Thursday, July 30, 2015

What I learned while picking St. John’s Wort

Lately Mom and I have been picking St. John’s Wort on a daily basis for one of our newer salves. It has been a mixed experience (sometimes fun, sometimes hot and unbelievably sticky) but I feel as though this bright and beautiful plant has definitely taught me a few things.

1.     You can never just pick St. John’s Wort
I thought I could restrain myself and just bring one basket out. After picking my share of St. John’s Wort, however, I noticed that the plantain was popping up all over the yard. Might as well. Then the borage began to call my name. Wait is that a Calendula flower popping up? Before I knew it my basket was full of bunches of this and that every which way. It seemed as though the harder I tried to separate everything the more they mixed.

The lesson I learned? Don’t try to restrain yourself, just bring more baskets.

     2.      The bees are incredibly polite (will work beside you, everyone is just doing their job)

This really surprised me. Not because I think bees are bloodthirsty sting machines but because I’m taking away their pollen. Usually how it works is that I establish myself on one side of the bush and they gather pollen from the other side. And then we switch. Sometimes it takes several back-and-forths before both the bees and I get our fill but it has worked out pretty well so far. No bees or Mollys have been harmed in the harvest so far.

     3.        The bees will let you know if you missed any (or if you’re done)

The bees will also let you know if you have forgotten any flowers along the way. If you take your time and be patient you can usually follow the bees throughout the bush. Toward the end I was watching them and found an entire section unpicked! I was able to add even more than I expected to the infusions and have some bragging rights on the commune.

With following the bees in mind I should really emphasize the need to be patient. If you pick too close to the bees they will let you know that it’s time to back off. Give them their space and they will give you yours.

      4.        Understand when you need to miss a spot (for sustainability)

While researching for an article I wrote for The Essential Herbal Magazine I learned the origins of the phrase, “giving the devil his due.” In some instances it is what was lost before or during harvest from animals, weeds, or really any force of nature. I tend to think of this as a way of knowing when to stop. Sometimes when I’m gardening I focus in on the task at hand and I forget everything around me. This was the case with the St. John’s Wort. Before I knew it I was hacking through tall grass and terrifying baby bunnies to only get maybe ten flowers. It wasn’t worth the stress I put on myself and the environment. Since then I’ve decided to take Mother Nature’s hint and let a few things run wild.

5   5.      There will always be more next year

Don’t worry, there will be plenty next year if you didn’t grow as much as you wanted. Luckily in our world we are able to order what we lack or substitute. Don’t have any more spearmint? Well there is more chocolate mint or peppermint. Need some evening primrose? Luckily your neighbor had more than she could handle this year. Oh! And you can make it a trade by giving her some basil. The world of herbs has a funny and beautiful way of taking care of itself so relax and look at the big picture. It’ll show up when you need it.

Molly Sams

Monday, July 27, 2015


Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
Mary Ellen Wilcox
Jul/Aug '12 Essential Herbal Magazine

      Tansy is a hardy perennial with interesting button-like yellow blossoms.  Today, it is used mainly as a decorative plant, but it does have an interesting past as a culinary and medicinal herb.  The fernlike leaves and yellow blossoms are considered very toxic, especially when used in large amounts.

     The danger in the use of tansy internally is due to the presence of thujone, a toxic substance also found in wormwood.  Plants vary as to the amount of thujone present, and where they are grown does not seem to affect the amount of the substance.  Thujone is probably what also gives the plant its medicinal properties.

     In Greek mythology tansy was known for immortality.  It supposedly conferred immortality on a boy named Ganymede.  He was the eternal cup bearer of the god Zeus.  In Gerard’s Herbal, the flowers, which do not easily wilt, represent immortality.  Using the herb was said to prolong life.

     Tansy was used at funerals because of its strong pine-like smell, and it was placed in coffins to repel insects.  The strong smell of tansy made it useful as a strewing herb.  It was well used in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and would be tossed on floors to be trod upon to release its pungent smell, refresh the air, and mask unpleasant odors.  King James II had 6 bushels of tansy and other herbs strewn along the one-half mile pathway to the throne at his coronation.

