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Patera has moved!

This blog has now merged with my new website: www.larkenbunce.com.

If you’d like to keep getting notifications when I occasionally post, go there to subscribe via email, as you did here.

I’ll keep posting about the garden and herbal geekery, but I’ll be posting about my photography, too. The new site is built for photographers–wait til you see the lovely galleries my images are displayed in. I have many hours yet of uploading and categorizing to do, but there’s a sampling already there for your perusal. In the future you can enjoy my plant adventures to Mexico, Hawai’i, England, New Mexico, Oregon, Arizona and Florida, each in their own album. Of course, Vermont meadows, gardens and forests will feature widely, as I am most smitten with my Green Mountains.

Image

foxglove on the Oregon coast

Thanks for being lovely readers–I hope you’ll make the move with me!

winter medicine

heaven

Yesterday was Imbolc, the day halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and officially the start of Spring on more seasonal, agrarian calendars, particularly those of my ancestors in the British Isles. In those more moderate climes, the snow drops are apt to be showing themselves and Imbolc brings with it a real promise of the unfurling once again of the fertile green cloak across the land. But, of course, in our Vermont climate, we are deeply ensconced in Winter still, and this day offers more of a symbolic glimpse towards the brightening and warming of these hills.

It’s been frigid here, 60 degrees below freezing within the past two weeks and then thawing and raining shortly after, only to freeze once again. And all the while it’s been mostly gray, clouding the spirits of most and obscuring the feeling of any sort of stirring or quickening of sap, seedling or inner inspiration, all of which are promised by Imbolc and its patron goddess, Brigid.

So, when I woke today to a blue sky and temperatures just at freezing, it seemed that perhaps Spring might come after all–that the thick, slow  ice flows of Winter might dislodge, that the light of the sun might be truly growing and kindling a small flame in the heart of the world.

As I padded downstairs, I was greeted immediately by our resident grouse outside my window, all puffed up to keep herself warm as she foraged for her daily ration of tree buds. I haven’t seen her in a couple of months, since the hard freeze, and I wondered where she’d dug her snow tunnel for safety and warmth. For a bit, she crouched under the hemlock outside the window and watched me, while I watched her, and then she scurried off. I decided she was giving me the “hard eye”–as my sweetie describes the look we give the cats when they’re misbehaving–admonishing me to get myself outside and into the woods.

So, I did. I found, of course, that there is much afoot, even under cover of snow and ice. I’m always in need of reminding that the cold and slow times are important preparation for the productivity and maturation of the Fire season. But, perhaps even more, I need a reminder that the simplicity and pared down nature of Winter makes space for a depth of reflection and quality of work that can’t be achieved at any other time. The modest, purposeful movements of the animals in search of food reminds me that only so much can be done in short days and only that which is necessary.

Simple realizations and small practices, like the tiny swollen tree buds, are the potent beginnings of the glories of Summer’s canopy, yes. But condensed inner and outer movements–such as dreaming and intention-setting, long naps and fire-tending–also hold their own value, solid ballast for the frenzied expansion and manifestation to come.

Here are a few of the images I collected today to remind myself of the need for “tending the buds”, treasuring the simple, the slow, the essential–my gifts from Winter.

the clear path

purpose

golden birch, a small flame in the forest

illumination

work around

imagination

sunlight capture

preservation

rest

rest

sturdy resolve

resolve

love

love

gathering seeds

Fall is the time to collect the seeds for sowing in the coming year. This includes the literal seeds of next year’s crops, as well as the kernels of wisdom gleaned from this past period of growth. We recognize what has served us well and what we can let go of. As we look toward the inward turn of Winter, we encounter darker, more contemplative days, and perhaps reflect on the things we value most, those things that sustain us in the leaner times. In many traditions, this time of falling leaves is also a time to honor our ancestors and acknowledge the unseen world around us. It is a time to recognize that the physical world is ephemeral and that all things in Nature will eventually wither and die.

People around the world use the smoke of burning herbs (i.e. as incense or smudge) to prepare a space for this sort of contemplation, as well as to honor and invite the sacred, in whatever way that takes shape. No matter our tradition, when we burn and inhale the smoke of leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, and resins of plants and trees, we can change our experience of the moment. We might use smoke to cleanse a space or affirm our intentions. We can use it to shift our mood, either to uplift or to relax, to focus or to achieve a dream state. Smoke can also be used to prevent the spread of respiratory infections in close quarters. In fact, incenses and strewing herbs were historically used to bring both a prayerful attitude and improve hygiene in the close quarters of worship.

mugwort harvest, summer

At the end of the gardening and wildcrafting season, one of the last things I do is collect herbs for burning. This is a great use for those plants no longer quite perfect enough for teas or tinctures, but still vibrant and aromatic and eager to be utilized. I especially like mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and other members of the Artemisia genus, like wormwood and sweet annie. These are cousins of desert sage, a familiar herb used as smudge in the Southwestern US. The namesake of these plants is the Greek goddess, Artemis. She was a moon goddess, encouraging connection to the darkness within, that same inner darkness that we retreat to for contemplation and reflection. Carrying a bow and arrows, she was also a keen huntress, using her skills to protect the forest and all of its creatures. She was said to be especially concerned with the health of young girls and birthing women. But, just as she protected and brought fertility and health to those in her care, she brought also illness and death. And so, she helped mediate the natural balance of light and dark, growth and decay.

mugwort in bud, July

As the green slips away from the Vermont hills and the animals gather food and find warm dens for a long rest, Artemis is at work. Now is a perfect time to use the plants that bear her name to help us do the work suited to the season. I often call on mugwort , wormwood or sweet annie, whether as smoke, tea or small doses of tincture, when someone is having a hard time choosing what to nurture and protect and what to let fall away. Mugwort is known for bringing more vivid dreams to sleep, but I also think of this plant when someone has trouble visualizing their life-dreams or might know what they desire, but can’t fight to make it happen. Here, Artemis lends the skills of an archer: one who can select a target and then defend the path to its realization. I have also found that when someone is challenged to take care of themselves, especially if they’ve been nourishing others at their own expense, mugwort can encourage self-preservation, so that tending others is a sustainable act.

finished bundles, ready for drying

To reap some of these gifts of the plants, try making your own burning bundle. Simply cut 6 to 12 inch branches of your favorite aromatic herbs. In addition to mugwort and her cousins, I love hyssop, lavender, rosemary and evergreens, like pine. Once I have a nice mix, I put the short branches together in bundles that fit easily in my fist. Be sure they are at least an inch in diameter, as these will burn best once dry. You’ll need embroidery thread, cotton string or any natural twine of your choice, a length about 4 times the length of your bundle. Wrap the base of the bundled fresh herbs using one end of the string, but leaving a 6 inch tail. Using the long end, spiral up the bundle, pulling the string nice and tight as you bind the herbs together. When you get to the top, wrap around a couple of times and then spiral back down the bundle to where you began. Now tie your two tails of string together. These bundles will dry nicely in a week or so and can then be burnt as you like. They take some time and attention to light,  but just keep blowing on the embers until the core burns on its own. Soon enough, you’ll have a steady flow of smoke to use for your intended purpose. When you are done burning the herbs, simply put the bundle out in a bowl of sand or soil and save for re-lighting later.

This is a wonderful way to bring the plants with you into the Winter, yet another way they offer themselves as allies and friends. May your dreams, both sleeping and awake, be rich and sweet.

Before we get into the season at Patera in earnest, my sweetheart and I took the opportunity to get away for a few days. This was called for, as I was in Hawaii less than a month ago, in perfect 80 degree weather for two weeks, only to return to rain and wind and gray skies. We had only a hint of crocus growth in our yard. I was having plant-withdrawal after the incredible verdancy of the big island’s non-stop flower show! So, since there wasn’t much yet to see here, and just a few early leaves in the medicine garden, we set off.

