Foraging Ramsons

Foraging Ramsons

Foraging Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)

The birds have been singing on the top of their lungs, announcing that finally and irrevocably spring is here at last. It came in with a blast of flowers that seemed to be popping up all at once, and now there is a veritable flood of petals both on the ground and in the trees. It is a lush and exuberant time – sheer bliss for any and all nature spirits. And it is incredibly hard to stay put, in front of a screen.

If you have been out there enjoying this blooming bliss, you might have noticed that in some parts of the woods there is a strong whiff of garlic lingering among the trees. You probably will have smelled it long before you discovered its likely source – a small but prolific plant, with broad leaves and a single flower stalk that rises from the centre and explodes into a white globe of star-like, little white flowers. You have discovered Ramsons (Allium ursinum), also known as ‘wild garlic’. This is one of my favourite spring edibles – prolific, tasty, versatile and very healthy.

All parts of this plant are edible, but I usually only gather the leaves, in order to safeguard the wild stands of this herbal treasure. I also don’t take the whole plant, but only some, preferably young leaves from each.

The medicinal value of wild garlic is similar to that of cultivated garlic. It is rich in vitamin C and iron and makes a great blood cleansing herb. Ramsons have a long history as a vitalising tonic spring herb. It can help alleviate arteriosclerosis and reduce high blood pressure. However, be aware that large quantities can have a drastic effect on the digestive system. Ramsons are no longer used medicinally, but if you let food be your medicines, as Hippocrates recommends, then make ample use of wild garlic as a great spring tonic.

CAUTION:

Be careful to wash the leaves very well. Growing so close to the ground and often near a stream, the ramsons can be contaminated the eggs of the fox tapeworm, which can be very harmful (even fatal) in humans. Fox tapeworm lodges in the liver or lungs, but can reside there undetected for years. Foragers can get regular check-ups for this infection. Although blood tests are not 100% accurate they may give some indication. If detected early the worm can be treated/operated upon successfully, but if left too late, it can destroy the liver. This safety warning applies to all herbs, berries and mushrooms that grow close to the ground, which exposes them more easily the faeces of an infected fox. The eggs are pretty durable in cool, damp conditions, but sensitive to heat and drying.

Note:

During the last decade, researchers have made some important new discoveries regarding drugs for the treatment of ‘alveolar echinococcosis’, the disease associated with fox tapeworm infestation. They found that some cancer drugs are quite promising as both diseases share some similarities. The treatment has become more efficient but it is not 100% perfect. Surgery remains the most effective option to date.

But I don’t want to spoil your appetite or foraging passion. Infection rates are very low, even among people who spend a lot of time in the woods and have a passion for gathering from the wild. Drying or heating destroys most organisms. Just make sure to blanch the Ramsons leaves briefly, or at least, be sure to wash them VERY WELL.

Ramsons Pesto

Recipes:

Ramsons Pesto

  • 200g Ramsons Leaves
  • 200g Basil Leaves
  • 200g finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 150g Piñon nuts
  • Olive oil, salt to taste

Take the fresh, young Ramsons leaves and wash thoroughly. Briefly scald the Ramson leaves with boiling water. Take the same amount of fresh Basil leaves and place both in a blender. Cover with Olive oil and blend until smooth. Add 200g finely grated parmesan cheese and blend until smooth. Add some piñon nuts (or crushed walnut pieces).

This pesto is very versatile – you can stir it into freshly cooked pasta, blend with crumbly goats- or feta cheese, or, mixed with Ricotta, use as a stuffing for homemade ravioli, or blend it with cream cheese to make a tasty bread spread. I am sure you will come up with gazillion more tasty ideas!

Ramsons have a very strong flavour, which is why it might be a good idea to blend it with another herb. Basil works great, as the two complement each other well. Other herbs you can use are chickweed, dandelion leaves or lambs quarters. Sun-dried tomatoes marinated in oil also make an excellent addition to this pesto recipe.

Ramsons also complement fish dishes very well. Fish chowder with a few Ramsons leaves or bulbs thrown in is a delight. 

CAUTION:

Inexperienced foragers may confuse this plant with the poisonous Lily of the Valley, or Autumn Crocus leaves, which are also poisonous. However, Ramsons can be distinguished by the very distinctive, garlicky smell. If it doesn’t smell like garlic it is not ramsons. Once the flower head appears, there is no mistaking them. Learn how to identify them correctly before the flowers appear as that is the best time to collect them. The bulbs can be collected after flowering when the leaves have died down.

The  Camphor Tree

The Camphor Tree

Camphor constituent: essential oils

Parts used: essential oil, waxy crystalline flammable substance

Medicinal actions:

Used in ‘cold creams’ as an anti-aging ingredient. Stimulates the production of collagen and elastin.

Anti-inflammatory – applied to sore, inflamed skin (not on broken skin)

Pain relief for arthritic, or rheumatic pain

Antifungal – can be applied to toenail fungus. (Needs persistence. It can take up to 48 weeks  before positive impact is noticed).

Decongestant and cough suppressant – evaporate in oil diffuser during the night

Antispasmodic – can be used to relieve muscle aches and pains, cramps, sprains

Anti-viral – used to treat infectious fevers such as typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia.

