And in the middle of this dark month we have this celebration of love, Valentine’s Day. Whether this is a time of romantic spark in the cold or a guilt-inducing Hallmark holiday, you’ve got to wonder about the timing. Is it too much to bring in all those red hearts in this gray month? Whatever your answer, it is a good time to look into our hearts and remember our core.
For that is what is going to see us through the darkness – coming back into our core, remembering ourselves deeper and so having the patience to endure. Which brings us to today’s subject, embracing the contradiction of February. Let’s talk about aphrodisiacs and about loss and grief. Take what you need from this discussion, because without going through the darkness we won’t be able to recognize the light. And interestingly enough, it is the same group of herbs that can do both because both are times we need to open our hearts.
Rose is under-rated because it is too obvious, but for the same reason that smelling roses makes us feel good, tasting rose does the same thing.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a tree in the rose family that also has a great reputation for the heart. Some call it the “chief heart nourishing herb” in western herbal medicine. Traditionally, the berries are primarily used but recent herbalists have started using the flowers as well, and I have found them to be exceptional, perhaps even better than the berries for the emotional heart and also for lowering blood pressure. The berries still have lots of flavonoids, the chemical that turns the fruit red, which is a great anti-oxidant and a nourishing tonic for the blood vessels, so I usually combine flowers and berries.
But I do find Hawthorn flower to be especially amazing for opening our hearts to feel more and to move through our process more. It combines well with roses, as in Herbalist & Alchemist’s formula “Grief Relief” which also has Mimosa bark (Albizzia julibrissin). Mimosa is another great herb for love or for healing loss and grief; either way the experience opens us up to feel more. In my own Pine’s Herbals “Happy Heart” formula, we use Hawthorn flowers and berries, Rose glycerite, Linden, and Motherwort for both the physical and emotional heart.
It’s very interesting that most of these plants have a thorniness (Rose, Hawthorn and Motherwort). It reminds me of the “Heart Protector” organ in Chinese medicine, the part of ourselves that stands guard at the door of our innermost self and makes sure we only admit what will truly serve us. When our Heart Protector is out of balance we forget our appropriate boundaries and let in people and experiences that aren’t in our best interest. An important part of love, any love, is about balancing our inner and outer worlds, in other words about balancing opening and protecting.
The bark is also uplifting but penetrates deeper into our body. By circulating the Qi and Blood, it helps us move through places where we are stuck and nourishes the heart in the process. I use Mimosa bark to much success in formulas when people are stuck in a funk or a rut of melancholy that they can’t seem to find their way out of.
Let’s wrap up by talking about those all-purpose remedies, the adaptogens. Both Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Ginseng (Panax ginseng) are great tonics for the whole body, especially when people are feeling tired, overwrought and/or overwhelmed. But they are also great sexual tonics as well. Ginseng is more warming and Ashwagandha more relaxing and nourishing, so depending on what you need, either can help you rekindle your pilot light for a sweet night of togetherness, or they can help you have the energy and stamina to see you through the process of grief and release.
One last note – emotions are healthy when they are moving. Whether you are working through infatuation or grief, or just engaged in the ever-shifting dance of romance as we get to know someone more deeply, remember to move. Whether it’s yoga, qi gong, or just going for a walk, moving our body helps us move through stuck emotions. And breathe, always remember to breathe.
Whichever process you are going through, be brave, feel your feelings and listen to your deep heart – it never lies. As we move through the rest of the dark and the cold, remember to nourish and tend your inner fire deep within your heart, and use these herbs to help carry you through to spring-time and the return of the green.
Choosing the Right Herb – An Easy Equation, part 1
The beauty of plant medicine (and the challenge, I might add) is that herbs are complex, often with more than one use. And yet they are also subtle, meaning they are both gentler on the body than pharmaceuticals yet also deeper-acting. A good herbalist must know their herbs well, just as any craftsman must know their tools.
But it's not about learning more and more herbs – it is much better to learn a few plants very well than have a large but shallow materia medica. Each plant can be used to treat many things, and the more we are able to match the complexity of the herb to the complexity of the person, the better chance it will actually work because it will be more specific for their imbalance. Don't look for the “new best herb” - find the herb you already know that is best. The perfect herb for a person is often the herb that you have on-hand and best matches what you're looking for.
