Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Identity Crisis!

Guys!!! I was pretty darn sure that the other tree I'm observing for the Tree Year is a balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera). But now I'm not so sure.

I was looking closely at these pics I took last year of some branches that came down in a storm and I noticed some differences from the pictures of balsam poplar I've seen online and from the tree I've visited at the arboretum in Ottawa (I know for certain the tree in the arboretum is a balsam poplar because it has a label!)

Here's a pic of balsam poplar leaves. And another picture.

The balsam poplar leaves are quite a bit narrower than the leaves on my tree.

So I started looking at other poplar species and ruled out the obvious ones, like white poplar and quaking aspen. I ruled out the Lombardy poplar too. Then I came across the Eastern cottonwood or Populus deltoides.

Check out this pic. I think I might be on to something here.

Now, I had always just assumed my tree was a balsam poplar, because the sources talk about the distinctive and tell-tale scent of the balsam poplar being one of the ways of identifying it. I've spent enough spring days inhaling the perfumed air around the poplar trees in my park to figure I had a correct i.d., and I previously ruled out the Eastern cottonwood because I found no reference to a distinctive scent in the sources I looked at. But then today I found this reference that notes, "The buds have a resinous strong scented odor." This source limits the range to New York, but Wikipedia has the range into Southeastern Ontario and Quebec.

I guess I'll wait until the catkins and later the leaves come out on my tree and compare them with samples from the tree in the arboretum and see if I get any closer to a correct i.d. I'll go back to my guide books and try and key out exactly what species I've got. To complicate matters somewhat, I've read that balsam poplars hybridise easily on their own and by human intervention.

I'm excited to solve this mystery and I really love how this project is helping me to get to know these trees so intimately. The more I look and observe, the more I see. More questions arise, which leads to more understanding. This is so fun and satisfying.

Oh, and as always, if anyone has any insights to add, I'd love to hear them. J.G. do you think your tree lady might know what tree it is I've got?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Your Backyard is a Scary Place Just Waiting to Kill You!

There's an article in yesterday's Globe and Mail about backyard herbalism. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for it!)

I think the journalist did a good job of presenting viewpoints from many different perspectives and highlighting the concerns as well as benefits. But I find some of the arguments- especially from the ethnobotanist- border on fear mongering.

One of the things I repeatedly emphasised in my interview, which didn't get included in the article, was the importance of thoroughly educating oneself and doing your research if you plan on really delving into plant based medicine. My own studies include a course with a botanist who taught her students how to identify edible, wild food. I spent a year apprenticing with a Registered Herbalist. I continue to educate myself by studying with herbalists online. I read a ton, from many different sources, including scientific and botanical literature. And then I read some more. And I use plants and work with them regularly, making observations and gaining experience. There is no way I'm going to mistakenly identify Foxglove and accidentally ingest it. Nor would I correctly identify it and use it medicinally, because I know it's too strong a plant for me to use safely with the current knowledge I have.

I'm also really cautious about the environments I wildcraft and forage in and cultivate my own plants as much as possible. I'm fanatical about ethical foraging practices. I have a better understanding of what's in or on the plants I harvest and how they are sourced, than any commercial preparation I might buy.

Basically, I use good research, common sense and the knowledge of experienced elders to ensure I am always making safe and healthy choices for myself and others.

The thing with backyard herbalists is that we mostly use plants that are essentially food. Dandelion, burdock, mallow, plantain, nettle, violet leaves..guess what? They're all food. We use herbs and spices you find in the kitchen cupboard like sage, thyme, ginger, cinnamon, pepper....

If you've ever had a cup of chamomile tea to calm jangled nerves, or peppermint to soothe an upset tummy, you're using plants as medicine.

See, you don't even need a fancy education or hours of study to engage in very simple, yet very profound herbalism.

Sure there are risks involved. Take oxalic acid for example. Ingesting it depletes the body of important minerals like calcium and can lead to kidney stones. You know what plant has oxalic acid in it? Spinach.

I guess what I'm getting at, is that a lot of the fear that "backyard herbalists with minimal training" are running around doing harm to themselves and others is largely unfounded.

