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!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Herb of the Week - Trout Lily

Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Trout lilies are one of the "spring ephemerals" - wildflowers that do all their living for an entire year in a few short weeks each spring before vanishing beneath the soil until the next year. The ephemerals group include some of the most eagerly anticipated blooming plants that I know of - trillium, bloodroot, spring beauty, hepatica, and more. The trout lily certainly holds it own in this illustrious group.

This beautiful little plant is native to the woodlands of Eastern North America. It has yellow, almost violet-like flowers and distinctively spotted leaves. These physical characteristics have inspired quite a number of common names such as: adder's tongue, dog tooth violet, serpent's tongue, and yellow snowdrop. I so love the "color" of common names!

Trout lilies are rarely sighted as single plants. If happy in their location, these plants will spread to form a colony on the forest floor. Even without the pretty flowers, a carpet of their spotted leaves is a beautiful spring-time sight.

The trout lily is edible - both the corms and the young leaves can be boiled and eaten. (Source: Peterson's Edible Wild Plants) And both the bulbs and leaves have been used medicinally as an emetic, emollient, and antiscorbutic (when fresh) and a nutritive when dry. It is also said that the root and leaves simmered in milk could be used in remedies for dropsy, hiccoughs, vomiting, and bleeding from the lower bowels while the plant boiled in oil was used for wounds and to reduce inflammation. (Source: Indian Herbology of North America by A. Hutchens) See the entry for more information on the plant's uses.

But with other foods and remedies more commonly available, why would you want to pick this beauty for food or medicine? Like many wildflowers, the trout lily does not reproduce quickly. It can take up to 8 years to mature from seed. Loss of habitat along with irresponsible picking or harvesting can decimate such wild plants. If you do have a woodland area or garden, be sure to invite this plant into it. If you are a wildcrafter or a forager, appreciate this plant for how it has been used but please pass it by. Take only photos and memories from it to ensure it will remain for future generations.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

May Flowers, Herbs, and Trees

May is always a time of abundant life and plants to me. It is the time when the forests become a verdant green and when wildflowers continue their spring show. It is also a busy time of gardening and planting for the coming season. To celebrate this greening of the world and the start of the new agricultural season, I take May 1st off of work. It is a 20-year old tradition. Often I spend the day in my gardens, but sometimes I take hikes or do other activities to celebrate May Day. 

In that spirit of celebrating the Earth and her greening cloak, it was my pleasure to attend not one but two plant hikes over this past weekend. The first of these hikes was led by Dr. Les Moore on Saturday May 5, 2012. It was held in Phelps, NY along the Ontario Pathways Trail System. This hike focused on identification as well as the medicinal properties of the wild plants found. This hike is also part of a series of classes Dr. Moore teaches on medical herbalism. If you are interested in learning more about these classes, please see the Classical Formulas website. I created the video at the bottom of this article from the photos I took on that hike.

The second hike was at Ganondagan and it was led by Tonia Loran-Galban and Peter Jemison on Sunday May 6, 2012. This hike was along the Earth is Our Mother trail and it focused on the medicinal as well as the ethnobotanical uses of the plants along the trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike - made even more special by the abundance of the migrating red admiral butterflies. You can see the slideshow from this walk on the Plant Hike slideshow webpage.

I hope you enjoy the slideshow and video. I wish for your May to be happy and abundantly green!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's a one in a million chance

My 1st five-leaf clover of the season
I'm happy to share a picture of my first 5-leaf clover and second 4-leaf clover for the season.

Yes, I find 4-leaf clovers where ever I go. I chalk it up to my "super power," the unnatural ability to see patterns in anything and everything. Definitely not the same as wall-crawling like Spiderman, but it lets me spot a 4-leaf clover in a field of millions at a full walk.

Supposedly the chances for finding a 4-leaf clover is 1 in 10,000 and the chances for a 5-leaf is 1 in 1,000,000. I blow  those odds all to bits!

I do also find 6-leaf clovers occasionally as well. I wonder about those odds!!
My 2nd four-leaf clover of the season

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spring Wildflowers - Solomon's Seal

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Soon the blooms on my Solomon's Seal will open. The bell-like flowers, which are cream/light-green, hang on the underside of the plant's arching stem. This is a beautiful native plant to add to any woodland garden.

As an herbalist and lover of plants, I prefer the botanical name for a plant. There is no confusion as to what plant you are referring to. But I admit to dearly loving the colorful common names. This is a perfect example. It is thought that the name "solomon's seal" is in reference to the seal-like scars on the plant's roots which to some look like the "seal of Solomon." For more on this plant's colorful name you can refer to this site.