Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You mean *those* dandelions?

I was a lucky kid. We grew up surrounded by woods and fields and streams. We knew lots of the plants that grew around us by name, and they were part of our play, but not used in the home as food or medicine. My grandmother was from the days of horse and buggy, and she wasn't looking back. She embraced modernity with open arms and wanted nothing to do with the past. Every time she opened the chest freezer to withdraw some cherished out of season fruit or vegetable in one of those little waxed cartons (before they came in plastic bags), the look of supreme pleasure that spread over her face made it clear that she was never going to be making sassafras tea, dandelion greens or ANY foraged plant based foods or medicine in her house.
There was the disconnect. It happened right there. We knew the plants, but their place has been usurped by a love for modern convenience.Echinacea
As the years passed, we rediscovered a love for gardening, but in doing so, we looked for the new hybrids, the double flowers, and the colors that didn't exist before.
Then we developed an interest in herbs.
We started reading all the books we could get our hands on. My sister and I would each read a different book, swap, and then discuss. Over the winter, we studied field guides and memorized pictures of our long lost friends.
Early on, we started reading about herbs like dandelion, sheep sorrel, chickweed, and burdock. Burdock
Surely they couldn't mean the ones growing outside here! We were so removed from what we felt, that we would order these herbs from suppliers to work with. Catnip, rosehips, and chamomile came in bags. Things like shepherds purse and cleavers and elderberry were ordered. Why? Because we just couldn't believe that the ones growing in the yard could possibly the magical, mystical items we were reading about.Yarrow
And then one day we reconnected. At an IHA conference in the early 90's, I saw a Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook by Billy Joe Tatum at the bookstore. For three days, I looked through that book before finally deciding to purchase it (I'm tight with a buck - lol). Inside, I found recipes for all kinds of weeds - the same ones that grew outside everywhere.Stinging Nettles
That started my everlasting (and somewhat annoying to companions) search for various wild herbs whenever I am outside. If we stop at a gas station in another state, I am standing on the edge of the parking lot looking down at the weeds growing by the culvert. If we stay at a hotel somewhere, I need to wander along the edge of the cultivated lawn and look into the wild places. If I am driving somewhere, I am looking at the sides of the road as much as possible, and prefer the passenger side because it is safer for everyone.
The first year, I looked for chamomile, and found it everywhere.Chamomile
The next year it was elderberry.
In recent years, it has been blue vervain and linden. It is always something. I learn to see them by their color and shape, by realizing what plants they grow near or whether they like wet areas, or disturbed places, or shady, bright, hilly... Soon, if you look long enough you know where they are without actually seeing them. Step a little closer, and yup - there they are.
But the most important thing was learning that YES, it is THAT dandelion. It is THAT catnip, or elderberry or sheep sorrel. It is THAT red clover.Elderberries
At the time, we opened a shop and needed lots more of many of these herbs than we could ever forage or wild-craft ourselves. We tried gathering our own catnip one year, but we needed 10 or more pounds for the year and despite massive efforts only managed to collect a bit over a pound before taking over large portions of the workshop to bunches of drying plant material.
Now, without a shop it is very easy to gather what is needed for most things. Very few of the herbs that I use are not from this property - either wild or cultivated. I will never know all the plants that grow around me, but I do know that they are all important, and will keep learning them - one or two per year.Rosehips
Not everyone has the luxury of living where there are wild things outside the door, but I've also found chickweed and lambsquarters in a rooftop garden in Manhattan. Here at The Essential Herbal, we believe that if you're interested in herbs, it's a good idea to recognize that the dandelion you see is the very same one you'd use. It's great to get to know them!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Starting out with herbs