Hawaii's "wildflowers"

It was a brief jaunt South to Western Massachusetts, where we got to bask in the flush of Spring that they are already enjoying there. Actually, it was more like high Summer, with 95 degrees and serious need for sunscreen. We spent a day at Smith College’s conservatory and gardens, where I got to see some of my new semi-tropical friends (Monstera deliciosa, aka cutleaf philodendron, banana, many an orchid, and flowering citrus to knock your socks off).

semi-tropical house in Smith's conservatory

And, I got to swoon over the much-progressed flowering trees–the crab apples were already wafting their indescribable incense, leaving me craning my neck to find the source as we walked down every street. We are still a week or more away from such delights on my chilly, zone 4, ridge. We did return to a yard full of daffodils, though—a surprise after leaving them tightly wrapped in their buds. I had to make a big bouquet in the dark–even before getting all the luggage in. I’d purchased a sweet sea green pottery vase at a junk shop that was just begging to be filled…really, it was.

in the orchid house

I’ve been spending my spare time, as our own weather continues to warm, leafing through gardening books for inspiration as each day I stare down the large swath of black plastic that is the next bed to be built in our yard. The thing about gardening, as I’m realizing now that I own a home, is that it’s always happening in the future—a plan, a dream, a fantasy of how it will all one day be mesmerizingly, perfectly gorgeous. No matter how much is accomplished, always, there’s more and better to do. Of course, I also know that it will never be just as it looks in my mind’s eye, so I’m resolving this year to work on restraining my dreamer, just a little. I intend to enjoy each moment in the garden, just as it is now and keep the ghosts of flowering-crabs-future at bay.

serious rock garden swoon at Smith

After all, in both my home gardens and here, at Patera, I already have enormous beds with hundreds of plants awaiting their debut as the soil keeps warming. So, I’ll keep bringing my focus–and adoration—back to them. Weren’t they the object of my keen future desires just last Fall as I tucked them in with visions of their Spring emergence–clever color combination perfection and all that?

What do I do then, with my fidgety gardening self–with two weeks until our gardening apprentii arrive at Patera and only small leaves on most of my babies at home? Well, I’ve dug my gardener’s heart (and spade) firmly into right NOW—and yes it requires digging in! I’m working slowly around the perennials, cleaning up the grey fuzzy leaf-hats left on the lady’s mantle, trimming the rubbery leaves of overwintered yellow foxglove, clearing the dry maple litter from the tiny, crinkly, dark lemon balm leaves as they give up their sharp, lemon scent. I’m preening over the grape hyacinths  as they enlarge in their little bunches and take on their sweet-grape fragrance that pulls me to hands and knees daily. And yes, I’m thinking, just a little, about what delights I’ll eventually cook up with the nettles, who’ve sent up their tender shoots already (nettlekopita? nettle-potato soup w/chives? simple steamed nettle with balsamic vinegar and butter?). I figure that near-future planning is allowed in my be-here-now gardening resolution, right?

Yes, I’ll keep my mind on the present conundrums–how hard to prune the various Clematis species and whether the garden sages are worth saving this year after a hard die-back. Because, after all, no matter what the thermometer says on a given day, it’s not Summer just yet. In fact, there’s so much left of Spring still to savor. The ostrich fern fiddleheads–Vermont’s ubiquitous late Spring treat–are decidedly still tucked tightly into their spirals of papery fur. The tulips have barely begun to form buds. The peonies’ deep purple “hands” are still curled tightly against an errant chill. My wicked plots to kill my gout weed patch later this year are incomplete…oh, I mean…ahem…I have yet to enjoy the delights of each unfolding Spring moment quite as much as I’d like.

I am utterly smitten with baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)  for so many reasons, but the most significant is its unbelievable, otherworldly shade of indigo blue. When it first appears in the garden in late July, I jump about excitedly and preen over it with adoring eyes, but it’s really now, in late August, that the true heart-throbbing begins as the plants at Patera are covered in blooms that simply glow. The sky literally pales in comparison.

