Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shepherd's Purse and why herbal medicines don't work

When you gather the seven herbs of spring*, your spirit becomes gentle. And when you eat bracken shoots, osmund, and shepherd's purse, you become calm. To calm restless, impatient feelings, shepherd's purse is best of all.  They say that if children eat shepherd's purse, willow buds, or insects living in trees, this will cure violent crying tantrums, and in the old days, children were often made to eat them. Daikon (Japanese Radish) has for it's ancestor the plant called Nazuna (shepherd's purse), and this word Nazuna is related to the word nagomu, which means to be softened. Daikon is the "herb that softens one's disposition."

~Masanobu Fukuoka

*The seven herbs of spring are watercress, shepherd's purse, wild turnip, cottonweed, chickweed, wild radish, and bee nettle.
Shepherd's purse leaves and flowers with violet blossoms

Here's a short essay on th' use of Shepherd's purse as food, followed by it's use as a medicine, which is really th' same thing.

Where we live this is one of, if not the, first substantial salad bases. By which i mean, you don't add this to a salad, it is your salad, and you add other things to it. It's spicy, yet not over-pungent like some of th' mustards. It grows in abundance in early spring and is a long awaited treat if you're looking for seasonal, local foods grown in a natural way. I know th' word "natural" is applied to everything from wild food to over processed candy bars in shiny foil wrapping, so for clarification sake, when i use it it means food that is grown in such a way as you would find it in it's native habitat, ie, at th' right season, and with nothing other than nature helping it along. Which is often on th' side of th' road, like this,

Shepherd's purse in ft. collins

or in some random spot, such as behind this shed with doors that never open.

large early cluster of shepherd's purse.
Th' leaves are highly nutritious, having ample amounts of vitamins A, C, calcium, manganese, zinc, iron, and even Omega-3 fatty acids, whatever those are. But lists of vitamins are rarely reason enough to convince yourself to eat something...  

"This plant is a remarkable instance of the truth of an observation which there is too frequently room to make, namely, that Providence has made the most useful things most common, and for that reason we neglect them: few plants possess greater virtues than this, and yet it is utterly disregarded." 
From Culpeper's Herbal, 17th century, speaking of Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris.

     Shepherd's purse is a diuretic, increasing th' flow of urine and helping to flush out th' kidneys. Shepherd's purse is good to stop bleeding, external and internal. Use it for bleeding ulcers, blood in th' urine, hemorrhaging, heavy menstrual periods, etc. It works by constricting blood vessels, which means it may be helpful for poisonous snake bites as well, or at least bide you some more time. To use it internally, simply brew up a stout dose of th' flowers and seed pods, or make an extract to keep on hand. For external bleeding, ie, cuts scrapes insect bites, rashes, eczema, etc... make a poultice of th' leaves and leave it on the inflicted area till th' leaves are dry, then replace. I just chew th' leaves to crush them, but you can also bruise them with a rock, or any other way that works. Make a tincture to keep on hand- Dry th' whole herb, or any part of it- then soak it in alcohol for at least two weeks, four being better, then strain and bottle and keep in a cool dark place. This can be taken alone, or with the addition of fresh tea when needed.  But wait a minute!? Hemorrhaging, internal bleeding, that sounds serious.... shouldn't you better go to th' hospital? Well, sometimes you find yourself in situations where a hospital is simply not an option, or perhaps not th' best on.

     We first really fell in love with this plant while living in Chicago. We spent many long hours poring over plant books in bookstores, dreaming of sunny Colorado where plants actually grew. This plant's heart shaped seed pods made it very easy to identify, and it stuck out in our minds. Also th' fact that it's been used historically to stop bleeding, particularly internal. We've always had a healthy fear of hospitals, and have a sort of fascination with herbal medicines. In most herbal books and websites you read you'll find a disclaimer saying that even though we just spent a ridiculous amount of time and research on this stuff, if something is actually wrong forget about it and go see a doctor. Well, this always bothered us... 

