Sunday, March 18, 2012

Garlic Mustard as a Wild Medicinal

In my last post I babbled on about how to cook with garlic mustard, but there is the other side of this plant too.  Like garlic, that distinctive flavor that can only be described as garlicky, comes from sulfur.  Sulfur is one of the best natural anti-microbial out there.  The thing about sulfur is that it dissipates very quickly with heat, so cooking with it may make it more palatable but it renders it useless as a medicinal.  Because of this garlic mustard is often a better medicinal than garlic itself. 

Garlic does have more sulfur in it than garlic mustard but many people can't stand the taste of this much sulfur.  They try to mellow the taste by roasting or sauteing the garlic, dissipating the sulfur.  Garlic mustard isn't as strong of a sulfur (garlic) flavor and can be eaten raw in salads quite easily, getting that sulfur to where it needs to be, in the body instead of in the air making that delicious smell.  Raw garlic mustard salads are great for when you feel a cold coming on.

Garlic mustard leaves can also be bruised and wrapped over a wound to kill off any microbes in the wound and to act as a barrier to keep others out.  It is also an anti-inflammatory to it can be wrapped around sprains and bruises.  It is used to combat rheumatic aches and pains just like many of the cabbage family can be used.  Wrap the leaves around the sore area and then add heat in the form of a heated rice pack or heating pad.  It is used this way for neuralgia and strained backs as well.

The roots can be added to fire water or fire vinegar as it is often called.  This is a simple and well used tincture where garlic, onions, grated ginger, horseradish, and hot peppers are covered with apple cider vinegar and let sit for several months.  Adding garlic mustard root just gives it that much more of a kick.  Take a couple tablespoons of this in 8 ounces of water at the first sign of a cold.  It will either knock that cold right out or shorten it considerably.  People use fire water for so many different ailments it warrants a post all its own.  

Even a garlic mustard root/apple cider vinegar tincture on its own will help with bacterial and viral infections.  A steam of the leaves and roots can help loosen chest and sinus infections as well as warm up people who have a chill from being out in the cold too long without the proper gear.

So there are some more reasons to go out and harvest this plant.  You don't have to worry about over harvesting it like other medicinals because, a) that would be almost impossible and b) it would be good for the environment if you actually could.   A nice edible and medicinal...Now if it only would not be as darn destructive as it is, we could get to like this green invader.

Wild Edible: Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard, Jack-by-the-Hedge, Hedge Mustard,  all names for this plant that seems to grow almost anywhere.  Garlic mustard has a flavor that, in the young leaves, taste like a green gentle garlic.  As the leaves get older they also take on a bitter edge that can be good in some dishes but that bitterness fades when put with most oils or even butter.  This is probably why it is so popular in  olive oil heavy pesto.

It starts off as a rosette of sorts with several leaves coming off each root often looking like a small mound.  The leaves are roundish in shape with a divet cut our for the stem.  They have scalloped edges and can take on a bit of a shine, though not always.  As they reach their second year they send up a flower stalk that can grow to three feet high, topped off with small cluster like, white flowers.

A biannual that is also an evergreen, garlic mustard is a plant that is pretty easy to find east of the Mississippi River any time of the year, except when it's buried under deep snow.  That's not always a good thing though.  Garlic mustard is an invasive that can take over any habitat; a garden, a pasture, a hay field, a yard...basically  any place it decides to call home.  Once it gets established it can wipe out any plant that grows near it by excreting a poison that stops other plants from growing.  The good thing is that there are tons of uses for the plant so if we could get more people out there harvesting it, maybe we could keep it from taking over.

With that, as well as other ideas in mind, four years ago our town started a annual event called 'The Garlic Mustard Weekend'.  We were going to call it 'the garlic mustard festival' except we weren't really celebrating garlic mustard as much as trying to find new ways to coax people into getting rid of the stuff.  It was also a good way to bring the community together (a cause everyone should strive for), and a way to highlight a free food, especially in these hard times.  The high point of the weekend is the garlic mustard cook off, where people compete with different dishes that must have garlic mustard as an ingredient in them.  We also must make enough of it to pass around, creating a community pot luck of sorts.  Local business donate the prizes but the real prize is being noticed for our great cooking skills.

