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.

The Herbal Neti Pot – Using Herbs in Your Sinus Rinse

Neti pot and sinus rinses are amazing for allergy issues, and even more amazing for sinus, colds, and flu when they join forces with herbs.

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Herbal Neti Pot | Iowa Herbalist

Using herbs with your neti pot is perfect for those funky, dry late-winter months that blend 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 also be a bit unsure about whether you are dealing with allergies, or the last cold of the season to kick your butt!

At this very particular time I’m writing (originally in March of 2014 – though this article has been updated January 2016 and now again in 2022!) I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about folks coming down with something not quite like a cold, but still hard to ignore. 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.

I have found myself hesitant to use just 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? Over the years I have had tons of success and adventures using herbs with a neti pot in different ways, even concocting specific neti formulas, and I have much to share and praise about this method.

Neti Pots and Their Virtues

Neti pots have been my go-to for nearly a decade. When I’m in the midst of cold, flu, allergy troubles, and my chronic allergic rhinitis and sinusitis issues (not pleasant!) they provide instantaneous relief while those immune boosting foods or herbs take some time to kick in. An herbal steam, though lovely, just won’t get into the sinuses fast enough. When all these things are the case, I open up my cupboard, and take my neti pot off the shelf.

A sinus rinse gets rid of all of that gunk, and quickly (with the help of salt in the solution).  Then, one day, I realized I could combine herbs with neti rinses to enhance these effects. I have since then chosen this method as a top one in my arsenal for colds and flu fighting.

How do I use a Neti pot?

What’s the low-down on using neti pots?  If you don’t know, neti pots (also called “nasal lavage” or just sinus rinsing pots) 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. I would highly recommend reading 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 just a few extra guidelines to consider and adhere to, and which I follow closely too.

  • Neti pots are good first line defenses against cold symptoms and allergies.
  • They’re great for thick mucus and blockages (of ears and nasal passages).
  • Use them sporadically: non-regular use is best.
  • Use boiled, distilled, sterilized, and filtered water (I personally use water from my Brita filter, boil it, then cool it to a warm temperature. Some experts will recommend more thorough or sophisticated filters however.)
  • If using tap water, make sure it is filtered through hole sizes 1 micron or smaller, or boiled several minutes then cooled before use. (Yep – read above.)
  • 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 perfect fodder for infections.

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 against illness, 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.

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. As an herbalist it became all too logical to think that the neti rinse could easily use a bit of an herbal twist. No, I’m not the first herbalist to think of this idea: after I happened upon an herb shop’s sinus care formula tailored to the neti pot, I thought, I really need to start making my own formula and using herbs in a sinus rinse myself. (Especially considering my own sinus issues.)

Since then, I can’t resist adding a supporting herb into the sinus rinse mix each time. It usually depends on the type of sinus issue or cold I’m dealing with, but there are so many varieties of herbs and  herbal actions to choose from, and that suit a neti rinse perfectly: vasodilating, bronchiodilating, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antimicrobial, and a good balance between astringent and emollient.  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. Over the years too, instead of putting so much work into whipping up a complicated herbal sinus rinse every time– using various herbs, tinctures, teas, and then finally, the sea salt– which sounds exhausting when I’m already exhausted from stuffy sinuses, I came up with a unique herbal formula for the neti pot that combines all the ingredients in one place. All you have to do is heat the water, let cool, add the formula, rinse, and feel the relief! Feel free to check it out.

How I Use My Neti Pot

*Dosage/Preparation: To each Neti Rinse you prepare, use warm (not hot!) water (or boiled water that has cooled to a tolerable temperature) and add roughly AT MOST a teaspoon of salt (make sure it is a fine type of salt, not coarse).

  • 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. Again, I filter through my Brita (charcoal), boil, and then let cool.
  • To each solution as it is cooling, add about 10-20 drops tincture, or whatever you are comfortable. (I tend to use 1-2 dropperfuls of my own neti formula.)

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. 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 pot.

Surprisingly, while you might think ginger could “burn,” the most potent of my ginger tinctures (or any tincture formula I’ve made or used, for that matter) 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 for these – whether runny or dry, these two plants are known to help support the prevention 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 best buddies especially.

