Finding My Roots: Enjoying Herbal Roots and Root Vegetables in a Late Spring

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I know what most Iowans (and other Midwestern denizens) are probably thinking right now: it seems like spring is never going to come.

Harvested Spring Dandelion Greens | Iowa Herbalist
Harvested dandelion greens in spring – something to look forward to soon (I hope)

I rarely write about how I feel personally in relation to the weather, nature, herbs, and whatever is around me on this website, not to mention even in my writing work. But it’s been strange seeing how my emotional state has been a parallel (or even a microcosm) of the stop-and-start spring we’ve been seeing over the past month: a glimmer of warm days ahead, only to get a dusting of 2-3 inches of snow and deep cold again instead.

It’s as if everything is saying: you’re not ready. Not yet.

Ginger Root and Powdered Turmeric | Iowa Herbalist

I haven’t felt ready for spring for several weeks.

It’s been a perfect echo of the weather here, but it’s not my usual self– and just as unusual as this weather. During the cold months I write more for a living, a perfect indoor activity for such a season. But come spring, I restlessly gear myself towards the outdoor work I do more of during the warmer months and the growing season on our farm.

As it tends to go, physical labor outdoors is something I really look forward to and achingly welcome after months of getting soft and pithy, sitting inside.

Only in this long winter, for some reason, I’m not.

Parsnip Roots | Iowa Herbalist
Delicious parsnip roots – roasted in the oven, they’re a perfect indoor hygge food.

Even as a farmer and herbalist, my work in the winter doesn’t stop since I’m also a writer. It just changes to work and pressure of a different nature.

It’s losing count of the cups of coffee I drink to meet staggered deadlines. Its skipping meals and getting that feeling like I’m getting more done somehow by doing that.

I haven’t been able to get a tropical vacation getaway like some people. Despite winter forcing me indoors, I haven’t quite rested and re-nourished– I haven’t had my break, and I think by not being ready for spring, it’s because I’m still chasing that rest and re-nourishment.

The other reason: I’ve been addicted to hygge lately. Staying inside, peering with a comfy feeling at yet more snow on the ground, sipping hot beverages with a satisfied feeling – I think I’m still addicted to the feeling of winter. I don’t quite want to let it go yet, before the busy farming season hits; there is still more rest and renourishing to do, I sense.

Calamus Roots | Iowa Herbalist
Harvested calamus roots grown in my home. Potent, healing, soothing, and very aromatic.

Apparently, this weather and the late spring agrees.

So what does this have to do with herbalism? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

The excessive coffee and skipped meals, lately, have been coming at a price. I’m getting stuff done– but at the expense of something. My energy, my excitement to go outside, and obviously my overall outlook and, to some extent, my positivity, perhaps.

Though I’m not hauling shiitake logs and working the soil outdoors, my body– and especially my back– have been feeling the pain of too much sitting work, which tires me out even more. Overall, I have felt deficient and even ungrounded.

I’m ready for the growing and harvesting season to begin in my mind. But getting in touch with my body… I’m absolutely not. I’m not taking care of myself.

I’m not…. rooted.

So it was with a strange coincidence that, one evening recently during this bizarre and un-ending winter, instead of skipping dinner to meet a writing deadline, I baked a sweet potato.

Sweet Potato Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

Let’s just say that I’ve long loved sweet potatoes, but that it had been a while. But the sensation and flavor when I ate it this time around was eye-opening and amazing.

I’m not going to lie – it was near-orgasmic. Something my body (AND my mind) was deeply craving was suddenly satisfied.

And go ahead, think of me as a weird person for finding a vegetable so pleasurable.

The next time I was at the grocery store, needless to say I stocked up on a ridiculous amount of sweet potatoes. Ever since the re-encounter with this root veggie I’ve always had some affection for, the hunger was real. I couldn’t get enough.

Instead of skipping meals, I’ve been baking sweet potatoes instead. It’s almost felt like a medicine, something my body has sorely needed.

And, in a weird way that will never be proven by science– only in my empirical experience– it’s also felt like a medicine for my mind.

Sweet Potato | Iowa Herbalist

Following at the tail end of that, one evening I also ran out of decaf coffee. I’d been drinking it in the evenings for its roasted, toasted hygge feeling of comfort, one of the main reasons I love coffee in the first place (though the caffeine buzz is great, too).

I had a sudden remembering that I had store-bought dandelion root coffee in the cupboard (it may also have chicory root or burdock root in it too, but I’m not sure). Instead of bewailing my lack of comforting evening decaf or going to the store, I made a piping hot cup of that instead.

Again, just like the sweet potato root, it was absolutely amazing. It catapulted me into feelings of comfort, happiness, and feeling…


Roasted Chicory Root Coffee | Iowa Herbalist
Closeup of roasted chicory root coffee, a beloved beverage in Europe– and particularly countries like Belgium, where my family comes from.

It’s strange the way nature talks to us. Even stranger are the ways it provides us with exactly what we need.

Maybe winter tells you you’re not ready for spring yet by, well, simply not ending…yet. And maybe, for each of us, it’s got a different message depending on where we’re at.

Though I find it funniest of all that I stumble on the comfort of root vegetables and herbal roots precisely during a time when I need more nourishment and rooting.

It should be noted, too, that late spring is also the best time to harvest a lot of herbal roots– because the energy in these roots is just waking up in preparation for spring and flowering. That’s just when you want to nab them and dig them up: when they’re supercharged.

