Dear City Dweller: Here’s Why You Should Grow Your Own Medicine Cabinet. Sincerely, An Herbalist and Farmer

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This article is an updated/revised version of a guest blog post originally published in now-defunct DIY urban gardening website, City Plantz, in February of 2018. Enjoy!

I didn’t stumble upon the health properties of plants—and growing them yourself— in the most obvious way you would think.

At first, my interest in growing plants was all about food: our crumbling food system, our need for more farmers and food growers, and—ultimately—our need to protect our food, health, nutrition, and autonomy by growing food ourselves to ensure that it’s healthy (yes, even in the city). All of this started in college in rural Minnesota, and led me down the path of organic agriculture that I still tread today: in my daily life, in my career, and everything I do on my farm of three years now, Jupiter Ridge LLC. It’s all culminated into a both rigorous and healing lifestyle.

It definitely isn’t news these days that the healthiest food comes in the form of fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables—and specifically vegetables you can grow yourself.

Dill Bouquet | Jupiter Ridge Farm

But as it turns out, there’s a lot more to ensuring your health from the plant world than just growing your own food, especially when growing herbs comes into the picture.

This article is going to be a combination of informative and updating, so let me get the updates out of the way.

For those who have followed my writings and this blog (new and old), you can probably see I haven’t written much over the years about anything, let alone herbalism (To you newcomers: welcome).

This mostly coincides with getting my farm Jupiter Ridge up and running here in Driftless Iowa (Northeast Iowa), an endeavor that has demanded an immense amount of time, money, labor, blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice, pain, healing, beauty, and transformation – so naturally, herbalist projects and everything else have been placed on the back burner.

On that note, too, I felt like I needed a separation period from the world of herbalism: its major figures, celebrities, and influencers; the culture around it and the narrow definitions of what herbalism is in these circles; the increasing patriarchal/cultural appropriation problems in herbalist scenes; and even other herbalists in general.

I won’t get into it too much (and in fact I’ve been mostly silent on the subject), but I stepped into the (for lack of a better word) “cult” following of herbalism and its little extended network in America in 2012, expecting to find “my” people only to find a network that had very little to do with healing and helping others. Instead I found a lot of ego, power, competition, and people claiming they could heal others when they seemed to be in desperate need of healing themselves.

The lesson I learned from this: I think healers in general, not just herbalists, are meant to walk solitary paths to do their work. Identity and purpose get lost in these echo chambers.

So I closed the door on herbalism and instead got my hands dirty with farming, and growing nutritious, diverse vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs for people for the past few years. A different sort of herbalism and work as an herbalist, all the while badly wishing I could redefine these words (herbalism, herbalist) that I feel sort of stuck with, but love the possibilities of what they could mean nonetheless, so I’ll continue using them.

Just some of the culinary herbs we grow at Jupiter Ridge Farm – basil, thyme, oregano, sage, Thai basil. | Photo: Will Lorentzen

Now that the farm is up, running, and established (selling healthy, sustainably grown, and nutritious vegetables, mushrooms, and culinary herbs to hundreds of people in the Dubuque area every Saturday – plus delivering diverse CSA shares with these same contents every Tuesday to members in Cedar Rapids and to a dozen eastern and northeastern Iowa restaurants, too!), life has been doing that funny thing of poking and prodding at me to get me back in touch with my roots and the true, foundational reasons I decided to do this whole thing in the first place.

Owing to a combination of both circumstance and some intention, what we are making off of the land and what we grow for eastern and northeastern Iowa is steadily representing a larger and larger (and more reliable) portion of our income, as other sources of income/side hustles loom less large.

Upon reading this article again, too, I’ve taken it upon myself that the best I can do is redefine what it means to be an herbalist with my current work – and this article puts it real nicely.

So as for the updates: I’m still an herbalist. I still write. I still use plants to help people as a farmer. I may come back around to using those wilder and more esoteric plants (like echinacea, goldenrod, or sumac) again as part of my daily work (and it does seem like life is pushing me in that direction again – and this may spring up in the form of truly awesome, effective, and unique herbal products!), but we shall see.

This article marks the beginning of the confluence of farming and herbalism in my life. The future looks interesting.

