Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tea as Medicine part 1

Happy New Year everybody!

I know that when I last wrote we were in the middle of discussing the very potent and special plant known to some as Devil's Club and to others as the Most Sacred.  I would like to continue that discourse in the future, but I wanted to write a quick post about something exciting: Tea!

I have been given the opportunity to teach to a wide audience through a Webcast about the most famous herbal beverage of all time: Tea!

Two weeks from to day, on January 25th, I will be presenting a 90 minute talk on Tea:
Here's the link to the webcast:

Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as tea is the second most widely consumed beverage on the planet!  The first is water!

This plant also has been consumed for millennia with a variety of health benefits attributed.

For instance, in the Tang dynasty, Chinese scholars determined that tea had the following 10 benefits:

1. Tea benefits the Qi and clear blockages

2. Tea helps refresh one after a night of drinking alcohol

3. Tea, mixed with other things such as milk or nuts can provide nourishment

4. Tea is cooling especially in the summer

5. Tea helps against fatigue and drowsiness

6. Teas purifies the spirit, Calms the shen, support meditation practice, removes anxiety

7. Tea aids digestion

8. Tea removes heat and toxicitiy from the body, flushing them from the blood through the Urinary Bladder

9.Tea is conducive to longevity

10. Tea invigorates the body and inspires creativity

(source, The Way of Tea, Aaron Fisher)

The Webcast is free and I will go into a lot more detail about it then!  Feel free to spread the link and share it with others:

Leading up to the webcast, I will also be putting a few more nuggets about tea here on my blog to be shared with folks who read it!


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Most Sacred or "Devil's" Club part 1

This week I wanted to present a very special plant that is not that common, but is truly a potent and powerful medicine.  Even though we might not have a chance to work with it directly, it is an interesting plant that illustrates the attitudes we have towards plants and how our current attitudes might be informed by the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

This plant's latin name is Oplopanax horridus.  Already a certain bias is apparent in the name in that the second-half of the name implies something horrible or horrendous.  Ironically, the first-half of the latin name is more forgiving.  It actually contains the root "panax" which is also the root of the word panacea which means cure-all.  The two differing attitudes about this plant are contained in its scientific name as well as the common names!

Most folks who have encountered this plant know it as Devil's Club.  Encountering this plant deep in a shady, wet forest and placing your hands on it unknowingly,  might very well give you an understanding of why this was the name chosen by early naturalists and settlers.  The plant does have thick, intense thorns that can break off and cause infections in the skin.  In the Pacific Northwest and up to Alaska where this plant is found, it's spiny nature does stand out compared to the lush green moist plants common in the under story of forests.

However, in this same region (Cascadia up to Alaska), this plant is considered the most important plant as a medicine and one of the most important plants spiritually.  Among a variety of Native Northwest peoples, this plant has played a huge number of roles in traditional culture for a very long time.  An ethnobotanist friend of mine who lives in the  Snoqualmie Valley watershed where I live, has shared that the name for this plant among the Snoqualmie people is Most Sacred.  So, we have Devil's Club or Most Sacred.  What an interesting insight into the psychology and cultural beliefs of the people interacting with this plant.

One could almost make the conjecture, that the name Devil's Club reflects the colonial, oppressor, destructive mindset that sees nature as something to exploit while Most Sacred reflects a more sustainable, nature-connected mindset that appreciates the value of all parts of an ecosystem and even understands that plants might be something to revere.

Obviously, this is a vast generalization, but it does really take me to the heart of why I am writing about plants, the rhythms of the seasons, and our connection to our bodies and the natural world.  I am hoping that we can all come closer to understanding this idea of a plant being the Most Sacred.

When working with students and colleagues who are studying nature connection and plant medicine, there has been a lot of anecdotal reports of people having very powerful, sometimes strange experience with this plant.  Almost everyone talks about how intelligent and alive the plant seems.  Many of my students have been able to feel a palpable energy from the plant when they put their hands near it.  This is even the case with people who do not consider themselves energetically sensitive, are skeptical about such things, or who do not have a lot of experience with these kinds of things.

A friend of mine and I were talking about this plant recently and she mentioned how every time she walks past this plant she feels like she needs to stop and pay attention to it.  Her attitude that naturally arises within is one of reverence.

The Most Sacred is in the Araliae family of plants which do include Ginsengs and Spikenards.  I find the fact that this plant is in the same family as the Ginsengs quite interesting.  In fact, stories about this plant have many parallels to the Ginsengs because the cultural context around Ginseng in its different forms is a lot broader than most people realize.  In China, Ginseng was not just prized as a Qi-enhancing medicine.  It was considered to have the very energy that we need to live a long and vital life.  It was made of fundamental life-force.  Old, wild-harvested Ginseng roots were considered potent enhancers of the spirit as well.  Recently, one of my students sampled a Ginseng Elixir in a class of mine and mentioned that suddenly she had the desire and energy to meditate all day!

A Cherokee herbalist I once took some classes with discussed the way in which American Ginseng was used by his people.  He mentioned that not only was it considered a powerful herb to consume (which could give one the energy to run up a mountain!), but that if old roots were found that they would be harvested in a ceremonial way.  Then these old roots would sometimes be hung and beaded and kept as a talisman for protection and prosperity. Apparently, these forms of American Ginseng were actually too valuable to consume!

