Thursday, June 6, 2019

Spring Tonics, Herbs and Adaptogens

a poem by Terri Anderson
Shaman sings creation songs
Softly calls to other side
Chants to earth mysterious words
Corn sprouts, grows though mother’s toes
Roots grasp hold, white veins alive
Feed young plant, green stalk to thrive
And now to pass new life along
Each generation must learn the song

When thinking about the history of folk medicine and it's interconnectedness with the seasons, ones mind goes instantly to the ways of the Native Americans. Native Americans believed (and still believe) that our lives are connected to the earth. That the rivers, plants and animals were relatives and not something that we just use for our own good. In fact many times when someone fell ill, it was believed that they had lost their connection with some part of nature.
In the medicine wheel spring is associated with the east and the spirit keeper, Wabun. It's a time that brings new beginnings and rebirth. Many ceremonies revolved around this important change in season. The Seneca tribe performed a planting ritual as they got ready to plant their spring crops.
Create your own spring ritual
We had talked about smudging and how important it is to cleanse ourselves and our surroundings. Try making a smudge stick of spring shoots and flowers.
Another great way (adapted from a Native American tradition) grab a blanket and set it outside. Gather flowers that have bloomed (if you don't have any or enough growing on your property, buy some spring flowers from a local florist or super market) go outside and take of your shoes. feel the earth and grass beneath your feet. Take your flowers and spread them on the blanket. Lay on the blanket, grabbing handfuls of the flowers and throwing them up in the air allowing them to fall all over you. Lay there for some time. Feel the breeze, feel the flowers, reach and hand and touch the grass. Try to envision what you would like to "birth" this season. Ask for assistance in these endeavors.

Ancient Celts celebrate the spring equinox which they called "Alban Eiler" meaning "light of the earth." It was thought to be the only day of the year when day and night stood equal with each other. As they also saw this time as a powerful time of rebirth, they usually sowed new crops on this day.
Spring has always been a time of relief and new beginnings. During the early years during the revolutionary and civil wars, as the weather began to warm up, there was a sense of thankfulness for making it through the harsh winters. A time of prayers and thanksgiving. Also a feeling of excitement as new foods began to sprout and come to life. After all, the winter had been bleak. Food had been scarce. Spring brought in relief.
Spring is also the time when animals that have been pregnant all winter are starting to give birth and birds are warm enough that they can sit on a nest and hatch little ones. It is always so fascinating to me how animals and foul can sense the changes in season before we can. Perhaps it is their continued connection with the earth which has been lost by the "smarter" of species. Maybe they are on to something.
Perhaps it's time to go back to listening to our bodies and how they tell us about changes that it is encountering. The changes in seasons of this earth and the seasons of our lives. After all, our ancestors not that long ago knew how to do this. Although mostly out of necessity.
In the days before refrigeration, seasonal eating was the only option. There was no way for someone living in Connecticut to run down to the grocery store and buy a tomato from Florida where it was still growing season. Everything was about what could be picked or grown in that season.
In Appalachian history, the stories of the people who settled there is one of turmoil and determination. Many times even up to and including our lifetime, the residents of this amazing area of our country, relied on mother nature to provide part if not all of their meals and medicine.
A lot of young trees and bark provided great spring tonics that would help them through the changes in season. Sassafras or spicewood would be boiled to make a tea that was used as a blood tonic to strengthen ones system in the spring. Plantain and dock were used in salads. Ramps and wild garlic were picked to give extra flavor to evening meals.
Wild ramps
Many of these plants you could most likely find outside your home and could add to your own spring diet.

