Monday, November 26, 2012

The Gift Of Knowledge

Growing up on a daily feast of knowledge, both my parents teachers, two of my grandparents teachers as well, I learned the satisfaction in 'giving' knowledge to others. 

William Butler Yeats said it well: “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” 

Much like the satisfaction of watching a candle catch flame, offering welcome knowledge is a reward in itself. "Welcome' knowledge is the key. There are so many wonderful things to know in this world, when someone dearly wants herbal knowledge, where do we start?

It really depends on how they best learn, and how they will use the information.

Herbalists love our books and magazines.

Essential Herbal Magazine
Offers six issues per year contain in-depth articles, recipes, crafting instructions, wildcrafting information and herbal lore. I write for this publication from time to time, and whether you are new to herbs or an "old hand", you'll find lots to enjoy. Subscribe to Essential Herbal Magazine

Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food by Todd Caldecott, medical herbalist

This book is beyond food-fads, and a valuable resource that causes us to think for ourselves and reintroduces food as traditional art and medicine. Exploring what there is to eat, when and how to eat it and preparation tools, the guidance in this book helps us to bring about health and wholeness. It's also a scholarly feast of information and an excellent addition for the libraries of physicians, naturopaths, nutritionists, herbalists and students of these disciplines. Purchase Food As Medicine directly from the author here.

Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry is an excellent book by herbalist Lisa Ganora.

Fully illustrated, this is a textbook covering all of the major classes and subclasses of phytochemicals important to botanical medicine. Lisa earned a Bachelor's degree in Biology with studies in botany and chemistry, Summa cum laude, with Distinction as a University Scholar, and Distinction in Biology from the University of North Carolina, so the scholarship in this book is excellent.  The author is a fascinating person, so it's manageable reading as well. It includes material on the basics of phytochemistry, solubility and extraction, synergistic interactions between phytochemicals, and an extensive glossary. If the herbalist in your life wants to go deep into the topic, this book is sure to satisfy.  Purchase Herbal Constituents from the author right here.

Plant Healer Magazine: 
A Journal of Traditional Herbalism
This is a quarterly journal of experience-based & adventurous writings by teachers and practitioners of herbalism & plant lovers. This is a paperless – downloadable magazine, beautifully illustrated with full color PDF's. So this is great for people who love learning on computers. I also write for it sometimes as well. It's dedicated to "the further informing, inspiring and empowering practicing herbalists and advanced herbal teachers, eager students and impassioned beginners, conservationists and activists, informal community healers and unrepentant lovers of plants… as well as everyone taking any responsibility for their own basic health needs or those of their families!" Read a sample issue and  Subscribe to Plant Healer Magazine right here.

If your herbalist is younger, or just young at heart they will surely love Medicinal Plants of North America: A Flora DelaterreTM Coloring Book by Beth Judy.  

Plant sleuth Flora Delaterre has informed public radio listeners across the country about medicinal plants on the weekly program The Plant Detective produced by Montana Public Radio for years. Now, Flora presents a coloring book of black and white drawings of 14 plants by botanical illustrator DD Dowden, plus information about past and current medicinal uses of the plants; fascinating facts (from tidbits of lore to conservation status and dangerous side effects); and coloring tips for the drawings. A light, fun and informative romp  with Flora herself appearing throughout the pages as she investigates the plants of the book.
Purchase Flora Delaterre's Coloring Book

If your herbalist is ready for a guide, maybe I can be of service in my distance learning program: Village Herbalist Independent Herbal Study Course. This is an 18 lesson course complete with booklets, audio CD's and personal guidance with each lesson. A hands-on course, it's designed to weave herbalism into your kitchen, garden, laundry and bath. This is intensive study of traditional and practical Herbalism, nutrition, health-promoting lifestyles, healing and aromatherapy. Although those with a background in herbalism gain much from the course, no prior herbal experience is required to enroll.

