Cleavers is Galium, but not all Galium is Cleavers

That title statement may not mean much to you unless you’re into herbs or foraging, but Cleavers are a common herbal remedy in much of North America and the UK. For the past two years, I have been operating under the exciting assumption that cleavers had graced me with their presence in my back yard and gardens. I encouraged its growth in my gardens and made a deal with the plant that I wouldn’t weed it out as long as it let me pick some to work with it as medicine and food. I was so excited to know that such a great medicinal plant had decided to call my place home!

I was wrong.

THIS is actual “Cleavers,” Galium Aparine

After crying internally and smacking myself repeatedly for my mistake, I am now in a forgiving mood. You see, there are over 600 species of Galium in the world, at least 60 of which are native or naturalized in the United States. I was positive what is in my yard was a galium, and after a little sleuthing and help from some people in a Facebook plant identification group, I have concluded that what I have in my yard is Galium Mollugo, a naturalized but not native variety that likely traveled over from Europe with other immigrants such as Dandelion and Plantain.

Galium Mollugo I have been seeing
This is the galium I’ve seen at my farm. Note the NON-Hairy stem

Galium Mollugo, a.k.a. “Hedge bedstraw,” is what has popped up all over my yard and farm. It’s so named because it smells really nice when dried, so was added to the old style beds that were basically mattresses stuffed with straw. Much nicer to sleep on something that smells more pleasant than the cow barn! It is an edible weed that I frequently add to stir-fry’s and omelets, and makes a lovely tea when used fresh. I usually tincture it fresh as well, for use as a lymphatic cleansing agent and nervine.

Fortunately for me, it seems that most galium species can be used interchangeably in a medicinal fashion. The only one to be slightly wary of is Sweet Woodruff, but I also have that planted in the yard on purpose because of its wonderful scent, so I’m much more positive about that identification. Sweet Woodruff is not meant to be ingested in large amounts due to the compound that makes it smell so nice, Coumarin. You can still use it in a tea or whatever, just not frequently or a lot of it.

I prefer to work with regular cleavers anyhow, and save my sweet woodruff for incense making purposes. Well… with my galium mollugo anyway…. which I’ve been working with thinking it was cleavers for like 3 years now…

At any rate, I wanted to share this post because while I pride myself on my ever-growing foraging skills, I’m definitely not infallible. Hopefully with the photos included here you can understand why I made the mistaken identification, and thankfully the entire species is a safe herb to work with. Don’t forget that it’s very important to double and even triple-check your identification of any wild plant before you eat it!

Food IS Medicine!

Before herbs, before drugs/pharmaceutical medicine, before therapy, what is there in this world that you put into your body EVERY SINGLE DAY to run you, heal you, activate you, motivate you, energize you, or even just to survive on? FOOD.

It is really difficult to get this message through to people for some reason. I actually might present a class on it, if I can muster enough resources.

The food that you eat every day is almost entirely what determines your energy levels, ailments, health, mental state, happiness, desire, life. It makes sense to me that since the health and well-being of my entire body is so dependent upon what I put into it, I should pay attention to the quality of that fuel.

I’m not shaming you for drinking booze occasionally, or eating some chips or cookies once in awhile. We all have weaknesses, and eating or drinking something we know is bad for us once in awhile is a human right. Many of us regret doing so later (diarrhea, nausea, hangover) but it was fun while it lasted. But the things you ingest regularly matter more than you can imagine. Cookies and cocoa puffs are not meant to be everyday fare.

You’ve probably heard about your microbiome, that symbiotic colony of bacteria inside your body that is more than partially running your organ systems, like tiny little engineers. This is related to the Gut-Brain connection, which basically means the bacteria in your gut affect your mood and behavior. Remember that episode of Futurama where Fry eats a gas station sandwich and suddenly his body is colonized by generations of tape worms that clean out his organs, increase his intelligence, and make him healthier? That’s not how it actually works with parasites (much the opposite,) but your gut’s natural microbiota DO have a similar effect on your system.

Which is a healthier food choice: a salad or a box of Oreos? “Duh!” you say. “I’m not an idiot!” But which one do you eat more frequently? Which one, honestly, would you rather have?

I don’t eat Oreos anymore. I refuse to support Nabisco because their demand for palm oil has decimated the only forests in the world that are the last remaining natural habitat for orangutans. But I digress. Cheap processed food is made to trigger the happy centers of your brain. But it doesn’t run your body the same way a salad or a baked potato would.

This is one of the best winter time meals ever, no matter where you bought the potato

Every human body has different needs; this post isn’t meant to be taken as a knock on you or your dietary restrictions, specific condition, or income level. I’ve certainly been in a spot in life (See: How to Eat When You’re Poor) where I couldn’t afford to eat great quality food, especially not organic vegetables. BUT I DID know that vegetables and fruits were the best thing I could put into my body, and I did my grocery shopping with that in mind. Are organic potatoes and collard greens better for you than conventionally-grown? Abso-freaking lutely. But are the regular cheap veggies still better than eating Top Ramen and Cheetos for dinner? DUH. You can go shopping at Aldi and CHOOSE to buy a bunch of veggies, meat, and cheese instead of shopping in the chips aisle. It should be well-known by this point that I agree with the theory that Processed Foods Are Bad.

