Sunday, September 12, 2010

What a summer

Since my last post, life has intervened. Memorial weekend I visited my mother for a week at her apartment connected to the Kansas Christian Home in Newton. The day before I was to leave she had a health crisis and ended up in the hospital for 2 weeks. I stayed until she was released to the Halstead Health & Rehab Center, getting her settled in for another month long stay. I returned then to help her return home. So, the good news was that she got better. Lying in bed for long periods though, whenever I would suggest more exercises, as prescribed, her answer would be, "You wait 'til you're 93 and see how easy it is." I can see nothing gets easier with age. My older brother Al is visiting her now. And the oldest, Dave, lives within 2 hours drive, so we all keep in touch. I especially appreciate emails when sometimes it's hard to hear each other.
My husband Raymond's younger brother Ron passed away June 20. The Creasy family felt so blessed that we were able to reunite in Sardis, TN May 15, and in essence, say our goodbys to Ronnie. He was cremated, so a service was planned for July 3 at our home in Dennard, Arkansas. Many family members came from several states to remember him. He was part of the Tibetan Buddhist
group in Memphis and had helped build the new Meditation Center at their Retreat. They sent the prayer flags seen here.

On the 13th, 11 days after we hung the flags, a single wisteria bloom opened up. Normally wisteria blooms in April. If you look closely, it's right above the yellow flag. This photo of the out-of-season bloom meant a great deal to the family, as a sign that life wins out. "May he be reborn in a purely spiritual realm," according to his Buddhist beliefs...and his Christian beliefs as well.

This turned out to be the hottest summer on record, averaging June through August temperatures. We fought back a flea infestation in the house upon my return after 3 weeks. Raymond began to fix-up our kitchen while I was in Kansas the last time, so we continued on until we finished. A new corner cupboard, a new under the counter cabinet
with drawers, tile behind the sink that I had made, new finishes for our old counter tops made by Raymond, and a new white coat of paint on our rusty fronted refrigerator. When I use the term "new," that is, new to us. Many of the components have been salvaged from friends and relatives and fixed up like new.
I had made the terracotta 8" tile years ago with a white glaze that turned out streaky. We discussed using new 4" tile from stoneware and I started them, but during the process, I brought the 8" ones in and set them up to see how they would fit, so decided to go with them. While making pots again, I threw some mortars sans pestles and some bowls, the first since injuring my knuckle in 2007 playing the piano. I was pleasantly surprised I hadn't forgotten everything I knew about pottery, plus no pain while throwing.

Our drought was broken this first week of September, thank you very much, tropical storm Hermine, and cooler temperatures make life worthwhile again. I've been hitting the landscape chores hard, trying to eliminate all those weedy privet, hackberry, briars, and vines of several sorts that have grown up in my yard all season. They'll be back: life does win out.

Oct 1 and 2 at the Ozark Folk Center, I'll be a vendor and a speaker. Saturday morning I'll speak on herbs that are good for the respiratory system, especially herbs from the Aegean Sea region - Greece and Turkey. That's the theme of this year's herb event. Check it out at for the schedule, other speakers, tickets and more.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Jewel of a Weed

Jewelweed - the way the dewdrops or raindrops stay on the leaves could be the reason it has this common name. Impatiens capensis is the scientific name for this annual that grows about 4 feet tall. There's another species, Impatiens pallida, whose flower is all yellow. The foliage reminds us of the dwarf impatiens we plant in shady flower gardens. In the woods, one sees it in wet areas, almost in companionship with poison ivy, for which it is a remedy, using the stems, leaves, and juices.

According to the Peterson Field Guide by Steven Foster and James Duke, Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, one crushes the leaves to release the juice and a poultice is applied to a new rash. "A 1957 study by a physician found it effective (in 2-3 days) in treating 108 of 115 patients." This book also suggests freezing the plant and juices after harvesting prior to bloom.

Of course, one should realize that seed set is important to the continued life of these populations, so one should never decimate a population, but leave plenty for seed set. When the seeds are ripe, it behaves much like the old-fashioned flower, "touch me not," (also an impatiens) in that the capsules explode when you touch them, and the seeds are shot out in all directions.

