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What I Made This Month: April ’16

As part of an ongoing effort to get my life as an herbalist more organized, I decided it would be fun to start keeping track of my activities from month to month. This information will be helpful for me long-term as I’ll be able to look back and compare seasonal milestones.

I hope that it also might benefit other herbalists–particularly those of us who haven’t been fortunate enough to have an in-person herbal mentor but have rather had to learn most of what we know from a combination of books and experimentation. While there are lots of great herbal reference books available today, I’ve found that there’s only so much detail their authors can fit in; for the sake of brevity and page count the real gems, the tips and tricks earned from years of experience, often don’t make the cut. For me, reading first-hand accounts from other herbalists has helped bridge some of those gaps so I hope to now contribute to that body of work myself.

 

Tinctures, Fresh

Cleavers (Galium aparine): Aerial parts, wildcrafted. Measured method (1:2, 100% EtOH). Cleavers is my go-to lymphatic herb and I found that I used quite a bit of the tincture with clients and for myself last year, so it was important to replenish my stock. The patch I’ve been harvesting from for the last several years wasn’t as prolific this season because the area was covered with wood chips last fall when we had some trees limbed up and that suppressed some growth. I made sure to leave an abundance of plants to flower and set seed, so hopefully the patch will be larger next year to support a bigger harvest for drying.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): Aerial parts, cultivated. Measured method (1:2, 75% EtOH, 25% H2O). We’ve had a very warm and dry spring, so the nettles started going to flower very early. I tend to err on the side of caution and don’t harvest any tops with buds, even if the flowers aren’t yet open. (After flowering, the calcium concentration in the aerial parts rises–which irritates the kidneys rather than supporting them.) I was, however, able to harvest a fair amount of leaf for tincture and drying, and I’ll simply focus this season’s efforts on the seeds and roots later in the year. Perhaps next year we’ll have a long, cool spring that will encourage a long leaf harvest season.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria): Leaves, cultivated. Measured method (1:2, 75% EtOH, 25% H2O). This harvest, along with the wood betony harvest, has been in the making for two years. I started these plants from seed in 2014, and they’ve just now reached a point where a sizeable harvest can occur. I absolutely love the fragrance of agrimony leaves–it’s a little sweet, but with earthy undertones. This is an herb that doesn’t seem to be very popular in the U.S., but which has a very long history of use in Europe. I’ve been waiting several years for this fresh herb tincture, so I’ll be excited to try it when it’s finished.

Wood Betony (Stachys betonica): Leaves, cultivated. Measured method (1:2, 75% EtOH, 25% H2O). Wood betony, like agrimony, is another that you really want to get fresh to tincture. Wood betony is slow to germinate and grow–it spent an entire year in pots before it was big enough to transplant–but now that it’s established in the garden it’s quite happy. It’s in the mint family but it doesn’t spread by rhizome. Wood betony is another herb that is highly esteemed in Europe, but doesn’t come up as frequently in the U.S. except, it seems, among those practicing traditional Western herbalism.

Violet (Viola sororia): Leaves, wildcrafted. Measured method (1:2, 75% EtOH, 25% H2O). Violet is a gentle herb that I’ve been getting to know a bit more lately, mostly due to the recurring cold and dry, hacking cough I dealt with over the winter. In the past I’ve harvested leaves to dry, but last year I purchased about 8 oz. of commercial dried leaf to use in client formulas since I’d run out of my own homegrown stuff, so I decided to focus on using that up this year and just making a fresh batch of tincture. The last time I tinctured violet leaf I was still using the folk method of tincturing, but in the several years since then I’ve converted entirely to the measured method so this is one I’ve been looking forward to making for some time.

 

Tinctures, Dried

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa): Root, purchased from MoonBranch Botanicals. Measured method (1:5, 50% EtOH, 50% H2O). I’ve spotted a few wild yam plants in our woods, but there aren’t nearly enough to harvest so I got some dried root from a small regional company that specializes in the sustainable growth and harvest of these types of woodland botanicals.

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus): Root, wildcrafted. Measured method (1:5, 50% EtOH, 40% H2O, 10% glycerin to keep tannins in suspension). Yellow dock grows all over the farm, but it’s often in compacted clay soil so I was glad to come across a large root that was growing on the edge of the garden and was easy to harvest without breaking. I still have some yellowdock tincture made from fresh root a few years ago, but wanted to experiment with a tincture of dried root and see how it compares.

 

Infused Oils

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Fresh wilted flowers, wildcrafted. Solar-infused in certified organic jojoba oil. For releasing emotional tension in sore muscles and for breast massage.

Cleavers (Galium aparine): Fresh wilted aerial parts, wildcrafted. Continuous heat in certified organic EVOO. For lymphatic massage and soothing inflamed skin conditions.

Chickweed (Stellaria media): Fresh wilted aerial parts, wildcrafted. Continuous heat in certified organic EVOO. For soothing inflamed skin conditions and wound healing. Chickweed is one of the trickiest herbs to infuse in oil because of its high moisture content. After straining I decant it several times to make sure there aren’t any water droplets left at the bottom of the oil–I lose some oil in the process, but better safe than sorry.