     Culinary history suggests that tansy was used in England to flavor cakes and puddings at Easter time.  It was said to be a pleasant addition to salads if used sparingly, and some used it mixed with other greens as a cooked herb.  It is also said to be one of the 130 herbs in the secret recipe for Chanteuse liqueur.

     Tansy is used today, but sparingly, due to its toxicity.  It has a strong peppery taste.  The minced leaves have been added to scrambled eggs and  to add zip to herb butters, poultry stuffing and omelets.

     As in the past tansy is considered a good herbal insect repellent. In colonial times, housewives rubbed fresh tansy leaves into tabletops.  Also known as ant fern, sprigs can be placed on the threshold to discourage ants from entering the house.  Tansy plants are planted alongside the entrance to the kitchen to keep flies from going in.

     As an ornamental, tansy is an excellent choice.  The feathery leaves and bright yellow flowers are a nice addition to the perennial bed.  Fernlike Tansy has a more delicate appearance, and has the same bright blossoms.  The pleasant yellow color (though not as bright as the fresh flowers) is retained when tansy blossoms are dried.  The strong erect flower stems make a nice addition to dried bouquets.  The flower clusters are also attractive in dried herbal wreaths.

     A tansy plant or two in the garden will yield lots of usable materials for insect repellent and decorative use.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Essential Herbal July/August 2015 Issue

The newest issue is in the mail (with plenty of extras if you aren't a subscriber yet - click here).  There's so much good stuff here.  As usual, something for everyone, and then some. 
Surf's up.  Dive in!
Check out the Table of Contents below:
Field Notes, Tina Sams
Deciding what to keep and what to let go to make room for life.
About the Cover, Carey Jung
She was drawn to tropical beaches for this issue’s cover.
Herbal Brews to Help Beat the Heat, Catherine Love
What could be more refreshing than these perfect blends?
Floral Waters and Colognes, Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh
Make your own wearable scents, starting with these recipes.
“Brainiac/Maniac:” Herbs that Support the Nervous System, Suzan T Scholl
The nervous system is important for our emotional and physical well-being. Learn to support it naturally.
Mints, Mints & More Mints, Sandy Michelsen
Easy to grow and use, there’s a reason that mints are in almost every herb garden.
Creating a Nature Table, Betsy May
Do you come home with pockets full of seeds, rocks, and feathers? This is for you.
Roll Me Over, In the Clover, Cathy Calf Child Strong Hearted Woman
Need a reason to gather the red clover growing outside? Cathy gives us about 100 good ones.
Kids Corner! Loving That Lavender, Kristine Brown
All about lavender and her lessons. Instructions for an eye pillow, too!
Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), Jackie Johnson
How and why to use this beautiful, relaxing herb.
Corn Mother Silk Soap, Marci Tsohonis
Lush, silky bubbles from the oft overlooked corn silk.
What’s in a Name? Sue Kusch
Do you know your officinale from your vulgaris? You should.
My Love Affair with Lavender, Gale LaScala
Some fascinating history regarding lavender.
What Drew Me to Herbs? List
We asked the Yahoo! group how they first became interested in herbs.
Herbal Kitchen Braid, Rita Richardson
Keep culinary herbs handy with this attractive craft, and maybe make an extra or two for gifts.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mid-June Gatherings

Right now I could spend every minute from sun up to sundown harvesting.  This coming week especially will be busy, though.
The black raspberries gave me handful for breakfast yesterday.  This morning there were nearly a pint, and there will be another pint tonight, and so on twice daily for at least a week or more.
Pie?  Frozen?  Juiced and frozen to add to an elderberry syrup later?  Oh... maybe I'll just eat these.

