Alternative Medicine

Wellness from the Wild: Soothing Catnip

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Around Ontario, wild catnip is often found coming up in fields and gardens in early spring. It’s a good plant to know about because of its many safe, effective healing properties.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a mint family (Lamiaceae) plant with rounded toothed leaves growing in opposite pairs on a square (four-sided) stem. Tiny soft hairs on the leaves and stems give the plant a velvety texture. In cooler weather, its green colour is often mixed with shades of purple, especially on the leaf undersides. When rubbed, the plant gives off a slightly pungent, mint-like aroma--one that famously attracts felines! While it makes cats energetic and “high” however, catnip has the opposite effect on humans.

This plant has been used throughout history and is still in use today as a mild, calming, antispasmodic agent. Like many mint family plants, catnip is a carminative herb. It has a soothing action on the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, relaxing the cramps and spasms of indigestion. This calming action can also affect cramping in the lower abdomen, sometimes helping to ease menstrual cramps. It has been used safely for infants with colic. It helps to relax the mind and diminish anxiety, and is known among herbalists as a safe, effective remedy for bedwetting in children.

Catnip is a supportive remedy for the child in all of us. For those with insomnia or troubling dreams, a cup of catnip tea can act like a lullaby, soothing us into a peaceful sleep. Those coming home with tension and stress from a tough day of work will often find their worries calmed and tensions eased with catnip’s gentle influence.

The leaves and flowers are the parts generally used. The stems can be cut, about four inches off the tops of the plant, allowing the remainder of the plant to regenerate (which it should be able to do with ease). These can either be used fresh, or dried for future use. To dry the herb, lay out your harvest in a basket or on a cotton sheet in a warm, dry place out of direct light and leave there for a few days or over a week, until the leaves or stems make a snapping noise when broken. This indicates that they’re dry and can be stored in a jar, out of direct light. The fresh herb can also be tied in bundles with a string and hung to dry.

One teaspoon of crushed up dried herb, or one handful of fresh herb will make one cup of catnip tea. Pour hot water over the herb and steep, covered for at least ten minutes. Then strain and drink. Honey can be added if desired. For infants, diluted tea can be given in a bottle for colic, or nursing mothers can drink the tea, providing their infants with its benefits via the breast milk. To alleviate bedwetting, the same strength brew can be made but with half as much water, so that less liquid is given to drink before bed.

Catnip can truly be considered a quintessential soother. She reminds us of her peace bringing ways with her early spring leaves, assuring us that winter has finally ended. As the plant grows and the season warms, she invites us, humans and cats alike, to bask safe and warm in the healing sunlight.

 

Originally Published: April 30, 2018

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Tamara Segal, Contributor and Registered Herbalist

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Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County. She also teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops throughout the Quinte area.



Wellness from the Wild: The Majestic White Pine

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Northeastern landscapes could be characterized by the silhouette images of the Eastern white pine tree. These trees, of Group of Seven

fame, outline many a horizon with their high, fluffy-looking, outward reaching evergreen branches. Our native white pine (Pinus strobus) has been considered the monarch of the Canadian forest—and for good reason. This tree offers a cornucopia of healing and nutritional support.

White pine is identified by its long, soft needles which form clusters in groups of five, while other types of pines form needle clusters of just two. White pine needles also have a white stripe running lengthwise from the base to the tip.

The needles are richly nutritious with vitamins A, C and K. A tea made with a small handful of needles steeped in one to two cups of water for 10 to 15 minutes has a mild citrus-like flavour. A cup of this tasty brew can help to fight respiratory infections and boost immunity. The tea will be more potent if covered while it steeps. This helps to keep the aromatic volatile oils (which contain many healing constituents) from evaporating out. A little lemon juice and/or honey could enhance its effectiveness and make it even tastier.

Pine needles and bark have strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, particularly in the respiratory tract. They can help to open the bronchial passages in cases of congestion and asthma. Their tea, being rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, can also serve as a healthful tonic that supports cardiovascular, as well as eye and skin health.

The pine trees of this region thrive in cold, dark winters as well as the heat of summer, pulling up vitamins and minerals from deep in the earth, and assimilating energy through their evergreen leaves with the help of the northeastern sunlight. Their ability to adapt themselves to harsh conditions in a healthy way is indicative of the medicine they provide. White pine is considered by some herbalists to be an adaptogen- a class of herbs that safely and effectively support the body through periods of physical and mental stress, nourishing and balancing the endocrine, immune, nervous and cardiovascular systems.

Adaptogens often support adrenal gland function. The adrenals secrete hormones that regulate the body and mind’s stress response. White pine helps to balance the stress response in an elegant and sophisticated manner such as that associated with adaptogens. It also tends to lift the spirits, and brighten one’s outlook on dark and dreary days.

White pine can be harvested at any time of year—even in the deep dormancy of winter. A hike beneath the white pines in the crisp forest air on a sunny, snowy day is sure to lift the heart, facilitate deep breathing and shake off the winter blues. On such a walk, you may encounter a freshly fallen branch, with bundles of healthy green needles on it. With gratitude for the tree’s gift, this can be brought home. The bark can be shaved off with a knife, and the needles removed by hand. These can be steeped fresh into a healing tea, and/or dried and stored in a jar in the cupboard, perhaps for another winter day.

The monarch of the Canadian forest grants us with abundant gifts. It is ours to learn to appreciate them.

 

Originally Published: December 16, 2017

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Tamara Segal, Contributor and Registered Herbalist

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Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County. She also teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops throughout the Quinte area.



Yellow Dock

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Autumn has arrived--the season for harvesting roots! From root vegetables to the roots of medicinal herbs, the fall offers us gifts from beneath the soil. At this time of year, plants send their nutrients and energy down into their roots for winter storage, enriching them with nourishing and healing elements.