However, no matter how complex a problem is, once you answer three basic questions, you can come up with a short list of useful herbs. This creates an easy equation to narrow down your choices and create better results. And although it works best when you know your herbs well, to use this equation all you really need is a good reference book.
The basic equation is simple:
Action + Body System + Strength = Herb Choice.
FIVE FACTORS IN HERB CHOICE
Now you're ready to think about herb choices.
The simplest approach is to figure out which action is needed and the location in the body you want to affect. Look up an herb in any quality herbal book and you will see a list of the aformentioned herbal action terms (e.g. diuretic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, etc.) Many books will also have a complete list of these actions and their definitions. Then you need to figure out where in the body the herb has its greatest affect, what is its “system affinity.” And finally, how strong an herb it is. You will generally need stronger herbs for problems that are short-term (acute) and gentler herbs for chronic issues.
This will get you a short list of very good herb choices, and it is fine to stop there. To get an even more accurate herb choice, you can fine-tune your choices with three more elements. Namely, thinking about the relative strength of the herb (tonic, acute, or low-dose), its energetics (hot or cold, building or clearing), and any specific indications of the plant (additional attributes not obvious from the previous qualities).
This is our basic equation. To illustrate its usefullness, let's look at each of these steps and learn more about how to choose the most appropriate herb for a specific problem AND the unique person.
Most herb books will list the action of each herb and have a glossary to define these terms, so we won't cover every possible term here. Some terms are most likely familiar (anti-inflammatory, diuretic, expectorant, analgesic), and some are unique to herbal therapy (alterative, adaptogen, nervine).
Think about these as a short hand version of what the herb can do, its “resume” so to speak. You won't know everything about a plant by knowing its action terms, but it does give you a broad idea of the herbs actions, and these are the basic categories that most all herbalists use when beginning their herb choice.
So begin by thinking about what action is needed – do you need an anti-microbial herb or an anti-allergy herb? Someone with edema (water retention) might do well with a diuretic herb, someone with cramps could use an anti-spasmodic. We could go much deeper into treatment strategy and how that affects action choice, but that is beyond the scope of this introductory article.
Herbs tend to have an “affinity” for certain body systems (in old books this was called its “tropism”). So it's not enough to choose an anti-spasmodic for cramping – Black Cohosh is excellent for menstrual cramps, but Ginger would be a far better choice for cramping in the digestive system. Even within an action like “nervine” (a tonic for the nervous system), you could use Skullcap to relax tension from over-thinking, while Pedicularis would be better for muscular tension and over-use of the body.
This information is not always included in an herb book directly, so sometimes you need to read into the text and see what diseases the herbs treat, then think about what system that affects.
When it comes to the strength of an herb, I like to think about there being three main categories: Tonics, Acute herbs, and Heroic herbs. Although not every herb fits neatly into one of these categories, understanding the strength will help you better match the herb to the severity of the imbalance.
Tonic herbs are the backbone of modern herbal medicine. These are herbs that can be taken for long periods of time and create balance in the body, or nourish and tone either the whole body or one particular organ system. These herbs really shine in both preventative medicine and also in long-term care and healing of chronic disease.
Acute herbs are used for situations that are going on right now. When someone has a cold or a headache, or is in acute pain, then we reach for one of these remedies. They are more about treating an illness or symptom than about creating balance in the body.
Heroic herbs are strong herbs that have a strong effect on the body. We try to avoid these in general, but there are times when a very strong remedy is called for. They have the possibility of throwing the body out of balance, but they can also save lives. This type of healing, by the way, is the focus of modern medicine; whereas herbal medicine prefers using building and balancing herbs.
Here's an example. If it is flu season and your friends are getting sick and you feel like you've been working hard, you may want to take Astragalus because it is an immune "Tonic" that helps restore the strength of the immune system and build more white blood cells. But if you are already feeling sick, then it is too late to build. You need to fight the infection! So you could take Echinacea as an "Acute" herb to stimulate your immune system. Echinacea is better at getting the body going than at preventing disease.
If the infection got really bad, you could go for some of the heavy hitters, but don't use "Heroic" herbs unless you really know what you're doing. There are herbs like Poke root, Lomatium, and Coptis that could be used for bad infections, and antibiotics would also fall in the Heroic category as a substance that can kill infection but often has side effects.
If your herb book doesn't mention the strength of the herb, look at the dosages to get a better idea of how strong it might be. Since different herbalists use different dosing strategies, the best bet is to compare dosages within the book.