On the way down to the soap workshop, I try to grab some of yarrow.  This bunch didn't make it any further than a wide bowl, where it has dried nicely.  The motherwort is in full bloom, and so far I've just gotten one jar of tincture started, and need to get back over to that patch.
Perfectly air dried, this yarrow forgave me for not taking the time to properly lay it out.

The mints have been picked almost daily, and there is a large sheet filled with leaves drying upstairs.
The spearmints mingle together and will make a refreshing meadow tea.

The roses are nearly finished.  Most of the petals have gone into various concoctions, but I hope to get a few more gathered before it's too late. 
This basket WAS almost full, but it's hard to resist those petals!

A row of lavender grows next to the raspberries, and we try to pick a bunch at least once a day.  The taller variety is almost ready for us to start weaving into lavender wands.
Molly started picking lavender a week ago, but now that the berries next to it are ripe, we'll do that at the same time.

There is a lot of gathering to be done.  Jewelweed is nearly 2 feet tall beside the porch, and we need to process that with lots of plantain for the next year's soap and 5 Star salve.  The St. John's wort is covered with swelling yellow buds, so that will be coming up in a couple of days too.  The front garden is ablaze with CA poppies, so some of that will be harvested.  Some of the hyssop should be dried too.

In the middle of all this gathering, the drying of herbs is the easy part.  There are all kinds of infusions and concoctions lining the kitchen shelves now, and projects set up and ready to go.
Another salve waiting to be put together and jarred.

These are all chores that I look forward to each year.  It can be difficult to fit everything into a day.  There is a short window each year when they are available, and if they're missed, that's it.  We're working on another huge project right now, so it has to fit in between that.  Luckily, Molly loves to gather herbs and fruits as much as I do, so we can grab a bunch of baskets and wander out together, talking and laughing while we work.  Without a doubt, that makes it even better.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The grocery store will miss me...

Since moving here in '05, there have been several on-going but casual projects.  For one, we try to reintroduce some natives into the woodland area.  Next week I'm planning to start (since there is finally sufficient shade) a garden closer to the house where I can keep an eye on some, nurture them, and then put clumps into the woods.
Another project has been to include as many food and medicine plants into the gardens around the house as we can.  This has been easy and fun.  Hopefully in the next year I will put in a good asparagus patch.  I'm not much into maintenance, so the plants need to be mostly able to care for themselves.  So far, so good.  Here's a little of what's going on right now...

 Daylilies (sometimes called "ditch lilies") are very commonplace, but we like to eat the small flower buds.  It helps to have them around in the gardens so that we can be more aware of just the right time to start harvesting them.  They can be bullies in the garden, so be sure to give them their own space.

 A couple years ago, we tackled the wild black raspberries that were growing next to the house.  As you can see, that was not entirely (hah) successful.  I think they are worse now than they were before!
Below, you can see part of the 50 foot row of raspberries I created from the roots salvaged from that little adventure.  Last year we had so many berries that I just used the last frozen quart a week ago in a cobbler.
Black raspberries are sometimes called "black caps."  Smaller and more rounded than blackberries, they are seedy - but very flavorful; a brief summer delicacy that normally requires a sojourn into brambles, ticks, and poison ivy.  I very much like having them in such a convenient location.
This is how one section of the back is laid out.  There are plants on both sides of the split-rail fence.  To the right of the blueberries, there is a sour cherry tree.  On the other side, we have Jerusalem artichokes, passionflower vine, and mountain mint - with some beautiful red clover showing up on its own.  To the left is a culinary and medicinal herb garden on the closest side of the fence, with berries, tomatoes, and medicinals on the other side.

 Three cornelian cherry bushes are fruiting for the first time this year.  Cornelian cherries are a type of dogwood.  The other well-known fruiting dogwood (edible), Kousa, is elsewhere on the property, and also across the street.
A small orchard was added last year, with a couple peach trees, a couple apples, a plum, and a pear.  This is the only fruit so far, but the blossoms were magnificent!  Next year...

