Monday, December 31, 2012

Friend or Foe?

(click to see a larger image of any of the photos)
Just because winter has chased the leaves from the forest's trees and vines, doesn't mean that you can't still get poison ivy. The worst case of poison ivy I ever got was in the winter time when I was helping my dad cut and stack firewood. After that I learned to ID the dreaded PI in ALL seasons and all its many guises.

What makes it more complicated to those that don't know how to winter ID poison ivy is that we have three very common vines that grow in our area and may grow all together as the photo to the right indicates. The three vines are: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), and grape (Vitis spp.).

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy climbing on a tree trunk
Poison ivy is the chameleon. It can appear as a vine, ground cover, and even rather bush-like plant. It is an attractive and robust plant all year long. If it didn't cause extreme contact dermatitis as it does, I'm sure it would be a much loved garden addition with hundreds of cultivars.

In winter it is the large bush-like and vine forms that we see most while out on the trails and the dried - yet still very irritating to the skin - vines on firewood. Yes, you can get the poison ivy rash from the vines on firewood too. Vines on firewood will look much like the picture to the right. Older vines will be thicker, woodier looking with a lot more of the hair-like tendrils along the length of the vine - more like the first picture above.

See the detail below for a close up of the hair-like tendrils. The detail also shows a shoot where leaves will sprout from come the spring. Slender buds can be seen on the tips of the vines. The picture farther below shows a vine with buds growing along an old fence.

Tendril detail
Like the grape and virginia creeper, poison ivy also has berries and the remnants can often be spied on the winter vines. These often still have a light color that hint at the white color the berries originally were. Both grape and virginia creeper have dark fruits. Poison ivy produces tiny fruits in greater numbers than either of the other two vines. (Click on any of the images for a larger view.)


Wikipedia has a list of identification aids for this tricky plant. You can find it here.

There is also a whole site on poison ivy here with more info and images which you can find here.

Poison ivy vines and berries. Notice bud at end of vine.
Of course the image search at google will show you many images as well. If you add other qualifiers to the search like "vine," you will get other results that will show you many images of that specifically like so. Try other qualifiers like "buds" and "berries" for other images.

Got a photo of a plant you are questioning the ID of? Try GardenWeb's Name That Plant forum for identification help.

Virginia Creeper

Virginia creeper's small looping tendrils and knobbed joints 
Virginia Creeper is another common vine in the Northeastern US. Some people are sensitive to this plant as well and may also get contact dermatitis but that sensitivity is no where near as common. I personally pull this from the gardens (in which it can be quite a "thug") bare-handed with no ill-effects.

It too has its beauty - attractive leaves with 5 leaflets, scarlet fall color, and blue-black berries. This is also a "robust" and vital vine that is not easily removed from the garden. And a word of warning - never rototill the roots of this plant. Each piece will sprout a new plant. Yes, personal experience talking here!

The thin-barked and green fleshed vine
Unlike poison ivy, you rarely see any other form of this plant other than a vine. You may occasionally, however, see virginia creeper appearing as a ground cover in the full-shade of the forest understory. It is only waiting for some sunlight before vining off to the nearest tree. I have read that ginseng, too often harvested completely from areas, can hide amongst these young, low-growing creeper plants for it too has 5 leaflets. A thank you to the creeper for hiding the besieged 'sang!

Virginia creeper vines have a very thin bark with green flesh right under the surface. The vines have knobs or "knuckles" where the leaves would sprout come spring.
The tendrils grasping bamboo

The tendrils on the virginia creeper are never hairy. The tendrils are always small tight loops which they use to grasp fences, trees, or as in the pictures here, bamboo. All the vines featured here are very effective climbers.

Virginia creeper also has berries in the fall, but I have never seen them hold these berries into the winter season. The fruits are produced in clusters that have more of an umbrella-like arrangement than the standard downward hanging clusters that grapes prefer.


Like with many plants, google image searches provide many wonder photos to compare against and learn from. Find one such google search here. Add other qualifiers to see more.

For information as well as images, please see here or here.

The large looping tendrils of the grape

Last but definitely not least, is the wild grape. The grape is the only one of the three vines featured here that is not poisonous - in fact, the fruit is edible and foragers can collect them for preserves and food. The leaves and young shoots are edible as well. Stuffed grape leaves - who doesn't love those!

The wild grape in our Northeastern forests can grow into such large woody vines that not only Tarzan but Tantor his elephant could successfully swing on them. The vines are also so plentiful in Eastern North America that the Vikings who discovered America, named the continent "Vinland" - "vine land." (The Vikings were first Europeans to discover America - sorry, Christopher Columbus!)