This topic has come up in private conversations in the last week or two, so it must be something people are thinking about.
The topic of herbs is huge. It is intimidating to those who haven't put their tootsies in the water yet.Everywhere you look, people are talking about obscure, sometimes rare herbs, and as is suggested by the experts, they are using the Latin botanical names. There are very good reasons for that, but if you are hoping to just learn about the things that will keep your own family comfortable and healthy, it seems like too much to bite off.
The truth is that most of us will use a small personal arsenal of herbs. Although I grow and/or gather 30 or 40 different herbs during the year, there are only 3 or 4 that have a place on my kitchen counter. Elderberry and holy basil are always there, although we don't take anything on a daily basis. Right now, goldenrod, ephedra, and nettles are there too, because my kid is struggling with some allergies, but normally they are back in the cupboard. Chamomile is one of our staples too. We always have ginger around, especially in the winter because it warms everything and seems to increase the actions of the teas we drink.
But I'm getting off course here....
Considering how few herbs are truly necessary for the average person to really get to know (learning 10 well is very significant), the best thing to do is to learn one or two very well in a given season (or even year). I've written about this before, and I remember listening to Gail Edwards give a talk many years ago about finding an herbal ally and spending at least a year with it.
For winter, elderberry and holy basil are my go-to herbs. Both are anti-viral, and holy basil has many other attributes, like helping the body handle stress. Stress leads to illness, so handling it is a good way to avoid illness.Let's say you wanted to become familiar with these two herbs. First read about them. Take notes and find out all the positive things they can do, and also if there are any contraindications. Next, obtain some of the herb. Make them into tinctures, syrups, jelly, and herbal lozenges. I keep several "batches" of elderberries frozen and ready for pie in the freezer. Blend them into an herbal tea. Use them, and record how they work for you. Really get to know them and get comfortable with them.
Before you know it, you will have knowledge. You'll have some herbs that you can rely on, and you'll know how to use them. You'll have learned to put together soothing teas, a nice healing salve, and a tincture or two. By learning about herbs one at a time, there is nothing to fear and everything to gain.
The Essential Herbal Magazine's goal has always been to demystify herbs and make them accessible to everyone. It's a great place to start!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Here comes our first snow.

I can feel it arriving.
On the pavement, a few errant leaves clatter.
The wind is whipping through the trees that sigh and wave. The house is creaking to the rhythm of the gusts outside. The storm is on the way and snowflakes will begin to fall soon.
I know in another month or two, I'll be singing a different tune, but right now this storm is welcome to me. There are people who need to travel and need to get back and forth to work, and this is not the case for them. For me, it is welcome.
The holiday passed yesterday, and we are cozy and warm with everything we could possibly want or need.
We'll relax, read, write, watch a movie or two with cocoa, hot tea, and lots of sturdy stews and soups. Now THIS is what winter is about! Bring it on.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What a difference a month makes...

A month ago, we were filled with anticipation, getting the little seasonal-only shop ready for the tree hunters. By the Hearth had just been released a week or so earlier, and we were flying! We were swamped with wholesale soap orders, and coming up with new products for the websites daily.
On the 10th, the Jan/Feb issue of The Essential Herbal went into the mail. I don't remember too much since then. It's been a blur.
Today I sent out the last orders that were obvious gifts, and from now on they won't have the same amount of pressure attached in terms of delivery time.
Today 4 wholesale soap orders went out, and the 2 that are sitting in the shop waiting for pick-up are not time sensitive. The soap shelves are moderately well stocked - although we're not really sure how we managed that.
The tree farm is done for the year.
As thrilled as we were going into the rush of the season, that's precisely how thrilled we are to be finished with it and returning to normal. I am not missing the symbolism of how this happily coincides with the full solstice lunar eclipse... of the return to light, and the seeds that have been planted during the darkness. Nor am I ignoring the idea of the current retrograde phase of Mercury that slows things like communication down. I welcome that with open arms. The timing couldn't be better.
I know I've written about the subject of self-employment before, but there is no season quite as telling as this one for small retail business owners. It is pure craziness.
Taking a few hours off to celebrate my sister's birthday last week meant working until past 11 that night to get orders packed. Every morning before my eyes opened, my mind was turning to what requirements lay before me that day, and how to accomplish them in the most efficient way. The smallest glitch or unexpected issue (whether good or bad) could throw the whole day into chaos, because it was just that busy. I don't mind admitting to an element of fear each time I checked emails, wondering what sort of orders would await, and whether they'd be able to fit with today's run, or if they'd have to wait until tomorrow. That little spark of fear... that's when we start looking forward to the end.
I can set the alarm and go watch the moon turn red in the middle of the night tonight without worrying about oversleeping tomorrow.
When I wake tomorrow, there will be the bliss of knowing that only the typical activities of living will fill the day. There are only a few things that need to be done before the weekend brings Christmas Day, and I will be able to do them with full enjoyment, not having to squeeze them in or begrudge the time spent.
So in review, the past month was wonderful, crazy, busy, and fun. I expect the next month to be full of its own kind of wonderfulness. Thanks everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

well this looks oddly familiar...

