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.

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.

Sumac – Sour Power and Culinary Healing

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**Disclaimer** The information in this article on sumac 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: Diaphoretic, Antibiotic, Antiscorbutic, Antidiarrheal, Antiasthmatic, Diuretic, Tonic, Alterative, Antimicrobial, Astringent.

Energetics/Flavor Profile: Cool, dry, sour, astringent.

Parts Used: Berries/Fruits, Leaves, Bark, Twigs.

Smooth Sumac | Iowa Herbalist

When I was a little girl playing in my family’s big sloped garden in Utah, I would spend a lot of time in the little stand of Sumac there.  I remember it clearly – and for that I consider Sumac a childhood friend of sorts.

A patch of Sumac is the perfect place for a kid to play and pretend they’re in a different world, completely hidden from an adult’s prying eyes.

As an herbalist and wild food fan, my friendship with Sumac has continued to the present.  In a chef’s words, the flavor profile of Sumac is sour and light; in an herbalist’s words, its “energetics” are cool and dry, sour and astringent.  Sound similar, right?

That might be because Sumac has been a popular wild food, culinary spice, and folk medicine for hundreds of years among many cultures.  When a single herb crosses over into all these categories, then you really know it’s a good food and herb.

A huge lover of Sumac, I will sometimes try to talk about how awesome this plant really is for you, healing-wise and nutritionally.  Most of the time I’ll get a glazed, unknowing, fairly uninterested look.

One response I got was: “Oh, you mean those long, branching, pokey things you see along the highway, with the fiery berries?”  Yes, those.

Sumac’s Healing and Nutritional Properties

For starters, the species of Sumac I’m most familiar with is a robust Midwestern version: Smooth Sumac, scientific name Rhus glabra.

There aren’t many tinctures, capsules, or supplements of Sumac available for you to try at your local natural foods store.  Thus hardly anybody knows what to say about it, even the majority of herbalists.  But Sumac deserves its own attention outside the mainstream – and I just love an underdog.

If you want to go out there and get to know this plant and its exceptional qualities, it will require a hike or a short walk rather than a trip to the whole foods store.  Though you can find “culinary” Sumac, a sour, burgundy-red powder and popular Middle Eastern spice at some local shops.  Experiment with that, if you like, though its effects and health properties are not something I’m familiar with.

Otherwise, you can walk up to this plant and with your fingers or a knife, and gently snap off or cut away the clusters of soft, red berries…respectfully, of course.

Sumac Drupe | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit DepositPhotos.com

Sumac’s Properties:

  • High in Vitamin C for immunity
  • Antioxidants for cellular protection
  • Gallic acids – potent antimicrobials

Not only does Sumac contain ample Vitamin C and Antioxidants like its contemporaries Hibiscus, Rose, and Raspberry – it also hosts powerful Gallic Acids that make it a worthy opponent for bacteria, fungus, even viruses alike.

Yes, there are studies to prove it: “…of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, [Rhus glabra] was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate.  Alcoholic extracts had the strongest activity.” (Foster, Duke; Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281).

Another study demonstrated Smooth Sumac’s (tincture of the berry) efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida.  The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. (1)

More Healing Facts About Sumac:

  • Sumac’s berries showed anti-diabetic, hypoglycemic activity
  • Abilities to help lower cholesterol, while boosting good cholesterol
  • Could prevent hardening of the arteries (2)

Bottles Apothecary | Iowa Herbalist

Studies aren’t needed to support this one, but powdered Sumac (or whole berries) make an excellent cooling beverage when mixed with some lemon, classically called “Sumac-Ade.”  Plus, the powdered berry from its roots as a Middle Eastern culinary spice, is an excellent food pairing with grilled fish or chicken!

I will stop and say here that yes, Sumac-Ade is quite delicious – and you can learn how to make it here.  But if you want a potent healing infusion of Sumac berries, simply cold-steeping to get only the pleasantly sour aspect will produce a weak and hardly effective tea.  That’s right…you’ve got to boil it or at the very least heat it in some way, until the water is a darker, vivid yellowish-red color.

Don’t worry, it will still be plenty sour, though it will also have an earthy, bitter taste that might repel most people – unless you’re one of those people who knows, of course, that bitterness means the “medicine is working.”