This might not apply to the delicious sweet potato and some other agricultural root crops we roast during winter, which are more frequently dug up in late fall. But it does apply to herbal roots like dandelion, burdock, and chicory, which I’ve been enjoying so deeply in the form of toasty late spring coffees as of late.

Chicory Flower | Iowa Herbalist
The flower of the chicory plant.

Instead of chugging coffee and nothing else to get through winter work, I’ve instead reconnected with these hearty root vegetables and herbal roots (or, at the very least, made a genuine effort to).

Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins A, C, B vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and even healthful fatty acids, for example. Studies also suggest they could be important natural therapies and future drug sources for fighting cancer and diabetes as an anti-inflammatory food.

Dandelions are known to contain all this nutrition too, as well as tons of vitamin K, plus the benefits of being an herbal digestive bitter. Studies also show they could protect the liver. With chicory as a very very close relative, it’s not so far-fetched to think it could have similar health perks.

And, as a result, am starting to feel more nourished and rooted than before.

I’m hoping and planning to grow sweet potatoes in the upcoming seasons at our farm, and to even roast my very own herbal roots coffee (recipe on harvesting/roasting to come, it’s still too cold to harvest these wonderul herbs yet– though you’ll find a nice baked sweet potato recipe below) from wild chicory roots and dandelions I will weed out and forage while farming.

More projects, more goals, more work to do when it’s warm.

But, still, slowly. Spring is far from being here yet.

So in the meantime, I’m going to keep rooting… for myself. In this winter that seems to have no end in sight, even in April, maybe you should try it, too.

Chicory Root Coffee | Iowa Herbalist
Dandelion and chicory root coffee.

Baked Sweet Potato Recipe

What you need: just one large medium- to large-sized sweet potato (so simple).

  1. Take your sweet potato and jab it all over with a fork, as evenly as possible. This way the heat can travel deep within the tuber to roast its insides as well.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
  3. Once heated, place your sweet potato on a cookie sheet or oven pan. Place in oven (I prefer the bottom rack but I don’t think that matters too much). Let roast for half an hour.
  4. After half an hour, flip it over. Put it back in the oven. Bake an additional half an hour, or until sweet potato caves in when poked with the blunt side of a fork– or when carmelized, sweet inner juices start crackling out of the fork holes.
  5. Remove from oven. Split open. Sprinkle with your additional desired accoutrements. Popular choices are a bit of sugar, butter, sliced nuts, sliced bananas, even almond butter or a drizzle of honey (or even a floral simple syrup).
  6. Eat, savor, and enjoy.

Baked Sweet Potato | Iowa Herbalist

Crafting Chaga Double Extract

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Double Chaga Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

Ever harvested the chaga mushroom?

If you’ve never lived in the north woods (or spent time in these environments), I would expect you to say “no” – but I wouldn’t put it past you, either.

I, myself, have never harvested chaga. I have to thank my good friend, Lisa Maas, up in Alaska for handing off these priceless, healing nuggets to me that she herself received as a gift (no doubt from a seasoned chaga harvester).

They could indeed be called the “black gold” nuggets of the medicinal mushroom world: looking much like gnarled charcoal that, once busted open, reveal tawny-gold, clay-like insides.

Chaga Layers Side View | Iowa Herbalist

She passed these on to me while still in Iowa before relocating to Anchorage – ironically, a northern Alaskan city near boreal forests where chaga spores are known to roam, spreading from birch tree to birch tree.

Not knowing what to do with them on her part – and me, on my part, being completely inexperienced with them – I took them gladly, seeing them as a new herbal adventure.

Why take the chance on an unknown mushroom, you might ask?

Because any healing mushroom, especially one rich in polysaccharides and triterpenes, can be made into a healing double extract – a recipe for which we will delve into later in this article.

Chaga Double Extract | Iowa Herbalist

Healing & Background

As stated above, chaga mushrooms are denizens of boreal forests, northern woods that host mostly conifer tree species, but also a mix of poplars, willows, and birches. And it’s the birch trees that are what chaga especially love.

From small little knots to oversized chunks, these mushrooms crack and burst through the wounds, crotches, and notches in the trunks of these beautiful trees.

Paper Birch | Iowa Herbalist

While some might think these harvestable parts of the fungus are the reproductive fruiting body, that’s actually not the case: they’re called sclerotia, a part of the actual mushroom’s mycelial network, and the literal living, breathing organism part of chaga.

Traditional use of the mushroom is well-documented, with especially important roles in the folk medicines of Russia, Eastern Europe, Siberia, northern China, Japan, Korea, and First Nations in the northern latitudes of North America.

It was used as a healing tonic, brewed similar to tea or coffee, and given to strengthen the body against weakness and disease, to defeat cancers, prevent wasting, and even to promote longevity (markedly better than other mushrooms used by the very same peoples). Studies today are confirming a lot of these uses as very accurate for today’s illnesses, too.

Chaga in Snow with Pine Branches | Iowa Herbalist

A north-woods, alpine, boreal, and/or taiga dweller, you’ll find it growing wherever it’s regularly cold in the northern latitudes, and where there are plenty of birches to be found.

The northern ranges of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Russia/Siberia are the most well-known chaga haunts. But apparently you can find it in pockets of northern Minnesota, the Appalachian mountains, and the Adirondacks of the Northeastern U.S, as my well-traveled, well-mushroom-learned husband informed me.

Chaga in Iowa?

Being an Iowa local these days, a state that’s not quite northern enough to host chaga, I still wonder: maybe it could have, at one time in the forgotten past, at least in very hidden pockets and corners.

