Crafting Chaga Double Extract

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Double Chaga Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

Ever harvested the chaga mushroom?

If you’ve never lived in the north woods (or spent time in these environments), I would expect you to say “no” – but I wouldn’t put it past you, either.

I, myself, have never harvested chaga. I have to thank my good friend, Lisa Maas, up in Alaska for handing off these priceless, healing nuggets to me that she herself received as a gift (no doubt from a seasoned chaga harvester).

They could indeed be called the “black gold” nuggets of the medicinal mushroom world: looking much like gnarled charcoal that, once busted open, reveal tawny-gold, clay-like insides.

Chaga Layers Side View | Iowa Herbalist

She passed these on to me while still in Iowa before relocating to Anchorage – ironically, a northern Alaskan city near boreal forests where chaga spores are known to roam, spreading from birch tree to birch tree.

Not knowing what to do with them on her part – and me, on my part, being completely inexperienced with them – I took them gladly, seeing them as a new herbal adventure.

Why take the chance on an unknown mushroom, you might ask?

Because any healing mushroom, especially one rich in polysaccharides and triterpenes, can be made into a healing double extract – a recipe for which we will delve into later in this article.

Chaga Double Extract | Iowa Herbalist

Healing & Background

As stated above, chaga mushrooms are denizens of boreal forests, northern woods that host mostly conifer tree species, but also a mix of poplars, willows, and birches. And it’s the birch trees that are what chaga especially love.

From small little knots to oversized chunks, these mushrooms crack and burst through the wounds, crotches, and notches in the trunks of these beautiful trees.

Paper Birch | Iowa Herbalist

While some might think these harvestable parts of the fungus are the reproductive fruiting body, that’s actually not the case: they’re called sclerotia, a part of the actual mushroom’s mycelial network, and the literal living, breathing organism part of chaga.

Traditional use of the mushroom is well-documented, with especially important roles in the folk medicines of Russia, Eastern Europe, Siberia, northern China, Japan, Korea, and First Nations in the northern latitudes of North America.

It was used as a healing tonic, brewed similar to tea or coffee, and given to strengthen the body against weakness and disease, to defeat cancers, prevent wasting, and even to promote longevity (markedly better than other mushrooms used by the very same peoples). Studies today are confirming a lot of these uses as very accurate for today’s illnesses, too.

Chaga in Snow with Pine Branches | Iowa Herbalist

A north-woods, alpine, boreal, and/or taiga dweller, you’ll find it growing wherever it’s regularly cold in the northern latitudes, and where there are plenty of birches to be found.

The northern ranges of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Russia/Siberia are the most well-known chaga haunts. But apparently you can find it in pockets of northern Minnesota, the Appalachian mountains, and the Adirondacks of the Northeastern U.S, as my well-traveled, well-mushroom-learned husband informed me.

Chaga in Iowa?

Being an Iowa local these days, a state that’s not quite northern enough to host chaga, I still wonder: maybe it could have, at one time in the forgotten past, at least in very hidden pockets and corners.

After all, Iowa is host to the largest number of algific talus slopes in the world, small little micro-climate environments speckled across the northeastern portion of the state (known as the Driftless area). You can read more about Iowa, algific talus slopes, and herbalism here.

Wild Yellow Birch Iowa | Iowa Herbalist
A wild naturally-growing yellow birch tree in White Pine Hollow State Park in Driftless Iowa

Rich in yellow birch trees and mountain ash, these year-round cool habitats are supposed to be much like fragmented bits of northern high-altitude boreal forest, trapped deep within the heart of Midwest forest, prairie, and oak savanna.

So who knows. Back when the state was home to a lot more algific talus slope habitat (which does host plenty of birches), perhaps there was a population or two. We’ll never know.

The Marriage of Chaga and Birch

Returning back to their love of birch trees, fascinatingly, chaga’s predilection for them has a lot to do with their healing properties.

