Tag Archive | herbal healing

Wild Hydrangea: …this is where she came from

Hydrangea aborescens, Photo by Myrna Attaway

Hydrangea arborescens, Photo by Myrna Attaway

Living on the Blue Ridge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains is a blessing. Multiply that by the abundance of medicinal herbs that also live here, and what you have is a rich haven for herbalists. Having survived the advance and retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, the Appalachians, which are some of the oldest mountains in the world, became a botanical treasure. It is here that I am blessed to study, gather and prepare herbs, and practice herbal medicine.

I have been coming to these Smoky Mountains of North Carolina for as long as I can remember, and living here full time for the last sixteen years. Like me, lots of folks are finding their way to the mountains in search of a saner, healthier lifestyle, and communities in which to raise families and grow old. Unfortunately, more people also means more scars upon the land. While it is my belief that there is enough for everyone, I also believe that we have a responsibility to future generations to be good stewards of the land that feeds, sustains, and heals us. For this reason I would like to share one of my harvesting expeditions.

hydrangea cottage_2876Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is an attractive shrub but nowhere near as flamboyant as her cultivar cousins that are cherished as ornamentals. Wild Hydrangea is native to the Southern Appalachians, which has allowed me the opportunity to get to know it more intimately. What I discovered is an excellent remedy for inflamed or enlarged prostate. While not a “prostate” herb, per se, because herbs are not so easily pigeon holed, it holds a genetic knowledge of its lineage that stretches back for millennia. This brings forth many healing potentials and we are still discovering them. To simply call it a prostate herb would not give it the credit or respect that it deserves as a wise elder.

The study of an imbalance in a person, such as a prostate issue, is called pathophysiology. Modern Medicine studies pathophysiology from the narrow lens of the reductionist viewpoint because the medicines they use are very narrow in action. Herbalists have a more broad perspective because the plants they use are broad acting and have many actions. This broad energetic perspective or holistic view naturally leads to searching for patterns. Energetics is another way of saying, patterns of organization.

Patterns of imbalance within our body mirror the patterns found in nature: heat/cold, dampness/dryness, contraction/expansion. Self-organization into ordered patterns is ubiquitous in nature. Studying and learning how to read the patterns will help us understand that healing takes place in the context of relationship. Plants are sentient beings that communicate through biochemistry and the understanding of this chemical language is in its infancy. Energetically, Hydrangea is cool and neutral. Its herbal actions are diuretic, anti-lithic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory. It is useful for various kidney, gallbladder and urinary tract problems.

Hydrangea8435My first trip into the woods (many years ago now) to identify and harvest Wild Hydrangea was on a Full Harvest Moon with my mentor; herbalist, Patricia Kyritsi Howell. It was the perfect time to go digging for Hydrangea’s roots. Carrying a basket, canvas bag and some hand clippers we headed out into the North Georgia woods in early fall. The white flower clusters that bloom May through July were faded and brown, but still clung to the shrubs that grow between four to six feet tall. Varying numbers of showy sterile flowers may be present and the cultivated forms may consist of nothing but the showy sterile flowers. The opposite, broadly ovate and sharply toothed edges of the leaves, which are slightly paler underneath made identification easier in the absence of bloom. The stem bark has a tendency to peel off in thin layers, each a slightly different color and thus the common name, sevenbark.

Wild Hydrangea_1530Patricia writes about Wild Hydrangea in her book, Medicinal Herbs of the Southern Appalachians, and I was thrilled that she had agreed to personally introduce me to this native plant. There is nothing like a personal introduction. As we walked through the woods she pointed out a few shrubs that were growing on a steep embankment. Getting to them would be difficult. Following Patricia’s lead I clamored up the bank, digging my heels into the soft deciduous dirt and began to dig. This was no easy root to free from its tenacious hold. I dug, sweated, pulled and cut until I held the most amazing rhizome and wildly branching roots in my hand. I filled the gaping hole that remained with as much dirt and leaf litter as I could manage and clamored back down.

Looking up at the embankment where I had just been perched, it looked like a bear had been digging up there. I had taken the root of one of three Hydrangea plants that grew in that spot, knowing the importance of leaving enough to ensure continued propagation. Then we decided to climb up to the ridge above the embankment to continue our search. I thought it might be easier to dig from above rather than climbing up from below. Not far from where I had dug the first Hydrangea I saw another small grouping. In the end I would dig three roots, but not before I climbed down over the edge of the bank I had previously climbed up. While hanging off the side I lost my footing with nothing to hold me but my body pressed against the loose, humus rich soil and one hand clinging to this small, but very deep root. I looked down and realized the slide and tumble to the bottom would not be pretty. I turned back to the root that was holding me up determined that if I was going down, she was going with me. So I dug my heels in deeper, freed the root from its tenacious hold, and managed to grab a vine and pull myself up just enough to get one foot in the hole left by the root, enough to propel myself up over the top of the bank. I was very grateful that I didn’t crash and burn. Life, after all, is an adventure.

