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…

Rooted.

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

The Snakeskin Medicine – Black Cohosh, Women, and Skin Care

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Many medications for acne fail people, particularly women. Learn how black cohosh is being explored and researched as an acne treatment, and how it works in both mainstream medicine and herbalism.
Black Cohosh (Actea racemosa), imperiled and replanted in Iowa City, IA – Photo Credit Mandy Garner-Dickerson, Moon in June Herbs

*Disclaimer* This article on black cohosh for skin care is meant to be a shared experience and insight by the author, not a suggested hormone therapy regime.  If you are curious about how certain hormone therapies and herbs could help treat your acne, please refer first to the guidance of a professional healthcare provider, your doctor, or a trained herbalist.

It’s a more interesting topic for the female half of the population: having healthy, glowing skin is a focus for many of us girls and women. Arguably, for the majority of us.

Females are most driven in our society to look good and appealing in the eyes of others.  Quite an unbearable pressure for some of us, but I won’t get into the whole feminist pickle that is here – and instead I’ll just stick to the herbalism.

Ironically, skin problems and acne tend to be the worse for women to deal with than men in our adult age.  Why?  Hormones.

As all of us females know, hormones control many aspects of our lives, and that is barely an overstatement.  Sometimes even our thoughts, feelings, opinions, and reactions during the day-to-day are governed by those crazy things.  Our only hope is to shrug off that idea, and pretend it isn’t true.

But if you ever find the time, sit down and have some tea with the closest woman to you in your life who has gracefully passed through menopause.  She is likely to agree with this sentiment, 100%.

The Hormone-Acne Connection

An herbal client of mine (and voluntary herbalist’s “guinea pig”) came and talked to me not too long ago on a completely non-herb related matter: her pretty much life-long struggles with acne.  What she ended up mentioning was that her doctor recommended she go on birth control pills to help control her skin problems.

I was honestly a bit flabbergasted, and as any herbalist with at least some handle on things would probably blurt out, I said “Why the heck would you do that?”

Followed immediately by “Why don’t you just start taking Black Cohosh?”

A little bit of science first: some women’s acne directly has to do with hormonal imbalance, as I stated earlier.  Thanks to a million different little factors in our modern-day existence, our estrogen gets screwed with – whether it be from “xeno-estrogrens” found in plastics all around us (packaging our food, for example), or from the birth-control pills that we think should be the standard for regulating our reproduction.

Through one way or another, the balance between estrogen and progesterone gets wacky.  This is especially noticeable right before menstruation- when estrogen levels plummet to give way to testosterone, one of the reasons why we get cranky and irritable.

Hormone Cycle | Iowa Herbalist
Graph of Average Hormone Fluctuations in Women – Women in Balance Institute – National College of Natural Medicine

When testosterone levels prevail over estrogen/progesterone in women’s bodies, that’s when acne erupts.  You get those big chin pimples, or zits on your chest, your cheeks, shoulders, or right underneath your shoulder blades.  Funnily enough, they pop up right where men usually have body hair.  The body secretes oils that it just doesn’t know what to do with.

It’s true – hormones don’t only affect our moods sometimes, but also the health of our skin. Fluctuations of female (but mostly – yes, believe it or not – male) hormones create excess sebum in the skin, which then lead to acne. For an excellent understanding of how it all works, check out this article here by the American Academy of Dermatology.

Back to the story about my client- her doctor told her just as much, that some women may not produce enough estrogen to counteract testosterone levels (this often has a lot to do with body type, genetics, or diet).  So he mentioned the idea of prescribing her birth control pills, something that is actually quite common. Even some dermatologists recommend it.

But what do you do if you want to take something natural, and moreover, if you aren’t sexually active or don’t even need contraceptives?  What if you are wary of the many side effects that birth control pills and I.U.D.’s might have?

Black Cohosh – Its History of Mimicking Estrogen

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa), along with some other popular herbs out there, is beginning to be an experimental treatment for acne among professional healthcare providers all over the country – not just herbalists.

Cohosh contains “phyto-estrogens,” or plant compounds that are thought to mimic estrogen.  When the herb is taken, the body reacts to it as if there was estrogen present – though it’s still not clear how.

Whatever goes on, human estrogen receptors are in some way affected by the plant’s constituents, making the body respond as if responding to estrogen.There are studies to support this use: here, and here.