I am affected by poison ivy nearly every year, sometimes several times a year. I never have it so bad that I need to see a doctor, but those of us who weed gardens in the Ozarks or handle firewood in the winter without gloves, know the itch and annoyances of getting it. So, with many of my home remedies, I started growing and harvesting jewelweed to address my own needs. I soak it in alcohol, along with witchhazel and echinacea and market it under the name, Ivy Rinse. This last year I started bottling it in spray bottles in 2 different sizes: 2 and 4 oz. bottles. The spray application is less messy and stops the itching, while speeding up the healing process. Scratching inflames the area and the body's histamine reaction makes it worse. Whatever you do, don't scratch!! Good advice, but hard to follow.

I started growing it with one plant, transplanted when about an inch tall, growing in a pot and let it go to seed where I wanted my population to establish itself, right near my water hydrant where I keep other potted plants that need watering. In a couple years, it has expanded its territory on its own, and I hope to allow more patches to take over. When I see a far-flung individual whose seed has washed downhill, I leave it, hoping it'll become the parent of the next patch. I had to build a dog-proof fence around my jewelweed this winter to protect it. It's worth more than precious jewels to me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

2 Favorite Native Plants

Ninebark is a woody shrub that grows on the banks of Ozark streams so is adapted to wet areas. It's a member of the rose family. It also grows on ditch banks. I transplanted one to my yard in sandy soil in part shade where it isn't that wet (next to where I park my car) and it does pretty well. I do have to prune out some dead stalks every year.

After the blooms fade, the spent blooms hold their interesting shapes and provide interest for several months afterwards. Their color continues to darken, so it's becomes closer to an earthy orange. Height is about 5 1/2 feet with a spread of at least that, as the branches arch and droop. This particular one gets afternoon sun.

A public service announcement from the Univ. of Florida recommends native plants because they're more adapted and require less care. Another plus for natives is that they reseed. A great ground cover that I really love is the white violet. Not only do they self-sow, but they mound up around other perennials and really last a long time. I have several more favorites, but I'll save those for another day.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Save the Insects!!

We never hear that, do we, except about the honey bee. The proof that insects are vital to this world is in the flowers. The adaptations flowering plants use to attract pollinators impress even us. When I take the photos, I sometimes don't even see insects. Left is a super close-up of pussy toes, with a tiny ant making its way through a tangle of flower parts. The plant gets about a foot tall and has a very small flower head, see below.
As a child I had 3 huge lilac bushes in the yard, which were covered with all shapes and sizes of buzzing insects during blooming. The heavenly lilac aroma carried on the wind, pulling my nose closer to bury itself in a pile of flowers.
One thing to remember about the stinging insects: while "pasturing" in flowers they are too busy to bother stinging anyone. Squishing them incurs their angry reaction. Treat them gently and approach without fear or swatting, and you can observe them safely, even up close. I kept honey bees for many years while living in Kansas and learned that bees and wasps are territorial and will protect their brood to the death. While they are collecting pollen and nectar, stuffing themselves, they're away from home and too fat and happy to bother stinging. So, if we're relaxed about our interactions, they will be too.

I used to have a butterfly ID book, but I have misplaced it. It didn't have the moths in it, so sometimes the flying insect remained a mystery. I think it's a painted lady on the lilac bloom, but I'm not sure. With internet sites and photos, maybe I won't need a book. The website I found to ID butterflies of Arkansas was created by photographer, Herschel Raney.
The photos you see here were taken by me this spring.
Beautiful flower gardens are more than a feast for the human eye -- it's prime real estate for bugs -- the ecosystem. Life is interdependent and each species has its role to play. So before you reach for a spray can of bug-killing poison, remember, the web of life holds you too. Life is abundant and messy, but delicious, so move over all you bugs, my nose wants to be buried in lilacs.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Smoking what?

President Obama, 95% a quitter? Sorry, you're still smoking. I heard on the news he's using the gum, doesn't smoke in front of his kids. Even the most powerful man on the planet is still beholding to the tobacco companies. I feel his pain; I identify. I used to smoke cigarettes while in college.

For me, even more powerful than the addiction and withdrawal symptoms of nicotine, were the habitual behaviors I didn't even realize I nervously practiced - twiddling with ashtrays and thin twirly-white meditational objects of focus, and hand-to-mouth touches that occupied moments of down-time. Seeping into my consciousness upon quitting were behaviors I'd picked up while being a smoker would have to be changed in order to feel calm and at peace with solitude and relaxation. Substituting one plant for another helped my transition during withdrawal and behavioral changes. I could still satisfy that oral fixation thing without stuffing my face with food, gum, or chew toys.

