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When I was out the other I came across some council trees. They’re maybe 4 or 5 years old. They’re between the road and a large empty paddock that gets mown several times a year but where the grass is still thick and abundant.
The area around the base of the trees is bare dirt for maybe a 2 – 3 metres diameter and the rabbits have been going beserk, making extravagantly big holes. I was curious about this – some time ago it was pointed out to me that rabbits thrive where the grass is really short. That’s why you have rabbit problems where there is sheep grazing (because most farmers graze pasture very low).
Bearing this in mind I look around to see where else the rabbits are making homes. And sure enough, the only places there are holes is where there the grass has been disturbed or is very short. Most of the paddock is thick grass up to five inches tall but generally less than that and there were no rabbit holes there at all. But where the grass had been dug into by humans or sprayed, there were holes.
Here’s the irony. The council were obviously spraying around the trees to keep the grass down, and then the rabbits where coming along and digging because it’s the only accessible dirt in the area. The spraying is unnecessary as these older trees won’t be adversely affected by long grass. I guess it’s a cosmetic thing, you can’t have long grass in a town, it looks messy. Messier than dead grass, bare earth, rabbit holes and pesticide residue.
So go rabbits I say. If humans are going to do stupid things, then nature will point it out.
Solutions? Personally I don’t mind long grass and would take that over pesticide use any day. I accept that that is too much for many people, so how about wild herbaceous borders that act as mini wildlife preserves or corridors? The strip of land where these trees were growing could be seeded with local wildflowers, in this case yarrow, vipers bugloss, st john’s wort, wild carrot, dandelion, red clover and curly dock (they just all happen to be medicinal, heh). This would encourage abundant insect life, including food for bees and predator insects that control ‘pest’ insects (which would also benefit nearby gardens).
Grasses could be included (especially some of the more aesthetic ones), which would provide food for small birds. If the trees were fruit or nut trees, then the undergrowth could be a permaculture orchard using plants beneficial for predator and pollinating insects eg feral parnsip which when flowering attracts insects and when seeding is elegant (I have a thing for umbelliferae).
In permaculture there is a technique called a guild. This is where you have a cluster of plants that work together for the benefit of each other. In this example each food bearing tree could form the centre of a guild that included plants that act as mulch and ground cover (preserving soil moisture), insect attractors (pest control and pollination), increase fertility and provide nutrients, and provide beauty. You can read more about guilds here.
Last year I found myself yelling at the TV when I saw one of Te Radar’s back to the land episodes. He was digging up dandelions, potting them up and trying to sell them at the local market. It’s actually not a bad idea, given what a useful food and medicine plant it is, but what made me yell was that a number of the plants he had weren’t dandelion at all. They were one of the dandelion look-alikes . It’s a really common mistake, almost as common as dandelion itself.
Dandelion and its look-alikes are members of the Asteraceae family. They have similar-ish leaves and similar bright yellow flowers. There’s quite a few look-alikes with confusing but intriguing names: catsear, hawkbit, hawsbeard, beaked hawksbeard, hawkweed etc (Hypochoeris, Crepis, Leontodon, and Hieracium spp).
Te Radar’s mistake was kind of funny, but kind of not too. If you are going to eat weeds, it pays to know which ones you are eating. As far as I know all the look-alikes, including Radar’s one (which was most likely a catsear) are edible but not particularly palatable. So you don’t really need to learn how to ID them because if you get one instead of a dandelion it won’t hurt you. There are some plant families where making such a mistake could cost you your life – I’ve mentioned the Umbelliferae family which contains such wild edibles as carrot, fennel, and sweet cicely as well as the deadly hemlock.
Being able to ID a dandelion is really useful though, not only for food but essential for medicine. Plus you can impress your friends when they point to a catsear and call it a dandelion.
Here’s how to tell a dandelion – Taraxacum officinale, from it’s cousins:
1. Dandelion blossoms are always one flower to one stalk. If there is more than one flower to a stalk it’s not a dandelion.
2. Dandelion’s have multiple blossom stalks that don’t branch. If there any branches on flower stalks, it’s not a dandelion.
3. Flower stalks are always hollow, and yield a white sap when broken. If the flower stalk isn’t hollow it’s not a dandelion.
4. Dandelions grow in rosettes from the ground. They never send up stalks with leaves on them. If there are stalks with leaves on them, it’s not a dandelion.
5. The leaves have no hairs on the rib on the back of the leaf (there may be a white fluff). This is a key to identifying dandelion when it’s not in flower. If there are hairs, it’s not a dandelion.
Dandelion leaves vary in shape, but generally have a classic jagged edge. Young ones may look rounder.