Put two and two together – and you have yourself a possible alternative to birth control for acne treatment.

Traditional Use of Black Cohosh

Traditionally, Black Cohosh’s use is rooted in Native American medicine, used for female health and complaints long, long before its capsules have shown up on the shelves of natural food stores.

Bottles Apothecary | Iowa Herbalist

One of the other names for the plant was once “Black Snakeroot,” believed to have an affinity to snakes (and specifically rattlesnakes – the flowers of the plant look an awful like the rattle on this venomous serpent).  Eastern First Nation peoples also used the plant as a cure for snake bites.

Now, the plant has a modernized use that emulates its “spirit animal” – for the skin.  Like a snakeskin being shed, Black Cohosh is an herb that can be of immense help to certain individuals to put on a new skin, shed the old, and find a new-found sense of confidence and beauty in their appearance.

Needless to say, my client was grateful and happy that she discussed the idea of taking birth control with me before she went ahead and just did it– sight unseen.  At my suggestion, she decided to give Black Cohosh a try.  A week later she emailed me.  “My skin is beginning to clear up!”

A few months later, I saw her in person, and I had never seen her skin that clear in years.

Mainstream healthcare still dubs the use of many herbs as “experimental” or “unproven,” but this is one where I saw the results right before my eyes.

Please consult with a professional healthcare provider or physician before considering taking Black Cohosh for any reason.

Many medications for acne fail people, particularly women. Learn how black cohosh is being explored and researched as an acne treatment, and how it works in both mainstream medicine and herbalism.

Slow Food, Herbs, and Medicine: Connecting Herbalism with the Food Movement

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Potted Rosemary | Iowa Herbalist

Guido Mase, in his book The Wild Medicine Solution, touches on this subject much better than I can and will do.   The importance of eating local, organic, sustainable, and ethical foods is becoming an urgent issue with time.  As it grows, the burden of this urgency is placed more and more heavily on the backs of organic farmers, and those of us who garden for ourselves to ensure we are eating healthy food, for the most part.

It can be argued, then, that as we fight these days for healthy food, we fight for our rights to our medicine– the medicine we grow in our backyard, and in the wild, all around us.  In fact, fighting for organic food and ethical growing methods is in itself defending our rights to our own personal medicines.  “Organic food can be medicine?” you might ask.  Well, yes it can, and is.  The connection between herbalism and the food movement comes together here, as it is not such a hard one to make: the herbal medicines we take need to be grown, eaten, and protected, too.

Many of us grow vegetables and herbs together, without a second thought– tomatoes with basil, sage with brassicas.  We eat vegetables like spinach, asparagus, and carrots to be healthy, but we eat lots of herbs, too, even though most herbs added to food these days are just for taste.  A lot of us forget that culinary herbs were originally added to food because of their medicinal effects on the body– taste was certainly a plus, but back in our more ancient days when we didn’t add preservatives to food, we used herbs.  Herbs also helped to mask certain tastes, to digest, and to assimilate as much nutrition from our foods as possible.  Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is commonly a meat-spice not just because it pairs up with savory on the palate, but its anti-oxidant effects are so strong that they actually help preserve meat.  Mints, like Peppermint or Spearmint (Mentha spp.), were added to foods to aid with digestion post-meals, thus the “after dinner” mint given to you at certain restaurants.  The candied Fennel seeds you see at Indian or Mediterranean restaurants?  Same thing: Fennel (Foenicularum vulgare) aids with the assimilation of difficult-to-digest foods.  Herbs like Basil (Ocimum spp.) and Cinnamon (Cinnamonum spp.) have been used as appetite stimulants by herbalists for hundreds of years, added to foods to make them more edible when food was generally scarce.

As you can see, herbalism already has its influence in our cuisine.  Herbalism is not just about tinctures, teas, and supplements.  Herbalism, really, is about food– the most effective herbalists will tell you that.  An herb can be “prescribed” but if a person is not eating right to better an ailment, no progress will be made.  This can be confusing to both herbalists, their clients, and everyone else for that matter.  Nowadays we have a dichotomy of herbs and food: we associate herbs with medicine and “spices,” and food with– well, food.