After all, Iowa is host to the largest number of algific talus slopes in the world, small little micro-climate environments speckled across the northeastern portion of the state (known as the Driftless area). You can read more about Iowa, algific talus slopes, and herbalism here.

Wild Yellow Birch Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
A wild naturally-growing yellow birch tree in White Pine Hollow State Park in Driftless Iowa

Rich in yellow birch trees and mountain ash, these year-round cool habitats are supposed to be much like fragmented bits of northern high-altitude boreal forest, trapped deep within the heart of Midwest forest, prairie, and oak savanna.

So who knows. Back when the state was home to a lot more algific talus slope habitat (which does host plenty of birches), perhaps there was a population or two. We’ll never know.

The Marriage of Chaga and Birch

Returning back to their love of birch trees, fascinatingly, chaga’s predilection for them has a lot to do with their healing properties.

These fungi absorb betulins, a triterpene found in birch species (of the genus Betula), which are responsible for a great deal of their vigorous anti-cancer properties, and famous for surpassing those of most other highly touted mushrooms (including reishi and shiitake).

Chaga Extract Looks Like Root Beer | Iowa Herbalist

It is theorized in one study that chaga takes betulin, a potent anti-tumor compound, and synthesizes it into betulinic acid – chaga’s cancer-fighting triterpene.

The clincher here: betulin is powerful, but not bioavailable to humans; betulinic acid is, and can be taken orally.

I forget where I heard this (it’s scribbled in my herbalist notes, for which any source is missing), but chaga was known to be the most potent when grown on a yellow birch tree. Apparently, the tree is much richer in its signature betulins compared to other birch species, thus lending any chaga growing upon it more powerful healing properties.

Yellow Birch Tipton Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

So if you’re keen on learning to harvest the mushroom on your own, finding one up on a yellow birch means that you’ve stumbled on a prime specimen!

Some Notes on Harvesting and Sustainability

Writing about everything to do with harvesting chaga would take a whole other article to properly illuminate. Still, there are some very important issues related to harvesting that absolutely must be touched on– particularly in regards to foraging it sustainably.

Chaga is not an officially endangered fungus (yet), but it is fast headed in that direction. Because its healing properties are of such wide repute nowadays, the gnarled mushroom is often over-harvested (or, more accurately, incorrectly harvested) by commercial wildcrafters to make a quick buck with supplement companies meeting the consumer demand for chaga in their own lives.

Chaga in Snow | Iowa Herbalist

Foraging enthusiasts can do their own damage if they harvest it incorrectly, too– and the problem with over-harvesting appears to be the greatest in North America, and especially Canada’s boreal forests. It not only depletes chaga, but harms the birch tree from which it is taken, making the trees these fungi need more vulnerable to disease and death as a result.

If you’re wanting to harvest (or purchase and use) chaga as sustainably as possible, make sure to examine a chaga-selling company’s harvest practices. Or, harvest it sustainably yourself: only take about a quarter of the chaga you encounter from each growth in the tree. That’s all you’ll need.

Read how to sustainably harvest chaga here at Black Magic.

Why Make a Double Extract?

Why not just make a simple tincture? Or, for that matter, pick up a convenient supplement at your local co-op or store instead?

Beyond sustainability, most folks who look into taking certain mushroom extracts may not realize: the properties of mushrooms (like lion’s mane, for example) are locked tightly away in one of nature’s hardest substances called chitin, a fiber that naturally occurs in these fungi. These contain the compounds you’re after, but your digestive system just isn’t equipped to get the betulinic acids out.

Chaga with Antlers | Iowa Herbalist

That’s why double extracts are the way to go for a home preparation, and why non-double-extractions are products you shouldn’t buy. The combination of alcohol and water (specifically hot water) guarantees that all the mushroom’s compounds– both triterpenes and polysaccharides– will end up in your extract, so you can enjoy ALL the benefits that chaga can give: reduced risk of cancer, immune-boosting, antioxidant troves, and more.

A powder or supplement alone won’t have it all, and solely a water or alcohol extract (separated) won’t have it all, either. Hence the need for a double extract!

Two-Phase Extract

This recipe is inspired by Guido Masé’s reishi double extract.

Chaga Double Extract Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

You’ll need:

  • Chaga mushroom
  • High Proof Alcohol (I use 151 Everclear)
  • Glycerin (though I consider this optional)
  • Water

-Take your chaga and grind it up. I’ve been recommended hammers and cheese graters to do this, and really liked the cheese grater quite a bit. Chaga is tough, but I was surprised that it didn’t beat up the cheese grater at all. Grate or hammer the chaga into a powder or into the smallest nuggets possible, and then split that amount evenly in two parts.

Grinding Chaga | Iowa Herbalist

-Using the first part, prepare a tincture by covering the powder with a solvent of 75 percent alcohol, 15 glycerin, and 10 percent water (if opting out on glycerin: 90 percent alcohol, 10 percent water.  Glycerin is meant to help with the emulsion).

-Set tincture aside, and let it steep for four weeks, shaking it occasionally.  Then strain it and measure its volume.

Chaga Tincture | Iowa Herbalist
Shaking chaga tincture, you’ll notice it forms a frothy, foamy head, quite a bit like root beer.

-After you’ve strained the tincture, take the second part of the chaga mushrooms and simmer them for at least one hour, preferably two or more, in twice as much water as you used for the total solvent volume.  Keep adding water, if necessary.

-At the end of the simmering, strain it all out and reduce the volume of fluid you have left by boiling it down so that it equals the volume of strained tincture. Take this off the heat and allow it to cool completely.

