Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best Herbal Remedies for Winter: Part One

Let’s face it--radiant health doesn’t come as easily in the winter. The sun fades away and along with it our daily dose of vitamin D. With less sunshine, we're more likely to fall into a funk of low energy or a dismal mood. Meanwhile, we don’t spend as much time outdoors absorbing nature’s beauty, munching on fresh garden food, or walking barefooted in the grass. Then, cold and flu season hits right as our immune system is not at its best.

Now, I don’t mean to paint a dismal picture of winter. It’s true that it isn’t my favorite season--I love sunshine and green things too much. But I appreciate winter for its introspective, deep, and yin-oriented nature. With less opportunity for fun in the sun, we get the chance to go within and catch up with ourselves. Winter can be a beautiful and magical wonderland--but it’s still harder to stay physically healthy!

The Return of Persephone
This is why I’ve put together a list of my favorite herbal remedies to get through the cold, dark months of winter. Many will boost your immune system while also relieving the symptoms of illness. Plus, these herbs will keep you warm and lighten your mood so you can stay strong and healthy until Persephone returns and things become green once again.

This is Part One of Best Herbal Remedies for Winter--click here for Part Two. For now, let's focus on 5 remedies that will keep you warm and boost your immune system.

Staying Warm

We know Ginger spices up food, but what does it do for the body? This warming root acts as a stimulant to your metabolism and circulation, so you feel warmer and have more energy. It’s good for people whose hands and feet get cold easily (if you’re like me, you can’t feel your toes by February). Also use it whenever you feel a cold or flu coming on--its antioxidant and immune-boosting properties will help you fend it off. Meanwhile, anti-nausea qualities make it a good friend if you’ve caught a stomach virus. Ginger is also expectorant, so it is a cough remedy as well.

There are lots of ways to get more Ginger into your system. It makes a delicious addition to many dishes, from kimchi to pumpkin soup to lo mein. You can also prepare a tea from fresh or dried Ginger. I like to keep on hand dried Ginger that isn't powdered, but cut into small pieces for easy tea-making. Of course, a tincture will provide a quick and potent dose, but be sure to dilute this fiery root so you don’t burn your mouth. One of my all-time favorite ways to use Ginger is in the bath--it is an unparalleled herb for winter bath tea.

Another hot and spicy food-medicine is Cayenne pepper. It is a stimulating plant, which boosts the heart’s
functioning without quickening the pulse, making us feel energetic and warm. Internally, it gets a sluggish digestive system up and running. You can also use it to help burn off a fevered illness more quickly. To perk up the circulation, it can be added to meals--anything from burritos to chili will do. The powder can even be sprinkled into your socks to keep your feet warm! Or, Cayenne can be dried and infused into oil to create a massage oil that will soothe tight or sore muscles, ease nerve pain, and help circulation. This plant packs a punch, so take care not to use it on sensitive areas and wash your hands well afterwards.

Staying Healthy

Echinacea is a well-known cold and flu remedy. It acts as a tonic and modulator to the immune system, so that it runs at optimum potential. Many people use it to shorten the duration of a cold--when taken early enough, it’s often enough to stop an illness in its tracks. Use Echinacea for all kinds of infections, illnesses, allergies, fevers, as well as a general feeling of low energy and exhaustion. It boosts the lymphatic system and cleanses the blood, so it’s a nice way to detoxify and renew the body.

To get the most out of Echinacea, there are a few things to know. The entire plant is medicinal--leaves, flowers, root, and even the mature seed. But that doesn’t mean that all remedies are created equal. I believe that one of the biggest reasons why people doubt the effectiveness of herbs is because they haven’t been using a potent potion. If you buy a generic capsule of dried Echinacea from Wal-Mart (let's boycott that place altogether!), it probably won’t work.

Fields of Echinacea
Ideally, you would be able to grow your own plants and create a tincture. My preferred method is to wait until at least the second year of growth, and then harvest the leaf and flower in the summertime. Leave a few flower stalks blooming in your garden so you can appreciate their beauty and collect the mature seeds in the fall. This is when you will also harvest the root. So you’ll have at least two different batches of tincture--one for the leaves and flowers, the other for the seeds and roots--which you can then mix together for a powerful brew. If it makes your mouth tingle, you know it's really good stuff!