So, the fourth annual garlic mustard weekend is coming up in around a month and I am trying to find the winning recipe since I have never won (I can have weird taste in foods lol).  Since I love garlic and also like free food,  this is a plant I enjoy to cook with.  Still, I can't find that elusive recipe that makes me win even one prize.  And goodness knows I would love to have a $25.00 gift certificate to the hardware store.  Who wouldn't?

There will be plenty of pesto at the festival, so that is out as a winning recipe.  You can go online and find many different garlic mustard pesto recipes but since it is so simple here's one that you can play around with to find your favorite taste:

Garlic Mustard Pesto
11⁄2 cups fresh garlic mustard leaves
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
1⁄4 cup walnuts or whatever free nuts you have in your area
3⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3⁄4 cup olive oil
In a food processor, finely chop the
garlic mustard leaves, garlic and nuts.
Slowly mix in the cheese and olive oil.

This cannot only be eaten on good crusty bread or pasta but can be frozen in ice cube trays to be popped into sauces or stews later on for flavor.

I also like putting garlic mustard on homemade pizza instead of spinach.  It is good in many summer salads, and I have a friend that mixes it with dried apples in her oatmeal.  That's a bit over the top for me but everyone has their own tastes.  The winning dish last year was garlic mustard brownies, which sounds strange but was actually quite delicious.  I'm thinking of going with a garlic mustard cheesy bread.  I'm perfecting the recipe but this is what I have so far:

Preheat oven at: 375 degrees

Ingredients (bread):
2 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 package Rapid Rise Yeast
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
¼ cup water
2 tablespoons butter

Ingredients (cheese):
¼ cup sour cream
1 egg
Parmesan cheese
1 cup fresh garlic mustard
¼ teaspoon salt

In a mixing bowl, combine ¾ cups flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.
heat milk, water and butter iuntil 120 degrees and add to flour
Add ¼ cup flour then knead in enough flour to make dough.
Let rest 10 minutes
Combine cheese ingredients
Roll dough into 1/ inch thick rectangle and spread a thin layer of cheese on dough
Roll rectangle into a loaf shape and let rise 20 minutes
Bake for 13 minutes

The root of the garlic mustard is often called poor man's horseradish.  I disagree with this on two points.  First, horseradish is poor man's horseradish.  Once you plant horseradish in your garden it is hard to get rid of it.  Poor people don't need a substitute for it because they always have it.  Second because garlic mustard root doesn't taste like horseradish.  It does have a bit of heat, but it has that nice garlic bite to it too.  I actually like the taste of the root better than the leaves, though those who aren't as big of a garlic fiend as I am would disagree with me. 

Last year I pickled some of the root and found it wonderfully smooth with a hint of garlic.  I used it up within a couple of months so this spring I really went all out and pickled 48 jars of it.  That's a lotta garlic mustard out of the woods and into my pantry.  Yum.  Here's the recipe for that, you can multiple or divide to get the amount you want:


  • 1/2 pound garlic mustard roots-washed and chopped into 2 - 3 inch piece
  • 2 cups vinegar-I use apple cider vinegar but that's because its free for me, distilled vinegar is fine
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seed


  1. In a large saucepan over medium high heat, place the vinegar and sugar. Wrap ground dry mustard and celery seed in a spice bag, and place in the liquid mixture. Bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes. Stir in garlic mustard roots. Continue boiling 5 minutes. Remove from heat and discard spice bag.
  2. Place garlic mustard roots into sterile jars to within 1 inch of the top. Fill with remaining liquid to within 1/4 inch from the top.  Put on hot lids and rings.  Let set until sealed.  Label and store for at least two weeks before using.  The longer you store it, the more the flavors meld together.
  3. This year, after my peppers are up I'm going to make some of this with both sweet and hot peppers with the garlic mustard roots.  You can work with what you have for flavors you like.

With imagination and fun in the kitchen there are hundred of recipes that this free food can be used in.   And if you have any great recipes that you think might let me win that 2 night stay at Great Wolf Lodge, I will gladly share the weekend with you if I win it.  We could also win a free day out on a pontoon boat on Lake Wisconsin or even a box of Glazers from the local Quick Trip (like I need the calories).  Hmmm, so many prizes...I'm going to have to work some more on my recipe. :-)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Potato Towers

Four and a half years ago I was introduced to potato towers by an urban homesteader friend of mine.  She always had the earliest new potatoes of us all.  The veggie gardeners that read this can relate but for those of you that don't garden just be known that there can be a bit of a competition between gardeners.  It's usually friendly (anyway, I've never come to blows over it) but there is a certain pride in having the first tomato, the biggest pumpkin, the sweetest strawberries...  Early potatoes earned my friend bragging rights.  Of course we all had to know her secret and she just shrugged and pointed to some garbage cans standing in the corner of the yard. 