Even though there is much to learn,  Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry in The Little Prince cautioned on how much knowledge to offer at any one time: "Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things.  It is enough to light a spark, if there is some good flammable stuff, it will burn."

Happy learning along the path to you and yours


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dreaming Of The Medieval Physic Garden

Wintertime sets in, beckoning us to dream. With a cup of linden tea and a cozy shawl on my shoulders, I write this to inspire a bit of armchair travel to a time and garden that holds great purpose.

Special Gardens, Specialized Gardeners

Physic refers to the use of garden harvests for physical healing. In history, these gardens were kept by apothecaries and their apprentices. Apothecaries were, and still are, traders and dispensers of medicinal herbs. They have always been trained in the identification and quality purchasing of herbs, and so avoiding adulteration, poisoning and ineffective treatment. Physic gardens were established to train apprentices, in assisting with the ability to recognize each herb and in growing herbs for the production of medicines.
Physic gardens were also established at monasteries. Although herbalism was practiced and hospitals existed prior to the establishment of churches, in the medieval era hospitals were formed in connection with monastic institutions. Each monastery had an infirmary where treatment was available with herbal medicines from the herbs cultivated in their physic gardens. The German abbess, author and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen who lived from1098 to1179 CE surely had a physic garden. Her two books Physica and Causae et Curae on the curative powers of natural substances are very inspiring and enlightening reading.
In 1164CE The House Of The Holy Trinity At Soutra was founded in Scotland near Edinburgh by King Malcolm IV as an Augustinian hospital, monastery and church complete with physic gardens. The remains of these physic gardens and the hospital, now called Soutra Aisle, was reviewed by Archeo-botanist Brian Moffat in the 1990’s. He revealed similar herbs Irish monks in Switzerland planted in the monasteries there were being grown and used in Scotland at Soutra. These Swiss monastic physic gardens contained over 30 herbs and vegetables including beets, cabbage. celery, chervil, climbing beans, coriander, costmary, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, iris, lettuce, lilies, lovage, various mints, onion, parsley, parsnip, pennyroyal, pepperwort, poppies; including opium variety, radishes, roses, rosemary, rue, sage, shallots and watercress.

You may have many of these very same herbs and vegetables growing that were in the physic gardens of the medieval era. Maybe this little article will inspire you to create a medieval physic garden of your own.

The Grand Garden Dream

As the winter is a splendid and creative time to plan medicinal gardens, start dreaming of yours now. Garden plans are good to have and can always be adjusted, but with out one there is a tendency to run into troubles and realizing something important too late. This helps prevent the potential of wasting of energy, and the unfortunate occurrences, which turn into obstacles needing to be dealt with, which adds to our work and frustration. Ultimately its best to create this plan in the winter so you will be ready for herb planting come spring-time, keeping in sync with natures cycles.

To begin the process, explore a plant conservatory, botanical garden, arboretum or physic garden near you, taking notes all the while. There are many indoor gardens and some that can be viewed online. 

Milk Thistle detail from the The Unicorn in
Captivity tapestry The Cloisters Museum

Some Places To Explore

The Cloisters Museum & Gardens in Northern Manhattan is a beautiful start. The buildings are reconstructions of historic monasteries and the gardens are well researched and well planted. May and June is the best time for an in-person visit, with all the new herbs up and beginning their bloom.

The Cloisters
99 Margaret Corbin Drive
Fort Tryon Park
New York, New York 10040

Information: 212-923-3700

In the1670’s Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald studied and grew many of the healing plants indigenous to Scotland. They established a physic garden that started with 800 to 900 plants, growing at one time to the size of 2000 plants. This would evolve into the Royal Botanic Garden Of Edinburgh, which has been used by generations of students to learn botany and herbalism.

