Sunday, March 8, 2015

Herbal Case Study…The Sliced Foot

As a mother of three boys, I am constantly thankful we don't have more bodily injuries than we do around here. With all the wrestling, tree climbing, play fighting (real fighting), and general rowdiness, it is truly amazing emergency room visits aren't a weekly occurrence. To be perfectly honest, the herbal treatment my boys' rough and tumble interactions lead to are more often than not a round of nervines for mama.

On occasion though, there is an actual injury to address. One such injury happened recently, not while wresting or tree climbing, but while doing that oh so dangerous activity...walking to the dinner table. Well, the boy was actually running (How many times do I have to tell these kids not to run in the house?). Yes, in all his rushed exuberance to eat a wholesome meal, the boy smashed his foot into the corner of the bookshelf. A moment later I heard the exclamation, "mom, I'm bleeding".

Blood always induces panic, and soon the other boys were jumping to see the level of gore and shouting reactions that quickly threw the injured boy into a panic. By the time I had walked across the room, I not only had an injury to deal with, but crowd control and full blown panic. (Really? Right before dinner?) I saw there was a quantity of blood issuing from between the boy's toes. I quickly grabbed a washcloth and applied pressure to the injury, then I looked up at all three boys and smiled, saying in the calmest, most confident mama voice I could manifest, "Everything is fine. Please take a deep breath and calm down. We are going to take care of this." Of course, at times like these my outward demeanor and the reality inside are completely different. Anytime one of my kids is injured all my mama fears rear their head. But in order to keep everyone calm, I've learned to quiet those thoughts and stay calm and reassuring.

After a moment I lifted the cloth to get a view of the injury. Somehow, the boy  had managed to slice his foot open between his baby toe and the next one. Blood immediately started to gush again. I asked my husband to get the cayenne powder from the kitchen. I placed a nice pinch of the powder into the wound and reapplied pressure to stop the bleeding. Then I turned my attention to my boy. He was shaking and he voice betrayed his panic. The damage of his brothers' reactions was done. I assured him that the injury was not that bad, that the blood would stop in moment and we would take care of it. Then I checked his foot. Although the baby toe was smashed up, it was not broken. Also, there was no noticeable nerve damage. I felt confident that we could deal with this injury without a trip to the hospital. Once the bleeding stopped, we went into the bathroom and ran water over the wound to clean it out. I also pour some hydrogen peroxide over it. It soon began bleeding again and my boy's panic started to escalate. I packed the wound with more cayenne, used a butterfly bandage to close the fleshed and wrapped gauze around his foot, taping it in place. Then, I took my boy into the living room and sat him down. I gave him flower essences for trauma and stress, and put a washcloth soaked in diluted lavender essential oil on his forehead. By this time he was shaking uncontrollably. I spoke to him soothingly about how he had a fright, but he would be OK. He needed to try to relax and take some deep breathes. Soon the shaking stopped and he was able to talk normally. Half an hour later, we even managed to eat dinner. The crisis was handled, but that injury needed daily attention in order to heal properly.

Now, the biggest concern with an open wound like this is to keep out infection until the wound is closed. That becomes even more tricky with a foot injury. For the first week, my boy was still very squeamish about his injury and not wanting me to touch it too much. We washed it once a day, changed the bandage, and applied some topical herbs, usually in the form of a diluted yarrow tincture (anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and to promote healing). Then I generally left it alone. After about a week though, I wasn't happy with the progress. While one side of the wound seemed to be healing nicely, the other side (going down between the toes) was not knitting together as fast, and even appeared a bit inflamed. This side was also extremely tender. At this point I had a serious talk with the boy. I told him we had to be more vigilant with taking care of this injury. He started to hem and haw, so I laid it out for him…it's either you help me do what we need to do, or we go to the doctor. Now I had his compliance.