Don’t Just Grow Your Own Food: Grow Your Own Medicine

Homegrown foods have a higher likelihood of being more nutritious than any other type of food in the long run (I wrote a piece about this for Rodale’s Organic Life, which has since shut down. If you’d like to read the article I’d be happy to send you a copy, which outlines the science of why this is true, too). These vegetables and plants are at the very foundation of our health; when you think about it, they really are our best source of preventive medicine, in a way.

I learned all about this over a decade ago, which spurred me to become a farmer and establish a farm. Then I learned about growing herbs—for both culinary use and for healing—in addition to vegetables, and I felt like I blew a whole new story wide open.

Amid my post-college travels learning how to farm, I made the strange and unlikely jump: from farmer to herbalist. Today, I’ve managed to fashion myself into both.

Even now, I’m experiencing a renaissance of realization and coming back full-circle to my herbalist roots after throwing my all into the farming path head-on for the past three years. The most important realization of all: that by growing healthy vegetables, culinary herbs, and even medicinal mushrooms (like shiitake and lion’s mane), I haven’t strayed all that far from being an herbalist at all. Instead, I’m seeing the multitude of connections that can take place in the world of plant-based health in a whole new light.

Harvested Homegrown Ginger | Jupiter Ridge Farm

The ability to grow your own plants for both healthy food and medicine—or both food and medicine in one, if you really think about it—is empowering.

It saves money, doctor’s visits, and could even shape the way we view healthcare in the future. I’ve used certain herbs to successfully combat strep throat without any help from mainstream antibiotics. I’ve suggested herbs to others that have eliminated their lifelong acne issues, and I even use herbs today to holistically support my anxiety disorder and PTSD. Sure, these are anecdotal. But they’ve literally worked and I see them work even now on an almost daily basis (and for you more science-herbalist nerds, there’s a very scientific explanation for how all of these herbs work for these separate issues).

But most importantly: just because you live in a house or small apartment with very little money doesn’t mean this is something out of reach to you.

The truth is: it is in reach, more than you know.

If you can grow food in your domicile, you can certainly grow herbs. Together, these form the most preventive health medicine cabinet you could possibly have at your disposal.

Seeing the Connection: Plants as Healers, Whether Vegetables or Herbs

Why should you grow your own medicinal or culinary—or both medicinal and culinary—herbs in the first place?

Isn’t this something reserved for New Age hippies, lifestyle bloggers, witchy mamas, or your grandma?

My answer is best put as a story. I was in Ecuador during my organic agricultural internship when I was first struck by the world of herbalism.

I had an injured and infected foot. It was hard for me to walk.

 I was also in a foreign tropical country where a non-native’s susceptibility to infections was astronomically dangerous. To continue growing the healthy, nutritious food I was so hell-bent on learning about, I was told by locals I must rely on a completely different kind of plant.

They pointed just a few steps away from where I helped cultivate rows of healthy vegetables like kale to a tall, uncultivated plant with broad leaves—a plant called matico.

Kale Row | Iowa Herbalist
Rows of kale at Jupiter Ridge Farm.

Vegetables and Medicinal Herbs: Different Plants, Similar Purposes

Two very different plants, kale and matico.

But they both have a couple things in common: they can strengthen health and, as I would learn soon, matico could save your life (and kale too, though how it might do that for you deserves its very own article in and of itself).

I was instructed to use a medicinal preparation of matico’s leaves by the locals to fight this infection and still be able to walk between planted rows to get work done and continue my education—maybe even to keep my foot altogether..

The nearest hospital wasn’t for miles. There was no local pharmacy, no local clinic, no antibiotics: only plants and the native knowledge of the locals at my disposal.

Years later, I still have my foot—and all because of (well, mostly because of) a plant (a trip to the Ecuadorian beaches swimming and soaking in the salty ocean helped, too). I also found out later, to my shock, that matico isn’t as exotic as I thought. In fact, it’s very closely related to both black pepper (a culinary seasoning I wrote about in depth for Primal Herb here) and kava kava (a widely popular sedative herb from the Pacific), domesticated cultivated relatives that are—you guessed it—grown and produced by farmers.

Garlic Field | Iowa Herbalist
A farmer (My husband and partner, Will) overlooking a garlic field. Garlic is a vegetable, a flavorful spice, and a highly medicinal herb all in one.

