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

A Mid-Summer’s Evening Primrose

PrimroseThea_8084

Photo by Nicholas

It all began a long time ago when Susun Weed came to Tucson.  She had come to put the finishing touches on The Menopausal Years with her editor, Betsy Sandlin. It was 1992.  Betsy was in the midst of her change and I was just beginning mine. A mutual friend of ours, who knew that I had previously worked with Susun, gathered us together one morning for a hike through the saguaros beneath Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Mount Lemmon is named in honor of the botanist Sarah Plummer Lemmon, who trekked to the top by mule and foot with Native American guides in the late 1880s. Called “Frog Mountain” by native Tohono O’odham people, it is a granite massif above the heart of the city.

Pollinator bee approaching

Pollinator bee approaching

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. The important part of this story is what came next – Evening Primrose. Susun suggested that I take 4-8 capsules of evening primrose seed oil daily for six weeks, coupled with vitex berries to stabilize progesterone shifts and decrease flooding. She even offered to send me a Xeroxed copy of her as yet unpublished manuscript with the protocol, which she did. 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 in the Wise Woman Tradition.

Oenothera biennis

Oenothera biennis

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. 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).

Evening Primrose is a biennial wildflower with opposite leaves and yellow flowers, which bloom in mid-summer. 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 when there is no other light source available, possibly due to some phosphoric property in the flowers. Moths and certain bees that are morphologically specialized to gather this pollen effectively pollinate the flowers. Evening primrose tends to germinate in disturbed soil, growing wild throughout North America in pastures and fields, but may eventually be out-competed by other species. This may explain why it was so profuse in the pasture next to my house last year and nowhere to be seen this year. It is cultivated in North and South America and Europe for its seed oil. Seeds ripen from late summer to fall.

Primrose_0944

Evening primrose oil, an omega-6 EFA, contains high amounts of GLA. The mature seeds contain up to 10% GLA and 70% linoleic acid. 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 apply it to the cervix to aid in ripening for birth.

Primrose_0948This natural polyunsaturated fatty acid is an effective anti-inflammatory; it is 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. This oil is a rich source of GLA, the precursor of linoleic acid, and an unusual long-chain fatty acid 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.

After leaving Tucson and moving back east to the Appalachian Mountains I was delighted to find evening primrose growing in my yard. 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 arthritis. As I was reviewing my notes for this article I found the Xeroxed copy of that manuscript Susun had sent me so long ago. In the margin was a handwritten note from Susun and I quote:

Evening Primrose Photos by Thea

Evening Primrose
Photos by Thea

“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 received a new name. The name stuck and so did the plant. Evening primrose, if you should happen to meet her on a mid-summer’s eve, is a plant that serves the goddesses well.

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.