 Figs.  I've had some great success growing figs without protection in our climate.  Brown Turkey did very well for 6 years, but then a harsh winter made the bunnies strip the bark.  It grew back from the roots, but they got it again this year.  NOTE TO SELF... protect figs from rabbits and deer over the winter. 
This particular fig is a Chicago Fig tree.  It is even hardier than the Brown Turkey, so it is on the edge of the orchard, completely unprotected.  Looks like it does okay there, but again, it was nibbled down pretty hard.  I'll protect it this winter, but won't be surprised if I get an autumn fig or two.

 Sour cherries.  The birds are already staking them out, so this year I'll probably let them have most of them.  They're small, and a slightly different variety should help with that when that tree gets big enough to blossom.  Neighbors around me also have sour cherry trees, and I've seen birds flying with cherries in their mouths - it's hilarious.

The blueberries are having a spectacular year.  It might be time to prune them after they're finished.  I need to read up on that.

Asian persimmons - the tree is once again full of blossoms.  The groundhog will be so happy.  We planted it so that we can harvest right from the deck, and I believe that this year that will indeed be happening!  The native persimmon doesn't seem to be blooming, but it may still come through.  Otherwise, there's always next year.

The black currants are just going to town.  It seems like they are getting picked by something wild.  Maybe birds.  But there are plenty for everyone.

Gooseberries are also loaded this year.  There are 2 at the top right that are almost ripe.  This bush ripens to burgandy, and another bush ripens to a pink blush. 

So there are quite a few of the foods growing around the house.  Great burdock has been introduced under one of the large conifers out back, and I think I'll let that continue to grow.  Purslane and lambsquarters grow freely along with chickweed, plantain, and dandelion.  We do little to control them.  There are mulberry trees and ground cherries within an easy walk, and last year there was a lot of chicken of the woods mushroom that we dried and added to lots of meals over the winter.
Much of what grows in the woods is delicious.
Although most of these plants wouldn't really be considered "wild" since I've cultivated them and "rounded them up" to be close by, but in my opinion, wild food shouldn't be thought of as subsistence or survival food.  Many of the weeds we eat were brought here with great forethought from across the sea because they were important and beloved plant sources.
If you have the space, grow some food.  If you don't, learn about some wild ones.  You'll be glad you did!

Friday, June 05, 2015

Beeswax Alchemy - a review

We have a small stack of books here that are due to be reviewed.  It seems to me that in most cases Molly would be able to give a more meaningful point of view.  After all, she's the exact audience I hope will find my own books!  Well learned, unquenchable thirst for more knowledge, and still new enough to be thrilled - the perfect reviewer.

A Few Thoughts on “Beeswax Alchemy” by Petra Ahnert

First, the book is lovely and filled with delightful photos that made me want to make everything.

My previous knowledge of beeswax is somewhat limited. Since I was little I was always encouraged to craft with beeswax and I remember creating little animals and dolls. After reading Beewax Alchemy, I am more confident about using beeswax in crafts more complex than tiny bowls and doggies. This is a great introduction to beeswax and can be a solid foundation for anyone who wants to begin crafting soap, candles, salves, and some surprise treasures that could be fantastic for birthdays or Christmas. Here are a few of my favorites.

Fire Starters

This simple craft is perfect for a rainy day at home with kids or preparing for a camping trip. By dipping pinecones in beeswax and attaching wicks you can make beautiful, biodegradable fire starters that will look great in and out of the campfire.

A helpful part about her directions for this project (as well as others in the book) is that she gives advice in the note section.  In this project she advises you wait to until the cones are completely dry to avoid mishaps or injury. While to some it may seem like common sense, I know I would have plucked the pinecone straight from the tree this fall and dunked it in wax right away, causing an explosion that would make Wiley Coyote wince.

Beeswax Ornaments

These beautiful decorations can be a fun way to spend a snow day with your family or by yourself. These ornaments can make great gifts anytime of the year. They smell lovely and last forever. Be sure to have a sturdy candy mold for these and plenty of patience. While they will dry relatively quickly they will need time and care when you take them out of the mold.

