Friday, May 15, 2020

Come find me at Seraphim Botanicals!

Hello and welcome to the last post here at Moonflower Musings! You may have noticed I haven't been very active around here lately. That's because I've been pouring my energy into a brand new website, Seraphim Botanicals!

Find Me There to Check out New Offerings:
Thanks so much for reading this blog over the years! Moonflower Musings was my first-ever blogging experience. I will always appreciate what I've learned from connecting with readers here, so thank you for your comments and suggestions!

I'm not sure how long I'll keep this blog up in the future, so please come and find me over at Seraphim Botanicals! I'm also fairly active on Instagram these days, so that's a good place to connect as well.

Farewell, Moonflower Musings!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Doctrine of Signatures: Reading the Signs of Nature

“I experience the recognition of an archetype in a signature or the true nature of a plant or creature as a beautiful experience, which harkens my spirit back to paradise before the fall, before the human archetype decided that he was a god.” –Matthew Wood

One of the most intriguing things about herbal healing is its ability to operate beyond the physical. Plants are great for healing the body, and that alone is a wonderful gift from nature. Yet despite what our reductionist science tells us, herbal healing goes much deeper than the actions of phytochemicals upon bodily systems.

There is an element of the unseen in herbal medicine. Call it what you will: plant spirit healing, plant spirit medicine, plant spirit shamanism. I like to call it plant spirit magic, because that’s how it feels to me. Connecting and communicating with plants is definitely healing, but working with plants has other benefits as well. They show up in strange synchronicities to teach lessons; they deliver messages; they offer guidance and perspective. Reading the signs of nature is not only healing--it’s fun. It imbues a sense of magic into my life; it makes me feel like the world is speaking to me, and the sheer act of learning its language is causing me to evolve.

Traditional cultures have long viewed plants as teachers and guides. Shamans and mystics use plants for gathering information. Plants are used in divination; some can induce prophetic dreams; others stimulate visions or help one traverse alternate realms. But learning how to read the signs of nature doesn’t have to be as wild as all of that. It can simply be a matter of learning the medicinal uses for a plant from the plant itself. Some shamans have mastered the art of plant communication and can simply connect with a plant and discover how to use it for medicine. But for those of us who are still working on mastering clear communication with the plant world, nature does provide clues. 

The Doctrine of Signatures


These clues are embodied by the doctrine of signatures, the concept that a plant resembles the condition or part of the body that it can heal. For example, flowers from the herb Eyebright look strikingly like human eyes, and the plant is a remedy for eye ailments like conjunctivitis. Horsetail, as its name implies, has the appearance of a thick horse’s tail, and is used to strengthen the hair. Signatures are also found through touch, smell, taste, odor, and even sound.

In the words of Matthew Wood in his book Vitalism (p. 20), “The idea is that the shape, color, appearance, environmental niche, taste, smell, etc., of a plant or medicinal agent will display the tell-tale signs, marks, or configurations indicating how that agent may be used in medicine.”

The doctrine of signatures is said to originate from the Middle Ages, when it was used by folk herbalists and wise women. Yet, it seems that no one really knows precisely when or where this concept originated; it may be that the tradition is quite ancient, and the Middle Ages was simply the time frame when it was first recorded. For example, Swiss physician Paracelsus is sometimes credited with creation of signatures, or signatum. Certainly, he was a proponent of them, writing, “Nature marks each growth… according to its curative benefit” (Doctrine of Signatures, n.d.). Wood (Vitalism, p. 20) provides a quote from Hartman, who paraphrases the concept from Paracelsus:

“The soul does not perceive the external or internal physical construction of herbs and roots, but intuitively perceives their powers and virtues, and recognizes at once their signatum…This signatum is often expressed even in the exterior forms of things, and by observing the form we may learn something in regard to their interior qualities, even without using our interior sight.”

In 1621, German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme published The Signature of All Things, a text which identifies and discusses the law of signatures as a universal, magical law. In this fascinating tome, Boehme (Chapter IX) casts such pearls of wisdom as:

“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world; whatever is internally, and however its operation is, so likewise it has its character externally; like as the spirit of each creature sets forth and manifests the internal form of its birth by its body, so does the Eternal Being also.”

Or, as the Hermetic texts put it, “As without, so within.”

Thus, the doctrine of signatures is an ancient concept with roots in folk herbalism, mysticism, hermeticism, and esoteric teachings on the healing arts. It’s a fascinating and rather mystical approach to plant medicine that stands in stark contrast to modern, conventional medicine. Rather than recognizing spirits, archetypes, or signatures within plants, science reduces them to their component parts based on a strictly materialistic view of reality.

Although modern medicine rejects the doctrine of signatures, scientific research tends to validate it unintentionally. Modern science picks apart herbs and classifies them down to each chemical component present in the plant. As it turns out, Horsetail contains large amounts of silica, which is beneficial to the hair, as well as the skin, nails, and bones. In other words, it does help you grow your hair long and strong, like a beautiful horse’s tail. While scientists may inadvertently come to some of the same conclusions about plant medicine as mystics and folk healers do, their way seems a lot less fun.

The Case for Intuition

“Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.”
-Shakti Gawain

Perhaps modern medicine’s dismissal of the doctrine of signatures stems from a larger societal trend that also discards intuition. Not only does modern, Western society undervalue the primal intuitive force within each of us; it out-and-out rejects all but a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of spirituality--namely, that which falls under the precepts of organized religion. What’s more, these religions often place little value upon one’s personal experience of the divine. In fact, sometimes they actually prevent people from seeking the divine for themselves, mandating instead that the sacred is only to be reached through a human middle-man. Of course, this is not always the case, and some religious people are also very spiritual, possessing a great deal of devotion and faith. But the Western world itself is not run by devotion and faith, not by a long shot.

