Healing Shrubs – Fizzy, Fruity, Fermented Herbal Beverages and Mocktails

Fermented shrubs and mocktails are naturally healthy, and a wonderful medium for herbs! Learn how to make mocktails into healing herbal preparations that taste great.

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Create, ferment, and brew your own healing shrubs or drinking vinegars with fruits and herbs for a probiotic, healing, herbal mocktail or cocktail.

Are you a lover of kombucha? How about herbal vinegars, oxymels, and the wonderful healing qualities of herbs themselves?

I really enjoy kombucha myself – especially brewing my very own, with select medicinal herbs to go well with its tangy, refreshing taste and digestive powers.

I also happen to really love herbal vinegars, Flemish Sour Ales, anything sour and acidic really (I owe it to my 50% Flemish Belgian ancestry) and you’d know my love of sour if you read another article of mine, Sweet & Sour Libations: The Craft of Herbal Oxymels.

But what this article concerns is not quite an oxymel – though it does boast the virtues of raw vinegar, honey, and herbs like oxymels do. (For an excellent example of an oxymel, I’d suggest you follow the link to my article above!)

On the contrary: I’m talking about shrubs. No, not bushes or garden plants, but a very traditional fermented medicinal cordial that masqueraded as a fruit liqueur, starting in the 1400’s.

Blueberry Chai Shrub Mocktail | Iowa Herbalist
Blueberry and Kumquat Chai-spiced Shrub – Crafted by Chef Hannah White of Clinton Street Social Club – Photo by Adrian White

If you love kombucha and other sour tonics, then you must absolutely try shrubs (also called drinking vinegars), and particularly making your own. They transform even the most healthiest (yet hardest!) to eat foods and herbs into sour and fruity beverages that go down easy – such as this beet and peach shrub, for example.

I’ve been loving them lately – and if you continue reading on, you can very well learn how to make your own herbal blends.

Shrubs or Herbal Drinking Vinegars: What Are They?

Originally, shrubs were medicinal electuaries to help sweeten the tastes of bitter herbal medicines, as first seen in Europe.

You’ve probably heard the good ol’ Mary Poppins tune: “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Old apothecaries would stock their shelves with herbal remedies, preserving them in sour, acidic vinegar to prevent spoilage. Then they would add a variety of fruit juices, fruits, citrus rinds, honey, and more healing spices to the mix – sometimes including spirits like brandy or rum, though that was purely optional.

A fermentation and maceration process then followed, and in a couple weeks: you had your shrub!

The end product was a tangy, flavorful syrup that most would enjoy added to tonic water or soda – refreshing, healing, and fizzy, like kombucha.

When early American colonists and pioneers settled in North America, shrubs were an excellent method for preserving fruits and herbs from going rancid – especially on long journeys out west, when having mobile food and medicine was incredibly important. The shrub then found its tasty way into bars, saloons, and cocktails.

Fast forward to 2012, and shrubs have made a sweeping comeback – much like kombucha, there are now shrub bars featured as accepted parts of many juice bars and smoothie stores, and sprouting prolifically in other places all along highly food-cultured, health conscious areas.

Yet shrubs are also trickling back into liquor bars, cocktails, and “mocktails” (non-alcoholic aperitifs). It would seem that the main reason for their comeback is for a new type of refreshing, cooling libation – yet there is clearly an undeniable health and herbalism angle to the shrub, making it an exciting comeback for the modern herbalist, too!

Fermenting Shrubs | Iowa Herbalist

Shrubs and Herbalism: Health and Healing Benefits

As history and tradition do tell, shrubs were crafted for the purpose of making medicines taste better.

For all of us DIY home medicine-makers and herbalists out there, we know all too well how hard the struggle is to make herbal concoctions taste good – though it continues to bring out the inventiveness in us.

From tinctures, teas, and bitters to syrups, elixirs, and cordials – we run into creative barriers, limits to the herbal palettes we can paint on. Yet the herbal shrub gives us a fresh yet ancient, traditional, and endearingly rustic new option!

Sure, shrubs add a sweet-and-sour, tasty layer to your preparations. But unlike alcohol- or sugar-based formulas, the raw vinegar menstruum (base) of these effervescent drinks have health benefits and other virtues of their very own, making them arguably better for you than any healing herb extracted in alcohol or honey (arguably less-healthy bases).

Shrub Mocktail with Sprig of Rosemary | Iowa Herbalist

Healing Effects of Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs:

  • Digestive Tonic – Probiotics from raw vinegar (boosted by fermentation) replenish and tone the microflora of your digestive tract.
  • Allergies – Food, seasonal, and pollen- or dust-related experience some benefit from probiotics.
  • Antimicrobial when added to prepared foods, a shrub with raw vinegar could help remove bacteria and even chemicals (like pesticides) while improving flavor, as seen in this study.
  • Cancer-protective Properties – The live cultures in shrubs have been observed attacking and preventing the spread of cancer-causing cells in those already suffering from cancer, according to this study.
  • Type 2 Diabetes Support – Raw vinegar has been shown to reduce hunger and fasting glucose in the blood, a helpful therapy to diabetics in a study here.
  • Weight Management – A combination of digestive powers and reducing fasting glucose can help achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

If you’re a skilled herbalist thinking about crafting a healing shrub of your own, you’ll know full well that there is a whole plethora of medicinal herbs you can add in to your blend to enhance any of these properties.

