Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Herbal Medicine/People's Medicine--St. John's Wort

For my first post in the herbal medicine/people's medicine series, I wanted to write about an herb that has long been in my life, but only recently become one of the primary remedies I depend upon. I first became acquainted with St. John's Wort many years ago when I was buying herbs for a natural health food store. Back then this plant was very popular for it's use in treating depression. I think it got so much coverage for this one use, that it became pigeon-holes as a sort of one-use herb, and it's many other gifts received very little attention. This herb is an incredible nervous system tonic and certainly has been long used to treat anxiety and depression, but it is much more than that. It took me years to discover that St. John's wort is a powerful healing plant on many level.

St. John's Wort is a wound healing plant. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, pain-relieving, and relaxing. It is useful in treating muscle aches, swollen joints, stiff necks, sciatica, neuralgia, rheumatism, arthritis, chicken pox, shingles, and sunburn. With all this, it is definitely a plant worth knowing. So when I first moved out to the countryside and discovered St. John's Wort growing freely in the hedgerows around our house, I began harvesting it for medicine making.

Yellow St. John's Wort among other newly harvested herbs

I do dry some of this herb for use as infusions, but I have really come to depend on the healing qualities of the oil for daily use in my family. To make the oil, I let the freshly harvested flowering tops wilt for an hour of two. This decreases the water content and decreases the chance that the oil will mold. Then I coarsely chop the plant and fill a mason jar almost to the top. I then cover the herb with organic olive oil and stir with a chopstick to release and air bubbles. After capping the jar, I place it in a sunny spot in the garden, bringing it in at night and when rain is expected. After two weeks in the sun, I strain out the oil, bottle it, and store it in the pantry. The result is a beautiful red medicinal oil that is never too long between uses.

  Herbal oils steeping in the sunshine (St. John's Wort is third from left)

What do I use this exceptional oil for? Oh, mostly normal, everyday complaints. Things like bruises, muscle aches, inflammation, cold sores and pain. But what makes it a stand-by in our home is how very effect it is for soothing growing pains. My first son never had them. But my second son gets them periodically in the middle of the night. He wakes and complains his legs hurt. At first I would just massage his legs, which provided some relief, but not enough for his to get back to sleep very quickly. When I thought of using the St. John's oil, though, the relief was very quick. I keep a small bottle of the oil in the bedroom for these night wakings, and it always sends him back to sleep very quickly. St. John's Wort's pain-relieving quality combined with it's relaxing ability make this an excellent remedy for treating growing pains. And any plant that can relieve my children's pain and get them back to sleep at night will always be a highly valued ally for me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Herbal Medicine/People's Medicine

"Herbal medicine is people's medicine, a gift from Mama Earth to us."

The above quote by Susun Weed sums up for me what is so wonderful and magical about herbal medicine. Herbal medicine has always been the people's medicine. It is the oldest form of medicine, and still the primary form of medicine in many parts of the world. However, most people in the industrial world have forgotten how to use herbs for their own health. We have lost that sacred relationship with the green medicine in much the same way we have lost our relationship with the earth itself.

Black walnuts

When I first discovered the healing power of herbs it was an awakening. I had grown up with the regular use of pharmaceuticals, and wild plants were not welcome in our yard. My step father all but declared war on the weeds, using concrete and herbicides to try to eliminate them. Such powerful plants are not easily defeated though. And many have truly marvelous gifts to share, if only we look upon them as allies, and not enemies.

Even as a child, though, I have been drawn to nature, and to the wild plants especially. I remember being entranced by the beauty of Queen Anne's Lace while waiting for the bus to school (not know the name of the plant, of course, or that it was in fact related to the carrots we ate at dinner). When I moved out on my own, it was not long before I had a nice little garden of flowers and vegetables. But it wasn't until I found myself working in a natural foods co-op in my early 20's that my eyes were opened to the healing power of herbs. I think it was because I was so completely oblivious to it, that it was such a revelation to me. "Are you telling me," I wanted to say, " that the weeds growing outside my door, the ones my step-dad  would always be spraying poison on, are actually healing?" Amazing. Why didn't everyone know about this?

Well, that is another story for perhaps another post. The point is, we lost something incredibly powerful when we lost our connection to the healing plants. We lost a bit more of our self-reliance and our connection to the natural world. Since that great awakening, I have studied herbal medicine both formally and informally for nearly 15 years. I have grown herbs, wildcrafted them, make my own medicines, and have come to rely on them for my family's well being. I know how to identify medicinal herbs in the wild, and so I am able to use these medicines for free. This knowledge has empowered me to be less reliant on consumer medicine, and more importantly, it has allowed me to show my children that we can take care of ourselves.

Rainer and Alden grinding dried herbs for storage

 What could be more simple and beautiful than harvesting our medicine from the earth? Using this hand harvested, handmade medicine has become so ubiquitous in my life that I hardly notice it anymore. Like cooking dinner with fresh vegetables, using herbal medicine is just a natural part of our lives. This is the way it used to be, the way it could be again, if we just take back that knowledge, the relationship with the plants. You don't have to be a professional herbalist to welcome them into your life. This was once common knowledge with nearly every family.

In the next series of posts, I plan to share with you some of the herbs and herbal medicines I have come to rely on in my daily life with my family. These are plants I would not do without, and many of them are easily found in the wild spaces around our homes. I invite you to get to know these herbs, as you see how they have become lovely friends for me and my family. And if you are an herbalist yourself, whether professional or not, please join me in sharing our most relied on herbal remedies. For only when we make it practical, are others truly inspired to bring the wild plants into their lives.

This series is called "People's Medicine".

So if you want to join in, just e-mail me a link to your post and I'll put all the links on my first post on Monday.

Happy Medicine Making.