Medicinal Action and Uses—Camphor has a strong, penetrating, fragrant odour, a bitter, pungent taste, and is slightly cold to the touch like menthol leaves; locally it is an irritant, numbs the peripheral sensory nerves, and is slightly antiseptic; it is not readily absorbed by the mucous membrane, but is easily absorbed by the subcutaneous tissue- it combines in the body with glucuronic acid, and in this condition is voided by the urine. Experiments on frogs show a depressant action to the spinal column, no motor disturbance, but a slow increasing paralysis; in mankind it causes convulsions, from the effect it has on the motor tract of the brain; it stimulates the intellectual centres and prevents narcotic drugs taking effect, but in cases of nervous excitement it has a soothing and quieting result. Authorities vary as to its effect on blood pressure; some think it raises it, others take an opposite view; but it has been proved valuable as an excitant in cases of heart failure, whether due to diseases or as a result of infectious fevers, such as typhoid and pneumonia, not only in the latter case as a stimulant to circulation, but as preventing the growth of pneumococci. Camphor is used in medicine internally for its calming influence in hysteria, nervousness and neuralgia, and for serious diarrhoea, and externally as a counter-irritant in rheumatisms, sprains bronchitis, and in inflammatory conditions, and sometimes in conjunction with menthol and phenol for heart failure; “

Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal

Camphor Tree – The Dragon’s Brain

The characteristic scent of Camphor is familiar to anyone who has had a close encounter with VapoRub, but few have ever seen the pure, white crystalline substance from which the scent derives. Still, fewer are aware that this mysterious substance is entirely natural and comes from a tree that is native to southern China, southern Japan, and Taiwan. The Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is closely related to the Cinnamon Tree, (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), with which it is sometimes confused. However, the unmistakable scent of the leaves immediately reveals its true identity.

In China, Camphor is known as ‘long nao xiang’, ‘the dragon’s brain’, but it is unclear whether the name makes reference to its powerful brain-fog blasting effect, or whether the use of Camphor may originally have been the privilege of the emperor, who is often referred to as the (imperial) ‘dragon’.

Camphor trees can become very old – up to several hundred years, in fact. Such tree veterans are a majestic sight to behold. They can reach up to 40m in height and develop a truly massive base. One tree, recorded in the prefecture of Nagasaki, was recorded to measure a staggering 16 m of girth. Hardly surprising then, that the evergreen tree is seen as an icon of vitality and longevity.

In China, Japan and India Camphor trees are sacred. They are planted for protection near dwellings, temples, and monasteries, and Camphor is burnt as incense in purification rituals or in pujas. Its pure, bright and smokeless flame is seen as a representation of Shiva.

During the 13th century, while traveling through China, Marco Polo reported seeing ‘great forests where the trees are found that give camphor’. At that time, Camphor had already been introduced to Europe, along with other exotic spices such as Cinnamon, Pepper, Cardamom, and Wood-Aloes. But the Camphor tree itself was virtually unknown. The precious substances reached Europe via the Spice Route and first found its way to the spice markets north of the Alps during the 10th century.

However, it took several centuries more, until the latter half of the 17th century, for the first trees to be introduced to Europe. But then they took the eminent Botanical Gardens of Europe by storm: They were planted at the Botanical Gardens of Padua, Leiden, Dresden, and the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Many of them are still standing now. Their import to Europe has had no ill effect on the local environment, but in more favourable climatic conditions, Camphor trees have been known to spread prolifically. In some parts of Australia and the southern United States, they are now considered an invasive pest.

Camphor Tree

In the Orient, Camphor is highly valued and has a long tradition of medicinal and culinary use. It is mentioned in various Arab and Indian cookery books, and in India, it is an ingredient of the Betel quid, a popular chewing stimulant.

In the West Camphor is better known for its medicinal properties. It is valued for its antiseptic and cooling properties and its ability to relieve pain and swelling associated with inflammatory skin conditions, chilblains, burns, and anal fissures. It is also used as a counter-irritant and applied topically to painful arthritic or rheumatic joints.

Added to a steam inhalation Camphor can clear congestion of the lungs, bronchi and nasal passages. In the past, it was used internally as an antiseptic digestive aid. Thanks to Samuel Hahnemann, the ‘father of Homeopathic medicine’ it became a lifesaver during the outbreaks of Asiatic cholera in 1831/32 and 1848/49. Having received first-hand reports from Russian colleagues, he treated victims at frequent intervals with a homeopathic tincture of Camphor – apparently with great success. Even allopathic doctors admitted that it was about the only thing capable of halting the progress of this lethal disease when administered during the early stages.

Camphor is an antidote to Opium and recipes found in ancient Arab manuscripts often combine both substances to alleviate some of Opium’s negative effects. During the Victorian era, camphor became popular among members of the upper classes, particularly in the UK, the US and in Slovakia. It was combined with milk, alcohol or consumed in pill form as a stimulating recreational drug. The effective dose is very small and said to produce a warm, tingling skin sensation, a sense of mental clarity, or ‘a rush of thoughts chasing each other’, sometimes accompanied by euphoria.

However, the bad news is, that larger doses can produce quite unpleasant effects: confusion, giddiness, accelerated heart rate, headaches, and even death. Thus, many countries have regulated Camphor. Today, most commercially available Camphor is synthetically produced and not fit for internal use at all. It is regrettable that a beneficial and medicinally useful substance such as Camphor should be disgraced and forgotten, despite the eons of safe use, just because some people have overindulged in it – to their own detriment.

Caution: Only Camphor that is clearly labeled as edible may be taken internally, and then only in tiny doses. Quantities of more than 2g can be fatal to adults. The lethal dose for children and youths is significantly lower.

During pregnancy and lactation, it is advised to avoid camphor products altogether. Due to its toxicity at a low dose, it should also be kept away from children. Some people have reported contact dermatitis from handling Camphor.

Plant profile: Turmeric – Curcuma longa

Plant profile: Turmeric – Curcuma longa

Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.)

Synonyms:

Curcuma (Sp. It. Fr.), acafrao da India (port.), geelwortel (Dutch), kurkum Arab. Manjano (East Africa (KiSwahili), haldi (Hindi) manjal (Tamil), kunyit (Indonesia) temu kunyit (Malaysian), iyu-chin (Chin.)

Description:

Turmeric belongs to the family of Zingiberaceae, the ginger family. Anybody familiar with this family of plants will readily recognise this kinship even upon superficial examination. Turmeric is an upright, relatively short and stout plant that rarely reaches more than about 1 meter in height. Its leaves are elongated, dark green and pointed, often curling slightly along the margins. Each individual leaf rises directly from the fleshy rhizome at the base. The rhizome appears scaly, due to the remaining rings of previous leaves. Its outer skin is brownish, but its flesh is deep orange-yellow inside. Rhizomes grow to about 5-8 cm x 1.5 – 2.5 cm. When bruised they omit a spicy scent. The flower stalk will appear among the leaves, also emerging directly from the rootstock. The cylindrical spike, which may be partially protected by a leaf sheath, bears the whitish-pink flowers, which spiral around the spike. Each flower is protected by a little ‘pocket’ called bracteoles. Turmeric mostly propagates vegetatively via its rhizome segments.

Habitat:

Turmeric probably originated in India and is thought to have derived from the wild species C. aromatica. The greatest variety of species is found in India, Sri Lanka, and the Eastern Himalayas. It is now common throughout Southeast Asia, China, and southern Australia and it is widely cultivated throughout the wet tropics, where it has naturalised. The lion share of all the Turmeric that is produced worldwide is grown and consumed domestically in India.

Etymology:

The name of the genus, ‘curcuma’ is derived from the Arab word ‘kurkum’. Most likely it found its way to the Occident with the caravans of Arab traders. Its Sanskrit name is ‘haridra’, which means ‘yellow wood’.

raw turmeric rhizomes

History and Uses:

Turmeric has a long history of use, not just as a spice, but also as a healing agent and a magical herb. As a spice, it is best known as one of the principal components of curry powder, to which it dons the characteristic yellow colour. Curry powder is often mistakenly believed to refer to a specific spice blend or to be derived from a single plant. Nothing could be further from the truth! There are dozens of curry blends that all vary in their composition. The best are those that are prepared from scratch for each individual dish. These spice blends are indeed a far cry from the generic mixtures found on supermarket shelves.

Here is one of many possible Curry powder blends:

  • 3oz turmeric
  • 4oz coriander (seed)
  • 1 oz black pepper
  • 1 oz ginger
  • ¼ oz cayenne pepper
  • ¼ oz cinnamon

This basic mix is often varied with cloves, cumin or cardamom. In India, fish is sometimes wrapped and cooked in fresh turmeric leaves to impart the characteristic flavour. As a spice, turmeric adds a warm, aromatic, slightly astringent note.

It is a carminative and stomachic that stimulates the digestive processes, soothing indigestion and reducing flatulence.

When Europeans first encountered turmeric they often falsely identified it as saffron. Although it makes a perfect food dye, its properties and flavour do not compare to those of saffron. In India turmeric is indeed widely used as a dye, especially for ritual foods that are offered to the Gods at the temples and as a textile dye (Buddhist robes are traditionally dyed with turmeric). Carbonate of soda helps to fix the dye, although it is not very permanent. Sometimes Turmeric is used as a cosmetic agent, and as make-up for weddings and other festive occasions. The food industry employs it as a colorant for cheese, sausage, and confectionery.

In folk-magic, Turmeric is linked to fertility. There may be a biochemical basis for this association, as medicinally it is used to regulate menstruation and to reduce menstrual cramps. It is also thought to have protective powers and is sometimes worn as a magical charm.

After harvesting, the root is cured for long-term storage. This will prevent them from sprouting new leaves. The traditional method of curing is to boil or steam the fresh rhizome in lime or sodium carbonated water. This cleans the root, stops all germination, gelatinises the starch and removes the earthy scent. After boiling, the rhizomes are dried in the sun and ground into powder. Modern preparation techniques use 20 g sodium bisulfite and 20 g hydrochloric acid per 45 kg of rhizomes, which are boiled in a kind of steam boiler. The result is a cleaner, yellow-tinted rhizome that is deemed ‘more attractive’ in commerce. The roots are then artificially dried, rather than sun-dried, which improves their quality and reduces the risk of fungal growth or other contaminants.

Medicinal uses

Parts Used: Rhizome

Harvesting Time: 7 – 9 months after planting (when the lower leaves turn yellow)

Active constituents: Volatile oils, terpene, curcumen, starch, albumen, curcumin (colorant) potassium, vitamin C

The essential oil of turmeric and the colour component are very light-sensitive and deteriorate quickly when exposed to light. Thus, it is essential to store the powder in a dark jar. A pale colour indicates that the active constituents have lost their potency. When purchasing turmeric pay attention to the packaging date as it rarely lasts for more than 3 months. Turmeric is insoluble in water, but soluble in alcohol. Preparing a tincture is, therefore, a good way to preserve the healing properties. When used in cooking, stir the powder into the hot oil before adding the other ingredients. This will transfer the flavours and benefits to the oil, which will then coat the other ingredients as they are added to the pan.