These are the 3 basic characteristics to think about when choosing an herb to help someone. This article will be added to and edited again in the near future, so let me know your questions in the comments section below, and I will include my answers in the next version right here.
You would think that breaking my first bone at age 45, I would at least have an interesting story to tell. Having scrambled up trees after shelf mushrooms, hopped across slippery rocks in fast-moving streams, jumped from boulder to boulder, and hiked many miles of uneven trails through the woods, and what happens? I slip and fall coming out the front door of a friend's house and break my lower fibula just above the ankle.
It does prove that there IS preventative medicine for fractures – when you are really exhausted from a day of work, just go to bed. Don’t try to keep doing things after you are just plain done for the day. And of course, we can all benefit from nourishing our bones (and teeth by inference) before something like this happens. Don’t wait until you’re 70 to start building your bones – keep nourishing them your whole life.
The great thing about being an herbalist is that when something happens in my body, I get to figure out the best thing to do, and then I get to teach others. This protocol I’ve come up with for broken bones could also be used to treat osteoporosis, osteopenia, or just to strengthen your bones in general. This information has come from books, herbalist friends and colleagues, my wife Karen Savage Shane, and other healers. And after a number of requests for what I’m doing, I am writing a blog so that we all can learn.
The part that has been the biggest challenge is having the patience to let my body heal. It’s been two months now and I am walking fairly normally at last, which has been hard enough to take, especially as it has been my right foot, my driving foot. But I am still reminding myself to keep taking the remedies, even though I fell so much better. Bones take 18 months to fully heal.
So often I see clients, and even myself, excited by the quick symptomatic results of herbal remedies, but get impatient with how long the deeper healing takes. And it does take consistency – tonic herbs are like special food. No one would think that eating one fresh vegetable a month would help much, and it's the same with herbs - it takes bringing herbs into your life to create healing.
So I have this to say: Thank you, oh clients of mine – I have such empathy for you right now! It is hard to take all those teas and make those dietary changes, and then keep doing them week after week. And I have also seen how much things can change when you do those things.
There are 3 main stages of fractures – Inflammation Stage, Reparative Stage, and Remodeling Stage. What’s most important is that we use one set of treatments for the initial Inflammation Stage, lasting about 2 weeks, and different remedies for the repairing and rebuilding stages that follow. For the initial stage, herbs can help reduce the initial pain and inflammation, and as the initial inflammtion goes down, there are many remedies and foods that can help rebuild and strengthen the damaged bone.
For the first couple weeks and especially the first couple of days, it is very much a first aid type situation. The first thing I did was take a homeopathic Arnica 200C (if you have Arnica 30C that works fine too, but 200C potency will be more effective). Karen is a trained homeopath, and she gave me Arnica 1M the first few days. The “M” remedies should only be used by an experienced homeopath, but can be incredibly effective. Arnica is a great remedy for all kinds of trauma – bruising, shock, sore muscles, dental surgery (I took it before and after my root canal), and yes, even broken bones. Please note that taking a lower potency like 30C after taking a higher potency like 200C or 1M will lower the healing effects.
I alternated the homeopathic with herbal tinctures of Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and Willow (Salix nigra) as anti-inflammatories, and occasional Chinese Corydalis (Corydalis yanhusuo) for the pain. I started taking Comfrey tincture (Symphytum officinale) internally as soon as the doctor said the bone didn’t need to be set. Comfrey is one of our best herbs for healing bone and tissue, both internally and externally, and is so good at healing bone that I wanted to be sure not to take it until the bone was set or I knew it didn’t need to be. Comfrey is safe for short-term use but caution should be used if taking it long-term because of possible liver implications. I also took a Chinese formula, San Qi 17, the first week.
Mostly I worked externally at first, using a combination of Chinese herbs, western herbs, and homeopathy. I did not, however, use ice after the first day. Chinese medicine says never to use ice on injuries because it causes the blood to form adhesions, slows down healing, and tightens the tendons and tissue. Though it can be useful in the first couple hours to stop the spread of inflammation, I never use ice after that because I want there to be a smooth flow of new nutrients into the damaged area, and that blood flow also allows removal of waste products.
That said, I rotated 3 different remedies externally: Traumeel (homeopathic blend of Arnica and other remedies), a Chinese liniment for trauma called Zheng Gu Shui (widely available at many health food stores and Asian markets), and a Comfrey salve. I also used DMSO with some of these remedies to allow the medicine to penetrate more deeply.
