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Kiva Rose’s plant profile on using poplar as medicine. But really I just wanted an excuse to post this photo from July…

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Last winter I did a post on how to tell the difference between the various chamomiles, mostly because both nursery chamomile plants and dried chamomile herb are rarely labelled by their botanical name when being sold and I wanted to be able to ID them so I’d know which one I was growing and using. But I also wanted to be able to ID the wild varieties of that family and learn which were medicinal. The most obvious of the wild ones here in NZ is the rayless chamomile, but while I have seen it off and on in the past I’ve not seen it locally and I’ve rarely seen it anywhere in abundance.

Then in December I couldn’t believe my luck when visiting a local organic farm I stumbled upon this beautiful swath of rayless chamomile in flower.

You can read about identifying the different chamomiles in the previous post, but the main keys for the rayless one are:

~ the absence of petals as the flower opens:

~ the finely cut leaves:

~ and the pineapple smell when the plant is crushed (it’s sometimes known as pineapple weed).

That last photo shows a lush and largish plant – most of the ones I’ve seen in the past are smaller than this and it can grow quite low to the ground in a spreading fashion.

I harvested some of the plants (leaves, flowers, stalks) last December, hanging some in bunches to dry and putting some up in vinegar. I’ve made tea a few times and found it interesting, with subtle chamomile flavour. There was a mild relaxing effect but not very strong (I’d like to experiment with a stronger infusion). But it was recent tastings of the vinegar that I had finally decanted that impressed me. The scent is strongly of the plant, and the taste is of the smell – distinctly chamomile with pineapple undertones, so those constituents extract well into vinegar.

I took 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in a glass of water one evening. Within half an hour I was yawning and barely able to keep my eyes open. This effect passed when I got up and moved around so it wasn’t so much sedative as strongly relaxing. I’ve had the same effect several times since. The vinegar is noticeably diuretic for me, so I’m not sure if it would make such a good sleep aid but your mileage may vary. I’d like to try the tea and tincture for the relaxing effect as well and will certainly be experimenting with this plant some more.

Chamomile resources:

It was one of Henriette Kress’ blogposts on using chamomile greens that tipped me off to the medicine of pineapple weed.

Kiva Rose’s plant monograph on chamomile.

A friend was asking me about this while back. There’s a folk remedy for treating cancer called Essiac. It was made famous by a Canadian nurse, Rene Caisse, who reputedly got the recipe from an Ojibwa medicine man. There are various recipes for Essiac, all based on using four herbs: burdock root, sheep sorrel leaf, slippery elm bark, and turkey rhubarb roots. Woodstock herbalist Susun Weed investigated this formula and came to the conclusion that the original instructions had been altered – turkey rhubarb wasn’t native or naturalised in Canada, sheep sorrel has no reputation for healing cancer, and the slippery elm was probably there to counter the harsh effects of the turkey rhubarb on the digestive tract. Only burdock seemed to fit, with its long traditional use against cancer. She also heard that the original formula had two herbs in it, so she came to the conclusion that it was likely to be burdock and yellow dock roots (yellow dock is a relative of turkey rhubarb’s, also has a traditional use against cancer, and is much gentler on the system).

I’ve not had to deal with cancer in myself or helping others. Cancer treatments (conventional and alternative) can be contentious. I believe in respecting people’s right to make their own choices in health care and offer this post in that spirit.

I also believe that medicine should be cheap and easily accessible. To that end, here’s what burdock and yellow dock look like. Yellow dock is very common in most areas and can be harvested in quantity if necessary. Burdock is less common and is harder to dig up. If you need it in quantity it’s good to buy from a wholesaler. But it’s also good to have a direct relationship with any plant we use as medicine, and harvesting and preparing herbs is a good way to do that (not the only way though). It’s an good time of year to get to know and harvest both plants.

Note: the name ‘yellow dock’ isn’t commonly used in NZ except for when referring to herbal medicine. Mostly you’ll hear it called dock, or sometimes broad leaf dock and curly dock.

Burdock ID

Burdock, Arctium spp, is a biennial. This means it will put up leaves in the first year, and flowers and seeds in the second year and then it will die. If you want to harvest the root you need to harvest it before the plant starts to flower. Once it starts to flower, the plant uses the root energy for the flowering and seeding and by the end the root is spent.