The bark and filaments in a grape vine
The grape is the visually most woody looking of the three vines. It has a rough bark when the vines get any sort of maturity on them. Larger, mature vines have almost a shaggy appearance to them with paper-like bark bits hanging from the vines. Even young vines demonstrate that papery quality if you break the vine - as in the picture to the right. Woody filaments are visible right under the surface of the bark and undoubtably give the grape vine some of its toughness and strength.

Last season's grapes
The grape also has rather knobby joints and "knuckles" on the vine - as you can see in the pictures here. But the large looping tendrils will not be confused with either of the two other vines featured here. See the picture at the top for a size comparison of of the tendril loops of the virginia creeper and grape. Side-by-side, the difference is incredibly obvious.

The grape often holds its last season's fruit clusters and maybe dried out bits of fruit on its vines. Albeit smaller, the wild grape fruit clusters look just like the cultivated grape clusters bought in a grocery store. They will look like a grape cluster to you.

Important - Before eating any wild grapes, be sure to know how to ID them from the poisonous look-a-like Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense). Always be smart and be safe.


You have to love the images available via google - they are a boon to plant lovers and enthusiasts every where. Check out some wild grape images here and here. Use other qualifiers to the search for other image results.

Get more info and pictures of the wild grape from here and here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Late Fall - Early Winter Veggies

Daikon Radish
(Photo by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons)
While the first hard frosts and freezes of fall this year were nearly two months ago, I still have vegetables going strong in the garden. I just picked some more daikon radishes. I think I will have to make some quick pickles with them - they are so good! Here is a basic recipe for takuan which is a Japanese-styled quick pickle made with daikon. I tend to adjust quick pickle recipes to my own taste, sometimes adding more or less of an ingredient and other times adding others.

Pickled Daikon Radish 
1/4 C. rice wine vinegar
1/2 C. sugar
1 Tbsp salt
1 medium daikon, cut into bite-sized slices
Bring first three ingredients to a boil to dissolve salt and sugar. Allow to cool slightly, and pour over sliced daikon. Store in refrigerator for up to 4 days. Make a day head for best flavor.

I've added minced fresh red hot chili pepper, black sesame seeds, other veggies, or whatever else suits me at the time. The first time making a new quick pickle recipe, I would suggest to make a small batch exactly per the recipe. After than, have fun. Adjust the ingredients and seasonings plus you can add or substitute other veggies. With white veggies like daikon and turnips, the red of the hot chili is a stunning color combination. And yes, this recipe is good with Japanese white turnips too. Be sure to add a small bit of the turnip greens for color and a bit of mustard bite. 

Note, I often like using mirin, a sweet cooking rice wine, instead of sugar for quick pickles. No boiling is needed to dissolve the sugar and it has a different character and flavor than white sugar.

Speaking of still growing in the garden....My garden also still has mustard, radishes, kale, broccoli, and some other scattered veggies still going strong after cold weather including snow. The snow peas gave up a few weeks back and so did the favas when we had a couple of days very bitter weather with 20 degree F nights. With a bit of planning and mid to late summer planting, you can extend out your fresh vegetable season to late fall - early winter. Something to consider in your planning for next year's veggie garden.

Monday, November 26, 2012

And so it begins....

Just before Thanksgiving I received my first two 2013 gardening catalogs. (Huge grin!) I so love this time of the year. I start getting all my various plant, seed, and gardening supply catalogs - and I do get dozens. Some vendors are deciding to cut their paper catalogs or won't send you the paper catalog if you order online. (I request them if I don't get my copy!) But I love the paper catalogs so much. I curl up on the couch with them and like Santa Claus, I "make my lists and check them twice." I see who has what varieties I want and offers the best prices. Who is offering "new" heirloom varieties - yeah, oxymoron intended! I take the catalogs in the car, to appointments, and where ever else I have to sit and wait for five minutes. It is one of the ways to pass the dark and quiet winter months that I look forward to each year.

I'm no newbie to technology - I've worked professionally with it for decades. I know how to use the new technologies and browse online catalogs plus I do place many of my seed/plant orders online. But most all of my plant and seed shopping is done on paper. The paper catalog still offers me an experience that no smart phone app can compare to. So I offer a warning to plant and seed vendors, if you decide to drop your print catalog to save the cost, you will probably end up loosing my business.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cordage Plants

Our ancestors, regardless of what corner of the world they lived in, all had to answer the same questions with regards to food, shelter, clothing, and the other basic necessities of life. How they answered those challenges varied. Often those variations were because of the raw materials they had at hand.

Plants were often one of those key those raw materials that supplied our ancestors and in fact, still supply us with the basics of life. The study of how various peoples have traditionally used plants for food, medicine, utilitarian needs, sacred purposes, and so on is called ethnobotany. It is one of my passions because it combines two of my life-long loves - plants and archaeology/anthropology.