Traditional Healing Uses of Sumac:

  • Opens the pores, promoting sweating and elimination – fever-supporting
  • Strengthens the kidneys
  • Relieves and prevents diarrhea
  • Fights colds, flus, and infection of the mouth and digestive tract

Interestingly, traditional and folk use seemed to emphasize its affinity to mouth infections specifically.  It’s fun for me to say that my experiences lined up with that, too.

Sumac Sinus Rinse | Iowa Herbalist

My Experiences With Sumac

Four years ago, a case of strep throat hit me in late November 2012.  With no health insurance, being at least 30 miles away from a clinic and practically penniless, I rummaged my plant resources.

I didn’t have ideal strep-fighting herbs with me at the time, such as Usnea (Usnea spp.) or Red Root/New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), so I set about trying to, somewhat creatively, figure out how I could kick the illness.  Even then, take it from me though: if you can get access to healthcare to take care of your strep…DO IT! 

Strep can be dangerous.  I do not recommend going this route, as this was an option I faced in the desperation of wintertime poverty deep in rural Iowa.

For the first two days using various other herbs in teas, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement.  I then opted also for Smooth Sumac tincture added into the mixture I was using.  I went out on a bit of a limb relying on this herb – though I had stumbled upon its anti-microbial research, and was intrigued.

I took the tincture internally, three times a day.  But a gargle of Sumac tincture in water at least three times a day – allowing direct contact on my swollen, infected throat – was what I believe the biggest impact on Strep.  I was a combination of surprised and pleased: every time I gargled with Sumac, there were very observable results day-to-day, and the infection progressively withdrew!

I did this for about a week, eventually chucking all the other herbs and mostly just relying on the Smooth Sumac.  In spite of not having found any information or research yet on Sumac fighting Strep throat bacteria specifically, the infection hit the road.

From that time forward, I decided I really appreciated the stuff. I would be fated to make more if it, and I started to put it in almost everything (cause it tastes delicious, too)!

Sky View Sumac | Iowa Herbalist

The experiences continued.  In the next winter of 2013, after getting four wisdom teeth yanked out of my face, Sumac was my go-to remedy. I even preferred it over the prescription antibiotic mouth-rinse the dentists gave me afterward, and it still sits unused on my shelf even today.

Needless to say, I avoided the common post-surgery “dry-socket” problem.  When one of the clots broke, it took a single swishing-session of Sumac tincture to stop the bleeding.  The next gargle, I was amazed to feel that the hole had somehow pinched together and clotted, back on track to closing itself up.

Other’s Experiences With Sumac

Not long after my strep experience, a co-worker of mine at the time approached me with an abscessed tooth.

He fretted because it had been abscessed for a while.  He didn’t just want to go to a doctor, pay the money, and get it taken care of, with antibiotics and penicillin and the like.  The tooth had been hurting him the last few days, and it frightened him that it was getting infected.

Without thinking it would really take care of the problem – maybe just help it, a bit – I said “Hey, try Sumac tincture.  It seemed to get rid of my strep throat.” It was an easy sell,  considering my co-worker’s enthusiasm for herbal remedies.

Less than a week later, he came to me saying not only had the pain and infection gone, but the tooth was no longer abscessed!  He seemed as shocked and awed as I was, but definitely happy.

Sumac: History, Information, Background, and Tradition

There are many different species of Sumac, all belonging to the genus Rhus.  

There are other species of Sumac in Iowa.  One other, Staghorn Sumac, (Rhus typhina) is also native to Iowa.  Its range clings closely to the banks of the Upper Mississippi region and the Driftless region of the state, then spreads north and eastward.

Poison Sumac (Rhus toxicodendron) is quite similar looking to other sumacs, with white instead of red berries.  However, it is incredibly uncommon in Iowa; the only place where you might stumble upon it would be on the banks of the Mississippi.  Just make sure the Sumac you are harvesting has berries, and that they are definitely not white (not much of a challenge).

Like its namesake, Sumac is typically seen growing gingerly at the forest’s edge, in the shadows of clearings on the paths where deer are known to frequent.  According to herbalist Matthew Wood, Sumac is a Deer Medicine.