So we started doing soaks twice a day. For wounds like this, I have found that nothing beats an herbal soak. The warm water really helps to open the pores and allow the herbs to get deep into the wound and tissue to do their stuff. Here is the way I made his soaks…

Since I usually have quite a large supply of dried herbs in the pantry, I always try to use what I have on hand. I wanted herbs that were strongly anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and promoted healing (but not too much…no comfrey, which may promote cell regeneration too quickly and seal in any infection present). I settled on a combination of oregon grape root (disinfectant and anti-bacterial), yerba mansa (anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory), yarrow (anti-inflammatory and anti-septic), calendula (promotes healing, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic), and chaparral leaf (strongly anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory). I could have used any number of other herbs, but these were present in the pantry and seemed also to call out to me as I pondered what to use. (Never ignore the voices of the herbs themselves)

To make the strong tea for soaking, I filled a small glass pot with water, brought it to a simmer on the stove, and added a small handful of oregon grape root and a pinch of yerba mansa. I simmered this for 10 minutes, then strained the tea and added it to a mason jar into which I had placed a small handful of yarrow leaves and flowers, a small handful of calendula flowers, and a pinch of chaparral leaves. I added more hot water to bring the water level up to a quart. Then I put a lid on the jar and let is all steep until the temperature had come down to a comfortable level for soaking (still warm, but not hot enough to burn…comfortable) After a bit of experimenting, we discovered that the best vessel for foot soaking, at least for a small foot, is a bread pan. I left the butterfly on, but removed all other bandages and had my boys soak in this concoction for at least 30 minutes morning and evening, making the tea fresh each time.

Within only a couple days of this treatment, there was noticeable improvement. The wound was no longer tender, inflammation was gone, and we could see signs of healing. We kept this protocol up faithfully for a full two weeks, noticing improvement every day. After the first week there was a nice scab formed over the entire wound, protecting it from bacteria and debris. Once the scab was formed, I added comfrey root to the simmering herbs to speed up the healing. We continued with the soaks and one day the scab fell off, revealing a beautiful new layer of skin over the wound. Yay!

Now, I offer this story as an example and encouragement on the path of the healing plants. But I must also say that if I didn't feel qualified to treat this wound, I would not have attempted it. I have studied herbal treatments for first aid and I also have experience working with herbs to treat minor wounds. I knew the injury was not serious beyond my level of competence, or I would have turned to professional medical help. However, as the vast majority of healing issues we experience around here are minor, I am more often than not able to handle them myself. It is empowering for me, as a mother, but also for my children, to see that for most things, we can take care of ourselves (with the help of the healing plants, of course).

I also apologize for the lack of photos in this post. It pains me to have such a wordy post without the intermittent photos. While I do pride myself in my ability to remain calm and composed while examining a bit of gory flesh, I don't particularly like looking a photographs of open wounds. When I see them posted on other sites, I have the tendency to quickly scroll down so they are out of view. Therefore, I have no photos of the lovely open wound for you, only the beautiful healed area with newly grown skin. Forgive me.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Thoughts on Despair and Hope

saw tooth oak
It's February. Every February is a bit of a challenge for me…the last month of winter, and often the coldest. I long for the warm sunshine on my skin, for gentle breezes, for fresh greens in the garden, for the buzz of insects. I long to open the windows again, to fall asleep to the sound of peepers and creek gurgle, and awake to the raucous chorus of birdsong. February is often the hardest month because we know that very soon now things will begin to change swiftly. Already there are stirrings…sap rising in the trees, buds swelling, bulbs beginning to push their greens up through the soil. I become excited at the first hint of yellow in the emerging witch hazel blooms…but then comes more snow and more freeze.

witch hazel

When I was a teenager I would often decide at this point to just act as though spring were here. I would go to school in shorts and a tee shirt. I got a lot of weird looks, but I do remember a dear art teacher commenting, "April, you are like a breath of fresh air". That made me smile. Maybe those early signs of spring from the garden are there for our spirits as much as anything else…little signs of hope from Mother Nature to say, "don't despair, spring is coming". 


I'm grateful for them, all those little signs of hope, because not despairing gets more difficult every winter. In the summertime it is easy. The garden is full of life and activity. There is so much to do and marvel at that little attention is spared for the larger view. In the wintertime though, when we are closed up indoors in our quietude, my attention wanders to goings on beyond my little protected earthspace. What I see scares the crap out of me. Our rainforests and boreal forests being destroyed, our water polluted, oil spills weekly, the oceans in terrible states…How can we continue to do this to the earth?