When you (hopefully) reach a point in your life where you can do some of your weekly shopping at the local farmer’s market instead of the grocery store, you should be excited as hell because THOSE veggies are going to be fresher than anything you could possibly get at the local store.

Maybe you can even grow a little garden yourself? Even if you think a garden is too hard, ANYONE can grow a tomato plant in a pot on their front step. If you can’t grow a tomato plant, I pity whatever gods gave you the blackest thumbs in humanity. Nothing tastes better than a tomato you grew and picked yourself!

As far as protein goes, you know damned well I want you to eat eggs. Which eggs you buy and eat DOES make a difference, which you can see just from cracking some open. While I will say again that buying the cheap 80 cents a dozen eggs from Wal-Mart is still healthier for you than eating a can of Chef Boyardee for dinner, if you are at a point where you can choose where to buy your eggs, please, PLEASE buy from a local farm or at least buy Free-range eggs. Quick note: “Vegetarian Fed” chickens are probably freaking miserable. Chickens naturally eat bugs and sometimes even eat mice and small snakes. They are omnivores; anyone who forces them to only eat vegetable sources is cruel.

Our eggs frying in bacon fat in February

Buying your meat from sources LOCAL TO YOU is incredibly good for the environment, and it helps the farmers in/near your community rather than some asshat who clear cut half the Brazilian rainforest for his crappy beef cows. We raise meat birds on a very small scale here, mostly for our own consumption. But there’s always a meat vendor at the farmer’s market selling great quality meats. I like to know that I can go pat the cow on the head and see it happily eating grass a few weeks before I eat some of it.

I’m going to stop ranting now, but I want to make it clear to anyone struggling to eat healthfully, lose weight, or stop feeling so crappy in your tummy: EAT REAL FOOD. If it was grown as a plant of some sort or produced by an animal somehow, it’s better for you than Tasty Cakes and Doritos. If you have specific questions or a different situation and would like help figuring out the best dietary changes or herbal additions for YOU, please remember that I do Consultations, in-person and online.

Happy eating!

Incense Crafting: Messy Experimentation

Hopefully you’ve figured out by now that I’m into incense… it’s a pretty big deal for me. I’m not an aromatherapist; I just know how certain scents can make me feel and I want to share that joy with the world around me.

I used to buy stick incense at head shops, and burn them so my house would smell nice. I admit many of the scents were a bit sharp smelling and often caused me to sneeze. I learned recently that it’s because MANY of the commercial stick incenses you can buy are made with chemical scents and oils rather than the actual herb they are supposed to be imitating. I find that burning my own incense made from ACTUAL herbs and not a bunch of fillers or chemical scents is a completely different experience that often brings out emotions I didn’t expect, or makes me feel more grounded and connected to the earth.

I started delving into making my own incense blends a few years ago, but I really got serious about it when I took a course through the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. I highly recommend Evan’s courses! While I went into the courses knowing the power of many herbs, those classes helped me dive into a deeper understanding of the herbs I already loved, and discover many more. I also learned some good tricks to boost my crafting skills, and I feel like the herbs themselves are still teaching me every time I work with them.

A loose incense blend, or burning a single plant by itself, is the most intimate form of incense burning one can experience. After lighting a chunk of charcoal and allowing it to burn enough to have formed a thin layer of ash on top, you can begin sprinkling your loose incense on it and inhale the intoxicating aroma of real dried herbs. You have to pay attention to it more closely because the charcoal burns through the herbs fairly quickly, requiring you to sprinkle more onto it to continue creating smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, however, as it makes your mind and senses more aware of the subtleties in the blend. Perhaps a bit more mugwort in this pinch, or that pinch had an abundance of sage. Every scent is different and can evoke a different feeling in your consciousness.

Whenever possible, I work with materials that I have either grown or foraged myself. There are some things that I do have to buy in, such as sandalwood or makko powder, cloves, cinnamon, and my binding powder. But I forage/grow and dry my own sage, white sage, patchouli, mugwort, white pine, cedar, juniper, and many other aromatic plant materials. I often experiment with different scents; more often than not, even the most alluring aromatic plant smells very different when it is slowly burning into ash!

My table becomes a messy work station when I’m crafting

Cone incense and stick incense require the herbs to be ground much more finely in order to stick together properly. A binding agent is added, and then water, and the blend is mixed until it forms a dough.

About to blend this

While I am mixing and kneading this into dough, I project my feelings and intentions into the herbs, asking them as they blend to create those same feelings for the person that ends up burning them. Often, I will have music playing that evokes a certain feeling in me personally, such as relaxation, being soothed, happiness, or excitement. My hope is that the same emotions I am feeling so strongly while I knead get incorporated into the dough, to be expelled later into the person who burns it. For this reason I do not make incense when I’m angry or highly distracted. That means most of my crafting happens when the kids aren’t around.

