Herbal Ed Lectures in the Kingdom of Bhutan

bhutan_monestaryThis past September I had the honor of lecturing at the 7th International Congress on Traditional Asian Medicine which was held in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Herb Pharm was a corporate sponsor of the event. The congress was attended by 300 people from 30 different countries, including traditional healers, doctors, herbalists and acupuncturists from Tibet, China, India, Thailand, Bhutan, Korea and Japan; academic scholars, including medical anthropologists, medical historians, ethnologists, agronomists, ethnobotanists, many government healthcare policy makers; and one American herbalist, me.

I presented a lecture on “Conservation of Wild Medicinal Plants Through Sustainable Wild-Harvesting and Propagation by Organic Agriculture,” and participated in several round-table discussions on conservation of endangered medicinal plants of the Himalayas. Besides attending this very interesting congress, I was also very happy to finally visit the exotic and very isolated Kingdom of Bhutan and its serene and friendly people. Before 1963 there were no roads going into Bhutan, so one could only enter the country by hiking through very dense, tiger-infested jungles in the south, or by trekking over very high Himalayan mountain passes in the north.

It’s not easy getting a travel visa to Bhutan; they only allow in a small number of tourists per year. Bhutan – which many call “The Last Shangri-la” – is very isolated geographically and is just coming into the modern world. This emerging nation is now modernizing, but not at the expense of overwhelming its traditional culture and pristine environment. Fortunately Bhutan’s king is very wise and is learning from the mistakes made by other devel-oping nations. The Bhutanese government’s guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) gives precedence to its people’s happiness over GNP (Gross National Product). The government allows very few multinational corporations to establish in Bhutan and, instead, favors and promotes its own people and businesses. Television and internet only arrived in 1999. It was so pleasant in the capital city of Thimpu with-out the likes of McDonalds, KFC or 7-11. There are no electric signs; the air is very clean because there are few cars and the sale of tobacco is banned nationwide; also, the national sport is archery, not soccer; and most citizens still wear traditional Bhutanese costume. With a population of 650,000, 80% percent of Bhutanese derive their income from agriculture, of which 95% is free of synthetic chemicals.

The new government has rejected GMOs and only allows the introduction of a few non-native plants. They are very supportive of the development of internationally-certified organic agriculture. Free medical care is provided for all, and the government fully supports the Bhutanese traditional healing system, which is very similar to traditional Tibetan medicine. I visited their National Institute of Traditional Medicine Services which has a traditional-medicine hospital, medical school, and a manufacturing herbal pharmacy for which I’ve been asked to consult in order to bring it up to an international GMP standard. I was extremely proud to represent Herb Pharm at such a prestigious international congress and to see how favorably impressed attendees were by the work we all do.

Originally Published Winter 2010

Herbal Spotlight: Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum & gratissimum)

Legend has it that Tulsi, a Hindu goddess and consort to Lord Vishnu, chose to be reincarnated as a sacramental herb in order to express her devotion to Lord Vishnu. That herb was given her name, Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil. Holy Basil is one of the most sacred herbs in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, and has been highly revered in Hinduism for thousands of years.

Known as the “Mother Medicine of Nature” and the “Queen of Herbs,” Holy Basil is worshipped by Hindu devotees of Lord Vishnu/Krishna. All parts of the plant from the roots up are considered sacred. Rosary beads are made both from the stem and the smooth seeds. The ground in which Holy Basil grows is sacred and even the wind that carries its scent is considered blessed. It is seen as the protector of life from birth through death. Worshipping the plant is thought to bring riches and good fortune, protect from disaster and erase sin. A leaf or two placed in a dying person’s mouth, or a single plant placed in a funeral pyre, is believed to have the power to protect the person from hell and guide them to salvation.

In esoteric terms, Holy Basil is used to give the protection of the divine, open the heart and mind and strengthen love, compassion and devotion. It has become a popular herb for clearing the mind and promoting calmness and mental clarity. But what role will this highly revered medicine from ancient India play in the modern, western world? Recent research suggests that Holy Basil may be antioxidant and adaptogenic. We look forward to seeing these developments and the changing role of this ancient herb. In the meantime, Holy Basil is a wonderful daily tonic.