One of the things you will find in ethnobotanical references that modern peoples give little thought to is fiber and cordage plants. While we can visit our local department store for thread, rope, or even fabric whenever we want, our ancestors had no such resources. They made all the ropes, cords, and cloth that they needed. While certainly there are some animal sources like wool and sinew that were used for these purposes, plants provided the bulk of the fiber raw material used.

Why should this be so important and so universal a need? Think of what a cord, rope, or piece of fabric meant. A bow string, net or snare for hunting and fishing meant food. Fabric clothed and so warmed or protected our bodies. Even if you wore skins and furs, you probably stitched them in some manner to better fit and cover your form. Ropes and cords lashed our shelters together, made it possible for us to better haul, pull, or carry items. Ropes or other bindings kept our animals from wandering away. Fibers and the cordage were indeed a key element of survival.

Stinging Nettle Fibers
Visiting my gardens this morning, I happened to collect up three examples of plant fibers traditionally used for cordage in different parts of the world - stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), jew's mallow (Corchorus olitorius), and dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum).

Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle is one of the great plants of the world. Like the dandelion, it is much maligned yet it gives us so much. The leafy parts of the stinging nettle provide a nutritious food and a host of medicinal uses.

But the nettle has also been used in Europe since ancient times (Bronze Age at least), for fiber and cloth. The fiber from stinging nettle is linen-like. In the raw fibers I collected today, it was by far the most fine and luxurious to the touch.

Jew's Mallow Fibers
Jew's Mallow

Jew's mallow or "molokhuiya" is a popular potherb and vegetable in the Middle East and it too has some medicinal usage. The fiber from this plant is the main source of jute. Jute is a coarse fiber. It is indeed "sack cloth." But since it has so many utilitarian uses, it is second only to cotton in its important vegetable fiber source.

Like linen and variety of other fiber plants, jute is normally "retted" or soaked in water until the plant fibers can be worked free. I didn't ret the plants and my plants were not dry so the fibers were rather hard to peel from the stems. But it is clear that the fibers were the most coarse I collected today.

Dogbane Fibers

Dogbane is a New World plant that despite its toxic nature was a medicinal plant used by the Native Americans. But its use as a fiber plant gives dogbane one of its more common names, "Indian Hemp." Earlier this year I attended a workshop that focused on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) cordage making. If you would like to see photos from that workshop or read more on that topic, please see my article on it.

Dogbane is an amazingly strong and fine fiber. I find it relatively easy to peel from the stems - no retting required. This native and hardy perennial supplies fibers that can be worked into a variety of cordage needs.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Frosty Herbs

The frost this morning was so heavy that the ground looked white. I couldn't resist sharing these pictures of some frost-kissed herbs.

Common Mullein



Thursday, September 13, 2012

Seed and Plant Sources

One of the questions often asked of me is, "where do you get your plants and seeds?" My answer is always many places! Hopefully this article will share a little of my years of experience and favorite vendors with you.


I shop locally whenever I can - and I'm not talking about your "Big-Box" stores like Lowes and Walmart. I urge everyone to visit your locally owned and operated nurseries. They are people who know and love plants and will be willing to work with you. They will help you make the best choices plus your dollars will be going back into your community.

Ok, yes. The Big-Box places have great prices on flats of summer annuals like petunias and marigolds. Get those there if you that is your thing, but shop at your locally-owned nurseries for everything else.

Vegetables & Food Crops

I have a lot of favorites here. Not every place carries all the varieties I want so I end up placing seed orders to a dozen or more vendors each year. Many of these vendors also carry herb and flower seeds as well. Some seed vendors also carry vegetable transplants if seed-starting isn't an art you've mastered.

Abundant Life Seeds - Organic and biodynamic vegetable seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - One of my favorite heirloom seed sources.
Comstock Seeds - A 200 year old tradition of selling seeds
Johnny's Selected Seeds - A wide range of vegetable and herb seed. No genetically modified seed.
Miller Nurseries - A local company that specializes in fruit tree, shrubs, and plants. Get a variety of plants and varieties. Great edible landscaping source.
Pinetree Garden Seeds - A favorite place to get not only a wide range of vegetable varieties but a place to get small amounts of seed for a small price which is a wonderful way to test out a variety
Raintree Nursery - All manner of fruit-bearing plants and trees are available here. Great edible landscaping source.
Seed Savers - Heirloom vegetable seeds.
Seeds of Change - Organic vegetable, flower, and herb seed.
Territorial Seed Company - A wide range of heirloom, open pollinated, and hybrid vegetable varieties. No genetically modified or treated seed.
Totally Tomato - Can't find a particular tomato or pepper variety elsewhere? Find it here.
Terroir Seeds - Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.
Kitazawa Seed Company - Specialty Asian vegetable seed source.

Medicinal & Native Plants

Other than the food plants I've planted in the vegetable garden and the edible landscaping I've done, this is where I spend the most gardening energy. Given the number of medicinal native plants, I rolled both this two categories together, but the sources are easy to pick which is which.

