Foraging Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)

Foraging Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)

Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria L.)

Synonyms: Bishop’s Weed, Ground Elder, Jack Jumpabout

For foragers, this early part of the year, when Mother Earth is just awakening, is a delight. The first tender bits of greenery are poking their leaves through the earth crust, turning the ground green once more. This time of the year is particularly wonderful for foraging young and tender greens. One of the earliest wild edibles that you can always count on is goutweed. Although many gardeners hate it and consider it an absolute bane, I actually love it. There are few wild edibles that are so widely available, and so tasty!

A  gardener’s nightmare?

I am probably the only person ever to have said this! Ok, it is quite invasive. Trying to confine it to a particular spot in the garden is quite hopeless as it spreads via its roots. And when you try to weed it out you are sure to break them. But before you know it – hey presto! -it magically regenerates even from tiny bits of root that are left in the soil. It is truly resilient.

…Or a blessing? 

This resilience makes Goutweed one of the most abundant herbs.  In mild climates, it pops up as early as February and it is incredibly versatile. s. and can be used with just about anything. I have made soups and salads as well as fillings for things like empanadas, cannelloni and lasagna. Of course, you can just serve it as a green vegetable, or make a pesto with it. It is also one of the best candidates for the ‘greens jar’.

What is a ‘greens jar’

A greens jar is where all the surplus herbs end up when you have picked more than what’s needed for the next meal. I dry them, crumble them up and put them into the jar. I love this concept of an ever changing herb-mixture ready to use in soups and what not when those herbs are no longer in season.

What is Goutweed?

Goutweed is a member of the ‘Apiaceae’, also known as ‘Umbillifer’ or Parsley family. As such, it has many cousins that are commonly used in the kitchen, whether as a vegetable or as a herb or spice, such as Carrot, Fennel, Coriander, Parsley and Dill, to name but a few. However, do not let that deceive you into thinking that all herbs of this family are safe for human consumption.

A positive ID is key

Some members are extremely poisonous – such as, for example, the deadly water hemlock, the herb that killed Socrates. So if you intend to pick ANY of these umbellifers for food, make sure you are absolutely certain that you have ID’d them correctly – a mistake could be fatal and they are not the easiest family to ID.

However, you will be pleased to know that Goutweed does not look much like Water Hemlock, so the chances of mistaking it are quite remote. US-based foragers are more at risk of mistaking it for poison ivy. The leaves of both of these plants sprout in threes and are of a similar size and shape. One distinguishing feature is that Goutweed will NEVER grow like a vine. But poison ivy does not always grow as a vine either.

Distinguishing features

Once the flowers are out they are easier to distinguish. Goutweed has a typical umbel shaped flower while poison ivy has trailing flower clusters. Goutweed never develops any woody parts and older leaves are not glossy. Prior to unfurling, the very young leaves are shiny and bright green. Goutweed does not look hairy. It usually occurs ‘en masse’ and individual plants grow to about 50-60 cm tall.

Distribution

Goutweed is common throughout the temperate zone of western Eurasia and has been introduced to Britain and Ireland, to the US and Canada as well as to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and Japan.

History

While it is most common as a ubiquitous garden weed, it can also sometimes be found in the wild. These wild plants are garden escapes. Originally, the Romans spread it throughout northern Europe. In medieval times, it was commonly grown in monastery gardens. For a while, it was even sold at the market. But due to its invasive nature, it eventually lost favour with gardeners and was banned from their plots. And so, it escaped into the wild where it now mingles with nettles and graces damp ditches and partly shaded lanes.

Nutritional benefits and uses

As the name suggests, Goutweed has been used to alleviate the pain of gout. But this use has largely gone out of fashion with modern herbalists. Nevertheless, it is a useful cleansing herb, stimulating the processes of elimination. It is a diuretic, but it also gently stimulates digestive functions and metabolism. Nutritionally, it is a good source of vitamin C and A, and minerals such as iron, manganese, and copper as well as trace minerals such as boron and titanium.

Cooking with Goutweed

Goutweed is very aromatic and has a flavor that is similar to Parsley and Celery. It is very versatile and can be used like spinach. The young, still folded leaves are best. Older ones are tougher and develop a more pungent flavour. The nice thing is, even once it is harvested it will soon grow back 🙂

Recipes

 

Goutweed Soup

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • Handful of mushrooms
  • 2 large handfuls of young goutweed, washed well and chopped
  • Vegetable stock

Sautee the onions till soft. Add mushrooms and garlic. Add the potatoes and sautee for 3 minutes or so. Add Vegetable stock (about 1 litre) and cook the soup until the potatoes are soft. Add the goutweed and simmer for about 5 minutes. Puree, dilute to desired consistency and add salt, pepper, chilies or other herbs to taste.

Empanada filling

  • Onion, cut fine
  • Mushrooms, cut small
  • Tofu, crumbled
  • Garlic, minced
  • Goutweed, chopped

Make your empanada pastry (many people just use a basic shortcrust recipe, but feel free to make the dough as fancy as you like.) Chill in the fridge for at least an hour. Roll it out in 6″ diameter rounds.

For the filling, crumble the tofu and fry in a little bit of soy sauce until crispy. Set aside.

Sauteé onions, mushrooms, and garlic add seasoning

Add the tofu bits.