This gave me a deeper appreciation for the roots of plants that hold and support the soil and its microorganisms on steep mountain slopes. My clamoring had left the mountainside unmistakably vulnerable to erosion even though I had done my best to fill in the holes. We should never underestimate the impact that we have on natural systems when we impose our needs. May we always do our best to keep that impact to a minimum and never take it for granted. I thanked the rich soil beneath my feet and Hydrangea for her medicine root. Even if I hadn’t been totally spent by this point I knew that three roots were plenty. It was all I needed. Not taking more than we need is one of the keys to ethical harvesting.

The week prior to this I bought some dried and sifted Hydrangea root from a wholesale distributor so that I could connect with the plant and have enough on hand for making medicine. But I also know that preparing wild crafted medicines from the area where a person lives is 1000 times more potent energetically than commercially prepared medicines. These roots that we had gathered would become fresh root tincture, started on the full moon and decanted on the new or dark moon — dark like the earth in which she grew. The roots would more readily release their medicine and active constituents during this phase of the waning moon.

“So that’s all you need?” Patricia inquired. And my response was, “Yes, it is enough.” I had accomplished what I had come for: to feel, smell and connect with the medicine plant that was serving my clients. Sometimes healing takes a certain kind of aggressiveness, a willingness to go that extra mile, or climb that mountain. Patricia, then made a very thoughtful suggestion, “Add a little of the fresh wild root tincture to the commercial dried root tincture. It will remind her who she is,” and that this is where she came from.

hydrangeas_2877All content except where otherwise noted © 2015 Thea Summer Deer

References:

Thomas Easley in Conversation with Jesse Wolf Hardin, Herbaria, Plant Healer Magazine, March 24th, 2015

Resources:

Medicinal Herbs of the Southern Appalachians, by Patricia Kyritsi Howell

Traditions in Western Herbalism 2015 Conference, Sept 17-20th – Cloudcroft, New Mexico: http://www.planthealer.org/intro.html

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A Mid-Summer’s Evening Primrose and Menopausal Ally

PrimroseThea_8084

Photo by Nicholas

Hiking in the high desert with renowned herbalist, Susun Weed, at the beginning of my menopausal years was a gift from the goddess. Susun had come to Tucson, AZ to meet with her editor, Betsy Sandlin, in order to put the finishing touches on The Menopausal Years manuscript. With Betsy in the midst of her change it couldn’t have been better timing.

Pollinator bee approaching

Pollinator bee approaching

A mutual friend had gathered us together for a morning hike through the saguaros in the Santa Catalina Mountains beneath Mount Lemmon, named for the botanist and mountain trekker, Sarah Plummer Lemmon. Sarah trekked to the top by mule and foot in the late 1880’s with Native American guides who called this granite mountain above the heart of the city, “Frog Mountain.”

Oenothera biennis

Oenothera biennis

As we retraced Sarah’s footsteps at the base of this city’s backyard wilderness, I confessed to Susun that I was experiencing heavy menstrual bleeding and was concerned. “Oh! You’re experiencing menstrual flooding, are you?” she responded. A flood it was. Welcome to perimenopause. I was relieved to have the diagnosis, but I was only in my late thirties and wondered if it was normal to be experiencing this kind of bleeding. She reassured me that it was a symptom of early menopause and suggested that I take capsules of Evening Primrose seed oil daily for six weeks, coupled with Vitex berries (aka Chasteberry) to stabilize progesterone shifts and decrease flooding. She even gave me a Xeroxed copy of her as yet unpublished manuscript with the protocol (see below). It worked like a miracle. I will be forever grateful for the synchronicity of that morning and the information that I now get to share with you as we pass it down the Wise Woman way.

Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis, is a biennial wildflower that blooms in mid-summer. The Evening Primrose that most of us are familiar with is the yellow flowering variety in a genus of about 125 species. Native to North and South America it is not closely related to the true primroses (Primula). In the Desert Southwest the fragrant tufted Evening Primrose, Oenothera caespitosa, is a southwestern species that first blooms white, but turns pink or light magenta. Most native desert species are white.