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 plants from the Asterid family, 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 (2013) 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 (according to many herbalists) 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 (without being actual ragweed).  Growing right next to ragweed in the Fall and blooming twice as “showily,” not many folks know that a well-worked herbal support to ragweed allergies might be growing just a couple feet away. What’s 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. Of all the possible neti, sinus, and allergy herbs altogether too, goldenrod stands out as one of my very favorites – combine this one with ginger if you’re having a cold to support immune health, respiratory health, and perhaps even reach a cooling fever.

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 helping support 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 help support it).  While fighting off infection, this plant will also aid in drawing and pulling out the nasty gunk you’re trying to forget about with its astringency, 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. 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 also be effective, but also a fresh, hot tea of the leaves or flowers (without having reached the boiling point) can help loosen stuff up when you’re stuffed up, too. Allergies and colds may be supported by the actions of mullein as well.

Plantain | Iowa Herbalist

PLANTAIN (Plantago major)
– Like mullein or ginger, I’ve put plantain tincture into a lot of my sinus rinses. 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 could be your go-to.

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.

Licorice of the Woods – Sweet Cicely or Sweetroot in Herbalism

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**Disclaimer** The information in this article on sweet cicely 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.

Properties: Tonic, Bitter Tonic, Aromatic, Carminative, Adaptogen, Stimulating Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-spasmodic, Immune Booster, Antimicrobial, Emmenagogue

Energetics: Damp and warming, Sweet

Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves

Sweet Cicely Flowers | Iowa Herbalist

When first walking the woods of Iowa out by where I live, I came across swathes of forest that were completely carpeted with an interesting looking herb.

I turned to a few people I knew and asked them what it may be, describing it in detail.  One of them was an ecologist, another a biologist, and yet another a dedicated explorer of wilderness.

I was surprised that they were each baffled, having not fully noticed the plant before – as it really isn’t all that memorable or interesting to look at.

One of them suggested it was Greek Valerian, or Jacob’s Ladder, but those were not matches.  One of them even brought up Poison Hemlock: “No, no, no- definitely not that!”

A lot of time went by before thinking of the plant again, even though I continued to see it everywhere: while hiking, fishing, or gathering other herbs.  It is quite ubiquitous, but unremarkable in appearance.  Nonetheless, it learned how to catch my eye.

Then, through a series of interesting events, I stumbled upon a picture of this plant in one of my favorite plant guides.

Sweet Cicely Rain | Iowa Herbalist

Sweet Cicely was what it was called, an obscure member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae.  There was little information on it in herbals, so I didn’t focus on it too much.

Then, I was shocked and pleased to discover that it was considered to be a very important cornerstone in Cherokee Herbal Medicine, via herbalist David Winston.

With some study I came to understand that it was also important to many other First Nations in our history as well, collectively a stomach/bowel remedy and Woman’s Medicine.  In the end, though – it was the word adaptogen that rang in my ears.

This plant is not to be confused with the Sweet Cicely of European Herbalism fame, Myrrhis odorata.  They do have some effects in common; but this low-growing plant found in damp, intact woodlands is very much native to the United States, and here in Iowa particularly.

To avoid mix-up with its cousin Myrrhis, I have opted to call it “Sweetroot” instead, and will refer to it as such throughout this article.

Sweet Cicely in Spring | Iowa Herbalist
The fuzzy leaves of sweet cicely, or sweetroot, slowly unfolding in spring.

Belonging instead to the genus Osmorhiza, the species longistylis and claytonii are quite prevalent in the Midwest, with occidentalis being the denizen root of the Rocky Mountains and the West.

As my beginning story foretells, this plant blends inconspicuously and expertly with the surrounding undergrowth.  There is hardly anything remarkable about it, nothing suspicious in its humble appearance, as it grows undistinguished and modest among its fellows.  

It’s only when you read about it, and learn to pick it out – like I did – and dig up your first plant at the root, taking a little nibble at its sweet, licorice taste, that you realize the true significance of the medicine you’ve stumbled upon.  Then, standing up and looking around at the sheer numbers of this plant surrounding you, it dawns on you exactly what wonderful prospects this plant may hold!

Smelling or taste-testing Sweetroot, in the process of its harvest, is quite important.  Some roots are medicinal, and some are not.