This project is one of her beginner projects. I think it was clever that she worked through and graded each project on difficulty but makes it customizable for everyone. It helps you make a variety of crafts and build confidence to try the next one.

Rosebud Salve

While I use different ingredients, this salve definitely inspired me to create my split end wax. The hint of rose in the salve is perfect and works well to keep your hair healthy and shiny. All the crafts she demonstrates have practical use and often had me thinking, “Oh my gosh! That’s so smart!”

This book definitely inspired me to learn more about beeswax and find out what I can create with it. Beeswax Alchemy is a perfect introductory book or can reawaken those who haven’t worked with beeswax in years.
Need your own copy?  Here's one place to get it:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Herbs for Bees and Beekeepers

Herbs for Bees and Beekeepers
Suzan Tobias Scholl, Herbalist, C.N.M.A.
From the May/June '12 issue of The Essential Herbal Magazine

Whether you are a Beekeeper, a gardener, or just a happy observer of nature, you can promote a healthy environment for our happy pollinators and provide an area that is attractive to these special friends.

Did you know that there are different kinds of pollinating bees? If you are not a beekeeper, you may not realize that there are pollinating bees that do not live in hives. We often speak of “busy” Honey Bees and Bumble Bees- but did you know that there are several other pollinator Bees? Solitary, non-swarming bees like the Red Mason bee, The Blue Orchard Bee, and the Bumble Bee live in holes in wood. The Red Mason bee can be seen in the garden from March to July and is responsible for pollinating top fruit and soft fruit. The Blue Orchard Bee is active from May to September and is an effective pollinator of summer flowers, herbs and vegetables. Both the Mason and the Orchard Bee are non-stinging and gentle. Bumble Bees pollinate shrubs, trees, garden flowers, and vegetables.
hiding out during a rain shower
In spring, you can provide solitary wooden beehives perforated with holes for the Red Mason and Blue Orchard Bees, and Bumble Bee “nest-houses” for your pollinators. By attracting all bees to your garden, you will ensure effective pollination and happy flowers. By planting Herbs that are especially beneficial to bees with flowers that are blue, purple and yellow, you will be certain to attract the attention of a variety of pollinators. Aromatic herbs such as Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, “Bee Balm” (Bergamot or Minarda), Hyssop, Basil, Anise Hyssop, and Marjoram; Wild Herbs such as Kudzu, Motherwort, Catnip and Purple Loosestrife; Bitter Herbs such as Southernwood, Wormwood and Rue: Nectar-rich Herbs such as Clover, Alfalfa, Mint, Borage; and the Rose Family are all Herbs that will attract these hard-workers to your garden.  By noting the bloom-time of your Herbs, you can plant a variety that invites pollinators throughout the growing season. Many Herbs “bolt” –they flower, and then decline. If you like to harvest your Herbs for cooking, potpourri, or medicine-making, you may want to plant extra plants to share with your pollinators.          (To keep plants viable for harvest, you have to snip off blossoms as they appear. That way, the plant continues to mature and you can engender several harvests throughout the growing season.)
You might also plan a dedicated “Bee Garden.” By planting all the Bee-attracting Herbs in one place you get to observe their behavior more closely. Look for a spot with some shade. Add a swing or bench so you can sit, read a book, and enjoy their behaviors and hard endeavors. Perennial Herbs such as Bee Balm, Catnip, Mint, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and some Lavenders will be the “backbone” of your Bee Garden, while annuals like Borage, Chamomile, Cilantro, Fennel, Dill, and Parsley will add interest, too. Providing building supplies such as a heap of well-sifted soil, moistened with water nearby will keep your bees content.

By growing large plots of nectar-rich herbs, Beekeepers can promote good health for the hives and improve the quality and quantity of their honey. Noted animal herbalist, Juliette de Bairacli-Levy felt that Bees are “instinctive and highly skilled herbalists.” Cultivars such as Clover, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Sweet Clover; and Wild Herbs such as Goldenrod and Aster, Chicory, and Kudzu are important sources of nectar. Frequently these are not abundant or are rendered poisonous to bees by herbicides and/or pesticide.