Deer Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

Deer Medicine is a categorization of certain types of herbs originating from American Indian Medicine practices, though I couldn’t tell you which exact people or nations.  Deer Medicines, as Wood puts them, are meant to be “juicy and beautiful, and plants that attract deer.”

I have seen many a deer hiding among stands of Sumac, blending right in with its graceful branches and jagged foliage.  It is, indeed, the perfect haven for deer to hide.

Being an important part of herbal healing of past and future tradition, Sumac in my mind perfectly reflects and represents itself as a symbol of Iowa herbalism- a state and region where the deer themselves are incredibly prolific.

There is an incredible amount of knowledge going way, way back on the many uses of Sumacs, also spelled “sumach”; both from the acumen of historical texts and the rich lore of old traditional cultures, in North America, Europe, and Africa.

In Iowa, Sumacs- particularly Smooth Sumac- were important and prevalent medicines among some original cultures native to the state, or those who were known to pass through Iowa regularly.  The Cahokia Indians, early agriculturists of Iowa, were thought to have cultivated Sumac along the Upper Mississippi as food, no doubt as medicine.

Sumac Basket | Iowa Herbalist

The Omahas most notably had a wide range of uses for it, along with the Meskwaki, who are the last-standing Indian nation with a settlement present here in Iowa.  I personally think this long-time use of Sumac is a strong reason to consider it a vital herbal, especially one with strong cultural and regional ties to healing traditions rooted right here, in the state of Iowa.

The antique literature out there backs up Sumac’s usefulness as a medicine for the mouth, resonating with both its research and my own experiences. One herbal mentions its folk use in the Ozarks as a chew stick for cleaning teeth, by stripping the bark off a thin twig and massaging the gums.

A modern study confirms Smooth Sumac as a mouth medicine, due to examined and tested samples of the species from the Ozark mountains, which was shown to prevent tooth decay among rural Ozark inhabitants.

Sumac Stand | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit Shutterstock

The old herbals don’t just stop there.  Stemming from the use of Old World Rhus coriara in Europe, its subsequent adoption by pioneers was carried over to America – and a rhapsody of Old and New World uses, European and Native, developed into a robust tradition of medicinal use.

Old herbals praise its unique potency against various afflictions, among them diarrhea, dysentery, fevers, scrofula, and weakness with too much/not enough perspiration.

Sumac is noted to help tone the uterus and prevent its prolapse, like Raspberry.  In fact, it is an all-around great Woman’s Medicine, regulating the cycle and preventing cramps through its actions on stabilizing the blood.  As a bowel medicine, the herb helps against urinary complaints as a diuretic, acting through the kidneys.  Historically, and in our present day, Sumac may be used to aid diabetes medication due to its kidney effect; Southeastern native tribes used it as their own regional analogue of more Western/Southwestern herbs like Brickelia (Brickellia spp.) or Nopal Cactus (Opuntia spp.).

A few famous herbalists of today discuss Sumacs of various species being medicines with a long history of successful use, Matthew Wood and Phyllis Light being its biggest proponents.  Phyllis Light herself learned the uses of Sumac passed down from her grandmother in Southern Appalachia, a knowledge inherited from the Creek Indians.  Wood compares the uses of Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs in his book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, and touches on the fact that Smooth Sumac is indeed a useful remedy in cases of mild putrefaction – this could include an illness like strep throat.

Next time you are driving along the highway, jogging, or passing through those more “thickety” parts of your town – I hope you stop to take a look at Sumac, if the gorgeous plant already doesn’t grab your eye.

Sumac could be a first step into a powerful pantheon of Iowa herbs, a  plant that for many of us, could be just outside our window, waiting to yield its uses to us.

Although the stands of Sumac are widespread and numerous….please, harvest respectfully.

Sumac is an incredible healing herb, but has also long had a place in the culinary arts. Learn about the health benefits, flavors, uses, and preparations possible with sumac.

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References: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke.  The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood.  Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World by K. Kris Hirst.  Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher.  King’s American Dispensatory, 1898.  Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.  Personal Experience.

Herbalist Consultations Now Available!

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

Do you live near the Driftless in northeastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, or Decorah, and are looking for herbalist consultations?