As its signature indicates, Turmeric is an excellent herb for the liver: It is used for treating jaundice and to stimulate the gallbladder. It is a great digestive aid and helps the body to break down and digest fatty foods. Clinical trials show that it reduces cholesterol levels. Turmeric also has germicidal properties. Its traditional indication for gastric ulcers may be due to its effectiveness in fighting the H. pylori bacteria, which has been identified as the major cause of gastric ulcers. (Munzenmaier 1997 )

In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is considered a ‘pitta’ substance due to its action on the digestive system, aiding the metabolic process and the absorption of nutrients. It is said to ‘stimulate the digestive fire’.

Some traditional healers use it as a remedy for treating cough or cook it with milk and other spices to ward off a cold.

Applied externally, in combination with Neem leaves, it said to be effective for treating ringworm and scabies. Traditionally it has also been employed in the treatment of eczema, leprosy and purulent inflammation of the eyes.

In Chinese medicine, it is indicated for shoulder pain, menstrual cramping, colic, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Recent studies have also found turmeric to be an effective agent to inhibit certain types of cancers. It has been administered both internally and externally to aid the healing of cancer lesions and scars. It is also used for reducing the odour of cancer.

Birch (Betula sp.)

Birch (Betula sp.)

Description:

The graceful birch tree has always held a special place in our hearts and minds. Traditionally she was perceived as a youthful Goddess of love and light. Yet, her soft feminine and almost fragile appearance belie her hardy nature. Birch is a tree of northern latitudes and unforgiving climates – common from Siberia to Scandinavia, Scotland, and England as well as North America, the Himalayas, China, Japan, and North Korea. Some species have traveled south, to the more temperate regions of the Mediterranean and beyond – almost all the way to the equator. But in the southernmost regions of her range, she prefers mountainous terrain. Humble and undemanding in her soil requirements, she will even make herself at home in sandy or stony ground. Yet, her special affinity lies with water and her preferred habitat is boggy terrain. Birch is a pioneer tree, who happily settles where other trees fear to set root. Over time she ‘cultivates’ such terrain, making it more arable and preparing it for other species to follow in her steps.

Her silver-white bark gives her a striking appearance. In youth, the papery bark peels off easily. It is thin, yet tough, and in the past, has in fact served as paper. As the tree matures the bark begins to form a layer of cork that provides excellent insulation and protects her against the cold. The young twigs and branches are reddish brown and very elastic. Early in the year, she is one of the first trees to put on her spring-gown of luminous and delicate lime-green leaves, triangular or heart-shaped in appearance and conspicuously serrated margins. Early in the spring, when the leaves first unfold, they feel sticky and are covered by a resinous aromatic substance with a balsamic scent.

Birch catkinsThe flowers are known as catkins. Both male and female flowers are present on the same tree, though they develop separately. The male flowers begin to develop in the summer, endure the winter and wait until the female flowers appear in spring. They court the wind as pollinator and distributor of their tiny winged seeds, which are so light that they may be carried for several hundred miles.

Birch trees can reach a height of up to 30m. They reach maturity after about 50 years but can live to about one hundred years.

HISTORY, LORE AND MAGICAL USES

The people of northern Europe have long been very fond of this beautiful, slender tree with its white, shining stem and graciously flowing branches. To them, it evoked the image of a beautiful young woman, which they identified with Freya or Frigga, their Goddess of love and fertility. The Celts, who were equally fond of Birches, identified her with the virgin Goddess Bridha or Brigid. Etymologically the name, ‘Birch’, derives from the Sanskrit ‘bhura’, meaning ‘shining tree’ – no doubt an allusion to the striking white bark and bright, golden autumn cloak.

In Siberia, Birch was regarded as the sacred world-tree and presented a bridge between this world and the realm of spirits and Gods. At first this may seem an odd choice, given the modest statue and strength of an average Birch tree. But it may be at least partly explained by the fact that in those remote regions Birch frequently was the commonest, if not the only tree around. Another reason may have been its universal usefulness: Birch provides medicine and nourishment and its bark and wood can be fashioned into a large number of utensils, from birch bark containers to coverings for lodges and even garments and shoes.

 

The sap is rich in nutrients and the inner bark can be ground into a flour to make ‘cakes’. This is considered famine food, the last resort when nothing else is available. But deer, and most importantly, reindeer relish this inner bark, which is their life-saving winter forage. In turn, the nomads depend on the reindeer, the sacred center of their world which provided them with almost all the essential gifts that made life possible in these inhospitable regions. The reindeer was a spirit guide and totem animal – and it also showed the people where to find their most important sacrament, the Fly Agaric. This conspicuous toadstool with its bright red cap and white dots atop forms a symbiotic relationship with Birch and are often found growing near them. Reindeer love this toadstool as much as the Siberian shamans do, who consider them as a sacred food of the Gods. They partook of it on special occasions, while honoring the Gods in ecstatic celebrations, or prior to going on a spiritual journey to ask for help and advice from the Gods. Thus, the Fly Agaric and the Birch tree have become closely associated and both are shrouded in mystery.

