Sunday, June 26, 2016

Herbal first aid

I have always been fascinated by idea that plants have medicinal properties. The power of plants to affect us, positively or negatively, to heal us, to alter our perception of reality, is something I've been ruminating about more than usual, having just finished reading Michael Pollan's brilliant Botany of Desire during my flight back from California last week. And wouldn't you know it, mere days after my return my friend and local herbalist, Tricia*, sent an email advertising her class on herbal first-aid remedies. A class on identifying and local plants to alleviate common maladies? Sign me up!

Actually, I signed myself up as well as my dear friend Tinka, who is visiting from Germany for the week. As usual, it was both enjoyable and informative -- Tricia's such a great teacher. During the first segment of the class, we learned how to identify, cultivate, and take advantage of the basic medicinal properties of some culinary herbs as well as plants often considered weeds (like wild plantain, no relation to the banana). Talk about practical: Tinka immediately chewed up a couple of plantain leaves to create a "spit poultice" that immediately reduced the irritation from some recently acquired mosquito bites. The technical term for this property is anti-pruritic, which means it stops things from itching. And two days later, when I found myself with a scratchy throat, chocking down a mug of freshly boiled oregano tea knocked whatever was breeding in my respiratory system RIGHT out of there. (It is quite an intense concoction, with 1 cup of hot water to 1 packed teaspoon of fresh oregano leaves. Not a remedy for the faint of heart. Or rather, the faint of tastebuds.) It turns out that both oregano and thyme are not only delicious but also naturally antibacterial. We also learned about the medicinal uses of plants that were vulnerary (heal tissue damage), anti-inflammatory (reduce swelling), and anti-microbial (kill germs). Suddenly I felt like a shaman-in-training. Well, without the drums or animal bones.

After Tricia talked the group through harvesting and storing everything from thyme and yarrow branches to comfrey and chamomile flowers, we headed into the fire station for some hands-on work making infused oils, salves, and balms. (What's that? Oh yes, I should mention that the class took place at one of the local firehouses, which partners with a cool local nonprofit called Everybody Grows. Two guys from the EG team manage the on-site demonstration garden out front, and were as excited as I was to learn more cool things to do with the stuff growing out there.) Together, we proceeded to make a batch of calendula-infused olive oil. Tricia explained that it needed to steep for anywhere from 4 hours (in a warm water bath) to 2 weeks (in a hot car -- no, really), so she did a TV-style quick change and whipped out a second jar of already steeped calendula oil.

We used the herbalist's medieval torture-style mini press to extract as much infused oil from the soaked flowers, stirred in some natural beeswax, and warmed the viscous mixture. The result was now considered a salve. We removed it from the heat and added a few drops of lavender essential oil. What we had now was a balm, which Tricia carefully poured into cute little tins that we labeled and brought home.

Pretty awesome, no? I can't wait for Tricia's next class....

(*You may remember reading about Tricia in an earlier post on making homemade bitters. I learn so much from this lady! Incidentally, a blogpost on other cocktail-related bitters I've been concocting since then is currently under development...)

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