It's Spring!! A couple of months ago we were talking about how we can connect with the earth. Now we get to go out and do it! Everything is starting to bloom and bud around us. Plants we didn't think were going to come back are suddenly seen with little green shoots coming out. It's time to start exploring. So, let's get out there.
One of my all time favorites is chickweed. It is so easy to find and can easily be added straight to a salad or saute. I have also been known to run out and grab some wild garlic(often called wild onion) to throw into an omelet.
Wild Garlic
Early spring, it can be hard to come across berries as they generally bloom later in the spring to early summer. A wonderful exception to that is Silverberry. They are super high in vitamins and minerals, almost like taking a nature made multi vitamin. They can be very tart but so worth it!
Spring Green Pesto
Another easy dish with spring greens is pesto. This recipe calls for dandelion greens but those could easily be substituted for stinging nettles (use care when picking!!), chickweed, purslane or so many other wonderful spring greens. Additionally, most pesto calls for Parmesan cheese but play with it! I love using feta or a great local goats milk cheese!
2 Cups chopped fresh Dandelion greens
1/2 Cup shelled pine nuts
3 cloves of garlic
1 Tbs ;lemon juice
1/2 Cup olive oil
1/2 Tsp salt
1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese
Place all ingredients in a food processor until creamy, blend in cheese. Keep refrigerated.

Spring Jelly
Spring is also a time of blooming!! Flowers are popping up everywhere! I love making wild flower jellies with dandelions, forsythia, violets, peach blossoms and more. This basic recipe can be used for a myriad of different wild flowers or other herbs. Even a stinging nettles jelly!!

Start by boiling 3 1/2 cups of water. While the water is boiling, chop 1-2 Cups of fresh flowers/herbs. Remove the water from the heat and add your flowers/herbs. Allow to steep for at least an hour. Strain (If you make herbal infusions, you can also use that in place of this step)
Add the following ingredients to a saucepan:
2 3/4 Cups of your flower/herb infusion
1/4 Cup lemon juice
3 1/2 Cups sugar
1 packet of pectin
Stir to dissolve sugar and pectin and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Pour into jars and put aside to set for two hours. At this point, you could water bath can or refrigerate.

Adaptogen Tea
Spring is so much fun right? Everything is melting, things are blooming. But wait. Why are we all feeling so crummy? Well there's several reasons, first is all of those beautiful blooms bring us pollen and so many of us have pollen allergies of one type or another. Then there is flu season. That's right, flu season is still upon us and as we venture out with the new weather, we are more and more exposed to those with the flu virus. Finally and most importantly, it's our bodies on overload. Changes in weather and changes in season bring stress to our bodies. They are working to move into this new phase and that takes work.
Your body needs your help! This is when we look to adaptogens. As we learned in the herbal actions chapter and adaptogen is "an herb that helps the body adapt to changes in environment (such as travel and seasons) and stress in a non specific way."
There are only a few true adaptogens including Ashwagandha, Eleuthero (siberian ginseng) and Cordyceps. Many people see other herbs such as Holy Basil (Tulsi) and stinging nettles as adaptogens as well. A wonderful tea on a cool spring evening is a great way to get your adaptogens. Additionally, these herbs could be tinctured and taken as a daily supplement.
Download the recipe card and have fun adding new flavors and herbs to make your own blend. You may also want to add some local honey or pee pollen to help counteract the spring allergies!!

Herbal Actions

Herbal actions are talked about in almost any herbal book that you can get your hands on. It is important to know these terms and how to use them to identify the herbs that you are needing in different circumstances. If you need to, print these out and leave them where you can easily access them to reference.
  • Adaptogen- an herb that helps the body adapt to changes in environment (such as travel and seasons) and stress in a non specific way. Example: Eleuthero (american ginseng)

  • Alterative- Blood "purifiers" that improve digestion and eliminate toxins. Example: Stinging Nettles
Stinging Nettles
  • Analgesic- Pain reliever. Especially to relieve pain without drowsiness. Example: Willow bark

  • Anti-catarrhal- These herbs remove excess mucous from the body. Example: Mullein
  • Anti-depressive- As it sounds, these herbs help combat depression. A great example is Saint John's Wort.

