Licorice of the Woods – Sweet Cicely or Sweetroot in Herbalism

Share This


**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

Share This


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.

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

Share This

Potted Rosemary | Iowa Herbalist

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

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

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

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

Red Onions | Iowa Herbalist
Photo Credit William Lorentzen

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

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

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

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

Potted Lemon Verbena | Iowa Herbalist

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

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

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

Herbs, Vegetables, and the Healing They Do

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

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

The Cedar Path – Cedar as Medicine in Iowa

Share This

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

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

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

Energetics: Warm, Very dry, astringent 

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

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

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

Eastern Red Cedar Tree | Iowa Herbalist

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

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

Cedar Berries Herbalism | Iowa Herbalist

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

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

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

Cedar Branches | Iowa Herbalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always: harvest responsibly, and respectfully.

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

Cedars in Iowa | Iowa Herbalist