Herb Pharm’s Holy Basil extract combines two varieties of Ocimum sanctum and one variety of Ocimum gratissimum. All three plants are fairly similar. Of the two Ocimum sanctum varieties, the green-leafed Rama is considered more energetically neutral while the dark green to purple-leafed Krishna is considered more fiery and clearing. Ocimum gratissimum, known as Vana or forest Tulsi, has properties in common to both Ocimum sanctum varieties and is considered sweeter. All varieties of our Holy Basil are certified organically grown in India.

If you want to try growing your own Holy Basil, seed for Ocimum sanctum is available from sources such as Seeds of Change™. It grows under the same conditions as Sweet Basil and lends a wonderfully pungent, aromatic character to the garden. The leaves can be used as a tea with honey for clearing the mind or like a strong form of Sweet Basil in salads and cooking.

Tonic herbs like Holy Basil or Tulsi are some of our most important herbal allies. Tonics help us to maintain our health, which in turn means we need to use more overtly therapeutic medicines less often. They help connect us to something more wild and primal than our commonly cultivated foods. Yet like foods, they can be used on a daily basis. We will no doubt be hearing much more about Holy Basil in the future.

Originally Published in July 2004

Herbal Spotlight: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

A member of the Papaveraceae or Poppy family, Bloodroot is a native wildflower from the shaded woodlands of eastern North America. In early spring, this perennial root projects a tender shoot that is tightly wrapped around an elegant single flower. The white petals with yellow centers emerge in the early months of March and April. Native American tribes harvested the root of this plant for a wide variety of ailments in our traditional medicinal heritage and current research continues to study the unique constituents in the root of this plant. The distinctive red “blood” in Bloodroot exudes heavily from the fresh root when broken, giving the plant both its common name and botanical genus.

Due to the increasing demand of wild-harvested Bloodroot and loss of native habitat, Bloodroot has been listed as an “At-Risk” species by United Plant Savers. Yet, in the rich, moist woodland soils along our farm’s field edges, the flesh-like fingers of Bloodroot are expanding beneath the ground. We began an initial trial planting of Bloodroot in 2007 from small root pieces that we received from an Appalachian nursery in Tennessee. With these small roots, we planted a single 140 foot bed of Bloodroot along the forest edge.

After three years of cultivation, we decided to record our growth rate and potential yields last autumn. What had emerged was a success. The roots had tripled in physical size and each root exemplified vigorous health. This plot had yielded 22 pounds from 43 bed feet, so almost ½ pound per foot! The farm has submitted trial data on drying specifications and small samples for analytical testing, but we have mainly relied on the initial planting as a propagation springboard. We have quadrupled the size of our field plots over the last two seasons through root division. Our goal is to provide dried Bloodroot for production starting in Fall 2013. Given the right soil and shade conditions, I am encouraged by Bloodroot’s potential to continue thriving at our farm in Williams.

Originally Published in November  2011

Herb Pharm Reaches Out to Troubled Youth

On April 18th, I spent an afternoon working with several young men at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility, which is located in Grants Pass. The facility is dedicated to housing and rehabilitating males (who are charged with criminal offenses between the ages of 12-18). The trained staff fully recognizes the importance of interaction between the offenders in custody with their family and members of the local community to create a new direction in their young lives. The idea of planting and tending a medicinal herb garden to foster a positive change was the first step in collaboration between Sherri Harmon, correctional staff employee, and Herb Pharm.

After disclosure of herb seeds, seedlings, organic fertilizer, and personal items, I was admitted into the facility, where I met the group of young men eager to learn about gardening. The plants glowed with vibrancy and life amongst the white walls, metal doors, and concrete. I had begun to capture their attention as we tasted the bitter Artichoke leaves and chewed slowly on Echinacea seed. We talked about the gentle nature of Catnip tea, extracting resinous Calendula flowers, and other examples of plants for medicinal use. After that basic primer on the medicine of herbs, and more in soil biology and seed propagation, it was time to get our hands in the dirt. The boys began turning new soil, adding compost and mixing potting soil in their small greenhouse. We planted Mullein, Echinacea, Feverfew, and Lavender along the concrete edges of the courtyard, planted the seeds of cilantro and peppers for food as medicine, and transplanted many other herbs and seeds into containers. I sensed the excitement in the group towards the future tending of this new garden and recognized the opportunity to learn new concepts and skills for each of them. Our accomplishment ended with high-fives and handshakes, as I passed the daily commitment of watering, weeding, and harvesting onto the group and vowed to return in a few weeks to see how the garden was growing.

