Can a plant give us a clue by its structure, its form? Can the color of a flower or root be an indication of some of its properties or the organ system it helps?
Apparently, that’s not new information. In herb classes, the Doctrine of Signatures is a well-known reference to these correlations. Stemming from the ancients and passed down through the ages, often referred to as folklore, gave herbalists, the village healers, doctors, a reference point for which ones to use in healing various conditions, disorders, organ systems.
“The doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts.” (Wikipedia)
“Paracelsus was a physician and alchemist (early 1500’s) who believed that medicine should be simple and straightforward. He was greatly inspired by the Doctrine of Signatures, which maintained that the outward appearance of a plant gave an indication of the problems it would cure. This theory is sometimes surprisingly accurate.” (USDA forest service)
Today we have advanced equipment, labs to test the validity of some of these claims and guess what? Science is proving what the oral traditions, the folklore traditions knew: clues from the plant, their structure, their form, colors that seem to help heal, can, in fact, help heal specific organ systems. Nature reflects back to us what we are and offers help. Many successful healers looked at the plant world in this way. They were connected to the sun and moon cycles, very aware of the weather, knew their landscapes well.
Centuries ago and not that long ago, we did not have the knowledge of bacteria, viruses that we can see with super microscopes. Evil spirits were the names of the stuff that gets you, brings in illness etc. That was the lingo of the times. There was a deeper more colloquial connection to the Creator, to God, by whatever religion you followed. There was a recognition that the Divine in nature provided clues, assistance. My Native elders said that we have all that we need for healing if we pay attention to what’s beneath our feet, what’s near us. Observe.
My guests this week, Andrea and Matthias Reisen, have over 25 years experience as growers deeply connected to the plants and their land. They are caretakers in the true sense of the word, offering prayers of thanks, gratitude, and acknowledgment for the gifts the land provides. In our discussion, we touched upon invasives, Japanese knotweed in particular. My curiosity piqued. I decided to look into this plant more carefully because the Reisen’s harvest it, for use in the medical community for Lyme’s disease.
Name: Japanese Knotweed: Polygonum cuspidatum var. Japonica or Japanese bamboo; bamboo-like stems with somewhat heart-shaped leaves, herbaceous perennial shrub-like.
Where Found: Originated in Eastern Asia, member of the buckwheat family. It was introduced in the US in late 1800’s. Thrives in disturbed areas, forms dense thickets; little grows with it so it crowds out vegetation. Unfortunately, the soil remains bare between the stems which can be susceptible to erosion. This plant decreases species diversity, alters ecosystems. Can grow to 3-15′ tall. Its stems are easy to identify, notched like bamboo and have purple-red speckles.
Properties: very high in resveratrol, an antioxidant found in grapes, peanuts, mulberries, red wine
Uses: Leaves, young shoots: spring vegetable in Asian cultures, Used extensively in Traditional Chinese Medicine with other herbs for gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular issues as well as cognitive function. Resveratrol continues to be studied for its effect on decreasing cancer and helping combat Lyme’s Disease. In the plant, resveratrol acts to stop microbial infections. It’s this observation that links the way Japanese knotweed may work in Lyme’s disease.
I came across this article, from the forager chef, on how to cook and use it. I am not familiar with foraging this plant but the recipe I link you too looks delicious. It’s too early here but I know of a patch and will keep an eye on it. Young stems 12″ or less need to be cut in the early spring. Otherwise, as the season and growth progresses, the stems become too fibrous and not very palatable. You can make a refreshing tea from its roots.
Let’s look at the root, known as ‘tiger root’ in the orient..
Healing Spirits Herb Farm has been selling the root for many years. It’s been difficult for me to find a picture of its roots due to royalty rights. However, from the ones I found, I can see Matthias’ description very well. There’s a knot, then root, then knot, then root and the root can go down 10′! No wonder once you got it, it won’t go away. It’s the root that he harvests and because he does so, he contributes to managing the land space where this plant is located by his ‘neck of the woods’ in western NY. Will it go away? No. but by harvesting in large quantities he helps control its spread.