Some legends portrait Birch as a manifestation of the Goddess, who offers her milk to the shaman as an elixir of life, and some scholars regard the sacred mushroom as the breast of the Goddess from whence her milk flowed – and perhaps even the source of the fabled Soma, the sacred elixir of life and nectar of the Gods.

Fly Agaric

As one of the first trees to put on her spring-dress it is only natural that the Birch has always been associated with the life-giving power and has featured prominently in fertility rites and magic. Birch signals the arrival of spring and traditionally farmers observed her progress to determine when to sow their wheat.

In pre-Christian times, Birch played an important role in Beltain celebrations, which are traditionally held on the eve of May 1st. Throughout Europe, faint echoes of this pagan festival have survived to this day as rural May-Day festivals and pageantries. May-Day is the celebration of spring, of love, life, and fertility. On this day, the whole community, or sometimes just the young lads and lasses, go out into the woods to fetch the ‘May-tree’, which more often than not, is a Birch sapling. Much fanfare accompanies the procession upon their return to the village. The tree is decorated with colorful ribbons, shortbreads, and other goodies and is fixed to the top of a pole which is erected on the village square. In the old days, the raucous feast went on all day and often through the night, with much eating, drinking, singing, dancing and general merrymaking – much to the dismay of the church authorities. They tried hard to suppress these quaint old pagan celebrations but in vain. The dance around the Maypole is still popular in many rural areas, though modern celebrations are tame compared to those of the past and nowadays have been sanctioned by the church.

The fertility and life-giving powers of the May-tree Birch served as a ‘village charm’. A procession of singing and dancing folks carried it from house to house to bestow blessings and protection to all the village folk, their and their animals. Later, the custom evolved into a form of flogging, often referred to as ‘quickening’, which was based on the belief that the mere touch of the Birch twigs would bestow luck and fertility to those who came in contact with them. Thus the men of the village would take it upon themselves to ‘bless’ the women with these fertilizing powers by hitting them with birch twigs. All female inhabitants, women, girls, cattle and farm animals, all received the same treatment. Eventually, though, the custom changed and only children, mentally retarded people, and delinquents were given the Birch twig treatment, which was supposed to drive out the ‘evil spirits’ that evidently possessed them. Of these, the practice of chastising children possessed with the ‘demons of disobedience’ with Birch switches, has persisted the longest.

Birch regarded as a protective tree, able to ward off all kinds of daemons and witches. In a milder form of exorcism than that described above, Birch twigs were often pinned above entrances in house and barn to protect against and avert the evil-doings of witches and demons and to undo their spells and curses – especially those that caused impotence or made the flow of milk dry up.

In magical folk medicine, Birch was associated with ‘transfer magic’, and used to alleviate the pain of rheumatism. Three days before the new moon the sufferer had to go and plead with the Birch tree to relieve him from his pains. Certain prayers were solemnly recited and a wreath was wound by tying knots into the bendy birch twigs. It was believed that in this manner the painful knots of arthritis and rheumatism were transferred to the Birch tree, while the patient would find his limbs nimble and bendy, like Birch twigs.

GENERAL USES

Birchwood is light and rots easily, which makes it rather useless for construction work. However, the bark is extremely water resistant, a quality, which Native Americans have long put to use for waterproofing the roofs of their huts. They also fashioned special lightweight canoes as well as various domestic items, such as pots for collecting sap, or cribs to carry babies, shoes, lampshades and even toys from this versatile bark. In Europe, the twigs have mainly been used for thatching and wattle work or for making brooms. The brush ends of brooms, including those of witches’ brooms, were also partly made with Birch twigs.

In early spring the sugary sap rises in the stem. To tap it much the same technique is used as for tapping Maple syrup: a hole is drilled into the stem (1/2 cm wide and 3 cm deep), and a glass tube is inserted. One should not take more than 2-3 liters at a time and only ‘milk’ the tree once every two years. The hole must be sealed with special tree wax to protect it from bleeding to death. Ordinary candle wax is not sufficient, as it will just get pushed out again. This is best left to an experienced person as otherwise, the tree may suffer great damage or it may even kill it.

Birch trees also yield a resinous substance called ‘Birch tar’, which can be extracted from the bark. It is very rich in tannins and is used for curing leather. It makes an effective (and smelly) insect repellent and can also be used as a balsamic healing agent for all manner of skin sores including insect bites.

The inner bark is rich in sugars, oil and even contains Vitamin C. It provides welcome winter forage for deer and other rodents when everything else is covered under a blanket of snow. Native Americans used to prepare a type of flour from the inner bark, which could be used for baking. Birch is not often utilized as firewood, as it burns too quickly, but the bark makes excellent kindling and will even burn when wet. The smoke is a powerful disinfectant and when burnt as incense it ‘smoke off’ infectious micro-organisms. Native Americans often burnt thin pieces of birch bark in their ‘medicine tepees’, where the sick were isolated, in order to purify the air and kill off germs.