So, as our culture re-discovers the power of herbal plant healing, people are not just grabbing tinctures and teas for acutely treating bruises, colds and headaches. We are realizing the potential benefits that plants offer on deeper level. Many common herbs offer us a broad, safe path to social, mental, physical, and environmental wellness. For these young men, my hope is that through learning to grow and use medicinal plants, it will help expose new skills towards a better understanding of themselves and their impact on the broader community.

Originally Published in June 2012

The Forgotten Pollinators

pleurisy_bee_800

Longer, warmer days are here, and with them we acknowledge a key player in the wonderful seed to flower transformations happening all around us – our friends and allies: the pollinators.

These creatures, which include beetles, butterflies, moths, bees, and bats, are responsible for the transfer of pollen from the male sex organ of the flower (anther) to its female counterpart (stigma). This well manipulated strategy ensures the birth of a seed in the plants ovule and the continuance of certain species. Pollen can also be moved by wind, water, or a gardener’s helping hand. Wind pollinated plants tend to produce a large abundance of lightly weighted pollen. At Herb Pharm’s “pharm” our Corn, Sweet Annie, Wormwood, and Stinging Nettle are wind-pollinated herbs. My nose always knows, along with itchy eyes, where to find these plants. However, insects pollinate the majority of medicinal herbs, including many of our farm’s crops.

From observation at the farm, bees seem to be our most prolific and efficient pollinators. Worker bees voraciously consume nectar and pollen in the early summer from our Motherwort and Mullein patches. They move happily towards July through the Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Calendula and Echinacea purpurea. Worker bees, which are female, will forage nectar to bring back to the hive. Female nurse bees will feed nectar, honey and pollen to the queen’s young brood. There is only one queen per colony, but worker bees can choose to feed the young larva “royal jelly” to create a new queen. New queens are typically raised in the spring, when it becomes a colony’s natural instinct to swarm. A swarm is how honeybees advance their population, when approximately half the hive’s workers leave the colony with a new queen. You may have seen a swarm of honeybees land on a tree, under house eaves, or in chimneys and walls during this time.

The farm crew rarely encounters a male honeybee, called a drone, in our crop fields. They do not forage pollen or nectar from our plants. They fly to the “drone congregating area” and hang out all day with other male bees waiting for the queen bee to pass by. Their main role is to mate with the queen. However, the free meals and ride is over in the fall. The female workers will drag drones to the hive entrance and close the door. Drones serve no purpose to the winter hive, and they will not survive on their own.

One type of male bee we do encounter on the farm is the male bumblebee. Once a male bumblebee leaves the nest hive, he will not return to it. Instead, they sleep inside the flowers at night for warmth and slowly emerge, while drinking nectar as the sun warms them up. We observe bumblebees drifting amongst our Wood Betony, Bugleweed and Hyssop flowers.

Butterflies are also an important pollinator for many of our farm’s herbs. It’s hard to miss the giant swallowtail butterfly feeding on Goldenrod, Echinacea, and Pleurisy flowers. The smaller skipper butterflies are always attracted to our Yarrow beds. Beetles are some of the most primitive forms of pollinators on the farm. Finally, hoverflies enjoy feeding and sleeping in our Calendula flowers, and typically get trapped in our hands during the harvest. However, they are all buzz and no bite! Their bee-like appearance is to frighten predators, but these flies do not have the capability to sting.