It was in making these types of connections between nutritious and medicinal plants—and plants of all kinds, for that matter—that I decided to be an herbalist, and not just a farmer. I also realized how deeply interlinked these roles could be.

Growing Medicinal Herbs: Why Do It? Is it Really Worth it?

So, why grow medicinal plants, you might again ask?

Of course, my story above is extreme. If you think you might lose a foot, definitely wise up and go to a hospital if you can—take advantage of the fact that you’re not in the middle of a South American rainforest. And yet, living in the city— relying only on your apartment or home— can sure feel like surviving in a jungle these days.

So here’s my short answer: you should grow medicinal plants to be smart, self-sufficient, and frugal. But also because it’s a no-brainer.

I’ll risk sounding blunt here: especially in an urban setting and with little money, you’d be dumb not to. Ultimately, growing plants saves you money and possibly your health in the long run. Sure, you can also purchase medicinal in supplement form. But these extracts and capsules can be costly also—and, in some cases, less reliable.

If you’re not worried about losing a foot perse, there’s a lot more beyond foot-saving that herbs do. Some examples are:

  • Improving digestion
  • Soothing sunburns
  • Alleviating stress (or even anxiety and depression)
  • Protecting infected cuts
  • Pain relief

A lot of them make your food taste better as a bonus, too (here’s looking at you, culinary herbs, of which the majority of you are also secretly medicinal).

By the way, if you’re already growing vegetables or even fruits in your house or apartment: congratulations!

You’ve already got your own preventive medicine cabinet. Growing herbs will just expand it even more. In the process, you might save yourself money on doctor’s visits and depending on those costly over-the-counter drugs.

You may also pick up an enjoyable hobby in the meantime that beautifies your home or apartment in the process, too. So why wouldn’t it hurt?

Echinacea at Jupiter Ridge | Iowa Herbalist
Echinacea on Jupiter Ridge.

Culinary and Medicinal Herbs: What Can I Grow? What’s Possible?

 Of course, the theory of anything becomes a lot more complicated when put into practice. Newcomers to growing herbs (or even growing in general) might ask: is growing medicinal and culinary herbs indoors difficult?

In truth, some herbs with healing potential are not any different—or more difficult— to grow than anything else indoors.

If you’re wanting to break new ground and give growing medicinal herbs a try, here are the best to get your feet wet with (and your hands dirty with) for starters.

  • Aloe Vera. May need more sun than most others on this list, but otherwise requires very little water or much else. Leaves from aloe plants can be removed and the gel used for cuts, burns, sunburns, rashes, and wounds. The juice can be consumed for digestive issues and even certain disorders (I wrote for Healthline about aloe vera juice for IBS here).

  • Ginger. Ginger root is incredibly easy to grow indoors from a living rhizome. It also doesn’t need a lot of light as a canopy plant. It’s great for cramps, stomachaches, nausea, and boosting the immune system when dealing with colds. It also tastes great (Oh yeah – I also wrote about ginger for Healthline here and how it’s great for sore throats).

  • Lemon Balm. Great for culinary and medicinal uses. It also doesn’t need a lot of sunlight or water. Harvest sprigs to flavor meals that call for mint or lemon verbena. Or, make a tea from it for stomachaches or bouts of stress, anxiety, or depression.

  • Mint. Spearmint and peppermint are easy to grow indoors with low light in containers. They’re great for bellyaches and can also calm nerves a bit. Mint’s flavors are a must-have for teas and various dishes. A fresh leaf on a cut reduces risk of infection, and the essential oil is amazing pain relief (I use it for my TMJ). (Article on how to grow this herb specifically is coming up soon).

  • Parsley. Take a bite or a sprig of this culinary herb to freshen breath or when you have a stomachache. It is also known to help with seasonal allergies. It’s easy to grow in low light and doesn’t ask much of you and is also a delicious seasoning.

  • Thyme. This squat little mint-like plant doesn’t demand much space, or even too much light or water for that matter. It makes for an adorable ornament on a kitchen window. Thyme is also an excellent herb for immunity and the symptoms of colds and flu.
Aloe Vera | Adrian White, Iowa Herbalist
Aloe Vera.

