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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.