Overall, these remarkable beings gather nourishment from the flower’s pollen and nectar to strengthen their own health, disease resistance, reproductive capabilities and individual societies. As we work alongside these creatures, our human-insect mission melds into a common goal of gathering and living well. A lively hum of chatter can be heard between the student farm crew and the bees in these flowery fields. And as the summer crops and crew begin to fade away, everybody will benefit from the transformation of flower into seed, perpetuating an ensured co-existence between plants, pollinators and people.

Listen to Herb Pharm Farm Manager Matt Dybala as he discusses the importance of bees on our 85-acre organic farm in southern Oregon.

 

Originally Published in June 2011

Infused Herbal Oils & Essential Oils What’s the Difference?

The term “oil” in herbal medicine can be a confusing matter without clarifying exactly what type of “oil” we are talking about. The generic term oil can refer to two distinct herbal preparations. In one type, herbs are extracted with a fixed oil, usually vegetable oil, to make infused herbal oil intended primarily for use on the skin. The other products, essential oils, are phytochemical constituent groups isolated from aromatic herbs. An important point here is that essential oils are both plant constituents and when isolated from the plant, herbal products.

Culinary oils like Olive oil used in making infused herbal oil are lipids or fats. Lipid-based oils are also known as fixed oils because they are non-volatile. Fixed oils consist in part of fatty acid chains and are best known in the realm of nutrition. The highest quality fixed vegetable oils are cold-pressed from the fatty fruits and seeds whose names they bear. Olive and sesame oils are the most commonly used oils in herbal dietary supplements today, but many others can be found in herbal cosmetic products.

To make infused herbal oils like Calendula and St. John’s Wort, Herb Pharm uses a traditional process called digestion. Digestion is a very low heat, prolonged extraction designed to draw out the plant’s bioactive compounds. Herb Pharm uses food-grade, cold-pressed, certified organic extra virgin Olive oil to make our infused oils. Fixed oils dissolve many of the same compounds that dissolve in pure alcohol and the resulting infused oil represents a whole herb extract of the plant.

Fixed oils are distinct from the very fragrant essential oils. Essential oils are highly aromatic, volatile plant oils that are commonly used as fragrances, flavorings and in aromatherapy. These oils tend to evaporate or volatilize fairly easily at moderate temperatures. It is this volatile character that allows their aroma to reach your olfactory receptors and be perceived as fragrant. Natural essential oils occur in complex combinations that have a fairly specific composition for each plant. In herbs like Peppermint, Lavender and Cinnamon, the unique phytochemical composition of each essential oil is responsible for the highly distinctive aroma of the plant.

Essential oils can be separated from plant material by extracting them with certain types of solvents and in many cases by passing steam through the herb. Some essential oils are collected by simply pressing the fresh plant, as in the case of Orange oil used to flavor Children’s Echinacea™. Steam distillation is widely used to produce essential oils and is the method used for our Tea Tree oil and other essential oils we use as ingredients. We eschew chemical solvents and never use essential oils that are extracted with them.

The chemistry is complex, but it is the hydrophobic or water-repelling nature of essential oils that allows for their isolation and collection through steam distillation. And since both essential oils and fixed oils are hydrophobic, they are very compatible with each other. Fixed oils are commonly used as carriers and diluents for very strong essential oils. This combination is commonly seen in products like massage oil.

In line with the “like dissolves like” principle, essential oils are also highly soluble in strong alcohol. This forms the basis for the old pharmaceutical preparations known as “spirits.” Herb Pharm makes several spirits as combinations of a liquid extract or tincture with the essential oil of the plant rather than a simple alcohol solution of the essential oil. Our spirits include Oregano Spirits™ and the very popular Peppermint Spirits. One similar product is Erigeron/Cinnamon Compound that combines essential oils of these two plants in high alcohol. Another related product is Friar’s Balsam that contains several balsams, which are chemically closely related to essential oils, dissolved in alcohol.

Tea Tree Oil represents the only essential oil product that Herb Pharm carries. In all other cases the essential oils we use are ingredients in other products, but our Tea Tree is a pure, standalone essential oil. Essential oils represent large quantities of plant material and are therefore very powerful plant derivatives that should be used sparingly and carefully.