Iowa herbalist Adrian White is happy to provide educational herbal consultations.  If you have been looking for an alternative, natural approach to improving basic wellness and self-care in your personal life – and you live in the Driftless or Eastern Iowa area – Adrian White is a mobile herbalist and professional health/wellness writer willing to come to your home or rendezvous with you elsewhere for consultation (herbal consultation office being a work in progress).

See how plant therapy and nutrition can apply to your life style, struggles, and overall wellness situation.


Mullein Apothecary | Iowa Herbalist

Adrian White is a certified herbalist through two programs since 2012, and has studied and practiced herbalism since 2009, both independently and with stellar herbalists. Her teachers include Stephany Hoffelt of Naturally Simple Living and Charles Garcia, director of the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.

She is a also a regular contributor to Rodale’s Organic Life and Healthline. She works with many clients writing content, copy, and professional/educational content informed by her own herbalist knowledge, training, and research.

Clients include Primal Herb LLC, Paradise Herbs, Natural Health SherpaFoodUndressed!/Eva McLaurinand the International Association of Wellness Professionals.

Issues Adrian is happy to walk through and tackle with you:

  • Anxiety/Mild Depression Support
  • Female Health
  • Male Health
  • Menstrual support
  • Fertility support
  • Immune System Support
  • Digestive Issues/Gut Health
  • Thyroid Support
  • Basic good nutrition practices
  • …and more

The consultation stems from an herbalist-based practice, but it does not end there.

Adrian may recommend an herb, blend of herbs, or even a variety of vegetables, fruits, nutrients, and wild foods for you. Consultations may also involve lifestyle change recommendations and nutrition suggestions.

Herb walks and wildcrafting could also be a feature, with instructions on how to identify, harvest, and prepare certain plants on your own that might be deemed a good fit for your situation, as well as with what’s available in your area.

Garden consulting can also be an educational part of her time with you, when the season is right. This involves education on how to grow certain foods and herbs yourself. Adrian is an organic farmer and gardener of near a decade, and co-owner of Jupiter Ridge Farm, which grows sustainable produce and shiitake mushrooms.

If certain clients are interested, Adrian may provide astrological chart readings, I Ching readings, and dream work to those who seek it. Adrian was a practicing professional astrologist for 3 years.

However, it should be noted: Adrian is an herbalist with a very scientific, practical approach to using herbs for health, often referring to studies and research data that support the best remedies of today, as well as those which are also backed by historical and traditional use.

If you’re looking for a no-nonsense, less “woo woo” herbalist to sit down and talk with, Adrian tends to keep the frilly trends of “magical” herbalism and mysticism out of the picture when it comes to the seriousness of people’s physical health – though that’s not to say she doesn’t believe or speculate on mysticism if you want to go down that road.

Kale Bowl | Iowa Herbalist

Consultations typically last 1-2 hours, at $50 per consult or per hour, and can be made up of any combination of the above approaches that are appropriate for the client or that the client requests. Consultation fees do not include the costs of materials, herbs, or other products recommended or given during the consult.

Adrian is open also to trade or bartering, and a sliding scale may be applied. No one will be turned away. Clients of any race, origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation are welcome.

Perhaps a certain vegetable or herb could be an integral part of improving wellness in your life.  Adrian can then show a client how to grow certain vegetables or herbs, whether in their own backyards or their homes, to have access to them themselves and feel empowered in their own health – that, or learn how to access them in the wild, source or purchase them, and/or prepare them on their own.

INITIAL CONSULTATION FEE: $50 per visit(products, recommendations, and other services may be extra).  Pay cash or online by clicking the link to the right.

Please contact me by emailing deernationherbs@gmail.com to schedule a consult. Advice, help, suggestions, or ideas on how to improve your health are welcome.

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WHAT CAN HERBS DO?

To me, herbs are the pumped-up version of “eat your vegetables.”  Herbs are foods that we should consider implementing into our diets more and more in order to help our bodies reach the equilibrium that they have lost – even if we can only incorporate them in small increments.

Perhaps they don’t taste like french fries or ribeye.  But some herbalists could argue that our intolerance of the “less easy” tastes of bitter herbs and vegetables is what has caused our falling from grace from good health in the first place, especially in the Western World.