These fungi absorb betulins, a triterpene found in birch species (of the genus Betula), which are responsible for a great deal of their vigorous anti-cancer properties, and famous for surpassing those of most other highly touted mushrooms (including reishi and shiitake).

Chaga Extract Looks Like Root Beer | Iowa Herbalist

It is theorized in one study that chaga takes betulin, a potent anti-tumor compound, and synthesizes it into betulinic acid – chaga’s cancer-fighting triterpene.

The clincher here: betulin is powerful, but not bioavailable to humans; betulinic acid is, and can be taken orally.

I forget where I heard this (it’s scribbled in my herbalist notes, for which any source is missing), but chaga was known to be the most potent when grown on a yellow birch tree. Apparently, the tree is much richer in its signature betulins compared to other birch species, thus lending any chaga growing upon it more powerful healing properties.

Yellow Birch Tipton Iowa | Iowa Herbalist

So if you’re keen on learning to harvest the mushroom on your own, finding one up on a yellow birch means that you’ve stumbled on a prime specimen!

Some Notes on Harvesting and Sustainability

Writing about everything to do with harvesting chaga would take a whole other article to properly illuminate. Still, there are some very important issues related to harvesting that absolutely must be touched on– particularly in regards to foraging it sustainably.

Chaga is not an officially endangered fungus (yet), but it is fast headed in that direction. Because its healing properties are of such wide repute nowadays, the gnarled mushroom is often over-harvested (or, more accurately, incorrectly harvested) by commercial wildcrafters to make a quick buck with supplement companies meeting the consumer demand for chaga in their own lives.

Chaga in Snow | Iowa Herbalist

Foraging enthusiasts can do their own damage if they harvest it incorrectly, too– and the problem with over-harvesting appears to be the greatest in North America, and especially Canada’s boreal forests. It not only depletes chaga, but harms the birch tree from which it is taken, making the trees these fungi need more vulnerable to disease and death as a result.

If you’re wanting to harvest (or purchase and use) chaga as sustainably as possible, make sure to examine a chaga-selling company’s harvest practices. Or, harvest it sustainably yourself: only take about a quarter of the chaga you encounter from each growth in the tree. That’s all you’ll need.

Read how to sustainably harvest chaga here at Black Magic.

Why Make a Double Extract?

Why not just make a simple tincture? Or, for that matter, pick up a convenient supplement at your local co-op or store instead?

Beyond sustainability, most folks who look into taking certain mushroom extracts may not realize: the properties of mushrooms (like lion’s mane, for example) are locked tightly away in one of nature’s hardest substances called chitin, a fiber that naturally occurs in these fungi. These contain the compounds you’re after, but your digestive system just isn’t equipped to get the betulinic acids out.

Chaga with Antlers | Iowa Herbalist

That’s why double extracts are the way to go for a home preparation, and why non-double-extractions are products you shouldn’t buy. The combination of alcohol and water (specifically hot water) guarantees that all the mushroom’s compounds– both triterpenes and polysaccharides– will end up in your extract, so you can enjoy ALL the benefits that chaga can give: reduced risk of cancer, immune-boosting, antioxidant troves, and more.

A powder or supplement alone won’t have it all, and solely a water or alcohol extract (separated) won’t have it all, either. Hence the need for a double extract!

Two-Phase Extract

This recipe is inspired by Guido Masé’s reishi double extract.

Chaga Double Extract Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

You’ll need:

  • Chaga mushroom
  • High Proof Alcohol (I use 151 Everclear)
  • Glycerin (though I consider this optional)
  • Water

-Take your chaga and grind it up. I’ve been recommended hammers and cheese graters to do this, and really liked the cheese grater quite a bit. Chaga is tough, but I was surprised that it didn’t beat up the cheese grater at all. Grate or hammer the chaga into a powder or into the smallest nuggets possible, and then split that amount evenly in two parts.

