New Plant! Cancer Weed

Salvia lyrata - Cancer Weed

Does this plant look like a lyre to you? (click on the photo for a larger image)

Uh-uh, doesn’t to me either.  Never-the-less, I learned this week that it was named Salvia lyrata because of its striking resemblance to a lyre.  I don’t get it.  It is also known as cancer weed, because it has been used to treat skin cancer.  Now that makes sense.

I found it growing in a sandy, gravel-y, practically soil-less spot in our yard, surrounded by a pile of scrap metal waiting to be hauled away.  It took a while, though, before I actually stopped to take a closer look and positively identify it.  Each time I walked by it for the last couple weeks or so, I intuitively called to it as I passed by,  “Salvia!”  The blooms look a lot like garden sage, so I suppose it was easy to leap to that conclusion.

Salvia lyrata - Cancer Weed
Salvia lyrata – Cancer Weed

As a general rule when I am curious about a new plant, I like to see what I can find out through direct experience on my own before I look up what others have written. One thing I must do before even that, though, is to positively identify it and check to make sure that the plant I am working with is not toxic.

The first thing I had noticed on close inspection was that it had square shaped stems and opposite leaves.  Ah ha!! Likely Mint family!  Probably safe to handle and taste. But I still wanted a positive ID. 

I pulled out my Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America and flipped to the purple flower section hoping it would be there.  It didn’t take long to find it, it was right on page 217. 

Let the exploration with the senses begin!

Salvia Lyrata - Cancer Weed

I first leaned in to smell the blossoms, and when I didn’t smell anything, pinched a couple off and crushed them to see if they would release an aroma. Still nothing but a mild grassy scent. The leaves, however, had a quite distinctive, though mild, aroma. Not sure what to compare it to or exactly how to describe it.

I then took a little piece of the leaf into my mouth to taste.  I chewed it between my front teeth only, and tried not to swallow any, though I’m sure a small amount of the juice made it into my body anyway.  The taste was cooling, slightly astringent, and had a tiny little minty tingle to it.  It seemed a lot like many wild salad greens, but it evolved into a little more complexity the longer I held it on my toungue. After I had spit it out, I found that it had a mild minty after taste, ya know, a cooling tingle.  And then a little while later, a slightly bitter “after-after” taste.

A few minutes after tasting, I felt a very, very mild headache (really just pressure, not exactly pain) in my temples — not sure it was related, but it could have been.  I also felt some diffusion, a sort of prickly sensation on the tip of my tongue where the leaf had been tasted.  The prickliness came on shortly after the headache, and was accompanied by the mildly bitter “after-after” taste.  The prickliness began to fade after about 10 minutes, but still a ghost of it lingered for a while after that.  My tummy also began to move a bit just as the temple pressure was subsiding, suggesting an action on the gut, too.  As the headache disappeared and the bowels began move just a little, it felt like a gentle whole body release of some sort, but it was very subtle.

After using my senses to begin knowing lyrata, some quick Googling of the plant name yielded the following, which is essentially what my field guide had already told me: Edible plant with medicinal uses. Leaf poultice or salve used for skin sores, skin cancer, and warts. Whole plant tea for colds, coughs, asthma, nerves.  It is said to be mildly laxative and diaphoretic. Another source said, “has properties like those of garden sage; but it also contains acrid substances…” It mostly grows wild as a lovely weed — that means it’s tough!  It can be mowed and stepped on and still survive!  It is also sometimes cultivated in gardens.

So folks, this is what I know so far.  This plant is super tough and quick acting, but is also very mild and subtle. It has a gentle yet confident strength. I will definitely be on the look out for more information.

Have you heard of this plant before?  What can you tell me about it?  Have YOU discovered any new plants lately?

Reclaiming My Voice

I just read over some of the posts I wrote here over the last couple of years, and find myself feeling very sad, even shedding tears.  I think I am mourning the spiritual connection and authenticity that exuded from my writing as I was on the threshold of a major transition in my life.  I seem to have misplaced that connection, along with my writer’s voice, as I have navigated the waters of tremendous change recently, and I long to have it back again.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been writing very much here at all the last year or two.  Back when my marriage was ending in 2008, I found that my writing voice was stronger than it had ever been. During that time I was suffocating and needing freedom, and I found space through which to breathe via my relationships with plants and my writing on WitchenKitchen. Oh the dreams I dreamed, the insights I gained, the personal growth I experienced during that time!  I connected to the plants and my innermost self when I couldn’t connect to my partner, and my, how the words did flow!

But when that relationship was actually over, I unexpectedly found myself adrift at sea with nothing but emotional survival on my mind.  I no longer had a home with plants I knew intimately just outside my door, no herb cupboard or kitchen to experiment in.  By my own choice, I moved all my furniture and personal belongings to a hot, musty storage unit, put my jars of tinctures and oils and dried herbs into boxes and stacked them in a spare room at my mother’s house. I knew I would get back to them someday, but for the time being, I could only look longingly at the boxes.

I wouldn’t even open those boxes to get tea ingredients, because I knew I’d only have to pack them up again, and it was all just too, too sad for me.  During this transition, I couldn’t communicate at all with the plants, could barely even go outside and just sit with them.  I could hardly write a word on the topic, save short little snippets on my Facebook page.

Then a little while later, I fell in love and started a new relationship.  Suddenly I was whirling around, caught up in a fantastic and blissful adventure.  You’d think my thoughts would be overflowing and spilling from my pen, but being in love can be one of the most overwhelming things a person can experience.  As we busily went about establishing the foundations for a long term relationship and making a home together, I still could not find my spiritual center, and I could not write.

I tried a few times.  I can’t tell you how many drafts of articles I penned, but ultimately trashed because they had no authenticity.

As my partner and I began our journey together, I unpacked most of my herbs and put them in a cupboard in our home just for them, but I would almost never go get anything out to actually use.  I grew vegetable gardens, but that was hardly a substitute for connecting with wild plants as I had once done.  I would walk around our yard sometimes looking at wild, growing things, but lacked the motivation to go get my books and try to i.d. the unknown plants, or bring any of them into my kitchen to get to know them better. I maintained my interest and a certain longing, but from a distant, uncommitted place.

My priority and focus through all this relationship upheaval has been to re-establish solid human connections…  the plants and my writing, well, they just had to wait.

My new relationship has stabilized and grown a solid base now, and I feel my feet touching the Earth again.  I feel I have regained a home base and roots from which to spread my branches. My heart is telling me that I can now safely turn my attention elsewhere from time to time and be sure that I won’t go spinning off into the unknown, unconnected abyss. I am ready to reclaim myself, my spiritual connections, and my words.

I felt my passion for all things green rekindling during our recent family beach vacation, when the local plants began calling out to me again. I heard them intensely and insistently, and felt a familiar and overwhelming desire to research and write about them again.  Perhaps they have been calling all along, but only now have I come to a resting spot where I can hear them.

I hope you will continue this journey with me, as I find the words to share it with you here.

🙂

Meet Pennywort

I just returned from a relaxing vacation on the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and met some sweet new plant friends.  Although I saw many herbs that were new to me, a couple really caught my attention and inspired me to get to know them better. I wanted to share my research with you.

Pennywort

Prolific is the first word that comes to mind when I think of this plant.  Several sources classify this plant as invasive, and I can see why. It was everywhere along the coast, on and near the dunes.

I was attracted to the succulent, brilliant green, and round foliage, with a small, whitish dot in the center. It exudes archetypal wholeness, a sacred naval of the world, appearing to contain a full universe within each perfect leaf. Very plump and moist and healthy, even though it was growing out of dry, hot, sand.

I only know the name of this plant because of a book I picked up at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge we visited while at the beach.  The book is titled “A Guide to Ocean Dune Plants common to North Carolina” by E. Jean Wilson Kraus. None of the other herbal reference books on my shelves (and I have a lot) mention Hydrocotyle at all.

In my internet research, I found very little specific and reliable information on the possible medicinal properties of this plant. The few references I did find, indicated it may have possibly been used as an alterative for various skin and kidney disorders, as well as arthritis.