  • Anti-hemorrhagic - These herbs, which are generally used topically, can be used to stop bleeding. Example: Yarrow
Yarrow Leaf
  • Anti-inflammatory - This is a word we hear a lot and for good reason. So many of us have inflammation in our bodies. The most common example is Tumeric (be sure to use in conjunction with black pepper for better absorption.
Tumeric root
  • Anti-microbial - This is another word we hear a lot especially in cleaners. Herbal Anti-microbials can help strengthen the bodies immune system by fighting pathogenic organisms. It is often broken down into three categories: Anti-bacterial (example: rosemary), Anti-viral(example: elderberry) and Anti-fungal (example: wormwood).

  • Anti-parasitic- Helps the body fight parasites. Can also sometimes be used topically to fight skin parasites such as fleas and lice (example: Neem)
  • Anti-pyretic- This is a fancy term for fever reducer. Yarrow flower as either a tea or tincture is a great example.

  • Antispasmodic- These herbs help treat and prevent cramps and muscle spasms. Some herbs like Thyme use their antispasmodic properties to calm coughs as well.

  • Anodyne- These herbs are a sub category of Analgesics however instead of being a straight pain reliever, they work by lessening the sensitivity in the nervous system and are mostly used topically. Example: Arnica
  • Aromatic- This action is the basis for a majority of aroma therapy. Many herbs' volatile oils (essential oils), when diffused, are used for relaxation or digestive stimulation. Example: Lavender essential oil
  • Astringent- The best way to describe this is to remember the astringent oil we all used to use in high school. What Astringent herbs do is contract the tissue. Meadowsweet is a good example. The best example though would be witch hazel.
  • Bitter- Just as they sound, bitters taste... bitter! The taste of bitter herbs, stimulates saliva production and helps settle the stomach. Orange peel is often used as an easy bitter.
  • Cardiotonic- These are herbs that have an overall benefit on the heart and circulatory system. My favorite cardiotonic is Hawthorn berry.
Hawthorn Berry
  • Carminative- Herbs with this action work to expel gas from the bowels and digestive system. A great carminative herb is Ginger or fennel.
  • Choleretic- Stimulates bile flow and production. Commonly used for gallbladder problems. Example: Everlasting flower
Everlasting flowers
  • Demulcent- These herbs are high in mucilage and are used to soothe and protect damaged tissues especially sore throats. An example of this is Marshmallow root.
  • Depurative- Supportive of the natural functions of the kidneys and liver. They also have been known to remove impurities from the blood and other bodily fluids. Example: Sweet Wormwood
Sweet Wormwood
  • Diaphoretic- When used warm, herbs in this category induce perspiration. They are a go to for many herbalists when treating fever.
  • Diuretic- Diuretic is what Diaphoretics become when they are served cold (or room temperature) There are also many herbs that are diuretic in nature without being diaphoretic. Diuretics help you dispel excess liquids. They also help increase urine production and are therefor great with treating kidney and bladder problems. My favorite diuretic is Cleavers.
  • Emetic- These herbs are not used a lot because their effect isn't the most pleasant. Emetic herbs induce vomiting. Used mainly when something is in the stomach that needs to come out. Many poisons can cause more problems going back through the esophagus so these should be used with extreme caution. An example of this herb is box myrtle.
  • Emmenagogue- Because these herbs are used to produce menstruation and sometimes used to regulate it, remedies using this type of herb should be avoided when pregnant. Black Cohosh root is an example of this.
Black Cohosh
  • Emollient- These are similar Demulcent with their mucilage properties. However, they are used externally and often soften the skin in order to allow other herbs to penetrate the skin. A great example is jojoba oil.
  • Expectorant- This is another term we have heard a lot in modern medicine. An expectorant helps loosen and bring up mucous and phlem in the lungs. Licorice Root is a good example.
  • Galactagogue- One of the most important herb types for new moms. These herbs increase the mother's milk. The one most used is fennel seed but I also like to use hops flower.
Hops Flower
  • Hepatic- Sounds like a disease you have heard of, "hepatitis". The reason is that it effects the same organ, the liver. These herbs increase the production of bile which tones the liver. Dandelion is a great hepatic.
  • Laxative- As you may know, these herbs promote the evacuation of the bowels. Aloe Vera can have this effect.
  • Nervine- Nervines help support the nervous system. They work to help anxiety and nervous tension. One of my favorite nervines is skullcap.
  • Rubefacient- Use these herbs to stimulate blood circulation. Cayenne and horseradish work great for this.
  • Sedative- If you are needing a calming effect, sedative herbs is where you look. Valerian and Lemon balm are two great sedatives.
Lemon Balm
  • Stimulant- Coffee anyone? Stimulants increase circulation and increase energy.
  • Styptic- Similar to anti-hemorrhagic, these herbs stop bleeding when put topically on a wound. Again, my favorite in this category is yarrow leaf.
  • Tonic- These herbs are generally taken long term to promote a healthy vibrant life. Stinging nettles is a wonderful tonic herb.
  • Trophorestorative- A nutritive restorative which means that at help reverse deficiencies or weakness of an organ. Example: Milk thistle for the liver.
Milk Thistle
  • Vulnerary- Herbs with this action help promote healing of wounds. It is primarily associated with external wound healing using herbs such as Calendula or plantain but it is also sometimes referred to when used to heal internal wounds such as ulcers as with plantago.