Keep in mind that the cultivation and use of herbs for health shouldn’t replace common-sense mainstream health care or prescription medications. Talk to your doctor about using herbs, or if using herbs for health would be right for you.

If you’re truly intrigued by growing herbs, don’t feel like you need to stop at this list.

There’s plenty of others you can grow indoors, and which may also be enjoyably tackled by the more advanced or expert indoor grower.

Happy growing—and, ultimately happy, affordable health.

Jupiter Ridge 2019 CSA | Week 1 Newsletter

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Greetings CSA Members!

(Or non-members who happen to be reading, or even potential future members…)

Heading into our first CSA week 2019, we’re so excited to have you on board. Tomorrow brings our first delivery to the Cedar Rapids area. Expect your first share (delivered in personal cooler with ice packs) on your porch or stoop tomorrow evening! During the time of your delivery, we will also be in the neighborhood delivering fresh produce to Cedar Rapids restaurant favorites like Cobble Hill, Rodina, The Map Room, and many others!

*Next Tuesday, make sure to leave the cooler we left you out on your porch/stoop at around or before 4 PM.*

We will swap it out, clean it, and replace it with a fresh new cooler packed and cooled with your new share next week.

The first delivery will include: 

  • Mixed Cherry Tomatoes
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Cucumbers
  • Napa Cabbage
  • Basil (Purple “Opal” variety)
  • Carrots (Orange)
  • Summer Squash
  • Garlic Scapes
  • Kale Bunch (Green)
  • Bunched Sweet Fresh Onions (Red, Semi-Sweet)
What Are Garlic Scapes? | Some Explanation and Tips

To those who are already acquainted with and delighted by garlic scapes: my apologies. For the rest who may be curious reading that they will find garlic scapes in their share and who have never experienced them, you might be thinking: what are they? What will they be?

Or, when you open your share, you’ll wonder: “What are these pigtail-looking things?

Garlic Scapes | Jupiter Ridge Farm
Meet garlic scapes.

Garlic scapes are the flower of the garlic plant. As the garlic plant gets larger during the early summer months, the flowers must be picked off and removed so the plant shifts its focus from flower/foliar production back to bulb production. Scapes must be picked (and we choose to pick them) so we pull up the biggest, most pungent and delicious garlic bulbs come late summer for garlic harvest.

Though we don’t want them on our garlic plants, they’re very, very, VERY welcome in the kitchen.

You can chop off the pale white/yellow flowering head you see pictured and mince the green part of the flower stalk. Think of it as a cross between green garlic or onions and a garlic bulb, except it packs a bit more of that trademark garlic pungency.

Jupiter Ridge’s farmer Will recommends very finely mincing garlic scapes raw into a salad with cucumber, basil, tomatoes, olive oil, and vinegar.

Jupiter Ridge’s farmer Adrian would suggest using it in place of bulb garlic in pesto, it seems to bring out a “punchier” garlic flavor. It’s also great on pizzas (kind of like the wood-fired pizzas you’ll find at Park Farm Winery, which use our own local organic scapes!)

To keep it simple, garlic scapes can be minced and used to replace bulb garlic in just about any recipe.

Let us know if you have any questions about it – email us, Facebook message us, or Instagram message us. We’re happy to talk to you about them.

Wellness Spotlight On: Shiitake Mushrooms

I can’t tell people enough about how great shiitake mushrooms are for health at farmers market.

Talk about the ultimate meat replacement for all you vegans out there (and to you meat eaters, shiitakes make an EXCELLENT pairing with steaks and burgers). Shiitake mushrooms come packed with tons of protein and fiber, the former being incredibly important for vegans/vegetarians skimping on meat, but the latter (fiber) is important to your gut (and you won’t find it in meat).

Also, sun-exposed shiitakes (like ours to some extent, which are grown outdoors) are some of the highest non-meat food sources of vitamin D out there, which is a very important vitamin for non-meat-eaters to stay on top of. The same goes for vitamin B12 (which, yes, shiitakes also contain small traces of).

So there you go – for anyone wanting to cut out or replace meat consumption (but are worried about missing out on the nutrition we crave from it), shiitake mushrooms are a satisfying choice.