Not knowing a single thing about this lovely little plant when I discovered it, except that I found it beautiful, I didn’t do very much hands-on experimenting on our first meeting. As I sat with it, I imagined it could bring moisture and coolness to dry, inflamed tissues. Perhaps it could deliver some kind of cosmic energy to a tired spirit, renewing life force in the cells of the body. Its personality seemed to me to be very similar to Chickweed. Roundness, balance, greenness, longevity… these are the words that came to mind.  Since many sources indicated that H. bonariensis is edible, raw and cooked, I will feel safe to experiment a bit more next time I am on the coast.

Other common names I came across for this particular species: Water Pennywort, Beach Pennywort, Marsh Pennywort, Salt Pennywort, Coast Pennywort, Dollarweed, Sombrerillo, Waternaval. I will certainly be looking for more ethno-botanical information under any and all of these names. If you have any tidbits to share, I would love to hear them.

In my next post I want to talk about Fire-wheel, Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), another coastal plant that captured my heart and imagination while I was in the Outer Banks.

A Sweet Little Herbal You May Not Have Seen Before

When I read this herbal by Linda Ours Rago I felt like I was reading about my own little piece of the world.  The achingly beautiful descriptions of the land and the plants she examines make me feel homesick and anxious to step outside my door, where I know I will find the very same plant communities, the very same smells, the very same colors.

In Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing with Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise Woman Tradition, Rago details the seasons and plants common to the region around the Blue Ridge Mountains, specifically at her Blackberry Cove Appalachian mountain farm in West Virginia.

The herbal is organized by season and gives lots of specific information about which plants are available for wild crafting in this region during every month of the year, and also lots of ideas for what to do with them.  She includes many recipes for time honored herbal remedies of the Appalachian wise woman tradition, and also weaves in the lore and magick of the culture as they relate to the plants.

I live on the other side of the Blue Ridge, in Virginia, so my ecosystem is pretty similar to hers.  I have found all the plants she covers growing at pretty much the same times she describes.  This herbal would make a wonderful beginners guide for a year long study of common local plants if you happen to live in this bio-region.

And even if you don’t live around here, many of the plants described are quite common in a variety of regions and much useful information can be gleaned.  The book is also beautifully written and beautifully illustrated, and is an enjoyable read, regardless.

Here is an excerpt from “December”:

…[O]ne hearty cup of pink sassafras root tea every spring will charge up your metabolism and thin your winter-sluggish blood.

The oldest Appalachian grandmothers say we should find a spot plentiful with sassafras seedlings.  Then after a hard frost in December, near the dark of the moon, tell the whole grove that you appreciate their strength and beauty and need their good medicine.  Pull up one entire small seedling, cut off the whole top, and save the roots.  Wash them well in running water, cut in three-inch lengths, dry slowly in a warm oven, and store away until spring.

In early spring place five pieces of root in a pot with a quart of cold springwater.  Bring to a boil and simmer gently for fifteen minutes. The water will turn a rosy color.  Sweeten with sugar or honey.  Take no more than a cup a day for several days.

Save the roots, dry them again, and resuse them over and over until the decoction no longer turns pink or has that distinctive sassafras aroma.

And speaking of digging Sassafras roots, I promise that post on root medicine is coming soon!  I had forgotten how busy this week would be… no time for root diggin’ yet! Today will be nice, so I think I will get out there later this afternoon.  Sassafras is on my list of roots to gather, along with Poke, Blackberry, Mullien…

Hey, Witchen Kitchen Made a Top 100 Herb Blog List!

Very cool!

Read the article, Back to Nature: Top 100 Herbal Medicine Blogs, here:

http://www.nursingdegree.net/blog/40/back-to-nature-top-100-herbal-medicine-blogs/

(You can find Witchen Kitchen under the subtitle The Basics)

Thanks for the mention, NursingDegree.net!

And thanks to all of YOU READERS! Without you this blog would have no visibility at all.

Dead Christmas Trees

Since the kids have grown up and had kids of their own, it’s very seldom we are all together at the same time for meaningful activities anymore.  But Saturday turned out to be very magical for us in that way.  We got our first real snow (which only amounted to less than an inch, but hey!) while all of my kids were at the house with their children, so we decided to put up the Christmas tree together.

We’ve been using an artificial tree the last few years, but found when we hauled it out of the shed that mice had made their home in its branches this past season and had peed all over it!  Sorry, not putting the lovely odor of mouse pee all up in my house for Christmas!