History of Syrups and Elderberry Syrup Two Ways

What is herbal syrup?
Let's start of by asking the question "What is an herbal syrup?" There are many different recipes and ways to make syrups but the most basic answer would be a concentration of liquid sweetened with sugar or honey mixed with herbs that will be taken internally. Another name that they are sometimes are called is elixers.
Ancient times
In ancient Egypt syrups were made with honey. In fact ancient Sumerian clay tablets show that about one third of all medicines were made with honey. Whether they were all made into syrups we don't know as they also used it topically to treat things such as burns.
In the early 1500's Nostradamus was known for his herbal remedies including a cure for the Black Death. Some of his most well known and sought after medicines were syrups. Many of the mixtures worked. Some are said to have caused the deaths of many people including the poet Lucretius
The Colonies
In the early days of our country, syrups were an easy go to for many ailments. During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a big problem among the troops was diarrhea or dysentery. Syrups were easy to make in the field as they only required water and a sweetener.
One such recipe that may have been used is as follows:
"The root of blackberry must be boiled a long time in order to get out the strength-after the strength is out boil in a little milk and sweeten in, and let the patient drink at liberty. P.E. Sanborn, 1836" (From American Folk Medicine by Clarence Meyer)

Since February is Black History Month, I think it's important to talk about the many contributions that African Americans have had on our folk medicine history.
In 1619 the first African slaves were brought to the English colonies. Between this time and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many slaves who lived on plantations were responsible for treating themselves (and sometimes their owners) for any medical conditions that would arise. Especially in the 1600's and1700's trained doctors were scarce in the colonies and many of the slaves had contact with the local indigenous people. They would learn from them how to use the local plants as they had in Africa and this information would be passed down.
Many of the similarities can be seen when comparing the uses of a plant as in this example from "Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies" by Faith Mitchell

Cherry, Wild Black
Official use: The dried bark has been listed with USP continually since 1820. All parts of this plant yield hydrocyanic acid when steeped in water. The medical properties of the bark are destroyed in boiling, so the plant should soak only in warm water.
Other Afro-American use: Tea from cherry tree bark, taken cold, will stop menstrual flow almost at once. Syrup for sore-throat-wild cherry bark, hickory bark, and horehound leaves. Boil down and add sugar to make syrup.
Native American use: Syrup for colds, pains of childbirth, pains and soreness in chest, diarrhea. Poultice for wounds and sores.To make eye wash-soak bark in water.