And finally, stir in the chopped goutweed and sauté until wilted. You should now have a pan full of delicious filling for your empanadas. Cool the filling for an hour or so.

If the mixture is wet, add some bread crumbs to absorb the moisture.

Preheat the oven to 350°F = 176°C

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper

Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of your empanada round and fold it over to make a parcel. Press together the edges, with a little water if necessary to make them stick. Glaze with egg-wash (egg yolk mixed with a little water). and arrange the empanadas on it. Bake for about 30 min.

No doubt you’ll come up with dozens more delicious recipes – that is the wonderful thing about things like Goutweed, which just provide you with a tasty, healthy green to add to just about anything.

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple is an iconic tree of the northeastern parts of the US. In the fall, when its foliage turns bright orange and red, thousands of people come from far away just to dee this fabulous color display. But that is just one facet of this beautiful tree with its rich and varied history.

Botany

Sugar Maple is a stately tree of the Acer family. It can reach a height of up to 130 feet. Its growth rate is relatively slow, however. A mature tree can reach an age of about 200 years. In the southern range of its distribution, it associates with Oaks, while in northern and northeastern regions, it grows among birch and beech woods.

Habitat and Distribution

The Maple Tree family is widely distributed throughout the world. Altogether, there are almost 200 different species and about half of them occur in the northern hemisphere. Most of them are indigenous to central and eastern parts of Asia but some are indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean. About 13 species, including the Sugar Maple, are indigenous to North America.

Its distribution ranges from southern Canada down to Arkansas, Tennessee, and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Sugar Maple is the dominant and most conspicuous tree of the eastern forests famous for its showy display of brilliant red, orange, and yellow autumn foliage.

Ecology

In the woodland ecology of the northeastern forests, Sugar Maple plays a key role. It provides nourishment for various species including the white-tailed deer and plays host to a number of insects.

Environmental factors are the main threat to the Maple population. The growth of mature trees is decreasing and ‘infant mortality’ among saplings is increasing, due to acid rain. Because of their shallow but extensive root systems Maple trees are especially susceptible to surface soil pollution. Global warming also poses a threat.

Pigmentation

The striking coloration is due to the breakdown and dispersal of chlorophyll, which reveals other pigments such as carotenes, tannins, and anthocyanin, which react differently depending on the pH level of the soil.

colourful maple leaves

History

Sugar Maple’s distinctive palmate leaf has gained world fame as the national emblem of the Canadian flag. It has served as the state tree of four US states (New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).

Economically, Sugar Maple is one of the most valuable hardwood trees of the northeastern forests of the US. Its wood has a fine grain and is lighter, yet stronger than that of White Oak, making it useful for the manufacture of many household items such as rolling pins, cutting boards, ladles, and spoons. Carpenters, woodturners, and instrument makers value its beautiful close grain. As a durable hardwood, it has also been used for floor boarding and skirting-boards, etc.

But Sugar Maple is one of the few trees whose most important economical role is not the value of its timber, but the yield of its sweet-tasting sap.

Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup

European settlers first learned about this sap and the technique for tapping it from First Nation Natives, who had been using it as one of their most important food sources for as long as anybody could remember.

Yield

When the snow starts to thaw and life returns to the woodlands, the tree sap begins to rise. Sugar Maple produces copious amounts of sap, which contains about 3% of sugar (on average). To produce 1 gallon of strong-flavored maple syrup requires 30 -4 0 gallons of sap. The sap is boiled down to evaporate the water and thus concentrate the sugar content. The ideal density of 66. 5%. sugar. At higher concentrations, the syrup begins to crystallize while at lower concentrations it can easily spoil.

An average tree yields about 12 gallons of sap per season, which can be turned into 3 pounds of sugar. Large trees (at least 25 – 30 inches in diameter) can sustain 2 or 3 taps. Younger trees with a diameter of 10-12 inches (at about 65 years of age) only sustain one tap.

Maple sugar is now produced on a commercial scale.  Enormous amounts of sap are tapped for local as well as for international consumption. Vermont is the largest producer in the US today, followed by New York and Maine. However, Canada is the largest producer worldwide, covering about 75% of the international demand. Other species of Maple also contain sweet sap and can be used to obtain syrup, although Sugar Maple is by far the most productive.

Traditional sugar camps

Maple Sap TapNative Americans set up semi-permanent sugar camps in the forests to which they traveled for the annual ‘sugaring season’ (from about mid-February to early April). The camps usually consisted of two structures: a small birch-bark-covered lodge where the utensils were stored and the sugaring lodge, which also served as a temporary living space.

Every year, before sugaring could commence, the sugar-making lodge had to be freshly restored and repaired. The lodge consisted of one or two platforms set up along the inside walls, while the middle was kept as the cooking space.

Each camp harvested between 900 – 1500 taps. To set up a tap requires a diagonal 4″ incision to be cut into the tree at about 3 ft above the ground. Perpendicular to the cut the bark was removed for another 4 inches and a 6×2” wooden spout, usually made of Slippery Elm was inserted below. Beneath the spout, a birch-bark vessel was positioned to collect the sap.

Sugaring-off

The taps had to be checked regularly. Once the container was full, their contents were transferred to a larger pot which was placed near the edge of the fire and slowly heated. This process, known as ‘sugaring off’ was a delicate affair requiring great care. It was done at low heat so as to avoid excessive frothing and bubbling.