Modern, Western society is quite secular indeed, driven first and foremost by what we can perceive while operating within a hectic, chronically-stressed-out, coffee-fueled, goal-driven state that we have come to think of as normal. Instead of cultivating faith in the unseen, we have placed our faith in the bottom line: money. Instead of producing citizens trained to cultivate inner balance, kindness, and humility, we school people to be selfish, egotistical, and materialistic and call it “successful.”

According to the prevailing winds of our culture, the practice of going within is not hip-- unless it’s enacted by a beautiful woman in trendy clothing and then posted on social media. Cultivating intuition is not practical, unless it helps you win the lottery. Psychic ability is not a reality, because if people were truly psychic, wouldn’t they have already won the lottery? Miracles, if they ever really happened at all, must have only transpired in some far-removed, mythological past to which nobody can return.  

And yet, we live in a time when many are beginning to question the long, strong hold of patriarchy that has gripped our religious, political, financial, and social systems for so long. Several spiritual teachers have said that the Divine Feminine is on the rise, despite what we may read in the papers. I see this myself; I see people waking up, protecting Mother Earth with their lives, valuing the women in their lives, and valuing the Feminine within themselves, regardless of gender.

I have often wondered what it might look like for society to start valuing the Feminine as much as it values the Masculine. And I don’t mean simply valuing women, though that would be nice, too. I mean the feminine energy that exists in both men and women. The side that values internal processes, dreams, visions, and feelings; the side that listens to an inner guidance system; the side that is receptive to messages from the invisible world.

I picture people showing up to work in the morning and sharing the previous night’s dreams around the coffee maker. I picture doctors saying, “Let’s look at the astrological influences of the next few weeks before we schedule your surgery.” I picture business meetings that include Tarot spreads; I picture politicians asking for guidance in Ayahuasca ceremonies; I picture farmers consulting the phase of the moon before planting and giving gratitude to the Earth before harvesting.

I believe that cultivating intuition is a valuable practice that benefits society as a whole. By reconnecting with the still, small voice within, we become more aligned with our highest potential. In a world so desperately in need of healing, our highest potential is what we must develop to create a better reality for all.   

Reading the Signs of Nature

“Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.” -Terence McKenna

Of course, intuition can be cultivated in a number of ways. Learning to read the signs of nature is only one, but it’s a powerful practice. Perhaps you already do this in one form or another. Many people, for example, interpret animal sightings as portends. If a bobcat crosses our path, we look up its meaning in a book and try to determine what message it might hold for us. Because this is such a popular concept, an entire language of animal totems has been developed by key authors like Ted Andrews and Jamie Sams. We collectively understand Hawk as the messenger and Coyote as the trickster.

Plants can also be read as nature’s portends and message-bearers, although there isn’t as much literature out there regarding their meanings. This is part of why I wrote The Herbal Healing Deck--not as a definitive encyclopedia of plant meanings, but as a way of developing the conversation about plant totems. As with animal totems, plants can have different meanings for different people at different times. Thus, I don’t expect people to view my book as a static, authoritative reference; rather, my hope is that working with the deck helps people tune in with plant spirits and signatures in order to develop their own intuitive senses about plant archetypes.

The messages offered by herbs are plentiful and can be expressed and understood in a number of ways. I once got a clear message from Mint plants overtaking my garden: “Be careful of what you start, as each project can take on a life of its own.” Anyone who has dealt with the ceaseless underground runners of this plant knows what I mean. (You can read the full story on Mint Magic here.) What we will focus on below is a very specific brand of messages offered by our green allies: specifically, reading the signs of nature as expressed in medicinal plants to determine what those plants can be used for--also known as the doctrine of signatures.

To my mind, the doctrine of signature is like an intricate system of winks and nods from Mother Nature herself. (In fact, the word signature is a mix between the words “sign” and “nature.”)  Gaia knows exactly how immersed in 3-D reality we are most of the time. She understands that we might need an occasional nudge in the direction of our intuition. From the beginning, Nature has wanted us to understand how to use her abundant medicines to stay healthy and happy in a dynamic and shifting world. So, she has left a trail of breadcrumbs--a map, a blueprint, a signature within the physical form of each of her medicines to help us mere mortals along our rocky paths through life.

Reading the Signatures

“If we struggle with the uncertainties of imagination and intuition, after some time we may begin to feel that there is indeed a hidden logic with Mother Nature. Images, similars, signs, correspondences, and coincidences infer a different way to look at the world; they give rise to a different kind of knowledge.” -Matthew Wood

Matthew Wood, an American herbalist, author, and teacher is known for his attention to the doctrine of signatures and the archetypes of plants. As he points out, the more specifically you can match the archetype of a healing plant to a patient’s condition, the deeper the healing can be. Wood tends to use much lower doses of herbal medicines than most practitioners. His books were among the first I read while beginning my herbalism journey a decade ago, and for a long while I believed that a few drops of tincture was considered a normal dose. This was before I understood the true genius of Wood’s system: the more precise the remedy, the deeper the healing, and the less physical plant matter you need.

This aligns with the concept in shamanic herbalism that you don’t necessarily need a plant’s physical presence to invoke its healing effects. In the words of seminal plant spirit medicine teacher and author Eliot Cowan:
“There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines--friendship.”
Using intuition as a guide for discovering herbal remedies allows the herbalist to sustain a sense of magic and mysticism in his or her practice. It is both exciting and deeply fulfilling to get to know herbal allies, and it is a blessing and an honor for those who practice this work. While intuition plays a leading role in discerning signatum, many signatures have already been discovered and tested. This gives us a wonderful starting point and a reference for learning about individual plants and their uses.