Now, tying in the Doctrine of Signatures, the root system seems to have notches, like steps, Maybe this pattern gives a clue as to how the plant works. Studies are showing that the root in tincture or capsule form helps kill the bacteria found in Lyme’s Disease. The resveratrol may work on the bacteria in steps. Can we prove this? Not yet. But observations from nature have validity and patient healing offers hope for healing Lyme’s disease.
Today, its too early to gather the young shoots and leaves but I want to try. I also want to make a tea this summer from its root. How about you? We have plants in our backyards we have forgotten how to use. How about looking into an invasive such as Japanese knotweed and use it. Get your neighbors involved. Make a recipe and bring to a block party, a family picnic. Remember it’s a cherished food in Asian cultures.
Send me your recipe, a short story on how you use Japanese knotweed. I look forward to hearing from you.
My podcast guest this week, Gail Reynolds, spoke about her love of bogs and marshland ecosystems. She gave us a variety of plants that live in these types of areas which I include here.
She also mentioned witch hazel, an unusual shrub, native to North America that puts out its blossoms in late fall.
Name: Hamamelis virginiana, Witch hazel, sometimes known as winterbloom; tall flowering shrub, blooms in late fall, yellow star-like blossoms are seen on bare twigs; blooms after leaves fall off. After flower blooms, a seed is formed which is explosively released giving the shrub the nickname of snapping hazelnut. It can grow tall about 10-12′. This shrub puts up several trunks that cluster together.
Where Found: dry or moist woods
Parts Used: bark, dried and leaves can be fresh or dried
Uses: astringent, tonic, used for centuries for treating hemorrhoids, bruises, inflammation, varicose veins, bags under the eyes, burns, and scalds earning a place in many a home medicine chest. Witch hazel contains tannins which give it its astringent qualities. Applying witch hazel water to acne, pores helps reduce inflammation, a very popular remedy. Witch hazel’s most popular use is to reduce the swelling from hemorrhoids.
Witch hazel, a native, shown to early settlers by Native Americans found its way into the settler’s home and into our pharmacopeia as an effective remedy. Some sites researched claim there is a low number of studies performed today on its effectiveness though some sources claim it is safe to use topically.
Iroquois Indians used a tea made from bark and twigs, made into a poultice to reduce swelling and inflammation from bruises, sprains. It worked. Euell Gibbons, one of my favorite authors on the use of edible plants in our local environments, supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s agricultural department, made teas, distilled leaves for a poultice. He acknowledges witch hazel as one of the most commonly used folk remedies.
Gail Reynolds, Master Gardener, plant scientist, and Middlesex County Coordinator for that program here in CT stresses proper ID before using any plant from the wild. I agree. However, we have folkloric traditional use of our plants. They were effective at a time when there were no antibiotics, no words for bacteria and viruses. They used these plants effectively and passed down that knowledge generationally. We have many uses both edible and topical from our native plants, many right in our backyards or visible on our local trails.
Before taking plant material, research the plant well, know the parts used. Also look into its habitat, pay attention to how many plants exist in one area and if sparse, leave alone. All contribute to sustainable wildcrafting practices.
What are your family’s plant stories? So many of our families stories and use of local remedies is lost. I recently appeared on a radio show and someone called in and spoke of a plant remedy for removing a splinter when he was a young boy. Today he remembers the story but doesn’t remember the plant. Many of my university students came from different countries and were quite familiar with successful local remedies. I encouraged to listen more carefully to the stories, be the one who passes the knowledge down.
Do you have any local plant stories? Please send me a note as I would value hearing them.
There’s nothing prettier than a glass jug filled with cool refreshing water where some of our garden beauties have center stage.
Sun tea is just that, a pitcher of water filled with summer flowers that are known to be edible.
Get a gallon glass jug, fill with pure water and place any of the following for their subtle and not so subtle flavors and colors: Experiment for the flavors you like best. Let sit in the sun 2-4 hours and serve over ice.
Remember to use only flowers you know are not treated, preferably ones you have grown without chemicals which makes flower shop flowers unacceptable. Please research any flower not on the list to make sure it is safe to eat. For ex. Daffodils are not safe to eat.
bouquet of bright wildflowers
Red clover blossoms
Ground ivy blossoms
Scented geranium leaves
Rose purple coneflower (Echinacea)
Flowers: make a beautiful garnish to many dishes. Also, flowers can be placed in ice cube trays and then placed in ice tea, lemonades, even cool refreshing water for a hot summer day treat. Violas, woodland violets which make their debut in spring, can be gathered in the spring time and frozen for summer’s use.