My second husband Dave was a 3 pack a day smoker and sincerely wanted to quit. We recognized a "Quit Smoking Mixture" would be a great addition to the Legacy Herbs product list. I consulted several of my herbals, including ones on native American uses of plants. The Herbalist by Clarence Meyer, Meyerbooks, Glenwood, IL, 1981 had extensive ideas on over 30 herbs that could be smoked, or had been smoked in the past, both in the English tradition and in our own. So we began experimenting with mixes of plants we could get easily for mildness, flavor, heat, and feel. Red sumac leaves were too harsh and hot. I learned that the color red symbolizes the spirit and its power in our lives, so if native Americans added red sumac to their smoking herbs, perhaps it was just a pinch.

We tried some of the old English combinations that included rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano. Too sweet and aromatic - not enough like tobacco for our tastes. Two local Ozark plants considered were dittany and rabbit tobacco. Dittany has an aroma akin to a oregano and thyme combination and a beautiful fall blooming plant. This would make a better soup flavoring than a smoke.

Rabbit tobacco, the plant on the right, blooms in the fall as well. It's sweet everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), and could be chewed for hoarseness, giving one "the urge to sing," according to one herbal. It has a slight flavor of maple, but smoked, it also was too hot and harsh. The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. Duke lists some properties for this plant that go beyond a sore throat.

My old friend mullein, pictured in the last blog, became the mainstay of our new smoking mixture. Once called "Indian tobacco" it has been smoked for asthma, both here and in the old countries. It's large leaves are easy to dry, and even resemble the leaves of tobacco. It's plentiful and easy to grow.

Coltsfoot has been used as the symbol for an apothecary (drug store to us) in England and France, also known as "coughwort" (wort means weed), and is mentioned over and over again as a respiratory remedy and main ingredient in smokes. The leaf is shaped like the hoof of a colt, thus the common name for Tussilago farfara. As a ground cover, it's beautiful and spreads in a shady, moist spot. Under actual growing conditions, the flowers may come up first, followed by the leaves.

Finally, upon the advice of The Herbalist, I added bearberry leaves (Uva ursi) because it was "used by the Potawatomi Indians to mix with their tobacco (evidently for a milder smoke.)"

Dave, my ex, discovered over the course of the first couple weeks, he smoked a lot, but began tapering off that first month after quitting cold turkey. He kept a bag handy in the next 6 months and would puff on his pipe whenever he felt like it. The beauty of these herbs in smoke form -- no addictions or cravings. He did it himself, using his own motivation, his own tools. Those who smoke inhale deeply, and he found inhaling less deeply with this mixture of coltsfoot, mullein, and bearberry, resulted in a satisfying, not too harsh, herbal tasting pause that pulled him through the worst of it. Ultimately, becoming a non-smoker, he was 100% proud of his accomplishment. I'd love for the President to be able to try this unconventional method and "kick the habit."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

We change; we adapt

Driving through the Ozark Mountains during late February on these bright and clear days, I've really been seeing wildlife in abundance. US Highway 65 between Dennard and Leslie, Arkansas, large flocks of wild turkey can be seen from the road. This morning there were 2 flocks of over a dozen each pasturing on green grass in the creek bottom. A few days ago, they were all together in one friendly flock.

Deer numbers seem to be up, as it's common to see 3 deer together, in the same sorts of locations I observed the turkey. At one place just before Timbo, we counted 10 together, peacefully grazing out in the open meadow. After the ice storm damage of Jan. 2009, there's lots of cover for safe and hidden nurseries, with so many downed branches. The woods are a tangle of dried limbs, dangerous for potential forest fires, but great cover for a fawn to lie hidden while its mother grazes.

The forest canopy has been opened up from all the broken tree tops, so sunlight is more abundant. The effects upon plant life will become apparent after a number of months and years. The species that enjoy sun will grow in numbers and shade lovers might decline. Adaptation is the name of the game in the natural world. When climatic conditions change, whole ecosystems change in response.

I recently saw a program on PBS about how the wintering habitat of monarch butterflies is threatened by logging in Mexico. Their migration over thousands of miles is a fact of life only recently discovered. All along their route they seek food plants to carry them through to where they have been safe for the winter over perhaps thousands of years.

One glorious fall I was able to observe an amazing bunch of monarchs in my garden, feasting on Liatris aspera, a native plant in the Ozarks. Several other species grow here, but this one blooms in the fall, just in time for these lovely butterflies to stop in for a snack.

