Deborah J. "DJ" Martin

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

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Month: February 2011

Yarrow: A Staunch Plant

I said I was going to take a walk around my garden last weekend, and I did. I also walked around what passes for a yard in these parts and noticed some plants starting to green up. I hope they don’t get too eager: we’ll probably still have a cold snap or two before Spring is finally sprung!

One of the plants that’s starting to wake up is Yarrow. A few years ago, I was at the garden center and chuckled when I saw Yarrow plants for $6. I want to know how I can get in on that racket. It grows wild here and I’ve resigned myself to having a hillside of Thyme and Yarrow, instead of just Thyme.

Yarrow Achillea millefolium will grow wild just about anywhere. It’s a perennial that will very easily re-seed itself and spread via its root system. The flowers can be seen from June to September and are anywhere from white to pink to a pale lilac. (Mine are white. I’d love to see the colored ones.) The flowering tops are what are normally used in a medicinal context, although the entire above-ground portion of the plant is medicinally-sound. It’s a rather tall plant (mine get to 12-18″) and the dried stalks are used for I-Ching (a Chinese form of divination). Because the stalks are hard, even when green, I generally just take the flowering tops.

Yarrow has many common names such as Milfoil, Soldier’s Woundwort, Knight’s Milfoil, Bloodwort and others. The Latin binomial is derived from the story that Achilles carried it to staunch the bleeding of his soldiers (Achillea). Its specific name (millefolium) comes from the many segments of its foliage – the leaves are very feathery-looking.

It’s not known as Woundwort or Bloodwort for naught. Yarrow is one of the best styptics around. Fresh or dried, it will stop bleeding very quickly. I read a story a few years ago that someone who was hiking had cut themselves badly, grabbed some Yarrow that was growing nearby and packed the cut with it. When they got to the hospital, the doctor was more than a little upset about the ‘dirty plant material’ packed into the wound until he saw how deep the cut and how little blood there was. I always keep some ground Yarrow in a jar for all the scrapes & cuts I get – or when I cut my legs shaving. It’s one of my Top Ten Herbs.

It’s also wonderful for other things. Since it is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, and diaphoretic (induces sweating), a cup of Yarrow tea a couple of times a day is good for bronchitis, colds, chickenpox, fever, and measles (you can drink it hourly if you’re really feverish). Because it’s astringent and diuretic, it helps with urinary tract infections, too.

Maud Grieve says it had the reputation of being a preventative for baldness, “if the head be washed with it”; and it’s been used in Sweden instead of hops when making beer (also said to be more intoxicating than beer with hops).

Do not use Yarrow in conjunction with other herbs containing thujone (such as Thyme or Sage) since it could induce thujone toxicity. Because it coagulates blood, it could interfere with anticoagulant, hypotensive and hypertensive therapies. You should also not use Yarrow if you are pregnant or nursing.

Yarrow is widely used in love charms. In the Highlands of Scotland, young ladies cut it before sunrise, place it under their pillow at night and dream of their sweetheart. If the sweetie’s back is turned, they won’t marry; but if he’s facing them, marriage will shortly follow. It’s said that if you use it in wedding decorations, it will ensure a love lasting at least 7 years (although I really want mine to last longer than that!). It will draw not only lovers but friends to you (after all, friendship is just another form of love). I believe it’s still used in the Orkney Islands to dispel melancholy. You can also use it in spells for courage and to enhance psychic powers.

It’s so useful, I’m not going to try to eradicate it. Yarrow (as well as Stinging Nettle) is said to increase the volatile oil of any plant it grows near. The Thyme does smell wonderful!

Spring Fever Strikes!

This has been the snowiest winter on record! Well, my record, anyways. I’ve been keeping track of the weather since we moved here seven years ago and thus far this winter, we’ve had 16 inches of snow – ‘way more than twice any other year and the season isn’t over, yet. It’s Georgia not Minnesota. I’m supposed to be able to go outside & play most days! Not only has it been cold & white but if it hasn’t been snowing, it’s been raining. The ground is saturated to the point of mud. (We live on a dirt road. You should see my car. It looks like one of those in an advertisement for off-road activities.)

The last few days have been glorious and it doesn’t matter what job I’m doing (accountant or writer), I’m stuck inside at my desk, looking out. Painful, to say the least. I think the garden beds have finally dried out to the point I can work them and come hell or high water, I’m getting out there this weekend. I know the cold weather isn’t entirely over but I can at least muse on what I’m going to do this year and do some preliminary preparations.