Years ago, when I first began this garden on this little piece of land, it was with the belief that no matter where we found ourselves, we could start to make things better. By working in a respectful and loving way with Nature and Mama Earth, we could start the healing process, begin to mend the wounds of the land, begin to heal the rift between humans and Nature. Through gardening, and I'm not just talking about planting a vegetable patch, but tending a garden that becomes our home, one that cares for us because we care for it, a garden of co-creation and interdependence, though this practice we could begin to find our way back to the way of life we were meant to live on this planet.

Every year brought me more hope as I witnessed life returning to this small patch of earth. Barren pastureland became a butterfly meadow, full of wildflowers. Trees and shrubs invited more and more birds. Building the soil every year filled the earth with life and held the water. Just being in the garden, so full of life, filled the heart with joy. Making medicine and meals from our harvests satisfied more than our bellies. I wondered at the reason for folks actually preferring a lawn of mowed grass over this.

Sometimes I have to ask myself, what is the value really of trying to restore a balanced relationship with the land on less than two acres, surrounded by fields of mono crop corn and soybeans. But I know I'm not the only one trying to find their way back. The world is dotted with individuals and families, communities even, who are trying to find a different way to live, one based on reciprocity for the gifts of the earth, that doesn't take anything for granted. The question is, are we enough? Is this work happening fast enough? Because the machine of industry is eating up what they call resources, and what I call Life so fast I shudder to think what will be left when my grandchildren are born.

asian pear buds
But I can't lose hope, because Nature never does. She keeps on patching things up the best she can, with weeds coming up to repair the deadpan, and bacteria proliferating to eat up the toxins. Like a good mother, she never gives up. And so I take my cue from the great Mother. This spring I will continue to plant my seeds and offer thanks for the life surrounding me. But I will also continue to sign the petitions, to state that I do not consent to taking more than we need and give nothing back. It's time we took a hard look at what the destruction our way of life in the modern age has wrought on the earth, and ask if we truly consent to this…for what? For cheep plastic crap, denatured food and a lifestyle full of emptiness because it is cut off from the natural world?

monarda flower head
The architecture of Nature in the dead of winter holds more beauty and inspiration for me than anything I could buy in Walmart. What can each of us do? We can plant a garden, anywhere we can, and then let it teach us (oh, the garden has so much to teach). I wonder, can we slow down enough, quiet down enough, to listen to Life? I hope so. Can you hear her? The Earth is calling us home.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Things I love to hear folks say after my classes...

photo by Lisa DeNardo

When I was 20 years young and still very inexperienced at living on my own, I came down with something very nasty. I felt like I was going to die, and it scared the crap out of me. I didn't know what to do. My first instinct was to call mom. It seemed the most natural thing to do. After all, she had taken care of three kids through countless health issues. Surely she would know. I don't know what I expected, maybe some sound advice about resting and eating and then comforting words about how everything will be all right. What she said, however, was "well, go to the doctor". 

I took her advice and did go to the doctor. I don't remember much of it now. I was probably given an antibiotic (which was probably useless for my cold or flu) and sent back home. But what I do remember is the feeling of helplessness. I didn't like the fact that I didn't know how to take care of myself when I was sick. But it was even more unsettling that my mother couldn't help me either. I can't blame her of course. She, like so many others of her generation, was a product of the "better living through chemistry" era. The relied upon home remedies of a couple generations ago had been eschewed, to be replaced by the pharmaceutical wonder drugs that promised to eradicate all disease. What was lost, along with the old knowledge of traditional healing ways, was a sense of self empowerment in our ability to take care of very basic health issues on our own.

I think that experience was the first time I felt that loss. I could not, at that time, articulate this sense of loss, because I didn't really have any experience of having a traditional healing system to draw upon. It was more like an ancestral memory, a sort of deep knowing that things used to be different, that there was a time when calling mom for help with healing was the most natural thing to do, that mothers were healers, and the fact that that was no longer true was something to be deeply concerned about. 

This felt sense, that something was amiss, has led me in countless ways along my journey. And when I eventually came to study the healing plants, I had the sense that a piece of the puzzle was found. What could be more empowering then relying on the plants growing around us to keep us healthy and soothe our ills and discomforts. The knowledge of how to use these plants lifted me out of my fear to a place of empowerment. And as I began to use these healing plants, my confidence grew, and my doctor's visits decreased. When I started having children of my own, I was able to take care of the inevitable and constant minor boo boos and health issues that came up. What an amazing feeling. 