Salads: use as a garnish; remember that culinary herb blossoms can be added such as marjoram, or sage, even basil. I suggest that for salads that use wild greens and flowers start in small amounts in order to get used to and savor the different textures and flavors. Greens when cut up fine and mixed with traditional greens such as arugula, bib lettuces etc. blend in nicely. Place the flowers and/or the petals on top.
Recipe: Quiche: I often place flower petals on the top of quiches before cooking. Flower petals can be stripped and placed in a decorative pattern. My guests positively remark when served these wild food treats.
Book: Kitty Morse has a delightful book of flower recipes titled: “Edible Flowers, a Kitchen Companion With Kitchen Recipes”.
Many herb books also contain recipes e.g. Colonial and monastery type cookbooks, that demonstrate many ways to use edible parts of wild and cultivated plants.
Summer is well under way. As we ramble down highways and quieter roads we can see many plants in bloom. What are your favorites? Do you have any favorite edible flower recipes? I would love to hear from you.
Summer gardening chores are in full swing. We have rain barrels around our garden. While that helps us harvest rain water, it does mean a bit more work watering. Weeding puts us on our knees or bending our backs. Produce is producing strong right now and that means gathering and putting them “up”. Whether canning or freezing, garden chores are in the intense mode during this part of summer.
Got a few aches? Maybe a sore muscle or two? Here’s a great muscle rub recipe that uses quality essential oils.
Recipe: Essential oil: Soothing Muscle Rub
In aromatherapy, pine is used in saunas, steam baths and massage blends for sore muscles. The natural evergreen aroma of pine essential oil is a sweet alternative to harshly medicinal pharmaceutical preparations. Here’s a recipe that combines the oils of several plants used to add, therapeutic fragrance to steams and saunas or to apply to sore muscles at the end of a gardening day.
30 drops pine essential oil
30 drops juniper berry essential oil
30 drops peppermint essential oil
10 drops lemon essential oil
To make a penetrating massage oil for overworked muscles, dilute 12 drops of this concentrated blend in 3 ounces of vegetable oil, such as sweet almond. This fragrant muscle rub is especially nice after a strenuous workout when muscles may be tight and sore.
Never apply concentrated essential oil blends directly to skin without diluting them first as irritation may develop.
Grapes have a rich and fascinating history. Experimentation on finding hardy varieties that produce good quality wines has been ongoing for centuries. Today 7.2 trillion gallons of wine are made per year. Parts of the plant today continue to be researched for nutritional and health benefits
Leaves: smaller leaves are tastier than large leaves. Foragers typically pick them at about 3-4” long usually in the spring. Grapes leaves have a rich culinary history and many sites give great recipes. They also contain antioxidants and omega 3 fats. Stuffed with pasture raised meat and rice boosts healthy omega 3’s which supports cardiovascular health and helps decrease inflammation. The Cherokee used grape leaves in tea form for liver disorders and diarrhea.
Fruit: who can resist crisp cold grapes on a hot summer’s day? I know I can’t and while I like both green and red varieties I usually pick the red fruit for resveratrol. Some controversy continues today that in supplement form resveratrol, an antioxidant, could be detrimental or at least negate the benefits of exercise in men. However eating normal amounts of a daily serving of fruit doesn’t appear to pose any health risk. When out in the wild, fruits typically ripen late summer, early fall. They also contain Vitamin K, fiber and potassium. (Note: the photo at the right is a picture of muscadine grapes, Vitus rotundifolia which many birds love. It is also the host to local species of the sphinx moth.)
What about pesticide residues on commercial grapes? Good question. It seems commercially grown grapes are loaded with pesticide residues. In fact, 56 have been identified. It’s my understanding that grapes are one of our most heavily pesticide use food crops. I place my grapes in cool water and add 1/4 cup vinegar to water and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Then I rinse thoroughly and dry. Vinegar can be helpful in washing residues off fruits and vegetables.