The activities of humankind make a difference in the natural world. We've seen the bald eagle come back from extinction. The otter has been reintroduced from Arkansas into surrounding states where they had formerly lived. Add turkeys, elk, deer, bear, to name a few come-backs in Arkansas. We can promote life, protect our fellow residents of planet earth, and have a richer, more beautiful experience as we travel the web of life here on Earth. Watch and learn how other life forms adapt. Perhaps we can learn from their example.
- photos by Sue

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
In my previous blog, I began writing about mullein, used as an expectorant for coughs. That's it in the lower right corner of this photo of thyme, taken when it's in the rosette form, early in its life, probably in May here in the Ozarks. Thyme would be a good tea ingredient if one had a cold, as it's constituents include anti-viral and anti-bacterial action, as well as aromatic sinus-clearing properties.

Full sun is the place to find mullein. Sometimes here in the forest, full sun isn't quite what we get. This particular specimen on the left was about 6 feet tall in mid July when the flowering stalk shot up to bloom. Tiny bees love to visit the blossoms, as they bloom intermittently up the stalk. I have collected these blooms to infuse (soak) in olive oil, which I later used as an ear oil for swimmer's ear. Many days of collections were necessary since only a few flowers come out daily.

When I was an herb gardener at the Ozark Folk Center's display garden in 1986, the year it was dedicated, visitors would grab my attention with stories of how old-timers used this plant.
"My mother made me smoke those mullein cigarettes all the time," one older gentleman emphasized, "for my asthma."
Another person said their neighbor gathered all the mullein leaves in the neighborhood so he could make a poultice for arthritis pain in his hands.

A poultice is a steamed bunch of leaves in a very small amount of water, cooled enough to apply as a compress. My herbal guide, The Herb Book, by John Lust, lists mullein as an anodyne, which means pain reliever. Other properties listed: anti-spasmodic, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant, vulnerary. This plant was brought to North America by immigrants who valued it. Not a native species, it has naturalized well. Seeds may be collected off the tall dead stalks and scattered on the surface of the soil, or just lay a stalk where you want a plant to grow.

In this photo of the Ozark Folk Center's Herb Garden from '86, my daughter Allison is below the hill created by the root cellar, upon which 2 mullein plants volunteered, as their seeds were in soil brought in from the nearby White River bottomland. The cabin built by Folk Center workers no longer stands here, as a donated cabin was built in its place. But the herb garden goes on, as does many valuable programs and workshops the public can attend. Use the link above to learn more.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Stop Coughing

I hear too many people with a chronic cough. They live with it. A cough that hangs on is not normal. That's the body's way of saying there's a problem. It's good to listen to one's own body and take action. Throughout the long history of plants being used for the relief of humankind, there are weeds even, close at hand, that can help.

One of the most common weeds in the central US is mullein. To pronounce this, just ignore the "e." It has long been used to relieve coughs, especially due to asthma. It's easily identified by its large felty, soft leaves, slightly gray-green, continuing to grow during the cold months. The leaves at the base are all bunched together in a rosette shape. If you're comfortable about where it's growing, knowing it hasn't been poisoned with herbicide or other sprays, make use of it.

To harvest, just pull off entire clean looking, unblemished large leaves. Wash the leaves, then steam a couple minutes in a covered saucepan with just enough water to barely cover a couple leaves. Maybe you thought I was going to suggest making a tea. You could, with more water, but the tea is pretty bitter, so sweetener would be needed. Instead, I'm suggesting getting a towel to "tent" over the pan and one's head, turn off the heat, and just inhale the vapors, being careful not to get too close to really hot steam. Gently ease into the steamy air surrounding the saucepan with lid slightly ajar. Not only will the mullein steam relax the bronchials, but inhaling moist air assists in "thinning the mucous." That's what down there in the lungs... and sometimes it needs some help clearing the system.

This is the topic I'm preparing to cover at the Midwestern Herb and Garden Show in Mt. Vernon, IL at the Times Square Mall, Feb. 12-14, 2010. The hours are 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. except Sunday. Check out the show's website.

I'll speak at 1:15 on Friday on respiratory herbs and share more of my experiences with this plant and others. It's a really great show with lots of vendors and speakers with ideas on gardening and cooking, and is free to the public.

I'll have my Legacy Herbs booth with soaps, essential oils, repellants, teas, and my usual aids to health close to the main entrance, together with Raymond Creasy, where we'll also be playing our music, selling his wooden flutes and drums, plus our CDs. We're looking forward to reconnecting with all our friends at the show.