Grinding Chaga | Iowa Herbalist

-Using the first part, prepare a tincture by covering the powder with a solvent of 75 percent alcohol, 15 glycerin, and 10 percent water (if opting out on glycerin: 90 percent alcohol, 10 percent water.  Glycerin is meant to help with the emulsion).

-Set tincture aside, and let it steep for four weeks, shaking it occasionally.  Then strain it and measure its volume.

Chaga Tincture | Iowa Herbalist
Shaking chaga tincture, you’ll notice it forms a frothy, foamy head, quite a bit like root beer.

-After you’ve strained the tincture, take the second part of the chaga mushrooms and simmer them for at least one hour, preferably two or more, in twice as much water as you used for the total solvent volume.  Keep adding water, if necessary.

-At the end of the simmering, strain it all out and reduce the volume of fluid you have left by boiling it down so that it equals the volume of strained tincture. Take this off the heat and allow it to cool completely.

-Combine the simmered broth and strained tincture, mixing well with a whisk.  Make sure you are adding the tincture to the broth and not vice versa to reduce the amount of concentrated alcohol the constituents in the broth have to endure.

-Bottle and store, preferably in a dark-tinted glass bottle or container.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub (For Allergies)

Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail – that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.

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As we speak, summer temps are finally chilling out to make way for fall. I’m a mixture of both excited for cooler outdoor adventures, camping, fishing, fall herb harvesting, autumn colors….and a little sad that the hot era of barbecues and beach-going are over.

Beet Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs
Beet, peach, and goldenrod shrub with a sprig of lemon balm, and sweetened with a lilac floral simple syrup.

Regardless, you just can’t complain about a season where you can finally prop open your windows at night, and let some of that fresh, cool air in.

The only drawback: allergies!

That’s right – while the cool air comes in, so does all that late-summer blow-out pollen. It’s like the local herbs are having a last-chance, going-out-of-business sale, and the bulk of it ends up in your sinuses.

Beets, Peaches, and Goldenrod: Unlikely Allies

Fortunately, some of the foods and herbs that come into season right around this time are perfect for an anti-allergy, anti-inflammatory tonic: most specifically beets and peaches!

Native Iowa Peaches, Whole | Deer Nation Herbs
The Iowa Indian White Freestone variety of peach, a breed native to the state of Iowa – and which I’m proud to feature in this recipe.

I know, they’re a very unlikely sounding duo; but earlier this summer, I made a lovely beet-and-peach combo that came especially alive in a drinking vinegar/shrub blend. Really, I could not get over how amazing it was.

Sliced Beet | Deer Nation Herbs

These are two beauties of produce that most wouldn’t think of as medicinal (or as going great together at all), but which were once primarily used more as medicine than as food (beets); or, which have unsuspected strong roots in traditional folk medicine (peaches).

Last comes goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), that yellow banner of autumn most people associate with the worst allergies of the year.

Goldenrod Flowers | Deer Nation Herbs

I know what you’re thinking: why put this pollen right into an allergy shrub tonic? Sounds like a good way to make things worse. But any knowledgeable herbalist will happily rejoice in telling you: “wrong!”

Goldenrod actually produces hardly any allergens to humans at all, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center and other sources, if you poke around online (or just ask an herbalist).

And while it does bloom brightly August through October when pollen seems to reach its peak (at least in the Midwest and Iowa), this can be blamed instead on its less vibrantly visible green-flowered neighbor, ragweed (Ambrosua spp.).

Goldenrod Blossoms in Beet and Peach Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Unlocking Their Healing Flavors

If you study the flavors of these food and herbs, you can determine their uses and herbal energetics: beets are bitter, cool, and damp, making them excellent alteratives, cleansers, blood sugar balancers, and digestive tonics in Western herbalism.

Peaches are sweet, cool, and moist, dubbing them demulcents and thus excellent expectorant/respiratory healers; while goldenrod is both sweet and bitter, as well as dry, bringing it immune-boosting qualities combined with anti-inflammatory effects.