However, it is also helpful to study the methods of perceiving signatures, in order to develop a vocabulary for this intuitive sense and learn how to discover signatures for ourselves. In The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Wood outlines several types of signatures to look for in herbs:

One has to do with the environment or habitat in which the plant grows. For example, many kidney remedies grow in wet areas. Returning to the example of Horsetail, this plant grows along streams and creeks, and it is also very good for the urinary tract. It has been used to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections. Nettle is another plant that likes to grow in wet areas, and it has an affinity for the waterways of the body, such as the blood and urinary tract. Meanwhile, plants that thrive in full sunshine often possess sunny qualities. Think of such cheerful, warm remedies like St. John’s Wort, which can ease seasonal affective disorder or wintertime blues, or Calendula, which can soothe dry and irritated skin caused by winter weather.

Also notable is the color of a plant, as different colors of berries, leaves, roots, and flowers can point to their work on different bodily systems. Herbs with a dark red color, like Sumac berries and Beet root, are associated with building the blood. Plants with white flowers, such as Boneset and Comfrey, are associated with healing broken bones. The color of a decoction or tincture made from an herb can also be a signature. For example, the blood-red color of a St. John’s Wort extracts has lead some herbalists to consider it a protective herb for women during their moon cycles, which can otherwise be an emotionally vulnerable time. Colors can also correspond to the chakras; for example, goldenseal’s bright yellow root is a signature for its action on the solar plexus, including the digestive organs.

Wood points out that a plant’s shape or physical form was one of the first associations made in modern records of the doctrine of signatures. If a plant looked like a human organ, it was thought to act on that organ. Walnuts, which look strikingly like a human brain, are in fact very good for brain health. They are high in DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid which has been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent age-related cognitive decline. Wood writes about using Black Walnut for treating scalp conditions, showing another affinity that this plant has for the head. Boneset has leaves conjoined at the stem, so it looks like the stem pokes through the center of a single leaf. This appearance of fused leaves points to its use as a means of helping to heal broken bones. St. John’s Wort has tiny perforations on the surface of its leaves that glow with light when held up to the sunshine. Likewise, St. John’s Wort can let the light into one’s heart and mind during times of seasonal affective disorder or depression.

An herb’s texture is another signature. Furry plants are sometimes used for organs that are covered with hair-like cilia, such as the lungs and intestines. Mullein is a plant whose broad leaves are covered with soft fur, and indeed, Mullein is a used to heal the lungs. Comfrey leaves have cells that resemble a microscopic view of human skin, complete with hairs, and the plant is one of the best skin healers. Meanwhile, thorny plants are often used as pain relievers, “not by sedating it but by striking at the root cause of it,” according to Ellen Evert Hopman (2016, “Overall Shape and Formations” section, para. 6). For example, Wild Lettuce is a prickly plant that is used to treat physical pain. This can also extend beyond physical pain and into emotional pain. For example, Hawthorn is a thorn-bearing tree that can heal emotional pain of the heart.

Scent is another element to consider within the doctrine of signatures. Think, for instance, of the smell of Eucalyptus, and your nose will recall an intense opening experience. Highly aromatic herbs contain large amounts of essential oils, which exit the body via the breath, helping to open the lungs and nasal passages. Another example is the stimulating and cooling aroma of Peppermint, which exactly mirrors its cooling and stimulating actions on the body.

Even the sound that plants make can be a signature. Wood cites the rattling sound of Black Cohosh seedpods as a signature of the plant’s use among Native Americans for snakebites. Wood calls this a “spirit signature,” the Native American idea that if a plant calls to mind a certain animal, or if it attracts a certain animal, then the plant possesses the medicine of this animal.

Thus, we have come full circle back to animal totems, which really aren’t so different from plant spirit totems. To my mind, one of the biggest differences is that plant totems are more subtle--they don’t jump out in front of your car or scratch at your door. Thus, we must keep our eyes open to the quiet urgings and messages of the plants. Yet, plants can occasionally speak to us in more dramatic terms: a Pine tree falls across your driveway, Mint takes over your garden, or you get a Poison Ivy rash. These may not be signatures, but they can certainly clue you in that a plant is trying to tell you something!

Enjoying the Journey


Using the doctrine of signatures is a way to deepen your practice of herbal medicine. But more than that, it’s a way of communing with nature. Observing a plant and attempting to discern its uses based on signatures a valuable thing to study, even if you never plan to start your own clinical herbalism practice. It’s a way to start reading the signs of nature and allowing your intuitive self to open up to the messages of plants. Plants have many messages for us, if we only pause to listen.

Signatures can go beyond physical uses for plant medicines and into the realm of energetic uses, messages, and lessons. One example I gave above was Hawthorn’s thorns being a signature for its ability to relieve emotional pain. Another example is the yellow color of Daffodil blooms, which can be made into a flower essence for boosting the solar plexus, the yellow chakra. Daffodil helps with solar-plexus-related issues such as self-worth, confidence, and the recognition of one’s gifts and talents.

Don’t be afraid to open your mind and use your imagination when looking for signatures. I encourage people to open up to nature with a sense of childlike wonder and awe. Children often talk to animals and plants before society programs them into believing that such things are silly. It’s time to take back our innocence and start talking with the plants again! Even Matthew Wood admits that some of the signatures he perceives can be silly or even cartoonish at times--but they still work. Imagination is just another level of intuition. So, the next time you’re playing in the garden or hiking through the woods and find yourself drawn to particular plant, ask yourself: What does this plant remind me of?