Other options include buying a tincture of the whole plant from a reputable company. Herb Pharm specializes in Echinacea tincture; as a matter of fact, co-owner “Herbal Ed” Smith is a huge proponent of the plant. While others warn that taking Echinacea over time decreases its effectiveness, he emphasizes the safety of taking Echinacea for extended periods of time as traditional cultures have done. But tinctures can get pricey, so a more affordable option is buying the dried plant--you may have to get root and leaf separately--from a good company like Mountain Rose Herbs. Then you can make your own tincture or tea.

Elder in Bloom-By Llez via Wikimedia Commons
Many parts of the Elder tree are medicinal, with Elderberries being by far the most common. You often find Elderberry included in natural cough drops, syrups, and other cold and flu remedies. The sweet flavor makes Elderberry remedies a nice option for children. They are quite tasty, and some good country folk still make yummy Elderberry wine. With antiviral and antioxidant properties, Elderberry can shorten the duration of an illness. It also makes coughs more productive and relieves congestion. Elder flowers are another nice remedy, and will more likely be found in the form of tea. You can use the flowers on their own or alongside the berries for cold and flu, fevers, and bronchitis. Elderflower opens the throat chakra, so it’s good for treating hoarseness--I like to gargle the tincture before singing or speaking.

It’s worth mentioning that the Elder tree is ripe with all kinds of interesting folklore and spiritual qualities. Where the Elder is present, tales of magic abound. Associations with Jesus and the cross, with the fairy world or Underworld, and with shamanic ceremony are a few of the more momentous ones. In days of old, people were cautioned against harvesting the plant without asking permission, or falling asleep underneath an Elder--for a journey into another world can be dangerous for the uninitiated.

I have personally experienced some of the magic of this tree, and to my mind its connections with the Underworld are one reason why it’s such an appropriate winter remedy. The season's darkness drives us into the depths of our being, our own personal Underworld, where we must face our fears as well as our most cherished dreams (which can sometimes be equally scary). Elder can boost our intuition for insight into the unseen archetypes that shape our lives.

Moving back to the practical, herbal throat spray is another key addition to your winter apothecary. Since many viruses first take hold in the throat, you can often stop a cold in its tracks by making your throat an uninhabitable environment. This remedy will also soothe a sore throat that has already taken hold.

There are many good brands of natural throat spray out there, and I have personally enjoyed the ones that Zand and Herb Pharm make. However, to cut costs and connect more deeply with the medicine, I usually opt to make my own. The process is pretty easy if you make tinctures (especially if you’re someone like me who keeps an apocalypse-sized stockpile of them in her closet!).

The basis of my throat spray is a combination of tinctures: Sage, Thyme, Echinacea, Hyssop, Goldenseal, Horehound, Marshmallow, Elderberry, Elderflower, Red Root, and Tulsi are all great options. (You don't need to use them all, but can pick and choose depending on what's available.) These plants will not only heal the sore throat, but also boost your immune system to give you a leg-up on getter better quickly. I also add a few drops of Tea Tree oil for added antiseptic qualities, and stir in a bit of honey to sweeten the deal. It’s as simple as that--all you need is a small spray bottle, and you can take this handy throat spray with you everywhere. 

For herbs to boost your mood and help you breathe easy,
click here for Part Two

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Spilanthes--The Best of Buds for Toothache

Spilanthes is a small plant, growing only about a foot tall under the best conditions, with small composite flowers of red and yellow that resemble tiny targets. But this unassuming little herb packs a hefty punch. It lives up to its common name Toothache Plant as one of the best remedies for this painful problem. Toothaches are awful--they disrupt everyday functions like eating and speaking, and they typically stem from an infection, which can become quite serious.

A Taste Sensation

I discovered Spilanthes at a class taught by herbalist Tyler Wauters during my internship with Herb Pharm. Tyler passed around the small dried flower buds, encouraging us to taste them. But when it comes to Spilanthes, it's not so much a taste as it is a sensation--or rather, an explosion. Your mouth becomes a fireworks display as the intense tingling sensation takes over, followed by numbness. But it's not unpleasant--actually it's pretty fun. As one class member said, "It is dancing inside my mouth!" Others have compared it to Pop Rocks candy. Oddly, it also makes water taste colder somehow, even for a while after you've swallowed the flower.