The most medicinal ones are those plants with roots having the strongest licorice aroma, a smell found also in some of Sweetroot’s relatives in the Carrot family.  This smell indicates the presence of anethole, a camphor that is found in other herbs like Licorice, Anise Hyssop and Basil.

Anethole spans across different plant families, but is most commonly found in the world’s favorite medicinal and culinary herbs.

The smell itself is a signal of Sweetroot’s remedy.  You can usually tell with a few sniffs of the plant, or smelling your hand after handling the root.  I personally like to take a few nibbles.

Poison Hemlock | Iowa Herbalist
Poison Hemlock, a dangerous look-alike to Sweet Cicely. Especially when both are young, they look quite a bit like one another – only Sweet Cicely (or Sweetroot) will have that strong, licorice aroma. – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

First of all, though, make absolutely, 100% sure that the plants you are looking at are indeed Sweetroot plants.  

Some people have been known to mis-identify Sweetroot with its dangerous cousin, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).  A nibble of Poison Hemlock root will send you head-long into the beginnings of poisoning and symptoms of heart failure.

If you are not confident with your plant identification skills, bring someone with you who is experienced with this plant for harvesting –  whether that be a biologist, botanist or very experienced herbalist.

For those who are confident, Poison Hemlock leaves have a stronger resemblance to Parsley (also a relative) while Sweetroot leaves have a softer, feathery look, more similar to Angelica (yet another relative, too!).

With so many mentions to its close relatives, Sweetroot shares in some of their attributes too. Its roots remind one of the tastes of Anise, Fennel and Tarragon. Sweetroot occupies a similar herbal niche, promoting and assisting with difficult or troubled digestion. Its warming actions are perfect for cramps of the stomach, and the spasms of hiccups.

Sweet Cicely Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

A preparation of the herb would do well as an aperitif or digestif; and with its delicious taste, I can’t help but envision it as the perfect addition to an herbal beverage, swirling with cool cucumbers or a sprig of mint.

My fiance and fellow wild-food enthusiast William Lorentzen, upon taste-testing the root along with me, commented on how awesome it would be stir-fried and thrown into Indian and or Thai dishes!

As a warming ally to the digestive tract, Sweetroot’s effects also extend to female complaints.  Like another one of its close relatives, Angelica, a signature of bitter aromatics indicates a calming remedy for cramps and spasms of the uterus.

A classic bit of herbal lore holds the use of candied Angelica root, on hand, for chewing during the worst of menstrual cramps.  I have often thought that, to the same capabilities, Sweetroot may be excellent for the very same use – a candied root would be quite scrumptious.

Finnish Herbalist Henriette Kress talks about keeping candied Angelica roots in her purse for chewing at the onset of “moon sickness,” in the first installment of her book, Practical Herbs.  

American Indian women from various tribes were apparently acquainted with its ability to ease difficult menses.  The Chippewa particularly were cited to use a hot decoction of the root for bringing on delayed periods.

In fact, we certainly have Native American tribes to thank for the knowledge of its use at all, even though it is not one of the most recognized herbs today.

Predominantly Midwestern nations, who would have had access to the species Osmorhiza longistylis and claytonii, are mentioned as pioneering Sweetroot’s use as both a stomach and female remedy, but also as a “woundwort.”

Among these are the Omaha, Meskwaki, and Ojibway peoples, but doubtless there are many more.

Wild Sweet Cicely | Iowa Herbalist

Through David Winston, practitioner of Cherokee Herbal Medicine, we have knowledge of its use by the Cherokee Indians.  Thanks to him and Cherokee folk medicine people, a bit of recognition for the plant is slowly entering the consciousness of mainstream herbalism, and it’s about time!

Winston says the root was, and still is, used to strengthen the weak and those with “depleted life force,” helping the frail put on weight.  The root was decocted and drank as a tea, most likely.

In Matthew Wood’s classification of herbs, this plant would likely to be designated a Bear Medicine for the very reasons of being nutritive, sweet, tasty, and restoring strength.

But what is probably of greatest interest to herbalists is Sweetroot’s ability to fulfill the role of an adaptogen- because it is an adaptogen!