Of course, it takes patience to work with plants--their signs, signatures, and spirits. In the same way it takes several years for a single American Ginseng root to develop into a mature, medicine-ripe specimen, the plants often share their teachings bit by bit, over the course of months or even years. Synchronicities will often line up to confirm something I’ve learned by intuition, and sometimes this process happens in slow-motion. Just when I think I have understood a plant’s message, it evolves into something new as more information comes to light. It’s a process, a journey that is well worth the effort, even if it never leads to an exact destination. Working with plant signatures is much like a hike through the forest. It’s such an enjoyable experience of exercise and expansion unto itself; does it even matter where you end up?


Boehme, J. (1621). Signatura rerum or The signature of all things. Retrieved from

Doctrine of signatures. (n.d.) Science museum website. Retrieved from

Hopman, E.E. (2016). The signature of plants: Learning nature’s alphabet. Retrieved from

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Ancient Art of Tincture Making

“A magical, intangible process, healing is an art, not a science.”
 –Rosemary Gladstar

A Wise Woman Tradition

Herbal medicine-making is an ancient practice that has been passed on for centuries in all cultures, from East to West. In European history, such herbalists were often wise, intuitive women who passed down their favorite tried-and-true remedies from mother to daughter. These medicine-makers were rooted in the garden and the forest, creating healing potions from the fruit of the Earth herself. Alas, during the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the fourteenth century, such female healers were persecuted as witches. Thousands of our wise women ancestors were tortured and killed as a result of this widespread fear of the healing power they possessed.

Now, the herbalist’s battle is with the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which greatly altered Western society. Herbalism was cast aside by cold, hard allopathic medicine that replaced all kinds of holistic healing. However, herbal medicine is enjoying a cultural comeback, and both men and women can practice without fearing a witch-hunt. As a highly intuitive art form that engages Mother Nature at her finest, herbal healing can be considered a feminine tradition, whether it is practiced by men or women. As we pick up the caduceus and begin our paths as herbal healers, we reclaim the Wise Woman tradition that has managed to survive persecution and trivialization.

The Excellence of Extracts

Nothing empowers the inner “witch” more than concocting a potent potion. Tinctures are extracts made by soaking herbs in a mixture of alcohol and water. Sometimes they contain other substances such as apple cider vinegar or vegetable glycerin. Tincturing has many benefits, including potency, longevity, and time and cost efficiency.

The basic idea behind tincturing is to extract specific healing components from the plant in a form that will remain shelf-stable for years. Because the plant’s constituents are pre-extracted, your body can make better use of the medicine. With herbal capsules, the body must process the herb; consequently, much of the medicine is lost before being absorbed. Infusions are better, but many people don't take the time to make tea on a daily basis, and some herbal compounds are not water-soluble.

Because tinctures effectively extract the medicinal properties of plants, they are very concentrated, and dosage can be a matter of drops. Plus, alcohol acts as a natural preservative, allowing tinctures to remain potent longer than dried herbs, which tend to last for only about a year or so and take up much more shelf space. Tinctures are easy to make, easy to store, easy to carry, and easy to administer. The convenience of dropping a few drops into your mouth or drinking water makes this powerful medicine accessible in today’s busy lifestyle. 

Picking Your Plants

To create your own tincture, fresh or dried plants can be used. Usually, fresh plants are preferred in order to capture the spiritual essence of the plant and provide the best taste. However, some herbs may not be locally available, so ordering the dried herb also works. 

When picking your own herbs from your garden or the wild, be sure to choose high-quality plant matter. Do not pick leaves or flowers that are yellowed or dried. If wild-crafting, be mindful not to pick plants that grow along roadsides, as they may have absorbed pollution from traffic. In general, pay attention to the environment and pick herbs from rural areas with little pollution. (For more information about wild-crafting see my post on wild-crafting basics).

A bit of research will determine which part of the plant to use. Perhaps you already know from seeing dried Calendula flowers, Red Raspberry leaf, or Dandelion root for sale in stores. For herbs such as Calendula and Lavender, the flowers alone are the most potent part. Other times, the leaves are the preferred portion, as in the case of Sage and Tulsi. Sometimes, you can harvest the top few inches from a plant, picking down to where the stem is still tender, like with Catnip. In some cases, different parts of the plant have different medicinal actions. For example, flowers from an Elder tree help calm allergies and drive out fever, whereas Elder berries are used to build the blood and boost the immune system. 

For the timing of your harvest, it's helpful to think of where the plant’s energy is concentrated throughout the season. If you are only harvesting leaves, it is better pick before the plant flowers. Once blossoms form, the herb focuses its energy on creating flowers, so the medicine begins to fade from the leaves. Harvesting the root of a plant is usually done in the fall, when the above-ground portion dies back and the plant’s energy is concentrated within the root. Early spring is the second-best time to dig roots; avoid doing so when the plant is in full bloom. 

Choosing the Alcohol

For beginners, the easiest way to tincture is with good-quality brandy or vodka. Brandy tends to bring out the sweet qualities of an herb, creating a delicious brew. Made from grapes, brandy also helps circulate the medicine throughout the body. Vodka also makes a nice, strong tincture. Because it is clear, the vibrant colors of the herbs come through beautifully. Both brandy and vodka contain a certain percentage of water that is conducive to tincturing, so no further dilution of the alcohol is needed.

For more advanced medicine making, you can use alcohol containing a much higher proof. This should be bought from a company that creates the alcohol specifically for tinctures, so that you are sure to get high quality. If possible, buy organic 190-proof alcohol (my favorite company to buy alcohol from is Alchemical Solutions). Then, you can dilute it to control the ratio of alcohol to water. 

As your herbal knowledge grows, you can start to learn which components of plants are alcohol versus water soluble, and this will help determine what percentage of alcohol to use. In the meantime, Michael Moore's Herbal Materia Medica provides a list of his recommendations for alcohol percentage for tincturing various plants. Some herbalists also add vinegar or glycerin in order to extract specific constituents of certain plants.

