Loving the gone-wild ones!

While admiring pictures in herb books of neat, organized, bountiful gardens, I get heartache and desire as I view past the book at our weedy yard and over grown garden. I ponder how the “Herbal Immersion Course” I’m taking has exasperated my frustrations about clay soil, forest shade, an endless “army” of slugs, and most of all, my own physical limitations that have thwarted garden dreams for decades, dreams of bouquets from abundant cut flowers, baskets brimming with vegetables, herbs, etc. Every spring I foolishly get hopeful as Mike finds time to help with the heavy digging and weeding, then moves on to higher priorities like firewood and house repairs. Oh, I’ve had harvest baskets, some years veggies miraculously did very well, especially when there was less shade, and as I mention below, some herbs grow like weeds. Bouquets are plentiful during the short bloom season of our profuse old fashion bush and climbing roses, and hardy nasturtiums keep color alive all summer. But gardening for me, on this land, has for the most part become a process of default, not choice, not dream gardens. If it survives….hurray! If it thrives and multiplies, hallelujah! I’ve resigned my garden philosophy to the sentiment expressed in the Rolling Stone song…“You can’t always get what you want….but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.”

Gazing past the pages of gorgeous lush gardens, I see plants I didn’t plant (many called “weeds”) buzzing with pollinators, watch a chipmunk munching on a seed pod or berry (they also have a taste for pea vines and beet sprouts), and see many plants growing in abundance that are indeed just what we need!  It is a lush sight, but not neat and tidy. Messy gardening is what I call it!

Here are a few of our “resident” plants who, in their abundance, practically scream at us….“here we are, use us!” Perhaps you have them too!

IMG_5381Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, which I planted probably 35 years ago, literally grows everywhere – around our house foundation, in the garden, in the backyard, across the driveway, down the driveway – you get the picture.  It is antiviral, making it a good choice to add to teas for colds and flues and an excellent tea for calming nerves. Though I’ve never found it effective for chronic insomnia by itself, it can be used for occasional sleeplessness and does make a nice evening tea.  One reason for my taking the herb class was to motivate myself to try new uses with these abundant plants we already have, so my first new use of Lemon Balm was a lemon balm and apple mint hydrosol*, very refreshing to use as a skin spritzer or in water to drink on hot day to calm and lift spirits.  And it was fun to make! I plan to try a lemon balm glycerite, a tincture to extract the medicinal constituents using vegetable glycerine instead of alcohol, (which, for me, might be more effective for sleep as it is  more concentrated than tea).  I’ve put lemon balm in various recipes such as my cauliflower hummus to add both flavor and the beneficial properties of the plant. There are many internet sources for information on Lemon Balm, lemon balm recipes, etc.  A good general information one is Herbrally.

Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, another plant that has “gone wild” here, was the mint IMG_5378of my childhood. My original plant here was given to me by a volunteer at the visitor center where I worked. She and I developed a friendship around our mutual love of plants. Sadly, she died of cancer a few years after we met. This lovely mint-gone-wild reminds me of her and her warning that it would grow everywhere!  Over the years I’ve often ignored apple mint in favor of “true” peppermint, though pollinators of all kinds love it.  It is a more calming mint than peppermint so I use it in evening teas, and though many sources say it’s large, soft, fuzzy leaves aren’t as “acceptable” as the daintier peppermint leaves in culinary use, I find the milder flavor blends in more and doesn’t give that strong peppermint zing when you don’t want it!  I like adding it to grain salads, and due to its calming properties, will add it to my lemon balm glycerite for flavor and medicinal benefits.

IMG_5352

Plantain leaves washed and ready to dry, to remove moisture before making an oil infusion.

13533167_10206899128817401_8443144441246995934_nPlantain, an under appreciated “weed” plant, is huge in our yard this year! I harvested a small batch for my first exploration into making a healing salve and told Mike, who gets cuts and scrapes a lot, about using a fresh leaf poultice to quickly stop bleeding and speed healing. In the past I used the leaves for this purpose all the time and would hunt around for a plant, this year it is growing everywhere!  It has multiple medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory. The plant tannins  help draw tissues together and allantoin stops bleeding and  promotes healing of injured skin cells. It is used to sooth bug bites and a recent raid on my body by mosquitoes gave me an opportunity to test this. A strong tea, cooled and dabbed on the bites stopped the itching for a better night’s sleep. If applied immediately, it can draw out the toxins of a bug bite and even be used to draw out a splinter! According to Rosemary Gladstar, you soak the splintered finger in plantain tea, then apply a poultice of crushed leaf under a band-aid, keep reapplying a fresh poultice until the splinter comes to the surface and can be removed. I plan on trying this next time one of us gets deep-seated splinter! Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, plantain has many first-aide uses. There are two varieties of Plantain, lance-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and they both contain these medicinal benefits. Here is a story of Plantain’s healing benefits along with a recipe on how to make a Plantain oil: First Aid in Your Backyard.