Check this out: http://mrsgreenhands.blogspot.com/2010_12_01_archive.html
Look familiar?
It sure does to ME!
my post on making and using herb vinegars
my post on lavender wands
my post on distilling lavender
my post on elderberry tincture

No links, no credit.. just stolen information posted as her own. And lavender was spelled wrong in the titles.
Yes, I wrote to her a week ago and got no response.
Yes, I reported it to Google and Blogger - so far, no response.

Yes, I am highly peeved.

Just to be clear, I love it when people share the information posted on this blog, but as with all things posted or published anywhere, it is copyrighted as soon as the "publish" button is hit. A link to the original post is an absolute requirement.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Repeat after me: No.

In the past week or two, I've spoken to several friends who are just completely overwhelmed by this season. Of course it isn't entirely about the holidays, but the season brings about a culmination of anxiety and stress.
We all do it. We agree to things that we know are going to be difficult to accomplish. Lots of those things can't be avoided. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we lose the ability to differentiate between the "musts" and the "maybes". We can't see the forest for the trees, and sometimes even stop looking.
When I was a child, most families had one parent who worked, and one parent who took care of the home and the children. It was not that way at our house, but most of my friends had that typical situation. When the holiday season rolled around, the mothers spent a lot of time on decorating the home, shopping, baking, and creating the whole fantasy. On a weekend soon after Thanksgiving, the father would get out the lights and the ladder and deck the house with lights before returning to the football fest indoors.
As times changed, we have not allowed ourselves the flexibility to recognize those changes. We still expect the same amount of preparation and magic even though the time to make it happen has vanished, leaving us feeling inadequate and lacking.
I'm not suggesting that we should give up the things we enjoy, but I am thinking that we need to give some serious thought to what we do because it is fun, and what we do because of some external and/or imagined pressure.
Here, we've run the gamut from the Total Christmas Experience to pushing the whole season back a month because we couldn't manage it. Neither of those really work for us. The first makes us grouchy and stressed, the other feels sad and empty. Somewhere in the middle is the perfect blend.

I've found that what we "need" to feel happy and festive is:
*One day spent shopping at quaint shops for quirky little gifts with the kid.
*One mad dash around with my sister.
*One batch of cookies baked with the kid.
*A tree.

Everything else is extraneous. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, that's also fine. The best part is that by paring down the list of "musts", we find more time for extras without feeling like we're doing it because we have to. Then the extras really are fun!

I'm wishing you all a season filled with genuine fun, joy, peace and love.
And the ability to say no.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Essential Herbal - Jan/Feb 2011

We start off in this, our 10th year, with an issue full of warmth and herbal wisdom. Lots of everything you've come to expect from The Essential Herbal Magazine - herbal information, recipes, crafts, lore, and humor.
Our goal has always been to empower people to use the herbs that grow around them in ways that they've never tried before. As we sent this issue out, it was with the knowledge that we continue to achieve this goal with every issue. So stay warm, and try some of the great things that have been shared within the pages. If you aren't a subscriber, get on board HERE. You won't be sorry.