Within the first week, I started eating food and taking supplements to build bone and connective tissue health. After all, it's not just the bone that’s injured; there is always injury to the soft tissue, tendons and ligaments around a bone that’s been that badly injured.
To that end, I have been drinking a lot of bone broth (see recipe from previous blog on Winter Health), which provides some of the amino acids and proteins necessary for healing, as well as a wide variety of minerals that the bone needs specifically. It also contains glucosamine and chondroitin, found in the connective tissue of mammals, which you may know as supplements for joint health - but I always prefer food to supplements when available.
And there are also great supplements for bone health – I have been taking Vitamins D3 and K in capsules, and teaspoons of Calms’ powdered Magnesium in water. Vitamin C is also very important for bone health, but I have been getting that by eating a lot of fresh seasonal fruit. I’ve also been taking Gaia Herbs’ Hawthorn solid extract by the teaspoonful, which is helpful for its Vitamin C content as well as a very rich array of anti-oxidants to help quell the damage caused the by free radicals released in the inflammatory response.
I also took a liquid trace mineral supplement made by Clark's that I feel is very effective. You can find more information on that particular supplement here.
But in the end it comes down to actually taking the medicines. The best knowledge in the world won’t help if you don’t actually use it! It takes a while to build bone, and it can take a while to heal from chronic disease as well. Treating the initial injury is easy, but we neeed to keep nourishing and building so that we remain strong throughout our lives. And that is the ultimate lesson of herbal healing.
My most recent exploration into wild foods is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). An abundant plant over most of the eastern half of the U.S., it grows in fields and meadows in prolific abundance. Best known as the preferred plant of the monarch butterflies, it is also a tasty edible – as long as you know you have the right species. This is a tall plant with wide hairy leaves growing abundantly in fields. Some of the species that are native may have toxic glycosides, but they will also taste bitter, whereas common milkweed tastes like a yummy vegetable.
So last night I ate the young flower buds two different ways, first by boiling for just about 5 minutes and eating with a bit of butter and salt. This gave a sweet vegetable taste that reminded me of peas, but I can’t find the exact word for describing the flavor except for “Yummy.”
I also tried clipping the flower buds off the cluster and frying it with onions and asparagus, but the flavor got lost in the mix. Still, a great texture. For most of you reading this, you can probably find a nearby meadow or pasture and harvest as many flowers as you want to eat! Just don’t get that milky latex that leaks out of the stem on your nice pants. And wash your pruners or knife afterwards, or they will be sticky for days.
Another great edible this time of year is Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) which is a common weed of gardens throughout the U.S. This plant is in the same family as spinach, but it doesn’t have the same amount of iron as spinach. It has, in fact, about THREE TIMES as much!! In “Wild Edible Plants of New England” author Joan Richardson says it “even outclasses spinach as a storehouse of protein, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin C, and great amounts of vitamin A.”
As the season goes on, it gets eaten up, so when it gets to be about 2-3 feet tall, I cut it back and cook it up (it is also excellent but like spinach contains some oxalic acid which can contribute to kidney stones if eaten in excess). I cook it in soups or add it in after my kale has been cooking for 10 minutes because it cooks pretty quickly. Also great in stir-fries with other veggies.
Another great idea for getting wild greens into your diet is pesto. Most folks are stuck on the idea of pesto being about basil, but you can use whatever greens you like. One of my favorites is a spring-time nettles-chickweed pesto, which to me is the taste of spring (you could still enjoy it time of year up north perhaps, but it is too late here in NC). Lambsquarters makes a great pesto, mixed with some fresh olive oil, pecans and garlic. Don’t get hung up on the pine nuts either, by the way – though my favorite nut is pecans, you can save some bucks by using sunflower seeds or walnuts too.
So hopefully that gets you started on the wild foods train this summer. What are your favorite edible plants of summer? Leave a comment below and maybe I’ll cover it in the next blog!
The Lost Art of the “Depurative Cure” -
A Traditional View from Provence, France
The Lost Art of the “Depurative Cure” -
A Traditional View from Provence, France
The knifes and wicker baskets are lined-up on the table, along with a piece of bread with butter and lavender honey – my early breakfast. My grandma is ready too, wrapping a scarf around her head. She would not miss this outing for all the money in the world. She loves picking ceps (Boletus edulis).