Bitters like hops or citrus zest could make for a premier aperitif and digestive tonic; respiratory, anti-allergy herbs like chamomile and ginger capitalize on sinus-soothing, nasal-clearing relief as an allergy tonic, all in one tart-and-tasty drink.

You can also get creative opting for low glycemic index sweeteners, fruits, herbs, and veggies to make this a healthy alcohol-free mocktail for the diabetic or pre-diabetic:  cucumber, prickly pear cactus, aloe vera, and blueberries are healing ingredients, for example.

Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs Also Contain:

  • Probiotics – acetic acid bacteria tonify digestion, ameliorate allergies, and more in this research here and here.
  • More Vitamins and Minerals – vinegar will preserve nutrients from the fruits, veggies, and herbs you add – while increasing the digestion and absorption of certain minerals as found in a study here.
  • Herbal Properties – Polysaccharides, volatile oils, and more for certain therapeutic effects

Ginger Root Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

Crafting + Fermenting DIY Shrubs

I’ve taken my main shrub-making inspiration from cook Mary Karlin’s recipe at MasteringFermentation.com. My reasoning: her craftsmanship involves a brief stage of fermentation, which in my opinion adds something vital to the healthy element of shrubs (as it noticeably enhances probiotic and enzymatic activity a bit). However, you can find recipes out there devoid of the fermenting process altogether if you like.

A gracious nod also to Katherine Heigl’s post “Shrubalicious” over at her wonderful lifestyle blog, Heavenly Days. She has a great article over there that tries out many different types of shrub-making recipes for you to also explore – and she was even so kind as to try out my own!

There are hundreds of different shrub recipes – as many as there are combinations of vinegar, fruit, honeys, syrups, juices, healing herbs, spices, and even methods you can assemble together! 

Strawberry Peach Cinquefoil Shrub | Iowa Herbalist

For that very reason, I have boiled down all my own recipes into one baseline recipe: a shrub “formula” if you will, of how to make a good one, and with which you can choose, combine, and rearrange your desired ingredients at will.

Use it to craft signature recipes of your very own – while designing “mock-tails” tailored to certain nutritional, healing themes or needs. The shrub world is your oyster.

Deer Nation’s Shrub Formula

  • 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)
  • 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: desired fruits or herbal roots and spices (e.g. chopped garlic or ginger)
  • 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: dried or fresh healing herbs of choice, or spices to taste (e.g. thyme, mint, echinacea)
  • 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease (lemon, lime, etc.)
  • Parchment or wax paper
  • (Up to) 1 cup sweetener of your choice – sugar, stevia, honey, agave, you name it.
  • Fresh herbal sprigs (mint, rosemary, lavender, etc.)

The Fermentation Stage

-Place all “fleshy,” juicy ingredients in jar packed full with leafy and herbal ingredients. Muddle with a wooden spoon or pestle to release juices, oils, fragrances, and other properties.

-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.

-Drape cheesecloth or other breathable cloth over mouth of jar, then affix lid ring (just the ring!) onto jar to keep cloth in place.

Leave jar out at room temperature overnight (12 hours more or less). Like a kombucha culture, 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!)

Making Shrubs for Mocktails | Iowa Herbalist

-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!

The Cooling Stage

-After 3 days are over, strain everything out of your shrub into a stainless-steel bowl or the like. Remove herbal matter (dried leaves, stems, twigs, etc.) and compost; keep fruit and juicy herbs, putting them back into the vinegar alone.

-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.

Citrus Lemon Lime Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

-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), even an aromatic plant sprig that jives well with other flavors. I would even fancy cooled down herbal teas or kombucha for further fermentation and flavor at this point (this is your chance to “control” and round out your shrub a bit, bringing it closer to what you envisioned – and to better mask medicinal flavors)!

-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.

Cranberry Raspberry Shrub Mocktail | Iowa Herbalist

Certain shrubs can also go as salad dressings or ingredients to cocktail fixings! Add herbal bitters, syrups, and get creative – craft your own drinks, and dress them up to your liking.

Shrub Recipes, Concoctions, and Healing-Specific Blends

Whether you just want to get started making a shrub immediately – or you’re an herbalist trying to brainstorm some healing-formula combinations – try a few of my following healthful favorites out. They taste just delectable!

Keep in mind: the formulas listed here are not intended to cure or manage any illness. Rather, they are meant to provide sporadic, enjoyable alternatives to less healthy beverages (cocktails, etc.) and are tailored to match specific conditions.

Garlic Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

Wellness Fire Cider Shrub (fondly called “The Burning Bush”)

This is a smooth, spicy remix of Rosemary Gladstar’s cold-fighting, flu-kicking recipe. It’s pungent, but goes down easy. If you don’t already know, the term “Fire Cider” is used freely among herbalists to describe a healing preparation made of chopped fresh ginger, garlic, horseradish, cayenne, and more herbs of choice in a vinegar (and sometimes honey) solution to fight off colds.

However, the term Fire Cider has been trademarked in a legal move to threaten small-practice herbalists. If you want to learn more about preventing and lifting this trademark, visit FreeFireCider.com; as well as make your own Fire Cider (and Fire Cider Shrubs) and spread the word!

