Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Salsa Party!

Like so many things in life, canning with a friend is infinitely more fun than doing it by yourself!

With another friend's salsa recipe in hand, we set out for the market to gather all our ingredients.
Lots of hot peppers.

A 10lb bag of onions.

A bushel of tomatoes.
And then it was time to get down to business. We sat at opposite ends of the table in the backyard. We chopped and sliced and diced. All the while we chatted and gabbed. We drank coffee. After the coffee came the wine. The hours passed quickly.

Seven hours later we each ended up with over a dozen jars of tasty, spicy salsa. It was a great way to spend a day with a good friend.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Comfort and Joy

This is my favourite place in the city. On the grounds of the Billings Estate, tucked between a stone shed and a small house, there is a sweet, little medicinal herb garden.
A flagstone path leads visitors through the space.
Many of the plants have markers, which makes for some easy plant ID.

As small a space as it is, there are a lot of plants growing here.
Every time I visit, I stop to read this sign.

I love reading about Lamira Billings' plant wisdom, the respect the nuns had for her, and how she was able to heal when doctors could not. I want to be like her when I grow up!

I often wonder what her life must have been like.

(Ok. And so it is also possible that I imagine the life of her son Braddish- who bears a striking resemblance to a young Gabriel Byrne in my head. And maybe, just maybe, one stormy day as I'm walking through the herb garden on my way home from work, the wind suddenly pick ups, the sky turns a queer sort of colour and through some strange twist of fate and physics and a lightening strike, I am thrust back in time, where 'lo! there stands Braddish himself, gathering Lobelia to make an infusion for his sister who is desperately ill with pleurisy. Whereafter, the most sweeping and dramatic antics ensue, including me helping to save the sister's life, trying to get back to my own time, while realising that this may actually be the best way to deal with a future of increasingly limited resources, and Braddish and I gathering a lot of plants together in the fields and forests around the estate. It all culminates when I arouse too much suspicion from the locals after I slip and say things like, "Ok, look dude. This type of agriculture you've got here is going to be our eventual downfall, especially when oil comes onto the scene in a major way, and tractors get as big as your friggin' house. And don't even get me started on the Haber-Bosch process and what that's gonna do to humanity. So how 'bout you stop tilling the ever loving sh*t out of the soil, and do something really awesome, like grow a food forest?")

But I digress.

I have this herbal remedy for a cough powder copied down. I hope to recreate it one day. I wasn't familiar with some of the common names at first and had to work out what the Latin was for all of them. I learned that 'wakerobin' is Trillium, which I'll have to cultivate myself if I want to use it.

The pics didn't turn out very well, but this stunningly beautiful, yet deadly plant is Monkshood (Aconitum napellus.)

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

There's Tansy, true Solomon's Seal and unripe rose hips here.

A Lobelia (with bee)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Another Lobelia, Cardinal Flower (Lobeila cardinalis)

Silly flights of fancy aside, I'm so grateful to have this little space near my home, and to feel a sense of connection to the history of the people, place and plants around here.

Friday, August 12, 2011


I've had a fondness for Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), or as the ADG and I like to call it, s'mac, for as long as I can remember. It grows so prolifically in Ontario that many of my outdoor experiences include landscapes of sumac trees. Camping trips, long hacks on a horse (back in my horse riding days), nature walks, at the cottage, hiking...sumac is just always there.

Growing up, my dad showed my step-brother and I that you could suck on the berries for a tart and sour treat. I love the soft, velvety feel of the young branches. The autumn leaves are stunning and the bright red berries remain vibrant well into the winter when all else is withered and grey.

Later, I learned that those same tart berries can be used to make a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. Lots of people call the drink "sumacade." It's fun and easy to make and uses a local, abundant plant. It's high in vitamin C, making it healthy and nutritious too!

I collected some berry clusters last weekend and brought them home.

I wanted to preserve the berries by drying, so I could made sumacade out of season too. The berries are fairly easy to remove with a fork.

Into the dehydrator they go!

To make sumacade, you simply infuse the berries in water and add a sweetener to taste. I like to use maple syrup. Most people recommend using room temperature to cold water to infuse, as sumac berries are very high in tannins, which can impart an unpleasant bitter taste to the drink. In my experience, I find this all depends on the season the berries are harvested. Ideally, you want to harvest berries at their peak in late July to early August, after a series of dry days, as rain tends to wash the flavour out. I suck on the berries of various trees, choosing the best tasting ones. The more tart and sour the better. However these are the ones that tend to have the most tannins. For those I use a cool water infusion. If I happen to harvest berries that aren't at their peak, and aren't quite as tart as I would like, I find that a hot water infusion works ok, and isn't too bitter. It's definitely worth experimenting with and playing around, as a lot really does depend on the flavour of the berries, weather and when you harvest. So I wouldn't call the cold infusion process a hard and fast rule.

I strain the infusion through a coffee filter to remove the fuzzy hairs and other debris.