-Combine the simmered broth and strained tincture, mixing well with a whisk.  Make sure you are adding the tincture to the broth and not vice versa to reduce the amount of concentrated alcohol the constituents in the broth have to endure.

-Bottle and store, preferably in a dark-tinted glass bottle or container.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub (For Allergies)

Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail – that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.

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As we speak, summer temps are finally chilling out to make way for fall. I’m a mixture of both excited for cooler outdoor adventures, camping, fishing, fall herb harvesting, autumn colors….and a little sad that the hot era of barbecues and beach-going are over.

Beet Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs
Beet, peach, and goldenrod shrub with a sprig of lemon balm, and sweetened with a lilac floral simple syrup.

Regardless, you just can’t complain about a season where you can finally prop open your windows at night, and let some of that fresh, cool air in.

The only drawback: allergies!

That’s right – while the cool air comes in, so does all that late-summer blow-out pollen. It’s like the local herbs are having a last-chance, going-out-of-business sale, and the bulk of it ends up in your sinuses.

Beets, Peaches, and Goldenrod: Unlikely Allies

Fortunately, some of the foods and herbs that come into season right around this time are perfect for an anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory tonic: most specifically beets and peaches!

Native Iowa Peaches, Whole | Deer Nation Herbs
The Iowa Indian White Freestone variety of peach, a breed native to the state of Iowa – and which I’m proud to feature in this recipe.

I know, they’re a very unlikely sounding duo; but earlier this summer, I made a lovely beet-and-peach combo that came especially alive in a drinking vinegar/shrub blend. Really, I could not get over how amazing it was.

Sliced Beet | Deer Nation Herbs

These are two beauties of produce that most wouldn’t think of as medicinal (or as going great together at all), but which were once primarily used more as medicine than as food (beets); or, which have unsuspected strong roots in traditional folk medicine (peaches).

Last comes goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), that yellow banner of autumn most people associate with the worst allergies of the year.

Goldenrod Flowers | Deer Nation Herbs

I know what you’re thinking: why put this pollen right into an allergy shrub tonic? Sounds like a good way to make things worse. But any knowledgeable herbalist will happily rejoice in telling you: “wrong!”

Goldenrod actually produces hardly any allergens to humans at all, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center and other sources, if you poke around online (or just ask an herbalist).

And while it does bloom brightly August through October when pollen seems to reach its peak (at least in the Midwest and Iowa), this can be blamed instead on its less vibrantly visible green-flowered neighbor, ragweed (Ambrosua spp.).

Goldenrod Blossoms in Beet and Peach Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Unlocking Their Healing Flavors

If you study the flavors of these food and herbs, you can determine their uses and herbal energetics: beets are bitter, cool, and damp, making them excellent alteratives, cleansers, blood sugar balancers, and digestive tonics in Western herbalism.

Peaches are sweet, cool, and moist, dubbing them demulcents and thus excellent expectorant/respiratory healers; while goldenrod is both sweet and bitter, as well as dry, bringing it immune-boosting qualities combined with anti-inflammatory effects.

Native Iowa Peaches | Deer Nation Herbs
The Iowa Indian White Freestone variety of peach, a local breed native to the state of Iowa. These peaches are smaller than typical peaches.

As we’ll explore later looking closely at the health benefits of these ingredients, these flavor profiles ring true even with some of today’s modern studies on these foods and herbs. In fact, determining the flavors of the herbs and foods you use can help you easily trace their herbal properties, and how they can be used in healing (as an herbalist would).

Foods and Herbs to Support Allergies

So what does this rag-tag trio of herbs and veggies accomplish for allergies, exactly?

Goldenrod Blossoms in Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

While an herbal sinus rinse is my go-to when symptoms get really bad, herbalists do also need to think holistically and nutritionally when working with herbs.

You can feel the pollen dancing it up in your nostrils, but its irritating effects may also be sourced from complications elsewhere in your body. What could be the underlying issue? Inflammation, immunity – or maybe a few recent diet (or alcohol) choices that were tough on your liver?

On top of using cleansing, anti-inflammatory herbs right at the site of irritation (your nose), certain foods and herbs bring a boost to other bodily systems getting overloaded by allergies.

It’s not just your upper respiratory tract that needs some love. Your liver and immune system are also a part of allergy irritation, responding to seasonal pollen by producing more pro-inflammatory proteins (such as cytokines) which trigger yet more inflammation and feed into the vicious allergy cycle.

And here’s the catch: your liver and your immune system will absolutely love beets and peaches, especially how they taste together. (I’m looking at all you beet-haters out there, too; you’d be surprised!)

Nutritional and Healing Properties

When I combined beets and peaches for the first time, this divine duo didn’t just catch my attention due to the wonderful ways their flavors combined. It was also their ability to work together as two nutritious, healing foods in an allergy tonic for fall – a time when they’re both in season – that seemed more than perfect to me.

Then, finally, adding bunches of sinus-soothing goldenrod as a final touch tied it all together, both flavor-wise and color-wise with accents of pink and yellow.

Making Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

In the fruity and sour menstruum of an apple cider vinegar-shrub medium, the flavors meld and truly come alive, accompanied by the even further allergy-soothing properties of ACV and the probiotics that also support allergy issues.

It all comes together for the perfect, beautiful, refreshing, allergy-supporting autumn mocktail!