Primrose_0944True to its name the flowers open in the evening but will stay open for most of the following day. They can be seen on a dark night from a distance possibly due to some phosphorescence in the flowers. Moths and certain bees that are specifically designed to gather pollen from the Evening Primrose flowers are effective pollinators. Evening primrose tends to germinate in disturbed soil, growing wild throughout North America in pastures and fields. Seeds ripen from late summer to fall and it is cultivated in North and South America and Europe for its seed oil.

Primrose_0948Evening Primrose oil, an omega-6 EFA, contains high amounts of GLA. The mature seeds contain up to 10% GLA and 70% linoleic acid. This rich source of GLA, the precursor of linoleic acid, and an unusual long-chain fatty acid is found in only three other plants: black currants, borage seeds, and hemp seeds. Because the human body needs a balance between omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids it is recommended to use evening primrose in combination with fish oil containing omega-3 EFA’s.

The seed oil of O. biennis is used clinically in Britain to reduce the symptoms of PMS, most notably the pain of menstrual cramps and breast tenderness. It may even protect against breast cancer. Additionally, evening primrose oil is thought to aid in fertility by improving the quality of the mucus lining the cervix. The oil extracted from its seeds has long been a favorite of women for female reproductive disorders. Midwives use it both orally and topically to aid the cervix in ripening for birth.

This natural polyunsaturated fatty acid is an effective anti-inflammatory used to ease the symptoms of arthritis, colitis, diabetic neuropathy, hypertension and high cholesterol as well as dry skin conditions and eczema. It eases prostate swelling in older men, too. Evening primrose oil is considered a carrier oil in the world of aromatherapy and is prized for its abundant food, health, cosmetic and medicinal benefits.

Evening Primrose Photos by Thea

Evening Primrose
Photos by Thea

Back home in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina Evening Primrose grows abundantly all around me. The Cherokee use it as a food source eating the leaves as greens and boiling the young root. While I had been introduced to many naturalized European imports in my herbal studies, it was refreshing to discover a native of North America that had been successfully introduced in Europe and naturalized in England as a garden escapee.

Evening Primrose continues to be an ally for me, even after menopause aiding in keeping my heart healthy, reducing inflammation and alleviating joint pain. As I was reviewing my notes for this article I found the Xeroxed copy of the manuscript Susun had shared with me. In the margin was a handwritten note from Susun and I quote:

“Betsy and I discovered we both thought of you as anything but ‘Cynthia!’ Hope you don’t object to my shortening your name to ‘goddess,’ Thea.”

Well, of course I didn’t object to being called a goddess! And that’s how I not only met a new herbal ally, but also claimed a new name. So, if you should happen to meet her on a mid-summer’s eve, Evening Primrose is an ally that serves the goddess well.

Recommendations:

Please consult with your healthcare practitioner for recommended dosages for specific needs.

Evening Primrose seed oil 1,300mg softgel 2x/day (Solgar or Barlean’s) up to 3,000/daily

Chasteberry, Vitex agnus-castus is a slow acting herb and it may take up to 3 months to see an effect. Supports women achieving menopause either naturally or through surgery, radiation or drugs. Naturally increases levels of progesterone and luteinizing hormone in the blood (by nourishing and increasing the responsiveness of the body’s own feedback systems). While this can be helpful during early menopause it needs to be used more judiciously during the “melt-down” years when too much LH is dilating the blood vessels causing hot flashes and palpitations. Inhibits prolactin and over 50% of women experiencing PMS have high levels of prolactin. Helps to keep cycles more regular. Especially useful for women experiencing fibroids, endometriosis (anti-inflammatory effect on the endometrium), emotional mood swings or hysteria, and fertility issues. Long term results come from long term use up to two years. Not for use during pregnancy except as directed by your midwife or health care practitioner. Is an anti-aphrodisiac for men hence the name “chasteberry,” yet increases women’s libido when taken over time.

Vitex Extract: 1000 mg. daily (Gaia Herbs) Vitex Tincture: 1:4 Take 1 dropperful/1 ml (approx. 30 drops) of tincture 3-4/x day.

References:

New Menopausal Years, by Susun Weed

Delmar’s Integrative Herb Guide for Nurses, by Martha Libster

A Modern Herbal ,Volume 1, by Mrs. M. Grieve

Frog Mountain Blues, by Charles Bowden

Register now for Thea Summer Deer’s work-at-your-own-pace class, Heal Your Heart: Summer & the Fire Element at Wise Woman University.