Now, I'm going to tell you something that I've never read in any of the guidebooks. The berry clusters of Staghorn sumac (I have no experience with other species, like smooth sumac), almost always contain tiny little, brown worms. I've tried harvesting at different times to avoid the worms, but if you want anything close to ripe, you're most likely going to encounter some worms. Just something to keep in mind if you're squeamish and this sort of thing turns you off.

So, I haven't figured out a way to avoid the worms all together but I've learned a few things about how to minimize worminess. Firstly, harvest berries as early in the season as possible, before too many worms take up residence in the clusters. Then, before you harvest, gently pull apart the cluster and take a look in between the berries. Sometimes you'll see the worms, but sometimes you won't. What you may find is evidence of worms, that is you'll often see their poo. It's dark brown to black and kind of grainy. So if I see worms, or lots of worm poo, I pass on that cluster and move on to the next.

In this batch that I harvested, I only ended up with about three or four worms all together, which I scooped out. Which is also why I like to remove the berries from the cluster, especially if I'm drying them, and also why I use a fine, mesh filter when I'm straining out sumacade.

If you're not too squeamish, with a little care and attention, sumac is an easy and lovely plant to collect, preserve and enjoy all year long. The beverage is tasty on its own or as a cocktail, think hard lemonade. I made a sumac liqour one year that I really liked. Unsweetened, infused sumac can also be used as a substitute for lemon or vinegar in recipes (though not for canning, which requires specific levels of acidity). In Germany, sumac is know as Essigbaum, which means vinegar tree. You can make sumac jelly too. Although another species is traditionally used in the mid-East, you can use dried and powdered Staghorn sumac berries as a spice.

Sumac has many wonderful medicinal properties. Matthew Wood refers to it as an Indispensable Drying Remedy, referring to the astringency of the berries.

A few cautions: There is a poison sumac out there, but the berries are white, and look nothing at all like the red berried species. Sumac is in the same family as cashews and mangoes, so people with allergies to those, should avoid sumac. Poison ivy is in this family as well, although recent research may break the family up into separate genera. Because of the high amounts of astringent tannins, excessive consumption of sumac may decrease the absorbability of minerals like iron, in the digestive system, something to keep in mind if you're anemic. But, the high amounts of vitamin C, help to buffer this effect. As with most things, enjoy in moderation!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Update on the Urban Physic Garden

Back in June I posted about the awesome Urban Physic Garden. I've been following along with their events and what they've been up to all summer. The project wraps ups this weekend with plant adoptions.

Being across the pond and all, I couldn't visit in person, but loved checking out the pictures and reading their blog.

I especially enjoyed the Virtual Patient Herb Walk and the post about Medical Edibles.

And I love these illustrations, one of which is pictured above.

This project is so inspiring and has got me thinking about how next year I think I might try and turn some of my allotment gardens into a mini-demonstration physic garden where I could offer herb walks and workshops. And planning for it will be a fun way to spend the cold, dark winter nights!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Easy Herbal Eye Wash

A bug flew into eye my while biking along the river on Saturday. I blinked repeatedly and my eyes watered until the bug was washed out. My eye felt scratchy and irritated for a few minutes and then felt fine for the rest of the day. However when I woke up on Sunday morning my eye was red and the scratchy, irritated feeling had returned. So I made myself an herbal eye wash.

In a small bowl I broke up and added a few plantain and violet leaves, marshmallow leaf, flower and bud and chamomile flowers. I poured boiling water on top, covered the bowl and let the plants steep. When the infusion was cool, I strained it through a coffee filter (an important step for anything that goes into the eyes!) into a cup. With a clean dropper, I flushed my eye with the herb infusion. (If you don't have a dropper, you could take a clean cloth, dip it in the infusion and squeeze the cloth to flush the eye.)

Within minutes most of the redness cleared up and I had relief from the scratchy feeling. When the scratchy feeling came back, I added a few more drops into my eye. At first, I was doing this every 10 or 15 minutes, but as the day wore on, more and more time passed without any feeling of irritation, and I only added drops every couple of hours until bedtime. When I woke up this morning my eye felt fine, with no redness.

Violets, marshmallow and plantain all contain mucilage, which is a gooey, slippery substance. Mucilage is soothing, cooling and lubricating and is well-suited to delicate mucus membranes, especially if they are dry, inflamed or otherwise irritated.

Plantain is also astringent, which tightens and tones tissues, and specifically in this case, reduced the redness in my eyes.

I love chamomile for eye conditions. It cleared up a case of conjunctivitis I had a couple of years ago, when I was really sick with a bad head and chest cold. It's antiseptic as well as anti-inflammatory, and I added it to prevent the possibility of any kind of infection.

I grow both chamomile and marshmallow, but violets and plantain pretty much grow all over the place, and are very easy to find. In fact you might even have some growing in your backyard, and just those two together would make a fine eye wash.