Perhaps you can see in the photos above the small maroonish “caps” on the calyxes which then swell in size once the flower is dropped, as in the bottom right photo. These caps appear on both our American skullcap and this Chinese skullcap, or huang qin as its also called, though the whole presentation of baikal skute is so much showier. I’ve read various accounts of the inspiration for skullcap’s name–the cap-like shape of the upper lip of the flower or this little cappish protuberance on the calyx. Honestly, the flower of the local skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) doesn’t have such a fancy hat shape, so I always wondered about the veracity of this. The rakish green calyx beret you see here seems a much better bet for inspiring namers!

the less showy caps and color of American skullcap

This little cap is very important to the signature of these plants, which I experience as powerfully calming the racing and anxious mind by “putting a lid on it”. Sometimes when we seem to be spinning out into the ethers with thoughts and emotions, skullcap gives us a little containment, cools us off, soothes the edges. American skullcap serves as an important foundation for clients with anxiety, panic attacks, mania, irritability, and bipolar disorder, not to mention Tourette syndrome and even seizures. It can’t be beat for relaxing folks into sleep, especially when tension is held in the body, as in restless leg syndrome, or simply for people who tend to be fidgety and tight. By promoting GABAnergic activity (GABA is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter), it reduces tension in body and mind.

Coming from the mint family, it’s no surprise that these scutellarias would be cooling and relaxing nervines, but what’s interesting to me is that they are used in some unique ways in their respective traditions. The yellow root of baikal skute is used, where we use the aerial parts of American skullcap. They both have a curious greenish flavor, slightly bitter, but American skullcap leaf tastes more characteristic of plants with iridoids in them (in this case catalpol), so it’s reminiscent of plantain or vervain. If you eat a baikal skullcap leaf (not the medicinally used part), it tastes incredibly sweet. I’ve asked Sarah if there is use of aerial parts in TCM, but it seems not. This is most curious, as it’s downright delicious (but obviously some important, and less tasty, chemistry is missing from the leaves).

As I mentioned, the primary use of American skullcap is as an anxiolytic, while the main uses of baikal skullcap are for inflammatory conditions, especially of the cardiovascular system, liver, and lungs. It’s also used for cancer, especially of the lungs. During the H1N1 scare, I recommended it to folks concerned about an excessive immune response damaging their lung tissue in the later phase of the flu, and it’s similarly useful in the hyperactivity seen in autoimmunity. I also often offer it in combination with reishi for asthma, especially related to allergies. In TCM, the heart and lungs inhabit the upper burning space (aka jiao), along with the mind (which includes the brain, but also our spirit and emotional selves). So, as a plant with affinity for the upper jiao, it follows that baikal skullcap is also used by Chinese herbalists to cool and calm the mind and spirit, echoing the common application of its North American cousin. However, this use of baikal skullcap is less common in Western herbal practice and receives far less attention from the research community.

bouquet of beauty medicine starring baikal skute, belamcanda, bee balm & blue vervain

In terms of chemistry, these plants share not only the iridoid catalpol, but also flavonoids, notably baicalin, scutellarin and wogonin. While present in differing concentrations in each plant, together these molecules give both plants their anxiolytic activities, and both should also possess anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer activities. What I find curious is that we Western herbalists don’t tend to use our skullcap as an anti-inflammatory in the way that Chinese herbalists employ theirs. Similarly, we don’t tend to use baikal skullcap as an anxiolytic. It seems we could be using both plants in broader applications. I’ve had good success with both inflammation and anxiety with baikal, so now I’m looking for opportunities to test out broader uses of American skullcap, too. (Since there’s not really a tradition of using it as an anti-inflammatory, this is definitely extrapolation, but I’m excited to see what might emerge.)