My grandpa explains to me for the hundredth time : « you know how it goes with mushrooms. Once the sun is out, it’s almost too late to pick. The sun plays tricks on you. The shadows of the leaves create dark patches on the ground, and every patch will look like a cep to you. »
6:30 am. The car is parked at the bottom of the mountain chains of high Provence, near the village of Banon. We start the climb. We will walk for hours, at a very slow pace, on very steep hills of white and evergreen oaks.
My grandma expertly pokes around with her stick. How she knew where to probe under the leaves, I never knew. That stick mesmerized me. It had an intelligence of its own. She calls me. « Come over here, there is a bunch coming out! ». As usual, she gives me the privilege to pick the biggest ones, then she will clean-up behind me.
« Ah, that is what I was looking for! Look over here now. You see this plant ? C’est la marrube. Pick me a bunch will you? I will dry it for next April. » Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is reaching the end of its growing season, dried spiky seed buds, and sad looking leaves. It looks half-dead to me. « Why would you need that dead thing grandma?»
« Ah but la marrube, it is very good to cleanse the liver ».
« Why do you want to cleanse your liver grandma ? ». At age twelve, I am already influenced by the scientific skepticism of the 80’s. I love math and science. And I am not about to gobble-up everything at face value, even if it comes from my much beloved grandma.
« Well you see, during winter, people get lazy and they eat too much pork and sausage. They stay inside due to the cold weather. Too much going in, not enough going out. So the garbage accumulates around the liver, the liver gets big and dirty. Then the blood gets dirty. »
« The blood cannot get dirty grandma. Its inside our body. Dirt cannot get into our veins like that ».
She laughs. « Oh yes it can. If you have a tired liver, you get dirty blood. Now I cannot tell you why. I did not go to school and I don’t know much about how things work. But I know that spring calls for a clean liver and clean blood ».
How I regret not having picked her brain more, recorded her history, asked her about the plants she knew so well. The names still dance around in my head. Marrube, petit-chêne, scabieuse, immortelle.
But I know enough to revive that knowledge, to rebuild that history. This is why I moved back to Provence two years ago and restarted a clinic from scratch. To weave modern knowledge with the lost wisdom of my elders. To go back to my roots.
Dirty liver, dirty blood
As a clinical herbalist, I can finally explain why an overworked liver leads to dirty blood. Any doctor at that time, or even today, would dismiss that notion with a snort. But she knew better. We know better.
Old folks got dirty blood at the end of winter. Too much pork as she said, her way to express the overconsumption of preserved, salted meats. The under-consumption of locally grown fresh produce. The over-reliance on cereals and grains.
And then there was the “people staying inside” factor, something that only happened during winter months. In those hilly regions of Provence, there were still lots of shepherds, growers, lumberjacks, honey producers. And just like nature around them, they went through a slow and sleepy period in the colder months.
The spring awakening called for a cleansing. New energy could not be built on dirty foundations. The blood held the waste, the liver provided the spout into the outside world. Assuming that it got the appropriate stimulation to do so, the liver would open up that spout and evacuate as needed.
Around March or April, country folks would take a depurative plant for a duration of 2 to 3 weeks. All plants were taken as infusions or decoctions, two to three times a day. A batch of infusion was sometimes prepared in the morning for the whole day and the whole household.
I will not present to you the usual picks, because you know a lot about them already. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock (Arctium minor) were much used and much beloved. Instead, I am going to talk about some lesser known plants, those that fell into oblivion.
The Provence folks were very practical. And quite busy. They did not go on long hikes to pick plants from remote places. They picked whatever they needed around two locations: around the house, and along the path leading from home to work.
Just like in many other places, the women held the plant knowledge. They were the family herbalists and nurses. The knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, from grandmother to granddaughter. The men had little exposure to that knowledge.
My grandma took the time to pass bits and pieces onto me. But she did not attempt to transfer her whole experience onto the next generations. She felt that this was the end of a era, that the modern medical world was bringing promises of instant cures and miracle drugs.
The 1800’s and 1900’s were terrible periods for French herbalism. We did not have our “Eclectics”. Cazin left us one of the best herbals in 1850. Then nothing. Modern medical knowledge was taking over, and plants were discarded as folklorism without scientific background.
