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

Archive for the ‘Vegetable and Herb Gardening’ Category

Annual Spring Native Plant Sale at Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center

Spring Equinox at the Chattanooga Arboretum.

THE SPRING SALE DATES: Friday April 27th and Saturday April 28th, 9-5pm

The annual spring native plant sale at Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center (Reflection Riding) is always a huge success. Very few garden centers and nurseries offer such a wide selection of plants native to the Cumberland Plateau and Ridge and Valley ecosystem.

Yarrow, a pharmacy in itself

Yarrow’s reputation as a first-aid hemostat has spread throughout the world with the herb, and its common names — soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s weed — reflect those who were most appreciative of its powers.

A medicinal powerhouse of the cultivated garden and wild spaces alike, Yarrow carries within its botanical name a recommendation from antiquity. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is named after the Greek hero Achilles who healed the bleeding wounds of his soldiers with its foliage. Millefolium means thousand-leaves, referring to its ferny foliage.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Native Plant Database, yarrow is native to the U.S., but there also are introduced Achillea species. It appears to be a gift to the globe.

Yarrow’s reputation as a first-aid hemostat has spread throughout the world with the herb, and its common names – soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s weed – reflect those who were most appreciative of its powers.

I can attest to yarrow’s fast-acting blood-staunching properties. Once, when I sliced my palm open on a yucca leaf – it’s called Spanish bayonet for a reason – I quickly found yarrow growing nearby, as it often does, and applied a poultice of leaves to my wound. Within five minutes or less, the pain and bleeding were gone, and within 24 hours the cut was completely healed. A couple days more and all evidence of my suffering had disappeared.

Some of the hemostatic, blood-staunching properties come from the bitter sesquiterpene lactones specific to yarrow, achillian and achillicin. Like chamomile, yarrow also contains asulenes, which contribute to its anti-inflammatory actions. Several essential oils lend yarrow its antiseptic qualities: pinine, borneal, camphor, eugenol, saponine and terpineol. With loads of polyphenol flavonoids, yarrow is great as a tonic for depression and memory maintenance.

When studying herbal medicine at Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland, my instructor, Simon Mills (who is Senior Teaching Fellow in Integrated Health Care, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, the first medical school in Britain to establish a program in Integrated Health Care) said of yarrow, that with hundreds of complex constituents, it is “a pharmacy in itself.”

Mills frequently used yarrow in his formulas as a “top up,” a British term for adding a bit more to someone’s drink. He became convinced that yarrow, with its synergistic compounds that we are only beginning to understand, was often the key ingredient of his formulas.

When he neglected to “top up” the formula with yarrow, filling the formula with herbs more specifically indicated for the condition, returning clients reported the formula was less effective.

Yarrow is particularly suited for healing the predominant ailments of cold, damp climates, bestowing upon it a type of panacea status in Ireland and the British Isles due to its efficacy for reducing rheumatic pains, soothing flatulent bowel complaints, healing colds and fevers, and countering depression.

Usually, in contemporary herb texts, yarrow is known as a diaphoretic, an herbal action that causes one with a fever to sweat, thereby bringing down a fever instead of suppressing it.

With yarrow’s complex chemistry, its uses are far more extensive than merely fever management. Native American tribes all over North America widely used yarrow, perhaps more than any other plant, for ailments ranging from digestive cramps, wounds and colds to neuralgia, venereal disease, as a blood purifier, to revive an unconscious person who had fallen, and as a remedy for multiple infant sicknesses – just to name a few.

Likely, if Achilles could have had only one herb to use on the battlefield, it would have been yarrow. But his legendary application begs the question: Did Achilles apply it to the mortal blow to his heel, or was it just out of reach?

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 29, 2011.

Perilla frutescens (shiso) is a novel vegetable

Perilla frutescens var. crispa, shiso, in Crawford, GA. Notice the ruffled edges.

Perilla frutescens, a relatively new green-leafy vegetable introduced to North America from Asia and naturalizing throughout the eastern US, is popular in Asian dishes and a source of expensive omega-3 essential fatty acid supplements.

Growing in the Athens area are two variants: one is called shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa), which is either green or purplish-burgundy with ruffled, deeply serrated edges, and the other is egoma (Perilla frutescens var. frutescens), which has flat, green leaves with serrated edges.