  • 3 cups “juicy” ingredients include chopped fresh ginger, garlic, and horseradish (1 cup of each approx.)
  • 1 cup “leafy” ingredients include dried cayenne pepper and any extra cold-fighting herbs (e.g. thyme, sage)
  • Up to 1 cup of orange juice or lemon juice can be added to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease )
  • I add about 1/2 cup of turmeric powder to really bring out color, while adding anti-inflammatory properties for any stray sinus issues that come with colds and flu
  • Up to 1 cup honey (preferably raw)
  • My signature touch: 1/2 cup dried Goldenrod blossoms (for sinus issues)

Enjoy this shrub as a cold-season tonic, taking a few tablespoons 3 times per day during the duration of a cold. Or, dilute it with a bit of orange juice for a potent mocktail – though “The Burning Bush” could make an interesting addition to Bloody Mary cocktail mixes.

 Honeydew-Cardamom Blood Pressure Support Shrub

It certainly cannot cure high blood pressure, mind you – but both honeydew and cardamom are considered helpful for those trying to manage blood pressure levels. Honeydew has a moderate glycemic index and plenty of potassium, a good mineral for those with high blood pressure to focus on (take it from the American Heart Association) – while cardamom has shown potential for therapeutically lowering blood pressure in a recent study here.

They also taste great together as a culinary pair, so this could be the perfect healthy-option alternative mocktail to sipping a less healthy cocktail instead!

  • 3 cups of “juicy” ingredient: chopped honeydew
  • 2-3 Tbsp. cardamom powder
  • 1 cup (roughly) of liquid to add to shrub after straining out matter: I would recommend a combination of lemon juice, and a bit white wine or champagne (though optional)
  • 1/2 cup sweetener of your choice (I used buckwheat honey – really adds to the combination!)
  • Fresh herbal sprigs (try a sprig of basil, lemon basil, tarragon, or even cilantro)

Honeydew ACV | Iowa Herbalist

Southwest Blood Sugar Support Shrub – with Grapefruit, Prickly Pear, and Agave Syrup

All ingredients in this one have excellent reputations for diabetics and blood sugar. Grapefruit has a low glycemic index, with added capabilities for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol (according to this health report), and even helping with weight management (in this study) – all common problems for diabetics.

Many studies, including this one, show that prickly pear cactus is a blood sugar superstar! To top it all off, a dash of agave nectar makes for a sweetener that doesn’t tamper too much with blood glucose levels – though make sure to read about the reality of how Agave nectar is processed. Low glycemic index or no, sweeteners of all kinds are harmful if regular parts of the diet, and agave is no exception.

  • 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients (half grapefruit flesh, half prickly pear flesh)
  • 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter- I use sugar-free grapefruit here, and mix in some lime as well
  • 1-2 Tbsp. agave syrup (optional – feel free to use other sweeteners)
  • Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint, fennel, or tarragon works well here)

Grapefruit Prickly Pear Fermenting Shrub | Iowa Herbalist

Urinary Health Shrub – Raspberry, Cranberry, Cedar Berry, Spruce Tips

Mixing the astringency of cranberries with the piney tastes of cedar and spruce, you have here a mocktail shrub that could support you through even the most troublesome of urinary problems – U.T.I.’s, fungal issues, yeast problems, infections, you name it.

Cranberry is used by herbalists (and universally by almost everyone else I know) for such issues, with the present knowledge being that the berry helps “slough” pathogens from the walls of the urethra, bladder, and vagina – while both cranberry and raspberry have diuretic action.

Similarly, cedar (and its relative juniper) yields blue berries with known anti-microbial urinary affinities, supported in this review of urinary herbal medicines by herbalist Eric Yarnell here. It can be assumed that spruce has similar effects as cedar, though there aren’t many studies to back this.

Health benefits aside, the melding of raspberry, cranberry, cedar, and spruce makes for a fruity shrub with unique, juicy undertones.

  • 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: 1 cup raspberries, 1 cup cranberries, 1 cup Cedar/Juniper berries
  • 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: fresh spruce tips (picked from the tree in May)
  • 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter (cranberry juice)
  • 1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
  • Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)

Cedar Berries Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

Digestive Tonic Shrub – Kiwi, Green Tea, Aloe

The probiotic benefits of shrubs are patently obvious, making any among them a great digestive tonic. However, you can bring in the added aid of kiwi and aloe juice – both which help keep the bowels “moving” and soothe the digestive tract (medical info supporting that here and here).

The same sources  point to both being ideal herbs and foods for diabetics – kiwi is a low-glycemic, while aloe has properties to stabilize blood sugars. As it is well established, the addition of some green tea brings in beneficial antioxidants, which can help marginally take care of digestive inflammatory issues.

  • 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: chopped kiwi fruit
  • 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: loose leaf green tea
  • 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter: aloe juice
  • 1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
  • Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)

Happy Shrub-making! Have your own recipes and inspirations? You can share them in the comments below.

******

References: Oakley, Tim (August 9, 2011). “Shrub: A History”Class Magazine. Difford’s Guide. – “Anticancer impacts of potentially probiotic acetic acid bacteria isolated from traditional dairy microbiota.” ScienceDirect.com/LWT – Food Science and Technology. 

Herb Table | Iowa Herbalist

The Herbal Neti Pot – Using Herbs in Your Sinus Rinse

Neti Pot Rinses are amazing for allergy issues – they can be even more amazing for sinus, colds, and flu issues when they join powers with herbs!

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Herbal Neti Pot | Iowa Herbalist

*Updated: January 29th, 2016*

This article on using herbs with your neti pot is dedicated to those funky, dry late-winter months, blending into Spring – a time when cold and flu season seems to be over, and yet you find yourself still blowing your nose, over and over.

You might be a bit unsure about whether you are dealing with allergies, or the last cold of the season to kick your butt.