You see, I have to downsize my garden (the main garden is 42 feet in diameter). My hips just don’t like all that bending and squatting any more and we can’t afford to build up the beds to waist height. I had originally thought about taking the outer beds down altogether but I like my medicine wheel design. So, I’m going to take some plants out, relocate others, plant wildflowers in the outer circle that will have to make it on their own and keep my fingers crossed that they don’t get munched down too badly. (I have lavender started in the house that I’ll ring the garden with. That’s one of the two herbs I’ve found our rabbits & deer don’t like – the other being catnip.)

I can’t actually move any plants just yet. Although the weather is nice, we’ll still get one or two cold snaps (and possibly even more of that white crap) before it’s time. I have to practice patience. Once the cold snaps are over (mid- to late-March) I can really get going without worrying whether they’ll survive the move.

So, I can’t quite get my hands filthy but I can get outside & do some work … including explaining to the guys that are being downsized why they’re getting the pink slip. I hope they understand.

Herbal First Aid Kit

Many people know that I am a technician for the sport of fencing. I love it … I get to play with tools but most of all, socialize with friends at tournaments. However, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a klutz par excellence. I volunteered at the National Championships over the weekend and after three days, I’m going to take my own advice: make up an herbal first aid kit to put into my tool kit with the bandaids I normally carry. Yes, each large tournament has trainers who can administer an antibacterial salve and a bandage to my cuts & scrapes but every product they use is made with synthetic chemicals.

The contents of my first aid kit will include:

Arnica Cream: I have four huge bruises on my legs where I’ve banged them with the frames used in wheelchair fencing. If I’d had arnica cream on hand, they probably wouldn’t have gotten quite as large. You can use a tincture, as well. Arnica should only be used externally and never on broken skin. It’s also helpful for strains & sprains.

Calendula Salve: Calendula is an excellent antiseptic and healing herb. This I will use in place of the commercial antibacterial salve the trainers use on cuts & scrapes. A Calendula tincture can be used as well, but should be diluted one part tincture to ten parts water before use. Calendula should never be used if there is a sign of infection – it will heal the skin before the infection clears.

Capsicum Cream: Helpful for overworked muscles. Works as well as a heating pad and doesn’t require a 500-foot extension cord.

Witch Hazel Extract: Counteracts bleeding when used externally as a poultice or a wash (could’ve used this when I stabbed myself with a screwdriver – I wouldn’t have bled all over what I was working on). For “normal” first aid kits, this is also soothing to a sunburn.

Lavender Essential Oil: Helpful to soothe burns from soldering irons, or other scalds or burns. It will help heal the burn quickly, too, and a couple of drops of oil on a hotel pillowcase will help me sleep better. I’ll be sure to have pure Lavender oil, not “Lavandin” as the two oils have different chemical constituents.

And just in case I’m at a local tournament and there’s no trainer around, I’ll also carry:

Clove Essential Oil: Wonderful for a toothache until you can get to a dentist. Put a couple of drops on a small piece of cotton (or cotton swab) and hold it against the affected tooth or rub directly on the painful area.

Bach Rescue Remedy: Keep on hand as a remedy for shock, panic or unconsciousness. Useful for animals as well as humans. Administer this after you have called 911. If the person is unconscious, moisten the lips with the remedy. It will also help bystanders that are starting to panic.

Apis 30c: A homeopathic remedy that is good for bee stings & hives. This you can use internally.

Symphytum 30c: Another homeopathic remedy to keep on hand for fractures, other bone injuries and black eyes (and other bruising).

Hypericum 30c: Indicated where there is injury to nerves, torn nails or extensive laceration. A tincture of Hypericum (St. Johns Wort) can be used externally on wounds that have become infected.

Vitamin E Cream: Helps heal wounds and cuts, and minimizes scarring.

I’ll use my own products where I can and purchase the rest from trusted sources. All these items are available at local health food stores or around the Internet. Many chain stores are also starting to carry “herbal” remedies but be sure to read the ingredient list before purchasing. I’ve looked at some and still can’t pronounce most of the list.

Always be sure to carry a cell phone and call 911 if the injury is serious! Mine lives in my back pocket next to a bunch of tools. I need to get a belt case for my phone – the tools scratch the screen … sigh.

Pretty, Deadly Lady

An online friend was inquiring into Belladonna last week and I told her I’d dig into my files to see what I could come up with.  While I remembered some of what I found, I didn’t remember other information and found it so interesting, I thought I’d share it with ‘the world’.

Belladonna Atropa belladonna is native to central and southern Europe and because of cultivation, is naturalized in both England and the US.  It likes calciferous soil (read: calcium/lime/chalk) and to be in partial shade. It grows large enough to probably be considered a shrub. It is indeed a pretty plant, producing purple bell-shaped flowers and black berries … mine is a varietal that produces lovely yellow flowers and pale yellow fruit. Belladonna is a member of the same family as eggplants & tomatoes (the Nightshade family) and I can tell you from personal experience, is subject to the same bug-munching.