The only drawback is when you bite off more than you can chew--if you get a particularly strong bud, it becomes a little hard to talk. I've had instances where my swallowing reflex gets going, so that's all I can do for about 30 seconds. If this happens to you during your herbal adventures, do not panic. It will pass shortly. Just don't pop in a bud right before a speaking engagement, and you'll be fine.

In fact, my only real regret with Spilanthes is not learning about it sooner. Years ago, I suffered through at least one sleepless night dealing with a massive toothache, which in all likelihood could have been nipped in the bud by Spilanthes. Even now, these flowers are my best buds, helping immensely with a couple of wisdom teeth that need to come out. As soon as I get a hint of trouble, I pop in a flower. Sometimes I even sleep with a bud in my mouth. (It's kind of an odd reverse tooth fairy ritual, I suppose.)

In all seriousness, Spilanthes is a powerful gift from Gaia. The beauty of this plant is that its medicinal effects go way beyond dulling the ache. While it tingles you into an ecstatic state, Spilanthes is also working to clean the bacteria from your mouth, including infected teeth. I like to keep a packet of dried flowers in my purse and chew one or two after meals. Think of it as nature's toothbrush.

Spilanthes flowers are also a fun way to engage people in herbalism. The experience is unforgettable, so it's a great teaching tool. Just watching the facial expressions as people munch one of these buds down is really entertaining. Anyone who expresses doubt about the power of herbs can often be silenced by a single flower. And what's more, you're actually doing that person a favor, because Spilanthes is super good for you--even if you don't have a toothache.

But Wait, There's More!

The Spilanthes plant isn't just nature's toothbrush and a party favor--it treats a whole host of other ailments as well. Spilanthes helps all manner of oral issues, from stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth) and sore throats to dry mouth (as it also boosts saliva production). The tincture can be diluted to tolerance and used as a cleansing mouthwash or gargle.

If you've ever gotten a good dose of potent Echinacea tincture, then you know the tingling sensation it produces. Spilanthes has similar compounds, which boost the immune system while making you tingle. (Seriously, how many conventional cold medicines do that?) So, it's a good idea to use this plant any time you feel like you're getting a cold and also throughout the year as prevention. As an antibacterial, it can be used as a general infection fighter, both internally and externally. Due to its anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, Spilanthes also battles candida, thrush, herpes, and cold sores. It is even effective on ringworm and athlete's foot.
By ~ggvic~ via Wikimedia Commons

This herb also enhances the digestion, which is another good reason to take it after meals. In some cultures, Spilanthes is used as a food or spice. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked into dishes such as soups. In recent years, the flowers (sometimes called Szechuan buttons or electric buttons by the food industry) have been used in the United States as a flavor-enhancer for competitive chefs and gourmet restaurants.

Growing and Harvesting

The entire Spilanthes plant, from root to flower, has medicinal value. Even better, it's fairly easy to grow in the garden. Spilanthes is a perennial in its native tropical environments, but in temperate zones it can be grown as an annual. Give it good soil and plenty of sunlight, and water it regularly. Once its blossoms appear, they are like the gift that keeps on giving. You can pinch the buds off periodically, and they keep growing back right up until it frosts. The flowers tend to lose their potency after about a year in storage, so it's best to grow this plant every year if possible.

My preferred method is to get a few good flower harvests in over the course of the summer, and then tincture the entire plant while the leaves are still verdant and juicy. That way, I have both tincture and flowers in my apothecary throughout the year. When I finally got around to making Spilanthes tincture this year, I was amazed that after a while of chopping the plant matter, my hands were tingling. Up until that point, I'd thought the sensation was confined to the mouth. Try it for yourself--it's amazing stuff!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

How to Make a Natural Insect Repellant

To balance out the more spiritually-oriented blog posts on Moonflower Musings, this month’s article will be very practical. Although here in Indiana summer is on the wane, the biting insects are still out in full force. Ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, no see-ums (I believe that is the technical term for biting, fly-ish, gnat-things that are so tiny you can hardly "see-um" )—you name it, we’ve got it. Yet, conventional insect repellants are full of harmful chemicals like DEET. It’s best to avoid these for both health and environmental reasons.

Sarah at Moonflower Medicinals Booth
As an alternative solution, I’d like to share an original recipe for Bug Balm, a natural insect repellant. This was my signature formula when I ran Moonflower Medicinals, a cottage business where I sold herbal products through festivals, farmer's markets, and a CSA. I’ve honed it over the years as new information has come to me about what works. Part of why I transitioned out of selling herbal products and into writing was to bring power to the people, so that folks could learn how to make this stuff themselves. 