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves, inner bark, sap

HARVEST TIMES: Spring

CONSTITUENTS:

Leaves: flavonoids, saponins, volatile oil, tannin, resin

Bark: betulin (birch camphor), glycoside, volatile oil, tannin, bitter substances, resin

Sap: Sugar, organic acids, amino acids

ACTIONS: diuretic, bitter, slightly astringent

Birch leaves are very useful for their diuretic properties and can be used to help in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and gouty conditions. They also have a reputation for dissolving stones. In Russia, an old folk remedy for rheumatism was to completely cover the patient with Birch leaves, which resulted in a cleansing sweat and subsequent relief. The diuretic action also helps to relieve oedematous conditions and urine retention.

CULPEPER SAYS…

‘It is a tree of Venus. The juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterward; any of these being drunk for some days together is available to the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.’

A decoction of the bark can be used as a wash for impurities of the skin. Birch tar is often used as an ingredient of ointments for psoriasis and eczema.

The sap is a wholesome elixir that can be taken as a spring tonic. However, it has a tendency to ferment easily and is thus not suitable for long-term storage. It should be kept in a dark bottle and stored in the fridge. Adding some Cloves and a piece of Cinnamon also helps to prevent fermentation.

A compound tincture of Birch leaves can be used as a tonic hair rinse to promote healthy growth of hair.

  • 2 handfuls of Birch leaves
  • 1 spoonful of Arnica flowers
  • 1 spoonful of Nettle roots
  • 2 spoonfuls of Nettle leaves
  • 4 Cloves

Cover with 70% alcohol, steep for 3 weeks, strain and bottle. Massage into the scalp and hair as a conditioner.

Or, make a strong infusion with the leaves and add 1 part apple cider vinegar.

Native Americans prepared a mushy paste by boiling and pounding the bark so it could be spread on inflammatory skin conditions, ulcers cuts and wounds. This reduces swellings and prevents infection. They also extracted oil by boiling the wood and bark. It is very effective in fighting fungal and parasitic skin conditions.

The North American species are different from the European White Birch. Their bark tends to be darker and has a distinct wintergreen flavor. In spring,

New Englanders enjoy a type of ‘root beer’ made from the twigs and sap, which apparently is very powerful. Euell Gibbons gives the following instructions:

“Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into a bottom of a 5-gallon crock. In a large kettle, stir 1 gallon of honey into 4 gallons of birch sap and boil this mixture for 10 minutes, then pour over the chopped twigs. When cool, strain to remove the now expended twigs and return the liquid to the crock. Spread 1 cake of soft yeast on a slice of toasted rye bread and float this on top of the beer. Cover with a cloth and let it ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle. This will usually take about a week, but it depends somewhat on the temperature. Bottle the beer and cap tightly. Store in a dark place, and serve it ice cold before meals after the weather gets hot.” He also says, “Don’t’ have more than a couple of glasses of this beer as it has a ‘kick like a mule'”.

 

 

Rosemary – Rosemarinus officinalis

Rosemary – Rosemarinus officinalis

Rosemary, which has long been known as Rosmarinus officinalis, has recently been assigned to the Genus ‘Salvia’. That means, it is botanically grouped with the sages. However, the old name is still acceptable, but it is good to be aware of the name change, to avoid confusion.

Most of us know this woody, aromatic bush as a culinary herb, but in fact, Rosemary is so much more than that. It has some quite remarkable properties that are well worth remembering!

As a kitchen herb, Rosemary is an old stand-by: Rosemary potatoes, Rosemary chicken, Rosemary salt, Rosemary lamb, or Rosemary fish are all familiar menu items.  The needle-like leaves have a highly aromatic, somewhat medicinal scent. The flavour is distinctive, somewhat bitter, and resinous, which perfectly complements fatty foods. It ‘cuts through’ the grease. This is why it is used to flavor greasy meat and fish dishes and to aid digestion. Rosemary acts as a token apology to the liver.

Although it is an herb of the mint family (Lamiaceae), its thin, spiky leaves lend it the appearance of some kind of dwarf conifer. Rosemary is at home in the semi-arid climate zone of the Mediterranean coastal region. It commonly grows in the garrigue, the shrubland that covers the lower hills. Its scientific name – ‘rosmarinus’ means ‘Dew of the Sea’. It indicates that this herb likes to be ‘kissed’ by the salty mist coming in from the sea. Others have suggested that the name perhaps alludes to the light blue flowers. A bush that is profusely covered in flowers has the appearance of sea foam on the crest of a wave. Thus, Rosemary has also been linked to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the foam of the sea.

In the Mediterranean, it is one of the earliest flowers to appear in the New Year. Its pale blue flowers blush the wild coastal hillsides, spreading an aromatic scent that awakens the sleepy bees. Rich in nectar, Rosemary is one of their first sources of nourishment. The highly aromatic Rosemary honey is sold at local markets as a highly prized regional specialty.

Rosemary’s intense fragrance and aromatic flavor are due to essential oils, which are obtained not from the flowers, but from the needle-like leaves. As a key ingredient of the ever-useful herb blend known as  ‘Herbes de Provençe’ it is a quintessential item on the herb shelf.

Rosemary bush

Medicinal uses of Rosemary

This essential oil is also responsible for its medicinal properties. Rosemary oil stimulates blood circulation, particularly to the head. It has a beneficial effect on memory. In herbal lore, this property is associated with the remembrance of loved ones, and friends, and those who have recently passed away.

Rosemary’s bitter principle aids digestion. It ‘warms’ the stomach and stimulates the liver and gallbladder. It helps the body to break down fats and improve digestion.

It also shows anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Externally, a Rosemary infusion can be used to cleanse badly healing wounds.

