Weed Wanderings Herbal Ezine with Susun Weed: Weed Wise Recipes
September 2003
Volume 3 Number 9
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What's Inside Weed Wanderings this Month...


Weed Wise Recipes...
by Jessica Prentice

We have just finished lunar cycle known as the Wort Moon in 16th Century England. "Wort" is one of those wonderfully old-fashioned Old English words that has fallen into disuse, one that the dictionary will call 'archaic.' It is one of those words that beckons me from history; a word that wants to be remembered.

The first definition for wort in the Oxford English Dictionary is "a plant, herb, or vegetable used for food or medicine; often = a pot-herb." As early as 1605 the word wort was being replaced by the word herb, as is shown in this quote from that year: "Woortes, for which wee now vse the French name of herbes..." The word was still understood and used occasionally throughout the next centuries: in 1653: "It is an excellent pleasure to be able to take pleasure in worts and water, in bread and onions." In 1864: "We find the healing power of worts spoken of as a thing of course." In 1888: "And worts and pansies there which grew/Have secrets others wish they knew" (a delectable tidbit that comes from a love poem).

St. Joan's Wort flower - hypericum perforatumThe original meaning of wort survives to this day in the names of many of our medicinal herbs, with perhaps the most commonly known being Saint John's Wort [see photo to left, hypericum perforatum flowers]-- an herb that bloomed and was harvested on St. John's Day, around the summer solstice. But if you begin to learn about medicinal herbs, you will find the word wort in the common names of many others, including: lungwort, mugwort, motherwort, gipsywort, soapwort, masterwort, Indian birthwort, figwort, rupturewort, bairnwort, banewort, bloodwort, bridewort, cankerwort, clown's woundwort, coughwort, feverwort, fleawort, glasswort, and dozens of others. In some cases, the name gives you a clue to how the herb was used: lungwort is used to make a mucilaginous tea that soothes coughs; soapwort root is loaded with saponins, and is used in treating skin problems. But in others it can be misleading: fleawort is so named not because it wards off fleas or cures fleabites, but because the seeds look like fleas!

I find so much poetry and beauty in the names of herbs. I also hear in their names a kind of ancient memory, an ancient wisdom and knowledge that wants to be remembered. I feel that the plants call to us through their names. They remind us that once upon a time they were greatly honored and valued -- they were the primary source of healing. The herbs themselves and the gardens they grew in were our medicine chests, instead of today's plastic bottles with brand names filled with pharmaceuticals. They were a part of daily life -- a familiar, everyday, working knowledge -- just as aspirin and vitamin C are to us today.

I must admit that I have had my skeptical moments about the real healing power of herbs. It has been difficult for me to believe that the leaves of a certain plant could really cure a cough, or that the flowers of another could cure depression, or that the root of another could clear up the skin. Plants seem like such mild, simple, common things to have such powers. But anyone who has ever smoked marijuana knows that a plant can have a very powerful effect. So does anyone who's ever gotten poison oak or poison ivy. And of course we all know that there are plants that can kill you if you eat them. So whenever I find myself doubting the power of plants I remember that if plants can make us high, or make us itch like hell, or kill us, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that they have properties that can help us heal.

I once experienced first-hand the amazing healing powers of Chinese herbs. Many years ago I had a terrible case of eczema -- an itchy, ugly rash that had spread, literally, all over my body. Desperate, I went to see an acupuncturist for the first time in my life. She treated me with needles, and over the needles she burned a kind of smokey incense called moxibution that was made, I found out later, from mugwort. She then gave me bags of barks and seeds and pods and dried roots and a small clay pot to boil them in. At home, I simmered my clay cauldron filled with water and mysterious plants, and then drank the vile liquid. I made and drank that nasty medicine day after day for many months, filling my apartment with the smell of distant forests, of unimagined places. And it made me well.

Over the 12 years since then, I have seen half a dozen different acupunturists. Chinese medicine has become the medicine I rely upon whenever I have a health problem. While in college, I had taken many courses of antibiotics for chronic infections; I had taken pharmaceuticals for skin problems, and pharmaceutical hormones for birth control. In too many cases, these drugs caused more problems than they solved. So since that first experience with the healing cauldron, I have avoided the pharmaceutical medicine chest whenever I could and stuck with traditional Chinese medicine.

I heard once that in the traditional Chinese system, the doctor (acupuncturist) was responsible for keeping you well, and so you paid him or her to keep you well. If you got sick, your treatment was free. I have not tried to confirm this story, but I carry it around with me as a reminder of what a truly holistic, preventative system might look like. Our bodies are always changing, and our well-being depends on a balance of dynamic energies. Herbs and healing foods, rest and acupuncture, exercise and moxibution all help to keep the energies moving towards wellness. I love the idea of a system that helps our bodies to weather all the changing seasons, stages, and stressors of life, and that helps each one of us to work with our individual excesses, weaknesses, and constitutional quirks.

As grateful as I am to the Chinese system, I have often wished that my herbal medicine chest could be made up of the herbs of my own ancestors, the herbs of continental Europe, the British Isles, and Colonial America. These are the herbs whose names call to me. But while the Chinese materia medica was being developed, researched, written down, and made increasingly precise and effective over thousands of years of widespread Chinese practice, practitioners of the European materia medica were being burned as witches and their decoctions and potions were put aside in favor of such enlightened medical practices as bloodletting and leaches. Of course later the Western medical establishment became increasingly powerful, and pharmaceutical, chemical, and surgical approaches have become the norm of healthcare worldwide. I definitely believe that there yarrow flower - Achillea millefoliumis a time and place for all these approaches to healthcare, and I use them all, but I am glad that there is a resurgence of interest in and use of the wise worts of yesteryear.