Burdock leaves are large and look a bit like a furry rhubarb (although they’re not related). They have a large midrib and prominent veins. This isn’t the best photo, as most of the leaves are wrinkly, but the one in the bottom left corner is more typical:

If you turn a leaf over you will see that it is covered in white down. This down is on the stalks as well and is a key to identifying burdock. Also, look closely at the lower ends of the stalk (closest to where it is growing from) and you’ll see a reddy colour.

The leaves grow from a single tap root which has a reputation for being difficult to dig. It’s good to use a garden fork, loosening the soil around and around the plant. You’ll need to dig down quite a way if you want to avoid breaking off the root in the ground. There are also side roots or the main root splits, so take your time and take care – it’s worth getting all the root as harvesting is killing the plant and the root won’t grow back.

The closest look alike I can think of is foxglove (Digitalis spp), which is poisonous. Not likely to be confused once you see them together, but if you are new to IDing herbs then please use a good ID book or wildcrafter to help you with the ID.

Yellow Dock ID

Yellow dock, Rumex spp, is a perennial, meaning it grows back every year from the same root. It’s another large leafed herb, not as big as burdock generally, and the leaves are darker green and smooth rather than hairy.

There are two main docks in NZ – curly leafed dock (Rumex crispus)

and broad leafed dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

You can use them interchangeably for medicine or food. Broad dock is usually the more common. Both seem to like damp places (river beds, damp ground) but will grow on other places too. In a dry climate, the best places to look are where there is shade or damp, but in wetter climates dock grows everywhere.

Dock leaves grow from a crown above a root cluster that gets bigger with each successive year. Older plants yield more root and better medicine, and will have multiple tap roots. Because root harvest is best done in the late autumn or winter, when the leave have died back and the energy of the plant is focussed below ground, it’s good to find where your yellow dock grows earlier in the season so it’s easier to find when the tops have died back.

And the roots are indeed yellow (inside):

If you want to find yellow dock now for harvesting look for the seed heads. These are photos from the summer – the seeds now will be dried off and brown.

I’ll try and get some better photos this week but in the  meantime there’s a good shot of autumn dock seeds here.

The Wessiac recipe can be found here. Both burdock and yellow dock can be used in lots of other ways as medicine or food.

I picked this up from the US herbalists. Sumac is a small tree that’s often planted in NZ gardens for ornamental value. It has distinctive red flower/fruit heads that last on the tree well after all the leaves have dropped. The trunk and branches are elegant, lending to the sculptural look.

sumac in late winter

This sumac is also known as staghorn sumac, Rhus thyphina, which helps differentiate it from related poisonous species*. The best way to ID sumac is by the ‘berries’. It took me a while to be sure that I had the right plant because sumac berries aren’t very berry like. Instead they are a horn-shaped cluster of small, red, furry bits:

I still haven’t found out if those are flowers, fruit or seeds, but the Americans call them berries.

The leaves are quite distinctive too, being obviously symmetrical:

the underside of the leaves

Additional ID keys are the furry stems, and when you break them they ooze a white substance.

*If you read US sources of information about this plant there are cautions about not confusing it with poisonous sumac (a related plant). I don’t think this is an issue in NZ because (a) the poisonous sumac is rare (not sure if it even exists in NZ), and (b) it doesn’t look like staghorn sumac – poison sumac has drooping white berry clusters, not upright red ones. The leaves also look different.

Sumac Lemonade

Once you are sure you have the right plant, pick a few heads. It’s best to not pick straight after a rain, as rain washes off some of the tasty bits.

Pull the seeds off and put into a container.

Cover with cold water (yes, cold. Hot water makes the brew too strong) and squash the seeds a bit into the water.

I left mine overnight which made a very strong brew too, which I watered down. Subsequent batches I’ve made with 1 seed head to 2 cups of cold water, steeped up to an hour. Play around and see what works for you. When ready, strain the brew well to remove the fine hairs and bits of seed.

The taste of sumac is refreshingly sour and astringent. You can add honey or sugar if you like, but I’ve been happy drinking it as is. Drink a small amount the first few times to see how your body reacts – sumac is also medicinal and can make you pee more. I didn’t notice anything obvious and have been enjoying a glassful at a time.

You can dry sumac heads for later use (infusion or spice).

Things I want to try:

~ a longer infusion for maximum vitamin C extraction
~ a sumac berry vinegar (‘cos I have to try most things in a vinegar)
~ sumac as a dry spice (sumac is a traditional middle Eastern spice. A local forager told me to mix ground sumac, thyme and salt).
~ sumac honey
~ sumac and berries or other seasonal fruit (there’s a local company making sumac and plum relish).