Nor are we all Big Pharma haters. As mentioned in the article, I am trying to reduce my dependence on pharmaceuticals, not trying to eliminate them entirely. I believe that many pharmaceuticals have an important and necessary role in health care. For instance, I really don't want to have to go without a tetanus vaccination. And I always keep some acetaminophen and/or aspirin on hand for acute or emergency situations. Just used some yesterday in fact.

But like Mr. Patton said at the beginning of the article, "People needn’t rely on pharmaceutical drugs to treat every minor ill." And the plant world is not a big, scary and dangerous place waiting to kill you at the first misstep. All that kind of thinking does, is further alienate people from the natural world.

Using reliable information from reputable sources and good old fashioned common sense will keep you safe and healthy! (It's good advice in herbalism and good advice for life in general.) If you do any less, maybe you'll be eligible for a Darwin Award. :)

For a really great perspective on wild foods and poisonous plants check out this excellent article by Samuel Thayer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cook What Is

I read the best quote on this cool blog I just found.

"Cooking this way reverses the modern relationship between a chef and an ingredient. Rather than writing a menu and then going shopping, the chef walks through a garden or market; goes foraging, fishing or hunting; and cooks what is. This approach can deliver vibrant flavours and lively meals. Responsive cooking is not only a way to approach dinner. It is a way to approach life, grounded in what is, eyes wide open to what could be." -Molly O'Neill, from The Blackberry Farm Cookbook.

Yes! How delightful and beautiful is that? Cook what is...grounded in what is, eyes wide open to what could be. Love.

And the blog is pretty awesome too. There are posts about wild foods and herbs, medicine making and fermentation. Double love!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tree Year- Catalpa Observations

I spent some time with my Tree Year trees last weekend. The balsam poplar is loaded with buds, which will soon turn into pretty little catkins. I'll post about that another day. But today let's take a look at the catalpa tree I'm observing for the year.

As you can see, not much is going on here. Nary a bud in site. While plenty of other trees put out buds in late winter through early spring, the catalpa is truly a late bloomer in this department. But once she does finally leaf out, she'll be the prettiest tree in the park. I'm excited to watch for the first signs of this!

In my last post I expressed some concern about the splits and cracks I noticed in the bark. I went to see Diana Beresford-Kroeger give a talk recently and afterwards I asked her if she had any insight into what might be going on. She said that it was a common problem with catalpas and had noticed it on her trees. She thinks it's a fungus that weakens the bark and then it splits. The good news is, she doesn't think it does any long-term, or life threatening damage to the trees and they seem to recover and thrive well enough. Phew. That's a relief. And from the looks of things, this tree seems to be recuperating. The exposed inner bark is no longer raw looking.

However it appears that some creature has decided to take advantage of the openings. There are two construction sites going on. Something trying to carve out a home perhaps?

I have no idea what creature might be at work here. The two sites are about four feet up the trunk. The second site has a gnawed on look which makes me think it might be a squirrel as opposed to a bird. Any naturalists or wildlife experts out there who might have some thoughts on this?

Well, it won't be the first time this tree has had some mod work done on it. Do you see the wire cable anchored into the trunks up there? My guess is the city was worried those two trunks might break and split apart, so they took preventive measures here. My mom has catalpas in her yard and over the years the upper trunks do tend to break off.

This large branch has four water sprouts growing out of it. I wonder if that's a stress response from the splitting and gnawing? Water sprouts are undesirable on a tree, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The are more susceptible to pests and disease and weaken the tree. I'm thinking of maybe pruning them myself.

Finally, I just had to include this pic of some of the bark. I love the texture and lines of it.
Stay tuned for more tree year posts!

Update: Uh, I guess I should make an effort to get my tree anatomy correct and learn the difference between a trunk and a branch. I don't think this tree has 'two trunks' rather it has a forked trunk. And when I referred to the 'upper trunks' of my mom's catalpa trees, I actually meant large branches. I think.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Water Day

Today is World Water Day.

It started in 1993 to raise awareness of the importance of access to and conservation of freshwater around the world.