Cooking with Rosemary

Rosemary goes great with roasts – whether you are roasting a goose, lamb chops, or a pan full of root vegetables, a sprig of rosemary transforms the dish and adds a complex, slightly bitter and highly aromatic flavor.

Purification

Rosemary has also long been used as incense, particularly in combination with Juniper berries. This tradition has continued into modern times. It is still sometimes used to fumigate and purify the air in a patient’s room. It is also popular as a cleansing aromatic that is used in sauna infusions, or to scent bath oils and soaps.

Restorative

Rosemary’ is a tonic and restorative. Its stimulating action on the blood circulation and coronary function and can restore vitality and strength to convalescents or feeble children. In the past it was also used as an aphrodisiac that had the reputation to restore a dwindling manhood. Recent research has shown that Rosemary contains

Cosmetics

Rosemary can be added to home-made shampoos or hair rinses. It will stimulate the follicles and promote hair growth. In the ‘still room,’ its essence would have been added to skin tonics, lotions, and oils.

Rosemary Hair Rinse

The simplest way to let your hair benefit from the tonic power of Rosemary is to simply make a strong infusion of 1 tablespoon of dried rosemary leaves to 500 ml of water – infuse with boiling water and steep until it has cooled down, strain and massage into the scalp. Leave it for a few minutes, then rinse it out. It is best when prepared fresh, but it will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Rosemary Shampoo

Unscented shampoo bases are readily available at many stores these days. Get one you like and add a few drops of Rosemary Essential Oil to it.

Recommended for brown or dark hair as it will naturally darken the hair over time.

Let them eat…beans?

Let them eat…beans?

Beans belong to one of the most widespread and diverse botanical families, known as the Fabaceae, or Leguminosae. They occur throughout the world as bushes, herbaceous shrubs, herbs, and trees. It is estimated that there are about 619 genera with about 18815 species (depending on who’s authority you accept). Of course, not all members of this large family are edible, but many are used in one way or another, as food, for medicine, as a dye, or for their oil. As a further boon, these plants are able to fix nitrogen in the soil (with the help of bacteria). This atmospheric gas is extremely important for plant life, but they can only absorb it from the soil.

 

Edible members of this huge family come in an infinite variety of colours, shapes, and sizes: peanuts, carob, lentils, chickpeas, green and yellow peas, kidney beans, runner beans, broad beans, black beans, mung beans – and, economically probably the most important of them all: the soybean.

 

Pulses, such as peas, chickpeas, and lentils are some of the oldest domesticated plant species. According to the archeological record, the history of their cultivation both in the Old and in the New World goes back 5000 – 6000 years (some claim even earlier dates).

 

Of special importance are the genera Vigna (Old World) and Phaseolus (New World). They have become so well adapted to our needs that they have lost the ability to disperse their seeds naturally. Originally, seedpods evolved to ‘explode’ upon ripening and drying. But if you have ever grown peas or beans, you will have noticed that modern varieties no longer do this. This is convenient for us but means that the plant/human relationship has become so tight that these species have become completely dependent on us for their survival.

 

What makes the pulses so important  as a food is their high protein content. Plenty of plants provide carbohydrates in the form of sugars or starch, but few provide protein in useful quantities. In regions of the world where other sources of protein such as meat or fish are not easily available, or are not used on religious or ethical grounds, pulses fill the gap. In combination with a staple, such as wheat, corn or rice, beans provide practically all our protein requirements.

 

But, because they are seen as a ‘lower value’ protein compared to meat, they have been stigmatized as ‘peasant food’. While the rich can afford to feast on meat, peasants have to make do with beans and rice. Another reason why they are not welcome in polite company is their ‘musical’ (and smelly) note. Interestingly, green beans are innocent of this effect and do not suffer the same kind of disapproval. Au contraire! They are much sought after in haute cuisine, while in ‘ethnic’ cuisines, rice and beans, refried beans, dhal, black-eyed beans, etc. feature as ‘soul-food’.

 

 

string beans

 

Considering our growing problems of food insecurity, climate catastrophe, and population explosion, beans may yet save our species. At present, most of the grain (and soy) is produced as animal feed, but this is a highly inefficient way of fulfilling the world’s protein requirements: it takes 7kg of grain to produce just 1kg of meat. Many more people’s nutrient requirements could be met if the land was used to grow food for direct rather than indirect human consumption.

 

It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss each edible member of the Fabacaea separately. Suffice it to say that there are enough varieties to try a different one for every day of the year.

 

But, this would mean cutting back on cattle farming just at a time when more people than ever can afford to buy meat on a regular basis. If trends in Japan can be regarded as indicative, the demand for meat will grow rapidly, especially among the middle classes of the emerging economies. In Japan, (traditionally a fish-eating culture) meat consumption has increased by 360 percent (!) between 1960 and 1990 (Shah and Strong 1999:19). Due to religious taboos this trend is less pronounced in India, but not elsewhere. 

 

Fortunately for our planet, vegetarianism and veganism are spreading, along with a general reduction in meat consumption among ‘flexatarians’. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is driving this change, but health concerns are one likely cause, while the other might be a growing awareness regarding the impact of a meat diet on climate change. Even the UN has called for a change in dietary habits in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Livestock produces 14% of greenhouse gases, second only to energy production and more than the emissions produced by all means of transportation put together.  Besides, methane, which is produced by cattle ’emissions’ (burps and farts, basically), has a far greater impact as a greenhouse gas than CO2).