Royal Botanic Gardens
20a Inverleith Row
Edinburgh EH3 5LR
0131 552 7171

The Apothecaries Garden established in 1673, now called the Chelsea Physic Garden originally contained mints, sage, pennyroyal, sweet marjoram and rue among hundreds of other herbs. The book The Apothecaries Garden by Sue Minter chronicles this garden, its herbs and tradition from its beginnings to its modern keeping.

Chelsea Physic Garden
66 Royal Hospital Road
Chelsea, London

Here is their incredible 360 degree pan around of the garden

Spring Parterre Linnaeus Gardens
Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus, a historically significant developer of botanical nomenclature, studied and went on to be a professor in Uppsala Sweden in the 1700’s. His garden is still maintained and can be visited. Arranged to his own system of botanical order, approximately 1300 plant species known to have been cultivated by Linnaeus are grown.

The Linnaeus Garden
Svartbacksgatan 27
SE-755 98 Uppsala

Once your mind is blooming with the possibilities, consider what inspired you about these gardens. What herbs do you love the idea of having growing right near you and that you use regularly yourself? As you are envisioning this garden, also consider the growing conditions and the soil type you have. This will help you narrow your selection of herbs for your garden plan. You can change the soil some with amendments to accommodate the herbs you will grow, however don’t try to change the soil too much.

Next, map out the garden on paper. Start small such as a 4’x6’ plot and don’t get too ambitious. It’s stressful if the garden is taking too much of your time or if it is too expensive to plant. Make sure that the center of your garden will be able to be reached from both sides, or if it is a border garden, that you can reach to the back of it. It’s location and size needs to be so that you can reach all parts of it without stepping into it and destroying the soil texture.

Your own physic garden design can to be structural and formal, or sort of wild or informal looking. Make distinct garden shapes with your plantings like squares, circles or triangles or follow the natural contours of rocks, mounds, stumps and trees. It can be then categorized by botanical genus or flower colors or by herbs that are used on a specific body system. You may want to clip some pictures from herb start and seed catalogs, books and magazines to help you begin to visualize. Come early spring, you will be prepared for the work ahead and can enjoy and be healed by the herbs you that have dreamt.

A Few Medieval Physic Garden Herbs & Their Uses

Peppermint  ( Mentha piperita) also known in Gaelic as Lus an Phiobair or herb of the piper is a native European perennial. The plant spreads by way of underground and over ground runners, doing best in rich moist soil. As an Anti-viral and Decongestant its blended with other herbs for coughs, colds and flu, and for decongesting both upper and lower respiratory tracts. A favored drink in Britain before tea was common, it’s a Nervine Stimulant loaded with the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium and the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin and thiamine.

Rose  (Rosa arvensis, Rosa canina, Rosa centifolia, Rosa gallica, Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa villosa) also known in Gaelic as An Fheir Dhris or the fragrant flower. Native to Europe, Britain and temperate regions of the world, it prefers rich soil in the woods, thicket and hedgerows as a trailing or upright deciduous perennial shrub. The fruit forms after the fully open petals drop. These ‘hips’ are oval and begin green, ripening to a rich red to be harvested after the first frost. The flower petals are Anti-depressant and filled with aromatic compounds, volatile oils and Vitamin E. The alcohol or vinegar extract of these petals is effective for most kinds of headaches, restlessness, insomnia and depression. As an Immunomodulator and Nutritive the ripe hips are loaded with flavinoids and minerals such as calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium, zinc and with Vitamin C. They help to remedy fragile capillaries, which can help to prevent bruising. They can also be used with good results for colds, influenza, other infectious diseases, coughs and sore throat. 