Herbs are not medicines.  They might be called medicines, though they more so support the body’s natural healing processes, not that much differently from nutrients – while some may have more dramatic effects than others.

My primary wish in becoming an herbalist comes from wanting to help people; but as herbalists, we cannot say or act in the place of doctors.  We cannot diagnose, prescribe, or cure.  But we can certainly help and work with people to better improve wellness, self-care, and lifestyle so that it better supports overall health in a holistic way.

According to legalities and ways we view modern mainstream medicine, herbs simply cannot and do not fit with convention.  Herbs need their own category- not quite a medicine, not quite a supplement, and not quite a food.

In my practice, however, herbs are herbs.  The closest to anything else in how they act on our bodies is like a supplemented food, in a way. They are a wholesome, healthful, natural food that speeds up the body’s natural processes and urges it to be well and heal itself.  I know herbs well, and research voraciously wherever there are holes in my understanding as a huge part of my freelance writing work.

I hope that one day herbs can be regulated completely different from food, supplements, AND medicine all together, but that is a story for another time.

Coupled with good, healthy choices, persistence, nutrition, lifestyle practices, and optimism, adding herbs into your life can slowly but surely change around some of the most stubborn, deeply-ingrained health imbalances.

Even better, it can prevent the very worst that could happen – even if it is already set in motion – from happening.

Ginger Rhizomes | Iowa Herbalist

Fascinatingly enough, many of our mainstay culinary herbs were once used as healing additions to our meals.  Rosemary, thyme, and ginger, for example, were not just added to foods for taste.  They had noticeable effects on the body too in positive ways, through actions and chemical constituents that are observed even today by both folk tradition and modern science.

As an herbalist (and an organic farmer), one of my greatest passions and goals is to bring together the infinite possibilities and myriad choices you can have when you combine herbs with healing foods.  It’s easy…and you can find or integrate that kind of healing in practically every recipe.

With a client, I will sit down and listen to the issues on hand and try to find an herb, food, formula, plan, or other that will help enhance health in their situation.  Before the initial consult, I may ask you to fill out some information on your health history, especially if your health history is complicated. This is to avoid making wrong herb choices for you.

It can be a bit like detective work, at first, until you find that perfect herb or herbal combination that fits. Who knows – it may turn out that you don’t really need an herb at all, but something completely different. The choices and wealth of food and herbal knowledge out there is extensive and overwhelming. That’s what herbalists are for.

Starting off with one consultation, a little session with me could get the ball rolling on some both tasty and healthy ideas to boost your health – and the rest of the work and magic is completely up to you.

If you are seeking this kind of service in the Driftless or Eastern Iowa, please feel free to contact me.

Contact me also just for custom tincture/extract formulas, suited to your individual needs, if desired.

Email: Adrian White, deernationherbs@gmail.com

Soy yerbera disponsible por servicio en Iowa.   Se habla espanol.

Fresh Beets | Iowa Herbalist

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

 

References

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.

Mercy from the Grind – Herbal TMJ and Bruxism Support

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Note: this article deals with my own personal experiences with herbal support and TMJ which are, on a scale, probably more mild. I cannot guarantee that the remedies I have used will help with a more severe case.

**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.

Deer Jaw and Lavender | Iowa Herbalist

It starts with headaches in the morning.  Your sinuses feel crushed, your eyes feel like they’ve been punched as far back into your skull as they can go, and you definitely don’t feel well rested.  Your teeth hurt, your jaw is tense.  Your ears are ringing, or feel full of pressure.  It’s easy to lop this off to the average morning headache, except they begin happening more and more frequently.  Sometimes it’s accompanied with staying up really late, being unable to sleep, feeling tense, mind racing.  You wake up in the middle of the night with your jaw clenched shut like a steel trap.   Your partner, spouse, or others in your house say they hear a loud creaking noise at night– the sound of your teeth grinding intensely in your sleep.

Sometimes teeth grinding (also called Bruxism) is transitory, but others have to deal with it much longer as the result of a  larger system of problems.  When it gets that way, it is called Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, or TMJ.  Through the process of realizing I had this problem, and being an herbalist, I was surprised to find that in the herbal world there was very little insight into the matter.