     What's th' point, it either works or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then don't tell people it does, because they just might use it. Th' reason most herbal medicines don't work is that people don't know how to use them. Because of hospitals, we've lost so much knowledge of how our ancestors treated illness and injury. There's a myth that people are healthier now and live longer, but that is just a lie, and couldn't be farther from th' truth. If you live in america these days you can look forward to cancer or a car crash. I don't mean to sound morbid, but once we face th' truth there can be hope, but it must be faced head on. Th' further we move away from nature and our creator th' sicker we get. People who live close to nature usually live long full healthy lives. Part of that was knowing your environment, and what plants were good for. The other reason herbs don't work is that no one believes in  them. This may sound like circular reasoning but it's not. What i mean is that, just like those disclaimers, people learn all about herbs as medicine for education or whatever reason, then when something actually happens they go to th' doctor. Or they might treat themselves once, then say this or that didn't work. 
But that's not really a fair assessment of a plant's healing capabilities, and hospital drugs don't work that way either...

     For some people death is the worst thing that can happen to them. But it's gonna happen anyway, and it usually sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Instead of trying to avoid the unavoidable, live your life now, while you've got th' chance. I think that some folks are so afraid of dying that in anything like a serious illness or injury they forget all they've ever known in a panic and rush to th' hospital. I know, we've done it too. Twice. Once to get stitches in our four year old's head. I was grateful for that. Th' doctors actually did something that we had no experience with and would've had a really hard time doing. Another time Beth went to the emergency room, and they did nothing but send her an unrealistically high bill. 
     Beth has had some really powerful experiences with shepherd's purse, ones that guys simply can't have, so, i'll leave her to tell those stories in her own words, and leave you with this thought...  What do you treasure th' most in your life? And what can you do to nurture that. Be brave, have courage, and live... Here's Beth:

Warning: Graphic Information

     Well, i had known about the medicinal benefits of shepherd's purse for years, so i started using it after birthing my son. Anytime i felt like i was losing too much blood, i just swallowed a squirt of the extract and that kept everything at a normal level. Also, it had taken several days to birth the placenta (which is considered dangerous) but since i was taking the shepherd's purse i had no problem with hemorrhaging or infection or anything like that. I had it on hand all throughout post partum. Because of my personal experience, shepherd's purse became like a friend that i learned to trust in and rely on. What would've been a traumatic and dangerous experience in a hospital or with a midwife was only a peaceful and safe one. (The way birth was intended to be, right!?) 
     A few years later i gave my friend a bottle of the extract right after she had birthed her first child. Later, she told me from her experience that it did the same thing for her.
     A few years ago i had a miscarriage and i was afraid of bleeding to death. Whether it was a realistic fear or not, i don't know, but i was scared and it was a lot of blood. It was late at night, we had no extract and the health food store which once carried some was closed, so, nowhere to get shepherd's purse extract. After making me a few good strong brews of raspberry leaf, crampbark, clover, thistle and hops tea, Rico went out to a shepherd's purse patch we'd known of for a long time . He brought back a bunch of fresh flowering tops and made me a strong brew of those, i was beginning to feel much better, but i have to say i think the raspberry mixture must've helped me almost as much as the shepherd's purse. (Raspberry leaves are also astringent, meaning they will constrict blood vessels) And the hops did wonders calming my nerves...

I hope this information can be helpful to others out there, or at least inspire a bit more confidence in th' power of nature. Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Seasonal eating in Japan

Here's some excepts from a book that's good to return to every now and then, The One Straw Revolution by th' late Masanobu Fukuoka.

Masanobu Fukuoka
 One problem is that in western nutritional science there is no effort to adjust the diet to the natural cycle. The diet that results serves to isolate human beings from  nature. A fear of nature and a general sense of insecurity are often the unfortunate results....

Edible herbs and wild vegetables, plants growing on the mountain and in the meadow, are very high in nutritional value and are also useful as medicine. Food and medicine are not two different things, they are the front and back of one body. Chemically grown vegetables may be eaten for food, but they cannot be used as medicine.