Spearmint (Mentha Spicata) also known in Gaelic as Meannt Garraidh or garden spear mint is native to Britain, Europe and Asia. A perennial that is easily identified by its slightly wrinkled bright green lance shaped leaves, it thrives in ditches and meadows, preferring cool, moist, lightly shaded and protected situations. Like peppermint, the herb spreads by way of underground and over ground runners. It is best to plant these two mints away from each other, as the mingling of the two may taste fine, but diminishes the medicinal properties of both. As a Carminative and Cholagogue it’s used to strengthen the appetite and to assist in the digestion of meat and animal fats when used in culinary applications such as in infused vinegar or being made into a jelly. The Renaissance era Herbalist and Apothecary Nicholas Culpepper says it ‘stirs up bodily lust’ raising emotions and desires. As a relaxing Nervine it is uplifting, brings joy, is restorative and nerve strengthening.

Here is a recipe to sooth nerves and assist with the dreaming process in a fine herbal bath mixture using all three ‘physic’ herbs.

Herb Bath

Rose Petals
Combine equal parts of each herb and fill a cloth bag with the mixture. Tie the bag closed and put under the faucet when filling a bathtub. Squeeze water through the bag and use as a body sponge and aromatherapy inhalation.

Sweet and fragrant garden dreams to you...

All contents copyright Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir. First published in The Essential Herbal Magazine
November-December 2011

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Practical Herbalism & The Scottish Tradition

A transformation came over me when first standing at the foot of the Santa Monica mountains at 24 years old, and then again at the foot of the Scottish Cairn Gorm mountain at 34. Having stepped into the pulsing life force of nature, feeling the promise of growth I was sure of both refuge and renewal. This was the beginning of my journey to discover practical Herbalism, my ancestral Scottish wellness and herbal healing tradition.
Please walk with me on this wee journey.
Santa Monica Mountains

As a part-time interpretive guide in the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains, we were trained to identify native plants and to teach the traditional native Chumash uses. Allowed small ‘scientific experiments’ on the trail for teaching purposes, these became a fun trick to show hikers. The adhesive bandage effect of sticky monkey flower leaf (Mimulus aurantiacus) and the fragrant hand-soap effect of the blue ceanothus flower (Ceanothus spp.) rubbed between the hands with water were a few trailside demonstrations.

All very lovely, but it seemed rather pointless from a practical standpoint. It was knowledge for folly, as the people attending the hikes continued to talk about their favorite hand soaps and pharmaceutical use, and the plants there were protected from harvest.

When offered a NPS Ranger post in a place that I consider heaven, Yosemite, it included the necessity for carrying a handgun and a rifle because of ‘beers and bears’. My life took a decidedly different turn. I was knowledgeable in plant identification and native uses, bows and arrows, and making interpretive displays, which is why they offered me the post, not to deal with unruly campers. 

As it is wont to do, reality sometimes gets in the way of a good fantasy. Instead of taking the Yosemite post, I continued an apprenticeship with a natural foods chef, took a job at a health food corporation and taught natural foods cooking to city folk. I went to the mountains to visit, but not for work.
 Budding Herbalist 1980's

Given an all expense paid training in nutrition by the health food corporation and then lured into the vitamin and herb department, something was happening to my plant knowledge. It was becoming functional and practical.

Soon I was being offered a position teaching in the community colleges, then as a chef in private homes. I did these things, but the mountains were still calling me. 
San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff

Moving to Flagstaff Arizona made sense at the time, near to the sacred mountains. This is where I met Phyllis Hogan of Winter Sun Trading Company, who adjusted my bearings, as mentors will do. She introduced me to the use of therapeutic grade herbs grown on an herb farm, not from a supplier. She had me drink infusions of common herbs, not take pills or potions of rare exotic plants.

Apparently my ancestors were trying to reach me too now, as a Native man I met asked who my people were and what they believed. Determined to never be at a loss for that answer again, I began the search. My grandmother was never one to hide our Scottish ancestry, so that was a likely place to start.