Table of Contents, Jan/Feb 2011
Field Notes from the Editor
, TEH news
Winter Herbs, Oils, & First Aid, Mary Graber
Total Tonic Formula and Essential Oil blends along with herbal remedies for winter
Winter Soups & Stews, Susan Evans
Stay warm from the inside out with these luscious recipes
Heaven "Scent" Sachets, Diane Runge.
Learn how to make sachets with home-grown or purchased ingredients
The Historic Herbal, Fragrant Washing Soaps, Kathleen Setzer
Castile soap and herbs together in historic greatness
SouthRidge Treasures, For Your Valentine - a Tussie Mussie, Mary Ellen Wilcox
Tell your sweetie how you feel without saying a word
Top 10 Herbal Resolutions, Cory Trusty
Humorous and thought provoking
Food by the Fireplace, Melissa Sidelinger
Yummy, healthy snack mix
Unusual Salted Potpourris, Marcy Lautenan-Raleigh
An interesting old-fashioned way to make potpourri, with recipes
February is Chocolate Month, Jackie Johnson
...and it's good for you!
Curry Up!!! Rita Richardson
Did you think curry was a single blend made by a big spice company? Think again.
Louisianna Lagniappe, Yummy Yam Spice Muffins, Sarah Liberta
Another great use for sweet potatoes
The 1st Trimester: Preparing, Betsy May
Some ideas and recipes for the discomforts of early pregnancy
Winter Soothing Herbal Breads, Marcy Lautenan-Raleigh
Add some herbs to those breads and spice things up
Gardeners Herbal Hand Soap, Marci Tsohonis
A wonderful bar to make now for the excesses of Spring to come
The Soap Pot, How to Swirl, Alicia Grosso
Now that we've learned the basics, Alicia talks about swirls
Sugar Hearts, Cindy Jones
A little sweet for the sweet
The Winter Garden, Maryanne Schwartz
Some color in the winter landscape
Herbs of the Zodiac: Aquarius, Susanna Reppert Brill/Bertha Reppert
Aquarian herbs topped with Sesame Seed Brittle
Herb of the Year - Horseradish, Tina Sams
An interview with a 4th generation "horseradish man", information on the health benefits of this amazing root, and some interesting uses for horseradish
Why I Love Horseradish, Carey Jung
A memoir with recipes!
Warm Fuzzy Feeling, Jennifer Lane
Staying cozy and healthy in winter

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Classic Crash and Burn

This year, I think the timing is the best yet!
It's something that just isn't worth fighting anymore. It always comes eventually. So many of my friends are self-employed entrepreneurs that I see it all around me, and at this time of year it can hit everyone, regardless of their circumstances.
We work and work, creating endlessly auto-revising lists in our heads. As things get more urgent, diet, exercise, and fresh air fly out the window, sleep is sacrificed, and we are in contact with more people.
I've actually experienced this in an almost instant way on some occasions. A few years ago I was caring for a desperately ill relative, and it was very stressful. I started to feel "off", but it showed up as a restless crankiness. After a few days, it was determined the patient needed hospitalization. Getting into the car, my stomach cramped. By the time we got to the hospital parking lot, I was full-out sick, quickly reaching the feverish weepy phase. In other words, as soon as the pressure was released, my body allowed itself to give in.
That happened on a smaller scale today, since I've learned to listen more closely (and have the luxury of being able to stop).
We've been at a dead run for several months, publishing 2 books since July, along with the bi-monthly release of The Essential Herbal Magazine, and the near tripling of the my sister's wholesale soap company. Then the tree farm opened, along with the little shop. The next issue of the magazine went into the mail yesterday, and my lower back started to act up (Ding!). This morning I felt grumpy. I went down to the shop, but couldn't quite get the smile thing going.
By 2 o'clock I was back home and barely managed to get my shoes off before crashing for about 3 hours. It will probably be a very early night tonight, and a hefty dose of elderberry is in the cards for me too.
Good timing, though. There's still lots of time to enjoy the next couple of weeks, and for once the crash and burn won't happen on the eve or day of a major holiday, and it only took me half a century to figure it out.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

a gathering of gift posts

Rather than re-invent the wheel, I gathered some of my holiday gift crafting posts from holidays past and put them together in one convenient place.

last minute herbal gifts
gifts for the soul
bath salts and memory boxes
home made vanilla extract
deviled nuts, holiday tea and almond bark deluxe
simmering potpourri
spritzes and powders
chai and sugarplums
tea blends and gel air fresheners
sachets and eye pillows
incense papers
herb kit and a lip balm
pomanders, potpourris, and spicy ornaments
hot stuff
massage oil
sweet things
tub teas
spice necklace
gifts for animals and pets

