Favorite Herb This Week: Black Birch!

Black Birch (betula lenta) is definitely one of my Top Ten favorite herbs of all time. And luckily for me, it’s ALL OVER the place here in Northeastern Connecticut!

A young black birch I saw on my walk today

Black birch and it’s brother, White birch (also known as the Paper Birch) can pretty much be used interchangeably medicinally speaking, so I have been trying to only work with black birch trees because the white birch are kind of endangered due to the bronze birch borer and a condition called birch dieback (Source). Birch trees can be tapped in the early spring to collect their sap (a great drink in and of itself) in order to make birch syrup, and the inner bark can be harvested to make a flour substitute, though I would only ever try this on a recently fallen or cut tree.

See the horizontal lines in the bark, along with the light/white patches?

It is never recommended that you harvest bark directly from the trunk of the tree, as doing so could accidentally girdle it and cause it to die. Instead, ask the plant’s permission to harvest a branch or two and simply prune them off if it tells you it’s okay. Always leave an offering for the tree, such as a pinch of tobacco or kinnickkinnick, or a few pieces of your hair in way of thanks. Then take them home and carefully strip the bark off each section of branch, being sure to capture the cambium layer. You can also add the buds to your concoction.

Harvesting and scraping bark is always done in late winter or early spring, hence the ugly sweatshirt

My absolute favorite thing to make with birch bark is an infused oil. Some of my birch oil jars have sat for months before I remembered to strain them, but it always works out as the batch just gets even stronger. Add a few drops of birch essential oil and voila! You have the BEST topical painkiller for muscle and joint aches. I think this year I will try making a small batch of tincture as well, as I hear that is useful internally for joint pain. I’ve had arthritis since my early 20s and farming really hurts my back some days, so every little thing I can find to relieve the pain helps!

Birch buds in January

Black birch twigs are useful as fire starters, and fresh twigs can be chewed by adults as a breath freshener and by toddlers to help relieve teething pain.

What do you think? Do you ever work with birch bark? Remember, I can sell you some of the oil I make if you’d like to experience birch’s magical healing properties!

Get out and Move!

This time of year, people are normally starting their new diets and worrying about the pounds they packed on from the sweets they ate over the holidays. You might think joining a gym is the answer to your problems, and sucking down veggie juice and smoothies will trim your waist down. It could work…

But I don’t think so. Wanna know why? Because that shit is BORING.

Who wants to ride a bicycle in place, or walk on a treadmill for an hour while staring at the ass of the person in front of you? Sure, a smoothie is delicious, and some juice can be too… but they also frequently shoot your blood sugar through the roof and cause your energy to crash later.

If you don’t feel good about yourself, you’ll be stressed. And while stress can make you lose weight sometimes, it’s really not the healthiest way to do so. You want to know what helps more than anything else?

GETTING YOUR BUTT OUTDOORS.

We just took a nice 3.5 mile hike yesterday through a very well-traveled path that was wide enough for people to go mountain biking on. I used to do this when the kids were little too; I either had them in a baby backpack or we simply took shorter hikes. The older the kids get, the longer and harder hikes we take. Getting outdoors in the fresh air, especially if you can find a place surrounded by forest on all sides is good for your heart, soul, AND waistline.

A huge cause of stress right now is Covid 19. You know where you have the least likely chance of catching it? Out in the damned woods with no one else around.

Important factors for keeping your immune system in good health, especially in regards to fighting any kind of viral infection like the Rona or the Flu, include moving your body and getting enough Vitamin D. Did you know that your lymphatic system (you know those little knobbly bits under your chin/neck that hurt when you feel sick? They’re all over your body, known as your lymphatic system) does NOT have its own pump to move fluid through your body? The heart and breathing in general can only move you so much. What really helps get that nasty, stagnant lymph fluid the heck out of your body is MOVEMENT. And when you do that movement outdoors, you often get the added benefit of a little Vitamin D dose from the sun. Eating lots of vegetables and fruits is important too, but you can just… you know… EAT them. They don’t have to be blended up into a pulp and mixed with protein powder or yogurt to be delicious.