Beet Nutrition and Healing Properties (Beta vulgaris)
  • Source of vitamin C and iron, nutrients that boost immunity, which mediates allergy reactions; also contains folate, potassium, and manganese for nourishment.
  • The pink pigments in beets, called betalains, are potent anti-inflammatory compounds; studies show that they interfere with the pro-inflammatory signalling of cytokines produced by the liver, which can be a part of triggering allergy attacks.
  • In traditional folk medicine, beets were used as alterative blood-cleaners, or detoxifiers. This no doubt mirrors modern research’s findings: a perceived “cleansing” of the body being its recovery against harmful inflammation.

Beet Halves for Making Beet Shrub (For Allergies) | Deer Nation Herbs

Peach Nutrition and Healing Properties (Prunus persica)
  • Source of vitamin C, which helps fortify the immune system and modulate allergy reactions.
  • Studies over the last decade acknowledge a very notable anti-allergenic effect from the peach fruit – including its ability to prevent mast cells from breaking in the body, which release histamines and create the allergic reaction.
  • In traditional herbalism, peaches (typically the bark, leaves, or seeds) were used for asthma, respiratory issues, and inflammation of the airways. This includes difficulties from allergies, and no doubt is a reflection of the confirmed findings of modern studies.
Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail - that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.
Goldenrod Healing Properties (Solidago canadensis)

Folk herbalists have used goldenrod as a remedy for many things, but most surprisingly of all as an allergy soother, quite unusual when goldenrod is so typically reviled for causing allergies (a popular myth).

Au contraire – even modern studies today investigate its abilities to soothe inflammation, as noted by the University of Maryland Medical Centerincluding those from allergies. It would also appear that the yellow flower has antioxidant capabilities to heal tissue damaged by inflammation and oxidation, according to another study.

Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar and Probiotics

Last (but certainly not least), all these ingredients fermented together in a drinking vinegar or shrub form make it the ultimate allergy tonic.

Why is that?

Fizzy Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs

Well, the acetic acid bacteria that colonizes fermented vinegars (like ACV) are shown in clinical studies to prevent and treat allergic reactions. If you ferment your shrub for more probiotic activity, the more powerful your tonic will get – and nowadays, you just can’t argue with how good probiotics are for you!

There you have it: a tasty, healthy beverage that has all your allergy bases covered. You won’t even notice that you’re sipping on medicine during these crisp and cool fall days.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Allergy Tonic Shrub (The “Beaches” Shrub)

Beet-haters: watch out! With this delicious herbal drink, you may just find that you have switched sides in the long-fought love-it-or-hate-it beet battle.

But hey – if you can’t beet ’em, join ’em; and this healing brew may be just the thing to convince you.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs

I’ve taken my main shrub-making inspiration here from cook Mary Karlin’s recipe at My reasoning: her craftsmanship involves a brief stage of fermentation, which adds those vital anti-allergy probiotics (on top the sinus-busting foods and herbs) in this recipe.

For my main article on shrubs, check out this post on how to master shrub-making, and how to add herbs to them to make them health-themed tasty tonics and mocktails of your own.

Note: for the most stubborn among you beet-haters out there, substitute one cup of the beets for a cup of strawberries. This will help mask the taste a bit more, while still adding color and compatible flavor to both the veggies and fruits (plus, strawberries have plenty of vitamin C).

As a last note, I’m proud to be using a locally-sourced and very special kind of peach for this recipe (as shown in the photographs): the Iowa Indian White Freestone peach, a native strain to Iowa. (That’s right: take that Georgia, peaches grow up here too!)

  • 1 quart mason jar with lid and ring
  • Cheesecloth or thin, clean rag of breathable material (with fine holes)
  • Wooden spoon or muddler
  • Raw vinegar (apple cider, coconut, your choice – I prefer apple cider. Must be raw for fermentation)
  • 2 cups red beets, chopped or shredded
  • 1 cup peaches, chopped or diced
  • 1 cup of fresh goldenrod flowers
  • Parchment or wax paper
  • (Up to) 1 cup sweetener of your choice – sugar, stevia, honey, agave, you name it

-Chop and place beets and peaches in jar, packed full together with goldenrod flowers. Muddle with a wooden spoon or pestle to release juices, oils, nutrients, and other properties.

Chopped Beets for Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Chopped Native Iowa Peaches | Deer Nation Herbs

Goldenrod in Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-Cover with raw vinegar of choice, until jar brims almost full – but with 1 inch airspace remaining under rim. Make sure all ingredients are submerged under vinegar to discourage mold (and feel free to muddle them up a bit more, too). Drape cheesecloth or other breathable cloth over mouth of jar, then affix lid ring (just the ring!) onto jar to keep cloth in place (for a visual guide or idea of what this may look like, refer to my main shrub-making post).

Pouring Vinegar Into Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Making Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub (Allergy Tonic) | Deer Nation Herbs

Muddling Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Muddled Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-Leave jar out at room temperature overnight (12 hours more or less). Wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria will be captured; molds, bugs, and other pests are discouraged. (Side note: leave jar out for another day or two if you’re feeling brave, and want more wild probiotic bacteria in your shrub!)

-After fermentation is up, remove cloth from jar and seal it shut with both lid and lid ring. Place a piece of wax or parchment paper over mouth of jar before screwing lid back on – this will protect the lid’s metal from being oxidized and rusted by the vinegar.

-For next 3 days, you’ll be shaking the shrub as often as you think of it (like a tincture) as it macerates at room temperature, preferably a dark place. During that time, juices and compounds will be extracted, while carbonation and probiotic action takes place!

-After 3 days are over, strain everything out of your shrub into a stainless-steel bowl or the like. Remove twigs and leaves of goldrenrod and compost; keep peaches and beets, putting them back into the vinegar alone.