In contrast, the infused oils like those made from Calendula, Arnica and St. John’s Wort are very soothing to skin because of their fixed oil bases. Each of these herbs brings their vulnerary or skin healing properties to their respective infused oils. These single oils are also combined in our aptly named Trauma Oil™. Two other special oil-based formulas are our Mullein/Garlic eardrops and Herb Pharm’s Original Salve™. While tinctures or liquid extracts comprise the bulk of our product line, these two distinct categories of oils are important contributions to the Herb Pharm medicine chest. Our infused oils constitute a very visible and significant part of our external product profile. Herb Pharm’s essential oils may not be as apparent, but they establish a noteworthy category of flavoring and active ingredients throughout our products.

Originally Published in June 2010

American Herbalists Guild 20th Annual Symposium

ahgThe American Herbalists Guild (AHG) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting herbalism and herbalists throughout the United States. The Guild welcomes both general members (anyone can join) and professional members. One of the Guild’s main goals is to establish AHG professional membership as a recognizable standard of competency in botanical medicine. In order to demonstrate their skill level, Professional member applicants are peer-reviewed by the AHG Admissions Board. General members include students, aspiring herbalists and a wide variety of others drawn to plant medicine.

This past October, the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) held its twentieth annual symposium in Santa Rosa, California. About 300 people turned out for the three-day symposium, entitled “Herbal Medicine: New Possibilities for Primary Care.” Nineteen nationally recognized teachers presented classes and herb walks to attendees from around the country. The symposium addressed herbal healthcare throughout all stages of life, from healthy pregnancy to end of life care. Topics included children’s herbs, maintaining health in aging, and treatment of diseases associated with aging.

Herb Pharm attendees included co-owners Ed Smith and Sara Katz, Herbal Educator, Julie Plunkett and staff Herbalist, David Bunting. Julie and David tended to the Herb Pharm information table over the weekend. It was good to see friends and current customers and Julie applied her excellent educational skills in telling new customers about Herb Pharm and our products. Herb Pharm is proud to have been one of the top-tier sponsors of this important event.

Ed Smith presented two great classes during the event. The first was entitled “An Herbal Travelogue, the Botanical Adventures of Herbal Ed.” This travel slideshow took attendees on Ed’s herbal explorations from Kava ceremonies in the South Pacific island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu to the Junín Maca Festival at 15,000 feet elevation in the Peruvian Andes. Ed’s second class, “Optimizing Male Sexual Health, Performance & Pleasure With Herbs” dealt with tonics to optimize sexual health and treatment of various sexual maladies. This class served as a complement to a talk addressing women’s sexuality presented by Aviva Romm, the president of AHG.

The idea for an organization of herbalists was planted in the early 1980s during the annual herbal gatherings at Breitenbush Hot Springs in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. In 1989, a group of herbalists from around the country came together in Santa Cruz, California to move the idea forward and the American Herbalists Guild was born. Guild founding members included Herb Pharmers Sara, Ed and David.

In keeping with its long-term goals and mission, the Guild has brought together a disparate coalition of people who share in common a love of plants and herbal medicine. AHG publishes an excellent journal and newsletter, sponsors regular telephone trainings and the annual symposium and acts as an ever-growing voice for promoting herbalism. Annual memberships are available for the general public, herb students and pro-fessionals. To find out more about the American Herbalists Guild, visit www.americanherbalistsguild.com.

Originally Published Winter 2010

Choco-Maca “Milk”

Ingredients:

  • 1 dropperful of Herb Pharm’s Maca liquid herbal extract
  • 4 ounces of chocolate “milk” (dairy, soy, almond, rice, hemp, or oat)

For 24, 4-oz.servings use one full, 1-ounce bottle of Maca in 3 quarts of chocolate “milk.”
Stir well before serving.

Herbal Spotlight: Schisandra chinensis

Schisandra (Wu-Wei-Zi) is an important herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is known for its nourishing and tonifying effect, especially on the liver and kidneys. It is also a member of a class of botanicals known as “adaptogens”, which are used to optimize physical and mental performance. We prepare our Schisandra Extract from the ripe berries of Schisandra chinensis vines which are Certified Organically Grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.