And while you CAN exercise indoors if it’s too frigid or rainy or there’s a blizzard or whatever, any time conditions are reasonably decent for getting outside, it’s best for your exercise to happen there. Even a 20-minute walk on a paved path somewhere (preferably away from moving vehicles) is better for you than huffing around an indoor gym. The fresh air improves lung function, the sun gives you energy, and the benefits of surrounding yourself with nature are well-documented to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and improve the functionality of your immune system.

If you simply can’t get outdoors for some reason for awhile, consider supplementing your routine with lymphatic draining herbs such as calendula, cleavers, violets, or red clover. And even if you’re stuck inside, move those buns! Hang out with a houseplant beside a sunny window. Get a little nature in you, and you’ll feel much better.

One last tip: I never lost so much weight in my life as I did when I became a farmer. Best weight loss program EVER. Also, my back hurts…

Best workout EVER

Life Will Find a Way

As 2020 comes to a close, I want to share a few thoughts.

Looking up into the basement window. It’s BASE-MINT!

This is mint growing INSIDE our basement. This window is up high, so this photo wasn’t easy to take. But right outside this little basement window is my first herb garden, in which I am fighting a yearly battle with spearmint taking over.

A couple days ago, we got solar panels installed on our house. They haven’t been activated just yet, but the guys installing everything trampled the shit out of my herb garden just outside this little window. Outside it’s a rocky, dirty, barren wreck.

But yesterday Nik noticed something green in the window. This little chunk of mint weaseled it’s way either through the cracks in our stone foundation or just under that old, ratty window (this house was built in 1952 and those windows are original) and sprouted up to get what little light it could from the inside. It’s making a life for itself in a very challenging place. Just outside, the whole patch where this came from was dug up, trampled, destroyed.

But this little piece of mint survived.

How you can see it from where you normally stand

I think after the year 2020 has been for many of us, we can learn a lot from this little mint. Instead of seeing it as annoying or invasive, I think I will look at it as inspiring.

No matter how hard 2020 trampled you, your family, or your friends, you can still find a spot of light from inside and grow back again.

Happy New Year, and Blessed Be!

Hot Cocoa Could Be Healthier

My kids love hot cocoa. Pretty sure EVERY kid loves hot cocoa, at least in the Northern United States. But most of what I can find here in Northeast Connecticut is Swiss Miss or some other knock off brand that’s like 80% sugar and preservatives. Sure, it tastes good, but enough of it will probably turn you diabetic.

I know this isn’t a food blog, and I mostly talk about herbs. Guess what? Cacao is a healthy plant if you eat it right! It contains antioxidants and this lovely thing called phenethylamine, which triggers the feel-good center of the brain. So is cayenne pepper, a warming herb (much desired on cold snowy days!) I am aware that most Mexican hot cocoas have chili powder in them rather than cayenne, but I can’t find chili powder that doesn’t also contain salt for some reason, so I use a bit of cayenne.

As per usual, I didn’t think this would make a good blog subject until AFTER I had already made it, so my packages are all open and I don’t have steps of the process, nor did I EXACTLY measure ingredients out. I hardly ever do… so bear with me.

Instead of buying the cheap prepackaged cocoa packets from the store, I mix my own hot cocoa. My kids, thankfully, actually PREFER mine (when their friends aren’t looking,) so I get them to eat a tad healthier on my time.

I mix about 3/4 cup unsweetened cacao powder, a heaping 1/2 cup of white granulated sugar (you can use a healthier sugar like turbinado if you want; I just didn’t have any in my cupboard today,) a dash of cayenne powder (about 1/4 tsp at the most) and 3/4 of a bar of dark chocolate all chopped up. Just whisk this all together and pour into a jar with a lid. When you want cocoa, you can use either hot milk or hot water. Most of the time, we put a big scoop of cocoa mix into the mug, pour a few tablespoons worth of heavy cream on top, and then just fill the rest of the cup with boiling water. Mixing with a spoon is critical; marshmallows are optional. Note: If you taste it and think it needs to be sweeter, just add a little more sugar to your jar and give it a good shake.

Jumping up on my soap box for a moment: I bought this chocolate bar at Big Y on sale for $3. Yes, it’s more expensive than a Hershey bar, but it’s much higher quality, fair trade, and sustainably sourced. That means no small children were kidnapped and forced to work on plantations to produce the beans, nor was some poor farmer forced to work and feed his family on ten cents a week just so we could eat cheap candy. I do not buy products made with what we refer to as “slavery chocolate.” I admit, the white sugar trade isn’t a heck of a lot better, but I think the fact that their crimes were outed and made more visible long ago has forced the industry to treat its laborers just a little better in modern times.