Red Onions | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit William Lorentzen

Truly, food, herbs, and medicine run fluidly together.  When you pour over the details, examining our foods and herbs and exactly what they do, the defining lines begin to blur.  Let’s just say that if we were building a wall that represented our most powerful natural medicines, organic food would be the bricks, and herbs would be the mortar.  As many of you reading this take for granted, eating organic fruits, vegetables, and even organic/ethical eggs and meats are healthier for you.  Spinach, for example, is good to eat because it is high in vitamins and minerals.  Carrots are full of Vitamin A, Cucumbers are high in Vitamin E, strawberries are high in Vitamin C, and so forth.  But organic foods being good for you goes way beyond that.

Brassicaceae or Cruciferae plants, such as radishes, cabbages, turnips and the like, are in the limelight of study for their health-boosting effects, and demonstrating wonderful results.  Broccoli and Kale have received the most hype, being high in calcium, vitamins, minerals, and protective antioxidants.  Some studies and experience claim that eating them daily works as excellent cancer or other long-term illness recovery.  Black Spanish radishes, kale’s distant cousin, has been used traditionally as supplementary food in fighting diseases of the bowel and thyroid.  Daikon radishes are being favored currently for detoxifying purposes, a favorite addition to juicer blends.  Beets are on similar footing and are being eaten for liver benefits.  Sounds like medicine, doesn’t it?

Then there are herbs, your rosemary, sage, and thyme.  Were you aware that these three essential herbs can be combined to make an upper respiratory remedy that any herbalist would recommend you?  Or that Basil is not just a tasty addition to pesto, but it has been a trusted traditional heart medicine in Africa?  Or that is has been useful against menopausal cramps in traditional Hispanic medicine?  Oregano is a great Italian spice, but also serves as one of the first go-to herbs for fungal infection and menopause care.  Cinnamon regulates blood sugar, on top of pairing well with Pumpkin.  Not many realize that ground Cayenne pepper can help ease the symptoms of a heart attack, in a pinch!  (Of course, if you or a loved one are experiencing a heart attack– please, make the hospital your first choice, not the Cayenne; although the pepper can be used to ease symptoms in the meantime).  The list doesn’t end there.  Some of the best remedies accessible for the most basic ailments you can find right there in your kitchen cabinet or spice rack, perhaps in your refrigerator; and to think that some people lack access to healthcare altogether!  But, best of all, you can grow a lot of it right in your backyard, along with the fruits and vegetables you look up to for keeping you healthy.  Those you can’t grow, or have difficulty attaining you can find a the local Farmer’s Market, supporting yor farmer.  Then when it comes to a bit more acute ailments, you can reach out to your local or community herbalist, or join an herbalist gathering and learn the trade yourself.

We can also extend this to the less-culinary sounding herbs that are so good for us and are catching hold in the popular conscious: such as Echinacea, Black Cohosh, St. John’s Wort, Chamomile.  Some popular medicinal herbs, such as Burdock root, are also eaten very commonly as vegetables.  We can extend this to plants that benefit us, but which are endangered in the wild and seek protection; they may not fly off the table at a Farmer’s Market, but if we all learn to grow them and use them in our own homes like we use Onions or Zucchini, maybe they will catch on.  Finally– although this is a step into a different frontier– we can learn to make room in our gardens for actually useful plants we normally consider weeds: Dandelion, Chickweed, Docks, Violets and the like.  A lot of folks may not realize that the Stinging Nettle they voraciously yank out of their gardens each year may be more nutritious than any of the vegetables they grow!  While some of these herbs are medicinal, they also make for nutritious dishes.

Potted Lemon Verbena | Iowa Herbalist

With realizing that medicine is truly in our own hands, it is empowering to know we can grow it and eat it ourselves; or, if you are able, to have the option to support your local herbalist or organic farmer.  But the “quick-fix” American perspective on what a medicine truly is differs from this idea, unfortunately.  The mainstream takes many measures that lose us access to natural food and medicine, by spreading misinformation and making it harder for people to buy, grow, or be educated about natural foods and medicines themselves.  On top of that, companies like Monsanto manipulate our food’s already perfect genetics, to serve their needs– making plants less and less healthy, but more high-profit.  The very source of seed for our favored foods is tampered with in a threatening way.  On the other side of this fight, both organic farmers and herbalists jump through ridiculous hoops to make their product or produce even available– having been both a farmer and an herbalist, I have had to take similar, overly-cautious approaches to each profession.  It is so difficult to “certify” such foods, herbs and products for a market, while they must also be highly priced for a profit to be made.  At that, the market is such that it drives up the prices of organic produce, herbal tinctures and other natural medicines, making them inaccessible to the poor.  Poor and wealthy alike– we both have rights to good health!