So it was snowing, all the kids and grandkids were there together… seemed like perfect timing to go out in the woods and find a live tree this year.  And that’s just what we did.  It was a very special memory we made together, all of us bundled up tromping through the woods, AND we found a beautiful, fat cedar in the perfect shape.  It’s bare on one side, but with that side against the wall you can’t really tell.

At first I had a few reservations about cutting down a perfectly healthy and living tree just to indulge our holiday hoopla, but I have since come to terms with that.  Part of being on a spiritual and sacred earth walk means understanding that all living things participate and contribute to the whole of life, sometimes in life and sometimes in death.

We take the lives of plants and animals everyday to sustain and enhance our own lives.  The hard truth of the matter is that no life can continue unless something else dies to feed it.  I also believe that in some mysterious way, when we honor and gratefully receive these gifts, each living being that gives its life does so as a willing participant.  It is good to honor these everyday sacrifices and give heartfelt thanks when we eat a meal, use a plant for medicine, or even cut down a live Christmas tree.

I believe that in the grand scheme of the Universe, this particular tree we brought home grew in that very spot, to just the right size and shape, for just that moment when it gave its life to be a part of our family’s unity and love.  We will honor and embrace that sacrifice.

When I went to put water into the tree stand after we had set it up, one of the grandchildren asked me if the tree was going to keep growing.  I told him, no, it would begin to dry out and it would die within a few weeks.  He was sad about that and thought maybe we shouldn’t have cut it down.  I had to scramble to explain to him the understanding I had come to about life and death and this humble tree, in a way that he could understand.  I also wanted to find a way that we could honor the tree’s life, one that would be meaningful to the children.

What we came up with was that after Christmas, when we take down all the decorations, we will carry our tree to our bonfire spot and have a grand smudging ceremony!  Cedar is a traditional sacred smudging herb, and this seems a fitting end for our lovely tree.  We will thank our tree for being part of our family celebrations and for making our holiday so special.  Then we will burn the tree and watch it’s spirit rise up to return to the Great Spirit, carrying our prayers with it.  The children think this is a great idea and they are excited.

I used to feel so sad when, the week after Christmas, I would drive through my city and see all the dead and discarded Christmas trees lying on the curbs up and down the streets, with stray pieces of tinsel still clinging in odd places, just waiting for the garbage trucks.  The holiday was over and now they were just thrown out like nothing special, the people moving unceremoniously on to the next thing.  I am very glad to have found a way to make the death of our Christmas tree just as meaningful and special as all the rest of our celebrations.

Bringing an evergreen tree into the house to decorate and celebrate around is but one of the many ways to mark the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, with the days growing longer and longer thereafter.  Many religious mythologies symbolize this phenomena of “light triumphing over darkness.” Whether you celebrate the return of the sun to longer days, or the coming of the Son, or something else entirely, may you all find special meaning for this holiday season.

Meet Nuisance

Well, we’ve been chosen.  This guy showed up at our door a few days after Halloween and decided to stay.  We tried to get him to go home by refusing to let him into the house, but he just stayed at our window all night meowing, tearing screens off the window, and pawing at the door like a puppy.  We’ve decided to stop fighting what seems meant to be.  So, now we have a cat named Nuisance (that, by the way, our dog hates! yikes!).

It all started with the tuna fish.  When he came to our door, he was very skinny and obviously malnourished, and seemed to be in some pain also, as if he had maybe injured his tail or his pelvic area.  Whatever injuries he had weren’t too serious — he could walk and jump just fine — but I noticed an odd twitching in his tail when I rubbed him and felt a lot of heat in the lower regions when I moved my hand down his back just above his spine.  How could I not open up a can of tuna for the sad little guy?

In the few weeks he’s been with us, his belly is no longer sunken and his fur is getting shinier.  He likes to be massaged, and the twitch in his tail is diminishing.  He’s looking quite healthy these days.

Nuisance truly lives up to his name in the way he demands attention and a thorough rubbing down every time he comes near, how he wants to be fed 15 hundred times a day, and the way he regally commandeers the warmest spot by the fire.  He’s definitely got a strong sense of what he wants and when, and doesn’t settle for less. He’s teaching me a lot.

