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.