Because she lived on an urban lot, she had to conserve her garden space.  She couldn't spread her potatoes out like we country gardeners did, so instead she spread UP.  She grew her potatoes in towers made of garbage cans.  She started them early in the greenhouse and when the weather was warm enough she moved them to an out of the way spot in the yard.  While we were just getting to planting our potatoes in the cold ground, hers were already happily growing in the greenhouse.

Well, you can teach an old dog new tricks and I for one love to learn new things.  The next year I bought a garbage can, gave it a try with early season potatoes and it worked great!  Later that year two of my friends that live in the Town of Leeds were throwing out their old garbage cans because their Township had switch garbage haulers and they needed to buy certain garbage cans from the haulers themselves.  While this seems like a scam to me, I was more than willing to scoop up their old garbage cans before they went to the landfill.  Now I have six potato towers for my early season potatoes.  I still plant my late season (winter storage) potatoes in the ground, but I can puff up with a bit of pride now when I serve a potato salad with new potatoes from my own garden at summer parties.  Everyone wonders how I could possibly have potatoes so early.

Potato towers are really easy to make and you don't need garbage cans to do it.  I know people who grow potatoes in the greenhouse in empty feed bags or even empty bird food bags.  Other people simply made a cone of chicken wire and put the dirt down in that.  I have even heard of people piling tires up and planting down in the well.  This is a great chance to use your imagination and come up with new ideas.  While you can grow potatoes in small amounts of dirt, to get a good crop you should really have a container that holds at least 40 gallons.  Then get out your drill and drill holes all over it.  If you don't have a drill, a hammer and nail can be used to poke holes too.  Make sure there are plenty of drain holes in the bottom because potatoes can rot if they sit in water too long.  Drill up the sides of the container too because air does need to get to the plants for a good crop.  In this way bags can be better than my plastic garbage cans.

After you get lots of holes in your tower(s) fill them 1/5 to 1/4 full of dirt.  While potatoes are known for growing in poor soil, mixing a bit of good compost into the dirt will give you a bigger crop.  Put the potatoes onto the dirt and cover with a couple more inches of dirt.  A bit of a mulch down in the tower is good now.  Because potatoes get less diseases in soil that is slightly more acidic in nature and because my soil is a bit more alkaline than I like, I use pine needles as my mulch.   By using pine needles I have avoided getting potato scab, a disease that is caused by the soil being too alkaline. 

Then you let the potatoes grow.  When they reach about 6 inches (don't get anal and measure them, this is an approximate measurement) cover them up by half.  You may be covering some plants before others so it's often easiest to cover by the hand full instead of the shovel full.  Then again when the plant grows a few more inches cover it up by half again.  Just make sure you have a couple levels of leaves on the stems above ground each time you cover.  Every few covers of dirt, add a bit of mulch.  If it's a particularly rainy season, add mulch after each covering.  Mulch helps keep any soil borne diseases (like blight) away from the leaves of the plant.  When you reach the top of the container with dirt, mulch well and let the potatoes grow.  You can harvest new potatoes throughout this process by reaching down through the soil.  I would think if you had bag potato towers you could even cut small (hand size) holes through the sides of the bags and harvest new potatoes through the sides of the tower.

If you are growing storage potatoes let them grow until the leaves begin to yellow or die back.  Then just lay a tarp next to the tower and tip it over.  This is a MUCH easier way of harvesting potatoes than digging them up from the ground.  

A couple bits of information;  Don't use the same dirt from those towers year after year for any member of the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, egg plants...), but you can grow other vegetables in it.   I simply till my used dirt into the corm field, but you can transfer it to other pots for other plants if you are container gardening.  Also if you are like me and use your same towers over and over, you need to wash them with soap before you use them again.  This way if there was any diseases from last year potatoes, you won't infect this year potatoes with them.  