One of my favourite local wild roots is yellow dock (Rumex crispus). Also known as “curly dock”, this dock family biennial is easily found throughout our region. It has leaves that are longer than they are wide (up to about one foot long), with white-reddish midribs and a long stem. The leaf edges have a curly or wavy appearance and come up in a basal rosette formation. In its second year of growth, yellow dock shoots up a tall flowering stalk with a cluster of tiny whitish-green flowers. When it eventually develops seeds, the whole stalk, seeds included, turns a reddish-bronze hue and remains that way throughout the winter. Beneath the ground, yellow dock’s long tap root has flesh that is an unmistakable shade of yellow—hence the name!

The yellow roots indicate an important signature of this plant: it effectively promotes bile production and movement.

The liver and gall bladder are largely supported by yellow dock root. When yellow bile flows freely through the digestive tract, it helps us to break down and absorb fats, allowing further nutrient absorption while also carrying out wastes and toxins so that they don’t build up and burden our organs of elimination. Thus yellow dock root is an excellent herbal digestive aid, helping us to absorb the nutrients we need while clearing out toxicity, keeping us healthy and energized.

Yellow dock also has a strong affinity for the skin, helping to clear eczema and other rashes and irritations that sometimes stem from an inhibited or overburdened liver’s challenged ability to clear toxins. When toxins or immune by-products build up in the system and the liver can’t easily clear them, they will often be cleared through the pores of the skin, causing various skin irritations. Yellow dock root helps to relieve these conditions by working from the inside out.

The deep tap roots accumulate iron, making yellow dock a choice supplement for iron deficiency. The root, infused in apple cider vinegar will readily secrete iron and other trace minerals into the vinegar, which can be strained after three to four weeks, and safely taken daily (one to three teaspoons) until iron levels increase. While many iron supplements tend to cause constipation, yellow dock has mild laxative properties, supporting proper elimination while supplying the needed iron.

All this aid in clearing away wastes and toxins helps to prevent infections, while also freeing up the immune system to stay on strict guard against any potential invading pathogens— thus yellow dock root strengthens immune function too.

This wild plant is so hardy that it is often found breaking through pavement or thriving in neglected, compacted soil. It also comes up as a “weed” in fields and gardens, where it can be dug in the autumn of its first year. The cleaned, sliced root infused in cider vinegar or dried and stored for use as a tea, is an invaluable addition to anyone’s herb cupboard, and should stay viable for two to three years. With all this in mind, in root harvest season...I dig yellow dock!

 

Originally published: October 12, 2017

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Tamara Segal, Contributor and Registered Herbalist

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Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County. She also teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops throughout the Quinte area.



The Miracles of Mullein

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If you asked me which herbal remedy I would choose to have with me on a desert island, I’d consider choosing mullein. Mullein (Verbascum thaspus) is a wild plant found growing abundantly around our region and in many other parts of the world as well (thus it could also arguably be found growing on our hypothetical desert island). Mullein is a healing herb in numerous aspects.

Often found on dry, rocky or disturbed soil, mullein’s large fuzzy green leaves and tall flowering stalk are hard to miss. It has a two-year lifespan. In the first year, a young basal rosette of leaves grow close to the ground. The leaves can grow up to 25 centimetres long and over 10 centimetres wide. In the second, year, a flowering stalk will grow, and if left undisturbed, can reach over six feet tall. Yellow buds and flowers bloom out of the fuzzy, elongated flower head throughout the summer months.

The flowers can be harvested and infused in olive oil (or other kinds of oil), in a clear glass jar in the sunlight for about a month. The oil can then be strained and stored in a cool, dark place. It can be rubbed onto achy, inflamed joints and tight muscles to relieve pain and inflammation. A cotton swab or cloth dipped into the same oil can be safely placed in the ear for about 15 to 20 minutes daily to help clear, and ease the symptoms of an ear infection.

Mullein leaf can also be infused in oil to make a healing skin salve for cuts, swellings, rashes, burns and bruises. It has a remarkable ability to restore damaged tissue and encourage healthy cell growth. The leaves have been successfully used as a poultice on broken bones to help support repair, and proper structural alignment.

The leaves, either fresh or dried, can be made into a tea by steeping in hot water (about 1 to 2 teaspoons of broken up leaf per cup) for 10 to 20 minutes. Mullein is notably helpful in moving lymphatic fluid, draining clogged lymph nodes and various types of cysts. A cloth dipped in the tea can be placed on the lymph nodes or cysts for about 20 minutes daily, until they clear. The tea can then be drunk for additional support.

Mullein is one of the first herbs I think of when choosing ingredients for a cough remedy. It is a reliable expectorant that also soothes and heals irritated membranes of the respiratory passage while fighting off infection and reducing inflammation. It works well in most types of coughs and lung infections, and can be very helpful for asthmatics too.

Some people prefer to strain mullein tea through a coffee filter. The reason is that the tiny hairs that give the leaves their fuzzy texture are fine enough to make it through a regular strainer or tea ball, and for some people they can tickle the throat a bit. A coffee filter or thick tea bag strains these out nicely.

When giving plant identification walks and workshops, I often expound on mullein’s benefits. I feel confident in sharing its safe, effective restorative capabilities. Also it is easily identified, and there’s enough of it to be found for its gifts to be shared far and wide. Here’s to the many miracles of mullein! With gratitude!

 

Originally Published: August 7, 2017

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Tamara Segal, Contributor and Registered Herbalist

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Tamara Segal is a Registered Herbalist and wild foods enthusiast. She runs an herbal clinic called Hawthorn Herbals at her farm in Prince Edward County. She also teaches classes and gives plant identification walks and workshops throughout the Quinte area.