Third Year Of Study Graduation From Herb School
Being Celtic in ancestry, the desert climate was hard on me. The dew and rain brought me to Oregon. It was there that I met the woman who would train me formally as an herbalist, Gina McGarry. In her Oregon School Of Herbal Studies she taught what she had learned as a student and then apprentice of Rosemary Gladstar at the California School Of Herbal Studies. Gina also taught the herbalism she had been learned and researched from her own Irish Celtic ancestry. Not only did this perspective speak to my DNA, the practicality, methods and mentality, made sense to my mind and was easy to use. Each herb we learned had a clear and logical use, each one an ‘ah-ha I’ve finally found you!’ moment.

“The belief was common among all Caledonians (The Scottish) that for all the diseases to which mankind is liable, there grows an herb somewhere, and not far from the locality where the particular disease prevails, the proper application of which would cure it” - Mackenzie

Many of the herbs that European, Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants brought with them for food and medicine have become invasive species, or have naturalized to America. It seemed like a very Scottish thing to do to try and curb the effects on the American native plant species I learned while being an interpretive guide, by learning how to use and apply these ‘immigrant’ herbs, harvesting them freely and planting them near to me. 
Cairngorm Mountain

Cairn Gorm or ‘blue pile of stones’ in Scotland was the next mountain to call to me to it. Needing to see the place where all of these immigrant herbs, and I was originally from, I went to the mountain to study, write and teach about ethno-botanically Scottish uses for herbs in common use in Western Herbalism.

Nine visits in seven years to Scotland, living there for six months at times, had brought me to meet journalist Mary Beith, who specializes in the Scottish history of medicinal plants. Using my training, I had explored the historic uses she had reported. When I spoke to her of my theories that there seemed to be a distinctly Scottish herbalism, she had come to the same conclusion. She had never met before a person on the functional side of using the herbs to discuss this with. Apparently she hadn’t intended for these herbs she had written about to actually be tried or used and so called me her ‘little empirical scientist’.

Wee Euro- Scottish Herbalism History

In a time throughout Europe when bacteria, germs, viruses, sexual fertilization and blood circulation were still mysteries, ‘folk healers’ were obtaining apparently magical results to cure the most difficult illnesses. They mysteriously knew when flowers were about to bloom and were able to identify the medicinal uses of herbs they had never before encountered. These practitioners became feared for their personal power and became the objects of jealousy regarding their skills. They were seen as people who had knowledge of natural secrets, considered to be aided by the devil. To the mind-set, only their God healed, not plants or people

Witchcraft, was an accusation which was defined by the “misuse of supernatural powers derived from the devil to cause harm” by religious authorities. This was in attempt to explain evil in the world, despite the belief in an all powerful and benevolent God. This accusation was used to keep these folk healers in their subordinate place, making them scapegoats on whom all illness and problems were blamed. 9 million deaths are estimated as a result of this persecution of healers whose only crime was being different, skilled and possibly able to assist the human body to heal. Of all the people that were executed for witchcraft, more than 80% were women.

In Scotland however, something different happened. All ‘witchcraft’ cases had to go to Edinburgh, being too much for the Highland authorities. The details had to be translated from Gaelic and so many cases never came to anything. These Healers were also seldom accused of witchcraft in the first place because of their common-sense reputation, their lack of exploiting any eccentricities, and because they were often taken under the wing of a clan chieftain who ensured their safety. It is my belief that this is why much of the traditional healing knowledge of Scotland survived and it is only more recently being neglected and forgotten.

"...the Gaelic healers had a good reputation, probably because, on the whole, useless practitioners were weeded out early on, community grapevines being what they are."
~ Mary Beith, Scottish Journalist
and Author
writing on traditional Scottish herbal medicines.