Besides those two things, potato towers are a great way to get new potatoes earlier and a great way from those who don't have a whole lotta space to still grow a good crop of potatoes.  And potatoes, as long as you buy certified disease potatoes, are pretty easy to grow.  They are very forgiving if you forget to water them for a short while, if your dirt isn't perfect, and as long as you have plenty of drain holes, if you make them mistake of over watering them.  Home grown potatoes are also better tasting, have a better texture, and you know that they don't have all the chemicals that mass farmed potatoes may have.  Plus you get to smile that pride filled smile when someone tells you how delicious your potatoes are and marvels at how early they are.  You MUST be a great gardener.  LOL 

Lessons From The Potato

Often people see significant historical events as being linked to significant incidents in history.  Certainly this can be the case.  Planes flying into buildings will leave scars that will never truly be healed.  But only looking for big events as a way to mark the passing of time leaves us missing some of the most powerful lessons that have ever occurred in written history.  The potato, and it's introduction to the European people, is one of those small events that had extremely far reaching consequences even to this day.

The potato is a member of the nightshade family, one of the most used plant families by humans.  It shares its membership in this clan with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatilloes, belladonna, horse nettle, the deadly nightshade, and many others.  The family has been used all over the world and throughout history to heal, to kill, to feed, and even to make women beautiful (belladonna was used to dilate women's eyes to make them appear more sexy-of course this also damaged their heart and lungs in the process, but anything to look good).  The nightshade family contains some of the most deadly toxins known to the plant world.  Even when looking at the foods from that family, the potato has toxins in it and eating green skinned potatoes have sent people to the hospital.  Always store your potatoes in the dark to prevent the skin from going green. 

The potato, like the tomato, is an American food crop, it was discovered by Europeans when the New World was discovered.  Unlike the tomato though, the Europeans fell in love with the potato almost immediately.  The tomato was considered to be a poisonous ornamental plant for a very long time after being brought back to Europe.  The potato though was a delicious starch that could be grown in a small space.  This was a HUGE boon to the Europeans, who at that time was getting their starch and carbohydrates mostly from grains.  It takes a large amount of fertile land and a great deal of energy to grow large amounts of grains.  In fact, scientifically speaking, we put more calories into planting, raising, and harvesting grains than we get back from eating them.  Europeans of old had to make up those calories by eating meat, which also needed grains to survive.  Now, of course we make up those calories by getting them from petroleum products that run our machinery.

The potato, however, is one of the extremely few plants that can be grown that gives back more calories than it takes to produce it.  It can be grown in a much smaller space, and the land does not need to be as fertile to grow potatoes as it does to grow grains.  To the Europeans, potatoes were a gift from God for discovering a new world.  Field after field of grains were replaced with potatoes.  Rocky, infertile lands that had been useless before were now being dug up from potato crops.  Farmers began to breed the potato to get desirable traits until there were three major breeds of potatoes being planted in Europe.  If one is to see a map of European cities before the introduction of the potato and a map of European cities 25 years after the  introduction of the potato they would see that some cities grew almost literally overnight.  Europe had a population explosion, all due to this new wonder food.   Less people died of starvation, more children were being born, and more and more farmers abandoned all other crops in favor of the now staple, potato.  Because it was (and is) so easy to grow, many new generation farmers knew how to grow nothing else.  Why bother learning to grow difficult foods when potatoes were so simple and everyone ate them?

Well, one of the main lessons that potatoes should have taught us was what goes up, must come down.   The higher up it goes, the further it has to fall.  The potato taught that lesson in a big way.  Because farmers had bred out the diversity of the potato, instead focusing mainly on three breeds that produced the best traits, the crop became vulnerable to disease.  Onto this very large stage entered The Blight.  The blight is a soil borne disease that affects the nightshade family.  It is a fungus that builds up in the soil during wet years and can live there for many years until it it simply too big to stop.  This is what happened in Europe.  Because the potatoes were planted in the same soil year after year after year, and because they replanted the same potatoes year after year after year, the blight not only affected the soil but was in the seed chain itself.  Then, because it only needed to learn how to affect three different strains of potatoes, there was no stopping it. 

The blight originally hit Europe in the form that is called the 'late' blight.  This simply means it hits late in the season.  Often a farmer can still harvest some of his crop during the late blight.  I know the year I got the blight, 2008, I still had tomatoes, just not as many and they weren't as flavorful.  The same goes with potatoes, you're still going to get potatoes out of the ground, but there just won't be as many of them because the above ground part of the plant was dying and couldn't give enough energy to the roots to produce many potato tubers.   But, because the farmers planted next years potatoes in the same soil and used seed potatoes from the infected last year crop, the next growing year they were struck by the 'early' blight.  This fungus wiped out the plants before they had the chance to produce any tubers.