Macerating the Magical Potion

“Maceration is floating time, when the alluring qualities of the liquids have their way with the herbal solids; the waters and alcohols of the menstruum gently coax the essence of the plants into solution.”
–James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook

Once you have the plant matter and the alcohol of choice, the process of maceration can begin. This simply means soaking the herbs in the liquid for a certain amount of time. The liquid used for tincturing is referred to as the menstruum, a word that hearkens back to the Wise Woman tradition. As James Green suggests, this is where the alchemy of medicine-making lies. The mixture of water and alcohol begins to absorb the essence of the plant material, so that neither the liquid nor the plants remain the same.

The first goal is to get the herb into as fine a material as possible. If using dried herbs, it is best to purchase powdered herbs for tincturing. If powdered herbs are not available, you can put the cut herbs into a blender or coffee grinder to chop them finely. If picking your own, chop the plant material into small pieces.

Again, there are basically two ways to macerate: the folk method and the more precise method. Depending on which herbalist you ask, both have a lot of value. The folk method does not require much equipment and can be done by beginners who want to get started on their home apothecary. A more precise method is available for those who may want to market their herbal products and need to know more precise dosages for clients and customers.

Using the folk method, simply place the chopped herb into a glass jar and cover it with the vodka or brandy. Viola—you have the miracle of maceration! To avoid oxidation and browning, try to make sure the herbal material does not stick out above the liquid. You can always place a stone or quartz crystal on top of the mixture to press down any stubborn leaves.

If you wish to make a precise or professional tincture, some measuring is involved. You will start by weighing the herb using a scale that can measure ounces or grams. Once you know the weight of the herb, you can determine what volume of liquid you will need. For all fresh plant tinctures, the standard ratio of herb to menstruum is 1:2. In other words, for every ounce of fresh herb, you would add two ounces of menstruum. 

Using this method is sometimes challenging, because the fresh plant material will almost certainly rise above the level of liquid in your jar. This is when weighing down the plants with a stone or crystal comes in very handy. Another way to avoid oxidation is to choose a jar that you can completely fill to the top with the herb and menstruum, so that very little air remains in the jar. To get rid of stubborn air pockets, stick a butter knife in your maceration and gently tap around to release the bubbles. 

For dried plant tinctures, the typical ratio used is 1:5 or sometimes 1:10 for very potent plants. This is because dried plants have no water content and are more concentrated, so more liquid is needed to make a tincture.

Honoring Sacred Cycles

Now that we’ve got the technique of maceration down, let’s talk about the magical nature of tincturing. There are energetic layers to this ancient art form that go beyond science and into the realm of energy and spirit. The timing of maceration can be based on the cycles of the moon, adding another layer to the feminine nature of medicine-making. Starting a tincture on the day of the new moon imbues the potion with the energetic potential of new beginnings. Following this natural cycle, pressing a tincture on the day of the full moon bestows a sense of fullness and completion. The tincture then contains the resonance of the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, which are instrumental patterns in healing.

You can press a tincture after only two weeks, but I recommend waiting another moon or two before completing your potion. I typically wait until the following full moon, 6 weeks later, before pressing my tinctures. According to Rosemary Gladstar in Herbal Healing for Women (1993, p. 66),

“In Chinese herbology and several other more indigenous traditions, herbs are left to macerate for months, even years. I have found that the longer the herb is allowed to tincture, the better. I like to steep them for at least six weeks.”

This seems to point to another lesson in healing that is much-needed in Western society. By taking the time to slow down and honor the sacred cycles of life, we can better heal ourselves and others. When you are ready to press the tincture, pour the liquid through a fine cheesecloth, catching the liquid in a jar or measuring cup. Squeeze out the remaining liquid as best as you can--a process which can take some effort and patience. Compost or discard the spent herbs, which are referred to as the marc.

Once you’ve finished pressing the tincture, pour it into a colored glass bottle and store in a cool, dark place. It should last three years or longer; taste will help you determine if your tinctures are still potent. 

Enjoying Your Elixir

Dosage will depend largely on which herb you’ve tinctured. Before using any herbal medicine for the first time, research its level of potency and toxicity. A standard material dose is typically around 20-40 drops (about one dropper-full) given 2-4 times per day. Some herbalists use much smaller doses, however, depending on the circumstance. For example, Matthew Wood tends to use very specific remedies based on signatures and archetypes, so he is able to find precise remedies for people and only use 1-3 drops at a time with powerful healing effects. When it comes to unknown herbs, try to start low on the dosage scale and remain attentive to subtle changes in your body, mind, and spirit.

To connect with a plant energetically, you might place a single drop of tincture on your tongue and sit quietly, noticing the subtle effects of the medicine. This is called a drop dose or spirit dose. While meditating with the medicine, you can ask yourself questions like: Does this feel warming or cooling? Where does it travel in my body? How does it make me feel? Does it bring up any images or memories? This process is a great way to hone your intuition, and get to know your medicines on a personal level.

Above all, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself while making and using tinctures. A combination of medicine and cooking, tincture-making is certainly an art form that varies greatly depending on the artist. As arguably the best way of administering herbal medicine, tincturing is an invaluable tool. Making medicine allows us to literally take our health back into our own hands. By doing so, we honor the wise, intuitive aspect of our psyches that lives within all of us.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wildcrafting Basics: How to Reap the Healing Bounty of Mother Nature

So, you want to start using the abundant medicines of Mother Nature? To herbalists, the practice of harvesting wild plants and fungi is called wildcrafting. This can be a long trek through deep woods or a quick step into your own backyard. It counts as wildcrafting as long as the plants sprung up independently--in other words, they weren't grown by people.

