I invite you to send me any questions you have on health and wellness, herbs, herbal medicine, plant spirit medicine, natural skincare, and anything else that comes to mind that I may answer. I can’t diagnose or treat over the internet, but I welcome suggestions on what you might want to read in my blog.

Thursday
Apr212011

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)

Well, the wild leeks are ready for harvesting now. Wild leeks, also called ramps, grow in rich, moist forests and are one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. They are spring ephemerals – they come up quickly in early spring and die back by early summer when the leaf canopy of the forest is out.

Wild leeks are both an edible and medicinal. Their taste is spicy, hot and somewhere between garlic and onion. Being one of the first wild greens to come up, they where traditionally used as a spring tonic. After eating only what could be stored over the long winter months, wild leeks where a welcomed and much needed addition to the diet. They are packed with vitamins and minerals (such as vitamins A, C, selenium, chromium and chlorophyll) and also have excellent healing properties. They help to clear out stagnation in the body both physically and energetically. After the contraction and introspection of winter, they help us move into the energetics of spring which is all about rebirth, growth, inspiration and new ideas.

To harvest wild leeks for medicine or food, use only the leaves and leave the bulbs in the ground so the plant can continue to live and reproduce. Pick only one leaf from some of the plants in a colony and then move on to the next. Reach into a colony from the outskirts and do not step into the patch as you could be crushing bulbs underneath. Please be mindful of your impact on the soil and other plants around the leeks as well. Use a sharp knife or scissors to harvest the leaves to minimize trauma to the plant.

For medicine, gather the leaves when they are about 2/3rds their full size. Taste them to verify their strength. They should be quite hot and spicy. If they lack the zing then either they’re past their prime or it’s not a good year for their medicine. The potency of their medicine varies from year to year, so if you try the leaves and they’re not potent, you’ll have to leave them until the next year. It’s best to gather the leaves after a couple of sunny days. If it has rained recently the leeks will be too waterlogged and will lack potency. Generally a really wet, overcast, cold spring does not make for the best leek medicine, or food for that matter.

Wild leeks are being over-harvested and are considered to be a ‘species of conservation concern’ by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. If you gather the leeks as I have described above, they will be around for the life of the forest.

Wild leeks add freshness and zippy yumminess to a meal. When hiking in the wilds I like to put a leaf or two in my sandwich. You can use them fresh in salads or on sandwiches or use them in soups, stews, stir-fries, etc. If you use them in cooking, add them in at the last minute as they lose their flavour if overly cooked.  

As medicine, wild leek needs to be used fresh or as a fresh leaf tincture. It can be used similarly to garlic as it has many of the same constituents. It is effective internally for a number of different conditions such as poor circulation, infections of the respiratory system, and digestive difficulties and infections. Externally, it can be used for sprains, bruises and rheumatic pains.

Though few animals and bugs seem to gnaw on wild leek, I have noticed a few times signs that the leaves were eaten by deer. I imagine that the deer were using the leeks as medicine and not so much for culinary purposes – perhaps they had some intestinal parasite or digestive troubles after the long winter – but who knows…maybe the deer people like a little spiciness in their lives too! 

Saturday
Apr162011

Coltsfoot 

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) opened its flowers 2 weeks ago. It is one of the earliest of early spring bloomers. Coltsfoot gets its common name from the shape of its leaves which supposedly look like the hoof print of a horse. They certainly don't look like any hoof print I've seen except in the vaguest sense, but there you go.  Its flowers (which somewhat resemble small dandelions and are the same vibrant yellow) open in early spring, while its leaves don't emerge until late spring when the flowers have mostly died back.

Both the flowers and leaves are used medicinally. The flowers are only used fresh or as a fresh tincture, whereas the leaves can be used fresh or dried as a tincture or infused oil. Collect the flowers early in their flowering period before they become fertilized (they bend over once they're fertilized), and the leaves early in summer when they are about the width of your hand wide (around 15cm). If the leaves have red spots on them, they are past the time when they can be harvested. The tincture of coltsfoot should contain both leaves and flowers in a 1:1 ratio, so you need to make up a tincture of each separately and then combine them later after they've macerated (steeped) and been pressed.

Coltsfoot is mainly used for acute and chronic conditions of the respiratory system. It relaxes the lungs and helps to expel mucus, is anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic and has immune stimulating properties. It is excellent for such conditions as asthma, whooping cough, bronchitis, hayfever and stuffy sinuses.

It is also used to treat inflammation and irritation of the mucus membranes of the digestive, respiratory, urinary, and reproductive tracts for such conditions as ulcers, colitis, cystitis and sore throats.

Externally it is used for healing wounds and makes a great emergency first aid remedy in the field.

The leaves of Coltsfoot can be dried and used in a smoke mixture. It was used traditionally in a smoking blend for asthma and other lung conditions. If you are trying to quit smoking, this is a plant you can use blended with tobacco and other herbs to help you cut down gradually.

Coltsfoot does come with a caution as it contains a small amount of pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are toxic to the liver. It should not be used in pregnancy or nursing, for anyone under 3 or over 70, or with liver disease. Do not use this herb for more than 2 - 3 months at a chronic dose or 2 - 3 weeks at acute dosages. There is no need, though, to exclude this very valuable herb from your herbal apothecary if you follow the above guidelines.

Wednesday
Mar302011

Buckthorn & Robin

Spring is here at last! Some of my bird friends have returned already such as turkey vulture and red-winged blackbird. The cacophony of birds is beginning – everyone is twitterpated – including me! I was out in one of the beautiful wild spaces of Ontario this past Monday watching Robin eating Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) berries.

Rhamnus has been much maligned in North America. It is a non-native shrub or small tree that was imported from Europe as an ornamental shrub and for fence rows but has gone feral and is now considered ‘an invasive.’ Common Buckthorn is also an alternate host for a fungus that causes oat crown rust. The policy of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is to shoot on site and not ask any questions. It seems CB has caused endless grief to many. But Robin didn’t seem to be doing judgment and ate its berries with relish.

 Rhamnus cathartica berries are a wonderful medicinal. I harvest the berries late in the fall after they have been subjected to frost, when their laxative properties are more gentled, and make them into a tincture. Its name R. cathartica is a give away for what it is best know for – constipation. Rhamnus berries are used as a stimulating laxative for chronic constipation. They are also excellent for liver and gallbladder congestion, poor appetite, difficulty with fat digestion, inflammation of the liver, chronic toxicity related conditions such as skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, acne) and rheumatic conditions, and for inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract.

When using Rhamnus as a stimulating laxative always combine it with relaxing carminative herbs such as chamomile, mints, lemon balm, and lavender to gentle any potential griping and irritation. The griping though is minimalized when you harvest the berries after frost. Keep in mind that, in general, stimulating laxatives are a last resort with chronic constipation.



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