Horizon Herbs - Medicinal plants and seeds of many herbal traditions
Nichols Garden Nusery - A nice selection of culinary herb and vegetable seed
Richters - A wonderful source for medicinal plants and seeds of all sorts from nearby Toronto
Forest Farm - While shipping from the westcoast is costly, this is a wonderful place to find many hard to find plants, trees, and shrubs.
Musser Forests - A nice place to get many native trees and shrubs in small amounts or in quantity. Located in nearby Pennsylvania.
Prairie Moon Nursery - One of the best native plant and seed sources around.
Amanda's Garden  - A local nursery specializing in native perennial plants
White Oak Nursery - A local nursery specializing in native trees and shrubs
Ion Exchange - A great source for native plant seedlings


I don't do much ornamental gardening these days but I do always slip some flowers into the vegetable beds to attract pollinators.

Select Seeds - Get antique flower seeds from this company including some of my favorite poppy varieties

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Even Pandora Prefers Natives

A couple of years ago a starved kitten started coming by our place. It was as wild and as untouched by human hands as cats can come. It would raid the compost bin of whatever was edible to vanish at the first sight of a human. Sometimes it would vanish for days or weeks at a time. So wild was it, that I started calling it "Pan" after the Greek god Pan who was the god of the Wild.

The weather turned colder and Pan roamed less and stayed more. We had 2 old barns filled old hay and straw that do provide a haven to many a critter. But it was clear that Pan was starving and I began to leave food out. I would call "kitty-kitty" and shake the food container to let Pan know that the human left the food and it just didn't fall like manna from the sky. Pan came to know the call meant food but was very secretive about coming for it and often waited until the human vanished again.

This went on for months....a year. Pan came more and now would let itself be seen but would keep a very safe distance. My husband began occasionally feeding the cat. He began talking to it. And over the course of many months and numerous hours of patient waiting, he was able to touch Pan. Over the following months, he came to be able to pet our feral cat. The cat even changed its scheduled time for visits to match his schedule. My husband also came to realize the cat we thought as male (red cats usually are) was female. Pan had become "Pandora."

Now 2 years later, she is still wild but she loves to be petted. She often hangs around our deck not only for food but for pets. Even though we speak of her as "Pandora" she knows her name as "Kitty-Kitty" from those early days of being fed.

She loves my "woodland" native plant garden. My woodland garden is on the east side of our house under a huge, old crabapple tree. It provides the copious leaf litter and shade to grow many native woodland plants. I grow wild ginger, twinleaf, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, black cohosh, blue cohosh, solomon's seal, spikenard, goldenseal, wild geranium, ferns, white baneberry, ramps, bellwort, and more in this garden. Some of the larger plants (like the solomon's seal and spikenard in the picture above) make a nice place to bed under. I couldn't resist snapping a picture of her snoozing there - of course she woke as I was going to take the picture, but you get the idea. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Botanical Medicine Classes

Native Medicine Plant - Joe Pye Weed
My friend, Dr. Les Moore, is offering another series of his Botanical Medicine Certificate Program courses. These classes are excellent if you wish to learn more about medicinal applications of plants. Some of the plants covered are native, wild medicine plants while others are from other places and herbal traditions.

There will be six different classes will be held over a period of five weeks, September 20th – October 18th  2012. Students can elect to take the entire series or individual classes. The guided herb walk for this series will be held at Ganondagan on September 22.

Please contact Classical Formulas for details and registration - their website has full class descriptions and registration information.

Of note, Classical Formulas also now has a Facebook page that you can "like" to get news about upcoming classes, lectures, and workshops as well as daily posts by me about herbal medicine and medicine plants.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Native Orchid: Summer Coralroot

Summer Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata)

While on a recent hike I spotted an usual sight - a native orchid in bloom. I had never seen this plant before and had to ID it after the hike - good photos are always key to that! The plant was tiny and appeared to be possibly a parasitic plant since it had no leaves or green parts.

The plant I spotted was the blooming Summer Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata). This orchid's native range is much of the US and Canada, including NY State, but this is the first time I have ever spotted it. According to Wikipedia, it "is a myco-heterotroph; it lacks chlorophyll and gets food by parasitizing the mycelium of fungi in the family Russulaceae." I guess first impressions were correct!

Orchids are a special sight and one in bloom even more so.  Other than this plant and the alien orchid Epipactis helleborine, I've only seen wild, native orchids blooming in one location, Zurich Bog. I've found lady slipper plants (no blooms!) in a couple of other locations but that is it. Our native orchids are special as are the places they grow for these plants usually have very specific needs.  Poaching these plants for your own garden - very illegal given the rules of the parks and preserves they usually grow in - is unwise. Few gardens are going to meet the growing needs these plants have and the plants will die. Take only photos and leave the plants be.