Traditions are us

It's funny how traditions sneak up on you. The holiday season is one in which we are usually more clear about them, but as it turns out, for me it was the most surprising.
It's always been sort of a family joke. When we were young, Mom struggled mightily to raise us. Some years there was Christmas, and some years it was a non-event. Childhood memories are a mixture of fun and horror, with Mom trying too hard with too little, and nothing ever being quite the way it looked on the glittery cards that would arrive. Kids don't need perfect, it seems. They just need love. One Christmas it snowed heavily. We lived about 1/2 mile from our grandparents, and Mom decided we would hike up the hill with the toboggan to spend the night there. So we set out, in the pitch dark night, freezing cold, in deep snow. When we got there, the only gift she had for her father was a bottle of blackberry brandy and *I* wanted to be the one who carried it inside. Naturally my little hands were numb, and naturally they let go of the bottle at exactly the time that we reached a place where the walk had been shoveled. I think my mom cried. Nobody yelled at me, but I sure was mad at myself. I think there was a half-hearted attempt of gathering up the blackberry snow until talk of glass shards came up. Merry Christmas, everybody!
For most of my adult life, my sister and her husband have had a Christmas tree farm. Kind of ironic when you think about it. Every year Maryanne and I have set up a little shop. Except for the first few years, it has been full of herbs and soaps. There is a picture somewhere of me in the shop, just weeks before my January baby was born. It has always been a part of Molly's life.
Shortly after she was born, we opened our first shop, and had brick and mortar shops until she was 8 or 9.
When you have an herb shop (or magazine, soap company, etc.) and a Christmas tree farm in the family, people assume that your house must be the most wonderfully decorated home in the world over the holidays... that it smells of mulled cider and snickerdoodles, and that you probably throw a little party where people dress in cocktail dresses and natty blazers. They tell us that all the time. You don't. If you're lucky, you can carve out a day or two to frantically try to throw something festive together, but the vast majority of your energy is already on display for the shops. You think to yourself, "See this bow on my head? That's it!"
Over the years, it has become less and less important to me that decorations come out, and last year they were all buried under my brother's belongings, anyhow. This year they'll come out again. Why?
Because this season was a big surprise to me, and it warmed my heart in a way I can hardly express. Molly is about an hour away in college, and was home for Thanksgiving. She worked a few days at a department store, but was itching to work at the tree farm.
I couldn't really understand why she was being so adamant about it. She wanted to work outside in the cold, while she could just stay warm and have nice, set hours at the mall store where they'd play holiday music and hang giant balls from the ceiling.
Finally, it struck me. This IS our tradition, and she wanted to take a more active part in it. For her entire life, this is what we've done, and now that she's grown she wants to be in the middle of it, pulling along with us.
When she gets home next week, I think we'll drag her into the shop and have her with us womenfolk - answering the phone and wrapping soap. Then we'll decorate our tree. But not the pink tinsel one... I don't think I can stand that again.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Herbal Holiday Gift Series 2010 - a few ideas