IMG_5384BorageBorago officinalis, has grown in our garden for decades, any attempt to invite it to grow outside the garden has failed. In early summer I reluctantly pull up many new plants, but always leave too many, forgetting how BIG it becomes! When in bloom, it makes for such happy bees, I do not have the heart to pull more. I use the beautiful blue blooms in salads and to garnish desserts, but honestly, that isn’t often enough given the abundance of Borage in our garden. I let it grow for the bees, and because I love looking at the little star flowers, the same reasons it has been given the names “bee bush” and “star flower”. This year it is on my list of plants to discover “why is it here, why do we need it?” I’ve begun my research and learned of its nutritional value and plan on using the leaves in recipes. Though it has little thorns on the leaves and stems, when chopped and added to stir fries and other dishes, the thorns disappear.  The leaves maintain a beautiful dark green color when cooked.  Used as a food in Europe more than in the US, it’s medicinal benefits have also been well researched in Europe.  It has beneficial constituents for the digestive system, lungs, urinary system and heart. Sounds like we need to be eating it more!

IMG_5217

A finishing salt made during a workshop at a conference on plants in the Northwest includes Douglas Fir needles, dock seeds, and Nootka rose petals along with garden plants like Calendula.

There are other plants that grow themselves with little assistance on our part in this wild, “messy” spot of earth we call home. Plants that seem to be calling for a closer relationship include Burdock, Calendula, feverfew, violets (past their prime for this year), honeysuckle, a hawthorn tree (past the medicinal flower stage, but looking forward to the berry harvest to make syrups and tinctures which are excellent for the heart), and many more.  At a recent herbal conference about medicinal plants in our Northwest bio-region we learned of the medicinal and culinary uses of Douglas Fir needles, the most dominated conifer surrounding us.  I’ve long been aware of the medicinal properties of many of native Northwest plants, such as nettles and Oregon grape, but it never occurred to me to look up to the trees!

All this wild abundance, both native and introduced, makes the view past the pages with the pretty gardens more exciting and hopeful!  Stay tuned as I learn to love the ‘wild things’ even more and find out they are just what we need to stay healthy!

Resources:

There are many fine books and resources in the world of herbal medicine, I mentioned a few in a previous post. Here are a few more.

Any book by Rosemary Gladstar is worth having if you are interested in herbs. Her most recent book is packed with information and recipes: Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow and Use 

Juliet Blankespoor is the founder of The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and the course I am taking. She is soon to have a book out and her blog is full of fun and useful articles: Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Blog.

In the Northwest region, Ryan Drum is a gem of information and has many detail articles about specific conditions and plants on his web site: Ryan Drum

* Hydrosols, also called floral waters, or distillates, are usually the by-product of distilling plant material to make an essential oil. A simple stove-top distillation process will produce a scented water less intense than an essential oil, thus making it usable in ways an essential oil could not be used. My first hydrosol was with wild Nootka rose petals and rose petals from our vintage rose bushes. The results was heavenly, as was the lemon balm/apple mint water! See below for basic directions on how to make a floral water, you can also find many articles on-line, just search for “stove top herb distillation.”

Stove top

My bountiful basket

Bounty……a word of interest to me today as I harvest a handful of peas, a few carrots, lettuce and greens.  Though satisfying to grow and gather these home-grown veggies, my basket hardly represents what I would call a ‘bounty’, by definition meaning abundance and plenty.  We will eat this small harvest in one day.  Yet though our veggie patch is small, with only a few harvests total, our garden, perhaps not full of food, is lush and green and looks bountiful.