Baikal skute is a prolific perennial, blooming in its first year and ready to harvest as early as the fall of its second.  It’s incredibly easy to start from seed each year to ensure a continual presence and has no pest problems, like the evil beetle of skullcap death that ravages our local species. All it asks is full sun and good drainage, which it gets plenty of in its respiratory-oriented bed, tucked in with the blackberry lily, sage and lobelia volunteers. Even though our local skullcap is an absolute staple of my practice that I will never abandon, I admit to being wooed by the magical, brightly-hued stranger. Like a sighting of the elusive indigo bunting, its arrival in my garden has almost ruined me for less showy companions.

“The purple flowers are like schools of dolphin breaking through green waves in a summer sea.”

~ Richo Cech of Horizon Herb seed company, obviously feeling similarly enchanted

Headline: Blogger smothered by garden, revived by leopard lily and danshen

As bloggers go, it seems to me that gardeners make bad ones. I say this because I am an obsessive gardener with never enough time or sunny days on my hands–which is a hallmark of gardening, yes?–and so really it seems silly to imagine that in the height of summer one (meaning me) would have time to sit at a computer and chronicle the planty exploits. Add to that the fact that I’m teaching daily, seeing clients, tending a home garden, and one (meaning me) might begin to think they’re crazy to try. This would be true if I didn’t also love to write and to share the giddiness I feel when in the garden. The plants do interesting and surprising things all the time (albeit slowly) and if I don’t tell someone, my head might pop off.

cloudy August day in the garden after rain--see, look how lovely they all are!

So…this has lead me back to the keyboard for the express purpose of sharing some delightful new bits, even though there’s guilt about the extra-long hiatus between last year and this. Nothing to be done about it, however and the plants, as always, urge me to share their loveliness and magic with as many folks as possible–not to mention their great usefulness and willingness as allies in so many ways. And so, on this rainy day in August, deep into year 2 of the medicine garden, I begin again.

wonderful garden apprentice meticulously harvesting arnica (A. chamissonis) earlier this summer

This year’s crop of apprentii and I have been out of the garden for almost 2 weeks, which is entirely the wrong time to be away from it. First, it’s peaking in terms of gorgeousness and second, we need to be harvesting everything almost all of the time. (Calendula and chamomile would be so much more productive if only we were in there every 3 days or so.) But, the teaching schedule and other bits have kept us all away and when I returned there was a most incredible surprise: the belamcanda (aka Leopard lily, Belamcanda chinensis, really an iris) was in full bloom! This beauty lives in the lung-ish and mostly stimulating area of the garden and the Chinese use its rhizome to move phlegm stuck in the respiratory tract. This excites me because its cousin, Iris versicolor (a personal heart friend) is used by Western herbalists to move boggy lymph accumulations and to get bile flowing to improve fat digestion. Once we snoop in the pharmacological research we find they share some chemistry and so it makes sense that they both give the stagnant states of various tissues some encouragement to move along. Even though research into iris is far less progressed, we can understand it a little better through what we know about belamcanda. Love it when reductionist science gives us a peek into nature’s patterns.

leopardy foreground; horns in the background

This plant is extra special to me because I saved the fat beady black seeds 2 falls ago, cold stratified them in a little soil in a baggie in the freezer last spring, stuck them in the ground last May and they 1) came up; 2) overwintered despite doubt of hardiness in Z4; 3) multiplied this year and now 4) are in stunning orangey-red leopard spot bloom!

horn, up close and personal

Of course, this is all how it is supposed to work, but most gardeners know that supposed-to doesn’t always fly in the garden, so it’s a special treat when all goes according to plan. Look at these twisty unicorn horns that the flowers turn into when they go by–almost better than when they’re open. Almost.