As many people know, the name ‘Belladonna’ is from the Italian for ‘Pretty Lady’ and probably derives from a legendary practice by Italian ladies of using the juice of Belladonna berries to dilate their pupils. Apparently, this was considered attractive at some point. I consider it painful … a synthetic derivative of Belladonna is still used to dilate pupils for ophthalmological exams and I find light of any kind extremely irritating for several hours on an annual basis … and they didn’t even have sunglasses ‘way back when!

(Another possible derivative for Belladonna is said to come from priests drinking an infusion of this herb and then calling on the aid of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war.  Although it’s a narcotic it’s also a sedative. Dreaming of fighting?)

The Atropa is derived from the Greek Atropos, one of the three Fates, who held the scissors that could cut the thread of life.

Most people also know that another name for Belladonna is ‘Deadly Nightshade’. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous – a fact which has been known for centuries. It was used by early humans to tip their arrows; it’s said that Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius used it to poison rivals, and by Livia to kill her husband, Emperor Augustus.

That said, it also has its medicinal uses. It was listed in the US Pharmacopia even in the late 1930’s and the drug Atropine (derived from Belladonna) was in such great demand that prices skyrocketed during World War I. It’s been used internally for a variety of conditions including motion sickness and what we now call irritable bowel syndrome; as an ingredient in cigarettes for asthma; and as a poultice for skin cancer.  I wouldn’t recommend you try it at home. The dosage has to be exact or a fatal overdose is quite possible.

Belladonna was also an ingredient in ‘flying ointments’ supposedly used by witches to ‘fly’ to their gatherings. You won’t take wing but you’ll think you do. The scopolamine content, while a sedative (and still used for motion sickness) can be quite hallucenogenic.

Contrary to popular belief, Belladonna is not illegal in the United States. As a matter of fact, you can still get preparations not only in homeopathic dosages but also as a prescription from compounding pharmacists. (You’ll have to interview pharmacists. Most won’t carry it and will either question your doctor’s sanity or attempt to fill with the synthetic derivatives.)  There is an exception here: Louisiana has outlawed Belladonna preparations meant to for human consumption. You can still grow it as an ‘ornamental’, though. Belladonna was and is an approved herb from the German Commission E, used for spasms and colic-like pain in the GI tract and bile ducts. It has not yet, however, been approved by the European Medicines Agency and since their directive takes effect April 1 of this year …

There is another plant that goes by the common name of ‘Deadly Nightshade’. That is Solanum nigrum or Black Nightshade, and is a distant relative of Belladonna. This appears to be native to the US as its use by many tribes is documented.  The Cherokee have used an infusion of the leaves and stem “if lonesome because of death in family”. Hmmm … narcotic and sedative. It would probably make you forget your troubles for awhile.

While many in the magical community use Belladonna to produce visions or as an aid in astral travel (some make an infusion of the leaves, some smoke it), I’m not as confident in my abilities to produce a non-toxic preparation when I don’t know the exact chemical composition of my plant, so I don’t use it on myself.  But, since a fast heartbeat is generally associated with anxiety, it makes a wonderful addition to spells meant to induce anxiety in the target!

Haiti

The poorest country in the western hemisphere gets rocked – literally.  My heart goes out to all of them and the relatives around the world anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones.

If you’ve got a spare dollar or ten, please consider contributing it to a bona fide charity such as the Red Cross, CARE, The Salvation Army or Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).  They need all the help they can get and at this point, cash is best.

I’m A Spunky Old Broad!

Wow, February is National-Something-Month par excellence! Just a sampling:

International Boost Self-Esteem Month

International Expect Success Month

National Care About Your Indoor Air Month

National Laugh-Friendly Month

National Time Management Month

Pull Your Sofa Off the Wall Month

and my favorite

Spunky Old Broads Month

I’ve long known that quite a few holidays were created specifically by the greeting card industry and at times, I do my part to increase their business. Others were dreamed up to create awareness about a particular item, issue or cause; and so many of them simply to (hopefully) boost profits in the commercial sector. Thank goodness the greeting card industry hasn’t gone whole-hog but I must admit, I’d be interested to see what they came up with for ‘National Grapefruit Month’!

Some I can see the impetus behind – by February most of us have been cooped up in the house for several months and may even have the midwinter blues. Checking your indoor air quality is a good thing to do since you’re not breathing much fresh air at this point. Pulling your sofa away from the wall & vacuuming behind it gives you a sense of clean accomplishment when it’s done (and may help with the air quality ;)). Laughter is nearly always the best medicine and can pull us out of a funk. Starting in February, accountants need all the time management skills they can muster!