If you have space to plant singular herbs for honey you will have success placing your hives within close proximity to the following:
~Alfalfa is an excellent nectar-rich herb. Its honey is white to amber.
~Anise-hyssop makes bees drunk with pleasure. They stumble over its perennial blooms all summer.
~Bergamot (Bee Balm) attracts with its red, pink, and purple “raggedy Anne” heads of color.
~Buckwheat is another excellent nectar-rich herb which produces dark, thick, strong-flavored honey. Bees cannot get enough!
~Catnip, rich in nectar, blooms well on wastelands, over a long period.
~Red Clover is another nectar-rich perennial herb which produces with to amber honey.
~Hyssop causes bees to happily stumble over it s blooms June to September.
anise hyssop
~Joe-Pye Weed is a perennial nectar- producer in early autumn. Its tall pink blossoms produce strong-flavored light amber honey.
~Kudzu produces a lovely magenta colored honey with a fruity taste.
~Marjoram, a perennial, blooms mid-summer. Honey from Marjoram is high in flavor, aroma, and quality.
~Sweet Clover, an annual, produces a white honey that is mild and spicy.
~Motherwort, a perennial, blooms most of the summer. Very easy to naturalize in waste areas, its honey is amber with a strong mint overlay.
~Mountain-Mint is an abundant source of nectar. A perennial, it produces minty flavored honey.
mountain mint
~Thyme honey is amber to dark with a delicate herbal flavor. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as watching a “carpet of bees on a carpet of thyme.”
~Blue Vervain grows in wet lowlands. This perennial produces good nectar in July and August with honey that is dark in color and pleasantly flavored.
field of blue vervain
For Beekeepers, faced with Colony Collapse Disorder [CCD] no pesticide or herbicide is good for bee populations; they are innately designed to “kill something living.” [*Note* There is a (new) pesticide which is a neurotoxin used in seed dressing to protect the seed and resulting plant against attack. Observers noted that CCD started after these neonicotinoid pesticides were introduced. Residues of this pesticide are found in the pollen and soil causing disorientation, paralysis and death to bees. Although it does not happen immediately, bees exposed to this pesticide died from CCD within about six months. You can watch this observation in the film, “Vanishing of the Bees.”]

American Foul Brood [AFB] is another bee colony disease that beekeepers are striving to eradicate. Studies have been ongoing that two fatty acids (palmitic and oleic) found in some pollens are able to kill AFB. Two fatty acids (linoleic and linolenic) have been found to be effective against AFB in laboratory tests. It has been asserted that antibiotic pollen in one bee cell, soaking through one wall of a neighboring cell has the potential to essentially kill bacteria in seven cells, as all cells are six-sided. Experiments with fields of Borage, which contains four of the fatty acids mentioned above, are ongoing.

Planting Herbs like Anise-hyssop, Borage, Catnip, Hyssop, Marjoram, Motherwort, Mountain-Mint, and the Salvias attract bees by their color, nectar production, and hardiness. Herbs are utilized within the hives as well. Scented Geraniums and Rosemary can be rubbed on the inside to condition new hives before starting a colony. Wormwood rubbed on the hands can disguise the “human odor” and allow easier access to the hive (and masks the odor of the queen, if rubbed on areas where swarms have been removed.) Catnip, mint, or pennyroyal can be laid on top of the inner cover to deter ants from a weak colony. Beekeepers are growing seed trays of creeping thyme which are slid beneath the hive for a week before replacing it with a fresh tray. In the spring, a tea brewed from sage, thyme and chamomile and added to honey can be fed to each colony as a “spring cleanser.”

And remember: Comfrey, Calendula, and Plantain –rubbed on bee stings- soothes pain/itch and decreases swelling. Homeopathic Apis works great, too!


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