Saturday, June 30, 2012

Herbal Medicine, People's Medicine...Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm is the quintessential people's medicine. It is easy to grow, found in many gardens, familiar to many, mild enough for children and babies, yet effective medicine, and owns a rich history as a valued medicine. Yet for all this, I have found that it's uses have been greatly forgotten, and even gardeners who grow lemon balm and know what she is, do not use her at all. How could we have forgotten the value of this plant, grown in Thomas Jefferson's garden, brought to America by colonists as an indispensable medicine, referred to by Paracelsus as "the elixir of life", and used by the ancient Greeks and Turks long ago? For me, lemon balm is the herb of summer, and I probably visit the melissa patch more than any other herb on these hot summer days.

Melissa officinalis is the scientific name for lemon balm. "Melissa" refers to the greek word for honey bee. Nowadays, lemon balm is also commonly called melissa, which I like, because it sounds more like the friend she has become for me. She was named after the honey bee because she is a powerful honey bee attractor. Lemon balm was often planted around bee hives to keep the bees happy.

Melissa was introduced to Europe in the 10th century from Arabia, where she has been used since ancient times. In the medieval literature, melissa is referred to as "herbe melisse", "bawme", or just "balm". It was first valued by monks in their apothecary gardens, where it was used for dressing wounds and as a tonic for good health. Later, lemon balm became popular for cooking, medicine, and especially as a fragrance to cover foul odor.

Lemon balm is a mint, with the characteristic square stem and opposite leaves. Like most mints, it is very aromatic. Melissa's lemony scent is hard to resist, and I often reach down to grab a sprig as I walk by the patch in the garden just to enjoy it's delicious scent for a moment. The essential oils in melissa responsible for this lovely scent have also been used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia and headaches, so inhaling is highly beneficial. The whole plant is relaxing, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-depressant. It soothes and calm the digestive system and lowers an overheated body temperature. Melissa has also been found to be an effective treatment for herpes and shingles. But more than anything, I love melissa as a cooling summer tea. I often combine it with other yummy herbs, but really there is no need, for lemon balm makes a simple, pleasant and cooling tea all on its own.

I gather the young tops of the plants. Continually harvesting the plants in this way stalls their flowering and keeps them lush and tender. Chopping them up exposes more surface area to the water and makes for a stronger tea.

 I add the chopped herbs to a mason jar, filling it about a quarter full. (When making tea with fresh herbs, you need to use much more than you would with dried herbs because they are not as concentrated.)

I then fill the jar with near boiling water and allow it to steep for at least 20 minutes, but I often leave it for a few hours before straining.

Alternatively, you could use unheated water, and place the jar in the sun to steep for most of the day.

After straining I add a few drops of stevia for sweetening, then place the tea in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, we enjoy a delicious, cooling, and uplifting summer drink that has the added benefit of keeping us healthy.

What more could we ask for?
Lemon balm fell out of favor as a medicinal with the arrival of powerful drugs. This gentle tonic was just too mild mannered to compete with flashy magic bullets. But as we learn more about the value of a strong constitution to maintain health, perhaps there is value in returning to the old, gentle and effective herbs that have sustained us throughout history. Melissa, plant of the honey bee, famed for offering the gift of long life, is truly a people's medicine, growing patiently in our gardens, waiting for us to remember her gifts and partake of her health giving properties once again.

Do you use lemon balm? If you do, leave a comment about your favorite way to use her, if not, give her a try.

Happy medicine making!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Additional Classes for 2012

Update...Wow, after only two days both of these classes are full. Stay tuned for a possible second wild edibles class in August. 

Edible Wild Plants
Friday, July 20th
10am to 12pm

Come out and learn to identify the edible wild plants growing in your yard and fields. Many of the plants we trample under foot can be added to our salads, smoothies or even our stir fries. The wild edibles are full of nutrition and free for the taking. If we have time, we may even look at some of the common medicinal weeds as well.

This class is geared toward adults and older children (10 and older), but younger children are welcome to attend and can play on our playset if they get bored.

Cost: $15 for adults, $5 for young people (10 and up), no charge for children under 10.

Children's Herbal Storytelling
Friday, August 3rd
10am to 11am 

Herbs have infused the lives of people from all cultures of the world throughout human history. As a result, many of these plants have had legends, myths and fanciful tales woven about them through the ages. We will get to know a handful of the useful plants and hear some of the strange and wonderful stories told about them.

This class is geared toward young children, ages 5 to 9, but parents can decide if their children would be interested.

Cost: $5 per child

To register for any of the above classes, send me an e-mail at

Monday, June 25, 2012

Iced Pink Tea

On my way to a birthday party recently I threw together an herbal tea to bring along, and it has quickly become a favorite around here. It is yummy, sweet, nourishing and...pretty. Now I am making it as a sun tea, every day, because the season only lasts so long, and some of these herbs are just best fresh.

So here is the recipe...pick a heavy handful of fresh lemon balm, a few sprigs of spearmint, some borage leaves and flowers, a handful of monarda leaves, and lots of the pink monarda flowers. Chop them all up and place in a large clear jar. Fill the jar with water and place it in the sun for the day. The water will turn a deep amber color. Now it is time to strain the tea. After straining, I pick another handful of monarda flowers and add them to the tea. At this point I sweeten it with just a little bit of stevia, but it is great even without it. Then store in the refrigerator for the night.

The next day enjoy a yummy and beautifully sweet and refreshing pink tea. So refreshing, cooling, and uplifting. And a hit with the kiddos too...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Identifying Elder

Today as I wandered out in the garden I came upon our herbal class gathering place. The chairs are empty now, but yesterday they were full of many lovely folks enthusiastically increasing their knowledge of and familiarity with the healing plants. There were so many questions in yesterday's class, and I didn't have answers for all of them. But that is one of the reasons I love these classes, I am always inspired to keep learning myself.