Strengthening and toning the body is only one thing it does.  But Cherokee herbalism would have it that it is also tonifying to the lungs and mucus membranes, replenishing what is called “deficient lung qui” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and improving our overall abilities to cope with illnesses, stress, and other undesirable changes.

Having the plant handy going into the winter and cold/flu season is another facet of its use.  It can be categorized with other herbs like Ginseng, Reishi mushroom and Schizandra for having similar effects to some extent.

Young Sweet Cicely | Iowa Herbalist

Winston goes so far as to say, with confidence, that one could replace the use of both Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) with Sweetroot in their herbal practice.  Sweetroot was actually compared strongly to Licorice, having similar flavor, adaptogenic qualities, and effects suited to colds, coughs and sore throats.

That, to me, isn’t even the most intriguing part of discovering Sweetroot’s capabilities as an adaptogen.

Due to its availability, as well as comparing it to other adaptogens – and being an herbalist who prefers the forage/use of wild native herbs – Sweetroot is perfect for someone who wants to keep their practice as ethical and sustainable as possible, without having to think about the welfare of the entire species. Populations of Osmorhiza, around that States, are considered federally stable.

One thinks of the examples of more widely-known adaptogens: plants which typically are known for being rare or endangered, as in the case of Ginseng; plants that are a challenge to fully cultivate and use as our own personal medicines, such as Ashwagandha or Reishi; or herbs that seem unethical or very distant, as they are sourced from other countries thousands of miles away, like Jiao-Gu-Lan.

Many famous adaptogens are of Asian origin, and the native ones that we wish to feel close to here in the Midwest are herbs that we should leave alone: that includes the wild Ginseng and Licorice we take pride in.  Of course, they can be cultivated, but experienced herbalists know firsthand that cultivation just isn’t the same.  Neither is knowing a plant strictly through a capsule or imported tincture as satisfying as knowing and working with the plant personally.

Which is why I would urge any herbalist who relies on adaptogens to get acquainted with Sweetroot, whether it be just for themselves and their families or a clinical practice.

If you wish to be an herbalist and fit seamlessly into an ecological or bioregional niche of herbalism, you’re not being practical leaning on a plant like Eleuthero to cover those bases (although Eleuthero has its own wonderful virtues).

Popular adaptogens are amazing and legendary for their effects on health – but can you form a wild relationship with the plant?  Probably not.  The best adaptogen you can form a personal rapport with, in the wild Midwest, would be Sweetroot.

If you live in the Midwest or Eastern United States, take a walk in damp woods near a creek or river, and you’ll probably find Sweetroot: growing with Wood Nettles, Virginia Snakeroot, Elder, even Morel mushrooms in spring.

Just like its common forest companions – there is plenty to spare.  Not something that could be said for an admirable and unequivocal adaptogen like Ginseng, even though Sweetroot is not near as strong.

All the same, it is amazing what the bond of herb and herbalist can do.  If you do choose to harvest it for yourself or others, remember always to harvest responsibly.

Sweet Cicely Tincture | Iowa Herbalist



A Modern Herbal by M. Maude Grieve.  Randall Scheiner, Ecologist.  Lisa Maas, Biologist.  David Winston, Cherokee Herbalist/CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, James A. Duke and other editors.  Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress.

The Cedar Path – Cedar as Medicine in Iowa

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Eastern red cedar - and cedars of all kinds - have been used for health in herbalism for thousands of years. Learn more about cedar in herbalism here.

**Disclaimer** The information in this 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.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Diaphoretic, Expectorant, Astringent, Anti-microbial, Diuretic, Anti-asthmatic, Anti-fungal

Energetics: Warm, Very dry, astringent 

Parts used: Berries (female cones), branches, leaves, bark

Before I even knew what Cedars were, I loved their smell.  Nowadays, the scent of Cedar wood evokes memories of cabin stays with cousins far up in the mountains of Utah as a child, thinking that the house just smelled that good because it was a magical place, a magical time.  I remember being irrationally excited to go on those cabin retreats, not knowing why.

In my more recent years, and falling into the world of herbalism, I once brushed up against a support beam of Cedar wood in a sustainable dwelling, and it was as if the scent hit me like a lightning bolt– what was that?  Why do I feel this way?  I asked what kind of wood it was, and they told me it was Cedar.  Since then I have been almost magnetized to the scent of this tree.  It immediately calms me down, transports me to another place, and makes me leave all current worries.  I tend to go straight back to that cabin up in the mountains: covered in Pendleton blankets, sipping hot cocoa, and watching the desert with reverence.