Maurice Mességué was a genius. He just knew what to use for what person. But his style was so intuitive that in my opinion, he did not leave a framework that can be taught. In the 20th century, the work of doctors Leclerc, Valnet and their MD students was admirable, but limited to plant-symptoms matching. Constitutional herbalism: no more.
In the age of information and connectivity, we can rebuild herbalism and propagate the knowledge back into the hands of French people. This is, at least, my humble intention.
Germander (Teucrium chamaedris)
Germander was one of the top depurative plants of Provence, particularly in the higher-altitude areas. It was used more than dandelion and burdock combined. The local name was “petit chêne”, in English “small oak”. If you look at the leaves, they indeed look like miniature versions of the white oak leaves growing in the region.
The plants growing here are very small and creeping. They are very easy to miss. If I take you for a hike through the hills, you will spot wild thyme and savory, helichrysum and rosemary, but you will probably step on germander. Once you start to see it though, you realize it is everywhere, tiny patches of dark green on the white rocky limestone slopes.
The wild plant is quite bitter. It reminds me of skullcap, bitter but with a green, nourishing undertaste, cooling to the nerves. It was used to adulterate skullcap after all. The aerial parts were cut during the fall, dried, and consumed at the end of winter for the required period of two to three weeks.
I was recently talking about this plant with the old shepherd living near my village. I buy sheep and horse manure from him for my garden.
“Do you know a plant called petit-chêne ?”
“Course I do”
“What do you use it for?”
“For joint pains and gout, for arthritis. It makes you piss.”
“Why would you need to piss if you have joint pain?” (me playing naïve)
“You want to piss out the dirt that gets stuck in your joints a’course”
He looks at me with the “duh!” look implying that younger folks ain’t learning anything anymore. Germander, as a diuretic, has a strong affinity for joint pain and swelling around the joints.
We do know today that Germander contains a non-negligible amount of the infamous P.A.s (Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, as are found in Comfrey – ed.). I have consumed the plant myself for my personal experimentation. But I do not recommend this plant in my practice, due to its levels of P.A.s. People have enough liver stress today without adding another source.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Horehound was a popular bitter-depurative plant. Not for digestive issues specifically. Outside of the occasional digestive upsets, old folks in my region were not digestion-deficient from a constitutional perspective. These were strong “red in the face” folks with strong appetites, performing tough physical jobs with a life spent mostly outside. They had predictable futures and a low level of stress overall. How things have changed…
Horehound’s bitterness and harsh taste may have provided too much of a digestive stimulation for some folks. And I speculate that things like over-acidity and a little stomach cramping during the cure were ignored or discarded as part of the cleansing process. Some skin break-outs were also encountered, and even expected as part of the depurative process. In those cases, the treatment was stopped for a few days, then restarted at a lower dose.
F.J. Cazin, French countryside doctor of the 19th century, writes in his famous 1850’s herbal that “marrubium shall be used in all atonic states of the mucous membranes, particularly of the digestive and pulmonary tract, for the weakened, the old, and the enfeebled by long term diseases”.
Further, he said, “its strong taste is a warning of its significant power, not to be used in any case of irritation or inflammation”.
I will add to that “not to be used in cases of mucous membrane excess” (from a gut perspective, over-production of digestive juices leading to true stomach acidity, as opposed to today’s hypo-acidity/deficiency leading to acid reflux).
Old folks did not seem to make a difference between bitter-digestive plants and depurative plants. Bitter-digestives, of course, do provide a nice stimulation to the liver-gallbladder organs. They enable us to “open up the spout” and evacuate liver waste through increased bile production.
But they also come with their own digestive energy that cannot be ignored. For certain people with good functioning guts, dandelion or burdock roots provide, in my opinion, a straighter liver stimulation without being irritating to the gut.
Scabiosa (Scabiosa columbaria)
Scabiosa, just like many annuals, starts with a very unnoticeable rosette. The plant can cover entire fields. And when you know those rosettes, you can already imagine the pink pompom flowers of later spring, mini cotton-candies on a stick, giving prairies and roadsides a light, fluffy appearance.
Scabiosa was used as a bitter depurative. But here is the interesting part to me:
- adults used a decoction of the roots
- an infusion of the flowers was given to children
Kids were helping adults in the field at a very young age. They were precious labor for the parents, and apprentices for the skilled masters. Parents gave them plants to ensure they also started the new season on a clean foundation.