One such slave is Lucy Higgs Nichols who escaped her owners during the Civil War and joined the Union army with the 23rd Indiana Infantry Regiment. She was known for her wonderful foraging skills and abilities as a nurse. Seen here depicted in a painting by Kathy Grant.
Black History Month
In more modern times, much of this information was passed down. An amazing and inspirational story of that is Emma Dupree.
Emma Dupree was one of seventeen children born to two freed slaves. She grew up in North Carolina. Always connected to the earth. She had people lining up to get her tonics and syrups. Never turning away anyone for lack of payment. We can all learn a lot from Emma Dupree. A video made available by East Carolina University can be found here.
Syrups have been in our history for hundreds if not thousands of years. A way to make a bitter herb taste more palatable. A means of administering medicine to the reluctant. We owe many of the remedies we have today to the invention of syrups.

Elderberry Syrup
Elderberry has gotten a lot of press in the last couple of years and is one of my most asked about herbs. It has been shown to be an anti-viral that is effective in fighting the flu virus. Additionally, Elderberry is an immune booster and anti-inflammatory. As we saw in the chapter on constituents, Elderberry contains Cyanogenic Glycosides which can act as a mild sedative. Additionally they contain Flavanoids which are antioxidant in nature.
Elderberry syrup is an easy and tasty way to get those benefits. Especially into school age children and those reluctant to try natural remedies. This is due to the sweetness of both the berries and the raw honey that is added to the syrup.
Another great way to ensure a picky child gets their elderberry is to make them into jigglers. once you have made your syrup, use one half syrup and one half water in the typical jiggler recipe. This is the recipe I use:
Use one cup of elderberry syrup and boil along with 1.5 cups of water. Add boiling water to two (4oz) packs of jello and store until dissolved. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours and cut into bite size pieces.

Elderberry Tincture Syrup
Many people that are already comfortable with herbal medicine, prefer to use an elderberry tincture. Tinctures are herbs that are set in alcohol and taken internally as medicine. We will have a unit dedicated specifically to tincture making in a future lesson. You can, however, make or purchase elderberry tincture from a reputable herbalist in your area.
A friend recently told me that she makes her syrup using tincture instead of boiling the whole berry. Once the tincture has been set (at least 4 weeks) you would need to strain your tincture and heat at a low heat until most of the alcohol has evaporated. Once cooled, add raw honey to create a syrup. This would need to be dosed as a tincture (by drops or dropper fulls) rather than as a typical syrup (usually dosed by the teaspoon or tablespoon).

Additional Syrups
Many other herbal syrups can be made using the same principals. Wild Cherry Bark is many times used in syrups to treat cough. Goldenrod could be mixed with other herbs to make an allergy syrup. Willow Bark and Blue Vervain could be mixed to make a pain relief syrup. The key is to know how long and what temperatures to heat the herbs. Additionally some herbs lose some of their medicinally properties if heated. So, research is key when making syrups. But I encourage you to try your own! Let me know what you make on our Facebook Page, Instagram , or (if you are a subscribing member) on our Facebook Group!

Herbal Constituents

Herbal Constituents
Herbal Constituents refer to the active ingredients of the plants that are many times isolated and used in modern medicine. Many herbal books that you will read will tell you the "constituents" of a plant. To a new herbalist, that may be a hard concept to understand. There are whole courses just on understanding what herbal constituents are. This chapter, I am hoping, will give you a basic understanding so that you may use this information when doing your own research on a plant. My goal is to give you the tools to not feel overwhelmed when looking into something new. This chapter is by no means the end all and be all of constituents research. It is also important to note that although each constituent of a plant is important, many times when isolated from the whole plant, they may become very dangerous and even toxic.
Constituents can be broken down into the following 14 categories.
These plants have nitrogen-containing bases. Many are poisonous in nature. Some are used medicinally as pain relievers. Examples of alkaloids are morphine alkaloids from Opium Poppy. Deadly Nightshade also contains alkaloids

Opium Poppy

This constituent commonly contains glycosides that work with the natural flora of the colon to act as a laxative. Examples of Anthraquinone containing plants are Senna (cassia), Aloe, Rhubarb and Yellow Dock.