Because this was such an unusual plant, I referenced my ethnobotanical sources to see if the Native peoples here used these plants. According to Moerman in Native American Ethnobotany, the local Iroquois people used this plant for:
  • Basket Medicine - Infusion of pounded root used as a basket medicine
  • Hunting Medicine - Root placed in a half cup of water and used to wash guns and clothes as a hunting medicine
  • Love Medicine - Infusion of pounded roots used as a love medicine
  • Tuberculosis Remedy - Compound infusion of roots taken for tuberculosis
  • Veterinary Aid - Infusion of whole plant added to horse's grain for heaves
  • Witchcraft Medicine - Infusion of pounded roots used as an anti-witch medicine
Looks like the Iroquois found this plant to be special as well given the number of ceremonial "medicine" uses of the plant.

For more information on this plant, see the links below. I have also included other photos below as well.

For more information:

Orchids of NY State:

Plants For a Future:


USDA Plants:

Other Images:
Entire Plant
Plant with author's hand for scale

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sedges Have Edges

Rushes, cattail, and boneset at the water's edge

I must say that identification of grasses, sedges, and rushes is not something I excel at. In fact, I'm usually pretty bad at it but I can get the right grouping for the plant without any effort -- you have to love mnemonics! Here's what I know plus a couple of variations I've heard on it:

Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have joints.

Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses are hollow right up from the ground.

Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have knees that bend to the ground.
 Maybe this will help you get your plant into the right grouping as well!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Know Your Poisons

Poison Hemlock (along a local hiking trail)
In a conversation once with another herbalist about poisonous plants, we agreed that those were some of the first plants we learned in our wildcrafting and harvesting endeavors. Why learn the poisonous plants right away? You need that knowledge to avoid dangerous, potentially deadly mistakes.

You need to know what dangerous look-a-likes may exist (queen anne's lace or poison hemlock?). Also, how to avoid dangerous situations (don't plant deadly monkshood next to your edible chicory). You need to know that some plants have edible parts and toxic other parts. And still others need to be harvested at specific times or need special processing to make them usable and non-toxic.

Knowledge is power. Certainly so in this case. But even more than power, this knowledge teaches you to respect the power our green friends have. They can cure us or kill us with equal ease.

(If you like this sort of info, be sure to catch my daily herb posts at the Classical Formulas Facebook page.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Native Medicinal Plants

Here's a couple of more pictures from my recent hike. They are all of more native medicinal plants. Enjoy!

False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

The lack of rainfall has really taken its toll on all the flora. This plant was no exception and it is not the prettiest example I have ever seen of the plant. But there is a nice detail of the spotted berries. The berries will get redder as they ripen but the nearly metallic lime green with crimson mottling that they are now is spectacular. And yes, this is another one of the native medicinal plants. Please see the Plants For a Future entry on this plant for its medicinal qualities.

False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

The usual elderberry to spot in the woods and edges of farmers' fields is the common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis). But on this hike I managed to spot a red elderberry with fruit. The fruit are a stunning red. The fruit and flowers are edible while the plant parts are used medicinally. The stems of this elderberry are hollow and can be turned into whistle. See the PFAF entry on this plant for details on its uses.

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)

Growing in moister and shadier settings, the pale jewelweed is not seen as much as its more condition tolerant sister the spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Either species, jewelweed is a beautiful wildflower. And great amusement for young people when its seed pods are ripe. The seed pods "explode" seeds at a touch - hence the name "touch-me-not." For more on that, see another article I wrote on touch-me-nots and young people. It seems that jewelweeds are a common one to make it into my articles for I wrote another article on a rare color variation of I. capensis that I spotted on another hike. Anyways, this plant and its sister the spotted jewelweed are commonly used in herbal poison ivy remedies. But for the full list of uses, be sure to see this plant's PFAF entry.

Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis)

While hiking yesterday, I stumbled across a group of the plants below. It is Collinsonia canadensis or stone root. This plant has a plethora of common names including: Canada Horsebalm, Richweed, Hardhack, Heal-All, Horseweed, and Ox-Balm - common names like this speak of its rich history of herbal use.

This plant is a perennial native to eastern North America. It, like many indigenous plants, was used medicinally by the Native Americans to later be adopted into early American herbal traditions - its uses are referenced in both King's American Dispensatory by Felter and Lloyd as well as  Cook's Physiomedical Dispensatory by Cook.

According to Daniel Moerman in Native American Ethnobotany, both the Cherokee and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) used this plant medicinally. The Seneca, one of the Haudenosaunee nations and in whose traditional homeland I live in, used it for a wide range of medical needs including as an analgesic, antidiarrheal, antirhheumatic, dermatological aid, heart medicine, and kidney aid. [Source: Native American Ethnobotany by D. Moerman]

I'll be sure look for this interesting and lemony scented medicine plant in my future hikes and travels. When I do find it, I think of the traditional healers that would have been happy to find this plant and the good such a plant would have done in their skilled hands.

Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis)

Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Know Your Herbs?

Here is another entry in our herb identification feature, Know Your Herbs? Can you ID the plant pictured above? All the plants featured in Know Your Herbs have some sort of culinary, medicinal, or utilitarian use.

Think you know what it is? Check the ANSWER to see if you are right!

Just So Blue...

While at the Seneca Park Zoo with my kids last week, I just happened to see this plant in the landscaping there and couldn't help but to snap a few shots of it. It is a Hydrangea. A blue one. So incredibly blue made even more so by being in the shade with the sun sneaking a peek at it. I just had to share some snapshots of it!

(Click on the images below to see the larger picture.)

Friday, June 22, 2012

City Herbs - Plantain

Even urban, apartment dwelling  people can see wild herbs in their daily travels. This plantain (Plantago major) grows between a brick wall and a city sidewalk. Some plants walk and grow alongside humans.

(This image was too lovely not to share. It, like all the art and photos shared on this blog, have been taken or created by me. Please contact me if you want to use any of the images. Many thanks!) 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Herb of the Week - Burdock

Burdock (Arctium lappa) Flowers
Arctium lappa
Arctium mimus 
Few plants make me think of being a kid more than burdock. As a kid I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' dairy farm. Like most old farmsteads, plants like burdock, stinging nettle, cleavers, and catnip grew with wreckless abandon. These plants were most likely unbroken links to plants that were purposely planted by farmers and their families generations ago. My siblings, younger cousins, and I were left to our own devices for long summer days. Besides simple games like hide-and-seek or freeze tag, the natural resources were a great source of amusement. Hollyhock flower fairies, willow whips (good not only for "smacking" each other but for flinging green plums over the barn roof), climbing trees, eating wild berries, and of course, playing with burdock. The gigantic leaves leaves made great fairy and "wild man" hats and clothes. The burs could be made into mats and balls. Oh....the burdock balls. Those old balls could be thrown at a sibling or cousin and they would stick - just like the Velcro-based dart tag type items today. It was all "fun and games" until someone got one of the balls in their hair and went tattling to an adult.

Arctium lappa leaves
Burdock, no stranger to my childhood memories, was once a stranger to the North American shores. Burdock was brought to North America by the Europeans who settled here. It is now naturalized in North America but its native range was originally all the temperate areas of the Old World. Given all the great qualities of burdock it is easy to see why this plant made the trip across the ocean to the New World. It grows easily from seed in a wide range of growing conditions and provides us with choice edibles as well as strong medicine.

For medicinal purposes the stems, roots, and seeds ("niu bang zi") are generally used. In Western herbal medicine burdock root is typically used internally for skin diseases and inflammatory conditions due to chronic toxicity. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seeds are used for these similarly as well as to treat colds, pneumonia, and throat infections. [Source: The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses By Deni Bown]

In Kampo, a Japanese form of herbal medicine, burdock seed is a "cold, pungent, and sweet herb" that detoxifies tissues by encouraging the circulation of qi. The seed dispels heat, relieves swelling, and normalizes breathing. It is also used in formulas for coughs, rashes, and sore throats. [Source: Japanese Herbal Medicine: The Healing Art of Kampo by Robert Rister]

Herbalist James Green says that burdock is a "deep food and and alterative that moves the body to a state of well-nourished health." He also notes its use for a variety of skin conditions (incl. eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, boils, rheumatism, gout), aids appetite/digestion, and in poultices. [Source: The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook by James Green]

Burdock roots and stems are also very good foods. The stems can be prepared like cardoon. The roots are popular in a wide range of Asian dishes - one of the most well-known being the Japanese dish kinpira. My personal favorite is my own version of tsukemono (Japanese quick pickles) with burdock root. Not only do I love the unique taste of these pickles, I like to make them whenever I'm feeling "low" and need a boost to my energy and vitality. Here's my recipe:

Sweet Vinegared Gobo (Burdock Root)
Gobo (burdock root)
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt (sea salt preferred)
4 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1. Wash gobo well. You can peel the root first if desired but this is not required especially for the thin-skinned cultivated roots found in Asian markets. Wild-dug roots are best peeled. Half or quarter root and cut into 1-2" sticks.
2. Boil root 2-3 minutes. While root is boiling, mix remaining ingredients.
3. Drain root and add hot to the marinade. Refrigerate and cool before eating. Best flavor if sat overnight. Keeps 3-5 days in refrigerator.