So while many of us are embroiled in the Local or Slow food movements, we have a different angle to this fight: Slow Medicine, or Food as Medicine.  We have to open our eyes and see that there has been no other obvious point in history where the rights to our medicines haven’t been more threatened.  Most think that medicines are pills we pop that make things go away as fast as possible; not plants grown by a CSA or in our backyard.  Ironically, pills and pharmaceuticals are unnatural, plagued with ridiculous-sounding adverse side effects (e.g. may increase chances of death).  Doesn’t sound like medicine to most of us, I’m sure.  These medicines, when you think about it hard enough, are made to heal illnesses created by our lack of nutrition from foods at the start.   The evidence of that is pretty much everywhere you look.  Most of us don’t know or value where our food comes from, what quality it is, and who may be screwed over in the process of getting it– most of us, sadly, do not see food as medicine.  It’s scary to see a tradition of eating wholesome plants, which could fix the root of the problem, become more and more endangered.

Herbs, food, and medicine are one and the same.  The more we see this connection, and spread that idea, I do think the more motivated we may become to protect it.   When you grow your own food, or your own herbs, support your farmer, or look to an herbalist, you are fighting for your rights to medicine.  Herbs are our food, our food is our herbs, and both are rightfully ours– it’s a path we should come to know that will keep us healthy, and we can all fight to protect it.

Herbs, Vegetables, and the Healing They Do

-Asparagus: Disease of bowels (Unani medicine)
-Aloe: stabilizes blood sugar, laxative
-Anise: relieves flatulence and hiccups
-Artichoke: digestive stimulant, helps liver function
-Basil: mildly sedative digestive tonic
-Beets: helps cleanse/detoxify liver
-Broccoli: anti-oxidant, high in vitamins/minerals
-Burdock: liver cleanser, helps with acne
-Caraway: digestive tonic, helped nursing mothers
-Cardamom: Safely lowers blood pressure over time
-Cayenne: Stimulates the heart, increases blood flow
-Celery: helps with gout, helps detoxify liver
-Cinnamon: gentle fever medicine for children
-Cloves: Anti-fungal and anti-histamine
-Collard Greens: Anticancer/Antioxidant
-Cucumbers: stabilizes blood sugars (diabetes)
-Dill: Good digestive aid for kids
-Eggplant: lowers cholesterol
-Fennel: Calming cough/sore throat remedy
-Fenugreek: helps with gout and coughs
-Garlic: very antimicrobial, coughs/colds/flus
-Ginger: stimulates digestion, eases nausea
-Horseradish: antihistamine, helps with asthma
-Legumes: high in vitamins, prevent chronic disease
-Kale: very nutritious, anti-cancer
-Mint: Steadies nerves, promotes digestion
-Mustard: ground seeds for cough relief
-Onions: coughs, colds, flus
-Oregano/Marjoram: menopause support, anti-fungal
-Parsley: Allergies and menstraution
-Radishes: some breeds help with thyroid function
-Rhubarb: effective laxative
-Rosemary: improves memory, antioxidant
-Sage: calming fever reducer and cough medicine
-Squash: regulates blood sugars (summer or winter)
-Tarragon: good for your teeth
-Thyme: anti-nausea, and cough remedy
-Turmeric: stimulates digestion, anti-depressant
-Turnips: very nutritious; coughs and colds

References: Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase.  Chemical constituents of Asparagus, J. S. NegiP. SinghG. P. JoshiM. S. Rawat, and V. K. Bisht1.  Effect of Eggplant on Plasma Lipid Levels, Lipidic Peroxidation and Reversion of Endothelial Dysfunction in Experimental Hypercholesterolemia; Arq. Bras. Cardiol. vol.70 n.2 São Paulo Feb. 1998.  Onion As Medicine?!  Herbal Roots Zine/7Song.   Squash may have anti-diabetic properties UPI Health News.  Healing Food Pyramid: Legumes University of Michigan Health System.  Charles Garcia, California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist.  Personal Experience, Observation, Notes.