When identifying either variety of Perilla, a distinguishing characteristic is in the anise-basil smell of the foliage when it’s crushed. Since Perilla’s in the mint family (Lamiaceae), it will have a square stem. Flowers rise up on four-sided stalks, resembling basil, but are taller and more pronounced. I usually find Perilla in a moist, semi-shade habitat, such as the Fred Birchmore Nature Trail in Athens.

Listing the health-promoting properties of Perilla would appear to place it in a panacea, cure-all category of potential world crops. Evidenced-based research matches the claims, which might make this a top-ten plant in usefulness.

Perilla frutescens var. frutescens, egoma, on the Fred Birchmore Trail in Athens.

Perilla’s antimutagenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities lend it to be a traditional herb for treating cancerous tumors in Asia. Research studies of Perilla leaf extract have found the herb efficacious in treating human leukemia and human hepatoma cells by increasing apoptosis-related genes and apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the cancer cells. In one study on liver cancer, scientists compared the Perilla leaf extract to rosmarinic acid, a potent antioxidant compound found in high quantities in Perilla, to determine whether the activity is attributed to the rosmarinic acid. The study found the whole-leaf extract of Perilla was significantly more effective than the isolated constituent—a possible argument for wholeness.

Scientific studies have also verified the efficacy of using Perilla as an antidepressant. The studies were based on a Japanese herbal remedy which uses Perilla for its effect on depression associated with chronic unpredictable stress. There’s a lot of that going around.

Oil extracted from the seeds is high in omega-3 essential fatty acids, and can be an alternative to fish oil. Perilla oil has a neuroprotective and cardiovascular-protective effect, and is a possible preventative for strokes, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s no need to make an alcohol tincture or water extract of Perilla because it’s an excellent, flavorful, cooked veggie, which has up to five times the carotene found in carotene-rich vegetables. Nutrition studies compared Perilla to spinach and found Perilla to be significantly higher in lutein than spinach. In addition to the carotenes, Perilla has an abundant supply of antioxidants, such as rosmarinic acid, flavonoids, and anthocyanins.

The omega-3-rich seeds of the flat-leaf Perilla can be used as a topping for salads or a spice. In Japanese cooking, the leaves of the ruffled-leaf Perilla are dredged in tempura batter and fried. The purple leaf variety is added to vinegars, pickled foods and rice to give flavor, a pinkish hue, and antimicrobial properties.

There’s no telling who is responsible for introducing Perilla to the US, but since it’s here, I’ll learn how to put it to good use.

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!

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.

Passionflower eases stress-related sleeplessness and anxiety

Passiflora incarnata looking like it's designed to communicate with extraterrestrials.

Passionflower is an example of how we can lose an appreciation for the familiar. The exotically beautiful, though completely native, passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the few Passiflora species which grows in our temperate climate, and for this we can be thankful. This backyard remedy is tremendously useful for stress-related conditions: sleeplessness, tension, muscle spasms, irritability, restlessness, teeth-grinding, headaches, high blood pressure, attention-deficit, and even for withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances.

Passionflower is a deciduous vine with three-lobed leaves that smell like peanut butter when crushed. Its highly complex flowers bloom from June-October, and look as if they’re designed to communicate with outer-space extraterrestrials – though the passionflower is actually named by imaginative 16th century Spaniards for its symbolic imagery of Christ’s passion.

Passionflower fruits of Passiflora incarnata.

Edible, sweet-tasting fruits form after the flowers are finished, and ripen from green to yellowish-orange two months after forming. The vine often crawls along the ground, and when you step on the fruits they may pop, giving passionflower its other popular name, ‘maypop’.

Although the passionflower vine will grow in clay, it is most happy sprawled out over your vegetables, taking advantage of loose, fertile soil. To introduce passionflower into your garden, prepare a sunny spot as you would for tomatoes, and plant the seeds from a dried passionflower fruit. Give it space and a trellis or fence to climb. Venturing young shoots and leaves can be eaten when boiled and then sautéed.

Medicinally, passionflower is traditionally indicated when someone cannot sleep due to repetitive, worry-filled thoughts circling all night. Passionflower stills the rambling, anxious thoughts, bringing a calm and relaxed sleep without any sleep-medication “hangover”.

