progesterone is a necessary steroidal hormone for female reproduction, menstruation and menopause. When estrogen is dominant over progesterone, certain health conditions, such as breast cancer or postmenopausal anxiety and depression, arise in women. This has spurred health care practitioners to sell progesterone cream to balance the ratio.

Wild yam roots and rhizomes contain a steroidal saponin called diosgenin that, in a lab, can be synthesized into progesterone. Our bodies, however, cannot convert wild yam into progesterone. Some companies have sold wild yam cream with claims it is natural progesterone.

The ingredient list will state whether the progesterone originating from wild yam was made in a lab.

By itself, though, without any chemical lab modification, wild yam is a valued medicinal plant with antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory actions.

Traditionally wild yam has been considered one of the top five digestive remedies. People prone to spastic, tight pains in the gut – referred to as “bilious colic” in the 19th century, or chronic gastritis associated with heavy drinking – could receive some relaxing relief from a tincture of the wild yam roots and rhizomes. Sympathetic nausea from anxiety also can be assuaged by roots of wild yam.

Added to ginger, calamus or chamomile, the tincture of wild yam roots and rhizomes actually tastes nice.

For women with predictable uterine pain, wild yam tincture can be taken throughout the month, and combines well with Viburnums, such as crampbark or black haw.

Wild yam is considered safe during pregnancy, and is used to calm and relax the uterus. The Meskwaki Native Americans used wild yam as a gynecological aid to relieve women’s pain during childbirth.

In China and Taiwan, powdered wild yam roots are used medicinally for their anti-inflammatory effects, which have shown efficacy in reducing postmenopausal anxiety and depression through mechanisms other than the bio-identical progesterone hormone.

Wild yam shares the same genus of edible yams, Dioscorea, which is different from the sweet potato, Ipomoea. Some Polynesian and African species of Dioscorea are edible, but our local wild yam isn’t that palatable, unfortunately.

This article originally was published in the Urban Forager column of the Athens Banner-Herald, Sunday September 12, 2010.

Plantain: a valuable medicinal, edible plant

Plantain grows in any kind of soil, from gravel and sidewalk cracks, to rich garden soil. This native British plant has bright-green, round leaves growing in a basal rosette. It bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with teeny lilac and yellow stamens. Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from 5 inches to a foot in height. The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.

When Europeans came to North America, they inadvertently brought many things with them. Besides small pox, they brought with them the seeds of plantain (Plantago major and P. lanceolata). Botanists speculate that the seeds traveled with the Europeans in the clods of mud-impacted horses’ hooves. American Indians observed that wherever the White man went, this plant would soon appear; thereby, gaining the common name White-man’s foot.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” might have been the first written reference to plantain as White-man’s foot: “Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them/ Springs a flower unknown among us,/ Springs the White-man’s Foot in blossom.”

Plantain grows in any kind of soil, from gravel and sidewalk cracks, to rich garden soil. This British native has bright-green, round leaves growing in a basal rosette. It bears a green-brown, cylindrical flowering spike with teeny lilac and yellow stamens. Depending on the soil, plantain’s size will range from five inches to a foot in height. The herb plantain is no relation to the tropical fruit plantain, of which the banana is a subspecies.

Plantain grows everywhere Europeans have settled, and is despised in many countries for its link to a colonial past. Worse plants could follow a population around. The edible and medicinal properties of plantain make it a top plant for the survival of a settling community. Its early spring leaves are edible either raw in salads or boiled as a pot herb, and high in many vitamins and minerals.

Long ago, plantain was highly respected in its homeland. It was considered one of the nine sacred herbs of the ancient Saxon’s, and called the “mother of herbs” in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Once established in North America, plantain’s value was quickly recognized by American Indians. One tribe gave it a name which translates as “life medicine,” a kind of panacea, or cure-all.

Internally, Colonial Americans used plantain to reduce prolonged fevers, to prevent tuberculosis when early symptoms were presenting, and also to treat cholera. Plantain “purifies” the blood and tones the lungs when there has been a debilitating illness.

Recent clinical studies show plantain’s efficacy in chronic bronchitis, and for symptoms of the common cold. In combination with other herbs, plantain has shown analgesic activity when treating pain due to chronic gastroduodenitis.

Topically, plantain is a marvel when applied to bites or stings. When applying plantain to an insect bite, simply pick a leaf, chew it for 10 seconds until the mucilage is released (rubbing it in the fingers a bit is also an acceptable method if one would rather not chew the leaf), and place the wad of juicy plantain leaf directly on the sting site. Leave it in place for five minutes. The itch and inflammation will completely disappear. As a salve, plantain soothes irritated or ulcerated skin and wounds.

With great irony we tread over a seemingly insignificant plant, unaware of its value, though named after the path of the colonizers who trod over lands often unaware of the value of the land’s diversity, and the culture of its inhabitants.

The above article appeared in the Urban Forager of the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, August 29, 2010.

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