Suddenly the most important crop in Europe, the one that fed over half the population, the one that caused that population explosion to begin with, wasn't there.  And because farmers had not diversified with many other crops there was little to nothing to fall \back on when the potato crop failed.  The inevitable happened...Starvation.  When there isn't enough food to feed the people, the people starve.  The Europe that was so strong and could never fall, began to crumble because of the lowly potato.  It is estimated that 2 million people fled Europe, most coming to the U.S., to save themselves, while close to that amount starved to death back in Europe, though the numbers vary.  It was the largest mass human migration in recorded history.  It brought the largest immigrant group to the U.S., the Irish.  To this day here in the U.S. the Great Potato Famine is often called the Irish Potato Famine because of the huge influx of Irish that came to our shores due to starvation.  Those back in Europe know it was a continent wide disaster though. 

The potatoes that I plant in my garden this evening are the offspring of the plant that should have taught us many lessons;

"Don't put all your eggs in one basket."  By make only one crop be so important the Europeans were opening themselves up to the disaster that followed.

"What goes up must come down."  No matter how much we think something is a normal and unbreakable part of our lives, it can and will fail at one time or another.  Will we be ready to survive and rebuild when it does?

"All good things come to an end."  While the potato is still an important crop, it never regained the popularity it had before the famine.  While it is still an easy food to grow, we now know that we need to protect our sources by buying disease free seed potatoes and not to grow them in the same soil year after year.  We have also learned, especially we homesteaders, to never rely on one crop to keep us alive.  If that crop fails, we would simply be out of luck.

So as you get ready to put your potatoes to the ground (or if you already have) remember the lesson it taught us.  It was a hard lesson to learn, and millions did not survive it to pass that lesson on.  We lost whole families to the horrible death of starvation, that genetic code and wisdom forever gone.  But we can take what their deaths taught us and never make that mistake again.  

All lessons from nothing more than a potato and its role in history.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The 2012 Maple Season...AMAZING!

It was 77 degrees today with no below freezing nights in sight.  It looks like maple season is over for the year 2012.  And what a year it was!  First, because we started so early this year we had early syrup to sell.  Often this gets a good price because buyers don't know how much syrup will be out there so they pay a bit more to have to first good runs.  We were hoping for 45 per gallon for our early run. 

Well, turns out the buyers we frightened, and not in a bad way for us, that there wasn't going to be much syrup to be had this year.  We sold the first 150 gallons at 62 per!!!  Sorry to shout but that was a bit over $9000.00 just for the first sale.  I have to say I was shocked.  We had been hoping for enough to pay for half of a solar panel plus pay the help (my nephews' college fund) out of our whole season and here in the first run, we had already reached our goal.

The happy surprises weren't finished though.  Our next run took in 71 per.  I never knew maple could go that high!  Seems like many of the producers didn't even bother to tap this year because they thought it would be a bad year.  Because the price of maple syrup is totally based on supply and demand (no government intervention here) when less people make it, prices go higher.  This year prices sky rocketed.  This is not the year to expect cheap maple syrup on the store shelves.

Our last run was a bit more normal but still high at 56 per. All in all we sold enough to afford the two solar panels we wanted on the sugar shack and we all decided to chip in for the wind turbine to finish with the generators.  In a month or so we will have all the generators (wind/solar) up for the shack.  We thought it would take us three years to afford the whole system, now we're thinking it will be finished by fall.  We still have to buy the batteries, wiring, inverter...etc but to say the least a three year project being cut to less than one year is amazing to me.

After the power is all set up we can use the sugar shack as a small guest house where friends can come stay when we're not boiling sap.  And it's got a great view, sitting right over a woodland pond with nothing else human made for over a mile.  While I was boiling I watched otters play and saw my first bear of the season. It should be a nice place to just get away from it all. 

The view from the deck of the sugar shack overlooking the pond

Anyway, I know not everyone had a good maple season and I'm sorry for that, but we had an amazing one.  I have tons of syrup on the basement shelves, we made good money in sales, and once again we got to be part of the turning of the wheel of the year, with maple syrup being the sweet good-bye to winter and an even sweeter hello to spring. 