I've been pretty busy at the tree farm and shop this season, so this series isn't going as smoothly as it has in past years. Be sure to check at the bottom of this post for some links to friends' blogs with more ideas! Here are a few fun crafts to try :-).
Frankincense and myrrh are a traditional gift of the season. When we first opened shop at the rennaisance fair, we tested lots of products, and these resins were at the top of the list. We purchased "simmers" and tried them out. A teaspoon or less of frankincense was in a heat sealed teabag, to be added to a potpourri simmer pot. Do not use these in anything you'll be cooking in - but the small electric or candle warmed containers are great. Both frankincense and myrrh (or any fragrant resin - copal, pinon, dragon's blood, etc.) can be used without a teabag, and just simmered alone or as a combination. This is a good way to use them for the fragrance without the smoke caused by burning them on charcoal that can be such a deterrent in the closed up house of winter. A small vial of each of these resins makes a sweet gift. Add some gold ribbon to complete gifts of the Magi theme.
This season we've been having a hard time keeping up with demand for lavender sachets, so it would seem that they would be a welcome gift. We package a 1/2 cup of lavender buds into muslin bags that we decorate with permanent ink. You can also make your own bags from appropriately patterned fabrics if you like. The sachets can be used in the clothes dryer to freshen linens, placed in drawers, or because we leave the strings on the bags, they can be hung in the closet to keep clothes smelling clean and fresh while discouraging moths. My nephew got a kick out of seeing the same thing at Trader Joe's a few weeks ago, thinking that once again, the mainstream has finally caught up with his mom and aunt who have been making these for decades :-). Yes, it's true. It takes us decades to seem normal to our kids. Sigh....
I've written about bathing herbs before, but people are using these items more and more. 20 years ago we needed to explain them extensively for every customer, and now they fly off the shelves as fast as we can make them. We use giant heat sealed bags for ours, but you can also put them in a jar and include a muslin bag, a pot-sized tea ball, or they can be tied into the round coffee filters with a pretty ribbon for a more Victorian presentation.
I like to use herbs that were grown in the garden over the summer for personal gifts. Blends almost always include some rose petals and lavender, and from there the choices are endless. Calendula, comfrey, chamomile, sage, St John's wort, mints, tarragon, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lime basil.... these are just off the top of my head, picturing the garden this year. To these you can choose to add other things - like oatmeal, sea salts, or powdered milk. You may also choose to add a few drops of essential oil. Sometimes the blends turn out to be so beautiful that it seems a shame to hide them in a pre-made bag.
If you live in an area where bayberries grow, try dipping some bayberry candles with the kids. When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers heated beeswax in #10 cans inside a pan of water. Since bayberry wax is so hard and brittle, you'd need to mix it with another wax for strength (and because it takes a ton of bayberries to make enough). Beeswax is a nice, natural choice. Wicking can be purchased at craft stores. If you've never made hand-dipped candles, you're in for a treat. Cool slightly between each dip, and the wax builds up to form a rustic, beautiful candle. Note: candle making is an art in which wick size, melting points, and various other attributes come into play, but for a craft that will inspire your kids, this is a good one. Here is a link for more information on dipping candles.

For some other ideas, visit these links...
From The Rosemary House
From The Backyard Porch
From Aquarian Bath
From Sage Script

Friday, December 03, 2010

Herbal Holiday Gift Series 2010 - Kids.

Kids are tough when it comes to herbal gifts, but not impossible.
Without a doubt, I was lucky to have a kid who loved everything I did or made for her.
At 10, she wanted her own teapot. At the time, animal prints were all the rage, so I found a 2 cup teapot in a leopard print and gave her some packets of herbs that she could blend into her own teas.
When she was younger, she loved any kind of bath additive, with scented bath salts being at the top of the list. She also loved a massage after her bath, so I blended relaxing essential oils into apricot and jojoba oil and we'd use that afterward, sending her into dreamland. To make the bath salts, I would take the larges crystals out of a large bag that we had for the shop and save them. To a quart of salt crystals, add 1 tsp glycerin, 30 drops of essential oil (I always chose relaxing oils!), and a few drops of food coloring, mixing well. The massage oil was made simply by mixing 10 drops of lavender eo per ounce of oil. Almost any liquid vegetable oil can be used for this.
One year I taught her and a few of her friends to make lip balms and sparkly glycerine soaps (followed by a slumber party, which was undoubtedly the most difficult part for me).
For young boys or girls, field guides are almost always welcome. For some kids, the field guide might be about rocks, or butterflies, birds, or trees. Any kind of nature guide is a good thing.
Kits for making things are fun for kids too - but they don't have to be pre-made.
A few dried gourds with some permanent markers can be a rattle making kit.
Some olive oil, beeswax, a smidge or two of pink mica, and a few lip balm tubes or pots with instructions make a lip gloss kit. Our Balms & Salves How-to and Recipes book would be a great addition.
At the Dollar Tree, I saw that they had hemp twine the other day. Combined with an assortment of beads and some clasps from the craft store, a jewelry making kit could be made up pretty inexpensively.
Finding and printing out knot-making instructions from the internet into a booklet form, and adding some rope would work to teach someone how to tie knots. I know my brothers would have liked that when they were young.
Journals or art supplies are welcome gifts, depending on the child. One of my daughter's favorite gifts was the day my sister allowed her to go through her fabric collection and take quite a few odds and ends to play with.
Sure enough, as she got older her dad made sure she got lots of electronic gadgets, and that was a good thing too. She still loves to learn to do the things I love to do. At nearly 20, a cookbook that includes the foods she loves best from home, her very own sewing kit, or even a collection of "how to keep a home, by Mom" in a booklet would be great.

Cindy Jones at SageScript.com has some crafty ideas that she shares on her blog here