Some plants were too strong for them. A horehound infusion would have made a lot of kids gag or even vomit. Scabiosa roots were considered too bitter. The flowers of scabiosa on the other hand were considered one of the gentlest of depuratives. They were used to get kids as young as 7 prepared for stronger-tasting plants later on in life.
The first time I drank a strong infusion of the flowers, I thought “wow, this is bitter!”. How could a kid drink that? But then you have put things back in context. Those kids were not living in an everything-sugary-sweet world. They were used to marked flavors. They could bite into a garlic clove without a blink. They were dewormed with artemisia infusions. So a scabiosa tea was probably palatable.
Good habits: light meals and sleep
During the depurative cure, folks ate lighter meals. They allowed their digestive tract to rest, and they let their liver focus on depuration and not digestion.
The liver gets two major inflows of blood. One from general circulation, one from the portal vein. Both mix before entering the liver lobules. The load from the portal vein, with its charge of unprocessed nutrients, takes lots of energy away from the blood-filtering function. Reducing the amount of food ingested during the depurative cure ensures that you give the liver most of its processing power to filter the blood.
The winter season was a period of rest and sleep, continuing into the early days of spring. The liver filters the blood best during “rest and repair” periods, the night being a significant one. Lots of sleep and an early light dinner means lots of opportunity for the liver to cleanse the blood.
This simple lifestyle advice is of course very much ignored today. Here in France, people eat dinner quite late, often around 8 or 9 pm. They go to bed late, and wake up early to go to work. They wake up toxic already, and they haven’t even started the day.
Every January and February, my dad, my uncle and I go dandelion picking at least twice a week. We pick bags of dandelion greens. Every evening, we eat a dandelion salad. This habit has been passed from generation to generation.
My grandma taught me this: you cut the whole rosette along with a tiny piece of the root. This enables you to (1) get the liver benefits from the roots and (2) allow the plant to regrow from the mostly intact root. I love it because it gives a nice crunchy feel to the salad.
Eating dandelion greens in the early months of the year is an integral part of the depurative cure. I personally crave it. But I am Pitta, always hot, always on the move. And definitely liver-hot, with my occasional outbursts and explosions. Dandelion, with its liver-cooling effect, is perfect for me. Just preparing the salad makes my mouth water. My wife, who has more of a Vata tendency, eats it in small quantities.
We know the leaves can be cold and drying. So how can we counter-balance that effect? Let us see the type of salad dressing Provence folks use for their dandelion greens:
- olive oil (warming)
- mustard (warming)
- several crushed garlic cloves (warming)
- lots of crushed anchovies
Olive oil, garlic, mustard - all interesting. But the most interesting part to me is the anchovies. They are very salty. And water follows salt. Anchovies create a water retention effect at the kidney level, countering the salt-leaching diuretic effect of dandelion.
No more peeing your brains out after the meal? Well, give it a try and let me know what you think.
Application in today’s world
These days, the body still goes through the rhythms of the seasons at a very deep animal level. But the body is also flogged into new patterns of abuse. It goes through “micro-seasons”, be it summer vacation with copious eating and drinking, periods of business travel, long-term chronic pathologies that create a tremendous recycling weight on the liver, or the regular toxic loads we ingest (food, pollution, cosmetics, perfume, etc).
So depurative cures are still very much needed. They just need to be tailored to the person, lifestyle and constitution. They can and, for certain individuals, should be used on a regular basis throughout the year, definitely more than once.
Old plants need to be revived, so that we have more than dandelion and burdock in our tool chests. During the cure, people have to reduce eating and increase rest. Who knows, maybe they will even start to enjoy that healthier way of living.
More and more kids can benefit from gentle depurative cures. They, too, get stuck into their own vicious and destructive circles: living in a sunless cave (bedroom with computer), eating dead food (cookies, chips and coke), and being sleep deprived. The liver gets hit hard. Asthma, eczema, allergies, pimples are all accepted as common children's conditions now.
On the other hand, depurative plants need to be used with care. In today’s world of mostly cold, dry and deficient people, a depurative cure may aggravate the deficiency. They sometimes need to be used in low doses, or be combined with the appropriate warming and moistening plants.
But informed reader, you probably know all of this already. My goal, through this article, was simply to share a bit of my history with you, and to remind you that old herbal wisdom should not be allowed die. Depurative cures have a bright future in front of them! They just need to be woven into new protocols that fit today’s complex world.
(This article first appeared in Plant Healer - www.PlantHealerMagazine.com)
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