In the West, especially in Canada, we tend to take water for granted, assuming that we have an abundant, inexhaustible supply of safe, treated drinking water. It's easy to forget the massive amounts of water used in tar sands oil production, and the problems associated with that. Most Canadians don't live on any of the 100 First Nation communities that lack access to clean drinking water and appropriate infrastructure. Many of us don't live near pristine lakes that are slated to be turned into tailings ponds. We might not be aware of the 1 trillion plus liters of untreated sewage that gets released into our waterways every year. (Blue Gold)

According to Conference Board of Canada, the country as a whole gets a 'D' grade for water consumption compared to 16 other countries. The average individual Canadian uses over 300 liters per day. Compare that with the average person in an African country who uses 30 to 40 liters of water per day.

You can find a lot more global water statistics here.

Over the last few years I've incorporated a number of water conservation practices in my home.

My landlord recently installed a dual flush toilet in my bathroom. I usually only flush it once a day, since I've started composting my urine. When I do flush, I use the rinse water from washing dishes that I've collected in a bucket next to my kitchen sink.

I take staggered or 'navy showers'.

I always turn the tap off when I'm brushing my teeth.

I conserve water when washes dishes by keeping smaller dish buckets inside my sink and not filling them all they way up.

I only fill the kettle with the amount of water I need.

I use the appropriate water setting on the washing machine.

I never, ever buy bottled water.

I'm committed to learning and using gardening techniques that require the least amount of extra watering.

I don't put chemicals into the water by using natural cleaning products and personal care products. I avoid over the counter medications and other pharmaceuticals as much as possible. I don't use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when gardening.

And finally, because that largest amount of water use is embedded in the manufacturing process of the products we buy and the food we consume, I limit the total amount of stuff I purchase, buy second hand as much as I can and try to source my food with as much awareness as possible in terms of water consumption.

If you have any water saving tips, I'd love to hear about them!

Image source

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mycelium Dreams

I was able to partially uncover some of my mushroom logs the other day. I've got three shitake and three oyster mushroom inoculated logs. Half of them are in the backyard and the other half in a friend's backyard nearby. They've been under burlap all winter.

The process started a little over a year ago with a trip to a friend's family woodlot where his father and brother culled some oak trees. The logs destined for 'shroom spawn sat for a few months and then last spring we inoculated them and divvied them up.

With luck the mycelium will have spread throughout the logs all last summer and they will begin to fruit this year. I'm a bit concerned abut the green mold in the above picture, however the other log is showing some more promising signs.

As soon as the rest of the snow and ice melts, I'll stand these logs up. I might try 'forcing' them to fruit by soaking and shocking them and if all goes well, I'll have some homegrown mushrooms this year!

We got our spawn plugs and a lot of our info here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The High Holy Days of Sun

O.k. I know that technically this does not count as a true phenological event, but I'm marking the roasting of beets in my sun oven on March 19, 2011 as a 'first of the season'.

Not surprisingly, this moment has tended to occur around the vernal equinox the last three years. It always feels like a high holy day to me and something worth celebrating!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Potter's Herbal on Willow and the Herbarium

More on Willow from the 2003 revised edition of Potter's Herbal Cyclopaedia:

"In the body, the glycosides are hydrolyzed to salicylic acid and this was until recently considered to be the active principle. However, it is now known that effective dose levels of Willow bark produce lower blood levels of salicylic acid than would be expected to be active, and the side effects on the gastrointestinal system experienced were much less than those with aspirin. This suggest an enhanced effect for the extract, rather than it being merely a source of salicylic acid, and confirms that the total extract is more efficacious than a single isolated substance."

This is one of the many benefits of whole plant medicine as opposed to standardized extracts.

Oh and I recently came across UK based the Herbarium.
From the site:

"The Herbarium is the creation of a small, autonomous group of independent herbalists. We have come together in a spirit of cooperation, to share knowledge and resources, and to explore a different way of organising ourselves in this rapidly changing world.