In fact, at this very particular time right now during late Winter/early Spring, I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about folks coming down with something: not quite a cold, but not quite something easy to ignore, either.

Think inflamed, stuffy sinuses, allergies, plugged ears, and the vestige of a cough, with some lingering respiratory issues as if they have just overcome a cold.  Sometimes there are even swollen lymph nodes, tonsils, and throat symptoms thrown into the mix.  Sound familiar?

I have found myself hesitant to just recommend the typical cold and flu herbs in these situations.  Immunity is always important to focus on, and the tried-and-true bulls-eye of the practicing herbalist.  But what about the best relief, on top of all that, and with the help of herbs used at home – sinus relief?

Neti Pots and Their Virtues

The past couple years, Neti pots have been my constant go-to when I’m in the midst of cold, flu, and allergy troubles.  Especially when it takes a while for those immune-stimulating anti-cold herbs to kick in, or an herbal steam just won’t get into the sinuses fast enough – I open up my cupboard, and take my Neti pot off the shelf.

It gets rid of all of the gunk, and quickly.  Once I realized I could combine herbs with Neti rinses, I have since chosen this method as a top one in my arsenal for colds and flu fighting.

What’s the low-down on using Neti pots?  If you don’t know, Neti pots (also called “nasal lavage”) are little magical-looking genie bottle-type containers you fill with warm water and a bit of salt. You then hold back your head, put the spout in your nostril, breathe through your mouth, and let the water flow through your sinuses – through one nostril, and then out the other. Read more on the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to use the Neti pot here.

Making a Neti Pot with Herbs | Iowa Herbalist

Is using a Neti pot safe?  Most doctors and health practitioners (including herbalists) dub Neti pots safe and effective, with a few guidelines (that I happen to agree with).

  • Good first line of defense against cold symptoms and allergies
  • Great for thick, chunky mucus
  • Sporadic, non-regular use is best
  • Use boiled, distilled, sterilized, and filtered water
  • If using tap water, make sure it is filtered through hole sizes 1 micron or smaller, or boiled several minutes then cooled before use
  • CLEAN your Neti pot regularly

Why all the concerns?  Some studies have shown that regular use of Neti pots may actually increase the chances of sinus infections and bacterial growth.  Think about it: adding yet more water to a part of the body that is warm, damp, and dark could end up being the fuel to the fodder that bacteria actually needs to get started.

It’s also apparent that Neti rinses may actually remove the beneficial microbes and the body’s natural immune, organism-fighting agents we need to fight infections and illnesses on our own.

That’s certainly not in the spirit of an herbalist or holistic practitioner, right? We want to be aiding the body’s battle, not hindering it.

As a result, I use Neti pots only in a real pinch – and no longer than about 2 weeks at a time in a daily series.  I also make sure that both the water and Neti pot I use is completely sterilized, to avoid adding more bacteria to the fire than before I had even started.

Ginger Rhizomes | Iowa Herbalist

My Experiences with Herbal Neti Pot Rinses

I started my use of the Neti pot with the standard salt rinse, as usual, with strong warm water.

Then one day, it hit me: the Neti rinse could easily use a bit of an herbal twist, particularly after I happened upon an herb shop’s Sinus Care tincture: formulated specifically for the Neti pot!

Since then, I can’t resist adding a supporting herb into the mix each time, depending on the type of sinus issue or cold I’m dealing with.

There are so many varieties of herbs and varieties of herbal actions that would suit a Neti rinse perfectly: vasodilating, bronchiodilating, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antimicrobial.  If you have dry sinuses, you can rinse with moistening herbs; goopy sinuses, and you can turn to more drawing and drying ones.  Through my personal explorations with my Neti pot, I’ve found a delightful selection of herbs to include in my rinses – which I will be happily covering in this article.

How I Use My Neti Pot

*Dosage/Preparation: To each Neti Rinse you prepare, use warm (not hot!) water, and add roughly a teaspoon of salt.  

  • Neti solution should not be too salty – to taste, the water should be “as salty as your tears.”
  • Avoid using tap water.  Use filtered, reverse-osmosis, or pre-boiled then cooled water – or bottled and/or distilled water.
  • To each solution, add about 10-20 drops tincture, or whatever you are comfortable.

If you aren’t comfortable with tinctures- or, if you don’t have a tincture of any these herbs handy- you can make a tea, decoction, infusion, or tisane of these herbs, but make sure that the plant matter is WELL STRAINED to avoid putting any thing foreign in your sinuses that shouldn’t be there, and could only make matters worse.

Choice Herbs For the Herbal Neti Pot

GINGER (Zingiber officinalis) – Warm and damp, this culinary root is prime for drier sinuses, with or without accompanying dull pressure – and those dealing with lingering viral infection.

Ginger is also one of an exclusive circle of helpful herbs that can stave off a good deal of viral activity, while modern medicine has yet to come up with anything synthetically antiviral to match.  This makes Ginger great for colds or viral bugs, soothing what feels like inflammation and a lot of pressure – and, overall, quite a perfect addition to the Neti.

Surprisingly, while you might think Ginger could “burn,” the most potent of my Ginger tinctures haven’t caused a single discomfort (though I’m sure you would have to be careful with a decoction).

You can replace Ginger with native Wild Ginger if you’d prefer, though Wild Ginger is not reputedly anti-viral.