Wildcrafting is a great way to get your herbal medicine for a few different reasons. For one, the plants are very fresh and rather inexpensive (by which I mean free). Wildcrafting is also a way to get in tune with the wild world and appreciate the bounty that grows all around us. It’s a practice that brings us back to our roots, literally and figuratively. Long before our ancestors farmed, they were hunters and gatherers, counting on what they brought home in their baskets to keep them alive. Even now, we too can return to nature and rediscover the life-giving plants that our ancestors used. 


Yarrow Leaf
The single most important aspect of wildcrafting is learning how to properly identify the plants--it can mean the difference between medicine and poison. Get yourself a good field guide for your area and start with what’s in bloom--flowers are by far the easiest way to identify plants. Even better, take a class with an herbalist, or find a trusted person who knows the local flora and go on a plant walk together. 

Before harvesting a plant, do some research to find out if it has any poisonous look-alikes. Queen Anne’s Lace is a notable example here, as its look-alike Poison Hemlock can be fatal when ingested. The two plants have several notable differences; for example, Hemlock has purple blotches on a smooth stem, and Queen Anne's Lace has a furry, green stem. But, every year a few people perish from picking Poison Hemlock by accident. (For more information on identifying these two plants, here's a more in-depth comparison.) When in doubt, don’t take any chances—especially with mushrooms. (Our fungal friends can provide delicious food, powerful visions, and deep healing...but they can also melt your insides. Identification is tricky at best, so be certain that you're certain.) Better safe than sorry!


When taking plants from nature, respect is crucial. Humanity in general must learn to revere rather than pillage our planet, and although herbalists are usually nature-lovers, the same is true when it comes to medicinal plants. Some herbs have become endangered due to over-harvesting, and it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that these plants stay on the planet for future generations. 

St. John's Wort
United Plant Savers is an organization committed to this goal, and they have compiled a list of at-risk plants (click here to check it out). If your desired herb turns out to be rare and endangered, it’s best to leave it alone in the wild. You can often find suitable alternatives, as many different plants can be used to treat the same condition. But, if your favorite at-risk plant is simply irreplaceable in your eyes, believe me--I get it. Each plant has its own unique personality and spirit, and sometimes only the one you want will do. 

In this case, consider buying it from a sustainably-grown source--or learn how to grow it yourself! While growing at-risk plants like Goldenseal can be a challenge, it can also be an empowering experience, in which you also foster your own growth. In this way, you enter into a deeper relationship with your beloved plant and give back to Mother Nature. But I digress--back to wildcrafting!

Permission and Gratitude 

Sarah with Grandfather Pine

In keeping with the spirit of respect, it’s nice to practice gratitude when harvesting plants. Although many herbalists view the plant kingdom as simply a body of useful materials, those who are spiritually-oriented feel that each plant possesses a consciousness and a spirit. To honor this spirit, it’s best to ask permission from the plant before harvesting. Express your intention to harvest, and wait to receive a response; it could be an answer in your mind or simply a feeling. Plants are natural givers, so it’s likely that permission will be granted. If not, there is probably a good reason for it--perhaps the plant is trying to protect you from a nearby patch of Poison Ivy, for example. I've also heard stories from herbalists who've asked permission to harvest and heard a distinct "No," only to walk a few more feet down the path and discover a much bigger, better stand of plants waiting for them. Trust the guidance of the plants, and trust your own intuitive senses to receive their guidance.

During and after your harvest, give thanks to the plant. Be especially mindful when harvesting roots, for this usually requires taking the life of a plant. Many herbalists leave ceremonial offerings in return for their bounty. A bit of tobacco or cornmeal are traditional, but you can also leave a wooden bead, a lock of hair, or even a song—the important thing is that it has meaning for you.

Picking Potent Plants

Red Clover Harvest

When you’re ready to harvest, there are several tips that will help you pick healthy plants for your medicine cabinet. 

  • For starters, be mindful of the area: Is there much pollution? Is there a chance of contamination from chemicals? Tempting though it may be, it’s best to avoid roadsides. I know it's exciting when you see gorgeous medicinals on the side of the road--they seem to call your name, saying "Pick me! I'm right here!"  But consider all of the road trash, car exhaust, oil, and herbicides that land in those zones. Do yourself a favor and find those same plants elsewhere. Similarly, if you’re picking Dandelions from someone’s lawn, be sure they don’t use chemical fertilizers. In general, the more remote your location, the more pure the plants--with the exception of chemicals used in conventional farming. Avoid the edges of fields that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Again, I know this can be a tempting prospect, as many medicinals grow in border zones. But trust me--you want to make healthy medicine to use and share with your family and friends.
  • This may go without saying, but choose plants that look healthy, vibrant, and lush. Pick leaves that are green, not wilted, spotted, or browned. Use common sense--if a plant looks unhealthy or diseased, leave it alone. 
  • Consider your timing, as the rhythms of Nature are a crucial aspect of plant life. It helps to understand that each herb puts its energy into different parts of the plant at different times of the year. Spring is the best time to harvest leaves, because the plants are putting all of their vital energy into their green growth. After the plant begins to flower (the timing will vary depending on the plant), the leaves will lose some of their potency, as the energy has moved into the blossoms. Roots are best harvested in the fall, after the top portion has died back and the plant has pulled its essence underground. This may mean deferring gratification—perhaps you spot a bunch of Burdock in mid-summer, but wait until fall to harvest the roots. In today's society of instant-gratification, a little patience is a welcome lesson from our green friends.

With these tips in mind, you’re well on your way to a happy and healthy wildcrafting session. If you keep your eyes and heart open, you can discover the joy of providing yourself and your loved ones with healthy medicines straight from the wild heart of Mother Earth.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Feeling Your Oats: A Guide to the Medicinal Uses of Avena sativa

We all know of oats as a tasty food, but did you know that the Oats plant (Avena sativa) is also a medicine? Herbalists often call it by different names--Milky Oats, Oat Seed, Oatstraw, or Avena--but in fact, it’s the same plant that graces your breakfast table as a bowl of oatmeal. Here, we’re going to focus on getting to know our friend Avena as a medicinal plant that treats nervous exhaustion and depression, enhances the libido, nourishes the body, and much more. Get ready to feel your Oats!