Birch bark containerBefore there were kettles, pots, and pans made of metal, the Native Americans used birch bark containers and vats made from moose skins. To heat the syrup, they would place red hot stones into these containers filled with the syrup. These were then cooled in the snow. Once the water had frozen into a sheet of ice, it was simply discarded.

The fire was kept going all night and people took turns to watch over it and to attend to the sap, cooling it and reheating the syrup, all the while stirring it with ladles made of maple wood.

When the syrup reached the right consistency, it was strained through a basswood mat, or through a well-worn linen cloth. For the final sugaring-off, all the equipment was carefully cleaned and scoured. The syrup was reheated once more and some bear grease or deer tallow was added to render the sugar softer and less brittle. Gradually, the the mass thickened and stirring it with the maple wood paddle was getting harder. As soon as it reached just the right consistency, it had to be crushed quickly so as to pulverize it. If cooled beyond a certain point the sugar solidifies crushing it becomes much harder.

The settlers soon learned the technique and adapted it to their equipment. Although the tools have changed, the process is essentially the same except for some small modifications that have simplified the procedure.

For Native Americans and for some of the small family producers ‘sugaring off’ was not just a commercial endeavor. It was a cultural event, an integral and important part of the annual cycle, and a joyous, festive time that heralds the coming of spring.

maple sugar sweets

Other Maple delicacies

Some of the thick syrup was used to make special delicacies. It was poured into fancy shapes which solidified as they cooled down. Another special treat was known as ‘gum sugar, which nowadays is known as maple taffy. To make this sticky stuff, the syrup was poured onto the snow, where it quickly hardened. It was then scooped up and portioned into small packets wrapped in birchbark.

Sometimes it is poured onto vanilla ice cream. Once it hardens, it can be picked up with a spoon or stick to be eaten like a lollipop. The settlers added their own variations to the range of Maple products. Among them, is a thick spread known as maple butter, maple vinegar (which by all accounts appears not to have been too tasty, but is said to improve with the addition of whiskey), maple beer, and maple punch.

Maple SyrupComposition of Pure Maple Syrup:

The flavor, abundance, and exact composition of sap depend on environmental factors such as the weather and the pH level of the soil. Little snow and deep frost during the early part of winter, followed by heavy snow, were said to produce the best harvest. Rain changes the flavor of the sugar and thunderstorms are thought to ruin it.

In contrast to white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar are highly nutritious.

Carbohydrates (%):

  • Sucrose 62.65
  • Hexose (glucose, fructose) 0.5 – 3
  • Other trace sugars

Organic acids (%)

  • Malic 0.090
  • Citric 0.009
  • Succinic 0.007
  • Fumaric 0.004
  • Amino acids (%):
  • Phenols 300-960
  • Amino nitrogens 30-190

Minerals (PPM)

  • Potassium 1500-2200
  • Calcium 400-1000
  • Magnesium 100-300
  • Phosphorus 50-125
  • Manganese 5-80
  • Zinc 5-50
  • Sodium 1-25
  • Iron 1-15
  • Tin 0-25
  • Copper 0-2

Vitamins (micrograms/liter)

  • Niacin (PP) 276
  • Pantothenic Acid (B5) 600
  • Riboflavin (B2) 60
  • Folic Acid Traces
  • Pyridoxine Traces
  • Biotin Traces
  • Vitamin A Traces

 

Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans also used Sugar Maple medicinally. Particularly the Iroquois medical tradition made ample use of it. It is included in compound medicines to purify the blood, while a compound infusion of the bark was used as eye drops to treat blindness. They also used the leaves to prepare a decoction that was used as a wash to treat the affected parts of a skin condition known as the “Italian itch”.

Forest runners would take an infusion of the bark together with another plant for shortness of breath, while the inner bark was used as cough medicine. The dried and ground inner bark was sometimes used as flour substitute. A purple dye was obtained from the rotten wood but it was rare, as the wood is quite rot-resistant.

Maple autumn foliage

Potash

The white settlers soon found it more profitable and less bothersome to turn their stands of Maple trees to ash which could be turned into economically valuable potash. Maple wood yields a relatively large amount of ash (4% compared to only 1% of Douglas Fir). During the 18th and 19th centuries, potash was a valued raw material destined for export to England. It was destined for the British textile industry, where it served as a vital ingredient in the processes of making soap, glass, and gunpowder.

In 1751, Britain even passed an act in Parliament ‘to encourage the making of Pott Ashes and Pearl Ashes in the British Plantations in America’. An acre of woodland could be reduced to 2 tons of potash – with a tidy profit for the farmers. Sometimes, however, it was their only significant source of income: in 1800 a ton of potash demanded a price of $200 – $300. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson stopped all exports of any goods including Potash as a reprisal against the search and seizure of American ships by France and Britain – with the result that illegal export (i.e. smuggling) became even more lucrative.

Recipes

 

Maple Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 2- cups flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons powdered ginger
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Method

Sift together flour, soda, ginger, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg vigorously, and then stir in the maple syrup, sour cream, and butter. Mix cream and butter. Combine the flour with the other dry ingredients and then stir into the egg mixture. Pour into a greased flat pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350°F, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Maple frosting is a tasty option.

Maple Wine

From “Valuable Secrets”, 1809

“Boil 4, 5, or 6 gallons of sap according to its strength into one and add yeast according to the quantity you make. After it is fermented, set it aside in a cool place well stopped. If kept for two years, it will become a pleasant and round wine.”

Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentine’s day! Time to spread some loving!

One of the nicest things about February is not just the fact that March is around the corner and therefore spring is on its way, but that the inner tide is turning, too. Just as the sap is rising in trees, the love juices are also flowing within. It is a time to indulge in courtship and romance, to lavish buckets of romantic gooeyness on your significant other, rekindle an old flame, or perhaps to make an impression on someone that only recently caught your eye.

Who is St. Valentine?

February 14th is Valentine’s Day, a somewhat questionable Saints Day, which has its origin in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a festival of licentiousness. At first, denounced as a lewd pagan rite, it proved too popular to be suppressed. Thus, the old festival of love was dressed in a thin cloak of Christian piety and became the saint’s day of St. Valentine.

This Valentine was a fictitious figure who was said to have been executed just as his beloved received his ‘billet of love’ (a kind of little love letter, which has its modern-day equivalent in the custom of sending Valentine’s cards). This custom was also associated with the Roman festival of Lupercalia.

February – the month of Juno Februata

Incidentally, the word ‘February’ is derived from the name of the Goddess ‘Juno Februata’, to whom this month is dedicated. Her name contains the word ‘febris’ – meaning ‘fever’, which does not refer to a kind of divine flu, but to her fiery passion – the fever of love.

To this day, Valentine’s Day is celebrated as ‘lover’s day’. Here is a look at some of those age-old customs and their underlying significance and some suggestions as to how to stoke the fire of love.

say it with flowers

Say it with flowers

Flowers are still THE most popular Valentine’s gift, but which ones should you choose? Maybe draw some inspiration from the Victorian flower language, a secret lovers’ code that could be used to express very specific kinds of messages, so long as both parties were ‘in’ on the symbolism. If they were not, the message would either be lost or interpreted entirely the wrong way. Seen in this light, even Roses are not a safe bet. It all depends on the specific variety and color you choose. Thus, instead of conveying a message of love, it could mean something like ‘you are a pretty ditz’, or ‘you might be charming, but proud’, and ‘your beauty will not last’. To learn more, see this long list of flowers and their specific meanings, before risking a disastrous mistake!

Chocolate – always desirable

chocolate loveIt might be safer to ‘say it with chocolates’ instead. Chocolate is the other most popular Valentine’s gift. Although perhaps a little less romantic, it might be more enticing and less ambiguous. After all, Cocoa’s reputation as an aphrodisiac dates back to the ancient Aztecs.

Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, was a veritable cocoa fiend! He regularly downed his golden goblet full of foaming ‘xocoatl’ (=chocolate) brew, to invigorate himself before entering his harem.

Few of us today would find his recipe very tempting as it has little resemblance with our modern idea of what chocolate should taste like. But, it seems to have worked for him.

Incidentally, modern research confirms the ancient claim. Apparently, Cocoa contains a substance that has appropriately been called ‘Anandamide’ – alluding to the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’, which means ‘bliss’. Anandamide has anti-depressant properties that induce a sense of well-being and contentment. Cocoa is also rich in Phenylethylamine, which neurochemistry links to the feeling of euphoria so characteristic of the mental state of ‘being in love’. No wonder everybody LOVES chocolate!

A loving spoonful?

Peter's Chili‘Love goes through the stomach’, so they say. Those who find chocolates and flowers too ordinary might instead seek to impress their loved one with a particularly sexy dish, prepared with love, of course.

On scouring the literature one cannot help but be in awe at the amount of foodstuff deemed to have aphrodisiacs properties. Some of these appear to have gained that reputation on account of their appearance (who says placebos don’t work?), while others have a rather more direct, physiological effect.

In the category of visual aids are things like carrots, parsnips, asparagus, and bananas.

Things like piñon nuts, lady’s fingers, truffle mushrooms, oysters, and pufferfish, on the other hand, would hardly qualify if optics was the only criteria. Various spices, as well as certain herbs, have also long held on to their aphrodisiac reputation. Their volatile oil components are highly stimulating. Among these herbs are lovage, cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon. Garlic and chilies are in a category of their own. While not exactly seductive, they undoubtedly pack a punch. None fits both categories better than the gloriously endowed ‘Peter Chili’ – I mean, really, Mother Nature – was that meant to be a subtle hint?

Drinks

ChampaignContrary to popular belief, alcohol is not a suitable aphrodisiac. In fact, it is probably the worst thing you could drink if love is on your mind. While a little alcohol undoubtedly reduces inhibitions, too much of it has a desensitizing effect and is most likely to put you to sleep.

A non-alcoholic cocktail is a great, nutritious alternative that provides an energy boost and is very tasty, too.

Or, try a chai tea. This exquisite, richly flavored blend combines a whole range of warming aphrodisiac spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, and black pepper with black tea, milk, and honey.

Foraging Wintercress – Barbarea vulgaris

Foraging Wintercress – Barbarea vulgaris

Winter is a tough time for foragers stuck in a northern climate zone. Leaves have fallen and are buried underneath the snow (or, in the mud, at any rate). Berries, if there are any left on the bushes, tend to look wrinkled, blemished, and listless. Nuts have long been gathered and stored for later use.  Those that have been left on the ground are now riddled with worms. So, what is a poor northern hemisphere forager to do?