Wild Chamomile | Iowa Herbalist

CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla)Or, along the same lines, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).  Sinus headaches/pressure with either drip or dryness could call for either of these two white-flowered, dainty and aromatic herbs, especially if there is sneezing involved.  They are both relatively easy to find in herb gardens and herbal sections of food stores.

Sinus allergies are a good target – whether runny or dry, these two plants are known to prevent histamine reaction in a unique way, and a rinse with these is quite gentle.  Check out this research on both Feverfew and Chamomile, supporting their uses for allergies.

If you have sinus issues or allergies that often transform into migraines, these could be your buddies especially.  A warning to those allergic to Ragweed pollen- avoid these herbs and anything in the Asteraceae family altogether.  They will most likely make you feel much, much worse.

RAGWEED (Ambrosia artemisifolia/trifida) – Before you say “What?  Why?!!?”  Ragweed can be amazing for sinus allergy symptoms, particularly for those who are NOT allergic to its pollen.

Yet for those who are allergic to Ragweed, there is strong supporting research out there nonetheless, revealing that the antidote to the poison might be just a bit of the plant itself.  To top it all off, the FDA did approve a drug that contained a bit of Ragweed itself in a pill for allergy relief symptoms due to Ragweed pollen itself in 2014.

Again- if you know you are allergic to Ragweed or other Asterids, it might be wiser to steer clear.  For those who aren’t (including myself), a tincture or tea of in-season Ragweed blooms can provide amazing relief, particularly when you feel a histamine reaction going on.  I experimented with some tincture last Summer for some dusty-stuff sinus problems, and wow- just, wow.

Goldrenrod Flowers Driftless Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

This is best aimed at allergy-related sinus issues specifically, and less so for cold or viral stuff.  If you are the brave sort of Ragweed-allergic, I’ve been told that Ragweed leaf (NOT flower) can be alright and less harmful to Ragweed-sufferers…but that is not a recommendation or suggestion.  Experiment at your own risk please.

GOLDENROD (Solidago canadensis + other species) – The dried blossoms of Goldenrod are similar to Chamomile or Feverfew in action, making it best suited to allergies once again – but more so the damp and drippy kind.  For whatever magical reason too, this plant has a stronger affinity to pet allergies, and sinus flare-ups that might happen as a result.

Another great thing about it: it’s well-known support of Ragweed allergies in the empirical knowledge of herbalists.  Growing right next to Ragweed in the Fall and blooming twice as “showily,” not many folks know that a well-worked herbal cure to Ragweed allergies might be growing just a couple feet away. What more – preliminary studies are showing that Goldenrod has some marked anti-inflammatory activity.

Goldenrod flowers have a sweet, astringent, and pleasant flavor that I love adding to herbal allergy blends of any sort.  Out of all the possible Neti, sinus and allergy herbs altogether too, Goldenrod stands out as my very favorite- combine this one with Ginger if you’re having a viral cold with a fever, and it could help bring the fever down.

Usnea Cape Cod | Iowa Herbalist
Usnea in Cape Cod – Photo by Adrian White

USNEA (Usnea spp.) – Along with Goldenrod, Usnea is one of my favorites for a sinus rinse.  Its astringency and anti-microbial action are very highly desirable for the average sinus infection!

Best for damp and runny sinuses only, this lichen contains usnic acids that pack a punch against notorious bacteria including staph and strep (with studies to prove it).  While fighting off infection, this plant will also aid in drawing and pulling out the nasty gunk you’re trying to forget, helping airways unclog and clear.

MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus) – You can never do without Mullein.  Whether raspy or goopy, this fuzzy, common plant can be of help – although I do think it stands out best in situations where the sinuses are much drier.

First Year Mullein | Iowa Herbalist

This plant is simple; and in being so, there really isn’t much else more to say about it.  It’s a top pick among herbalists for such things having to do with colds, flu, and sinuses.

A tincture of the root may be effective, but a fresh, hot tea of the leaves or flowers (without having reached the boiling point) can help loosen stuff up when your stuffed up, too.

Allergies and colds can be relieved with Mullein as well –  and some studies support not only that Mullein’s plant “mucilages” could be what truly relieves sinus inflammation, but also that there are compounds in the plant that have been seen killing viruses on contact.

Plantain | Iowa Herbalist
Plantain – Photo Credit Shutterstock

PLANTAIN (Plantago major) – Like Mullein or Ginger, I like to put Plantain in practically all of my Neti rinses as a feature role of the blend.

This is because Plantain leaf does something special that the remainder of these herbs don’t do as well: Plantain is a “drawing” agent in herbalists’ experience, which can help pull foreign objects out of the sinus while helping neutralize the amount of irritation or goop you have going on.  

So if you simply feel like you’ve got “stuff”- any kind of stuff- lodged in your sinuses, Plantain is your go-to remedy.  Beyond allergies, colds or normal sinus issues, you could turn to this herb for the weirder stuff: inhaling a bug, food, or something else accidental.  Plantain can help you pull that out.

The other great thing about Plantain?  You can use it for both wet and dry sinuses.  Plantain is both mucilaginous and astringent: it will help draw up and pull out any excess mucus, but at the same time soothe, moisturize, and tonify the soft tissues of the nasal cavities.

Studies are also beginning to support this plant’s use for inflammation, too – even showing that it could have protective capabilities against certain bacteria perilous to the nose and throat, such as strep bacteria and others included!

Using a neti pot for allergies, sinus issues, or colds can help with symptoms - and herbs can help. Learn how to use herbs in a neti pot here.