Sumac resources

Matt Wood discusses on video different species of sumac, its use as a spice, and as medicine.

Susun Weed video on Euell Gibbons’ washing machine method for large batches of sumac lemonade!

This post is part of the UK Herbarium June Blog Party My Favourite Tree Medicines, kindly hosted by Lucinda at Whispering Earth.

I think I might be in love.

I picked some hawthorns at Easter and set them out to dry. In the past week I’ve been experimenting with water based preparations to find the best way to use the dried berries. I’ve been using hawthorn berry tincture for a few years, off and on, but had never worked with the dried berries.

At Easter I also started an experiment to see if I could make fruit leather, but the resultant mash (fresh berries simmered in minimal water long and slow, and then pressed through a sieve) was so unappetising that I froze it until I can figure out what to do with it. Hawthorn berry tincture has such a delightful taste that I was sure the fruit leather would be a go if I could get it to dry properly. The berries themselves are pleasant enough tasting especially now that they’ve had a few frosts to sweeten them up, but there must be something about heat that changes the taste.

So I was curious to see what would happen with my newly dried berries. First I made some tea – a tablespoon of berries steeped in a cup of just boiled water for 20 or 30 minutes. The result was pale, bland and not particularly inspiring. The berries are very hard when dried, so I figured they needed more heat to cause the cell walls to break and release all the goodies. A few more experiments and I’ve settled on this:

Hawthorn decoction

1. put 3 tablespoons/30gm hawthorn berries in a suitable pot (I use an old coffee pot because it’s easy to pour from).

2. add 500 ml cold water and put on the lid.

3. put on a slow heat and bring to a simmer. Don’t boil, as this will release the more bitter flavours and probably destroy some of the vitamins.

4. simmer for as long as you like, or can wait – 30 minutes is fine but I’ve left it on a very slow heat for an hour or more.

5. drink as is, or allow to infuse in the pot for as long as it takes you to use it up. I’m currently making 4 cups at a time and letting it infuse for several days before the last cup is drunk.

This brew is rich, oily and satisfying*. It has an initial distinct sweetness, quickly followed by the kind of tartness that is associated with vitamin C (similar to its cousin the rosehips). There are undertones of bitter.

* I’ve just looked this up and it’s not oily so much as soapy – hawthorn berries contain saponins, chemicals that make things slippery.

Harvesting and Drying

One of the things I love about hawthorn is that it is so abundant. Both in terms of berries on the tree, and trees in the landscape.

This is a herb that we can harvest with relative ease and in many places there is so much hawthorn we can harvest large amounts. This is necessary for making nourishing type infusions that use a lot of herb to brew. But it’s also reminds us that even in the depths of winter the land has much to offer. Hawthorn often grows on land where not much else does well, giving us a gnarly nourishment. Because of its abundance and ability to grow in marginal places and because it offers strong but safe medicine as well as nutrition, I consider it one of our important wild plants in terms of powerdown and transition to a post-oil life. Hawthorn will of course also grow happily in a garden, and is a common tree in hedgerows in the UK – there are hedges of hawthorn in NZ, but I’m not sure if it’s used in mix hedgerows much here.

For harvesting the berries, I take a basket and a pair of scissors or garden snips. At this time of year there are no leaves and so the berries are easier to take off the branches. You can usually snap off a cluster from its branch, sometimes I use the snips.

At home I then cut the berries off the small stalks. I think the stalks are fine to be used in the decoction, but the berries will dry better if not in clusters. You can cut the berries off easily in bunches, being careful to not cut the berries themselves. I then lay them in a single layer on a cane tray to dry, giving the tray a shuffle once a day or so to turn the berries and make sure they dry evenly.

You could also leave the berries in their clusters and hang them over a line. Either way they need to be somewhere warm and dry.

The last batch seemed to take a long time to dry – more than a month. The berries have a dry-ish texture so I wonder if it’s the thickness of the skin that makes them take a while to dry. The current batch are bigger than last time, presumably because we’ve had so much rain. I’ve weighed them to see how much water has evaporated once they have dried.