Well, she might make a beeline for the pantry, where hopefully, she will find jars filled with delicious preserves. Jams, pickles, and chutneys will bring back happy memories of happy foraging days spent roaming through the countryside. Picking the gifts of the Earth for drearier times to come – like these drab old winter days.

Each mouthful of these treasures will lead you down a dreamy trail, not just reminiscing about the summer past, but also of the one to come. Winter Solstice has passed. Although it does not seem like it, spring is nearer than we thought. Three months down the road we’ll be off again, picking the first salad herbs and enjoying the first gifts of spring.

Those who do not live in the permafrost zone may be lucky enough to find a few green things hardy enough to withstand the winter. Cresses, for example, have no problem surviving a mild winter.

Take Wintercress, Barbarea vulgaris – a typical cress, easily recognizable by its typical rocket-type leaves and flowers. This tough little plant can be collected throughout the winter. It can even stay green beneath the snow.

Wintercress is rich in vitamin C and A and was valued as an ‘anti-scurvy’ plant until vitamin C became readily available throughout the year, even in northern climate zones. If you have trouble spotting its large-leaved, deeply lobed rosette during the winter months, you will probably notice it as one of the first herbs that pop up in the earliest spring days.

The leaves are best while they are young and tender, before the plant starts to flower. Young leaves can be added to salads much like rocket (arugula), which has a similarly tangy flavor. As they age the leaves turn tougher, rougher, and rather bitter. If need be, they can be used as a potherb, although it would not be the most palatable one. Boiling the herb in several changes of water may reduce the bitterness, but it would also destroy its texture and diminish its nutrient value. Better just to use it sparingly and in combination with other, less flavourful herbs.

The cress family includes quite a number of herbs that are of interest to the forager. They all start to sprout early in the season. Here is a good page to help with watercress identification: Barbarea vulgaris ID 

Recipes

 

 

Sandwich spread

  • 1 egg (hard-boiled)
  • ½ onion finely minced
  • 30g mayonnaise
  • 100g wintercress finely chopped
  • salt, pepper to taste

Blend the egg and the mayonnaise to make a paste, add the onion, wintercress, salt, and pepper. If you don’t like mayonnaise try crème fraiche, instead.

Wintercress ‘Spinach’

  • 250g wintercress
  • Knob of butter
  • 1 onion
  • 20g sugar or honey
  • Salt, pepper, coriander, bay laurel, cloves

Wash and chop the wintercress. Sauté with the minced onion and spices with just a little butter. Add a small amount of bullion if need be.

Wintercress Salad

  • 150g Wintercress
  • 1 mozzarella cheese (200g)
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Vinaigrette
  • Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper

Chop up the wintercress, slice tomatoes, mince the onion and garlic and cut the mozzarella into cubes. Mix well and serve with a simple vinaigrette.

Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Plant Profile: Mistletoe – Viscum album

Mysterious Mistletoe (Viscum album L.)

SYNONYMS:

English: Bird Lime, Birdlime Mistletoe, Mystyldene, Lignum Crucis, All-heal,

German: Affolter, Donnerbesen, Heil aller Schäden, Hexenbesen, Nistel, Vogelleimholz, Heiligholz, Heilkreuzholz, Drudenfuss, Wintergrün,

French: Herbe de la Croix, Gui de Chêne

DESCRIPTION:

Mistletoe is an evergreen parasitic plant that sustains its greenish-yellow leaves throughout the winter. It becomes especially apparent once the leaves of its host have dropped. It certainly looks quite strange, this yellowish ball hanging high up in the tree.

Mistletoe’s growing habit is distinctly round. Its twigs bifurcate frequently, and its elongated, oval leaves always grow in opposite pairs. The tiny, inconspicuous yellowish flowers appear in May, but the translucent whitish pea-sized berries don’t ripen until late in the year.

Birds, particularly thrushes, spread the seeds. The fruit flesh of the berries is very sticky (hence the Latin name ‘Viscum album meaning ‘white sticky stuff’). The birds love those berries but the gooey stuff clings to their beaks which they clean by wiping them on the branches they happen to sit on. If the sticky stuff contains a seed then it has found a perfect spot to sprout. Soon it sends out a sucker rootlet that penetrates the bark and taps the sap of the host tree for nutrients and water. The berries, although loved by birds, are toxic to humans.

The Mistletoe is not all that choosey when it comes to its host. Although it is most commonly found on deciduous trees it is also occasionally found on conifers. The belief that it is frequently found growing on Oaks is a misconception that originates in the druidic lore. Druids always collect Mistletoe, which they consider sacred, from Oak trees, but it is actually rare to find it growing there. It is much more commonly found growing on apple trees, poplars, and lime trees.

Mistletoes belong to the family of Loranthaceae, which comprises some 75 genera and about 1000 species. Not all of them are parasitic but many of them are. Three Australian species are even terrestrial.

ECOLOGY:

Although Mistletoe is a parasite and as such is dependent on the host-plant for its nutrients and water, it does not rely on it for carbon dioxide. Since Mistletoe produces green, chlorophyll-containing leaves, it can perform its own photosynthesis. (Technically, it is thus a hemiparasite – it only partially depends on the host plant for its survival.)

As a rule, mistletoe does not kill the host-plant.