Native Iowa Peaches | Deer Nation Herbs
The Iowa Indian White Freestone variety of peach, a local breed native to the state of Iowa. These peaches are smaller than typical peaches.

As we’ll explore later looking closely at the health benefits of these ingredients, these flavor profiles ring true even with some of today’s modern studies on these foods and herbs. In fact, determining the flavors of the herbs and foods you use can help you easily trace their herbal properties, and how they can be used in healing (as an herbalist would).

Foods and Herbs to Support Allergies

So what does this rag-tag trio of herbs and veggies accomplish for allergies, exactly?

Goldenrod Blossoms in Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

While an herbal sinus rinse is my go-to when symptoms get really bad, herbalists do also need to think holistically and nutritionally when working with herbs.

You can feel the pollen dancing it up in your nostrils, but its irritating effects may also be sourced from complications elsewhere in your body. What could be the underlying issue? Inflammation, immunity – or maybe a few recent diet (or alcohol) choices that were tough on your liver?

On top of using cleansing, anti-inflammatory herbs right at the site of irritation (your nose), certain foods and herbs bring a boost to other bodily systems getting overloaded by allergies.

It’s not just your upper respiratory tract that needs some love. Your liver and immune system are also a part of allergy irritation, responding to seasonal pollen by producing more pro-inflammatory proteins (such as cytokines) which trigger yet more inflammation and feed into the vicious allergy cycle.

And here’s the catch: your liver and your immune system will absolutely love beets and peaches, especially how they taste together. (I’m looking at all you beet-haters out there, too; you’d be surprised!)

Nutritional and Healing Properties

When I combined beets and peaches for the first time, this divine duo didn’t just catch my attention due to the wonderful ways their flavors combined. It was also their ability to work together as two nutritious, healing foods in an allergy tonic for fall – a time when they’re both in season – that seemed more than perfect to me.

Then, finally, adding bunches of sinus-soothing goldenrod as a final touch tied it all together, both flavor-wise and color-wise with accents of pink and yellow.

Making Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

In the fruity and sour menstruum of an apple cider vinegar-shrub medium, the flavors meld and truly come alive, accompanied by the even further allergy-soothing properties of ACV and the probiotics that also support allergy issues.

It all comes together for the perfect, beautiful, refreshing, allergy-supporting autumn mocktail!

Beet Nutrition and Healing Properties (Beta vulgaris)
  • Source of vitamin C and iron, nutrients that boost immunity, which mediates allergy reactions; also contains folate, potassium, and manganese for nourishment.
  • The pink pigments in beets, called betalains, are potent anti-inflammatory compounds; studies show that they interfere with the pro-inflammatory signalling of cytokines produced by the liver, which can be a part of triggering allergy attacks.
  • In traditional folk medicine, beets were used as alterative blood-cleaners, or detoxifiers. This no doubt mirrors modern research’s findings: a perceived “cleansing” of the body being its recovery against harmful inflammation.

Beet Halves for Making Beet Shrub (For Allergies) | Deer Nation Herbs

Peach Nutrition and Healing Properties (Prunus persica)
  • Source of vitamin C, which helps fortify the immune system and modulate allergy reactions.
  • Studies over the last decade acknowledge a very notable anti-allergenic effect from the peach fruit – including its ability to prevent mast cells from breaking in the body, which release histamines and create the allergic reaction.
  • In traditional herbalism, peaches (typically the bark, leaves, or seeds) were used for asthma, respiratory issues, and inflammation of the airways. This includes difficulties from allergies, and no doubt is a reflection of the confirmed findings of modern studies.
Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail - that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.
Goldenrod Healing Properties (Solidago canadensis)

Folk herbalists have used goldenrod as a remedy for many things, but most surprisingly of all as an allergy soother, quite unusual when goldenrod is so typically reviled for causing allergies (a popular myth).