Now it's time to get down to business with the gardens.  lol

Wild Medicinal: Barberry Root

First, I feel I have finally caught up on everything and now have time to be online again.  I'll make a post on '2012, The Year of Maple Syrup' soon.  Just saying we had an amazing maple year this year.

I did a post a couple months ago about making a blood tonic from barberry berries.  These berries in a white wine or vodka tincture can help build up red blood cells and is part of a winter tonic that my family has used for at least my life time.  I can still remember Nonna making us drink a concoction of barberry, ginger, and nasturtiums before she allowed us to go for a long day of sledding.  lol

As wonderful a medicinal as barberry berries are, the plant is actually mostly used for the berberine in its roots.  Berberine is...for lack of a better way of saying it...nature's antibiotic.  If a person has studied herbs, especially wild herbs at all, most of them will have heard of goldenseal or Oregon grape.  These wonderful herbs are used to help with infections, especially internal infections such as urinary tract infections but many people will say to use goldenseal for things such as ear infections or skin infections as well.  The part of goldenseal and Oregon grape that works against bacterial infections is the berberine.

Berberine is a bright yellow, some say golden, alkoloid that several different plants have, especially in their roots.  Healers of old discovered long before penicillin was grown in a petri dish that berberine can destroy bacteria.  Most healers that marched with ancient armies carried some sort of plant that contained berberine with them.  It was used internally in a tincture or tea to keep infection out of the blood, and be applied externally in a poultice to kill off any bacteria in the wound itself.  Tinctures of garlic and plants with berberine were kept by midwives to clean the umbilical cord if it were to be cut.  Granny women dropped mullein, garlic and berberine oil into children's ears to kill off an ear infection.  Berberine is a powerful medicine.

One great thing about using plant based antimicrobial as apposed to those that are grown in the lab is that bacteria has a hard time growing immune to those antimicrobial.  Because plants are living, growing, and changing life forms, the berberine in them is constantly changing.  While this can make it challenging to find the right dosage, it makes it almost impossible for bacteria to become resistant to it.  When the bacteria changes so does the plant and then the bacteria has to start all over.  In a lab the antibiotics and antimicrobial are made in a sterile, dead environment.  Each dose of the medicine is the exact same as the last dose and the bacteria that survives this can multiply and become resistant to the medicine.  This is one HUGE advantage to using living medicines.

Back to barberry;  barberry, along with goldenseal, oregon grape, and golden thread contains berberine.  In fact, many experts agree that barberry may have the strongest amount of the berberine in its roots of all the healing plants.  And here's the kicker, goldenseal and Oregon grape are because endangered in certain areas because of over harvesting.  Golden thread has always been a bit elusive and so even a small amount of harvesting can do damage to that healing plant.  But barberry...well in most places here in the U.S. it is considered to be an invasive, a plant that most environmentalists would like to see gone.  It can choke out native species of plants, making them endangered.  You can also buy barberry for ornamental or for hedge plants, so most people can find it quite easily.  So harvesting barberry root is actually good for you AND the environment.  Like all root crops it should be harvested after the leaves die back in the fall or before the leaves come out in the spring, basically as soon as the ground is unfrozen.

Digging up barberry is not always the easiest thing though.  First the plant has many thorns.  Second it can be a tough plant to cut.  Make sure your loppers are sharp or you'll find out the plant can fight back as you're digging it up and cutting it.  The second it gets free of the earth though you will see that bright yellow color of the root.  That is the berberine.  It is a shockingly bright color mixed up in all that dirt.  Carefully cut all the above ground branches away and take your golden treasure home.  Once there, cut the root apart to make cleaning easier and then clean is the coldest water you can stand.  Berberine is water soluble so you can wash some of it away if you clean it in warm water. 