     From early spring, when the seven herbs sprout forth from the earth, the farmer can  taste seven flavors. To go along with these are the delicious flavors of pond snails, sea clams, and turban shellfish.
     The season of green arrives in march. Horsetail, bracken, mugwort, osmund, and other mountain plants, and or course the young leaves of persimmon and peach trees and the sprouts of mountain yams can all be eaten. Possessing a light, delicate flavor, they make delicious tempura and can also be used as seasonings.  At the seashore, sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, and rockweed are delicious and abundant during the spring months.
    When the bamboo sends up it's young shoots, grey rock cod, sea bream, and striped pig fish are at their most delicious. The iris blossom season is celebrated with the slender ribbon fish and mackerel sashimi. Green peas, snow peas, lima beans, and fava beans are delicious eaten right from the pod or boiled with whole grains such as brown rice, wheat, barley.
     Toward the end of the rainy season, Japanese plums are salted away, and strawberries and raspberries can be gathered in abundance. At this time it is natural that the body begins to desire the crisp flavor of scallions together with watery fruits such as loquats, apricots, and peaches. The loquat's fruit is not the only part of the plant which can be eaten. The seed can be ground into "coffee,"  and when the leaves are brewed to make tea it is among the finest of medicines. The mature leaves of peach and persimmon trees produce a tonic for longevity.
     Beneath the bright midsummer sun, eating melons and licking honey in the shade of a big tree is a favorite pastime. The many summer vegetables such as carrot, spinach, radish, and cucumber become ripe and ready for harvesting. The body also needs vegetable or sesame oil to hold off summer sloth.
     If you call it mysterious, then mysterious it is that the winter grain harvested in spring goes well with the decreased summertime appetite,  and so in summer barley noodles of various sizes and shapes are prepared often. Buckwheat grain is harvested in summer. It is an ancient wild plant and a food which goes well with this season.
     Early fall is a happy season, with soybeans and small red azuki beans, many fruits, vegetables, and various yellow grains all ripening at the same time. Millet cakes are enjoyed at the autumn moon viewing celebrations. Parboiled soybeans are served along with taro potatoes.  As autumn deepens, maize, and rice steamed with red beans, matsutake mushrooms, or chestnuts are enjoyed often. Most important, the rice which has absorbed the sun's rays all summer long ripens in the fall. This means that a staple food which can be plentifully obtained and is rich in calories is provided for the cold winter months.
     At first frost one feels like looking in on the fish-broilers stand. Deep water blue fish such as yellowtail and tuna can be caught during this season. It is interesting that the japanese radish and the leafy vegetables abundant during this season go well with these fish.
     The new years holiday food is prepared largely from food which has been pickled and salted away for the great celebration. Salted samon, herring eggs, red sea bream, lobster, kelp, and black beans have been served every year at this feast for many centuries.
     Digging the radishes and turnips which have been left in the ground, covered with a blanket of soil and snow, is an enjoyable experience during the winter season. Grains and various beans grown during the year and miso and soy sauce are staples always on hand. Along with the cabbages, radishes, and squash, and sweet potatoes stored in the autumn, a variety of foods are available during the months of bitter cold.  Leeks, and wild scallions go well with the delicate flavor of oysters and sea cucumbers which can be gathered then. Waiting for spring to arrive, one catches sight of colt's foot shoots and the edible leaves of the creeping strawberry geranium peeping out of the snow. With the return of watercress, shepherd's purse, chickweed, and the other wild herbs, a garden of natural spring vegetables can be harvested beneath the kitchen window.
     Thus, by following a humble diet, gathering the foods of various seasons from close at hand, and savoring their wholesome and nourishing flavor, the local villagers accept what nature provides....
    A natural diet lies right at ones feet.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

high altitude foraging and Black Locust flowers

We spent th' weekend up near eleven thousand feet elevation in th' rockies, and as far as seasons go, it was like stepping back in time a couple of months. Where as down below we've already got our early summer plants growing, milkweed, black locust, amaranth and th' like, up high, we were just beginning to spot some young spring growth, so nothing much more than some nibbles, and th' promise of food to come.

early morning mountain sunshine

One of the exciting things for me was seeing kinnikinnick flowers. I've seen them before, but this time i really saw them, and we ate them too. There flavor is somewhat like a rose at first, immediately followed by th' characteristic kinnikinnick astringency. We ate loads of them, walked around in them, and lay amongst them enjoying th' carpet they can make of a forest floor.

carpet of kinnikinnick

kinnikinnick and aspen
Uva Ursi (kinnikinnick) is good for your liver, kidneys, gall bladder, urinary tract and skin. All the organs that remove toxins from your body. With the amount of pollution in our world today, a bit of preventitive medicine can go a long way. So can th' walk in th' fresh mountain air to collect it.