Also: we can’t forget that shiitakes are considered a “medicinal” mushroom in some parts of the world. The antioxidants they contain have been shown to support healthy blood pressure levels, boost the immune system, and reduce the risk of major illnesses, even cancer.

Find shiitake mushrooms in your share this week!!!!

We look forward to delivering to you tomorrow, and we hope you enjoy the very best of the summer fare we have going on right now.

Best,
Adrian & Will | Jupiter Ridge Farm

Finding My Roots: Enjoying Herbal Roots and Root Vegetables in a Late Spring

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I know what most Iowans (and other Midwestern denizens) are probably thinking right now: it seems like spring is never going to come.

Harvested Spring Dandelion Greens | Iowa Herbalist
Harvested dandelion greens in spring – something to look forward to soon (I hope)

I rarely write about how I feel personally in relation to the weather, nature, herbs, and whatever is around me on this website, not to mention even in my writing work. But it’s been strange seeing how my emotional state has been a parallel (or even a microcosm) of the stop-and-start spring we’ve been seeing over the past month: a glimmer of warm days ahead, only to get a dusting of 2-3 inches of snow and deep cold again instead.

It’s as if everything is saying: you’re not ready. Not yet.

Ginger Root and Powdered Turmeric | Iowa Herbalist

I haven’t felt ready for spring for several weeks.

It’s been a perfect echo of the weather here, but it’s not my usual self– and just as unusual as this weather. During the cold months I write more for a living, a perfect indoor activity for such a season. But come spring, I restlessly gear myself towards the outdoor work I do more of during the warmer months and the growing season on our farm.

As it tends to go, physical labor outdoors is something I really look forward to and achingly welcome after months of getting soft and pithy, sitting inside.

Only in this long winter, for some reason, I’m not.

Parsnip Roots | Iowa Herbalist
Delicious parsnip roots – roasted in the oven, they’re a perfect indoor hygge food.

Even as a farmer and herbalist, my work in the winter doesn’t stop since I’m also a writer. It just changes to work and pressure of a different nature.

It’s losing count of the cups of coffee I drink to meet staggered deadlines. Its skipping meals and getting that feeling like I’m getting more done somehow by doing that.

I haven’t been able to get a tropical vacation getaway like some people. Despite winter forcing me indoors, I haven’t quite rested and re-nourished– I haven’t had my break, and I think by not being ready for spring, it’s because I’m still chasing that rest and re-nourishment.

The other reason: I’ve been addicted to hygge lately. Staying inside, peering with a comfy feeling at yet more snow on the ground, sipping hot beverages with a satisfied feeling – I think I’m still addicted to the feeling of winter. I don’t quite want to let it go yet, before the busy farming season hits; there is still more rest and renourishing to do, I sense.

Calamus Roots | Iowa Herbalist
Harvested calamus roots grown in my home. Potent, healing, soothing, and very aromatic.

Apparently, this weather and the late spring agrees.

So what does this have to do with herbalism? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

The excessive coffee and skipped meals, lately, have been coming at a price. I’m getting stuff done– but at the expense of something. My energy, my excitement to go outside, and obviously my overall outlook and, to some extent, my positivity, perhaps.

Though I’m not hauling shiitake logs and working the soil outdoors, my body– and especially my back– have been feeling the pain of too much sitting work, which tires me out even more. Overall, I have felt deficient and even ungrounded.

I’m ready for the growing and harvesting season to begin in my mind. But getting in touch with my body… I’m absolutely not. I’m not taking care of myself.

I’m not…. rooted.

So it was with a strange coincidence that, one evening recently during this bizarre and un-ending winter, instead of skipping dinner to meet a writing deadline, I baked a sweet potato.

Sweet Potato Closeup | Iowa Herbalist

Let’s just say that I’ve long loved sweet potatoes, but that it had been a while. But the sensation and flavor when I ate it this time around was eye-opening and amazing.

I’m not going to lie – it was near-orgasmic. Something my body (AND my mind) was deeply craving was suddenly satisfied.

And go ahead, think of me as a weird person for finding a vegetable so pleasurable.

The next time I was at the grocery store, needless to say I stocked up on a ridiculous amount of sweet potatoes. Ever since the re-encounter with this root veggie I’ve always had some affection for, the hunger was real. I couldn’t get enough.