In the surrounding woods there are red huckleberry bushes laden with berries, other varieties of berries, full of blooms, promise berry harvests yet to come.  I am acutely aware that my small basket of pickings, our tiny vegetable bed, the many edible plants around me (most of which I do not even eat), and the eggs our ducks lay, to many in the world would be a bountiful feast.

Nature’s bounty of berries!

To have the ‘luxury’ of ones own garden, the ‘privilege’ of growing ones own food, is often rare even in cultures where subsistence living is the mainstay of food supply.  Why should growing one’s own food be a luxury or a privilege?  Pardon my soap boxing here, but to me growing one’s own food, if able-bodied to do so (which is becoming questionable in this household!) should be a right, a Divine right, unchallengeable, and if necessary protected by law.  Most readers are aware of the threat, not only in our country but throughout the world, Monsanto poises as it buys up seed companies, takes farmers to court for saving seed, or using seed not sold by the mega giant in adjacent fields, thus ‘contaminating’ their sterile GMO seeds, (though it is the opposite which is happening) and in general appearing to have as a goal control of the world’s food supply by owning and controlling the world’s seed supply, thus removing from individuals and communities the right to provide nourishment for themselves and destroying subsistence agriculture.

Back to bounty.  Is bounty relative? What is ‘plenty’?  If plenty means enough, but no more, to live comfortably – whether it is food, shelter, water, the ability to stay warm, or cool, care for elderly, disabled, the ill, it seems that it would not be relative, for most people, though by constitution, climate, physical demands, and other factors, might vary a bit, require, within a range, the same needs.   Most of us know that if everyone ‘only’ had plenty, there would be plenty for all.  Scarcity, the opposite of plenty is caused by excess.  Rarely have I seen Nature produce excess (isn’t that what cancer is?).   The fruits of plants left uneaten become seeds for the next generation, or compost to enrich the soil.  Even here in the northwest, where often the lush plant growth can seem overabundant, there is a succession of new plant species that thrive in the undergrowth even as others might die from being crowded out. Nature understands balance.

When I see pictures of the village of Tintale, Nepal, where we sponsor a young girl’s education, I see lush fields of corn, cows, goats, chickens, freshly harvest beans.  It appears a bountiful place, people have homes, there is a village well.  Yet they live a subsistence life style, walking the razor’s edge of Nature’s balance.  If Nature is not cooperative, there is not plenty.  For those unable to work hard, there is no supermarket to go to.  Yet, so far, they do not have to buy Monsanto seed, like remote villages throughout the world, they save their own seeds to plant in their gardens.  If there is scarcity it is from Nature, which does not have a policy of control, only the unpredictability inherent in the natural world.  Nature may vacillate, but like a pendulum, it swings back to times of plenty.

locally grown strawberries….
in abundance!

My small basket of homegrown veggies will be supplemented by locally grown vegetables and fruits, locally made cheese, and, because I am among the ‘privileged’ of the world, store-bought grains.  I live in a larger community that is bountiful in that there are many organic growers.  I am not dependent on my small patch of garden or my ability to grow.  The greatest value of my small harvest is that it connects me to people throughout the world who are working their gardens, planting their fields, harvesting their food, a soul connection necessary for us to feel our oneness, to recognize we all have the same needs, the same ‘right’ to provide for ourselves. In that regard my basket is bountiful.

Primrose Cheer

new planter boxes warrant some new primroses this season!

There are two plants that bring cheer to this three-year run of cool, gray springs…the first is Pulmonaria, or Lungwort, the second is Primulas. I appreciate them both and will write about each, starting with Primulas.

I love Primulas and find them endearing and familiar, perhaps it’s my English genes, or my early life longing to go to the Himalayan Mountains. My rational reasons are: they grow in shady areas, which we have in abundance, and the varieties I grow are not fussy. To survive in our soil one cannot be fussy.

Even some of the names: primrose, cadelabra, denticulata, cow-slip, farinose, Juliana, are lovely to say.

Primulas grow all over the world, in vastly different environments, from wild primrose meadows in Britain to plants tucked into the alpine regions of the Himalayan Mountains.  There is even a primula that grows wild in Alaska.  Dramatic, thick leafed auriculas, the primulas of shows and connoisseurs, grow in dry rock gardens. Fairy like, lacy leafed Candelabras love wet boggy areas.