I’m drinking hawthorn because the taste is lovely and because I want a warming digestive* breakfast drink on these cold winter mornings. I find the brew relaxing, almost sedative, having a general feeling of opening. I’m also happy that the decoction will be yielding significant amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients including bioflavonoids. And I like that hawthorn is a safe heart tonic, so it will be promoting good heart health in my middle years.

* that’s the sour and bitter tastes.

Resources

More things to do with hawthorn berries.

HerbTV’s video on Valentine’s Day herbs has some excellent information on hawthorn as medicine (US hawthorns look a bit different to ours, but are interchangeable medicinally and for food).

I just found out that black walnuts are edible. Black walnut trees* are the US species related to the English or Persian walnut (Juglans regia) that we are used to eating. The black walnut has a large yellow green globe casing that goes black with age. Inside is a nut shell more like a peach stone than a walnut and very hard to crack (which is why I assumed it wasn’t edible).

But thanks to the fantastic Wild Man Steve Brill I now know how to do the black walnut dance (video) and get to the meat inside (hammer or rock required).

Steve Brill is a very funny man, and a very experienced US forager (also famous for being arrested for eating dandelion leaves in New York’s Central Park), two three good reasons to check out his website.

It seems like all the local English walnut trees are well picked over, so I’ll see if I can find some black walnuts as I know there are a few trees around. According to Brill black walnuts are quite a bit stronger than English ones (he mixes the two), so I’m curious to try them out now.

* I think this is Juglans nigra but there are a number of black walnut species.

I’ve been uninspired for naming this moon, so have settled on the obvious – Easter Moon, even though full moon was a week ago. Easter is a moveable feast and the date is wonderfully pagan, being the first Sunday closest to the full moon after the autumn equinox.

I love the equinoxes, much more than the solstices. I feel like I am standing on the edge of a circle, facing inwards, with my arms spread wide. On my right hand is the summer solstice past, and on my left is mid winter approaching. In front of me, across the circle, is the spring equinox, where I will be standing in 6 months time, again with my arms stretched out and marking the even-ness of days.

Of course the equinox was a few weeks ago, but I like the idea of celebrating or marking time according to the moon. Lunar time is easier to keep track of (maybe that’s a women’s thing too).

And I like that it moves. The first full moon after the equinox can be anywhere from right at the equinox to a month later.

I’ve not spent a whole autumn in Central before, and it’s been surprisingly changeable like I am used to on the coast in summer – hot and sunny one minute, then overcast and the temperature dropping the next. Normally autumn is my favourite time of year, but this autumn has thrown me, I wasn’t ready and I’m feeling the cold too much. I think it’s because on the coast the summer is usually crap, and the autumns are more settled, with the hot weather straddling the two. So autumn is often better than summer, or there is a sense of ease in the transition. But here in central, where the sunny day is god and infuses everything else that happens, it feels like a loss when the days get shorter and the leaves and temperature are dropping. It’s happened fast too, I don’t know if that’s normal for here.

Nice to have a few frosts though, I do like a decent frost.

This Easter I made hawthorn vinegar, and picked berries for drying.

The fennel in my garden is aphid ridden so I was very happy to find some very large, lush fennel in seed in a friend’s garden today (and even happier that he let me pick it). Fennel seed vinegar is a favourite of mine and I got to make more than enough today for the year and for giving away. Here’s what I did:

1. The seed needs to be ripe. This means treat it like a fruit, not like a seed you want for sowing. So you don’t want it dry or brown or shrivelling. Fennel seeds are plump when ripe and still green.

2. Chop the seed heads into a measuring bowl. This will tell you roughly how big a jar you need. I got just under 2 litres, which when compressed a bit fit into a 1.5 litre jar.

3. Once the jar is filled with seed, fill it again with apple cider vinegar. Put the lid on (plastic, as vinegar will corrode metal) and shake a bit to loosen any air trapped in the seeds. There will be more air to surface, so check daily for the first week, and then weekly after that, and top up as needed. It’s important that the plant material stays submerged under the vinegar, especially if you are using unpasteurised vinegar.

4. Label the jar with plant and part of plant, date, menstruum (in this case raw apple cider vinegar), and place of harvest.

5. Let sit for 6 weeks, and then strain into a dark glass bottle.

6. Take as 1 tablespoon in a glass of water, or sprinkle on salads, grains, etc. Fennel seed vinegar tastes divine (if you like fennel), so prioritise it for dishes where the taste comes through.