A Restorative Tonic

Avena is often used as a restorative tonic for anyone who feels chronically tired, stressed, depressed, frazzled, overworked, or exhausted. It nourishes and soothes the nervous system, helping to overcome anxiety, grief, and nervous breakdown. In Ayurveda, Oatstraw is known as one of the Rasayana herbs, which “rebuild the body-mind, prevent decay, and post-pone aging,” according to Vasant Lad and David Frawley in their book The Yoga of Herbs. 

By keeping blood fat levels down, Avena also supports heart health. As a nutritive herb, Oats and Oatstraw are high in phosphorus, calcium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Avena also contains abundant B vitamins, which the body rapidly loses during times of stress--another reason why this plant makes such a nice nerve tonic.  Plus, Oats contain the mineral silica, which supports the growth of healthy skin, hair, and nails. 

Unlike many herbal medicines, Avena is gentle enough to use every day to restore and revitalize the system. Susun Weed recommends eating Oats and/or taking Oatstraw consistently to improve coordination, bone density, attention span, balance, and memory--qualities that aging folks try hard to hold onto.

An Herb for Recovery

Avena’s nourishing qualities, along with its calming and uplifting effects, make it a nice remedy for people recovering from anorexia. It's also useful for recovering alcoholics and those withdrawing from tobacco, caffeine, or other drugs, as it can ease delirium tremens and irritability. In fact, this plant is good for anyone recovering from illness, as well as the elderly and convalescent. 

It's good to remember that Oats can help us recover from emotional distress as well, be it the loss of a loved one or even the so-called "positive stress" of a job interview or first date. Personally, I find that oatmeal is edible even at times when I don't feel much like eating. So, if your stomach is tied in knots (see also: Mint Magic), your hands are shaking, or if you find yourself in the proverbial Pit of Despair, fix yourself a bowl of oatmeal. Seriously.

Skin Care

By Bibikoff via Wikimedia Commons
Our discussion of Avena’s healing properties wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its benefits for the skin. Many lotions and body care products contain Oats in some form, and this is for good reason. This plant is excellent for treating all kinds of skin inflammation and dermatitis, including chicken pox, eczema, psoriasis, frostbite, chilblains, and rashes. Its cooling effects soothe the skin and also relieve itching and flaking.

Sense & Sensitivity

Stallion Munches on Oats
By Bonnie Gruenberg via Wikimedia Commons
With all of these qualities suggesting nourishment and ease, it may surprise you a bit to learn that Avena enhances the libido. Indeed, there is good cause for the phrase “sowing your wild oats,” as this plant functions as a gentle aphrodisiac. This is especially true in cases where someone works hard during the day and, come evening time, feels too exhausted to even think about sex. By restoring the entire system to a relaxed and sturdy state, Avena also restores the sex drive. Plus, Susun Weed explains that Avena enhances “sensitivity to pleasant stimuli,” making it an important sexual tonic, especially for women who have difficulty feeling pleasure. 

Speaking of sensitivity, it’s important to note that Avena heightens all of our senses, not just the physical ones. We mentioned that Oats are high in silica, which is needed by the brain and body for many functions, including intuition and connection to our Higher Self. The silica content, along with Avena’s rejuvenative effect on the nerves, makes it a great plant to use when undergoing any kind of spiritual work. A strong and vibrant nervous system is the backbone of psychic abilities, so it’s a good idea to keep your nerves nourished with Avena. Oatstraw supports meditation and creative dreaming as well as shamanic work of all kinds. Whatever spiritual adventures you find yourself on, Avena will help you stay grounded and clear-headed throughout the process. 

By Sigurdas via Wikimedia Commons

So you see--whether you are an impassioned maiden, a busy mother, or a cosmic crone; whether you are a strapping stallion or a worldly wizard; or even if you're just hungry--Avena is a great plant ally for anyone to befriend.

How to Use Avena


Now that we know why to use our lovely friend Avena, let’s look at how you can start using this amazing plant:

-It’s worth mentioning that eating oatmeal is a great way to “let food be thy medicine,” as Hippocrates would say. This is an easy and tasty way to enjoy the benefits of Avena.

-Milky Oats or Oat Seed extract is produced by harvesting the unripe seeds before they are mature enough to become grain. When squeezed, they exude a sweet, milky substance that makes a wonderful tincture. This makes getting in your Oats a bit more convenient when you’re in a hurry or on the road.

-Oatstraw is the green, grass-like portion of the Oats plant, which makes a mild tea that is quite palatable as well as nourishing.

-Oatstraw is also famous for its use in the bath, especially when treating skin conditions. Just steep a pot of tea, strain the liquid into a hot bath, and enjoy. Or, you can put some regular rolled Oats into a cotton, drawstring bag and keep it in the tub with you. (See also: Bath Tea.) Once wet, the bag will exude a gel-like substance that softens the skin. You can even use it to shave your legs! 

-If you’re a gardener, you can easily grow your own Oats. It works well as a tall ground cover and is harvested during the summer for extracting at the “milky” stage. Then you can cut and dry the remaining grass—Oatstraw—for tea. (Tip for home herbalists: Along with the usual blend of alcohol and water, add about 10% apple cider vinegar to your tincture in order to extract more of the valuable minerals this plant has to offer.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poultice Power: How to Treat Poison Ivy (and Other Itchy Situations) with Jewelweed

While stuck indoors during a cold winter, I often fantasize about summer--swimming, gardening, sunbathing...ahh. I imagine myself with the healthy glow that can only come from sweat and sunshine. But what I tend to forget is how my skin actually gets in the summer time--full of itchy, red bug bites! Muggy Indiana is host to many biting and stinging things, and this year I’m not sure I’ve escaped a single one of them.