Traditional knowledge of Gaelic healers known as Henwives, Adept Healers, Yarb Doctors and Charmers in Scotland concerning healing and the use of healing substances is a part of a rich nature heritage that survived a terrible time in history. These healers, performed cures in general or may only have been able to remedy specific problems. We would now call them generalists and specialists. How they obtained personal powers, skills and gifts, was by learning practical healing, which would be orally handed down and physically demonstrated. This would appear to others to materialize right when it is needed for the sheer fact that the knowledge was now in them, not just in their heads. They studied disease prevention and how to pursue a sensible way of life. They procured a reputation for common sense by practicing it. And they quietly and firmly dispensed care, guidance, herbs and comfort.
Herbalism and nutrition are the first medicines in existence, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, predating written history. All of it preceded conventional medicine. This collective knowledge has been handed down through time by oral tradition, practice and later in written documents.There is an evolving unbroken chain of herbal knowledge that is continuing to be passed down in many cultures to the next generation. We only need to turn our attention to it, to insure that it continues.

A Few Scottish Herb Uses

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) also known in Gaelic as Mur draidhean or ‘grief/affliction magician’. As a Nervine and Tonic, mental tension, anger, frustration and inner torment are all relieved with the internal use of an extraction of the leaf and flower. It is a specific for physical tension, especially that which affects the internal organs, helping to tone weak tissues. It is used to aid in the relief of cramps and migraine, menorrhagia (excessive menses) and dysmenorrhea (painful menses).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) known in Gaelic as Bearnan Brighde or ‘the notched leaf plant of Brigid’. Saint Brigid was attributed with more healing miracles than any other saint. There is very little this herb cannot do. As an Adaptogen, the fall or spring harvested 
root is useful in healthy pancreatic function, physical and mental hyperactivity, improved endocrine function and hormone balance. It will not raise blood pressure, but is helpful in cases of low blood pressure, obesity and lethargy. This can be eaten or extracted in vinegar, an alcohol between 20 to 40% or in water.

Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) known in Gaelic as Dreas or ‘force entangle’ is currently on the U.S Department Of Agriculture list as a noxious weed and invasive species. As an Astringent, Nutrative Tonic the leaves taken in an infusion nourish and strengthen muscular and organ tissues and so are of help in arthritis and with a prolapsed uterus. The roots are boiled in water to create an Astringent Tonic to stop diarrhea, and being rich in vitamin K, help with blood clotting to remedy hemorrhoids.

European Daisy (Bellis perennis) known in Gaelic as Neoinean or ‘noon-flower /baby daisy’ It is believed that when an infant is taken from the earth, one of these daisies was sent to take it’s place. Using these daisies in baby blessings and as baby medicine is significant because of this. As an Anti-spasmodic, Pectoral and Mucolytic taken internally for children’s restlessness, colic and excessive mucus it is effective. As an Anti-microbial and Anti-mycotic, extracts can be taken Internally or applied externally on parasitic fungal infections including tinea versicolor, tinea pedis (athletes foot), candidiasis and ringworm fungus.


Teaching Herbal Chemistry At A Conference
Regimen Sanitatis ‘Rule Of Health’ John Beaton 1563
Only fully translated to date Gaelic medical manuscript housed in the British Library in London.

A Description Of The Western Islands Of Scotland. by Martin Martin 1697 & 1703 Gaelic speaking medical doctor who compiled detailed knowledge of the properties, both medicinal and magical of the herbs in their native areas, remedies for all common ailments, and brief chronicles on the healers of these areas.

Flora Scotica by John Lightfoot 1777 Botanist who focused on identification, distribution and detailed plant uses.

The Gaelic Names Of Plants Collected And Arranged In Scientific Order With Notes On Their Etymology, Uses, Plant Superstitions, Etc. Among The Celts With Copious Gaelic English And Scientific Indices.
by John Cameron 1900

Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael 1900
Six volumes in Gaelic and English of collected rhymes, hymns, songs, charms & incantations. Contains evidence of an unbroken tradition from the most ancient Celt.

Healing Threads: by Mary Beith, 1995
Traditional Medicines of the Highlands And Islands of Scotland

The Scots Herbal by Tess Darwin 1999

Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition by David Allen & Gabrielle Hatfield 2004 An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland

All contents copyright  Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir.
First published in
Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Herbalism 2011