When asked about my favorite herbs, I usually tell people that my foods are my favorite herbs because I live Hippocrates' quote, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Burdock is one of those healthful herbs that can make it to my dinner plate.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Maize "Pearl" Earrings

Earring #1
We've all seen beautiful examples of jewelry made with seeds from plants that can only grow in tropical rain forest locations. We too can grow beautiful seeds to use in jewelry. The eldest of the Three Sisters, maize, is a beautiful example. It comes in a rainbow of jewel-like colors that just ask to be used as beads.

This project features earrings made using maize kernel beads. Three different styles with different materials are presented to suggest the variety of styles you might try.
All maize used in this the examples shown were grown in my garden. Earring #1 features the blue-grey kernels of "Hopi Blue Dent" and earrings #2 and #3 feature two different colored kernels (pearl white and burgundy) of the multi-hued "Painted Mountain."
Earring #1 (Silver & Turquoise)
  • 2 dried corn kernels
  • 2 size #11 crystal seed beads
  • 2 sterling silver earwires (22 gauge, fishhook w/ ball & coil)
  • 2 sterling silver 2-inch, 26 gauge headpins
  • 2 turquoise rondelles, 6x3mm


 Earring #2 (Chevron & Gold)
  • 2 dried corn kernels
  • 2 size #11 crystal seed beads
  • 2 chevron beads approx. 10x5mm
  • 2 gold-filled french hook earwires
  • 2 gold-filled 1.5-inch, 22 gauge headpins


Earring #3 (Silver & Garnet)
  • 2 dried corn kernels
  • 2 size #11 crystal seed beads
  • 2 sterling silver earwires (22 gauge, fishhook w/ ball & coil)
  • 2 sterling silver 2-inch, 26 gauge headpins
  • 4 garnet beads, 3mm
See vendor resources below for sources on where to get all the materials used.

Tools Needed
  • Jewelry pliers like round-nose pliers. Needle nose pliers will work.
  • Flush cut pliers or another tool capable of clipping fine wire
  • Hand awl or a hand drill/Dremel tool with a very fine drill bit
  • Small vise. If you do not one, a hinged clothespin will work to hold the kernels for drilling.
  • X-acto knife

  1. Select only completely dried, well-formed corn kernels. The flat-sided and hard dent or flint corns generally work best. Trim any rough spots off the end of the kernel - do not cut into the kernel.
  2. Use a small vise or clothespin to hold each kernel so it can be drilled long ways. Drill the hole. If you use a hand awl, the hole will have a larger bore and you will need to put it through the middle of the flat side of the kernel. Adjust the complementing bead sizes as needed.
  3. Carefully trim or smooth any rough spots from drilling. 
  4. String beads and corn kernel onto headpin. Bead order: Earring #1 - seed bead, kernel, turquoise rondelle;  Earring #2 - seed bead, kernel, chevron bead;  Earring #3 - garnet bead, kernel, garnet bead
  5. For small gauge wire (i.e. 26 gauge), put headpin through the loop on the fishhook earwire. Use pliers to bend and loop the wire with the top of the loop being 3-5mm above the top bead. Use pliers to pull the free end of the wire around the headpin shaft, leaving a loop at the top to work down to the top bead coiling the wire 3-4 times. Trim excess. Use pliers to pinch the trimmed end flush with the rest of the coil.
  6. For the heavier gauge wire (i.e. 22 gauge), use the pliers to bend the wire at the top bead 45 degrees to the left. Use the tip of the pliers to grip wire at the top bead. Use your fingers or other pliers to bend the wire to the right, curling it around the plier nose until it crosses the headpin shaft. Trim the excess wire beyond where it crosses the shaft. Adjust loop shape as needed. Loop onto fishhook earwire.

If you are new to wire bending for jewelry, try out your wire bending skills with a similar gauge inexpensive brass or copper wire first. It is costly to learn on precious metals! I hope you enjoy this project!

Vendor Resources

Earrings #1:

Seed bead, Delica, glass, transparent rainbow crystal, #11
Earwire, sterling silver, 18mm flat fishhook with ball and coil with open loop, 22 gauge
Headpin, sterling silver, 2-inches long, 26 gauge
Bead, turquoise (D/S), 6x3mm rondelle

Earrings #2:
Seed bead, Delica, glass, transparent rainbow crystal, #11
Bead, chevron glass, multicolored, 4x2mm-12x8mm mixed shapes
Earwire, 14Kt gold-filled, 13mm fishhook with open loop, 21 gauge
Headpin, gold-filled, 1-1/2 inches long, 22 gauge

Earring #3
Earwire, sterling silver, 18mm flat fishhook with ball and coil with open loop, 22 gauge
Headpin, sterling silver, 2-inches long, 26 gauge
Bead, garnet, 3mm round

Ears of various colors of maize can be purchased at farmers' markets in late summer through late fall. But even better, grow some maize yourself. If you don't know where to get such seed, check the the vendors listed in the 'Vegetable/Food Crop' section of a gardening article I wrote. The vegetable seed vendors listed all sell heirloom/open-pollinated varieties of maize. Try growing some in your own garden for food or for crafts. As a bonus, some of the colored maize even has colored corn husks which lend themselves beautifully to corn husk crafts.