It’s also a big hassle to make sure the dog and the cat are never in the same room together (no, no, no — fur will fly!).  But he is so darn lovable and rewards us with such satisfied purrs after he gets us in line, that we don’t really mind the nuisance all that much.

More Tree Medicine: Making Ogham Sticks

After my recent post on Tree Medicine my friend, Sarah Head, suggested I make my own set of Ogham Sticks.  She was even kind enough to send along detailed instructions from the classes she teaches on the topic.  I had not heard of Ogham Sticks before, but was immediately intrigued when I learned they were a divination tool made from trees. Thank you Sarah!  What a creative, healing, and so very appropriate project for me to do over these upcoming Winter months!

As I learned from Sarah, to make a set, you only need to respectfully and reverently collect sticks of the size and shape desired from a variety of trees of your choosing, then polish and decorate the sticks as you like, being sure to mark the name of the tree (or other symbol) so you can remember which stick represents which tree.  The finished product can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. I liked Sarah’s suggestion to take wood from fallen branches already offered by the tree.  If taking from the live tree, she suggests doing so while the tree sleeps during the cold months.

The finished sticks can be kept in a special bag or other container, and then when you need tree medicine, you can “draw” one or more sticks from the bag. Together with an understanding of the symbolism and energy of the tree(s) you have drawn, very useful insight into your situation can be gained. This is similar to drawing Runes or Tarot, or even meditating upon a random Bible passage — ALL spiritual traditions have some means of consulting a higher wisdom through symbols or story for the purpose of growth and understanding in ones everyday life.  It is “Story Medicine,” as Susun Weed calls it.

Though traditional Ogham Sticks can be a part of well-defined ritual and ceremony, where there are the Ogham alphabet symbols engraved on them, a certain number of sticks, and specific types of trees to use, I do not plan to follow those particular guidelines to make mine. At this point in my path, I’m not looking for traditional meanings so much as I am wanting to develop a very personal tool to help with my own growth and understanding of tree medicine, and a way to connect more meaningfully with that wisdom.

Instead of making a traditional set, I will allow my own set to evolve over time from those trees that I develop a special connection to right here in my own backyard, one tree at a time, over as many years as it takes to meet all the Tree People I need to meet!  I think it will be very fulfilling for me to do in-depth research on each tree as I go along (meditative, books, science, all together) and then translate that understanding lovingly into the symbolic form of an Ogham Stick to represent each Standing Person.

I am going to start my set with the lovely Sweetgum, which has star shaped leaves that smell heavenly when crushed.

She really stands out along the edge of the forest in the summer because of the unique shape of her leaves.  She practically shouted for me to pay attention to her as I walked past one day.  She is no less quiet in the Fall.  Just look at that fire!  A good place for me to begin, I think.

Tree Medicine

In the spiritual tradition of my Native American ancestors, the trees are known as the Standing People. They are the great and wise chiefs of the Green Nations.  Their roots run deep into Mother Earth and their branches reach high toward Father Sky.  They are deeply connected to both the physical and spiritual realms, wise and generous.  I spent some time among them this morning seeking wisdom, peace, rest.

As I lay gazing upward at the quivering, multi-colored leaves, an occasional gust of wind would send the brightest ones spiraling down like dry rain to catch in my hair and caress my face.  I tried to get a photo of one of these leaf showers, as it was an achingly beautiful sight, but it was a Zen moment that simply could not be captured.

Here is another view from my hammock instead.

I’ve been feeling generally stuck for some months now in several major areas of my life, desiring a big change, not knowing what to do or how to make myself feel better.  Each small step I have managed forward seems overwhelmingly insignificant compared to the thousands more that must yet be walked.  Lots of thinking going on in my mind these days about what is really important to me and how I want to live the second half of my life. A midlife crisis perhaps?

It must be time for the medicine wheel to turn… a new stage of life approaches.  The Standing People are making this journey now also. They have many lessons for me, I think.

The Best Things I Did For Myself All Week

When I get sick, my first thoughts usually turn to, how can I make this GO AWAY!! NOW!!  But I’m learning through experience that this approach is not always the best way.  It seems the more I push at an illness, the more it pushes back, and the longer I have to deal with it.

