Everlasting Flower for Colds

Dried California Pearly Everlasting. The flowers are small, about the size of a buttons on a shirt collar.

Last summer I was happy to be able to take a class on native plant use taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, co-authors of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. One of the many things I learned in this class was that the flowers of California Pearly Everlasting, Gnaphalium californicum, aka cudweed aka rabbit tobacco, are supposed to be good for colds.

I’ve not had a chance to try it until this week. I’ve only had one cold since last summer, and that one hit so fast and hard I just sort of gave up on doing anything but riding it out. The one I have this week is more of a typical head cold, and  a good chance for a field test. And I can say that I think they helped. But I’m not sure how.

My confusion is a result of memory vs. notes. I remember James saying he takes this tea instead of Day Quill whenever he has a cold. So, having the flowers on hand, I took the tea expecting it to act like cold medicine. Because the effects are so subtle (unlike cold capsules) I didn’t think my first cup was doing anything at all–until I realized I’d stopped sneezing and constantly blowing my nose. The relief lasted for a few hours. When I started feeling crappy again, I had another cup and the symptoms retreated again.  Over the course the first day I had 3 cups. The next day, I felt much better. My symptoms were less, though I did still feel “under siege” and retreated to bed early.

During the course of that day, I dug out my class notes and discovered that Cecilia said something different than what I remembered–she said that Everlasting is an immune stimulant, and when you have a cold you’re supposed to take one cup (one!) before bed for 4 nights. It has to be 4 cups over 4 nights, even if you feel better. No more, no less. So she’s using it more like Echinacea–not as a symptom relief.  Meanwhile, random internet searches affirm that it’s good for colds, but don’t say how.

Continue reading…

Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.”  The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!

Solanum nigrum

To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.

Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!

The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of  intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids.  Jennifer M. Edmonds and  James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,

. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums. 

The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.

A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.

Nasturtium Flower and Pistachio Pesto: a story in pictures

Sorry, we don’t have a recipe for this, because we always wing it when it comes to pesto–even Erik, who is recipe dependent. You too can make it without a recipe.

Pesto is simply a blending of 5 main ingredients, which can vary widely according to season, availability and taste:

1) an aromatic herb, or blend of herbs (traditionally basil, but we use chives, parsley, mint, arugula and here, nasturtium flower–basically anything with a strong flavor. This can be stretched with some spinach or nettles for a milder flavor.)
2) a nut of some sort, toasted preferably
3) good quality shredded Parmesan cheese
4) good quality olive oil
5) raw or roasted garlic

You throw all these things in a blender, or go old school and mash them with a mortar and pestle. The proportions are intuitive. It’s hard to make bad pesto as long as your ingredients are good. Less cheese and nuts yields a lighter pesto. Less herb and more cheese and nuts makes a richer pesto. Less garlic yields a milder pesto. We use maybe 2 raw cloves per batch. It’s all good. Process the dry ingredients first, then add oil bit by bit to make a paste. Some people make a smooth paste, we leave nut chunks in. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve pesto over hot pasta, or spoon it into soup for flavor, or dip veggies in it, or thin it down and drizzle it over cooked veggies, or spread it on toasted bread, or eat it off the spoon…

Plantain for rashes

It’s hard to take a decent picture when both of your hands are covered in green slime!

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

A couple of days ago I made a mistake: I attacked a stand of rogue borage without gloves. You know how it is when you think you’re just going to make one pruning cut, and then end up hacking for an hour in a mindless frenzy? Borage is covered with irritating little hairs which made my hands and forearms itch and burn. I really should have known better.

Plantago major

Fortunately, our yard provides the cure for such indiscretions in the form of a nice patch of common plantain (Plantago major). This broad leaf plantain, as well as its narrow leaved cousin, Plantago lanceolata, are fantastic for easing the irritation of itchy rashes and bug bites. I harvest the leaves, dry them, and make them into salves for year round use, but when plantain is growing, it’s easiest to use it fresh. All you have to do is pick a leaf, chew on it a little, and rub the pulp on your skin. Really rub it so you get the green juices out. You’ll feel relief immediately.

Keep this in mind when you’re out in a park or hiking. Plantain grows everywhere–it’s a universal weed, and it’s particularly fond of lawns. Once you know what it looks like, you can find it easily.

Do any of you have a favorite natural cure for rashes or bug bites?


Homemade Teeccino


A carob tree heavy with pods

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I kicked coffee, and reduced my caffeine intake down to maybe one cup of green tea a day, and it’s been a really good thing. At that time, Root Simple readers wrote in to suggest all sorts of coffee alternatives for me, and I tried a bunch of them. One of them was Teeccino, with which I quickly developed a love-hate relationship.

Teeccino is a line of coffee substitutes based on carob, chicory, various nuts and flavors. It’s not one of those instant beverages like Pero: you prepare it by brewing it or steeping it in water. I found it at Whole Foods and tried a bag. I liked it, not because it tastes like coffee–it doesn’t–but it behaved in soothing, coffee-like ways. You can put milk in it. It looks like coffee and has a coffee-like body.

It comes in a ton of flavors, like hazelnut and French vanilla, which I avoided because I don’t like dessert  coffees, and besides, those flavors remind me of my days working in unpleasant office jobs, where you live for the bad coffee, just to stay awake, and all they have in the office kitchenette is that godawful Irish Cream or Hazelnut flavored artificial creamer, and you actually kind of get used to the stuff, because you’re so starved for stimulation…

But I digress.

I found I liked the Teeccino flavor called Java. And the Maya French Roast flavor wasn’t bad either. That was the most “coffee-ish” but I liked the smoother Java better.