Know Your Herbs?

Here is another entry in our herb identification feature, Know Your Herbs? Can you ID the plant pictured above? All the plants featured in Know Your Herbs have some sort of culinary, medicinal, or utilitarian use.

Think you know what it is? Check the ANSWER to see if you are right!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Garden Quotes - Plants are Like the People

While doing some research on dyeing with plants, I came across this wonderful quote. It is from North American Dye Plants by Anne Bliss - which is a wonderful and very useful book on dyeing.

Plants growing in North America are similar in many ways to the people living in North America. Some are natives; some are recent immigrants or transplants; and some, who have been around a generation or two, are naturalized. Some are gregarious and like to live close together, and some, because of habit or environment, live far apart. Some are beautiful, others not so beautiful. Some live where they are wanted; others live where they aren't. And they come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and dispositions.

Yes, our green neighbors are truly like us. Or is it that we are like them?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Know Your Herbs?

Here is another entry in our herb identification feature, Know Your Herbs? Can you ID the plant pictured above? All the plants featured in Know Your Herbs have some sort of culinary, medicinal, or utilitarian use.

Think you know what it is? Check the ANSWER to see if you are right!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cordage from Plant Sources

Stripping bark from a basswood tree
It was my pleasure to take a class this past weekend where I learned both the sources and techniques for making cords, ropes, and useful fibers from indigenous plants. The workshop was a real treat for me since it hit two of my passions, crafts and plants.

While the workshop focused on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) cordage techniques, the ability to make cords, thread, and ropes from the raw materials found in the natural world is something that all our ancestors did. It was key to survival because everything from tools to shelters to clothing made use of cords and threads.

Class participants all got some hands-on with bark cordage techniques including how to get raw fibers from dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) stalks and then how to turn those fibers into a very fine and strong cord.  (See a picture of one of my dogbane cords below.)

I took quite a variety of photos and the slideshow can be seen here: Cordage Workshop Slideshow. I hope you enjoy!

Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) Cord

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Herb of the Week - Goldenseal

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis
Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis
This week's herb is another medicinal plant native to our eastern woodlands that is currently blooming. While we are now in the bloom time of this plant, I am fairly certain that our readers have not seen this plant or its blooms.

This plant is a small, growing only 6-12" high and it has neither showy blooms or leaves. But more than its unassuming appearance, this plant has become increasingly rare in its native range. While habitat loss has effected all native plant populations, this plant's disappearance has been largely due to the overharvesting of wild plants for the herb trade. This plant is one of the most widely used herbs in America, second only to wild American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius. [Source: Planting the Future by Rosemary Gladstar]

Goldenseal was first used medicinally by the Native peoples of North America such as the Cherokee, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and Micmac where it was used for a wide range of remedies including those for diarrhea, inflammations, "sour stomach," fevers, liver complaints, and cancer. [Source: Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman] Later on the Eclectic medicine practitioners of the 1800's adopted goldenseal into their pharmacopeia as well. See King's American Dispensatory for an example of how goldenseal was used by this school of herbalism. Modern herbalists use goldenseal for a number of reasons but one of the chief reasons is for its antibacterial properties.

According to a 20-year, 16 organization study report, 34,000 plant species -- 12% of the plants worldwide and 29% of the plants in the US -- have become so rare that they could easily disappear. [Source: Planting the Future] Some of our most loved native medicinal plants clearly make that list. The United Plant Savers (UpS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation of native medicinal plants. UpS maintains a list of plants that are most at-risk of vanishing completely called the "At-Risk" List. Goldenseal is on that list and so the UpS recommends that you use:
  • Alternatives to goldenseal such as barberry, cultivated oregon grape, cultivated yerba mansa, and other cultivated Berberis species.
  • Use only cultivated goldenseal 
I urge you , whether you are an herbalist or just a user of herbs, to make conscious choices about all the herbs you use. If there are alternatives to at-risk plants such as goldenseal, make every effort to use them. Or if you have the right conditions, you can add such plants to your own woodland areas and grow your own.  I currently have four goldenseal plants in my own woodland garden. They are not very fussy or difficult to grow if you have a woodland area in full-shade. Outside of a plant killed by rodents digging it up during the winter, I've never lost a plant. You may buy your goldenseal plants from a number of sources - my favorite is Prairie Moon Nursery.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Know Your Herbs?

Here is a fun new feature for our readers - do you know your herbs? Can you ID the plant pictured below? All the plants featured in Know Your Herbs have some sort of culinary, medicinal, or utilitarian use. Think you know it? Check the ANSWER to see if you are right!