Monthly Archives: August 2010

Product Review: Dryer Balls

While not exactly herbal related, a couple of weeks ago, I posted a link about an eco-friendly item on my Facebook page (are you a fan, yet?). In case you missed it, the link is here.

Anyways, I was excited about this product. I’m always looking for ways to help the environment and cut down on my expenses. So, I ordered a pair of these recycled wool dryer balls. Service was prompt – I received a notice of shipment within a couple of hours of placing my order and they arrived within a few days.

Pros: at about 4¢ each for a dryer sheet, the balls would have paid for themselves in about five years – there’s only two of us so we don’t do a lot of laundry.  But in larger households, they’ll pay for themselves much quicker. Time is precious in our household and the balls cut down on the drying time by about 15%. Saves time and electricity. Plus, I’m lazy.  I just left the balls in the dryer. No remembering to put the dryer sheet into the dryer.

Cons: Fabrics aren’t quite a soft as with a dryer sheet or liquid fabric softener. The only thing about this that really bugs me is the towels. I like my towels fluffy soft. And today, with probably less than a dozen loads of use, I found wool pilling the same color as the balls (red & green) in with my dried (ivory) sheets. This makes me wonder just how long they’d really last.

So, my rating: 2 out of 5 stars. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any better experiences with them.

Juniper: Not Just for Gin

Throughout the US, Juniper is used as ground cover. Experts differ but existing records show between 52 and 67 different species. A member of the Cypress family, it is actually a shrub that can grow into a tree up to 25 feet high! The part you’re looking to use is the berries. It can take up to three years for the berries to reach maturity on some species, although the average maturity rate is 18 months. The berries are blue-black when ripe. Although all Juniper species have some medicinal qualities, the most widely-used is Juniperus communis.

Probably the best-known use for Juniper berries is as an ingredient in gin (“gin” is a derivative of the Dutch word “geniver”, or “juniper”). Gin was first distilled in Holland in the 17th century and was originally produced as medicine. (As an aside, what we know today as tonic water was originally known as quinine water and made from the bark of the Cinchona tree  – it’s synthesized today. So, if you’re a gin & tonic drinker, I guess you could use the excuse you’re taking your medicine?) Herbally, we generally drink an infusion, although with proper use the essential oil is a basis for several remedies.

An infusion of Juniper is made by crushing one tablespoon of berries in two cups hot water. Steep about ten minutes and strain. This infusion has long been used in Germany to treat heartburn, indigestion, urinary tract infections, and bronchitis. Juniper has also been credited with inhibiting several viruses, including the flu and herpes. If you are pregnant, nursing, or have kidney problems, don’t use Juniper at all, and it’s not recommended for children. Be aware that Juniper is a diuretic so if you’re taking it for a particular problem, be sure to drink plenty of water and eat a few bananas to replace the potassium you’re losing. Juniper may also potentiate (increase the efficacy of) hypoglycemic and diuretic therapies.

You can use Juniper essential oil topically (dilute well in a base oil such as grapeseed or almond) as an inhalant for colds & coughs – rub on the chest just like you would Vicks VapoRub. The diluted oil can also be used for certain skin conditions such as psoriasis. (Juniper oil can be toxic in small doses so don’t ingest it.)

If you’re really into sharp flavors in your cooking, Juniper berries can be used in poultry dishes and to flavor wild game. They’re an ingredient in many Scandinavian and German dishes, including sauerkraut (which, by the way, is also good for colds).

Juniper berries, when pierced and strung, provide a strong protection for valuables. Wrap your string of berries around your jewelry box or important papers. It’s also said that wearing that same string as a necklace will keep illness at bay as it banishes dark energies and attracts healthy energy. Burning the berries as “incense” will help increase psychic powers and break hexes & curses.

So, if you or your neighbors have Juniper helping to hold a hillside down, don’t let the birds get the berries! Put netting over them as soon as you see the berries emerge – the birds will eat even the green ones. If you pick them, be sure you’re at least 50-100 feet away from the road (so you don’t get the car exhaust fumes the plants will absorb) and if the plants are on your neighbor’s property, be sure to get their permission to pick. Lay them out on a screen to dry: they will take up to a month to dry thoroughly.

In the meantime, order me a gin & tonic with a wedge of lime, please.  I’ll be right there.