Seeds: Grapeseed Extract made from grapeseeds is intensively studied. Does it have health promoting effects on cardio vascular tissue? Does it mitigate inflammation? It does have specific antioxidants. Antioxidants protects cells from free radical damage. Today grapeseed extract is being used to help in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even cancers.
Foraging and Survival Fact: Out on a trail overnight? Grape vine stems have a bark that peels. Small amounts of this remove easily and can be effective fire tinder. And, cut grape vines, in most cases, provide potable water; cut vine and you will see liquid water substance which can be safely drunk and quench thirst.
Grape Juice: I discovered homemade grape juice by accident. I was making jelly from wild grapes. Once I cooked and mashed the grapes to remove skins and seeds I was left with a bright wine red juice. I let it cool and tried it a bit later. I had not added any sugar at this point and found I didn’t need to. It was delicious.
The specific colors in fruits and vegetables contain specific antioxidants that scientists are studying for health benefits. Fresh grape juice is loaded and may even protect one against Type 2 Diabetes.
Grapes by the handful are a refreshing snack. Some folks eat the seeds too. Depending on where they come from and how farmed, I would be cautious. Harvesting from your own woodlands is a different story.
Judith Dreyer, MS, BSN, Writer, Speaker, Holistic Health Consultant and Workshop Presenter, Master Gardener. © all rights reserved.
For most gardeners spring planning is just about done. Seeds have been purchased and started. Snow comes, soon melts, spring’s official beginning is around the corner, and birds have begun their mating songs.
Years ago I attended an herb class at a local herb farm. The owner prepared a beautiful glass urn of sun tea. The urn was filled with a variety of flowers, violets, johnny jump ups, roses, lavender, herb blossoms and more. This tea was refreshing. I was impressed and have not forgotten this experience.
Recently, I came across a new book from Rosalind Creasy, the Edible Flower Garden. Her cover and photography hooked my curiosity as the subject of edible flowers is limited. Rosalind is a well known author and respected organic gardener. It is a stunning work with gorgeous photography that highlights the beauty of flowers and shows off culinary delights using flowers in a variety of ways. She has researched claims of edibles and addresses some of which are myths, such as stock. History shows it may have been eaten in times of famine but no other time. Therefore, stock is not on her list.
blossoms in quiches. Small amounts of wild strawberry flowers when in bloom, rose petals, lavender So So many wild and common flowers are edible like the violet leaves pictured above. In my wild food classes we used echinacea and dandelion blossoms, squash blossoms, and nasturtiums, for example, created a lovely palette for the eye in recipes as well as providing variety of tastes. They inspire our creative juices, fill our senses with texture, color and form. They are the stuff of poetry and stories. Yet in my travels I have found folks a bit leery of using flowers in food.
Please keep the following in mind:
1. Flowers should never be used as food from stores. Store bought flowers often come into our country from overseas and are chemically treated.
2. Organic gardens, whether traditional landscapes or vegetable based, do not have that concern. If you do not have a garden but a neighbor does, please ask questions. Make sure they are organic.
3. If you have planters and need to give your plants extra food to maintain growth, please read labels carefully.
4. Always check with a reliable source before picking or tasting anything you are not familiar with. For example, most mushrooms are poisonous. Pokeberry flowers and berries are not edible. Daffodils are not edible.
Title: the Edible Flower Garden
Author: Rosalind Creasy
What I like: Rosalind gives the reader an encyclopedia of flowers that are edible. Pictures are crisp and easily identify a flower accompanied by: how to grow and how to prepare sections. She then provides us with photographs and recipes that are simply elegant. She rounds out her book with appendixes on planting and maintenance, pest and disease control. She has suggestions for non toxic management if pests show up. Lastly she has well organized section on seed sources.
I recently spoke to a library about the benefits of herb teas. The dried flowers contained in the herb blends were a hit. It was surprising to me how many lovers of flowers have no idea that many common plants are edible. And that some of these flowers and plants contribute nourishment. Nourishment, provided from a variety of plant constituents, such as vitamin A, B, C and calcium, supports our biology.
For those of you who are curious about edible flowers I highly recommend this book.
Judith Dreyer, MS, BSN, Writer, Speaker, Holistic Health Consultant and Workshop Presenter, Master Gardener.