This month, I've also had occasion to remember what Poison Ivy is like. Having not had it in years, I wasn’t even sure if I was sensitive to it anymore. But a couple weeks ago, I brazenly walked through the woods barefooted. (The part of me that thinks I’m a fairy thought this was a great idea.) I was rewarded for my earthy ways with a rash on my foot, and for two nights in a row I kept waking up in the middle of the night scratching. I'm sure many of you know the drill.

Jewelweed Flower


For years, I’ve heard about using Jewelweed to treat Poison Ivy. These two plants often grow side by side in the wild, which helps out in a couple of ways. For one thing, the presence of Jewelweed can warn you to be on the lookout for Poison Ivy, which is far less conspicuous. One the other hand, if you’ve already succumbed to Poison Ivy rash, you can sometimes return to the scene of the crime and find your antidote. Thank you, Mother Nature! Even the fool-hardy fairies among us can still find salvation.

The Jewelweed in my area is usually of the spotted, orange variety (Impatiens capensis), though occasionally I’ll find Pale Jewelweed, which instead has yellow flowers. The plants reach heights of 3-5 feet tall and tend to grow in shady spots. According to Bradford Angier in the Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants, “all five of our native species grow in similarly moist habitats and can be used interchangeably regardless of flower color.” That makes it easy. And the pendant-like flowers are very unique, so you probably won't mistake this plant.

Touch Me Not?

Jewelweed also goes by the name Touch Me Not, because the seed pods explode when touched. In my opinion, however, this line of thinking is all wrong. First of all, what plant doesn’t want to spread its seeds? By creating this ingenious seed pod design, nature has endowed Jewelweed with the ability to pop its seeds up to three feet away any time an animal brushes up against it. Pod-popping is also a favorite past time for children (and adults who haven’t lost their sense of wonder for nature). It’s downright joyful.

Jewelweed Pods
Rather than a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn’t like to be touched, I like to think of Jewelweed as more of a people person. You can almost hear the soft, tinkling bell of a laugh when you pop a seed pod open.  Or perhaps it’s a sigh of pleasure, or even relief. In any case, it is my assertion that Jewelweed likes to be touched--otherwise, why would it make the prospect so tempting? I hereby declare that we henceforth deem the alternate name of Jewelweed to be Touch Me Now.

After all, this name would also fit with the service it does for humankind--by taking away the itch, Jewelweed helps us return to place of comfort in our bodies so that we can again enjoy being touched.

How it Works

Jewelweed is a plant with antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, and steroidal compounds. This explains its healing power not only for Poison Ivy rash, but for all kinds of itchy skin scenarios: Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, Stinging Nettle rash, eczema, even insect bites and stings. If I’d only known the extended list of treatable ailments at the beginning of the summer!

It's best to treat any plant-induced rash right away. This helps prevent it from getting worse and spreading as you scratch. Plus, who wouldn’t want to treat something that uncomfortable right away? It just makes sense.

Jewelweed Leaves
Because the fresh juice of the plant is the most potent part, and because it was quick and easy, I opted to use a Jewelweed poultice on my Poison Ivy rash. And let me tell you--it worked wonders! After a few minutes, the itching started to subside. After a few hours, the symptoms stopped completely and never came back. I will give instructions on making a poultice next, but first I wanted to mention a couple of other ways to use this plant:

-Drinking the tea as a preventive measure. I’ve not tried it myself, but it might be worth it if you’re someone who gets rashes every summer. Plus, if I had a bad case of Poison Ivy, I'd be drinking the tea and treating it externally at the same time.

-Freezing the tea into ice cubes to hold on the rash. I imagine this would feel glorious!

-Juicing the plant. It occurs to me that, like summer, Jewelweed doesn’t stick around all year. Yet it is possible to get Poison Ivy by touching a leafless vine in the winter. For those who are very sensitive, it would be a good idea to preserve this plant to use year-round. Because the medicine is concentrated in the juice, I thought it would be a good idea to stick this plant in the juicer (or put it in the blender and squeeze out the juice through cheesecloth). Then you could preserve it by adding about 20% alcohol, and keep it in the fridge as an added measure. Or, you could freeze the juice into ice cubes and bag them up in the freezer.

Making a Jewelweed Poultice

The texts say that the steams and leaves hold the medicine of this plant. Personally, I cut about 3-4 inches from the flowering tops. This did stain my skin orange (and it's still orange, days later), but I didn’t care--Calamine lotion would have had a similar effect. But if you’re concerned, you can always just use the green parts of the plant.

Now, add a little water and mash up the plant material with a mortar and pestle or in a blender. Place it on your skin and bind it there with a bandage. (Or, if you're dealing with a small bite or sting, you can always just pluck a single leaf from the plant, chew it up, and slap it on.) Because poultices work best when kept wet, I recently discovered (okay, it was my dad’s idea) that you can wrap it first with plastic cling wrap and then bind it with a bandage or cloth. That keeps the juice in better and helps prevent staining your clothes, sheets, etc. 

I kept the first poultice on for 2-3 hours, and then took it off to shower. Afterwards, I made a new poultice and kept it on for another few hours. I took it off before bed, and it was like a miracle. I slept through the night peacefully, and it hasn’t bothered me since. It’s been less than a week, and now there is only one little area of redness. But there has been no itching--repeat, NO itching--since my encounter with this precious plant, Jewelweed. What a jewel, indeed!
Jewelweed Double Flower