Boost Self-Esteem and Expect Success sort of go hand-in-hand, don’t they? I don’t know about you but self-esteem isn’t a problem for me: I long got over all the put-downs I heard and instead concentrated on what is good about me. I can’t wear a low-cut dress but I can wear something cut close to the hips. I can’t compose music but I can do a tax return. I can’t paint a portrait but I can sew a wedding gown.

Because I know what’s good about me and what my skills are, I expect success at every undertaking;  if I didn’t think whatever it is would work, I wouldn’t start it in the first place! Of course, I research anything thoroughly before even thinking about taking the plunge.  Yes, there have been failures but they have also been learning experiences upon which I’ve built.

Perhaps this attitude makes me a Spunky Old Broad.  Based on the criteria at spunkyoldbroad.com, I qualify. I’m over 50 and love life. If I find my path starting to get rough, I take steps – mundane first, then magical if necessary – to smooth it out to something more navigable … at least only speed bumps instead of teeth-jarring potholes. Thanks to friends (and sometimes even the cats), I laugh every day.

You, too, can be a spunky old broad even if you’re not ‘old’ or even female.  Takes steps to fill in your potholes and laugh, even if it’s only a little giggle, every day.

BTW, tomorrow (February 11) is ‘Hug a Tall Person Day’. I celebrate that one every day: my husband is 6′ 4″.

Ginseng & Changing Times

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you must have noticed that I like to look at herbs from a historical perspective … how they were used medicinally, what folklore may be attached to an herb, local customs (and superstitions) and sometimes I even find a tidbit that gives an indication of magical use. Because of this interest I tend to read some rather obscure – and sometimes bizarre – books.

I just finished one such little gem that I downloaded from The Gutenberg Project. (You may also have noticed that I’m rather frugal, so any book I can get for free is a good thing.) Ginseng and Other Medicinal Plants by A. R. Harding (A. R. Harding Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio 1908) focuses mainly on Ginseng and Goldenseal but also has some information on other ‘root herbs’ and was written for the person who wanted to grow root herbs for profit. (One problem with e-books is there aren’t any illustrations and this one had many I would like to see.)

One of the first sentences that caught my eye, “The amount of root drugs used for medicinal purposes will increase as the medical profession is using of them more and more” almost had me falling out of my chair laughing. How times have changed in 100 years!  Of course, Mr. Harding (who claimed in this book to have a medical practice although he is best known as an outdoorsman & publisher) did not know when he made that statement that penicillin would be discovered in 1928 and change the face of the practice of medicine forever. (He passed in 1930.)

Another tidbit of information that was highly interesting is that at that time, pharmaceutical companies (producing herb-based drugs, not synthetic) were importing Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, Red Clover blossoms and Cornsilk (among others) from Europe!

Anyways, back to Ginseng. The Chinese have used Ginseng for centuries as a tonic. So much so, in fact, that they imported American Ginseng by the ton. This probably contributed to the scarcity of wild Ginseng here – ‘Sang hunters (as they were and are known) over-harvested the native population, especially in the northern Appalachians. Ginseng is a picky plant and it takes a specific environment & patient farmer to cultivate, but cultivated Ginseng is what you get nowadays.

American Ginseng Panax quinquefolium is the most widely-available. Koren Ginseng Panax ginseng is preferred by some but the chemical constituents are nearly identical. It is indeed a tonic, as well as a stimulant and an adaptogen (which allows the body to ‘adapt’ to stress on it, whatever that stress may be).  It is safe for use under most circumstances, however caution should be exercised by those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac problems and those on anticoagulants or antidepressants. It’s also recommended that you don’t take Ginseng continuously but perhaps two months on and a month off.  I understand Chinese doctors generally only prescribe it for patients over 60, and it is only to be taken in the winter months.

The book did have one interesting recipe which I will share here. It is for “Ginseng Tonic”:

3 ounces     powdered Ginseng

1 ounce       milk sugar (this is now marketed as lactose milk sugar and you can buy it in bulk)

60 drops    Wintergreen essential oil.

Mix ingredients together well, making sure you disperse the oil throughout the powder. Steep 1 teaspoon of the mixture in 1 cup hot water for 10 minutes. You can filter it, sweeten with milk & sugar and drink it as a ‘tea’, as well. According to the book, “…good effect on the stomach, brain and nervous system”.

And one last morsel from the book: at least in the early 1900’s, the Chinese were always on the lookout for a Ginseng root that had a human appearance.  These were thought to be the most powerful and were carried in the pocket as a good luck charm (but eventually ground down for their tonic – no need to waste it). Although I have no indications of magical uses for Ginseng, this, along with its tonic and adaptogenic properties makes me think it would be good in general health spells.