There’s Rosemary that’s for Remembrance

Most people know this quote from Shakespeare (Hamlet Act IV, Scene V). But why would Ophelia have said this? If I recall correctly, she was mad at this point and probably didn’t have any real reason behind the statement.  However, Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis has a long reputation for strengthening the memory. From this, it became an emblem of friendship and fidelity for lovers.  It is said Anne of Cleves (one of Henry VIII’s wives) wore a wreath of Rosemary at her wedding; we still use it in wedding decorations. It is used at funerals even today (especially in Wales) as a sign of friendship to the deceased.

Rosemary is an antidepressant and antimicrobial. In earlier times, it was both burned as incense and strewn in hospitals to purify the air and prevent infections. I put a few drops of Rosemary essential oil in the spray I use to clean the kitchen and bathroom. Things smell great and germs don’t like it. It’s also antispasmodic and a rubefacient (reddens the skin which means you’re stimulating blood flow in the capillaries close to the surface) so either using a Rosemary-infused oil or putting a few drops of the essential oil into a cream really helps when massaging muscle cramps and for nerve pain. Ladies, because it’s antispasmodic, a cup of Rosemary tea two or three times a day may help with those monthly cramps.

I use a diluted apple-cider vinegar infusion of Rosemary as a final rinse when washing my hair. The vinegar rinses out the last remains of the soap and Rosemary is great for dark hair (I do still have some hair that’s brown instead of gray). Maud Grieve says that Rosemary has the “effect in stimulating the hair-bulbs to renewed activity and preventing premature baldness … It forms an effectual remedy for the prevention of scurf (scale) and dandruff.”

Rosemary is originally a Mediterranean plant – it likes to be warm and somewhat dry. However, it grows well in just about any climate with care, including in a pot in your house.  If you choose to bring yours indoors, be sure they get quite a bit of sunlight wherever you place them. (Check with your local nursery for a varietal that is hardy in your area. My favorite is ‘Tuscan Blue’, which seems to be hardy most everywhere. It is the plant in the picture.) Although our winters aren’t nearly as bad as those further north, it gets cold enough to kill these warmth-lovers, so I make them their own little greenhouse for the winter with stakes and plastic.

The parts used are the leaves (needles) and twigs. It has a high volatile oil content, which is why it has such a strong smell. Even though you’d think from the aroma and the way it looks that it would be a member of the same family as pine trees, it’s not! It’s in the same family as mints. I find it easiest to use just the leaves so you can strip the leaves for use and then the twigs make wonderful kebab skewers.

Rosemary is a great protective and purification plant and makes a wonderful substitute for White Sage when you’re purifying an area.  An infusion of Rosemary can be used to purify magical tools and it’s suggested you wash your hands in a Rosemary infusion prior to performing healing spells. It can also be added to spells for fidelity or to strengthen mental powers.

Even if you do nothing more than inhale Rosemary’s wonderful aroma, I strongly suggest you make friends with this versatile plant.

The Hidden Side of Parkinson’s

I was brought up to not discuss my problems. I should keep them to myself and figure out how to solve them on my own. Probably not the healthiest way to deal with things and it really upsets my husband when I get quiet and don’t say why, but there you are. However, I have a problem I’m going to take public. You need to know.

Awhile back, I told you that my mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. By now, everyone knows that Parkinson’s causes uncontrollable tremors in the extremities: Muhammed Ali and Michael J. Fox have brought this part of a devastating disease into the public eye. But what they don’t tell you are the other symptoms: chief among them are personality changes and cognitive impairment. There’s also “bradykinesia”, which is stiffening of the joints, and handwriting changes.

I read a news article just a couple of days ago that describes the problem succinctly: with Alzheimer’s, the patient doesn’t recognize the family; with Parkinson’s, the family doesn’t recognize the patient. This is so true. To the outside world, Mom is still a cute, little white haired lady that walks a bit slow and doesn’t hear so well. The public and her friends don’t see that the woman who was my best friend for the majority of my life no longer really cares about much of anything unless it pertains to her specifically.  She doesn’t share my excitement that my book will soon be on the shelves; my joy in the twin grandsons my son and his wife have given me; or the anticipation of the next grand? that my daughter and son-in-law are expecting.

The woman at whose knee I learned bookkeeping can’t keep a checkbook and has spent herself nearly into bankruptcy. The woman who virtually raised me by herself and taught me that a butter knife can be both hammer & screwdriver doesn’t recognize that when the thermostat is set on 55 and it’s 80 in the house, something is wrong with the A/C.  The woman who used to dance with joy at the sound of bluegrass music can no longer easily get out of her chair. The woman who has been praised throughout her life for her beautiful penmanship now writes with a microscopic hand.

When I told you about her diagnosis, I said we were going to fight it using integrative medicine – the prescription drug that replaces the dopamine her body no longer manufactures, and herbs to support some of the symptoms. Knowing she has a bad memory (now), I wrote everything down. The problem is, she doesn’t read my note and forgets that animal protein interferes with her prescription, or that turkey, for example, is animal protein. If anyone has any suggestions about written instructions that might get read & followed, I’m all ears!

Initially I thought the personality changes were just due to her getting a little stranger in her golden years, especially after my dad passed. After all, my family has a history of “quirkiness”. (I can’t throw stones, here!)  But now I see at least some of those changes were early symptoms of Parkinson’s. It doesn’t make me feel any better but at least I know why she’s acting the way she is.

I usually deal with stress rather well. Frustration gets taken out via physical activity but it’s been too bloody hot to do much outside – my favorite way of working up a sweat and releasing stress. The house is about as clean as it can get! But as soon as I’ve calmed myself down from the latest whatever, I get another phone call.  She’s not to the point of needing assisted living so I’m stuck for awhile. Thank goodness for my husband, family and friends. Without their love and support, I probably would have snapped by now. (Yes, I know there are support groups.  Please see my statement in the first paragraph!)

The next time you hear a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, please be aware that it’s not just the tremors. There’s a lot more going on that the family has to deal with and they can use all the love and support you can give them.

Water: The Gift of Life

It’s raining!  We’re so short of normal rain for the year plus the extremely high temperatures we’ve been experiencing are drying everything out. Just a brief rain shower is enough to get me excited, although they haven’t been plentiful or long enough to keep me from having to move hoses around the garden. (Dang. It’s already stopped.)

Every animal and plant on this Earth needs water. Reptiles and desert cacti, too! They may not need as much as we humans or a rain forest plant but it’s a necessity for them, as well.

One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation had a crystalline life form calling the humanoids “ugly bags of water”. Not very flattering, but true. Our bodies are 55-78% water (depending on your age and fat content) so water is very necessary to our lives. Among other things, it nourishes cells, keeps the kidneys functioning properly, and keeps your skin in good condition which also helps eliminate toxins from your system.

As boring as it is, you should be drinking one-half of your body weight in ounces of water every day, e.g., if you weigh 100 pounds, you should be drinking 50 ounces of water. Notice I didn’t say “liquid”, I said “water”. Drink a glass of water as soon as you get out of bed in the morning because you haven’t had any to drink for several hours. I do this while I’m waiting for the coffee to finish perking. Keep a glass or bottle by you and drink from it all day long, if possible, because by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. This is especially important for people who work outdoors. You need to have enough water in your system to continue sweating, which is the body’s natural cooling system. We caffeine-fiends need to be especially watchful about our water intake as caffeine is dehydrating.

A note to athletes: if you drink sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade, alternate your sports drink with plain water. Those sports drinks dehydrate you, too! (I can remember being at a fencing tournament years ago. One of the finalists started cramping so bad that he couldn’t hold his weapon. He couldn’t understand as he’d been drinking sports drink throughout the day. The medic on site and I asked him about his water intake. He and his coach were surprised to learn he should have been alternating and why. He spent the night in the hospital getting fluids through an IV.)

You don’t need to buy expensive bottled water, nor should you buy water with additives – some contain sugar! (See here for an article about bottled water with additives.) If you drink city water from the tap, it might be wise to invest in a filter pitcher or tap filter. That will take out most of the icky stuff (like chlorine) cities put into their water to keep it “clean”. If, like me, you don’t like plain water, try adding a squirt of lemon or lime juice to your glass.

I discovered years ago that I didn’t need to drink nearly as much soda as I was wont to. It wasn’t the sugar I wanted, it was the carbonation! (Weird, I know.) You can buy carbonated water at the store but a much less expensive solution is to buy a home carbonation unit. The various companies sell them as a way to make homemade soda (with syrup mixtures they happily sell you) but we have only used ours to carbonate plain water. I’m down to one can of soda a day from five or six and our grocery bill, even considering the cost of replacement CO2 canisters, has dropped considerably. I’m healthier for it, too.

If you haven’t had even a short glass of water for an hour, get up from the computer and go drink one. You need it!