I admit, I just wrote this post today so I had an excuse to post photos of these glorious dandelions in flower. This one show the classic toothed leaf of the plant (dent de lion is French for lion’s tooth. I don’t know if lion’s teeth bear any resemblance or if the French are being poetic).
The hairless rib on the back of the leaf.
Non-branching stalk, one flower.
Young dandelions that don’t have any teeth yet.
Dandelion is a incredibly versatile plant. All of it can be eaten (maybe not the seeds), and all of it is medicine. Things to do with dandelion at this time of year:
~ make dandelion blossom oil (fantastic for massaging tight, aching muscles, especially neck and shoulders).
~ make dandelion blossom vinegar.
~ use blossom buds in salads, stirfries and omelettes (add near the end).
~ harvest young leaves from non-flowering plants (better get in quick as they’re starting to bloom) and eat in salads or cook well in garlic and butter and season with salt and lemon juice or vinegar. Once dandelion starts to flower the leaves get more bitter (this may not be a problem depending on your tolerance for bitter).
Most parts of the plant are high in minerals and vitamins, making dandelion an excellent addition to the diet.
Dandelion is a particular medicine of the liver and kidneys. The bitter taste varies in different parts of the plant and changes over the course of the year. Bitter stimulates digestion and production of bile. Dandelion can also make you pee more, so take care not to over do it if that’s likely to be a problem.
I went out today following my nose looking for weeds. My mood is good and I move past the harsh reality that I would have to drive at least an hour to find an intact native ecosystem or even a thriving mixed one. I will take what is on offer – there is comfort to be had from the land that is trying to heal. When I arrive there are 3 kahu hunting rabbits in the paddock. A good sign. One of the kahu is very large, which means it’s an older bird. But the rabbits are big too, I’d like to come back and see the hunt in action.
I wander around and down to the river. It’s all broom and willow and small plants of succession. It’s easy to understand why the river bed is the way it is (flooding limits what can grow here) but harder to make sense of the land up on the banks, rabbit riven, dry, sparse. The paddocks nearby are mown for some reason, but stock have been here too at some stage, which explains why there are so many rabbits (rabbits don’t like long grass) and why only the big trees, inedible shrubs and first sucession plants survive. There is no moving on.
Still it is a beautiful late afternoon and on my way back from the river I come across an oasis. It’s a large double willow. Underneath is a pile of what has been dumped earth and gravel, several metres high and four or five in diameter.. Over the top of this are the lush green plants, especially the annuals that bring advancing fertility each time they die and feed the soil.
I wander around the mound delighted in the abundance of edible and medicinal plants:
Chickweed – Stellaria media (the brighter green plant) and hemlock - Conium maculatum (the ferny looking one). Eat the chickweed and make medicine from it. Don’t do anything with the hemlock that involves putting it in or on your body, and take special care with look alike edible and medicinal plants from the same family (Umbelliferae) because hemlock is so poisonous. There was enough chickweed here today to eat handfuls while I was looking around. I took some care to make sure my handfuls weren’t mixed with hemlock though.
That’s the annual nettle, Urtica urens. A bit tricky to eat because it flowers so early and the leaves aren’t great on nettle once it’s flowering. But it makes fantastic fertiliser, so I am happy to see it in this garden.
Mullein – Verbascum thapsus. Darling medicine of dry lands, it’s a good general lung healing herb (more on that soon). Seriously not edible – furry and with small hairs that will drive your throat crazy – always strain herbal preparations through a cloth.
Horehound – Marrubium vulgare. Another medicinal plant, most well known as a cough remedy. Very bitter.
Giant puffball!!! – Calvatia gigantea. I’ve never seen one of these before, they’re apparently a bit rare. It’s past its edibleness, but still a very exciting find. The white bits are the outer cover that has peeled back as the ball had puffed. The brown bit is spongy and sends of clouds out brown spores when you poke it. Even better and more delightful was that once I’d spotted this one, I saw half a dozen others, more decomposed, hiding in the grass:
Yep, that is a puffball, collapsing in on itself. They were spread out around half the mound. The puffball bit is the fruit of the fungi. The body of the plant, the mycelium, is underground. I don’t know much about puffballs yet (other than they are edible and the small species is yummy), but mycelium can grow over a much wider area than what you see above ground so I’ve probably been walking on puffball the whole time.
Fungi are the coolest of the cool, very important for ecosystem health especially ones restoring, and they make fantastic people food and medicine. Expect more raving posts about them.