Eastern Red Cedar Tree | Iowa Herbalist

No coincidence that Cedar has an important place in many cultures as a strong spiritual agent with a cleansing presence,  a protective plant in rituals and as medicine.   It is commonly ascribed similar properties as Sage; the needles, bark, or sap is burnt as an incense, the smoke it emits protecting and cleansing against spiritual “residue.”  Cedar can be “smudged” like sage, to purify a space, home, or person.  For me, I came to realize that this wonderful, satisfying smell may be a direct reflection of these effects, as it seems to immediately calm and sedate, smoothing over stress and uncertainty, dispelling fear and doubt.  These same effects are no doubt what drew it to be favored by Native cultures throughout the United States, and other cultures the world over that were blessed to be in the presence of this beautiful tree.

In Iowa, the Cedar we are happy to have with us is the Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana.  By all accounts it really is more of a Juniper than a Cedar, though Cedars and Junipers are actually related.  In fact, the family of plants in which the Eastern Red Cedar belongs extends to the giant Sequoia, the towering Redwood, a variety of other Cedars and Cypresses all over the world, and even the Common Juniper, Juniperus communis.  All these trees are also somewhat interchangeable when it comes to their medicinal and spiritual properties, as well.  Its use as a spiritual agent, interestingly enough, is found in different cultures, on completely different continents.

Cedar Berries Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

The uses of Eastern Red Cedar branch out into many.  They are very similar to the Old World, standard Common Juniper in that its female cones- or berries- are one of its favored usable parts, if not an attribute of the plant that really grabs the eye.  When you see the Cedar’s fragrant branches heavily-laden with these bright blue little “fruits,” it’s hard for an herbalist to think that these are NOT somehow useful!  One of the virtues of the berry is that it goes impeccably well with several mediums: salve, tincture, elixir, syrup, you name it.  What more: it tastes delicious, and mixes well with a large variety of other herbal flavors in combination, if you are crafting a blend or formula of sorts.  The twigs, leaves, branches and bark of Cedar have effects and flavor too, although they are notably more intense and astringent, having a reputation of being hard to extract; their use is important, but not as eclectic.  I would wager that the berries are more for tonic use, whereas the rest of this beautiful plant should be saved for acute situations, which I will get to later.  Berries can be picked during the fall or winter, as they last, when they “ripen” to an appetizing-looking blue.

Remember: Cedar trees tend to be dioecious (at least the Eastern Reds are).  That is, there are males and females of the species.  If it is fall or winter, and the trees you are looking at for harvesting don’t seem to have blue cones, chances are they are male.  Keep looking– you will more than likely stumble upon a female tree not far off.

In its many mediums, the berries serve as a very ideal winter medicine– all the better since they can, for the most part, be harvested all winter as the berries are available.  They are high in Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C, an ideal vitamin to take over the winter for immune support.  Even if you don’t have a cold, their use as a tonic will be more than welcome.  When winter illnesses take a nasty turn, Eastern Red Cedar berries work with expectorant action, helping the lungs clear out excess mucus and promote a healthy cough.  It can be useful for a dry or wet cough: it relieves that “tickle” you may feel with a scratchy, dry throat with a hoarse cough, but it also stimulates the lungs to cough more productively, and expel phlegm in less time than without it.  So here you have a medicine that stimulates the immune system, relieves a scratchy throat, improves your cough– and tastes great!  Cedar berries in syrup form are especially delightful.  Sounds like quite a valuable ally to have, if you ask me.  Wonderfully enough the Eastern Red Cedar and its scores of blue cones are certainly not in short supply, as this tree is a prolific grower all over the Midwest.

Cedar Branches | Iowa Herbalist

In the Native-Hispanic tradition, Cedars and their relatives are valued highly for the properties of their leaves, “needles,” or branches.  These hold the more potent effects of the tree, and as such, are more difficult to capture in preparations.  They can be slightly toxic.  While certainly not widely considered poisonous or dangerous, it is still good to be careful.  Be sparing when using preparations of Cedar needles or branches, even the berries, for that matter.  Cedars are very powerful diuretics.  When taken overboard, they cause kidney irritation, which feels like cramping in the abdomen– similar to a period cramp.  Even higher doses can be more dangerous.  Folks with weak kidneys, or outstanding kidney issues should avoid using the Cedar leaf.