America, Oceania, and Europe are still the top meat consuming regions of the world, on average consuming 3 times as much meat as Asia.

 

 

 

The problem with soy

 

Pulses are becoming increasingly popular and none more so than soy. They have been riding a wave of success. Along with wheat, maize, rice, and potatoes soy are one of the 5 top crops worldwide. Soy is also one of the most likely crops to have been genetically engineered. It is difficult to find any truly organic sources. The reason that the food industry loves soy so much is because of its versatility. Soy proteins and oils are used in an incredible range of things (not just food), which makes it a sure fire, immensely profitable crop. However, apart from the GM prevalence, there are a number of other concerns that suggest soy may not be the solution to all our woes.

 

Most soy is produced for animal food, and just as worryingly, for use as biofuel. This is marketed as a ‘green’ product, but nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the world’s soy is produced at the expense of rain forest, which is cut down to make way for the soy. (see The Perilous Progress of the Soya Bean)

 

Medicinal and nutritional aspects

 In addition to their excellent protein profile (17 – 25%), beans are also rich in fibre, which can help to reduce cholesterol levels. In themselves, they contain very little fat and no cholesterol at all. Thus, they are an excellent choice for a ‘heart healthy’ diet. Many types of beans can be sprouted and produce fresh, crunchy greens that can be used to top soups, sandwiches or salads.

Black beans are rich in anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Researchers have found that the darker the bean ‘coat’ the higher the proportion of antioxidant compounds. Thus, black beans lead the pack, followed by red, brown, yellow, and white beans.

They are also rich in vitamin B1, folate, molybdenum, manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, and iron. Soy is rich in calcium. However, there are some concerns over unfermented soy. Another health concern regarding soy is the fact that what ends up in processed foods are mostly isolated soy compounds, such as isoflavones. These act as endocrine disruptors and are considered detrimental to thyroid health. Caution is advised.

Medicinally, the husks of the Phaseolus species rather than the beans themselves are used. Dried bean pods are strongly diuretic and are said to be able to dissolve small gravel and stones in the urinary system. The decoction is recommended for edema, especially where this is due to general kidney or cardio weakness. Old herbals claim this to be the most effective remedy to release excess water from the body. It is thus recommended as a remedy for flushing out uric acid crystals and other metabolic waste products. This is interesting, as beans contain purines, (also found in meats and other foods), which the body breaks down to form uric acid. The shells, therefore, provide a remedy for one of the health hazards associated with excessive consumption of beans.

Such a decoction is also said to be useful for controlling blood-sugar spikes associated with diabetes and hypoglycaemia. Beans themselves are beneficial for diabetics as their energy is released slowly and steadily (low glycemic index due to high fibre content), rather than in one big rush as is common with simple carbohydrates.

 

mucuna pruriens

  

Mucuna pruriens, also known as cowhage or velvet bean, is not commonly used as food, although the young shoots and seeds can be eaten if prepared correctly. This interesting bean contains L-DOPA, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is occasionally used as a natural remedy for Parkinson’s disease, in which reduced dopamine levels play a major role. However, self-medication is not recommended, as dosing can be difficult.

The plant also contains dimethyltryptamin and has been used as an additive for ayahuasca preparations.

In traditional Ayurvedic practice, it is known as an aphrodisiac, a claim that is supported by a study involving rats. Apparently, their consumption of mucuna resulted in raised testosterone levels.

Indian medicine uses it to treat cholera, delirium, impotence, spermatorrhoea, urinary troubles, and to expel roundworms. An infusion of the ‘hairs’ that cover the pods is said to aid in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases. Externally,  it is applied as a local stimulant and mild vesicant (Parrotta:2001).

In magical herbalism, it is occasionally used in the practice known as ‘lucid dreaming’.

 

Caution:

 

Although mostly harmless, there are two diseases that are associated with the consumption of beans: favism and lathyrism.

 

Lathyrism is a condition that causes paralysis of the lower limbs as a result of excessive consumption of Indian Pea (Lathyrus sativa). This is not usually a problem when the pea is consumed as part of a normal diet. But in times of drought or scarcity when other foods are less available, it can become problematic. Indian pea, is extremely resistant to drought, and may be one of the few things around that are still edible. The paralysis can be permanent.

 

Favism is an acute anemic condition, which results from eating partially cooked or raw broad beans (Vicia faba). Even inhaling the pollen can cause this condition. Curiously, it only affects males of Mediterranean origin.

Pythagoras may have suffered from this condition as he vehemently rejected beans as a source of food. On the other hand, his objections may have had religious reasons. In Orphism, an ancient religious belief of the Greeks, beans are considered sacred to the Goddess and it was believed that each bean contained a soul. Or, Pythagoras might have considered beans too lowly a food, as even in his days, beans were regarded a peasant food.

 

The flatulence associated with bean consumption only occurs with dried beans. This is due to the fact that the human digestive system finds the oligosaccharides (a complex carbohydrate, which form during the drying process), hard to break down. The effect can be reduced by soaking the beans in two changes of water before cooking them. (soak, drain, soak again, drain, add more water, then boil ). Adding certain herbs and spices, such as epazote (Mexican favourite), fenugreek, cumin, coriander etc. can also help to minimize the flatulence effect.