I actually have a generic bottle of eye drops in my first aid kit, that I looked at and thought about using. The drops contain tetrahydrozoline hydrochloride. A little research revealed that it is a vasoconstrictor, which means it causes blood vessels to contract, taking away redness. It should not be used for prolonged periods of time or in large amounts. Some of the side effects include, headaches, hypertension, weakness, sweating, cardiac irregularities, tremors, drowsiness, lightheadedness, and insomnia. It should be used with caution in patients with thyroid disease, heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes mellitus. It should never be taken orally, because it can cause severe nausea, vomiting, seizures or coma.

Uh, yeah. I think I'll stick with my herb eye wash thanks. It's nice to know that, if I wanted to, I could drink it. In fact, that combination of plants would make a lovely tummy tea, useful for nausea, vomiting, constipation, heartburn, colic, bloating and acid reflux. It'd be safe for children too. You'd never have to worry about leaving it out, and having the little ones accidentally get into it.

That's my kind of medicine!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Daucus Carota

The ADG and I became members of the Rideau Trail Association in the spring, and have been enjoying numerous opportunities to get some great hiking in. This past Tuesday, the group hiked to the Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park. The house was pretty, the grounds were lovely and the Abbey Ruins were cool, but what really took my breath away was this beautiful field of Queen Anne's Lace off to one side of the house.

I've never seen so much of it in one place. The spicy, carroty scent filled the air all around me. The setting sun turned the creamy white blossoms into golden lace. It was stunning.
Queen Anne's Lace is one of my favourite plants, for its beauty and for its edible and medicinal uses too!

Here are some good resources if you'd like to learn more about this beautiful plant:

Ontario Wildflowers: Queen Anne's Lace

World Carrot Museum (Includes some cool sounding recipes.)

Linda Runyon has an article on the edible uses of Queen Anne's Lace in this PDF newsletter

Wild Carrot (Daucus carota): A Plant for Conscious, Natural Contraception, Robin Rose Bennett

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Corn Silk and Goldenrod

I had my first taste of this season's local corn on the weekend and it was delicious! Nothing beats this time of year when the corn starts coming in. I'll often have a meal of just corn on the cob, dripping with butter and lightly seasoned. It's like candy, such a treat and something I look forward to every summer.

The other reason I look forward to corn season is for the silk. Corn silk has long been used in herbal medicine to treat and soothe all complaints of the urinary system, particularly UTIs and cystitis. Corn silk contains volatile oils, sterols and flavanoids among other constituents. It is diuretic, demulcent and anti-inflammatory.

Matthew Wood recommends corn silk for acute and chronic bladder and urinary tract irritation and painful urination.

Juliette de Baracli Levy treated the kidneys, prostate and bedwetting in children with corn silk.

Herbalist Charles Kane writes, "Corn silk tea is specific for the urinary tract. Not many other herbs can rival its focused soothing influence over the area. Use liberal amounts of tea for most any type of inflammation/irritation/pain centered around the kidneys, bladder, urethra, or ureters. For painful urination, be it from tissue irritation or outright infection, corn silk will give relief."

When I husk my corn, I gently collect and save the silk, drying it in my dehydrator or spreading it out on a clean dish towel in a cool, dark place with decent air circulation. I turn the silk periodically, and when it's completely dry I store it in glass jars to use in teas throughout the year. It has a very nice, mild corny taste that I really like.

To support a healthy urinary system, I especially like to blend my corn silk with goldenrod (Solidago species), a plant that grows abundantly around here and is just coming into season now. Goldenrod is anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and diuretic. It contains saponins, phenolic acids, volatile oils and flavanoids. Because it is antiseptic, it is great when a bacterial infection is present.

I suffered from recurring UTIs as a young adult and went through course after course of antibiotics. (Argh!! I have a rant about lack of education around antibiotic use and how it sets you up for more infections by wiping out good bacteria and leaving your system weakened and vulnerable, but I'll spare you.) As a result I ended up with a mild case of chronic interstitial cystitis, which is inflammation and ulceration of the tissues surrounding the bladder and urinary tract. Basically you get all the symptoms of a UTI, but there is no bacterial infection present. I manage it by drinking lots of water to stay hydrated and drinking corn silk and goldenrod tea. I rarely have flare ups now, and when they do occur they don't last very long.

So next time you're husking some fresh, local, non-GMO corn (and no one buys the pre-husked, plastic wrapped stuff right?), save your silk and dry it for tea. And don't forget to harvest some goldenrod while you're at it!

More information:


Paul Bergner's Materia Medica for the urinary tract

(The obligatory disclaimer: Please note that infections in the urinary system can be very serious, resulting in permanent kidney damage or failure if left untreated. Always seek professional medical assistance if you suspect an infection is present. But please also educate yourself about antibiotic use, urinary health and prevention and know that in a post-peak oil, zombie-fied world, you have options outside of conventional medicine, should you not be able to access it.)