Fermenting Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-Replace wax or parchment paper, seal jar closed all over again, and place in the fridge this time – your shrub will get cool and collected for 4 more days, as flavors mingle. Shake as much as you can all the while. This last process, in the end, totals 7 days (a whole week) for shrub development.

-Your whole week of carbonating, fermenting, and maturation is over – after 4 days in the fridge, go ahead and strain everything out of your shrub, leaving just the syrupy, fruity herbal vinegar in the jar. (Give it a taste – don’t beets and peaches pair amazing together?)

-Here it’s time to add special flavors and extras to taste – put in your sweetener (honey, sugar, etc.) and juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, your call). Once you’re done, replace the parchment/wax paper, put the lid back, on and return to the fridge. You’ll let it sit for yet another full week to let it carbonate, thicken, and grow to maturity. Shake your jar sporadically to help unlock more flavor.

-After that second week, your shrub should be ready to use and enjoy. Take a couple tablespoons a day as a raw vinegar, probiotic supplement – or add it to tonic water, club soda, or fizzy kombucha for a fruity, sour, refreshing beverage or mocktail. Sweeten to taste if need be.

Beet Shrub Mocktail Above | Deer Nation Herbs

How did you like the shrub when it was all done? Feel free to share your adventure in the comments below.

Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail - that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.

Make Cooling, Sour, and Healing Sumac-Ade for Late Summer

Late summer is sumac season, perfect for making the immune-boosting, antimicrobial tonic sumac-ade.

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Sumac is one of my all-time favorite herbs, as you’ll read in my homage to the wonderful berry here.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

However, you won’t find it lauded too much on the most popular websites, herbals, or materia medicas out there compared to wonders like goldenseal, echinacea, or ginseng – nor are supplements and tinctures of it too easy to come by.

An understated astringent, tonic, remarkable antibiotic and digestive aid, this bright crimson-berried shrub of late summer and fall holds a healing song that goes unsung.

Yet there is one enduring tradition involving sumac that gets sung loudly every year during sumac season: sumac-ade!

In the form of this tart and tangy beverage, you can enjoy some of the plant’s healing and nutritive effects for yourself, and it’s pretty simple to make as you’ll find in the recipe below.

You don’t have to enjoy it plain (though a very strong, cold infusion on its own with no additions will arguably be the most medicinal). Mix it up with your favorite mixers, liqueurs, or even your own favorite homemade healing shrub or hand-crafted simple syrup for a truly herbal beverage.

Sumac-Ade History in Brief

You might not know it, but sumac-ade (made from either smooth sumac Rhus glabra, or staghorn sumac Rhus typhina) is in fact a tasty herbal relic and beverage straight from the Iowa area of ancient times, as well as the rest of the heart of the Midwest.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.
Rhus glabra or Smooth Sumac, one of the most common types of sumac you will find in Iowa and the Midwest – the further east you go, the more you will see Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) which is also another popular maker of sumac-ade.

The First Nation civilization and major economic center known as Cahokia, an extensive city and network of commerce among many ancient peoples in the Midwest, had quite the reach and influence all along the Mississippi River – including the Upper Mississippi area of Iowa, as evidenced by the many mounds still present there today.

Thick-clustered stands of sumac still grow on the banks of the Mississippi, strongly presumed to be planted or managed purposefully by Cahokian agriculturists as an important food source. It’s not hard to surmise that they were grown for medicine, too – and in the form of sumac-ade, a cold-steeped infusion of the berries, they perfected a recipe that worked as both food and medicine.

Healing and Nutritional Benefits

We all know sumac-ade as being purely, simply, and tartly delicious. But as the ancient First Nation peoples who crafted and enjoyed the beverage knew quite well too, there was much more to the cooling berry than that.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

  • High in vitamin C, and good for immunity
  • Contains antioxidants for cellular protection
  • Contains gallic acids, potent antimicrobial compounds
  • Demonstrated blood sugar-regulating activity, good for diabetics
  • Lowers bad cholesterol, while boosting good cholesterol
  • Could prevent atherosclerosis, thus prevent heart disease (1)
  • Regulates the gut and remedies diarrhea

Studies today support the above-mentioned health benefits, while in traditional folk herbalism, sumac was used for fevers, urinary complaints, and digestive imbalances because due to its perceived ability to cool the body down. Its antimicrobial content was also great for righting the wrongs of stomach infections.

Make and take a swig of sumac-ade for yourself, and you’ll agree – it quenches your thirst, while opening your pores to allow a cooling sweat to break even in the worst of heat.

Sumac Berry Closeup | Deer Nation Herbs

By all means, making yourself a pitcher of sumac-ade won’t exactly replace diabetes medication, combat kidney disease, make your cholesterol plummet, or work exactly like an antibiotic for the stomach flu overnight!

On the other hand, it can be perceived as a nutritious and gut healing drink. At its very core, a glass of this rosy-red summer tonic is essentially quite healthy – you could even say healing.

Research has shown that the acids and tannins found in sumac help destroy harmful bacteria and fungi in the body, including Candida albicans, the dreaded yeast that may emerge after excessive antibiotic use and which can contribute to gut dysbiosis: an unhealthy digestive system.(2)

The bigger point to be made: this could be an excellent healthy beverage to boost your vitamin C, give your gut a bit of help, or to just make you feel guilt-free about enjoying this wild drink (though if you really want it to be healthy – skimp on that sugar!)

Make Your Own Sumac-Ade

Sumac is also a well-known culinary spice, somehow managing to have a flavor both earthy and sour that pairs well with white meats and white wines.