Once you get the roots cleans you can either slice or peel the roots into long strips, dry these and store them in a dark place for up to a year.  This can be used in teas, especially for bladder, kidney or any infections of the urinary tract (UTIs).  For a longer lasting medicine you can chop the roots into lengths that fit into a jar, cover them with at least 80 proof spirits, vodka works fine, and let set for around a month or so.  Shake the jar a couple time a day and at the end of the month, strain out the roots and the remaining vodka will be your tincture.  The only time I had an ear infection I dropped about 5 drops of this tincture into my ear and I only needed two doses to clear up the infection.  Twenty to forty drops in eight ounces of water and drank three or four time a day will clear up most minor infections.  Like taking any antibiotic, make sure that you consume a good quality pro biotic like yogurt, kefer, or kumbucha, because this does not differentiate from good bacteria or bad bacteria and can destroy your internal flora as well.  Also it is best to take it for ten day to two weeks, stop for a week and then, if needed, take it for another ten days.  This way your body has a chance to heal itself and recover from this powerful medicine.

For those of us that still cling to the old traditions of healing and for those who are rediscovering them, barberry medicine is a powerful, living ally.  Use it as you would use any antimicrobial or antibiotic, sparingly and only when needed.  But knowing the golden root is there to help is a treasure worth digging for.  

This is my entree into Woodswife's Wildcrafting Wednesday #30.  Follow the link below to read all the wonderful information that everyone has to share!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain-Hidden Winter Healing

The downy rattlesnake plantain is not actually a plantain.  It is one of our Eastern evergreen orchids that loves dry, sandy woods.  The reason it is called plantain is because medicinally it has been used for many of the same ailments as common plantain.  It has fuzzy leaves like a mullein plant but it is much smaller, often hiding in pine forests or upland hardwoods.  The true identifying traits of this orchid is the white veins that gives the small leaves a snake-like pattern.  In winter the small fuzzy rosette is actually more interesting than the tiny green/white flowers on a short stalk in late summer.

Downy rattlesnake plantain is a plant that not many people now a-days use for healing.  Mainly because in some of its habitat it has become quite rare.  Other places, like the Wisconsin sand barrens you'll find them everywhere.  On many of the ridges that run through my farm they are thick as the non-native plantain that grows in lawns.  As an evergreen, they are often the best winter plant for cuts and burns that you may get while walking out in the woods.  That may be another reason it isn't as well used in this day and age, many people (wisely?) hole up in the winter and aren't as foolish as I am wandering around in the snowy woods.  lol 

Pine forests are the best places to look for this plant in the winter time.  Often under pines there are areas where the snow doesn't reach the ground, leaving open area to find some of the hidden evergreen plants that hide out in the winter months.

As I said above, the main use that I have used this tiny plant for is to crush the leaf up, either by mashing it with a rock, in a mortar and pestle or, as most old granny women have done, by chewing it briefly to get the juices flowing from the leaf.  Then the leaf is bandaged or wrapped around a burn or cut to help sooth and cool the area.  It helps shrink the tissue and slow or stop bleeding. It is much safer than putting snow on the burn and perhaps causing further damage to the tissue from freezing.  It also helps build a barrier between the wound and bacteria.  It isn't as strong of a healer as common plantain, so in the summer, that is what I would reach for first, but in the winter it is one of the best healing plants to be found.

Other ways I've used it was to help break a fever by sweating the body.  Drinking its leaves in a hot, strong tea will make you sweat.  It also can be mashed a bit and wrapped around a tooth or stuffed in a cavity to take away pain. 

My aunt use to use the leaves in teas to help pass kidney stones, because not only does it make you sweat, it makes you pee too.  Most kinds of bladder problems can be help with this plant, though I would recommend making real cranberry juice from frozen cranberries (don't buy cranberry juice from the store for healing, it usually is mostly apple juice with a bit of cranberry for flavor), and drinking this first.  My aunt also use to wrap leaves around her knuckles for pain from arthritis.   As a poultice it does seem to help with pain, though again, common or English plantain works better and is easier to find.

As a child I remember a different use for this plant, one that would qualify more as a folk remedy than something that has actual proof behind it.  My uncles, who were rattlesnake hunters back when it was legal, use to carry a few leaves of this plant to chew on and swallow the juices in case they were bit.  Timber rattlesnakes though aren't as aggressive as many of the southern snakes, so they never were bit.  I wouldn't want to trust my life to that cure, but I can remember the uncles picking a few leaves and sticking them in their pockets 'just in case'. :-)

While this little woodland orchid makes a good healing plant this time of year if you know where to look for it, I reserve it only for winter emergencies where I am out in the woods and it's the only healing plant around.  We have plenty of it on the dry ridges around here, but it is a plant that needs to be saved as much as possible.  I see it as a sacred gift that I use only when needed.