I think it is important for us to be careful to not make broad assumptions about the similarities of medicinal properties of plants in the same family.  In fact, studies of the Most Sacred have shown that it is chemically quite different from Ginseng.  However, many people with a background in Chinese Medicine who have been exposed to fresh the Most Sacred bark or roots comment on the similarities in odor and even taste.

Obviously, there is a lot to write about this plant.  I haven't even begun discussing it's specific medicinal qualities!

I want to finish this entry by introducing a pet theory of mine.  In the last 50 to 100 years, a lot of research has been put into a plant known as Eleutherococcus senticosus.  This plant has also been known more commonly as Siberian Ginseng.  It has been researched a lot in Russia and is said to have similar properties to Ginseng, both American and Asian.  Apparently, there is quite a bit of controversy around this name as it is not really a Ginseng (Panax species), so now it is some kind called Eleuthro.

Whatever you call this plant, what is known about it is that it has long spiny thorns that grow on it, and when you compare the medicinal properties between Eleuthro and the Most Sacred you find a lot of overlap.  My theory is that these two plants are more closely related than we realize and probably have similar chemical make-ups.  They are probably part of a group of plants that are "Spiny Ginseng-like" plants.

Next week, I will write specifically about the medicinal uses of the Most Sacred, but I will try and do so in a way that is respectful of the deep cultural traditions around its use.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Winter Roots

We've had our first sprinkling of snow and next week is Thanksgiving, so it seems appropriate to talk a little bit about nourishing ourselves in the winter especially through food and herbs.  One of the best ways to harmonize with the energy of a season is to eat food or take medicines that reflect the nature of the season.

In the winter, the energy of the plants is sinking into their roots.  Our energy is similarly traveling deep into our body and can be best supported by rooted activities especially sleeping, meditation, and very slow, gentle physical practice.  We can also nourish ourselves by literally eating roots.  Eating warm, cooked vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, yams, potatoes, turnips, and others can nourish our own deeper energy.  Roasting these kinds of vegetables in the oven with some olive oil and warming spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, and anise can produce a simple kitchen medicine treat for our bodies in the cold winter.

Traditional medicines take this practice one step further by having us ingest special root herbs that are considered Tonic or Elixirs.  These special medicines are considered to enhance the life force (qi or prana), benefit the immune system, strengthen fertility, and nourish the mind.  Late fall and winter is a traditional time to incorporate more of these kinds of medicines into your diet and life-style as a way to strengthen, protect, and augment the body during the harshness of winter.

Here is a list of some common Elixir herbs:

Astragalus-This golden root from Chinese medicine strengthens our digestive organs, our lungs, and our reproductive organs, and specifically enhance our Wei Qi or protective qi.  It is great to take as a preventative medicine against colds and flus.  Traditionally, it is contraindicated when we have an acute cold or flu.

Ashwaganda-This warming root from Ayurvedic medicine is a powerful rejuvenative medicine, but is not overwhelming.  It boosts our energy and vitality, including reproductive energy and immunity without being overly heating or stimulating.  It is often taken with milk as a milk decoction and is safe for children, adults, and elders.  It both gives us energy and helps us sleep.  A truly precious treasure.

Ginseng-There are many different kinds of ginseng available, especially in our 21st century e-commerce world.  The traditional Ginseng, Panax ginseng is from China or Korea and is often red in color.  It is a very strong, Qi enhancing medicine and can be over-stimulating for many people or in too large of a quantity.  It also boosts immunity, reproductive energy, and nourishes the spirit.  In Chinese Medicine, it is often considered the king of medicines.  Used cautiously in small amounts, it can strengthen and warm us through the winter.

American Ginseng is now cultivated in many different places in the US, though it is still protected as a wild plant.  This potent medicine has a distinctively cooling energy that enhances our lungs, stomach, and yin reproductive fluids.  It may need to be combined with warming herbs such as ginger or cinnamon to be effective in the winter, but it does boost energy and vitality.  It might be the herb of choice for folks for whom Chinese Ginseng is too warming or too intense.  This herb was considered very powerful, potent, and sacred in Cherokee Medicine and was also used by other Native American tribes.

Eleuthro-this plant used to be known as Siberian Ginseng and is now classified as a kind of spiny ginseng.  It is warming, boosts energy, and is especially effective at strengthening the joints, tendons and low back.  It is often used to treat arthritic types of pain made worse by cold weather, and is balancing to a stressed out mind and spirit.

These are just a few of the myriad Tonic and Elixir herbs that are out there.  Some of my students and I will be making some Elixirs at our next class using some of these herbs as well as Elecampagne root and Goji Berries.

At this time of year it may be difficult to grow or harvest these plants in your own area.  Fortunately, they are available from some excellent, sustainable green companies.

Mountain Rose Herbs has an excellent supply of organic herbs.

Floracopeia has a new line of extraordinary Elixirs.  Their Ashwaganda Rejuvenating  formula  and Ginseng Supreme are two of my favorites.

A word of caution: While the above mentioned herbs have been used traditionally to support health for a very, very long time, they may not be appropriate for everyone.  It is always wise to consult with our healthcare practitioners before taking any new substances.  Please be particularly careful and cautious if you are taking any pharmaceutical drugs or have any pre-existing medical conditions.

Next time, we will look at another of the powerful Elixir or Tonic herbs from North America: Devil's Club!