Both chefs and herbalists might compare it to hibiscus: it tastes tart, cooling, and dry, with a very notable rosy astringency. Similar to hibiscus, sumac is a cool, drying, tonifying, and astringent herb.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

The only thing that really sets it apart is an undertone of bitterness that somehow grounds sumac more than any other floral or berry astringent out there. For that reason, as a delicious sumac-ade drink, its flavor is unparalleled – and you know you’re not just drinking something tart and delicious, you’re also drinking a medicine!

  • 5-10 sumac berry bunches, clusters, or “drupes” (twigs and all)
  • 1-2 gallons water

Note: the general ratio of water-to-berries should be about 1 parts berries to 2 parts sumac, when all is said and done, for the most flavorful and potent infusion.

-Harvest your sumac berry drupes by gently snapping them off by the stem from a mature shrub (of course, make sure the berries are red – leave any sumac with white berries well alone, these are poison sumac, caustic and harmful to the skin like poison ivy.)

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

-In a glass or stainless steel bowl or pan, pull off the berries with the tips of your fingers, they should be easy to remove. If you get a few twigs into the mix, no problem – they are good for their astringency, though a few too many may impact the flavor.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

-Mash your berries around in the bottom of the container with a wooden spoon, muddler, or other utensil for a bit to make them more yielding to impart their flavors to the water. Something I like to do: throw the berries and a few twigs into a food processor or grinder, chop them to a powder, then add them in – this guarantees some unlocked flavor.

You can also wait until the steeping stage to mash your berries directly in the water, too.

Sumac Berry Infusion | Deer Nation Herbs

-Pour your water over the berries, cover your container, and let it sit for about 24 hours for the best extraction (though Ava Chin from the New York Times suggests that 4 hours at least should be enough). Mash them a bit here and there with your utensil if you like to unlock yet more flavor and properties.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.

-After cold steeping for the allotted time, pour both berries and water through a strainer into a new clean container or pitcher. Put on ice and flavor to taste with lemon, lime, sugar, herbs like mint or lemon balm – whatever you like.

-Serve in a chilled glass and enjoy.

It's sumac season - and a nice time to make and enjoy sumac-ade, a refreshing and tangy beverage great for immunity, the gut, and so much more.


Foster, Duke;Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281.

Flower Powers and Flavors: Floral Simple Syrups

Spring and summer bring flower’s flavors and fragrances – but how to capture them, for great taste and healing? Learn how to make an herbalist’s floral simple syrup recipe.

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It’s that sweet cusp between late spring and early summer.

And when this season comes flying around the corner, it gets harder to keep my attentions riveted to herbal preparations, recipes, writings, experiments, and all those other plans kindled during cold, indoor winter months.

Hand craft these delicately delicious syrups for a cooling, sweet treat topping or cocktail addition - with some healing benefits to boot.

It’s a busy season for growers and gardeners (as all of you out there of that ilk full well know), directing your time and energy to garden planning, seeding, soil work, watering, and maintenance.

To top it all off, your strongest desire is to be outside as much as you can anyways, now that the weather is warm: to feel the sun on your skin, the dirt in your hands, and to not necessarily be huddled in the kitchen (or that computer, for god’s sakes!)

But then when I’m outside, I notice the flowers.

Spring and summer bring flower’s flavors and fragrances – but how to capture them, for great taste and healing? Learn how to make an herbalist’s floral simple syrup recipe.

Even then, I have to drop everything I’m doing and make something with them – especially to take advantage of spring’s short window, and capture the essences of the herbalist’s favorite healing flowers: violets, dandelions, honeysuckle – even some peculiar ones too, like lilac and apple blossoms.

Syrups Tailor-Made for Fragile Flowers

How to best do that? The healing effects of flowers is one thing – but how can you capture that divine aroma and floral taste, too?

Last spring, I tried my hands at some syrups to achieve this. Think herbal syrups for cough remedies, for which there are myriad recipes online.

Honeyed Dandelion | Deer Nation Herbs

However, a lot of those recipes (such as for marshmallow, wild cherry bark, elderberries, etc.) require constant simmering or even hard boiling (especially for tough roots and bark) to unleash their essences and flavors.

Flowers, on the other hand, do not.  In fact, doing this can pretty much tarnish and destroy that delicate, fragile, perfumey-floral flavor you’re after.

So what inspired me with flowers was the simple syrup: yes, the tradition of cocktails, bitters, and the roots of old herbalism. With that inspiration, I came up with a recipe that lets you hold on to these syrups for the long term, much like your typical herbal syrup.

With just a flash of heat and a little water, this recipe is enough to suffuse your honey without destroying that floral, heavenly scent and flavor  – just like what happens with a cocktail simple syrup.

But I didn’t just stop there. I combined this method with sun-infusion (think sun tea), done beforehand as the first step, to craft what I have so far deemed the perfect recipe for capturing flower flavor.

Flowers Soaked in Honey | Deer Nation Herbs

Pretty beautiful, huh?

Apparently, it’s pretty easy to make, too.

Health and Healing Benefits of Flowers

Syrups have long been used as famous cough, cold, flu, and fever remedies. It’s no stretch to think that herbal syrups, made by ancient herbalists, are what we have to thank as the prototype for modern-day over-the-counter cough syrups.

The same goes for flowers, the dainty petals of many boasting certain healing powers over the centuries. Some of the most popular flowers among herbalist are elder flowers, violets, calendula, passionflower, bee balm, boneset, chamomile, yarrow, lavender, and many more as well.