Fennel seed is a lovely aromatic digestive aid. It has volatile oils in it, which make it warming and stimulating to the digestion. If you find bitters too cooling, the aromatic herbs can be a good choice for digestive woes. Fennel seed is mild, nutritive and easy to use regularly. New Mexico herbalist Kiva has an in depth article on the medicinal aspects of aromatic herbs especially in relation to digestion.

Fennel is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which includes many plants we are familiar with eg carrot, aniseed, caraway, dill, coriander, parsley, celery, parsnip, angelica, lovage. The flower and seed heads form umbels (like an umbrella shape) hence the family name.

There are some poisonous plants in this family, in NZ notably the hemlock, so it’s good to be certain you know what plant you are picking. Fortunately fennel in seed is distinctive by its fennel smell, which is pleasant, and hemlock has an unpleasant smell and other distinctive features. And generally they’re easy to tell apart once you see them:

fennel leaf

hemlock leaf

We have some native Umbelliferae plants in NZ, including a celery, several aniseeds, and the wild spaniard.

This is what I found on my walk today. Well, the puffball anyway. The other mushroom and the dandelion greens I found in the lawn when I got home, and the chickweed was growing in a pot plant.

The puffball was a real treat and in almost perfect condition. It was sitting on the side of the path – someone had probably kicked it out of the way. I see this so often, puffballs in particular. There’s something attractive about kicking them I suppose, and I might too if I didn’t understand what a great food they are. With this one at least, it wasn’t broken, and I spotted a much larger and older puffball a few feet away that was too far gone to eat.

I’ve only been eating wild mushrooms for a year or so (other than field mushrooms of course). I’m comfortable about eating puffballs but am still learning about the species. Because of its proximity to the spent one I think the one I found today is the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea even though it’s not very big.

(looking at further references, there are a number of Latin names in NZ being used for the Giant Puffball. Three according to Landcare.)

I’ve eaten them young like this before but didn’t realise they were the giant variety. You can see the big ones when old half-way down this post, and when perfect for eating in this post.

If you’re going to eat a puffball, it needs to look like this inside. Nice and firm, and white.

Puffball scrambled eggs

* slice the puffball and cut small enough to do well in the eggs

* fry in butter until golden on both sides

* add other frying ingredients – in this case garlic, but tomato would be nice too

* beat a couple of eggs with a pinch of salt

* pour over the ‘shrooms, add diced dandelion leaves, and scramble

* serve with chopped chickweed dressed in olive oil, herb vinegar and salt

That used up half the puffball so I sliced the other half in varying thicknesses and fried both sides. When it had cooled I ate it with avocado. Puffballs have a subtle flavour although certainly mushroomy. The ones I ate with the avo had a honey taste, not sweet. Maybe the frying in butter brings that out. The texture is tender.

(the other mushroom in the picture at the top of the post is as yet unidentified…)

For a while I’ve been thinking this moon would be Four Berry Moon, a very local to me name, where hawthorn, elderberry, blackberry, and rosehip are all in fruit and available for harvest. I’d love to know what wild plants are in berry near you?

This could also be called Bioflavonoid Moon, but really, land-based peoples have had nourishing relationships with these plants for millennia before science learned how to take things apart ;-) However, as bioflavonoids are one of the Important Nutrients currently, instead of buying those expensive supplements or imported blueberries in the winter, try an infusion, tincture/liqueur, herbal honey or vinegar of any of those berries. Now is the time to dry or put up some herbal goodies for the colder months. Bioflavonoids have a range of actions in the body, notably as anti-oxidants. Eating the berries is the best way to get maximum amounts but only the blackberries are easy to do so. Bioflavanoids are soluble in water, and as far as I know vinegar and alcohol, so infusions, vinegar are another good way. Wine or jelly/jam too.

This month could also be called Crumble Moon (everyone seems intent on making fruit crumbles), but Changing Moon is what I’ve settled on, as the shift from summer to autumn is most apparent – willow and poplar leaves are starting to golden, the weather is alternately cool and hot, the light has changed as the sun heads towards the autumn equinox on the 21st. People seem susceptible to colds, as our bodies adapt to the shift in temperatures, and the rivers and lakes are not so warm with the longer, cooler nights.

The full moon was last Monday (a week ago), and again was rising big and yellow, being perigee (close to the earth) the day before. I missed most of the moon rises this month, there being too much cloud on the horizon – another autumn sign?

rosehips and hawthorns waiting to be brewed