Yellow Dock – Rumex crispus, aka curly dock (you can see the curl especially on the left edge of the leaf in the bottom of the photo). Medicine and food. This is a lovely young succulent looking plant. Possibly even a first year, as I didn’t see any old seed stalks from the autumn. This suggests that the pile of earth has been dumped recently (and this plant came in with that or grew up through).
Broad leaf Dock – Rumex obtusifolia (I think). Interchangeable with Yellow Dock, but for some reason I prefer the yellow. Again a young looking plant. The leaves of both docks are tart with oxalic acid. Some people have a higher tolerance for this than others, but if you like it cook it well like spinach. Most edible weed books will have ideas about cooking docks.
Sheep’s sorrel – Rumex acetosella. Not growing in the garden but nearby. I wanted to include it because it’s related to the docks, and has a delicious sharp lemony taste making it perfect as a garnish or addition to salads. It’s on my to do list to collect seeds for inclusion in a wild greens salad growing mix. Sheep’s sorrel is a small plant, although these ones are a decent size. You can’t tell from the picture but the leaf is maybe an inch and a half long.
A mystery plant growing out in the mown paddock and on the flat around the willow. I broke the cardinal rule of wildcrafting and grazed on this while wondering what it was (don’t do this at home folks i.e. never eat a plant that you can’t identify). It’s dandelion like, but isn’t dandelion. Possibly chicory, and perhaps it’s been sown in this place in the past. It was bitter but not as much as dandelion, and fresh.
The beautiful tree that made all this possible. We have such a downer on wild willows in this country, but they are incredibly helpful plants. Not only are they medicine trees, but they assist degraded landscapes by keeping the water table high enough for other plants to grow nearby. A friend told me about this recently, and when I looked at this place today it was true that all around the tree, including on the north side, there is more lush growth than away from the tree. The lushness lasts well beyond the shade offered, and past the drip line.
After all that I lay in the grass and watched the sky and crescent moon overhead. It was hard not to think I had been brought here. You can take that literally or poetically, but there is no doubt that the more I open to nature the more it shares with me.
I went back to the peach tree and made tincture. Here’s the harvest. See if you can spot the bee.
I chopped all that roughly, twigs included (but not the bee). Then I put it in a jar:
I’ve packed it in more than normal (and it’s popping out) because the petals are so light that when the alcohol goes in the bulk reduces down alot. Normally you fill to below the top with plant and then to the top with vodka.
Here’s the tincture after brewing for a couple of days. The colour is extracted out of the petals within the first few hours, and then the tincture gradually goes a deeper colour over days. The tincture starts to smell of almond in the first few hours too, yum.
There are some considerations about dosage with peach tincture, so please research this medicine if you want to try it out.
Everyone knows how to make herbal tea. Regular tea is a kind of herbal tea – it’s made from the herb Camellia sinensis*. So anyone who has made gumboot will understand the basic principles of making a water based herbal medicine. You need hot water, dried herb, and something to brew in.
But beyond that, water based herbal medicines vary depending on what you are trying to achieve. There are teas, infusions, and decoctions for internal use. As I mentioned in another post, those terms get used interchangeably and contradictorily by different people, so here is what I personally mean in this blog when I use those words:
Tea: a small amount of herb steeped in hot water for a shortish amount of time. Can be a refreshment or a medicine, but is less strong than an infusion.
Infusion: a large amount of herb steeped in water for a long period of time. The greater amount of herb and the longer time both mean a stronger medicine and more parts of the plant are extracted.
Decoction: simmering herb in water, or simmering an infusion to reduce it down and increase the strength of the brew. Decoctions are by definition stronger than teas or infusions.
Some important principles:
One of the ways plants protect themselves is by having very thick cell walls. In order to get to the nourishing and medicinal bits of the plant inside the cells we have to break the cell wall. Three things will do that in water preparations: drying, heat and time.
Drying: for the most part dried herb will extract into water far better than fresh plant. You can try this for yourself. Find a non-aromatic herb that you have both dried and fresh eg nettle, raspberry leaf, or calendula. Make a tea from the dried and from the fresh by putting 1 tsp into 1 cup of hot water. Cover and leave for 15 minutes and then compare taste, smell and what they look like.
Having said that, some herbs extract well as fresh plants. These are herb that are high in volatile oils (the aromatic oils you can smell) eg mint, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm. You can make water medicines from these as fresh plants because the volatile oils may be the medicinal parts you want and they extract into the water very easily (and if it’s the volatile oils you are after, they often extract better from fresh plant than from dried). They also smell great.
Heat: heat will break down plant cell walls (this is true of food too, and is one reason why well cooked food is often easier to digest and more nutritious). Hot water, just boiled, is perfect for tea and infusion making, extracting most plant parts more effectively than cold water. Hot water and dried plants are a good match. Again, you can try this yourself. Take some dried herb and make a tea from hot water and one from cold water, and then compare after 15 minutes.
Decoctions also use hot water, but hotter than in tea or infusion. With a decoction, you simmer the herb, or heat it just below simmer, for a period of time. This additional exposure to heat will break down tougher cell walls and so is used for tougher plant parts like roots and barks. It can also be used for fresh plant, where there has been no drying to assist the cell wall breakdown. Rongoa (Maori herbal medicine) seems to be a tradition that uses decoctions more than infusions, presumably because of the easy availability of fresh plant.
And again there are exceptions to the rule. Some plants have mucilage in them, a substance that produces slimey or jelly like medicines that are good for soothing mucous membranes eg the digestive tract. Mallows and marshmallow are classic examples of this. Mucilage extracts very well into cold water.
Time: and thirdly, time allows for greater extraction of medicine from the plants. The longer you leave a tea or infusion to brew the stronger it will be. This is important if you are wanting to get nutrients like minerals from herbs, as it takes time for them to extract into the water. An over night infusion will have more minerals in it than a 20 minute infusion.
It is possible to brew some herbs for too long. Chamomile is best brewed (as a tea) for no more than 20 or 30 minutes, otherwise it gets quite bitter.
You can use any combination of those three things to make the medicine you want. For example, if you want a mucilage medicine you can use cold water, but still use time and drying to help access what is inside the cell walls. Sometimes you want to limit the extraction. Some herbs are just too strong to do as an infusion (licorice and thyme are two herbs I make as teas). Sometimes you want a medicine in a hurry, so a tea or fast decoction is better than an infusion.
Here are some standard recipes:
Lemon balm tea: take a handful of fresh lemon balm leaves, put in a tea pot, cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Steep 10-20 minutes.
Chamomile tea: put 1-3 tsp dried flowers in a tea pot and cover with a cup of just boiled water. Steep no more than 20 minutes.
Nettle infusion: take 30gm dried nettle leaf and put it in an agee jar. Add boiling water, being careful not to crack the jar. Stir with a wooden spoon to release air, and top up if needed. Put a lid on tightly, and leave to steep 4 hours or overnight. Strain and drink as is or reheat. This makes a nourishing infusion strong enough to supply large amounts of minerals that you simply won’t get from nettle tea.
Echinacea: put 30gms dried echinacea root in a pot and cover with 500mls water. Put a lid on and slowly heat until just simmering. Simmer 30 minutes. You can strain and use then, or leave in the pot for further infusing, taking out what you need over time. This method makes a brew strong enough to help heal bacterial infections.
These are guidelines, laying out time honoured ways of getting the best medicine from plants. If you learn and practice these rules, then you can learn where and when to break them.
*but it’s not really a herbal tea. Neither is green tea (it’s unprocessed regular tea) or regular tea with herbal additives (eg jasmine tea).
That’s peach blossom! Wild peach blossom! It’s an old tree and I don’t know if it produces fruit, but the blooms are fantastic.
I wish we had more of these growing wild. And more fruiting peach and apricot in towns too, rather than ornamental cherries, which seem too ubiquitous to be attractive now (and what is with our obsession with growing fruit trees that don’t provide fruit?).
Not only is peach a great food for humans and bees, but it’s also good medicine. You can use most parts of the tree including the blossoms, leaves and fruit. The effect is both cooling and moistening, a double boon in Central Otago and other hot, dry places where these trees grow well. I make blossom and twig tincture and dry the leaves for tea. The tincture is a fine relaxing herb, helping diminish hot conditions. The leaf tea I am still figuring out. You can read more about peach medicine here.
Two other things about this particular peach tree. One is that it is growing in a dip in the land and is undergrown by yellow tree lupin (Lupinus arboreus). Any decent rain will have run off to the roots of this tree. And the lupin is nitrogen fixing which means it will be helping with the soil fertility. Both of those probably led the peach to grow there. I’d love to see trees like this in the wild taken care of, utilising the natural advantages already there (the tree grew because some things were right about this particular site) and building on that to plant out from this oasis of fertility. I’m not sure what goes well with peach but I’d guess any of the orchard companion plantings would be a good start. Central Otago is one of our most degraded landscapes, and it’s fascinating to see what grows here despite this. I love the tenacity of this tree to have established and survived for years without any help from us other than the original throwing of a peach stone. We could learn alot.
The other cool thing is that the trunk and branches have alot of usnea on them.