Numerous pharmacological investigations have confirmed passionflower’s ability to relieve anxiety. In one clinical trial of 36 people with generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed by DSM-IV standards who were randomly given either passionflower or oxazepam, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, the results found that passionflower and the pharmaceutical relieved anxiety equally; however, passionflower affected the participants’ job performance far less than oxazepam. An additional difference is that passionflower is safe in moderate amounts and non-addictive.

Studies also report its efficacy in reducing drug withdrawal symptoms for nicotine, alcohol, and opiates, such as morphine by increasing the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter which calms the body’s response to stimuli.

Surprisingly the flowers hold little medicinal value, besides looking at them. The majority of the nerve-calming qualities come from a tea or extract made from the leaves and stems, either fresh or dried. Commercial sources of the live plant are few. It’s more common to find the South American blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), which has five-lobed leaves, an edible fruit and is almost evergreen in Athens.

Old-timer herbalist Tommie Bass said that passionflower brings people together by helping them to relax. He suggested it for domestic partners who’ve grown annoyed with the little things over the years, losing appreciation for the familiar. Cherokee Indians similarly used passionflower as a social beverage. If fences make good neighbors, then maybe passionflower should grow along the fence.

This article appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on July 4, 2010.

Pictures of other species of Passiflora:

Passionflower botanical (1902) Dodd, Mead & Company. This botanical print came from a book. I have it in a simple frame.

Princess Charlotte's Passionflower, Passiflora racemosa, at Druid Hill Park Victorian Conservatory, Baltimore, MD

Uncommon and inconspicuous: Passiflora lutea, or yellow passionflower, in Athens, GA

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine. Native to the U.S.

While walking my dog in Athens, I saw, rambling close to the sidewalk, the leaves of the native yellow passionflower vine, Passiflora lutea. I had never noticed it in Athens before, which made me wonder if it’s uncommon or just inconspicuous. It’s both. And it’s a coveted native plant for wildflower enthusiasts, and commercially hard to find.

Passiflora lutea’s shallowly-lobed leaves could easily be mistaken for baby kudzu, which might cause someone to yank it out of their yard, understandably so. The flower is greenish-yellow, an inch or less in size, and slightly covered by the leaves, making them difficult to notice, and perhaps to appreciate, as well. Those who notice will see a precious, intricate little flower, and long, spiraling tendrils. The leaves sometimes have subtle variegation, which is quite attractive.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine foliage. The shallowly-lobed leaves resemble the dreaded kudzu and English ivy.

I first saw Passiflora lutea in abundance along a trail on the South Carolina side of the Chattooga River. Since then, I saw it growing at Autry Mill Park in Johns Creek, GA (formerly Alpharetta), and now I’m seeing it in Athens. In each of these places, P. lutea was growing in the shade.

I looked at the USDA Plant Database distribution map, which shows its distribution from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas east, and from Florida to Pennsylvania. These are also the states to which the plant is native, so clearly it hasn’t spread much.

Yellow passionflower is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania, while the Southern Weed Science Society considers it weedy and potentially invasive. Is this huge discrepancy a case of beauty residing in the eye of the beholder?

The University of Texas at Austin’s Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center–Native Plant Database lists yellow passionflower as a major food source for several species of butterfly larvae, including the Julia Heliconican, Mexican & Gulf fritillaries butterflies, and Zebra & Crimson-patch long-wing butterflies.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine. The flower is named for symbolic imagery of Christ's crucifixion, called The Passion of Christ.

Medicinally, P. lutea will have some similar sedating nervine effects as Passiflora incarnata, or purple passionflower; however, it’s too uncommon to sustainably harvest. The fruits are edible, as are purple passionflower’s. If you are lucky enough to have this growing in your yard, let the fruits dry, collect the seeds, and start a P. lutea nursery.

P.S. – I’ve also now seen a small vine of P. lutea near the banks of the North Oconee River on the greenway near Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, and on a wooded trail behind the UGA Intramural Fields.

Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine, hiding underneath the foliage.

Variegated foliage of Passiflora lutea, yellow passionflower vine, on trail behind Intramural Fields at UGA, Athens, GA.

A beautiful vine, Passiflora lutea.

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