We do not consent to the erosion, by regulation, of our common law freedoms and rights. We therefore oppose the current attempts to turn traditional western herbalists into the poor cousins of doctors, using herbal ‘products’ as if they were the poor cousins of drugs. Our focus in these times of transition is to rehearse our skills in preparation for energy descent, climate change, and the collapse of unsustainable bureaucracies and power structures.

The Herbarium is intended to form a repository of information and to hold a safe space for a free exchange of ideas. Access is open to the public as well as our fellow herbalists. This is in keeping with the Culpeper tradition – whenever the living tradition of herbal medicine finds itself beleaguered, we share our knowledge with the people at large, so that they can claim it as their own, use it for themselves and keep it alive and relevant."

It looks like an excellent resource.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Willow tincture

A reader asked a question in the comments about what I was going to use my willow tincture for. After the internet ate my response, which I had spent some time crafting, I decided if I was going to put the time in again, I might as well make a post of it!

The short answer is that I will use the tincture for pain relief.

Willow contains salicylic acid, which is anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Willow has been used since ancient times to treat fevers and ease aches and pains in muscles and joints. In the 1800's salicin was extracted from willow bark, which led to the development of aspirin.

Traditionally the dried, inner bark of the tree was used, but many contemporary herbalists now use the twigs, buds and leaves of fresh, spring growth. This is much less damaging to the tree and sounds like a good practice to me.

Much of the literature references white willow or Salix alba as the tree of choice in herbal medicine, but I plan to experiment with different types of willows. I'll let taste be my guide here. The bitter flavour of salicylates are easy to recognise so if the twig or leaf I'm nibbling on is strongly bitter, it is likely that the species has the active constituents from which to make medicine.

This article mentions crack and purple willow being used, and I've seen references for the use of black willow as well, though for different indications:

"To moderate sexual erethism, irritability, and passion; lascivious dreams; libidinous thoughts; nocturnal emissions; nymphomania and satyriasis; cystitis, urethral irritation, prostatitis, cystitis, ovaritis, and other sexual disorders arising from sexual abuse or excesses."


In fact many other trees like the poplar family and plants contain salicylates, although with varying uses, some more specific than others.

Research has shown willow to be effective for treating fevers, headache, back pain, neuralgia, joint pain and reducing pain and inflammation in conditions like arthritis, tendonitis and bursitis.

A few precautions to keep in mind: Some people are allergic to salicylic acid. Also, avoid use if you have ulcers. The general belief is that willow is safer than aspirin because it contains other plant constituents that protect the gut from the damaging effects of salicylic acid, however it is still best to use it in moderation. Do not take willow if you are on blood thinners or taking NSAIDs. Willow may reduce the effectiveness of diuretics and beta blockers.

I plan to use the dried twigs, buds and leaves for tea as well as tincture, though how water soluble the salicylates are, I'm not sure. I think a decoction may be most appropriate, simmering the plant material for some time.*

*Please note that I am not a trained professional. I'm just a crazy lady who really, really likes to play with plants and learn about their medicinal uses, both historical and contemporary. I am in no way qualified to diagnose or treat anyone (except for friends and family willing to be my guinea pigs. ;)) So be smart, do your own research and don't believe everything you read on the internet! :)

Image source

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Her Urban Garden

I found this sweet NFB short film by way of You Grow Girl.

"In this short film, Halifax gardener Carol Bowlby harvests a mouth-watering crop from her small backyard plot. In considering soil quality, lack of space and a short growing season challenges rather than obstacles, she offers a wealth of practical growing tips for urban gardeners. By heeding Bowlby's advice, bountiful organic gardens work equally well on apartment balconies, in small or large city lots or in a rural setting."

I was 8 years old when this film was made. While Mrs. Bowlby was growing 8 foot tall tomato plants and peppers by the bucket load, I lived in row housing on the shore of Lake Ontario. The parking lot was my back yard. Saturday morning TVO was my babysitter and I was crushing hard on Michael Jackson and playing with Cabbage Patch dolls, not cabbages. I think I'm definitely channeling Mrs. Bowlby much more these days! I wonder where she is now and what happened to her garden?