Instead of skipping meals, I’ve been baking sweet potatoes instead. It’s almost felt like a medicine, something my body has sorely needed.

And, in a weird way that will never be proven by science– only in my empirical experience– it’s also felt like a medicine for my mind.

Sweet Potato | Iowa Herbalist

Following at the tail end of that, one evening I also ran out of decaf coffee. I’d been drinking it in the evenings for its roasted, toasted hygge feeling of comfort, one of the main reasons I love coffee in the first place (though the caffeine buzz is great, too).

I had a sudden remembering that I had store-bought dandelion root coffee in the cupboard (it may also have chicory root or burdock root in it too, but I’m not sure). Instead of bewailing my lack of comforting evening decaf or going to the store, I made a piping hot cup of that instead.

Again, just like the sweet potato root, it was absolutely amazing. It catapulted me into feelings of comfort, happiness, and feeling…

Rooted.

Roasted Chicory Root Coffee | Iowa Herbalist
Closeup of roasted chicory root coffee, a beloved beverage in Europe– and particularly countries like Belgium, where my family comes from.

It’s strange the way nature talks to us. Even stranger are the ways it provides us with exactly what we need.

Maybe winter tells you you’re not ready for spring yet by, well, simply not ending…yet. And maybe, for each of us, it’s got a different message depending on where we’re at.

Though I find it funniest of all that I stumble on the comfort of root vegetables and herbal roots precisely during a time when I need more nourishment and rooting.

It should be noted, too, that late spring is also the best time to harvest a lot of herbal roots– because the energy in these roots is just waking up in preparation for spring and flowering. That’s just when you want to nab them and dig them up: when they’re supercharged.

This might not apply to the delicious sweet potato and some other agricultural root crops we roast during winter, which are more frequently dug up in late fall. But it does apply to herbal roots like dandelion, burdock, and chicory, which I’ve been enjoying so deeply in the form of toasty late spring coffees as of late.

Chicory Flower | Iowa Herbalist
The flower of the chicory plant.

Instead of chugging coffee and nothing else to get through winter work, I’ve instead reconnected with these hearty root vegetables and herbal roots (or, at the very least, made a genuine effort to).

Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins A, C, B vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and even healthful fatty acids, for example. Studies also suggest they could be important natural therapies and future drug sources for fighting cancer and diabetes as an anti-inflammatory food.

Dandelions are known to contain all this nutrition too, as well as tons of vitamin K, plus the benefits of being an herbal digestive bitter. Studies also show they could protect the liver. With chicory as a very very close relative, it’s not so far-fetched to think it could have similar health perks.

And, as a result, am starting to feel more nourished and rooted than before.

I’m hoping and planning to grow sweet potatoes in the upcoming seasons at our farm, and to even roast my very own herbal roots coffee (recipe on harvesting/roasting to come, it’s still too cold to harvest these wonderul herbs yet– though you’ll find a nice baked sweet potato recipe below) from wild chicory roots and dandelions I will weed out and forage while farming.

More projects, more goals, more work to do when it’s warm.

But, still, slowly. Spring is far from being here yet.

So in the meantime, I’m going to keep rooting… for myself. In this winter that seems to have no end in sight, even in April, maybe you should try it, too.

Chicory Root Coffee | Iowa Herbalist
Dandelion and chicory root coffee.

Baked Sweet Potato Recipe

What you need: just one large medium- to large-sized sweet potato (so simple).

  1. Take your sweet potato and jab it all over with a fork, as evenly as possible. This way the heat can travel deep within the tuber to roast its insides as well.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
  3. Once heated, place your sweet potato on a cookie sheet or oven pan. Place in oven (I prefer the bottom rack but I don’t think that matters too much). Let roast for half an hour.
  4. After half an hour, flip it over. Put it back in the oven. Bake an additional half an hour, or until sweet potato caves in when poked with the blunt side of a fork– or when carmelized, sweet inner juices start crackling out of the fork holes.
  5. Remove from oven. Split open. Sprinkle with your additional desired accoutrements. Popular choices are a bit of sugar, butter, sliced nuts, sliced bananas, even almond butter or a drizzle of honey (or even a floral simple syrup).
  6. Eat, savor, and enjoy.

Baked Sweet Potato | Iowa Herbalist

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.