It was nice to be on a short outing like this, because we really had leisure time to do nothing. At home there's always stuff to do, on longer survival style trips, you're taking care of your self, this time we just enjoyed having nothing in particular to do. Some of th' promises of food to come that we found included our all time favorite, th' wild strawberry.

wild strawberry flower.

Another one of my particular favorites, th' Cow Parsnip. I wrote about this in a previous post, but here's some shots to help identify this really fabulous vegetable, as well as some shots of young Angelica. Due to it's growing environment being similar to that of water hemlock, pay very close attention to detail, and don't overlook one identifying characteristic in your eagerness to find this plant, which is a bad habit i have. Though i've not seen any hemlock this high up, with th' changes going on in our world these days i'd not be too surprised to find anything anywhere.

cow parsnip, last years umbel

cow parsnip young leaves

 Base of plant.
Note th' hairs, hollow stem (not shown) and maple like leaves of this plant, which can become larger than your hand. This was an important vegetable for the indians traveling through this region, where th' vegetation good for food is low compared to other parts of th' country. Not gonna find any vegans or vegetarians living up here before modern transportation allowed us to ship in vegetables, which by th' way, means roads and petroleum and plastic and ocean liners and industrialization, which kills many more animals than a meat eater is ever likely to eat. So if you're a vegan because you care about animals, that's something to think about. But i'm not trying to persuade anyone, it's just something that i've thought much about.

But on to th' next plant we found, Angelica Archangelica. Th' mere sight of this plant in all it's flowering glory is enough to arouse feelings of awe. It reaches up to six feet high, with a globe of small yellow flowers, often towering above th' surround vegetation. It only grows near water, so if you're thirsty and you see one of these, you're in luck. It slightly resembles cow parsnip, and they are often companions. It lacks th' hairs of cow parsnip, and does have a bit more purple coloring. It's leaves are saw-toothed, growing from a basal rosette, and sending up a flower stalk it's second year, making it a biennial. It too was an important food for native americans, and is still widely used in Saami regions today. Th' Saami make flutes from it's stems, and use it to flavor reindeer milk. Th' Saami are the indeginous peoples of arctic scandinavia. Th' stems can be eaten like celery, and have a very pleasant, though strong flavor, with just a bit of a numbing sensation left on th' tongue.

young angelica

angelica leaves
I don't have a picture of this full grown with me, so here's one borrowed from wikipedia, just so you can see what it will look like in a month or two.

mature angelica.
Here's some shots of us wandering around in th' mountains, Fynn had to have his whale with him, so we strapped it to his back, there's one happy camper.

Here he is examining a stick. Being in nature is really good for him, he's much calmer and at peace with himself than when he's at home too much. He found a tree stump covered in ants and just sat there watching them crawl around for a long time. It's hard to get him to stay in one spot at home, unless he's watching a show. 

We also took some time to shoot arrows straight up into the air. This is really fun, and we actually managed to find all our arrows.

Then we sat around, sang songs, colored on wood with charcoal, cooked over a fire, and washed dishes in th' creek.

Cooking over a campfire is a good skill to have, notice th' burning log under th' saucepan, and there are only coals under th' tea kettle. With correct rock placement, you have many options on how to cook just about anything. 

Washing dishes in th' wild is another good skill to have. Here i'm using a running brook with dry and green grass to scour. In the absence of water, i use dirt, rubbed around with moss or grass. Yes, dirt cleans, and well too. Simply clean your dish right after use, and save your precious water for drinking. 

washing a bowl in th' creek

wooden bowls and spoons drying
When we got back down, almost into town is an abandoned cabin, sitting in a field of lambs quarters and black locust trees, so we stopped for a salad. Black locust flowers are one of, if not the, best things i've ever put in my mouth. Th' season for them is short, so if you have any where you live, and most people do, as they've been planted all over north america as ornamentals, be on th' look out. Later in th' season, you can also harvest th' green beans and cook them up to eat them.

Black Locust flowers and lambs quarters.
While picking flowers, me and this guy startled each other, he hissed at me for a while, then crawled into a cavity in one of th' locust trees.

great plains rat snake

Til next time, happy hunting.