After adding water and binder

From here, depending on how much time I have, I will either mould this into cones or sticks, or set it back in the bowl and into the refrigerator to allow the herbs to get to know each other a little better for a day or so before I shape them. I have only recently started making dhoop incense, which is basically stick incense without a bamboo skewer inside. Please bear with me if you see me selling incense stick that are less than perfectly straight– I’m an artisan, not an engineer!

If you are interested in seeing more of my process and the things I create, I suggest you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, as I frequently post photos of whatever I am working on.

What kinds of plants do YOU like to burn? Have you ever made incense before?

How to Eat When You’re Poor

I’ve been poor for a long time. We’re doing fairly well for ourselves right now, despite having a mountain of debt, but about seven years ago I literally had about $200 in savings and a car and some personal belongings. After my first season on the farm where I interned, I couldn’t find a better job, so I was a substitute teacher in Massachusetts. This lasted about 6 months, while I was fighting my ex with custody and financial issues at the same time. Nik had a job making $9/hour at a warehouse, and I would drive him to work in the morning, then drop the kids off at school (if I had them that day,) then book it to whichever school in town had hired me for that day. Our combined income for the month was about $2500 IF we were lucky and I had been subbing the full week. Our shitty little apartment had a barely-working heating system, so we were paying over $300/month for heat that barely kept the apartment hovering around 60 degrees at best (this was winter time in the Berkshires)

I only tell you all this to assure you: I know how to live on very little. It isn’t glamorous, but we did it.

The FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT thing you HAVE to do if you are in poverty is learn how to cook for yourself! Even if you manage to get on Food Stamps (we never did, because the system was overburdened and they kept screwing us over on appointments) you will be frequently handed things you may not know how to cook or reheat. There is always an inexpensive grocery mart somewhere not too far away, so if you keep some pantry staples on hand you can make it through.

Always have: Potatoes (whether a bag of white, sweet potatoes if you can get them, or whatever you find on sale.) Onions and garlic (Almost everything I cook has these.) Butter and/or a package of bacon (save the bacon fat to cook in)! Just use an old glass jar.) Rice is up to you–I found a huge 8 lb bag of black rice (which has a nutty flavor and more nutrition) at the Asian market for $7, so worth it! Apple cider vinegar is great to have on hand to help flavor things. Eggs– cheap protein! Apples and peanut butter—best snack ever! Just opt for the peanut butter that’s made with only peanuts and salt. Cheese! Any cheap bag of shredded cheese or super cheap brick of cheese will do. Salt, pepper, and any herbs you can afford. HERBS can add all kinds of benefits to your food, and can contribute to keeping your body healthy when you’re on a limited diet.

You can live on soup, or make broth with just about anything. Of course, any time you have the money, buy alternate vegetables or fruits. Celery is good to have on hand, as well as carrots or beets, and definitely buy collard greens if you can afford to.

For broth, buy a pack or even JUST ONE of these:

chicken leg

That one chicken leg can be thrown into a big pot of water with whatever vegetable scraps you have on hand, salt, pepper, herbs, chunks of celery or onion, and BOOM you have broth, and after you pull the meat off you have a soup!

“Baked potato night” is easy– bake each person a potato, sauté some frozen broccoli in bacon fat, add cheese and sour cream if you can atop the broccoli on top of the potato. YUM! And filling.

Nik actually lived several months (before he met me) buying a bag of frozen chicken, a bag of potatoes, a bag of whatever frozen veggie he could afford, and a pound of butter every week. He ate these things in variations for nearly 6 months, with barely anything different. It’s survival food, but it works.

Anything can be made into a stir fry as long as you have rice. Cook rice, then add some fat to a pan, vegetables you have on hand (always onions and garlic), and whatever leftover chunks of meat you have. Don’t be afraid to go to the meat counter at the grocery store and ask for JUST ONE drumstick, pork chop, etc. They don’t care as much as you think they do.

You can cook ANYTHING in a single cast iron pan. Trust me.

Cook bacon every day and your pan will season itself!

Even now, with our tiny farm and house and an income more than $1000 higher than we had back then, we still do not let anything go to waste. We had lamb short ribs the other night– I bought a pack of them at Walmart for $10 and roasted them. Delicious! We saved all the bones after eating the meat on them as well as the drippings from the pan. Add this to a little water in a pot and simmer several hours. BAM, lamb broth! It’s so concentrated and fatty we froze some in ice cubes to use in soups or whatever we need later.

What little leftovers we don’t eat go to the chickens and ducks, who repay us by laying beautiful eggs!

Sorry if this post was a bit rambling… it’s January, we haven’t had sales of anything in over a month, and are barely hanging on to the bills with what we make from our day jobs. Winter sucks for everyone. Anyway, if this rant can help just one person in need to hope or advice, it’s done its job.

Thanks for reading!

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!

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