This is the feeling I try to put forth in my class…that sense that herbal medicine is incredibly empowering. Yes, we still need health care practitioners to help us in many situations, but there is quite a lot we can handle on our own, if we know how and have the allies to help us. Even then, when you have the information and the herbs on hand, it can be frightening to take that leap, to trust yourself instead of an "authority figure". At that point, we are standing at the precipice of reclaiming our power. (Do we dare?) 

And so, when folks come back to me and describe how they have handled a challenge on their own, where they otherwise would have run to the doctor, that is when my heart soars. In the telling of these stories there is at first an element of fear, of uncertainty. They are not quite sure they can do this. Maybe they give themselves a time frame (If I don't start to feel better by tomorrow, I'll go to the doctor). They feel a little safer, so they try. When they start to feel better, their confidence is boosted, so they continue.  Now they are noticing a big difference. Maybe this is the first time they have even been so bold. When they are well again, the magic happens. They are empowered, and they are on fire. They can't wait to tell me. I never get tired of hearing these stories.

But even with the satisfaction of empowering other people to reclaim the herbal tradition, I will always be most grateful for having reclaimed it myself, for my own children. Recently my eight-year-old son developed a mild fever. This usually energetic and boisterous boy was tired and not feeling well. He spent the day resting on the couch, drinking lots of herbal teas while I took care of him. After a good night's sleep the fever was gone and he was nearly back to normal. At dinner that evening I thanked him for allowing his body to rest and drinking his tea so that he could get well quickly. He smiled and said, "yeah, I'm glad I have an herbalist for a mom". Oh my heart! With those words I knew I had healed my own sense of loss from all those years ago. My children knew they could look to their mother for that sense of comfort and healing. And I hope that one day they will provide the same sense of comfort to their own children. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Inspiration on the Path of Herbalism

"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I've always been drawn to the weeds and the wilderness, as Hopkins puts it. But then, to most young children, there is no distinction between weeds and wilderness. For a child recognizes the wild in all it's forms, from the large and impending wood lot at the end of the lane, to the dandelions bursting through a crack of asphalt in the parking lot. All is Nature in it's indescribable, but wholly palpable (to a child) form. The wild doesn't ask for permission, doesn't recognize rules, isn't proper, doesn't grow in rows, doesn't respect construction. In other words, the wild hasn't been tamed, obviously. But I think that is why it is so easily seen by children. Children, who have not yet been fully trained in the ways of society, i.e. tamed, find a delight in the wilds wherever they find it. But the more we grow, the more the adults try to school us in the ways of the world, the more we lose this connection, this ability to see the intelligence in the wild things around us, and the more we lose a sense of kinship with them.

I'm thinking about all this because recently another herbalist, in helping me find inspiration for a blog post, suggested the question, "What kind of herbalist are you?" In pondering this, I began to think about what I love about working with the plants, and then about what attracted me to this path in the first place, and then to that initial spark that first called my attention back to the wild things after many years of disconnection, and how magical that was for me. And then I realized that that spark that woke me up, that grabbed my attention years ago and reawakened in me a thing that had been asleep since childhood, that spark is what keeps me on this path, and what drives me to work in the way that I do. Sometimes in our lives we have moments of crystallization, when something breaks through our consciousness and suddenly we get it, that is we get something. And even though we can't really articulate to our fellow humans around us what it is that we suddenly "get", we are changed in that moment, and able to see things we previously could not. This is how it was for me when, in my early 20's, I saw the wild all around me as an ever presence benevolent force that I was somehow a part of. And in that realization, the flood of childhood memories of a time where this knowing was just a part of who I was, who we all are before we are taught otherwise, came rushing in.

For me, this awakening was sparked by the weeds. I had been studying medicinal herbs (that's a very technical and society-approved term for wild plants that can help us heal) and at some point it began to dawn on me that many of the offending things that we call "weeds" and love to complain about and pull (even if we throw our back out) and spray with poison that makes our children sick and really have  downright declared war against because we loath them so, many of these plants could also be called medicinal herbs. What? 