It seems that now my wish to experience the healing power of the herbs of my ancestors is finally coming true. The acupuncturist I went to see most recently has her office across the hall from where I work. She is an older Chinese woman trained in Beijing, and these are the credentials I seek in an acupuncturist. But during our first appointment she explained to me that instead of using the usual dried, imported Chinese herbs in her practice, she worked together with an herbalist in Marin who makes tinctures of fresh organic and wild-crafted herbs grown locally, most of which are from the European tradition. I was both surprised and excited.

A couple of days after my needle treatment, I went back to her office to pick up my bottle of tincture, and was even more excited when I began to read the label. The names of the ingredients were in Latin, but I have been studying and growing medicinal herbs for a number of years, and on first glance I recognized at least half the names as plants I already knew well: Achillea is Yarrow [in photo above right]; Alchemilla is Lady's Mantle; Artemisia is Mugwort; Capsella is Shepherd's Purse; Urtica is Nettle; Rubus fol is Blackberry Leaf; Vitex is Chasteberry; Zinziberis is Ginger...

I knew these herbs because they were all ones that I had identified as being appropriate medicines for my constitution, and most of them I had tried to grow in my garden at one time or another. It has always been a dream of mine to grow the plants that are medicinal for me, and to know how and when to harvest them and tincture them, and to be able to keep myself well. A few years back I had taken a course at the California School of Herbal Studies that was an intensive introduction to herbs. Since then I have experimented with growing herbs, making herbal teas, drying herbs, and with making herbal tinctures and herbal salves and herbal capsules. But I am only now beginning to feel that my hobby-like interest in the herbs of the Western pharmacopeia is coming together with my experience of true medical healing based on herbal knowledge. From the long list of herbs in my latest prescription, I already have planted Yarrow and Lady's Mantle, and Blackberry Leaves are such a rampant weed that I'll never want for them. Soon I'll plant Mugwort and Shepherd's Purse and Chasteberry. Nettles are plentiful at the farmers market and I get organic ginger at my neighborhood grocery.

The course I took on herbs was called "The Technology of Independence" -- a name I always thought a bit odd. But I do feel that I am evolving towards a kind of medical independence, an ability to treat myself with the worts of my people. There is an old English phrase for the knowledge of herbs and how to use them: "wort-cunning." And there is an old English term for an herb garden: "wort-yard." I have begun my wortyard and am developing a bit of wortcunning, and by the time I am old I hope to be familiar with the plants and a bit wiser in their use. I don't expect that I'll ever be an herbalist or a healer, but if I am able to help keep myself healthy with the plants that surround the place I live, I will be carrying on a tradition not only of my foremothers and forefathers, but of wise cultures around the world who looked to plants for medicine and healing, and became intimate with their roots and seeds and bark and leaves, and called them by name.

Blessings to you all,

Wise Food Ways logoSTIRRING THE CAULDRON: New Moon newsletters by Jessica Prentice ...dedicated to keeping culinary traditions alive; promoting a local, seasonal food-system; supporting small farms and sustainable agriculture; celebrating the radical act of cooking at home; savoring life; being human; keeping a fire in the hearth. www.wisefoodways

Jessica Prentice is a professional chef, a passionate home cook, and an educator in the field of sustainable agriculture. In her cooking and writing, Jessica brings together creativity and imagination with a deep respect for traditional cuisine and time-honored culinary practices. Through her work, she seeks to provide a model for how communities can feed themselves in a way that is satisfying and health-supportive on all levels: delicious, environmentally responsible, and grounded in the wise nourishing traditions of our forebears.

The Summer is ending and our harvest baskets are getting full.
Here is a recipe to cook so to share your bounty.

Calabacitas with Herbed Crema
by Jessica Prentice

2 tablespoons olive oil, butter or other fat
2 large leek or onion, diced
5 medium summer squash such as crookneck, yellow zucchini or zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and sliced on the diagonal
3 ears of corn, kernels cut off of the cob
the leaves from 1 sprig fresh marjoram or oregano, minced; or 2 sage leaves, minced
a cup hot water (or mild broth such as chicken); more as needed
2 medium heirloom tomatoes (or 1 large, or a few small), diced into small cubes
generous pinches of salt and pepper, to taste

Herbed Crema:
3 scallions, a small bunch of chives, or the tender inner greens of leeks
a bunch cilantro
a cup crème fraiche, sour cream, or Mexican crema

1. Heat olive oil (or other fat) in a heavy bottomed shallow pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add leek or onion and sauté until translucent but not brown.
2. Add squash and sauté until it just begins to brown.
3. Add minced marjoram, oregano or sage to pan, then immediately add corn kernels. Stir for a minute.
4. Add water (or broth) and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer. Add more liquid if it gets too dry.
5. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then add tomatoes. Heat tomatoes through, then taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Herbed Crema:
1. Slice scallions, chives, or leek greens into small rounds.
2. Cut the leaves off the cilantro.
3. Mince the scallions (or chives or leek greens) and cilantro together on a cutting board, or process in a food processor.
4. Stir the minced herbs into the crème fraiche (or sour cream or crema)

To Serve:
Ladle the calabacitas into a shallow bowl, and serve with a big dollop of herbed crema.
Eat with tortillas or quesadillas, if desired.

click here to learn more about nourishing yourself
in Wise Woman Ways

apple harvest drawing
We have just begun the lunar cycle known as the Fruit Moon. Go to www.wisefoodways to read Jessica's piece about the Fruit Moon, find a recipe for a dreamy peaches-and-cream
(in case you were wondering what to have for dessert)
and check out Jessica's website...



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