It’s an amazingly minor issue.  But that’s where half of the agony of it comes from– even I think calling it a “disorder” makes it seem much worse than it actually is.  But I can tell you, though, that as I started to develop the symptoms myself, they were NOT pleasant.  They are hampering, day-ruining, and difficult to alleviate.  When you describe what you are going through to someone, and say that you have a “disorder”, their tendency is to say “Hey– doesn’t sound so bad, for a disorder.”

And– they’re right.  But it sure doesn’t make the situation any better, and something that you can’t always get a grip on with herbal care or home remedies.  It’s a non-serious “illness” that is still really painful, and can easily ruin an entire day.  I would put it in the same category as migraines, cluster headaches, etc. since it impairs you quite similarly.

Temperomandibular Joint | Iowa Herbalist
Stock Photo Credit

When I found out I had the disorder and start researching ways to make it better, I only find that there really isn’t a permanent fix or “cure” for TMJ.  There is only palliative care to prevent the pain from reaching intolerable levels.  As of yet, there is still no single, determined cause for TMJ, although there are pinpointed factors that lead up to developing its symptoms.  It would appear that the disorder tends to be a “network” of issues, stemming from many different sources.  There is also no determined cure– save for surgeries and operations costing people thousands of dollars at a time, which sometimes make the symptoms and condition worse, rather than helping it at all.

I didn’t receive an official diagnosis of TMJ from a doctor or dentist because I was terrified of going in to get help.  I learned of the disorder by going through all the symptoms I was having, putting them together, and going from there.  When TMJ popped up, it fit the puzzle perfectly; I immediately knew this was the problem I was having.  However, upon doing further research on TMJ and case studies of people going in to get diagnosed, there were so  many stories I found of patients having products, operations, and surgeries pushed very forcefully upon them.  Some of them were horror stories, with people coming out with permanently disfigured faces and no relief from their pain.  I knew I had TMJ, but did not want a dentist to confirm it for me and then badger me for going against their advice for useless surgery, expensive mouth guards, or even getting braces.  Still, the pain of TMJ continued to haunt me, as many of those who suffer it can also relate.

SYMPTOMS

The symptoms for Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, according to online sources, are as follows: jaw, neck, and shoulder pain; grinding teeth at night, popping jaw, sometimes lock jaw; ear pain, tinnitus, sinus headaches, difficulty chewing, and spine issues.  They really aren’t limited to all that– sometimes other issues may develop.  This is all due to the fact that some sort of problem has developed within the delicate, highly mobile joint of the jaw, where it meets the skull.  It is amazing how, through the association of muscles inter-connected through our bodies, the pain of TMJ can spread elsewhere.  There are a variety of supposed reasons why these symptoms develop.  Of note, the vast majority of TMJ sufferers are women, which at this point is just a statistic with no determined reason why this is the case.

The leading determined cause of TMJ is stress and anxiety, but other reasons have been surmised– such as jaw/face/neck injury, poor bite, or even the result of recent major dental work.  Excessive caffeine and alcohol use are definite factors too.  If I were to apply basic Energetics to TMJ, I would say it is a cold, dry issue of the musculoskeletal system, although sometimes it can seem like more of a hot or warm condition with inflammation getting involved.

I am no doctor– but I am certainly an herbalist with empirical knowledge.  I managed to, without seeing a doctor or dentist, turn to an arsenal of herbs and other support to help rid myself of symptoms of this heel-nipping disorder, and with some pretty lovely results.

First Year Mullein | Iowa Herbalist

REMEDIES- HERBS AND OTHERWISE

First things first– herbal medicine aside, get yourself a mouth guard.  Wear it at night and you will find the symptoms of your TMJ about 80% obliterated.  It has worked wonders for me, and is (literally) 100 times cheaper than some of the “front-line” mouth guards a dentist will tell you that you “need.”  Not only does it help with the symptoms, but can help prevent a lot of the inherent damage that comes to your jaw or teeth when dealing with either Bruxism or TMJ– especially enamel wear.

While the mouth guard does help considerably, probably more so than anything, sometimes problems flare up for one reason or another.  When that happens, I turn to certain herbs or other methods.  The plants I find useful against TMJ after some experimentation with my apothecary were all quite interesting and versatile– in general, damp herbs work best, whether heating or cooling.  It seems to depend on the needs, moment to moment.


