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Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

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.

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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.

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