Cedar leaves and branches are particularly a stimulating expectorant, to use when the lungs are incredibly damp, breathing is hard, and illness is acute.  Asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia are prime cases.  When taken in a hot tea, it opens up the pores and eliminates sickness very effectively when the body breaks into a sweat.  For the same reasons, Cedar’s diaphoresis is integrated into sweat rituals, as a means of bodily purification.  Its best documented historical use is among the Lakotas, when foreigner-brought cholera struck their populations.  A very notable medicine man, who later went on to become the notorious chief Red Cloud, turned to the Eastern Red Cedar and found that a hot decoction of its branches was the best cure for the plague– and saved many lives.  This herb is to be used when damp clogs the body, especially in the lungs, and must be eliminated through cough or sweat.  When taken cold, its action moves downward as a diuretic, purging that way through the kidneys– its effects in that regard are very intense, and again, this is not a remedy to be overdone.

Historically in Iowa, the use of Eastern Red Cedar was brought here by the Mesquakie people, hailing originally from Michigan but relocated to Oklahoma, before settling on their land in Iowa.  For them, the plant was a favored tonic, bringing back the weak and ill from the brink or for the invalid or convalescing.  Medicine men used the inner bark for catarrh, grinding it into a powder and inhaling it into the lungs or nasal passages.

Cedar Bark | Iowa Herbalist
Cedar bark, harvested by deer, retrieved by myself

The bark or wood is also what has been employed for Cedar’s more spiritual purposes.  The leaves and branches have been used for the same, too.  The fragrant, calming smoke when the wood burns is believed to allay nightmares, night terrors, hauntings, malevolent influences/thought forms, evil spirits, and ill-meaning wild animals.  Many native peoples in North America use the smoke to cleanse a home; in the Native-Hispanic traditions, home-cleansings are called “limpias,” and Cedar wood being favored in this way.  Again, the smoke of Cedar is used to purify the body, not just the home.

Deer love the bark, too.  On my winter walks, the trunks of the Eastern Red Cedar display hanging ribbons of tender inner bark that has obviously been stripped back by the teeth of a white-tailed deer.  I favor harvesting this bark, since it is “collateral damage”– it is also the perfect, fibrous texture and consistency for burning as an incense.  I also, loving deer so much, love the idea that the deer have helped with half the work.

I always find it interesting and thought-provoking when the spiritual and emotional effects of plants reflect their physical ones.  Just as Cedar seeks to purge our bodies of spiritual impurities, or to protect a home from negative influences, the hard reality is seen at work when Cedar is taken as medicine: whether it is expelling mucus from our lungs as a stimulating expectorant, clearing them of bacterial or viral infection; or opening up our pores in a cleansing fever to clear toxins, as invoked and adopted by sweat ceremonies.  Whether you believe in esoteric herbalism, or not, Cedar does one thing: it cleans us, in mind and body.

Now, when I take that mind-transporting whiff of Cedar smoke, I realize why I felt that way.  This beautiful tree’s magic is powerful.  If you ever need a friend in the midst of illness, or during a hard emotional time, or if you just need to get some bugs out of your system– Cedar is your herb.  If you wish for simpler times, are feeling nostalgic or just want to reminisce, no plant can summon that feeling better; taking you far up into a cabin in the mountains, surrounded by pines and firs, and blankets.  Enjoy it in a tea, your favorite elixir, a tasty syrup or perhaps in a calming incense blend.  I remember such effects when I’m winding in between the rust-colored  Eastern Red Cedars, peppered across Iowa’s tawny grasslands in winter, harvesting their little blue cones.  Each time I bring in a jar or two, I spread some of the berries in places where Cedars don’t grow– to make sure there are more trees there for us to enjoy in the future.  It’s my way of saying: “Thank you.”

As always: harvest responsibly, and respectfully.

References: Charles Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher.  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke.  Personal Experience and Observation.

Cedars in Iowa | Iowa Herbalist