-Hot/Damp Treatments.
 
From a Western Herbalism perspective, it is hard to slap energetics on TMJ.  But there is one thing I have found: hot and damp feels wonderful, and provides the quickest relief to that joint as well as your sinuses and ears.  As such, you could classify TMJ as “Cold and Dry”– and definitely a constriction or tension issue.

Steams.  Anything involving hot water helps.  A simmering pot of water on the stove (not boiling!) is a great way to relieve the pain, placing your face and even each ear (if you have earaches) over the steam that rises.  Certain herbs, especially mucilaginous and bronchio-dilating ones, put in the simmer can be of great help, too, and I will get to those later.
Teas.  Even something as simple as a hot, steaming tea could help.  Breathe in the steam before you drink.
Baths and Showers.  Taking a hot shower can really help; but especially a hot bath filled with useful herbs, soaking straight through the skin!
Warm Compress.  A warm- or hot-water soaked rag placed against the joint can be relieving.  You may add some topical herbs to it if you like, which could provide a bit extra.
Neti Pot.  This is usually my last-resort method in this vein.  The salt and warmth itself can really help the most directly, making your ears “pop” nicely, providing relief for the time being.  Herbs (especially tinctures) can be added for additional relief.

-Staying hydrated.  Quite basic: drink lots of water, all the time.  This especially helped me with the sinus headaches and earaches, which can feel “inflamed” pretty quick.  Being hydrated alleviates this, helping your body produce a thinner mucus in your sinuses, keeping discomfort down.

Ginger Rhizomes | Iowa Herbalist

-Herbs for Relief.  Again, energetically, damp works best, warming is good too.  But I have found that if it is first and foremost a mucilaginous herb, it will help in some way.  So sometimes it can be a cooling herb.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)  Your archetypal warming, damp herb.  5 drop doses, every five minutes or so, can help with ear or sinus pain.  Tincture is especially wonderful put in a Neti Pot (5-15 drops) for a quick rinse.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) When it comes to sinus stuff, especially when sinuses are dry and crackly, Wild Ginger can be used in place of Ginger, and can actually work better.  Ginger is more heating, while Wild Ginger just warms and helps the body create sweat and lubricate.  This one is actually perfect in a Neti Pot, tincture form, combined with other herbs such as Dandelion, Plantain, Goldenrod flower or Ragweed flowers as tinctures too.  It soothes the sinuses and can be the best thing for hurting ears, when nothing else works.

Wild Ginger Blooming | Iowa Herbalist

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus).  In a variety of ways, Mullein is the herb you want around if you have TMJ because of how it helps with the symptoms– which is wonderful, because it grows practically everywhere.  If you are harvesting this medicine, take care to do so in a site where Mullein is not crowded or in a disturbed urban area; it usually means that the Mullein will contain a high level of pollutants.  The more rural and alone Mullein is, the more potent and clean it will be.  Either the first year leaves, or yellow blossoms are what you want.  I have not worked with Mullein root as of yet, but I can make some assumptions on how it could be applicable.  Root tincture would probably be perfect in a Neti rinse!

Either steep the blossoms in a pure, organic oil base, or find some way to get your hand on Mullein Blossom Oil.  A few drops in each ear while laying on your side helps.  Once you wait for the oil to get deep in there, lay on you back so the oil can go further into the eustachian tubes.  The relief is quite quick and immediate.  Using Mullein Blossom Oil works especially well right after doing a steam, bath, or shower, since the hot helps open up your sinuses, tubes, and relaxes the muscles, helping the oil get in where it needs to be.

-Herbs for Anxiety/Stress/Tension.  The leading medical knowledge on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder and bruxism points to anxiety, stressful lifestyle, and lack of stability and relaxation in one’s life as the number one culprit and cause.  So incorporating nervines, sedatives, tension-reducing and calming herbs overall is absolutely called for, and can really help to alleviate the source of the problem.  Certain ones are better than others, I have found, but everyone is different.  I would recommend you elect your favorite tension-tamer and use it on a daily basis.  Here are the ones that helped me:

Blue Vervain by Creek | Iowa Herbalist

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata).  This brilliant plant is native to Iowa and easy to pinpoint and harvest.  It is useful in more ways than one for TMJ, one of them being tension relief and anxiety issues.  Daily doses of a tincture of the flowers, leaves, or root (1 dropper, up to 3x/day) helped relieve my tension that was associated with and led up to the muscle in my jaw being pulled so tight, resulting in a clenched bite.  I also happen to have shoulder pain on one side along with my own TMJ problem—so for using Blue Vervain, having jaw and shoulder pain together is a good signature for this herb.