I started to look at my back yard differently. I started to wonder what was really going on there. And I started to question that weird distinction our culture seems to have made so long ago between the wild and the civilized. I started to wonder, as I hiked through the preserved patches of forests outside of town, why we separate ourselves from the wild (or try to), with us over here, and the "preserve" over there. Over the years I've come to understand that, whatever the reason for the initial separation, the result is a whole society of humans who are so disconnected from the Nature they are a part of, they have no problem at all in destroying it. There is no remorse in  chopping down trees or poisoning rivers. We've gotten quite good at it. But for those who have that connection intact, these acts are traumatic to witness.

When my oldest son was five years old, the road crews were trimming the trees along the power lines on our road. When they got to our house, they began to trim some of the limbs on the big silver maple by our driveway. My son began screaming and crying. I could not calm him down and he became so enrages he started throwing sticks at the crew. I picked him up and brought him inside, where I listened to his pain. They had not asked permission before they started cutting that living tree that he had known all his life, that he still recognized a kinship with. I held him and we cried together. I tried to explain to him that they meant no harm and were only trimming branches away from the wires, but in my heart I knew my son was right. The problem was not the tree, but the fact that to those workers the tree was just a thing to be trimmed, they had lost that connection.

And so this is why I work with the plants. It is a way for me to work every day to rekindle that connection, for me to try to preserve it in my children, and to try, in any way I can, to rekindle it in those around me. This is why I chose to teach (instead of say, become a clinical herbalist), and why I teach outside, in the garden, with the living plants. I want to inspire that awakening in people, I want to open their eyes and their hearts to the wonder that exists right in their back yards, in the cracks in the pavement. I want them to taste calamus root, to feel mullein, to smell meadowsweet, and to see the patterns and geometries of these incredible plants. And then, I want them to begin to shift their perception about their relationship to this green world. It may sound like a grand goal, but when someone suddenly understands the value of dandelion and plantain in their lives, when they can become grateful for their gifts, the shift has begun. 

And when I get ladies coming back to my classes and relating stories about telling their husbands not to mow over there, or weed over here, my heart is happy. Yes, I want to help folks with their eczema and digestive issues, but healing that disconnect is where my real passion dwells. It is what drives me and keeps me on this path. It is what inspires me. 
I love it.

And once one begins to accept the possibility that those "weeds" growing around us might not be all that bad, well maybe that will open the door to connecting with Nature at large, perhaps even beginning to heal our kinship with her. Well, we've got to start somewhere.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Now Accepting Sign-Ups for 2014 Herbal Medicine Shares!

2014 Summer Herbal Medicine Shares!!!

Five months of herbal medicine, May through September

As the garden begins to awaken and the wild greens start to burst from the ground, my thoughts are turning once again to a new season of herbal medicine making. Every year brings new inspirations along with old tried and true recipes. Each growing season I offer an herbal medicine subscription program during the growing season. Each month will feature handcrafted herbal products made with local, chemical-free plants which I grow and wildcraft myself. I believe that the quality of these products is a direct result of working with vibrant, fresh healing herbs, along with my love and respect for the gifts of the green world. Knowledge, experience, creativity and gratitude come together to form unique and nourishing products that preserve the vitality of the plants. I am honored to do this work and share this medicine with my community. 

Each pick-up will include three handcrafted herbal products for first aid or daily use and will be accompanied by an informative e-mail about the products and how to use them.

Folks who come out to pick up their shares will also have the option of taking fresh cut herbs home with them as well.
    Just like a vegetable CSA, the exact contents of your share will depend on the season and what grows well this year. Last year's shares included many products I hope to make again, including...
    • healing salve
    • burn salve
    • skin creams
    • lip balms
    • healing oils
    • relaxing teas
    • wellness elixirs
    • herbal tea blends
    • ...and many others.

    By the end of the season your herbal medicine cabinet will be stocked with lovely handcrafted, locally grown, ethically wildcrafted and chemical-free herbal products.  But...I'm only accepting 20 shares per season. 

    This year's summer herbal medicine share will start in May and run through September. That's five months of herbal goodies to look forward to.

    The cost for the season is...
    $200 per share ($230 with shipping option)

    Each share will be available for pick up the first week of each month.
    Folks can arrange a date and time to come out and pick up their shares.
    I will ship orders out the first Monday of each month.

    Folks in Delaware will be able to pick up their shares this year at a location in the Wilmington area.

    Sign up by e-mailing me at 

    I look forward to making medicine for you this season, and sharing the gifts of the healing plants.