It’s a beautiful thing, growing and making some of what you need to live. Think of it kind of like canning extra garden vegetables—it does take time, but it’s a way to save money and live healthier in the long-run. After all, what's a little time investment now if you get a longer life span in return?  Plus, this type of process connects you with the natural rhythms of the Earth and of life itself.

Does it Really Work?

Everybody wants the most effective insect repellant possible. That was the single-most question I was asked during my Moonflower Medicinals days: “Does this stuff really work?” This was commonly asked of all herbal products, but especially the Bug Balm.

The answer yes, it works to an extent. It will help repel biting insects significantly. Can I promise that you’ll never get a bite while wearing it? No. If you’re in a boggy area with tons of hungry mosquitoes, or if you step in a tick patch deep in the woods, you might still be bitten. What Bug Balm can do is disguise your scent—if you smell like certain botanicals, insects are less likely to bite you. What it cannot do is lower your body temperature to make you completely invisible to the blood-sucking beasts.

In my world, using a natural insect repellant is still worth it. Not even DEET can assure that you won't get a bite (especially since mosquitoes are becoming resistant), and personally I’d rather avoid the chemicals. While buying natural insect repellants can be pricey, making your own is more affordable. I recommend making a large enough batch to last you, your family, and your friends for 2-3 years. That's a good time-frame so that your Bug Balm stays fresh, but you don’t have to repeat this process every single year.

The Recipe


Tightly-woven Cheesecloth

Large Metal Strainer

Crock-pot (small)

12-pack of 4 oz. mason jars (or baby food jars, or any other jars of your choice)


4 cups Castor Oil

2 cups Olive Oil
Crock-pot and Strainer

½ oz. Dried Catnip Leaf/Flower

½ oz. Dried Lemon Balm Leaf

3 ½ - 4 ½ oz. Beeswax

3 Tbsp. Vitamin E Oil

Essential Oils:    Citronella           144 drops/12 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Cedarwood         96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar 
                           Lemongrass        96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Peppermint          96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Lavender              96 drops/8 drops per 4 oz jar
                           Geranium             72 drops/6 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Rosemary            72 drops/6 drops per 4 oz. jar
                           Clove                    48 drops/4 drops per 4 oz. jar


1) The first step is to infuse your herbs into the oil. The easiest way is by using a small crock-pot. (This is another reason why I prefer making larger batches, because smaller amounts won’t work well in a crock-pot). So, gather your Catnip and Lemon Balm and mix them in the crock pot with the olive oil and castor oil. Turn the crock pot on to its lowest setting for at least 6-8 hours, but preferably overnight. You will know the oil is done when it’s a nice green color and smells like the herbs.

2) Let the mixture cool enough to be handled, and then strain the herbs from the oil. Cover the metal strainer with the cheesecloth and pour the oil/herb mixture through into a medium saucepan. Get every last bit of oil you can out of the herbs by removing the cheesecloth from the metal strainer, wrapping it together and squeezing. Twisting also helps. Be patient—infused oil takes a while to make, so it’s precious stuff.

3) Bring the saucepan to the stove and heat on the lowest burner setting. Add the beeswax a little at a time until you get the desired consistency. Less wax makes for a softer salve, and more wax makes it harder. Of course, you won’t be able to tell when the mixture is still hot, because the wax melts into liquid. A great way to test the mixture is by getting a spoonful
and putting it in the fridge or freezer for a couple of minutes until it cools. Then you can see how hard or soft it will be.

4) Let the mixture cool as much as you can without letting it become hardened. This is where the balm-making art form can get a little tricky. Heat can destroy both the vitamin E, which is used for preserving the salve, and the essential oils, which are a crucial part of the insect repellant. My method is to let it cool as much as you can and then add the vitamin E to the saucepan.

5) In order to preserve the essential oils (EOs) as much as possible, my preferred method is to add them to the jars individually before pouring the oil in. This is why I’ve given an EO drop count for each individual 4 oz jar. If you use a different size, you can either do the math and adjust accordingly, or add the essential oils to the pot of oil. If you do this, make sure the oil is as cool as possible to avoid losing the EOs to steam.