Violet (Viola sororia): Fresh wilted flowers and leaves, wildcrafted. Continuous heat in certified organic jojoba oil and EVOO. For lymphatic and breast massage.

Plantain (Plantago lanceolata): Fresh wilted leaves, wildcrafted. Continuous heat in certified organic EVOO. For wound healing.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Dried flowers, cultivated. Two jars, both solar-infused: one is certified organic EVOO only, one is a mix of certified organic EVOO and jojoba oil. For wound healing and lymphatic massage. I go through more calendula oil than any other infused oil.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria): Fresh wilted leaves, cultivated. Continuous heat in certified organic EVOO. I’ve not worked with infused agrimony oil before, but it was used traditionally for varicose veins and swellings, and at one point was considered a vulnerary herb (Grieve, A Modern Herbal). I was intrigued by this information because when I was harvesting the leaves I noticed they left my hands feeling a little like they do when I harvest calendula–resin-y and sticky. In calendula, that resin is a sign of its vulnerary, or wound-healing, abilities, so consider my interest piqued as to whether agrimony has similar properties.

Elder (Sambucus canadensis): Fresh wilted leaves, cultivated. My elders took a big hit during the drought last summer, and are not recovering well due to the hot, dry spring. They’re well-established, about four or five years old at this point, but compared to the wild stands they’re looking poor. I think I’m going to have to renovate them this year–prune out all the dead wood, top dress with compost, and mulch them heavily–so I don’t anticipate much, if any, of a flower or berry harvest this season. But I was able to get some leaves for infused oil. Elder oil is good at dispersing stagnant blood and fluids when applied topically, so it’s an important component of my bruise salve.

 

Dried Herbs

Nettle (Urtica dioica): Aerial parts, cultivated. Fresh weight: 1618 gm/57 oz. 80-105* F, forced air dehydrator. Garbled to remove stems, cut and sifted. Dried weight: 238 gm/8.4 oz. Over the past few years I’ve become well-versed in which herbs are good candidates for home drying and which aren’t. Good candidates are easy to dry and give a good yield, and nettle is one of those.

Cleavers (Galium aparine): Aerial parts, wildcrafted. Fresh weight: 158 gm/5.5 oz. 100-105* F, forced air dehydrator. Cut and sifted. Dried weight: 30 gm/1.1 oz. Cleavers, on the other hand, is not a good candidate for home drying but I persist in doing so because my home-dried cleavers are superior to what I can purchase in bulk. The trouble with cleavers is that they lose an enormous amount of water weight in the drying process, leading to low yields, they need to be dried quickly at high heat to avoid spoilage, and they’re difficult to garble. Still worth it, but with this year’s small harvest I ended up with a similarly small quantity.

Red Bergamot (Monarda didyma): Leaves, cultivated. Fresh weight: 84 gm/2.9 oz. 80-95* F, forced air dehydrator. Cut and sifted. Dried weight: 16 gm/0.6 oz. The bergamots are easy to dry but are labor intensive up front–with most herbs in the mint family I put the entire aerial parts into the dehydrator and remove the central stems when I garbled the dried herb. But bergamot has such thick and juicy stems that to dry them to completion would take a very long time compared to the relatively quick-drying leaves. So after I harvest the tops I use a pair of sharp snips to cut all the leaves off the stems and put only the leaves in the dehydrator while I compost the stems.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa): Leaves, cultivated. Fresh weight: 252 gm/8.8 oz. 80-95* F, forced air dehydrator. Cut and sifted. Dried weight: 56 gm/1.9 oz. At harvest time, the wild bergamot had a little bit of an aphid infestation going on (the ladybugs later showed up and fixed that for me) but it necessitated some quality control when I was removing the leaves from the stems. Neither bergamot variety is about to bloom, but they’re both prone to powdery mildew later in the season so I harvested early in order to get the highest-quality leaves. The red bergamot still has another leaf harvest or two in it, but this may be my one and only harvest for drying for the wild bergamot this year.

Agrimony (Agrimona eupatoria): Leaves, cultivated. Fresh weight: 334 gm/11.7 oz. 80-95* F, forced air dehydrator. Cut and sifted. Dried weight: xx gm/xx oz.

 

Speaking & Writing

“Branding Your Product & Farm,” SC New & Beginning Farmers Program: Teaching is an enormous investment of time and energy, so it seems fitting to include it in my monthly run-down. My April work in this arena wasn’t 100% herb-related, but it falls under the sustainable agriculture umbrella. I was asked to draw on my professional experience as a graphic design and as a full-time farmer and give a presentation about branding for students in Clemson University’s SC New & Beginning Farmers program. It went well–I included examples of both successful and unsuccessful farm brands/website designs and got the students to interact a bit by asking them to describe how those branding examples made them feel.

Untitled Article, edible Upcountry: I also began work on my next article for edible Upcountry, a local food and farming magazine for which I’ve been writing for several years. I’ve written several shorter articles for them in the 750-word range, but this is going to be another big feature article like my most recent “Appalachian Dark Arts” article, 2000-2500 words, focusing on a local dairy sheep producer.

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