We spent some time talking about elder, and I've written about the wonderful healing properties of this plant in the past, but I hadn't really talked about how to identify it. Elder is blooming now, so this is a great time to be on the look out for this native shrub. It would be much more abundant in our area if modern folks didn't feel the necessity to mow just about everything, leaving neither hedgerow nor riparian buffer. But if you do find some wild places near you, especially near water, it is possible to find elder in bloom. Here is what to look for...

The flowers are small and white in clusters (umbels). There were questions about what family elder is from yesterday and I could not remember at the time. Elder is a member of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoiaceae).

Each flower has 5 petals, looking like little stars.

When the berries begin to form, and some are forming now, the flower stems begin to turn purple. By the time the berries are ripe, the stems will be bright purple and very pretty.

The leaves are compound and have an opposite branching structure.

Each leaf has between 5 and 11 leaflets. (Although it is mainly the berries and flowers that I use medicinally, the leaves can be used externally as a poultice for bleeding, bruises, eczema and other skin conditions.)

Cutting through one of the branches, a pithy center (like styrofoam) can be observed.

The most common species of elder in this area is Sambucus canadensis. It's dark berries have been used through the ages for food and medicine. Although the berries can be eaten raw in small amounts, the seeds contain cyanide, which can cause nausea and diarrhea if eaten in large amounts. Cooking destroys the cyanide, and elder have long been cooked into pies and jams and syrups. The species with red berries contain higher concentrations of cyanide and are considered toxic. But please don't let this scare you away from the good medicine of elder. Remember that apple seeds also contain cyanide, but we don't avoid eating apples. The flowers contain no cyanide and can be eaten as fritters and such, though I prefer to dry them for tea.

Consuming the roots, leaves and bark in any form is not recommended due to the concentration of cyanide in these parts. The hollowed stems have been used traditionally to make flutes, but even these are toxic to blow on until they are dried.

I hope this helps folks feel more confident about gathering wild elder medicine this season. It is such a gift to bring in those immune boosting berries and make some good medicine. It connects us to the earth, empowers us, and sustains us. Elder has always been here, waiting for us to remember her, and once again accept her gifts of herbal wellness.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Not Going to Market After All...

The quality of our presence with our children is central to the quality of our relationship with them.
~Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

This has been a very difficult week for me. I had been looking forward to my first market stand and really wanting to do a good job. But increasingly my days have been becoming more and more stressful as the I tried to push through a seeming wall of inertia in order to get everything ready. I started to feel sick to my stomach as tensions mounted with my children. Finally, I stopped to take an honest look at what effect this was having on my relationship with my children.

When I decided to stay home with my children before my first son was born I made the commitment to put my kids first and to be present for them while they were young. Lately, I have not been able to cultivate the level of presence I feel they deserve, as my mind has been so focused on making products. Their need for my presence, however, has not diminished, and so the balance of our lives together has suffered. After a really awful day, I had to admit that this could not go on. I made the decision to drop out of the market.

I apologize to anyone who was planning to visit my table, but I have to put my family first. I will still have some herbal products for sale at my classes, and of course the CSM members will still have two more herbal pick ups, but letting go of the market has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders, freeing me to be more present and mindful with these guys...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Poison Ivy Medicine...for the market

This Saturday is my first day at the New Garden Grower's Market. I'll be there there every second and fourth Saturday through the summer with lots of handmade herbal goodies. This week I'll be posting about some of the handcrafts you'll see this week if you come out...

Poison ivy is a very personal topic for me. I suffered horribly from it as a child and young adult. In fact, poison ivy sent me to the doctor's more than any other affliction. These days I don't tend to get such awful reactions to this plant, mainly because I can now identify it and avoid it. But I also know how to treat it right from the beginning to keep the rash from getting out of hand.

Now that my children are running in the fields and woods, and sometimes right through the poison ivy (even though they do know how to identify it), I am grateful to have remedies to offer them relief.

My poison ivy lotion is an infusion of jewelweed (infamous in poison ivy treatment), plantain and virginia creeper in witch hazel. This is great to use soon after exposure and around delicate areas, like eyes. For the poison ivy poultice I added green clay and peppermint essential oil to the lotion. This creamy poultice is great after a rash has developed. The peppermint helps take away the itch, while the clay and herbs help to dry out the irritating oils.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Herbal Dream Pillows...for market

This Saturday is my first day at the New Garden Grower's Market. I'll be there there every second and fourth Saturday through the summer with lots of handmade herbal goodies. This week I'll be posting about some of the handcrafts you'll see this week if you come out, starting with some herbal dream pillows...

I made my first dream pillow filled with mugwort about twelve years ago, and I was amazed at how much more vivid my dreams became. These pillows contain lots of dried mugwort for dreamscaping, and also chamomile, lavender and a few drops of lavender essential oil, making them nicely fragrant and relaxing as well.

The outer pillow case is removable and washable. The inner herb pillow cannot be washed, but will remain potent for about a year. Next season, folks can contact me for replacement herb pillows to use for their case (or try making one themselves).

These pillows were a pleasure to make, but I had a little help...

Rainer was fascinated by the idea of a dream pillow, and asked me to make him one first, then he helped me make the others. He loves the lavender smell and has been telling me about his dreams this week. Last night's involved riding dolphins across the ocean.

Herbal dream pillows are great for adults and older children, but should not be used for babies and very young children, who may be frightened by the vividness of the dreams.