My favorite Primula book (out of print, but the library or an on-line used book store is a good source) is A Plantsman’s Guide to Primulas, by Philip Swindells and is loaded with colorful pictures.  Written for the novice it gives both the history and growing preferences of the different sub-species.  The Genus Primula in Cultivation and The Wild, by Josef J Halda is the primula encyclopedia. It took the author 30 years to compile, traveling all over the world.  It was published in 1992 for the national Primula conference held that year in Portland, Oregon, the first such gathering in several decades, as I recall. Caught up in the fervor of the gathering, I purchased this book, a wealth of information, but at $45 (not a lot of copies were printed) it is likely the most expensive just-under-400 page paperback I will ever own!

a new little denticulata

But I digress. I want you to meet the modest and diverse primroses that grow happily in a northwest garden and encourage you, when poking around your favorite nursery, to look for priumulas beyond the ubiquitous, usually primary colored and single petaled supermarket variety primroses.  Primulas have been cultivated at least back to the 16thcentury and there are a wide variety of the herbaceous varieties (the alpine ones are more difficult to find, and grow, and not good candidates for our wet springs).  As old and hardy as they are, you would think they would be more readily available, but you do have to hunt for the more unique cultivators. Peninsula Nursery in Sequim has, and will be getting more, double petaled primroses, and the ‘drum stick’ looking denticulatas.  I occasionally find a good primula ‘fine’ at Garden at Four Corners in Port Townsend.

You can view my collection over the years on my Primula page. My favorite primula information web site is Arlene’s Garden (a dream garden for a primrose lover!) Another good site is Primula World.

another newbie this spring.

Primulas show up each spring regardless of the weather, bright cheery color, they add charm and bring hope to a garden waiting to wake up.

a tub full of one of my most prolific primroses.
Want to trade a few plants?

“It would be difficult to imagine a time without primroses.  By the Middle Ages they were being praised in literature by poets and playwrights ~ the name ‘prime flower’ meaning the fairest and best, as in Edmund Spenser’s later lines:   
 ‘As fairer nymph yet never saw mine eie
She is the pride and primrose of the rest.’

from The Book of Primroses, Barbara Shaw

Wanderlust vs. homebody…dreamer vs. pragmatist

‘Tis the season of movement. Plants are on the move, so to speak, poking up from under leaves, pushing through the soil where they slept through the winter; birds on the move, for mating and home building…and my mind is starting to wander…around the yard and the countryside.  As Mike and I start spring clean-up, cutting out dead leaf debris, uncovering new growth as perennials appear, clearing away space to widen our ‘back yard’, and putting in a new fence for the vegetable garden, I also start dreaming, which then becomes scheming, and eventually planning, where to take a spring vacation.  I imagine us hitting the road on weekends throughout the spring and summer.

But there is conflict – be home wresting gardens out of the woods, or hooking up the trailer to be part-time gypsies. You can tell by my choice of words where lies my bias!

Behind our house are acres of dense woods. We try to maintain a thin strip, which we call ‘the back yard’.  There is also ‘the side yard’, and even a ‘front yard’.  The recent clearing project, which we do every five years or so on one side or the other, is an attempt to reclaim a small space designated for human fussing and messing with, and keeps us from being engulfed by northwest flora and fauna, which is designed to engulf.  Once there is ‘open space’ we get all energized to create a new planting area, cut out tree limbs, and even trees, for more sunlight, and imagine ourselves sitting in a yard surrounded by flowerbeds, basking in the sun.

Possibilities....cleared (for now) of Salmonberry, nettles, and an overhanging Osier Dogwood branch, a fresh pallet of dirt awaits a garden box for new plantings.

But I know better.  I’m not sure about the adage “with age comes wisdom” but I know with age, and experience, comes cynicism. I am married to an optimist who still thinks, though in his mid-sixties, he will miraculously have time and energy he has never had, after working long physically demanding days, to come home and work in the garden. The reality is he gets caught up in this spring ‘revival’, goes gung-oh, digging, building, cutting, and then goes off to critical projects, like firewood, coop repairs, house maintenance, etc., and doesn’t understand why beautiful beds don’t magically happen and everything he diligently dug out grows back.

Sigh…

This year he is especially challenged by my ‘threat’ to tear out all garden beds, many of which have already ‘gone wild’, and surrender to Nature’s embrace, smothering though it can be.