Yellow Dock

I can (and probably will) do an entire lesson on bitters. Bitter herbs are just that. Herbs that taste bitter. They work to stimulate the flow of saliva and gastric juices which, in turn, aids in digestion and helps with acid reflux. Examples of Bitters are Barberry, Orange Peel and Dandelion leaf.


Cardiac Glycosides
Glycosides contain carbohydrates and non-carbohydrates in the same molecule. Cardiac Glycosides modify the speed of the muscle contractions in the muscle tissue of the heart. It is mostly used in treatment of heart failure and cardiac arrythmia. Many of these plants can be toxic. The plant genus Digitalis provides a majority of herbal cardiac glycosides.

Digitalis Purpea (foxglove)

Coumarins contain an unsaturated aromatic lactones. Plants that contain coumarins have a wide spectrum of activity making it difficult to generalize theie actions. However most have blood thinning (anti-blood clotting) and anti-spasmodic properties. While Coumarins are found in almost every plant family to some degree, the bean family, citrus family and parsley-fennel families contain higher amounts.


Cyanogenic Glycosides
These are compounds that contain Cyanide, a known toxin. Cyanide at a low dose can be a valuable sedative and relaxant. However, although Cyanide in Cyanogenic Glycosides can be toxic, it becomes a valuable medicinal tool through a process called cyanogenesis. This process takes free hydrogen cyanide (the toxin) and associates it with cyanohydrins that have been stabilised through glycosylation (attachment to sugars) forming cyanogenic glycoside. The most commonly used talked about in this family are Wild Cherry Bark and Elderberry.


Plants containing flavanoids tend to be antioxidant and anti bacterial. Some are estrogenic. Flavanoids are important to the plant in the coloration of the flower petals. For this reason most plants that contain flavanoids will have a yellow or red/blue flower. Examples of these plants are Ginkgo Biloba, blueberries, and citrus fruits (especially lemons).

lemon tree

Glucosilinate is a sulphuric compound that blocks many types of unhealthy cell growth. It is a strong antioxidant and when many plants containing glucosilinates are made into a poultice and applied to sore and painful joints, they can increase the blood flow to the area. Examples of these plants include, horseradish root and watercress.


A mineral rich diet is important for the proper functioning of of your nervous and immune systems as well as your muscles. While a proper balanced diet should afford you the minerals your body needs, a wonderful way to get your minerals is to drink herbal infusions with herbs such as Oatstraw, Nettles, Dandelion, and Red Clover.


Mucilage is a naturally occuring glutinous substance comprised mostly of polysaccharides. It acts by lining the mucous membranes of the digestive tract. It also soothes inflammation and is used as an emollient and demulcent in cough syrups. Herbs that are used for their mucilage constituent include Slippery Elm, Blue Mallow (and Marshmallow) and Burdock Root.

Slippery Elm Tree

Phenols are antioxidant in nature which means that the reach with and capture free radicals. It is important to note that not all phenol compounds are good for us. In fact Phenol itself is toxic. Plants that are high in phenols include Willow Bark, Parsley and Ferns.

Fiddlehead Ferns

The name Saponin comes from the latin word "sapo" meaning soap. It gets this name because it forms a soap-like foam when combined with water. Like soap, saponins also bind to water, fats and oils. They particularly like to bind to bile acids which then allows the body to carry it out of the system. Saponins are a type of steroid and work well win balancing hormones. Examples of Saponin rich plants are Wild Yam Root, Ginseng and Tackweed


Tannins work to bind proteins. Plants high in tannins can work to tighten up tissues including skin and varicose veins. They can also bind by drying which treats diarrhea and helps treat heavy menstrual flow. Herbs most used for their Tannin constituents include Oak Bark, Witch Hazel, Grape Vine and Rose

Red Oak Tree

Volatile oils
Also known as essential oils, volatile oils are the oils of the plant extracted. They are referred to as "volatile" due to their ability to evaporate when exposed to air. They are responsible for the distinctive odor of the plant and are therefor used in aromatherapy. Numerous plants can be found as essential oils.