This article is not meant to diagnose, prescribe, promise, or suggest cure.  It’s purpose and intent is to be purely educational.

White Pine for Pinkeye

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Pinkeye can be a pesky infection issue for both kids and adults. Fortunately, you can use white pine - a very common tree - to help manage it safely. Learn how to use white pine for pinkeye here.

**Disclaimer** The information in this white pine for pinkeye article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Pinkeye is a nasty thing to deal with.  Especially if you’re someone with kids and then have to keep them home, those little hands find their way all over the place, getting into dirt, eyes, pet fur…you get the picture.  Getting it as an adult is no more fun, because that means “quarantine” and missing who knows how many days of work or other matters, until it gets better.  Some people brave it and forge their way to work, but I like to keep my goopy eyes well out of the way of others potentially contracting it.

As Pinkeye (also called Conjunctivitis) can be potentially either viral or bacterial, there are many different methods of helping treat it with the use of herbs.  California Curandero and herbalist Charles Garcia has his famous pinkeye tisane, featuring a motley crew of common antiviral and antimicrobial plants that can be found in the kitchen or the grocery store.

If you are more of the wild herb-gatherer like myself, I have found that White Pine (Pinus strobus) is an immensely helpful ally for pinkeye.  The tree is a native denizen of Iowa, although its natural numbers are disappearing with each year.  You can see the last remaining “wild population” of White Pines out by White Pine Hollow State Preserve, north of Dubuque and near the towns of Colesburg and Luxemburg.  Fortunately for herbalists and the species, though, it is common in yards and windbreaks within cities.

You can harvest fresh needles from the tree without harming it, which are incredibly medicinal and known in the world of herbalism as being among the most potent, powerful antimicrobials one can utilize in the plant world.  It is the saps/resins that run through the White Pine and these needles that are notorious for such properties.  Traditionally, White Pine was used for fighting respiratory infections (both bacterial and viral) and as a wound-wash.  White Pine is not the only useful Pine– there are many others, such as Jack Pines, Red Pines and Ponderosa Pines, but the strength of their medicines vary widely.  It is up to the herbalist to determine which one they prefer, as they are all each different, but very usable.

I recently worked with the tree for a case of pinkeye, to find the infection on the run in just a couple days– goopiness gone, eyes less red and pain significantly less noticeable.  White Pine helped clear up the issue in just a few days.

Pinkeye can be a pesky infection issue for both kids and adults. Fortunately, you can use white pine - a very common tree - to help manage it safely. Learn how to use white pine for pinkeye here.

Here are a few methods for using Pine to combat pinkeye:

WHITE PINE TISANE

The easiest thing you can make using White Pine is a tea or tisane.  This is simple– throw a handful of freshly-picked needles into water on a metal pot on the stove, and simmer for about an hour, on medium-low.  Turn the heat down of course, and wait for the tisane to cool.  There you have your wash.  The best tisane you could make would be from the tender needles that are present on the tree in Spring.

You can cup your hands in the water and wash it into your eyes, thoroughly rinsing your eyes out with plain cold water afterward.

WHITE PINE TINCTURE

A tincture of White Pine resins is what I have seen do wonders.  Of course, I must emphasize– you absolutely must dilute about 5 drops of this tincture into one fluid ounce of cold water to use it as an eyewash.  Any other method, whether plain tincture or other ratio, and you are going to hurt yourself.  When you first add the incredibly minute amount of drops to the water, you may see the water turn a slightly milky color.  This is normal.

I also find that Pine tinctures are among the most delightful to make.  After collecting tons of sticky resin in the early Spring, when the sap is flowing, you can scrape it off and drop it into your own high-proof alcohol, and watch as days go by the resin slowly and perfectly dissolve into the menstruum.  When the resin completely disappears you know the tincture is ready, and unlike most other tinctures you don’t have spent herbal matter to toil through, press, or strain out!

Note: if you are experiencing pinkeye/conjunctivitis symptoms, please consult with a professional health care provider for the best results on how to take care of the issue.

White Pine Needles | Iowa Herbalist

Sweet & Sour Libations – The Craft of Herbal Oxymels

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This article is a version of an expanded one to be featured in the Essential Herbal fall issue, which will include a foray into not only the craft of herbal oxymels, but also the art of herbal kombuchas!

Violet Petals Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

The word “Oxymel” comes from ancient Greek, literally meaning “Acid and Honey,” being an herbal preparation made with vinegar and honey.  It was a medicinal libation back in the old days that has lost consideration and familiarity with the passing of time, but creeps back into popular herbalism today, slowly but surely.  Further along in the article, I will happily provide my own take on Oxymels in a recipe, as there are many ways to create them.

Oxymels really drew me when I first heard of them from local Iowa City Herbalist Mandy Garner Dickerson, owner, operator, and curator of Moon in June Herbs.   Being that sour is my most favorite flavor, and sweet a close second (although I’d say it ties with bitter), the mixture of sweet and sour sounded so delicious I was instantly tantalized into making an Oxymel myself; especially after tasting one of Mandy’s delicious homemade blends.  I am, admittedly, a sucker for sweet and sour dishes at practically any Asian restaurant, ordering them without so much as a glance at the rest of the menu.  So there you go– anything involving sweet and sour, and you have my immediate, undivided attention.