danshen's fat flowers and purple-streaked calyxes

Staying on the theme of plants from the Chinese materia medica that we’re getting to know in person, the red root sage, aka danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza), came intobloom this year, too! I could barely stand the suspense, as the plants were in bud for what seemed like an eternity, but finally the flowers emerged 2 weeks ago and they were worth the wait. First, the buds and calyxes are incredibly sticky, not unlike cousin clary sage, and are also very aromatic, which we’d expect, too. However, this is the only part of the plant with major aroma or the stickiness, a unique trait for sages that I’ve met so far. Next, the buds are quite purple and as the flowers nosed their way out, they were not just a classic garden sagey purple, but actually an indigo purple–quite a bit of pink to them. The flowers are typical mint family characters with bilabiate irregularity, but these are exceptionally large at over an inch long in some cases. A big bumble bee fits easily inside.

the pink tint and a good view of purple streaking

Next we get to see how well it illustrates the doctrine of signatures, which tells us of its use through visual and other sensorial cues. Not only is the flower stalk tinged with purple but the calyx is also streaked like engorged veins–it’s a downright perfect suggestion of congealed blood! Couple this appearance with its scent and slightly spicy, slightly bitter leaf flavor and you can make a pretty good guess about its actions without ever opening a book: both stimulating and relaxing, cooling and something to do with blood moving slowly. The body-lab is an amazing tool. Meanwhile, it also has a beautiful red root, which classically indicates strong heat-clearing action (via like-cures-like thinking, suggesting a red root will cool red, hot inflamed tissue).

Taken together, along with traditional use and clinical research, we know this  root as an important ally for the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems, especially for folks with a lot of heat/inflammation overall. It’s used extensively in China for angina, coronary heart disease, and to prevent strokes. There, they call it a blood mover–Western practitioners might think about its antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-platelet aggregating activities, but we’re saying the same things, essentially. It’s also a great one for menstrual cramps in folks with dark, clotted menses, especially when used for a few days leading up to bleeding. I’ve been having great results with it in clinic for this purpose recently.

this beauty, baikal skullcap, has also been making me swoon; more on this one in a coming post

I can barely wait to harvest the red roots for tincturing! This plant is only supposed to be hardy to -10 degrees, so I’m nervous to let it go another winter, just in case this year is less snowy and the plant dies before we get to harvest (-30 isn’t uncommon here). I’d love feedback from any US growers or practitioners about harvest of this perennial as early as its second fall in terms of medicinal maturity.

Thanks for catching up with me and stay tuned for more news of Chinese medicinals exploding all over the garden, along with local friends like lobelia and blue vervain.

planting a holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) bed

Today was a wonderfully productive and easy day. We put many many plants in the ground and the beds are filling up!  There are new full beds of holy basil (aka tulsi), astragalus, st. john’s wort, rosemary, thyme, hyssop, figwort (Scrophularia nodosa), and anise hyssop. We seeded a few California poppy in the center circle, as well as adding a few more hollyhock, a nice patch of jasmine-scented nicotiana, more lady’s mantle and violas and our little tribe of datura (aka jimson weed).

bed for the dragon--rosemary, thyme, hyssop

We put in a few more valerian, another blue vervain, and some strong, large wormwood and mugwort plants to begin our artemisia bed. We also seeded a number of artemisias, including sweet annie (A. annua, aka qing-hao), western mugwort (A. ludoviciana), redstem wormwood (A. scoparia, aka yin-chen), and sagebrush (A. tridentata).

planting artemisia seeds

We finished the bed for comfrey and nettles,  adding stones for pathways when we need to harvest, as well as rhubarb, cleavers and some horseradish that had volunteered elsewhere in the garden. We added hibiscus (the H. sabdariffa, whose calyxes we can make beautiful red tea from), which will be annual shrubs in the front of the bed of otherwise wild-children. The cleavers would like some support and a bit of shading, which they’ll get as the nettles get larger. We seeded in some purple Papaver somniferum Zahir to add some color and other delight to our comfrey-nettle-rhubarb palace–hopefully the weather won’t get too hot for them to germinate. We still have space in that bed for others–perhaps some mints or our bee balm (Monarda) collection?

CNR palace with paths complete, rhubarb in place; dragon comes in to right of rhubarb

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