So what’s not to like? Well, primarily the price. It’s $8.99 for an 11 oz. bag (.81/oz), which is all they carry at my Whole Foods. Online you can get it 1 lb cans, but there’s no price discount–bizarrely, it actually increases a bit. It’s $13.99 per lb (.84/ oz).  That’s more than Starbucks coffee, which averages around $10.99/lb. To Teeccino’s credit, their ingredients are mostly organic, and I know that’s expensive. But still.

Moreover, you go through it fast. It’s a heaping tablespoon full for every serving. I tried to use the grounds twice each time, but still, that little bag emptied right quick like.

My other complaints include their use of “natural coffee flavors” in the blends. I just automatically consider any flavor additive–“natural” or “artificial”– as things to be avoided.

Finally, and I admit this is very idiosyncratic, but I don’t like their marketing. It’s not that’s it’s evil or anything, but their website is all plastered with pictures of wholesome looking pregnant ladies and silver haired mature models downing the Teeccino. It’s aggressively positioned as a women’s health product, and that just sort of bugs me. Hard to say why. I’m not into gendering beverages, and more than that, it’s just very upscale. It smells of that same world that brings us $70 yoga pants.

So I went through a couple of bags and moved on to other beverages.

Then, one day, our neighbor Bill found some carob trees growing nearby. He harvested the pods and then delved into an epic voyage of discovery trying to figure out how to grind and process them. When he was done, he had a pillowcase sized bag of carob powder. He gave us a jar full. I looked at the jar and thought, “Hmmm…Teeccino.”

Wild chicory

Teeccino’s Java flavor ingredients are:  Roasted organic carob, organic barley, chicory, organic chicory, almonds, organic dates, natural coffee flavor, organic figs.

The Maya French Roast is simpler: Roasted organic carob, organic barley, organic chicory, organic ramon nuts, organic coffee flavor. 

The vague dried fruit flavor the figs and dates bring to the Java I can do without. I don’t know that the nuts or the barley add all that much, overall. And the coffee flavoring–enough said. I decided the Teeccino secret was all about the balance between the bitter chicory and the sweet smooth carob.

So I got myself some roast ground chicory at the health food store and brewed a cup using a teaspoon of carob and a teaspoon of chicory.

It was deelish. This is a classic case of Two Great Tastes Taste Great Together. The chicory keeps the carob from being insipid. The carob smooths out all of the chicory’s rough edges, making it mildly sweet. This blend is robust and flavorful, and good for you. The roast chicory (a good coffee sub. all by itself, btw) is particularly beneficial for your digestion. I don’t have any Teeccino to do a side-by-side comparison, but I assume the Teeccino would taste more complex, but who needs complex when you’ve got good?

I’ve been meaning to experiment with the recipe, maybe add some roasted nuts or barley, just to do my due diligence, but I never seem to get around to it. I’m happy with what I have, so I decided to post about it in it’s simple form. I guess that’s what we’re all about here, anyway.

How to brew: At first, I just put a teaspoon of each in a fine mesh tea strainer. Some silt  ended up at the bottom of the cup using this method, but it wasn’t bad. Lately I’ve switched to brewing it in a gold filter and one of those one cup drip things. This makes a sediment free brew. You could also run it through a coffee machine, or use a French press. Basically, just have to steep the grounds in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then are strain them out by hook or crook.

A variation: Sometimes I substitute roasted dried dandelion root for the chicory.  Dandelion is also a coffee substitute, but it’s a stern one, very strong and bitter. Yet it’s quite drinkable when combined with carob. It’s also medicinal–a liver cleanser. For that reason it’s great to drink once in a while to help detox your system, but you shouldn’t use it continuously.

Sourcing: Search for carob at health food stores, spice shops and places that sell vitamin supplements. It’s pretty easy to find and generally cheap. The chicory is more expensive and a little more difficult to find–sometimes it’s at health food stores, and of course, it’s online.

In terms of foraging or growing, chicory is the same plant as Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus). You can grow it, harvest the root, roast and grind it. You may also find it growing wild in your area. See this helpful article on growing chicory and endive. It’s kind of fascinating. (Did you know you make Belgian endive by pulling up and reburying chicory root in it’s second year?) And remember, you could use wild dandelion root instead. I can’t give you any tips on grinding and roasting chicory, but Erik and are thinking about growing some next winter and experimenting. We’ll report back.

Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is native to the Mediterranean, and only does well in similar climates, so foraging is out of the question for a lot of you. But it’s planted widely around California and Mexico. The Spanish missionaries brought it here, and then the Seventh Day Adventists planted carob trees all over Pasadena in the last century, so Root Simple’s general area is Carob Central. Angelinos, Pasadinians and Altadenians take note. I’m going to have to ask Bill for a guest post on how he processed the carob pods.

A caveat: This is cheap for me because I’m getting my carob for free. I paid $12.00/lb for organic roasted chicory. That’s pricey, but it’s going to stretch much further than a pound of Teeccino. I’m using a teaspoon of chicory per serving, vs. a heaping tablespoon of Teeccino. The prices of both carob and chicory vary widely. Whether or not this will save you money depends on how you source the materials.

Update Sept 22, 2011:

I’m still enjoying straight chicory or chicory/carob blend for breakfast. I’ve never gone that extra yard of adding nuts or dried fruit or other flavors, but am happy. However, I did want note that when I ran out of foraged carob, I bought roasted carob powder at the health food store. This stuff has a very different flavor profile than my foraged carob. Mostly because the bought stuff is roasted, so it brings in bitter notes of its own. The resulting brew is not as sweet. It’s still okay, but I sort of miss my raw, fresh ground pods.

The store bought stuff is also ground as fine as talc. The foraged stuff was more granular. This means that if I use it with any kind of strainer apparatus, the carob ends up in the bottom of my cup as sludge. The only way to avoid that is to use a coffee filter of some sort–I use a gold filter.