For one more year I go along with this fantasy, after all, in the past I was the one with garden schemes, and will attempt to do my best to plant newly made beds with plants that like ‘partial shade’ and clay soil (we do add a lot of ‘soil amendments’) and try to keep the weeds down to a small invasion.  We are only in the dream stage and my body already aches. I imagine a weekend at our favorite beach on the coast, or exploring some corner of the NW we have yet to discover.

Mike's inspiration for garden dreaming-crocuses open to the sun, which he would stop to oh and ah at. Today they are closed up tight in the cold rain.

Every spring these two dreams we share collide as other responsibilities…Mom care, Mike’s job demands, as well as health challenges, etc., work to tatter the dreams.  But that is the glory of spring; each new spring brings new hope.  Visions of garden possibilities seem to sprout, like dormant bulbs and plants, which regardless of how they fared last growing season, begin again with fresh growth. As spring fades to summer we will have taken a weekend excursion, planted a few new flowers, and seeded some veggies.  It will be modest compared to spring aspirations, but with age also comes acceptance for what is, and contentment in enjoying little successes (working on this!).

I appreciate I am married to a perennial optimist. And Nature, literally waiting in the wings, is always willing to engulf us in her embrace next year…or the year after that…or…..

Nature’s Heart

An Oyster shell worn by time and the ocean into a heart-shape

There will be an abundance of quotes, articles, blog entries, and Facebook posts for Valentine’s Day about love, chocolate, and other related topics. What I find fascinating about Valentine’s day is the remarkable heart-shape, found throughout Nature, and having little resemblance to the human heart.

There is a debated theory that the heart-shaped seeds of a plant called Silphium, found in ancient Cyrene (now Libya) may be the origin of the heart shape representing love. Used both for seasoning and medicinally, the basis of the theory comes from one of the plant’s medicinal uses.  By regulating a woman’s menstrual cycle, it was used as a method of birth control. This connection to sexuality is the basis of the theory. This plant is thought to be extinct, though that too is debated.

A compelling theory, but it is not necessary to look to antiquity to find botanical heart shapes with a love connection.  Here is a sampling of plants which are likely growing in your garden, or seen while walking in the northwest woods. These are all good candidates for a heart-shape-as-symbol-of-love theory (some better than others!)

Violets, which even on this cold winter day are lush and green outside my door, have perfect, tiny heart-shaped leaves.  Used for many medicinal purposes, Viola tricolor is listed as a heart tonic in many herbal manuals.

Lemon Balm, or Melissa officinalis, a personal favorite, also outside the door, this year the hardy leaves surviving our mild winter.  Among its many culinary and medicinal uses, it is used as a relaxant, calming anxiety, and in treating depression.  Hey, chocolate makes the same claims and it is the “official” food of love!

Lungwort, Pulmonaris officinalis, a common garden flower in shady NW gardens, has beautiful, often speckled, elongated heart-shaped leaves.  It’s medicinal claims, clearing lungs and treating bronchial infections and coughs, may not be romantic, but who can be romantic with a bad cough! It may well have a role in a successful tryst on a wintry day!

False Lily-of-the valley, Maianthemum dilatatum, is a NW native wild flower with heart-shaped leaves.  It was used as a wash for sore eyes by native people…let’s see, there might be a connection here between the saying (while looking at one’s sweetheart) “you are a sight for sore eyes.”  Even if not directly love related, it is a lovely heart-shaped plant.

The blooms of Pacific Bleeding Heart, Dicentra formosa, while not as distinctively heart-shaped as domesticate Bleeding Heart flowers, are none the less heart-shaped at the base.  They are the singular host food for the caterpillar of the beautiful Parnassian butterfly. That alone makes it a love plant in my book! And of course the garden variety Bleeding Heart is a beautiful flower that evokes love by both its shape and passionate pink color.

This list could go on and on, other NW species with heart-shaped leaves are Wild Ginger and some Trilliums.  If you are looking for heart-shaped seeds, several mallows, specifically the Velvet-leaf plant, have little hearts.

Hearts are everywhere in Nature. Who has not found a heart-shaped rock? And, this is weird I know, but the rear view of several animals, Mule deer in particular, are a nice heart-shaped patch of white.  Maybe not sexy to you, but I bet it is to an amorous potential sweetheart for the deer!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

nothing says "Be Mine" like Bleeding Hearts & Forget-me-nots!