What is the virtue of an Oxymel?  Well, besides the wonderful combination of sweet and sour, it functions as an alternative to tinctures for specific herbs.  Taste-wise, certain flavors that may be eclipsed in a tincture, tea, or elixir are emphasized in an Oxymel.  It also brings together blends of individual herbs that, otherwise, may not be as compatible with each other in other mediums.  In short, it is a new way of exploring herbal preparations; it’s like switching from sketching paper to a canvas palette, bringing out each herb differently like each medium brings out  individual colors and textures.  Particular liquid extracts enhance the value of herbs in varying, but equally important, ways.

Flowers in Honey | Iowa Herbalist

But along the lines of herbal syrups and vinegars, Oxymels coax out the medicinal constituents of herbs in a much different way than tincture or tea.  In fact, an Oxymel will bring out medicine and properties that alcohol cannot in any tincture, at least not as well.  Certain herbs lend themselves much more readily to vinegars and honeys than to anything else, especially high-content food herbs like Nettle, Chickweed, or Horsetail.  The  most practical aspect to an Oxymel is its ability to render important nutritive minerals that alcohol can’t: silica, iron, potassium, zinc.  On the other hand, more medicinally potent properties need alcohol to emerge (triterpenes, volatile oils, etc.).  Vinegar preparations particularly have less potency with dosage than tinctures.  One must use more to have the same effect.

Ideally, though, you can capture the entire portrait of an herb’s effects with a mixture of vinegar, water, and alcohol.  In Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine, he notes that it is a good idea to not only preserve your vinegars with some alcohol, but to have it accompany the preparation for the sake of letting other constituents be drawn out, making the creation more complete.  Remedial use with an Oxymel is warranted, of course, but many herbalists also find joy in it more recreationally (including myself).

Ginger Rhizomes | Iowa Herbalist

Various herbalism blogs on the web have written about Oxymels, and in some ways, it is a bit of a frontier for a lot of herbalists as a preparation– not as popular as tinctures, salves, or other crafts, but it is getting there.  The most renowned Oxymel is Rosemary Gladstar’s famous Fire Cider.  This is a pungent medley, arguably one of the best cold-fighting herbal remedies out there.  If you want a recipe on how to make your own homemade Fire Cider, please visit the Mountain Rose Blog’s excellent recipe that pays all due respects and homage to the lovely herbalist who introduced it to the rest of the world.

As many herbalists and herb-lovers well know, the freedom to make and sell Fire Cider is being threatened by a very corporate-minded, non-herbalist company called Shire City Herbals who trademarked the term “Fire Cider.”  This company is currently making the rounds and finding satisfaction in bullying any herbalist or establishment that sells or hitherto has sold Fire Cider to support themselves and make a living.  Many people have compared this to trademarking the word “Tea” and then being litigious against anyone who sells tea.  Furthermore, the company itself has no ownership rights over the idea itself, having not invented the concoction at all.  If you wish to petition Shire City Herbals I would recommend you do so by following the link.  This conflict with Fire Cider easily defines the current era of struggles the herbalist has to face against corporations, and their fear of plant medicine at large.  This is a prime example of our rights to our own personal medicines being threatened, and if it matters to you– please sign and participate.

Drinking Vinegar | Iowa Herbalist

COOL & SOUR DETOXYMEL – ADRIAN WHITE, HERBALIST

Here is an Oxymel recipe using cool and damp herbs, perfect for the upcoming hottest of summer months.  One sip of it hydrates deeply and opens the pores.  It is also a little detoxifying so as to help you kick any lingering winter stagnation.

This particular Oxymel has an array of virtues: firstly it is cooling to the organs, most notably the liver and lower digestive system, helping regulate things down there.  As an alterative, it may help with lingering viruses or other issues trapped in the lymph, without losing your body much needed moisture.  The herbs in this blend will soothe and bring down most fevers, allowing the pores to open and sweat heat out gently.  It’s also a relaxing expectorant helpful with dry, hacking coughs and colds.  Finally, it acts quite a bit like an electrolyte solution and helps your body maintain and regain moisture incredibly well!

  • 2-4 Cups chopped Rhubarb (fresh)
  • 2 Cups Violet flowers (dried of fresh)
  • 1 Cup Wild Cherry Bark
  • 4-5 Cups Honey (preferably raw/organic)
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Beet (optional, for color)
  • High-Proof Alcohol (Everclear/Brandy; optional, for preservation)

-Place chopped Rhubarb and Violet flowers in a jar, preferably in an amber-tinted glass jar that can be sealed tight.  Pour Apple Cider Vinegar over herbs until evenly covered, and all herbs appear to float but touch one another.  Cover tightly.  Let steep (or “macerate”) for 2 weeks or longer in a cool, dark place.

*Optional* Add a tad bit of alcohol to aid with maceration process, as it will help draw out some constituents that vinegar will miss.  If you like, chop or grate one Beet into the mixture too, for added color and detoxifying effect.
-Once you have macerated your vinegar the full time length, infuse an herbal syrup with the honey and Wild Cherry bark.  For a basic herbal syrup recipe, click here; substitute Nettle for Wild Cherry bark instead, and refrain from adding black strap molasses.  Follow your intuition.
Note: This is where my recipe is a bit more original, with a stronger focus on being a remedy as most recipes will call that you combine vinegar and honey with all the herbs together, and either cold steep all of them, or simmer all of them.  However, if you are looking for strong medicinal actions from all combined herbs, they will need to be prepared separately (bark with a hot decoction/syrup, and damp herbs like rhubarb and violets lose their virtues in heat, and thus need cold-steeping).
-When done making the honey, strain out or press out all herbs from your vinegar preparation and pour the liquid into desired glass container for storage.  Then add cooled herbal honey into container with vinegar, to mix.  If you so like, you can add small amounts of the Wild Cherry bark syrup to the vinegar to taste so you get just the right blend of sweet and sour.
-Drink and enjoy.  When I use an Oxymel, I pour about 1 inch of the mixture in the bottom of a glass and then dilute it with water (especially sparkling water) for a cool, refreshing drink.