Usnea is a medicinal lichen, very good for helping heal bacterial infections. There’s not enough to harvest from this tree (it’s too dry and the lichen is very short), but in the bush you will see it growing long and straggly.
Menstruum is an old word meaning solvent, and in herbal circles it refers to the substance (usually liquid) you use to extract certain properties from herbs, thus making a medicine.
The two menstruums most people are familiar with are water, and spirit alcohol (tinctures and extracts you buy in a health food shop are made with alcohol). But you can also make medicines with vinegar, honey, or oil/fat. Here’s an overview, and I’ll do separate posts in more detail on each menstruum.
Water: used for making teas, infusions, or decoctions for internal use, and compresses or foments for external use. They are used as is or as the base for further medicine making. The terms are used interchangeably and contradictorily by herbalists, so it pays to check what any individual actually means. Water is good for extracting minerals, vitamins, and other water soluble parts like tannins or mucilage. Usually hot water is used, but sometimes not.
Alcohol: used for making tinctures and liqueurs, or liniments for external use. It extracts properties that water can’t, and tends to produce a stronger medicine than water.
Vinegar: used for herbal vinegars. It is excellent at extracting minerals, so can be used to make a mineral supplement. Can be used to make tinctures for people that avoid alcohol but is not as potent as alcohol.
Oil: herbal oils are for external use, either as is or for making ointments or salves. Fat is the traditional menstruum but many people now use a vegetable oil.
Honey: a divine menstruum, virtually any tasty herb can be put up in honey for pleasure, food or medicine.
It’s really simple. Fill a jar twice, once with plant and then again with vodka, put a lid on, let sit for 6 weeks, strain and voila!
And you can use the same method to make herbal vinegars and oils. It’s called the simplers method and doesn’t require specific calculations of ratios.
Here’s more detail:
1. Jars: you want glass, not plastic. Glass is clean and won’t leach chemicals into your brew, and is easy to sterilise. Use clear glass so you can see what happens as the tincture brews. I like jars with non-poptop lids, because the poptop ones always seem to seep. Keeping a range of clean jars at the ready is handy for when you find herbs unexpectedly.
2. Plant: take your freshly harvested herb or weed and chop and put into the jar. I tend to chop coarsely, unless I want a stronger brew. The finer you chop the herbs the stronger the tincture will be. It important to tincture the herbs as soon as you can after picking because plant starts to deteriorate, especially if it’s hot or wet. I quite often make the tincture right where I have picked the herb.
3. Alcohol: vodka is a good choice because it is plain, with no flavour. Use the highest proof* vodka you can get. In NZ, that’s usually 43% (Smirnoff blue). Duty Free have a Smirnoff blue that is 50%, so if you are returning from overseas, or know anyone, get some bottles. It’s alot cheaper too. 50% vodka is 50% ethanol and 50% water, so it will extract both water soluble and alcohol soluble parts of the plant. Most tinctures are fine made this way. If you can’t get any of these a lower proof will be ok, but you will get less of the more medicinal parts of the plant (that are extracted into alcohol).
*proof is roughly twice the ethanol percentage eg 100 proof is roughly 50% ethanol.
4.Shaken or Stirred: once the jar is full of plant and alcohol, get a chopstick and poke around to get as much air as possibly out. Put a lid on and leave overnight. The next day top up with vodka (the alcohol level will have dropped). Some people like to shake their tinctures regularly, to mix it all up. I don’t because it introduces air back into the brew. Sometimes, depending on the herb, the chopped plant can have a tendency to float up to the top of the alcohol. Keep an eye on it, topping up and/or pushing the herb under, until the herb becomes saturated and stays submerged. You can also make the tincture so it is nearly full of plant and then fill right to the brim with vodka, and keep topped up. That way there will be no space for the herbs to rise up.
5. Label: keep a record of the parts of the plant used, date, alcohol and percentage, place of harvest and any other relevant information. I write on glass jars with a marker pen, and then once the tincture is strained and bottled I use a white sticker to write on. I also write the same information in a notebook, along with longer observations about the harvest, season, locale etc.
6. Time: 6 weeks is what I learned and what alot of herbalist do. Some do less. It’s ok, good even, to leave tinctures to brew for long periods of time. As long as the plant material is completely covered with alcohol they won’t go off (and most herbs won’t go off above the alcohol level either as they are to saturated). I often leave tinctures in the alcohol until I need them, often months, sometimes years.
7. Storage: when you are ready, strain the tincture through a cloth and sieve, squeezing out as much alcohol as you can from the plant. Pour into a clean bottle made of dark glass. Label as you did the jar. Store in a cool, dark place to protect the tincture. Tinctures will keep a long time this way, usually years.