The first thing you learn when becoming an Herbalist is that what you put into your body matters more than anything else. I am a huge advocate for eating healthfully, and keeping processed foods out of your diet as much as possible. I understand the line of “processed” is blurred here, considering the cacao powder I bought is processed from cocoa beans. But if you choose to buy INGREDIENTS rather than ready-made foods more often than not, your stomach (and whole body!) will thank you.

One final note: a full jar of this mix lasts us close to a year, but only because I don’t let my kids have hot cocoa all the damn time. This has been my TED talk… now go play in the snow and drink some hot cocoa when you’re done!

This jar has been used for several years for the same thing

Herbal Experimentation

While I have had some herbalist education, listen to educational podcasts, and look through my herbal healing books on a regular basis, I do not consider myself an expert. I am more knowledgeable than most, and I continue to learn something new about herbs and the way they work every day. Part of this learning process is experimentation.

Remember a few posts back about my herbal steam? That worked GREAT to help clear my stuffy nose, but whatever I had ended up moving into my chest after awhile. So I was coughing, or feeling the urge to cough (unproductively, I might add) for WEEKS. As in I just stopped coughing for the most part within the past few days. The best part is that of course, now my husband has it. Things like this trend to work their way through his system WAY faster than mine, so I’m not too worried.

Anyway, part of what I did over the past few weeks to help us get through this is to make an herbal cough syrup. Have you ever tried Wild Cherry Bark Cough Syrup? That stuff is awesome! It’s the reason old fashioned cough syrup didn’t taste that great… but it works like a dream. Anyway, I had harvested some wild cherry bark back in February of this year and thought I should try working with this wonderful herbal ally. Then I thought: Ooh! Rose hips would add vitamin C! And I harvested some elacampane root this year, that’s an excellent cough remedy… Oh, and I have some dried elderberries, let’s throw some of those in! It kind of kept going like that until I had thrown all together: elderberries, rose hips, wild cherry bark, red sumac berries, astragalus root, elacampane root, fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, black peppercorns, licorice root, and a little white pine bark.

I know, I sound like a kitchen sink herbalist here. And sometimes I am! But I am getting better at realizing that certain herbs not only work well together, but also TASTE great together. So I simmered this concoction in water for a good half hour to an hour. After that, I strained the solids out through a cheese cloth, then returned the resulting liquid back to the pot and turned the burner on low. I was aiming to reduce the liquid a bit, to concentrate the constituents before adding my sweetener.

I have the patience of a gnat, so this didn’t last long. I kept the heat on low for about twenty minutes, and around the end I added about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of raw honey. I actually had some old sage-infused honey in the cupboard so I figured that would be an even better added boost, since sage is known for healing scratchy throats. I didn’t measure jack squat throughout this entire process, so I’m sorry I can’t give you an exact recipe here. The glass pot I use holds about a quart’s worth of water, if that helps. I wanted to keep the heat low so I wouldn’t kill any of the benefits from the raw honey.

Anyhoo, after the honey was well incorporated into the warm decoction, I poured it through the cheesecloth again for good measure and into a glass swing top bottle I had. After pouring it all in, I had a little room left near the top of the bottle. This was perfect, because I really wanted to add some brandy to the jar to help preserve the mixture, mainly because I hadn’t used nearly enough honey to turn it into a real “syrup.” I would guess I added about 1/3 cup of brandy, then I plugged the top with the swing top cork and gave the bottle a shake. I opened it once to burp it, just in case, then closed it up again and stuck it in the door of the refrigerator.

Finished syrup

We are now on our second bottle. I occasionally change up the recipe (am I out of rose hips? Add some orange peels instead… maybe throw some mullein leaves into the pot after the heat has been turned off) and we are going through it like crazy because it works FANTASTIC. The kids like it, we all love the flavor, and it helps stop the coughing for a good couple of hours. Instead of a small medicine cup, we just take about a half shot glass’ worth, maybe a bit more if the coughing is really bad. I gave some to my daughter to help her cough last week and she stopped coughing immediately. I wouldn’t worry about the brandy– it doesn’t really add more alcohol than a regular bottle of commercial medicine would have in it anyhow.

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