Au contraire – even modern studies today investigate its abilities to soothe inflammation, as noted by the University of Maryland Medical Centerincluding those from allergies. It would also appear that the yellow flower has antioxidant capabilities to heal tissue damaged by inflammation and oxidation, according to another study.

Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar and Probiotics

Last (but certainly not least), all these ingredients fermented together in a drinking vinegar or shrub form make it the ultimate allergy tonic.

Why is that?

Fizzy Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs

Well, the acetic acid bacteria that colonizes fermented vinegars (like ACV) are shown in clinical studies to prevent and treat allergic reactions. If you ferment your shrub for more probiotic activity, the more powerful your tonic will get – and nowadays, you just can’t argue with how good probiotics are for you!

There you have it: a tasty, healthy beverage that has all your allergy bases covered. You won’t even notice that you’re sipping on medicine during these crisp and cool fall days.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Allergy Tonic Shrub (The “Beaches” Shrub)

Beet-haters: watch out! With this delicious herbal drink, you may just find that you have switched sides in the long-fought love-it-or-hate-it beet battle.

But hey – if you can’t beet ’em, join ’em; and this healing brew may be just the thing to convince you.

Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub Mocktail | Deer Nation Herbs

I’ve taken my main shrub-making inspiration here from cook Mary Karlin’s recipe at MasteringFermentation.com. My reasoning: her craftsmanship involves a brief stage of fermentation, which adds those vital anti-allergy probiotics (on top the sinus-busting foods and herbs) in this recipe.

For my main article on shrubs, check out this post on how to master shrub-making, and how to add herbs to them to make them health-themed tasty tonics and mocktails of your own.

Note: for the most stubborn among you beet-haters out there, substitute one cup of the beets for a cup of strawberries. This will help mask the taste a bit more, while still adding color and compatible flavor to both the veggies and fruits (plus, strawberries have plenty of vitamin C).

As a last note, I’m proud to be using a locally-sourced and very special kind of peach for this recipe (as shown in the photographs): the Iowa Indian White Freestone peach, a native strain to Iowa. (That’s right: take that Georgia, peaches grow up here too!)

  • 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)
  • 2 cups red beets, chopped or shredded
  • 1 cup peaches, chopped or diced
  • 1 cup of fresh goldenrod flowers
  • Parchment or wax paper
  • (Up to) 1 cup sweetener of your choice – sugar, stevia, honey, agave, you name it

-Chop and place beets and peaches in jar, packed full together with goldenrod flowers. Muddle with a wooden spoon or pestle to release juices, oils, nutrients, and other properties.

Chopped Beets for Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Chopped Native Iowa Peaches | Deer Nation Herbs

Goldenrod in Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-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 (and feel free to muddle them up a bit more, too). Drape cheesecloth or other breathable cloth over mouth of jar, then affix lid ring (just the ring!) onto jar to keep cloth in place (for a visual guide or idea of what this may look like, refer to my main shrub-making post).

Pouring Vinegar Into Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Making Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub (Allergy Tonic) | Deer Nation Herbs

Muddling Beet, Peach, and Goldenrod Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

Muddled Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-Leave jar out at room temperature overnight (12 hours more or less). 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!)

-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!

-After 3 days are over, strain everything out of your shrub into a stainless-steel bowl or the like. Remove twigs and leaves of goldrenrod and compost; keep peaches and beets, putting them back into the vinegar alone.

Fermenting Beet Shrub | Deer Nation Herbs

-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. (Give it a taste – don’t beets and peaches pair amazing together?)

-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). 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.

Beet Shrub Mocktail Above | Deer Nation Herbs

How did you like the shrub when it was all done? Feel free to share your adventure in the comments below.

Nothing beats a tasty allergy tonic in the form of a shrub mocktail - that is, one containing beets, peaches, and goldenrod. Learn how to make it here.

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.

White Pine for Pinkeye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHITE PINE TISANE

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

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

WHITE PINE TINCTURE

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

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

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

White Pine Needles | Iowa Herbalist

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.