Mistletoe berries

HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY, AND FOLKLORE

The mysterious Mistletoe, airborne between heaven and earth, has always been a source of wonder. Where did it come from? How could it sustain itself, without roots, yet bear leaves and fruit, even in the winter, long after the life-force has retreated into the womb of the earth?

The Druids revered the Mistletoe as the holiest of holies, especially when it appeared oaks, their most sacred tree. The Mistletoe was their ‘Golden Bough’, the key to the heavens and to the underworld. The mysterious plant was regarded as the reproductive organs of Thor, the god of thunder, who also presided over the sacred oak tree. In the druidic tree calendar, December 23 belongs to the Mistletoe. It is the day on which it was ceremoniously cut:

Accompanied by prayers the chief druid would ascend into the tree to cut the unearthly Mistletoe with his golden sickle. Utmost care was taken to prevent the herb from touching the ground. The other druids stood below holding up a white cloth on which they caught the branches of the sacred herb. To mark the holy occasion they also sacrificed two white bulls, dressed with garlands.

Thus, the regenerative power of the solar deity was joined in sacrifice to the moon goddess as the female counterpart in this fertility rite. The blessing was meant to bestow abundance and protection against all evil at the birth of the new solar year. On this day the male and female forces of the universe were held in balance by the power of this symbolic union. By extension, this meant a harmonization of all opposites, a state of perfect balance at the turning point of the year. A festival of wild abandon followed the sacred sacrifice.

Much tamer and somewhat superficial remnants of these ancient and long-forgotten ritual enactments have survived even to the 21st century. Mistletoe twigs still hang above the entrance of the home at Christmas time, giving license to kiss even strangers, and thereby receive the blessing of the humble twig – even if nobody remembers why.

In some of the rural, more traditional areas of France young children can occasionally be seen spreading Mistletoe blessings on New Years Day. Running through the village, shouting ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ (gui de chêne – Mistletoe) they dedicate the New Year to the Mistletoe and thus invoke its protective powers.

Mistletoe was believed to fend off all evil, all bad spirits, and harmful witches’ spells. It was sometimes worn as an amulet for protection, fertility, and abundance.

Norse Mythology – Baldur’s Death

Norse Mythology reveals a darker, but related aspect of Mistletoe’s symbolism. The story tells of Baldur, the divine solar hero, son of Frigg and Odin, who was killed by a twig of Mistletoe. It is said that he would not return until after doomsday when he will bring in a new era of light, a new ‘golden age’.

The beautiful young sun god Baldur was plagued by visions of his imminent death. Obviously, he grew concerned. When his parents found out about his troubles they too grew concerned. But his mother Frigg hatched a plan: She would go on a mission to obtain sacred oaths from everything and everybody in Valhalla. And so she went to ask all the elements, all the stones, all the trees, the plants, and even the venomous beasts to promise that they would not kill her beloved Baldur. All swore never to harm the beautiful boy – all except one: the Mistletoe.  Frigg never thought it necessary to ask such a feeble plant not to do any harm. She simply did not think that it would be capable of such a deed.

Satisfied with all these promises Frigg declared her son invincible. Henceforth, shooting arrows and throwing stones at Baldur, none of which could harm him, became a favorite pastime among the gods. Indeed, taking shots at Baldur came to be a way to honor him.

But trouble was brewing in heavenly abode. The jealous God Loki somehow learned that the Mistletoe had never sworn that oath. Thus, he went straight to it and enlisted it in his wicked plan. With a sharpened twig of Mistletoe, he returned to the Gods’ assembly, where everyone was having fun taking shots at the invincible Baldur. Only his blind brother Hodur was left out. Slyly, Loki went up to Hodur, asking ‘why don’t you show honor to your brother and take a shot at him?’ ‘I can’t see and nor do I have anything to throw’, Hodur answered. ‘Here, I will help you’, Loki offered, passing Hodur the Mistletoe twig and helping him to direct his arrow. In an instant, Baldur was slain.

The Gods were aghast and horrified, shocked and angered, swearing to avenge the attack. One of Baldur’s other brothers was quickly dispatched to follow him to the Underworld. He was to plead with the Goddess of death, to allow Baldur to return to the heavens.

His plea was granted but under one condition: all the gods and all the other beings of the earth, living or dead must weep to express their sorrow. Or else Baldur would have to remain in the Underworld until doomsday. After hearing this, all the gods and all the beings of the earth, living and dead wailed and wept – all but Loki. And so it came to pass that we must wait for doomsday before the young sun god may return (which, judging by the way things are going, can’t be too far off…) .

This story follows the classic pattern of the solar hero myth, complete with the promise of resurrection and renewal after a period of darkness – a perfectly appropriate myth for the celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the birth of the Sun God.

Mistletoe in Christian Mythology

Thus it is not surprising that the Mistletoe also found its way into Christian mythology as well. It is said that the wood from which the cross was fashioned came from the Mistletoe and that this so upset the pious plant that it retreated into a hermit-like existence, taking up residency between heaven and earth, and becoming parasitic.

Mistletoe in Greek Mythology – Aeneas Journey to the Underworld

In Greek mythology, Mistletoe was also associated with the Underworld. Here, the sacred bough presented the key with which a living mortal could enter the Underworld and return unharmed to the world of the living. The story is told in the annals of Aeneas.