Baby Beets | Iowa Herbalist
Baby beets straight from the Deer Nation gardens/Jupiter Ridge Farm

 

References

A Bushel and a Peck: Oxymel Tutorial.  Wicktionary.org.  The Mountain Rose Blog.  Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech.  

Losing Your Nerve – Making Lion’s Mane Double Extract

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This article is a version of a more expanded, in-depth article on medicinal mushrooms and lion’s mane double extract altogether which I contributed to Essential Herbal Magazine; published for the issue that came out for April 2014!

Lion's Mane Mushroom | Iowa Herbalist
It has been my pleasure to purchase this locally-grown batch of Lion’s Mane mushrooms from friendly farmer Todd Mills down at Mushroom Mills, located near Oxford Junction, Iowa!

During the summer, you can find these gourmet delights and others at the Iowa City Downtown Farmers Market.  Mushroom Mills sells a variety of other mushrooms, most notably several beautiful strains of oyster mushrooms.  I have been busy dehydrating them in preparation of making a Lion’s Mane double extract.  Thank you, Todd!

Lion's Mane | Iowa Herbalist

So here’s a little interval of time where I focus on medicinal fungi.  While most probably wouldn’t consider them “medicinal herbs” – I do.

What more, they blow most herbs out of the water with how potent they are.  Lion’s Mane is no exception: studies these days are going crazy about medicinal mushrooms, with Lion’s Mane appearing in that spotlight frequently.

Lion’s Mane is also known by different names, such as Monkey Head, Satyr’s Beard, and Deer Tail to name a few.

Healing, Nutrition, and Phytonutrients of Lion’s Mane

So what’s the scoop on this leonine mushroom? Here’s what studies and research have unveiled so far.

  • Studies have shown that daily (or frequent) consumption of Lion’s Mane improves general stress, anxiety, and depression, while touting “neuroregenerative” effects. That is, eating the mushroom over time strengthens, tonifies, repairs, and improves function of the nerves in your body. In general, Lion’s Mane has notably and unmistakably improved cognitive capacity and memory in humans and animals.
  • On a more exciting level, Lion’s Mane is looking very promising for the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, old age onset dementia, and senility.  It has also been noticeably beneficial to nerve damage as the result of physical trauma or injury.

The Herbalist’s Approach

Herbalists using mushrooms in their practice? Best get use to it!

Many traditional and clinical herbalists both already use reishi. But the more we learn about mushrooms, the more we’re going to see them used therapeutically and nutritionally, that much is certain. Lion’s Mane is likely to be one of the first among those ranks.

  • Very fittingly for its name, Lion’s Mane is a nerve tonic to the highest degree – you could call it a “Nerve Adaptogen.”  As a signature, Lion’s Mane and its effects are all about “getting your courage back.” Good mnemonic device, right?
  • This bizarre-looking, lionized mushroom is perfect for those dry, brittle, spread-thin and nervous “Vata” people who can’t afford to lose a drop of nutrition, especially when most herbal nervines (passionflower, kava kava, motherwort, valerian etc.) tend towards drying, diuretic, depleting action.  These favorites do tend to soothe it’s true, but also increase output of nutrients in your urine.  Lion’s Mane is high in protein (about 20%) and is not diuretic, so this does not pose a problem.
  • Its effects are not immediate, and it is not an instant nervine like Motherwort or Lemon Balm.  Since it is a tonic, it is to be taken daily or on a regular basis, improving overall function over time while not compromising nutrients at all. In fact, this mushroom is a nutritious food, even for those who aren’t concerned about health.

So it is a bit like getting some “lion’s courage.”  It steadies and improves the nerves over time, dispelling anxiety and stress.  

Studies have also shown that it even increases “bravery” in some test subjects – stressed mice who were fed Lion’s Mane as part of their diet were more likely to recover, and then explore and investigate unknown or new territory of their environments.   Talk about losing your nerve, and then getting it back!

You can eat and prepare Lion’s Mane like any other mushroom, but if you want to focus on its medicinal effects it may be a better idea (and save you money) to make a double extract.  

This is the general approach to crafting a tincture out of most medicinal mushrooms like Reishis and Shiitakes, as only some of the important constituents are alcohol-soluble– while others are hot-water soluble and sensitive to alcohol.  So here I’ve provided this excellent medicinal mushroom extraction method from Guido Mase’s book The Wild Medicine Solution, and rhapsodized it as it applies to Lion’s Mane.  (I would also recommend you buy the book; it is a treasure trove of information!)

Two-Phase Extract

  • Dried Lion’s Mane
  • High Proof Alcohol (I use 151 Everclear)
  • Glycerin (though I consider this optional)
  • Water

-Take your dried mushrooms, divide the into two equal parts and chop them well.  Using the first part, prepare a tincture by covering the mushrooms 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.

-After you’ve strained the tincture, take the second part of the dried 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 the mushrooms 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.

Dehydrating Lion's Mane | Iowa Herbalist

References:   Paul Stamets/Huffington Post.  Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase.  PubMed.gov.  Personal Experience.