6) After you add the drops of EO to each jar, transfer the oil/beeswax mixture from the saucepan into a measuring cup for pouring. Pour the mixture into each jar, and quickly mix it with a spoon (or spoon handle) to evenly distribute the EOs before the balm hardens. The beeswax will start to harden as you go, sticking to the measuring cup, saucepan and utensils. You can get more out of your mixture by scraping the sides of the measuring cup and utensils back into the saucepan and briefly re-heating it on the stove. Allow your balms to cool, then cap them and label them for storage. Be sure to include the date and what type of balm it is. (Believe me, you might think you’ll remember, but after three years you'll open your cabinet and be totally mystified by your own salve collection. Labeling is key.)

Yield: The yield of infused oil is a little hard to predict since the herb will inevitably soak up some of the oil. Try to squeeze out as much as you can. This recipe should yield about 48 ounces of Bug Balm. 2 oz. and 4 oz. jars are convenient sizes to have on hand. You can buy a 12-pack of 4 oz. mason jars (typically used for jams and jellies), and this should do the job. This is a fairly large batch size and should keep you going for a while. Of course, you can always adjust it to fit your needs.

Balm vs. Oil

I have usually made this recipe as a balm, but the blend can also be made as an herbal oil to absorb more quickly into the skin. It just depends on what consistency you like. A salve takes longer to absorb, so it does stay sticky on the skin for longer. If you don’t mind this feeling, it actually helps deter the bugs even more. The downside is, slathering your legs with balm means that dirt and grass clippings get stuck on you as well. My solution is to use it when I’m working in the garden or hiking, and then take a shower afterward.

So, how do you make this recipe as an oil? It’s simple: just don’t add the beeswax. After you infuse the oil with herbs, simply strain and add the essential oils. You’ll probably want to use bottles instead of jars for ease of application; you can even use a spray bottle. Keep in mind that if you use the oil, you may need to re-apply more often.


Castor Oil is actually an insect repellant all by itself, so don’t substitute this ingredient. You can use all Castor Oil if you want, but I like the consistency of the Olive Oil blend.

Dry your herbs thoroughly before infusing the oil. Don’t use fresh herbs, especially if this is your first try at salve-making. The water in fresh herbs can spoil the batch with mold. 

I recently heard Lyme disease expert Tom Grier say that ticks are repelled by a chemical found in Pine needles. Apparently, some people use the needles around their tents or homes for this purpose. I plan on incorporating Pine needles into my future Bug Balm batches, to see if it helps repel these disease-spreading critters. I thought I’d mention it in case ticks are your main problem; it’s worth a try.

Planning Ahead to Source Ingredients

Why am I posting this recipe now, you ask, rather than at the beginning of summer? I admit this would have been more in-theme for springtime, but it still has value now, as summer comes to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. For one thing, the recipe involves using Catnip and Lemon Balm. While the dried herbs can be purchased in bulk, these two plants are also really easy to grow.  Get them established now, and next year you can harvest these plants for Bug Balm. It’s never too early to plan ahead when it comes to gardening.

Great places to buy organic/heirloom seeds and plants:

1)      Horizon Herbs
2)      Baker Creek

Lemon Balm

Getting a hold of the essential oils may also take some doing, depending on your location and the amount you’d like to buy. You can often find smaller amounts in health food stores, but oftentimes the retail prices are quite high. I recommend buying them in bulk, as EOs don’t tend to go bad over time. If you do sell herbal products, then it is vital to buy your EOs in bulk to keep your product prices down and avoid going broke.

Sources for essential oils and other ingredients:

Products Available include: bulk castor oil, organic olive oil, and many of the EOs used in this recipe (including some organic EOs). The shipping is fairly reasonable, especially if you consolidate orders for larger quantities. They also have beeswax, but I recommend buying this from a local beekeeper (it’s better for the environment, the local economy, the bees and you).

This company has pretty a good selection of EOs at good prices.

Here is another place to buy EOs, but they are more expensive, and the shipping is often more.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources, but it will get you started. Be sure to compare and contrast prices and quantities before you buy. In general, buying in bulk is a better deal, but carrier oils will go rancid over time. It depends on what scale you are making the products. If you just want to try making Bug Balm for the first time, perhaps buying small amounts of the ingredients at a health food store will be better.

Have a balm!