Using the powers of the golden bough the young hero Aeneas enters the Underworld with the ancient Sybil as his guide. His mission is to seek his father to seek his guidance and advice. Eventually, he finds him and receives his teachings concerning the cycles of life and death, for which he had come. Eventually, he returns safely to the world of the living. Mistletoe is the key to his destiny. It opened the gates to the underworld, where the hero is transformed. He returns to the world of the living, spiritually reborn.

Magical Powers: Protection, the key to life’s mysteries, fertility, abundance, blessings, peace, harmony, the balance of opposites, love, transformation. Astrologically this herb is governed by the Sun and Jupiter.

Mistletoe in trees

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves and Stems

HARVEST: Autumn, before the berries form

CONSTITUENTS: These may vary depending on the host plant. Viscotoxin, triterpenoid saponins, choline, proteins, resin, mucilage, histamine, traces of an alkaloid

ACTIONS: Anti-tumour, cardioactive, nervine, tonic

INDICATIONS: Stress, nervous conditions, heart problems, epilepsy

Internal Use:

Not only the myths and lore of mistletoe are interesting. This herb is also interesting from a medicinal point of view. Most notably it is recommended as a remedy for epilepsy, particularly childhood epilepsy. There are not many herbs that are indicated for this affliction. This treatment seems to suggest a homeopathic approach, as large doses of the herb, and especially the berries, actually cause fits and convulsions. At one point Mistletoe was considered specific for this affliction and was also used to treat various other nervous conditions, such as hysteria, delirium, convulsions, neuralgia. It was also used for urinary disorders and certain heart conditions, especially those related to nervous conditions (stress). In ancient times, mistletoe amulets were worn to ward off epileptic attacks (thought to be caused by possession).

Mistletoe has cardio-active properties that can strengthen the pulse and regulate the heart rate while simultaneously dilating the blood vessels, thus lowering the blood pressure. This alleviates symptoms related to high blood pressure such as headaches and dizziness. However, from the literature, it is not entirely clear in which form Mistletoe should be administered for this effect. Some sources claim that the cardio-active principle is only effective if applied by injection, while others recommend standard teas, tinctures, and extracts. One source states that the active constituents are destroyed by heat and should be extracted by means of a cold infusion. In recent years another interesting property of Mistletoe has caught the interest of science:  its cancer-fighting properties. Mistletoe is now regularly used as an anti-tumor agent in naturopathic cancer treatment,

Culpeper says:

‘The Birdlime doth mollifie hard Knots, Tumors, and Impostumes, ripeneth and discusseth them; and draweth forth thick as well as thin Humors from the remote places of the Body, digesting and separating them’

Recent research has confirmed Mistletoe’s cytotoxic properties in vitro and to some degree in vivo. It also stimulates the immune system response thus increasing the white blood cell count. Both of these properties have brought Mistletoe into focus as a candidate for Cancer and Aids research, which has lead to the development of a Mistletoe drug used in chemotherapy. Studies have shown both equal and better survival rates in patients treated with certain Mistletoe preparations compared to standard chemotherapy drugs. Most importantly, perhaps, the patients who had received the Mistletoe treatment have reported a better quality of life than the control group who had received standard chemotherapy. Mistletoe does not produce nausea and hair loss associated with other cytotoxic chemotherapy agents. However, a possible negative side effect of subcutaneous treatment is a local infection at the site of injection. For detailed study results check out:

Cancer therapy with phytochemicals: evidence from clinical studies

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418057/

Mistletoe is also said to regulate digestive functions and able to cure chronic constipation, probably via a stimulating effect on the gall bladder and the metabolic rate in general.

Older sources also recommend it as a treatment for sterility and menstrual difficulties. This would make sense where such problems stem from underlying nervous system issues such as stress, tension, hysteria, or fear.

External Use:

External use of Mistletoe is no longer common, but older sources describe the preparation of a  plaster (mix with wax to make an ointment) which can be applied to hardened swellings and tumors. Mistletoe can also be added to crèmes in order to soothe sensitive or sore skin. Such crèmes are disinfectant and soothing while reducing abnormal cell production. Mistletoe thus suggests itself as an additive for lotions designed to soothe psoriasis and anti-dandruff shampoos.

CAUTION: The berries are poisonous. This potent herb is not suitable as a home remedy. Consult a doctor or herbal practitioner before use.

The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The story of sugar is bittersweet indeed. It is a story of addiction that is responsible for millions of deaths, unspeakable suffering, despicable abuse, savage cruelty, ruthless exploitation, social injustice, ecological destruction, and last, but by no means least – a legacy of public health problems including dental decay, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, which combined cost millions of dollars in annual health budgets around the world.

The story of sugar can starts somewhere around 15000BC. Sugar cane is a tall reed and a member of the grass family. It originating in New Guinea, but it must have been pretty popular, even in prehistoric times as by 6000BC it had spread to India, China, and the Fiji Islands. The Arabs introduced it to the Occident and planted it in what is now Iraq and Persia. At that time, the Arabs were spreading throughout southern Europe, taking their most important food plants with them and traded in sugar, back then an expensive rarity that was mostly sold as medicine.