It can also help with the headaches, both sinus and muscular, that occur so often with TMJ if taken daily over time.  I find that I prefer a flower tincture the most, as the root can be a bit too strong in these cases and can cause some unwanted hormonal side effects.  Other Verbenas, like Verbena officinalis and Verbena stricta, can be helpful.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, gryposepala, parviflora).  This plant was perhaps the most useful herb for the type of tension that my TMJ stemmed from.  It eases tension without being too drying, which can exacerbate the inflammation of the sinuses and the stiff jaw joint.  It has a gentle and yet noticeable effect over time, and it tastes great!  The tincture I used featured a blend of European and Native Agrimony and it tasted like a subtle, soft raspberry leaf.  Within just a few weeks I noticed tension starting to release.  One night, the muscles of my jaw became so relaxed, I couldn’t find my mouth guard in the morning!  The usual pressure of my bite did not keep the mouth guard in properly, and I didn’t wake up with a headache of any sort, or felt my teeth had been grinding or clenching.  If kept up regularly, Agrimony is of great help.

-Herbs for the Musculoskeletal Aspect.  Temperomandibular Joint Disorder is an issue that arises from tension usually, but the way it manifests is plainly in the muscles.  Especially if you have TMJ as the result of injury, not tension, you need herbs that more directly help that part of it, and taking nervines or sedatives won’t help you as much.  You need something to help you with those muscles.

TMJ, while it is an issue of the jaw, is easily a problem that spreads to the neck, shoulder, and back, as all of those muscles are in some way connected.  Some of us who suffer TMJ have shoulder, back, or neck pain.  Something like a back, neck, or even spine injury can lead up to TMJ, as a muscle out of place there pulls down on others and finally pulling down on the jaw muscle, making it tense and tight.  Such tightness contributes to the jaw  joint eventually popping out of place.  I like to think of it like closing the blinds– if you pull one muscle down, it may cause others higher up to contract, which is basically what TMJ experts describe.

Pleurisy Root/Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  I did not try this one firsthand, but I would certainly recommend TMJ sufferers try it, if they can get their hands on it.  Similarly to Solomon’s Seal, this plant helps the joints produce more synovial fluid, thus easing pain on the joints.  Typically, Butterfly Weed is used in cases of osteoarthritis.  Tincture or salve, in the same manner of Solomon’s Seal, can be used.

Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides).  This is not a remedy I myself have worked with, but an herbalist Christine Guttadauria from up in the Pontiac area of Quebec recommends an infused oil of the young bark of the Trembling Aspen tree.  It can be turned likewise into a salve, and placed on achy, inflamed areas, especially the jaw joint.  She also says it is exceptional at keeping the tension at bay.  As such, if you do not have access to the Trembling Aspen, one could turn to other members of the Willow/Poplar family: White Willow, Balsam Poplar, Cottonwood, perhaps even the Birch or other Aspens.

If you have any questions about using herbs to help with TMJ, feel free to contact me by email ~ Adrian White, Deer Nation Herbalist ~ deernationherbs@gmail.com

 

For some good sources on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, and what it is all about, here are some links from professionals, experts, doctors and dentists who deal with the issue.  These also number among some of my resources:

Jaw-Dropping Facts about TMJ/TMD Disorders ~ Delta Dental
TMJ Disorders ~ National Institute of Dental and Craniofascial Research
Smart Guard Night Guard ~ Relief from Bruxism/TMJ
An Aching Jaw Leads to a World of Medical Uncertainty ~ The New York Times
Best Treatment of TMJ May Be Nothing ~ The New York Times

 

 

References

Personal Observation, Empirical Experience.   A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology: 4th Edition by Ruth Werner.  The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood.  Christine L., Quebec Herbalist.