Tag Archive | kidney

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

Uva Ursi: A Winter Ally

© 2013 Thea Summer Deer

Dorrene Thea_1014

Rocky Mountain High

Last summer I had the good fortune of traveling to Colorado to visit my sister in her off-the-grid cabin at 10,000 feet. The views of the majestic Rocky Mountains were incredible in all four directions. The cabin sits above Lake Taylor Reserve and just below the tree line of Ice Mountain in some of the most pristine wilderness in North America. On our walk through the woods my sister points out where the moose had their babies that year. Deer, elk and bear are visitors, but what really got me going was the blanket of bearberry at my feet. I had never seen bearberry, also known as uva ursi and whose botanical name is Arctostaphylos uva ursi, growing in its natural habitat and certainly had never seen this much of it. I had attempted to plant it on a steep slope on my land in North Carolina in order to prevent erosion, but it didn’t fare well. The deep roots of uva ursi prevent erosion from the nutrient poor soils and steep, dry, sunny slopes where it often grows. They are difficult to start from seed and even cuttings can take up to a year to root.

Uva Ursi is one of the few foods for bear and other wildlife available in the winter. Both the genus and species names refer to bears and grapes: uva means “grape” and ursi means “bear.” Arctostapylus combines the Greek word for bear, arkto, with the word for grape, staphyle. The berries are especially important as a food for bears when they come out of hibernation. It is the leaf, however, that is used medicinally.

uvsursi_1055

Uva Ursi, photo by Thea

I was enamored of this plant not only because I wrote about it in my book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas, but also because I use it in my Kinnikinnick smoking blend. Kinnikinnick is another common name for uva ursi, an Algonquian word meaning “mixture,” and refers to the tradition of mixing the ground up leaves with other herbs and tobacco.  My friend and mentor, Beverly Laughing Eagle, shared the recipe with me that was handed down by her mother, and her mother before her. I use this mixture in my herbal medicine practice to help people quit smoking. Tobacco is gradually weaned out of the mixture, which minimizes the withdrawal symptoms while smoking it satisfies the need for an oral fixation. Used during ceremonies or in tribal councils, kinnikinnick was thought to clear the mind, as well as to help bring visions and guidance. American Indians also made an ash colored dye from the leaves and fruit; dried the berries for use in rattles or as beads, and used the plant’s tannic acid to preserve leather. Bearberries were considered a survival food and were added to winter stews and pounded into pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein that can be stored long term. The plants popularity with wildlife is probably due to the fact that it can be found in the deep of winter when other food sources are unavailable. It is also possible that uva ursi has some medicinal value for these wild animals, especially after hibernating and having minimal fluid intake.

The early Romans have used uva ursi medicinally since at least the second century, and there is evidence of its use by Native Americans as a remedy for urinary tract infections. I have found it particularly useful in this application. Before the discovery of sulfa drugs and antibiotics, an infusion of uva ursi leaves was a common treatment for bladder infections and cystitis, and it is still used for this purpose.  The astringent action of tannins also helps to shrink and tighten mucous membranes and reduce inflammation. An oil infusion of the leaves can be made into a salve and used for skin sores and cradle cap. Scientific research has discovered that uva ursi’s infection-fighting properties are due to the chemical compound arbutin, which exerts antibacterial activity in the urinary tract as it is excreted.

Uva Ursi Fig 13web

“Introspection” from Wisdom of the Plant Devas

On a more energetic level, uva ursi’s bear medicine is reflected in the power animal for which it is named, and in the deep reservoir of the kidneys and urinary tract system described by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Bear medicine teaches us about the place of deep introspection during the winter months, when animals hibernate and all of nature slows or comes to a standstill. The shadow cave of Bear, or the darkness of the void, is where we learn about the creation of form from the formless. It is where we enter the dreamtime. Within this watery world of the urinary tract system and kidneys, which are the deepest and most protected organs in the body, we see uva ursi’s affect on health and well-being. From the darkness of the void, up through the watery depths of our unconscious emotions, we are dreamed into form and given consciousness. The feminine mysteries represented by water, emotion, darkness, and intuition speak of this metaphorically. It is from the dark womb of the Great Mother that we take our watery birth.

The importance of caring for oneself at the deepest level by nourishing the kidneys is something that has been understood in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Kidney in this energetic model is seen as the repository of fear. Fear is what causes us to seek to control and to be controlled. Introspection allows us to surrender our need to control what is happening outside of ourselves. When we no longer fear what is in the shadow cave, we will be free of the projection of fear.

uva ursi_1054

Uva Ursi, photo by Thea

While uva ursi’s medicine may help to heal a urinary tract infection, it is important to use it as an ally energetically by journeying inward with the spirit of this plant.  Within the cave of our inner knowing is the answer to the question of how to take better care of our health.  When we take the time to honor the season of Winter by entering the silence, then we can begin to realize that we are all unique expressions emanating from the same source. When we call on the spirit medicine of Uva Ursi, a great ally will be made available to assist us on the inner journey. Whether you keep the leaves and berries in a potpourri by your bedside, sip it gingerly in a leaf tea from time to time, smoke it in your peace pipe, or use it as a smudge, uva ursi will tend to your need for silence and introspection.

Learn more in Hidden Treasure: Kidney Essence and the Water Element, Thea’s work at your own pace, online class at Wise Woman University.

Read more about Uva Ursi in Thea’s book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth.