Deborah J. "DJ" Martin

A Witch and a Bitch with an Herbal Itch - and an overactive imagination

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Month: September 2010

Have A Cuppa

Today would be a great day to cuddle up in front of the fireplace (lit, of course) with a good book and a pot of tea.  It’s been raining since early this morning (over 2″ thus far) and is cool and gloomy.  Unfortunately, life calls.

Although most people refer to any hot herbal beverage as tea, Tea is actually an herb. Its Latin binomial is Camellia sinensis. What you see on the supermarket shelves as “white”, “green”, “oolong” or “black” tea are all the same herb in a different phase of oxidation: the chlorophyll breaks down when exposed to air. White tea is made of immature leaves and buds processed immediately after harvest; green tea is wilted but hasn’t been left to oxidize; oolong is wilted and partially oxidized; and black tea is wilted and fully oxidized. Many of the American brands are “Orange Pekoe”. This is a grade of black tea and doesn’t have any orange flavoring at all. Some think the “Orange” comes from when the Dutch (House of Orange) were the largest importers of tea from China.

While the Japanese and Chinese have been drinking green tea for centuries and the British got addicted to it (bringing that addiction with them to America), it’s only been in recent years that Tea has really hit mainstream America as an alternative to coffee. Green tea has been in the news quite a bit lately. Who knew that a “cuppa” would have so many health benefits?

Tea, especially white and green, contains powerful antioxidants, most notably ECGC (and the commercial packaging will remind you if you forget). Oolong and black don’t have as much of this compound – oxidation destroys some of it.

Because of the antioxidants, Tea has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and many types of stroke. It does so by lowering cholesterol levels in the blood and preventing the buildup of fatty deposits on artery walls. Studies have shown that green tea also helps reduce the risk of most types of cancer. It may also help with diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, eczema and even tooth decay. There is a study out suggesting that drinking green tea may help with the memory problems associated with sleep deprivation caused by Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

To get all the health benefits from your tea, drink about two cups per day and don’t dilute with milk, which neutralizes many of the antioxidant compounds (a blow to the British, I’m sure). Bear in mind that Tea does have caffeine (about half of what’s in a cup of coffee) so if you’re sensitive to that, don’t overdo it. Because I’m a fan of reducing the consumption of sugar, if you don’t like your Tea plain, try one infused with another flavor like Bergamot (commonly known as Earl Grey – my favorite); Orange or Lemon; or add a pinch of Stevia rather than that spoonful of sugar.

Tea is also astringent. I’m sure many women know that putting a couple of cold tea bags over your eyes for about ten minutes will reduce undereye puffiness. Soaking your feet in a strong tea will get rid of food odor (the tannins change the skin’s pH level making it unfriendly to odor-causing bacteria). It’s also great to ease the pain of a sunburn or to reduce the swelling and itching of a bug bite.

Tea makes a wonderful addition to all money spells and charm bags, or give a charged cup of tea to someone who needs some extra courage or strength. It doesn’t smell very good burning as an incense (at least I don’t think so) but even tea from commercial bags works very well.

You can grow your own! Tea is a wonderful evergreen shrub (3 to 12 feet tall) and will grow nicely outdoors in zone 8 or higher, or you can put it in a (large) pot and bring it indoors for the winter. Be sure your soil drains well and place it where it gets some shade during the day. Yes, it’s related to the camellia most of us know as a flowering bush and smells wonderful when blooming.

So, take a hint from the English and enjoy an afternoon cup of Tea. The small amount of caffeine will help sharpen your wits and you’ll be getting all sorts of health benefits. This sounds loverly. I may just have to take a break from the desk and go make a pot.

Mad for Scullcap

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I’ve been under quite a bit of stress lately because of my mother. It’s getting worse – she had a car accident last week, her fault. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries to any people but she totaled both her car and one other.

So, I’ve been doing everything I can think of to keep myself calm so the stress doesn’t take any toll on my body. Meditation is paramount.  I’ve also been drinking an infusion of Scullcap a couple of times a day.

Scullcap Scutellaria lateriflora is a great sedative. It doesn’t have the knockout punch of  Hops or Valerian so I can drink it during the day and still be able to function. It’s actually one of the safer herbs to use – there are no contraindications except that if you’re on any sort of sedative medication, it could potentiate (increase) the effects of that medication. Because of its sedative effects, it’s great for a variety of issues, stress being one of the primaries. It has also been used to lower blood pressure, to get rid of headaches (including migraines) and to calm people going through drug withdrawal. My notes say its good for hiccoughs, too, although I’ve never tried it for that. Makes sense: it will calm muscle spasms and since that’s what a hiccough is …

Scullcap (or you can spell it Skullcap) is a member of the Mint family, so it has the characteristic square stem. Like any other Mint, it will grow and spread profusely if you don’t keep it in check. My plants are huge – several are shrub-sized. You can use the entire aerial (above-ground) part of the plant, but I usually just strip off and dry the leaves for ease of storage.  Although it’s a member of the Mint family, it doesn’t have that minty taste so I flavor my infusion with a few fresh leaves of Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis, which just happens to be another nervine (calming agent).

One thing I found rather interesting … around here it’s known as Mad Dog Skullcap. That’s because a strong infusion is a folk remedy for rabies. Although I’ll usually put a folk remedy to the test, this I’m not sure I’d want to try (or have a reason to in the first place)!

Extrapolating from its sedative/calming properties, Scullcap is a useful addition to spells for promoting peace & harmony. It can also be used to ensure fidelity or to attract love. I’ve got some in a dream pillow that will be in place until the situation around here improves.

So far all my efforts are working – I haven’t kicked any cats or broken any china.

Pretty, Useful Calendula

In 2008, the International Herb Society named Calendula Calendula officinalis its Herb of the Year. Otherwise known as “pot marigold” (because it is easily grown in pots), do not confuse this herb with the decorative marigolds often found in gardens, which are of the Tagetes genus.  Calendula, besides being a really pretty flower has a great many uses. (It really is pretty – seeds from the same packet will generate blooms anywhere from a pale yellow to a bright, deep orange.)

The use of Calendula goes back to the ancient Egyptians. In the early 1600’s, it was reported that many grocers carried dried Calendula petals by the barrel-full because the Dutch used it extensively in winter broths for various purposes. During World War II, an English woman gave over her entire garden to growing Calendula which was then sent to France to be used to heal wounds.

It is anti-inflammatory, astringent and antimicrobial, and is great for healing wounds, cuts, scrapes, rashes, bee stings, burns and bruises. It is mild enough that it can be used on babies (to heal diaper rash) and is now extensively used in creams for stretch marks. Because of its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, a gargle of Calendula extract can be used for sores in the mouth and other inflammations of the mouth and throat. It also contains large amounts of iodine, manganese and carotene, all of which help regenerate skin cells.

Being the klutz that I am, Calendula salve is never very far from me. I even carry a little lip pot of it in my purse. It comes in handy after I’ve had a wrestling match with a friend’s kitten. I can tell you that it helps heal scratches fast! However, because it does regenerate skin quickly, you never want to use it when there’s infection present. It will heal the skin over the infection.

Another caution: Calendula is a member of the Asteraceae family (plants with daisy-like blooms). This is the same family as Ragweed, so if you have a Ragweed allergy, use Calendula with caution. You might just be allergic to it as well.

As its common name implies, Calendula grows very easily in pots. You can start it from seed indoors or sow directly into the soil after the last frost. It likes full sun but in very hot climates, you might want to put it in partial shade. It is a perennial plant but I’ve found it only lasts about 3 years before I need to re-seed that bed. If you pick the blooms when they’re at their fullest, most plants will bloom from late spring to early fall. (Warning: I had read that rabbits didn’t like it.  Apparently our neighborhood rabbits didn’t get the message. Ours love it.) The petals are the most medicinally-potent part of the plant and they dry easiest if you gently pull the petals off the bitter center disk and then scatter them on a screen to dry. And, the deeper orange the petal, the more medicinally-beneficial chemicals it has.

I’ve seen recipes all over the place that call for Calendula petals in soups and salads. Be aware that the petals are rather chewy, even when dried. Some people chop or puree them before adding to their cooking to avoid the chewiness issue.

Calendula’s sunny petals also make a great addition to spells designed for protection, to help you win the respect of others,  and in legal matters. It’s suggested you carry a bloom or two in your pocket when you go to court but you may want to try the same thing when going to a job interview – to have the interviewer smile favorably upon you.  The bright yellow flowers will help if you’re invoking the Sun in any spell, too.

Herbal Hair Care

I took Mom to have her hair cut last week and I must say, I am amazed at what they’re not teaching in cosmetology schools these days.

Face it folks, the hair you see is dead once it leaves the follicles in your scalp. If it weren’t, the entire world would be walking around with their hair dragging on the ground. It would be entirely too painful to cut it! Once the hair shaft is damaged there’s not much you can do to repair it. Split ends must be cut off. All those products on the market for split ends are nothing more than “glue” to hold the splits together.

It’s very normal to lose 50-75 hairs per day. The follicle goes through a regeneration process every 2-7 years and even though the hair falls out, a new one is growing in its place (pushing the old one out). As you get older, some of the follicles naturally stop producing hair which is why many older people have thinner hair than they did in their younger days. Alopecia (pattern baldness) is hereditary and you can delay or stop hair loss by keeping healthy before it starts. The healthier the hair as its growing, the healthier it’s going to look when it comes out of the follicle. You also have sebaceous (oil) glands in your scalp which keep the hair lubricated. Oily hair is really oily scalp – simply too much oil being secreted by these glands and traveling along the hair shaft. You do want some oil to keep the outer cells of the hair shaft smooth so don’t try to get rid of all of it.

So, as your mother has been telling you for years, beauty begins on the inside. As always, drink plenty of water and eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, ensuring you’re getting enough Vitamins A and E – two very essential vitamins for the health of your skin, hair and nails.

Outside, there are several things you can do to have a nice head of hair:

1. Cover your hair when you’re outside. Sun, wind and air pollution are all damaging to hair. Hair, although very strong for as thin as it is, can be easily damaged by the elements.
2. Use a comb, not a brush, on wet hair. And, don’t yank the comb through the snarls! This will simply stretch and break the hair and cause a split end. Work the snarl out with your fingers (or very gently with the comb) from the bottom up.
3. Try not to blow-dry your hair. This has the same effect as sun and wind … drying. If you must blow-dry, try to dry to damp instead of all the way dry and let nature take care of the rest of it. However, if you use a curling iron or hot rollers, be sure the hair is completely dry before curling or you’ll literally cook the hair shaft.
4. Vanity aside, coloring your hair is bad. Especially bleaching. Not only will you damage the hair shaft but over time, the chemicals will kill the follicles in your scalp. If you must color, go darker and use a vegetable-based dye such as henna. No, it’s not going to last as long or cover as completely but you’ll maintain a healthier head over the long term. (A bonus for not coloring … once you do go gray, it will be gray or white, not yellow.)
5. Use the mildest shampoo you can get away with. All commercial shampoos are detergents and not only will they get rid of the dirt, they’ll strip off the natural oils your scalp produces. Unless you have a very oily scalp, baby shampoo with some essential oils added should work fine. Wash your hair as little as possible – every other day or less if you can.
6. If you have dandruff, try to isolate the cause. It very well could be something in your diet. A food allergy is a very common cause. A good B-complex vitamin (including biotin) will help.

Herbally:

Like many, I would love to make my own shampoo but don’t have the time to do so. Adding a few drops of essential oils to store-bought shampoo can counteract some of the effects of using a detergent on hair.

Make your own hair rinse. If you have dark hair, you can make an infused cider vinegar rinse (blonds and grays, don’t use this unless you want to go darker). The herbs will help your hair and the cider vinegar will get rid of the last of the detergent shampoo without drying your hair out. Once you’ve got your infused vinegar, dilute it 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water before use.  (I use a sports water bottle so with the nozzle, I can get it all the way down to my scalp.) Leave the vinegar in as a final rinse to dry – the smell will dissipate on drying. If you don’t want to smell like a salad dressing for a few hours, duck your head under the water once to get rid of most of the vinegar smell. Be sure to use an old, dark-colored towel to dry your hair. The cider vinegar will stain it over time.

If you don’t want to use vinegar, make an herbal tea to use as a final rinse.

The Herbs:

Sage is a good conditioner
Fennel is another good conditioner (leaves my hair just like cream rinse – no tangles)
Parsley good for dandruff
Chamomile helps promote hair growth and will brighten light-colored hair
Rosemary great for dark hair, conditions the scalp and lessens oil production
Nettle treats dandruff; is also used to treat baldness
Lemon a good scalp conditioner and will lighten hair
Thyme a good dandruff treatment and will cut down oil production
Mint energizes the scalp
Calendula great for redheads – makes the hair gleam
Lavender can help condition the scalp if your hair is dry (not enough oil being produced)
Geranium same as Lavender
Mint Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata) is good for dandruff

If your hair is damaged, try one of these once a week to somewhat smooth the hair shaft and encourage stronger growth:

Mayo pack: add about 5 drops of Lavender or Clary Sage essential oil to 1 cup mayonnaise (the real stuff, not salad dressing). Massage into the hair and scalp and let it sit for about 20 minutes before washing your hair.

Avocado conditioner: mash up an avocado (or put it in a blender) and use that as a conditioner prior to your final rinse.

Protein Gel: mix 1/2 ounce plain gelatin and 1 cup mineral water until the mixture is smooth. Allow it to sit for a few minutes until it becomes gel-like (it won’t be completely “set”). To that, add 1 teaspoon cider vinegar, 3 drops Carrot oil and 3 drops Clary Sage essential oil. Massage into the hair and scalp. Leave it on for 10 minutes then rinse thoroughly.

In closing, bear in mind that hair grows about 1/4″ a month (less in some people, more in others). So, it will take some time to see results of nourishing your hair follicles.

Essential Library #2

Next on my list of books every green witch should have on their bookshelf is A Modern Herbal (Volume 1, A-H)and A Modern Herbal (Volume 2)by M. Grieve. Yep, it’s so good, it comes in 2 volumes. These volumes are also online at Botanical.com, but I still prefer a book to a computer.

Originally published in 1931, reprinted in 1971 and indexed in 1982, these volumes contain information on something over 800 herbs. Admittedly, we now know more about the medicinal uses of many herbs than was known back in the 30’s but what’s so great about these books is not only does Mrs. Grieve give a really good description of the plant, how and where it’s cultivated, and the medicinal uses and actions; she also gives a lot of historical information, superstitions, quotations, and the like. From some of the historical citations we can even extract some magical uses. This is one of the books I turn to for tidbits of interesting information when I’m writing about a particular herb.

Opening to the pages on Garlic, for example: “Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at cross-roads as a supper for Hecate, and according to Pliny garlic and onion were invocated as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths.” And further down: “…if a morsel of the bulb be chewed by a man running a race it will prevent his competitors from getting ahead of him…” That’s just a sampling from one herb whose entry encompasses about three pages. There are some that run six or more.

As I said before, we know more about the medicinal uses of herbs nearly 80 years later but this is an invaluable reference for anyone interested in herbs. One caveat: Mrs. Grieve was English, some of her common names don’t match what I know them as, and her use of the Linnaeus names (the Latin binomial) is sometimes outdated from today. Sometimes you need to do a little hunting.