Sugar’s reputation as a medicinal substance actually has a long tradition. In Ayurvedic medicine, various forms of sugar were used for eons and still play a role as adjuncts to countless compound remedies. As early as 600BC it was mentioned in numerous ancient texts, where it is referred to as ‘Sharkara’. It was classified into twelve different types according to the quality. A thin type of reed known as Vamshika was considered ‘superior’ quality.

sugar

It appears that the art of making sugar was invented in India, in about 100BC. Originally the cane was simply boiled to obtain a concentrated, unrefined type of sugar known as jaggery or ‘gur’. Ancient Greek historians described it as ‘a kind of honey from a reed, produced without bees’.

A turning point came in 1097AD when some crusaders robbed a caravan in Palestine and made off with 11 camel loads of sugar. Very soon after, in 1100AD Venice became the most important trading port for sugar – and as a result, it prospered mightily!

But the competition was stiff, even back then. By around 1400AD, the Portuguese had taken over to become the biggest force in the sugar trade. In 1420AD they started to settle the island of Madeira, which they had only discovered the year before. Soon they had stripped the island of its natural vegetation in order to plant sugar cane. Of course, laborers were needed to do all the hard work.

That problem was solved by Henry the Explorer, who in 1444, on one of his voyages to circumnavigate Africa, had kidnapped a group of 235 natives from Lagos, which he had brought back to Seville. The Portuguese bought them as slaves to work in the new Portuguese sugar plantations. Columbus himself is said to have been involved in these early plantations. Soon after, the Canary Islands suffered the same fate. And, as we all know, it was from here that in 1493AD Columbus began his second voyage to Hispaniola, carrying in the vault of his ship some sugar cane cuttings- the beginnings of a very dark chapter of history that was to change the world forever. The story of sugar shows that European expansion did not happen haphazardly. It happened by design and should be regarded as a crime.

sugar harvest

At first, sugar cane was only planted on a fairly small scale, in Hispaniola. the biggest problem of the Conquistadores was that the native population was utterly unwilling and ‘unsuitable’ as a workforce. Work on the sugar plantation is very hard. Clearing land, planting, and harvesting by hand in the heat of the tropical sun was back-breaking enough, but processing the canes in the presses and boilers to make sugar is what became known as the proverbial sweatshop, and a dangerous one at that.

The natives simply refused, preferring to die rather than to perform the work, or if they were forced into this horrendous slavery, they soon died in droves from the inhumane working conditions. Within 20 years of Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola (now Haiti) the native population shrank from an estimated 800 000 – 2 million inhabitants to only 15000, and 30 years later they were completely annihilated.

To solve the labor problem, plantation owners imported slaves from Africa. Africans were brutally rounding up like animals, tied together, and marched for miles to the shipping port. How is it possible that human beings can be so cruel and heartless towards another fellow human being? The answer is denial by means of ‘dehumanization’. Europeans were high on sugar: they were greedy, power-hungry, and willing to sacrifice their humanity for profits. They simply denied Blacks the status of a human being.

They regarded them as subhuman and considered their lives to be inconsequential, except as a workforce. The brutal excesses of slavery are well documented and there is no need to spell them out in every bloody detail again. Suffice to say that over the course of 400 years about 20 million Africans were forced into slavery and transported across the Atlantic (several million more were sold into slavery elsewhere). Millions died from the unspeakably harsh conditions (20% of those that were captured never even survived the journey). In the 18th century, the value of one ton of sugar was considered equivalent to one slave. In 1801 alone, 35000 slaves died for the 70 000 tons of sugar that England imported that year.

sugar press

Sugar plantations dramatically changed the demographic face of the world. Over the course of 400 years, the native population of the Caribbean Islands was practically obliterated, Africans from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds were imported. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants followed and after the abolition of slavery, Chinese and Indians were lured in as a cheap workforce.

In 1747, a German researcher by the name of Maggrave discovered that sugar beets yielded a substance that was identical to cane sugar. Europe began its own sugar production, but it was only when Napoleon issued a trade embargo against products from the transatlantic colonies that Europe’s domestic sugar production really took off.

sugar plantation

Apart from the devastating human impact, sugar plantations also had dire ecological effects. Sugar demands good soil as well as plenty of water, and it is extremely hungry for expansion. Millions of acres of native forests were decimated to make room for this monoculture cash crop. Water supplies became polluted from the industrial waste and water tables sank. As in all monocultures, pesticides and fungicides need to be applied in vast quantities, thus further polluting the soil and the water as well as poisoning the workers.

Social injustice is programmed into each and every cash crop economy and the vestiges of unfair land distribution determine the political, socioeconomic, and demographic patterns in all parts of the world where colonial powers with their cash crop economies once ruled.

And yet, in comparison, sugar cane is easily the most destructive cash crop the world has ever exploited. Apart from the human and environmental production costs mentioned above refined sugar offers no nutritional benefit what-so-ever. It provides nothing but empty calories while causing major damage to our physical health. Yet, we classify it as a food. Health problems related to excessive levels of sugar in the diet, such as obesity and diabetes, are costing health services literally billions of dollars each year. Yet, sugar’s grip on society’s sweet tooth continues unabated – in fact, global sugar production and consumption are still steadily increasing. This sweet drug has driven the world economy for hundreds of years, and as we have seen, with disastrous consequences. It is not the sugar plant that is at fault, but our addictive minds.  Addiction and denial go hand in hand. As long as we refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem we can simply go on ‘as normal’, fulfilling the cravings while ignoring the consequences. Whether the object of desire is sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco – or oil, the patterns that drive consumption and ruthless exploitation are the same.

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