If you remember from a previous post how sick I was recently, and how well Butterfly Weed helped me, you may be surprised to learn that I got another virus just as that never-ending one cleared up.  I went to the doctor to rule out a more serious infection like pnuemonia and such.  Clear mucous, no fever… probably just another opportunistic cold virus catching hold while my immune system was still weak and vulnerable — from my recent illness and also from racing through life at a frantic pace without enough rest or self care!

With that original illness, I had thrown everything herbal at it that I could think of.  Lots of tincture taking and impatience as the symptoms hung on and on.  Even the more nourishing remedies, such as hot bone broth soup, were administered with a forceful attitude.  I was wanting to get back to my busy life at full speed, but I felt like shit.  My thoughts were, what can I take that will zap this thing out of me and let me get on with it????

Susan Weed teaches a lot about “problems as allies.” The idea is that when an illness shows up, your body is trying to speak, to get your attention.  It’s not an enemy to be thwarted, but an ally that can help you move toward greater wholeness and health.  What was my body saying to me?  When I became sick again so soon after just starting to get well, I decided to stop “fighting off illness” and embrace it so I could pay more careful attention to my body’s voice.  It was saying that I needed sleep.  I needed comfort and warmth.  I needed nourishment.  I needed some TLC and gentleness.

So…

I took a couple days off from massage school and a day off from work.  Through those days and into the weekend, I slept a lot more than I had in months.

After waking up from a nice long sleep on one of the days, feeling pretty relaxed, but cold and congested, I went to my herb cupboard and picked out herb for a hot steam.  Calendula flowers, yes, that’s what I wanted. Some may think of the more aromatic herbs as the most appropriate here, but for some reason, I just wanted the calendula.  I boiled some water and poured it over the dried flowers into a bowl and then covered my head with a towel to breath in the warm steam, letting in cool air as needed.  Pure bliss, deeply penetrating warmth and comfort for my lungs and sinuses.  When the water had cooled enough, I took some of the warm moist flowers and laid them over my eyes and sinuses, absorbing their healing energy.

My lungs were still feeling weak after these many weeks, still hanging on to a lingering, nagging cough.  My glands and lymph were still swollen a bit.  I went back to my herb cupboard a little later for infusion ingredients – to soothe my symptoms, not force them well, just soothe them.  And I FOUND SOME MULLIEN!!  I had thought I was out, but there it was, this wonderful lung tonic.  Into the infusion jar went a small handful.  Mellow oatstraw was calling to me also, so a handful of that next.  Hmmm… dried elderberries… I briefly wondered if they would be good as infusion (I’d only been taking it as tincture so far).  I thought yes, so a few of those added to the jar, too.  Finally, some more of the yellow calendula petals (just petals, not the whole flower head; just what my body seemed to want).  Pour boiling water over, cap, and leave for a few hours.  Strain and drink.  The taste is smooth, mellow, slightly fruity, divine.  Everything elderberry is supposed to do for a cold or flu seemed magnified ten times over compared to the tincture. The the taste of mullien is like something I’ve been craving for a long time. The infusion soothes my cough.  It relaxes and nourishes me deeply. I make this brew again the next day and the next and the next.

Chicken soup several days in a row, made with bone broth, lots of sage and thyme and pepper and salt.  The warmth down my throat, the herbs, the minerals, all work together to start weaving back together my frayed system.

Several hot baths with bundles of herbs thrown in.  Red clover blossoms and, once again, sunny calendula.  Bone penetrating warmth, just as I needed.

By Monday, I felt rested and relaxed and just about back to my old self.  My lungs felt healthy and strong, all my upper respiratory passages felt moist and at ease.  An interesting side note – the tennis elbow I’ve had for months now STOPPED HURTING ALSO!  Somehow through this process, that elbow got what it needed, too, so it stopped yelling at me.

This experience was two weeks ago.  I’ve been mostly well since then, but everytime I start to over do it, scrimp on sleep, or fail to nourish myself properly with fluids and good food, that little tickling cough starts to creep back, and I understand the message immediately.

Notice all the water-based, warm, nourishing herbal remedies I instinctively reached for when the focus became listening and nurturing, instead of squashing and conquering.  This is kitchen medicine at its best.  A great lesson this whole experience has been for me in the art of Healing Wise, one of many I’ve been blessed with recently.