Flowers of the Herbalist | Deer Nation Herbs

Combining the two, flowers and syrups – and thus crafting floral syrups in the delicate method later described in this recipe – can accomplish a couple things. Firstly: you’ll have a divine-tasting simple syrup to enjoy in cocktails, on pancakes, sweets, fruit salads, and much more, each evoking fragrances and memories of spring.

But also: you’ll be capturing and preserving the healing benefits of some of these flowers in one of the purest ways possible, and without damaging their compounds OR their scents and flavors. To be frank, however: you probably won’t find the healing properties of some of these flowers very effective in this form, considering the amount of syrup (and sugar!) you would have to ingest to experience it.

For that very reason, if you’re thinking you could make an antiviral elder flower, boneset, or honeysuckle simple syrup for example, do beware that the presence of those sugars which you must also consume to get the adequate virus-combating phytochemicals, will likely offset any small likelihood of benefit. The same goes for many other “flower powers,” too.

Hand craft these delicately delicious syrups for a cooling, sweet treat topping or cocktail addition - with some healing benefits to boot.

But if there is one thing I have noticed in my own practice and experiences with flowers and hebalism? Almost all flowers are somehow cooling and damp in energetics, to varying degrees.

Maybe not all herbalists have put this together, but think about it: elder, yarrow, boneset, and violets are used for cooling fevers. Bee balm (Monarda) and calendula are notoriously cooling for other issues, too – while passionflower and lavender, cooling in the same way, also bring that influence to the mind and the nerves.

Above View Jars with Flowers | Deer Nation Herbs

If I were to recommend an herbalists’ practical usage of a floral simple syrup for anything (or to the layperson as a home remedy), it would be anything from overheating, heat exhaustion, and fevers.

I have seen a couple tablespoons, added to a piping hot cup of water, promote a cooling and relieving sweat within 10 minutes time. On the other hand, their addition to midday chilled cocktails and mocktails (or maybe even an electrolyte solution) could help take the edge off an intensely hot day – especially fir those with hot and fiery liver-strong constitutions!

Floral Simple Syrup Recipe

  • 2 pints (2 separate pickings) hand-picked edible spring flowers (lilacs, violets, dandelions, whatever you like)
  • 1 pint-sized mason jar (with lid)
  • 16-20 oz. honey (wildflower honey is my favorite!)

Violet Flowers in Jar | Deer Nation Herbs

-Pick your chosen flowers (about 1 pint), and place them in your jar. The best times to pick flowers are midday on a sunny day – when  flowers are fully open, at their most potent, and won’t have much excess water or dew collected on them. An excellent guide on picking and drying flowers can be found here a this Organic Life. *Remember to please pick responsibly! Harvest 1/3 of available flowers within one area – and let the remaining be, so they can repopulate for next spring.

Picked Flowers in Jar | Deer Nation Herbs

-Once you have your flowers picked, pour honey over them until they are completely covered. Take a spoon or other utensil, and use it to push the flowers down into the honey as much as possible – this both bruises the flowers to help them release their fragrances, while discouraging mold and bacteria.

Honeyed Flowers in Jar | Deer Nation Herbs

Honeyed Lilac Flowers | Deer Nation Herbs

-Take your jar and place it in a bright, sunny spot for a full day (or two), such as a windowsill. Like a sun tea, this will give your syrup its first warm infusion of flower flavors.

Sun Infused Violet Syrup | Deer Nation Herbs

-Once the sun-infusion is over, pour the honey through a strainer, and strain out the flowers – compost them or throw them away. You’ll notice that the syrup is a bit “thinner” – that’s from the natural water that has been extracted from the flowers.

-Pick yourself about 1 more pint of flowers (preferably of the same species and variety, unless you want to make a combo syrup blend).

Apple Blossoms | Deer Nation Herbs

Apple Blossoms in Jar Closeup | Deer Nation Herbs

-Once you have that ready to go, take the strained sun-infused syrup,  place it in a saucepan (avoid cast iron – stainless steel, glass, or porcelain better), and sprinkle your new pint of fresh flowers on top.

Hand craft these delicately delicious syrups for a cooling, sweet treat topping or cocktail addition - with some healing benefits to boot.-Before turning up the heat, add 1-2 tablespoons of water to the saucepan with your other ingredients. Then, turning up to medium-low heat, watch while steam begins to rise slowly from your future syrup! This gently wilts and infuses the flowers’ properties into both the syrup and the water – all of which will then infuse fully into the honey, once most of the water has evaporated away. Feel free to stir occasionally.

Lilac Simple Syrup Recipe | Deer Nation Herbs

An important note: your syrup should not boil! This can interfere with both the properties and flavor of your simple syrup. If your syrup does start to froth and bubble in the pan, take it off the heat immediately, and let it cool while stirring.

-As you wait for the syrup to cool, check its consistency with a metal spoon. If it remains watery, throw it back on the stove on low heat to let a bit more water gently evaporate away. You’ll want the syrup to run slow, taking its time to drip away from the spoon.

-If you’re satisfied with the consistency, let it cool down completely. Strain the remaining flowers from the syrup, bottle it, and store it in the fridge for the best perishability!

Bottled Floral Simple Syrups | Deer Nation Herbs

I hope you try out this recipe – an herbalist’s true labor of love with edible flowers – and come up with some magnificent simple syrups of your own.

And do please feel free to share your own experiences, past or present, with flower syrups (or flowers in herbalism, in general) in the comments below! Thank you for reading.