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. 

Stinging Nettles and Cat Allergies

Facebookers have already seen these pics. Kitty, being a fast moving black hole, is very hard to photograph.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Sorry this is sort of rambling, but context is everything.

Our friend Anne, of the pea-eating-Chihuahua fame, and the chicken-sitting-on-kitten fame, and various other fames, is a frequent animal rescuer. She came over to our house maybe 2 weeks ago with a pet carrier. She said, “Someone dropped this off at my house at 1:00 AM last night, but I have to go to work. Can you take care of it?” Inside the carrier was a tiny black scrap of fur, a three week old kitten.

Thus she launched her evil plan. We took care of the creature on work days, until she came to pick it up, until we got so used to it that we missed it when it wasn’t around. You see, she knew that no one could bottle feed a creature like that (teeny wittle paws!) and not go soft in the head and want to keep it forever and always.

So it looks like we’ve got ourselves a cat, maybe. We’d planned on getting a dog ever since our beloved dobie passed on, but the universe works in strange ways, and it sent us a cat.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment. I’m allergic to cats. I grew up with a cat, but developed this allergy later, which always seemed stupid and unreasonable. So I’ve decided to ignore it.

There’s precedent for this. I also grew up with dogs, and yet later developed an allergy to them, too. I ignored this for our dog Spike, because I wanted a dog more than anything else in the world. At first, I broke out in hives every time he licked me, but it went away. I’m trusting the same thing is going to happen here with the kitten.

I mean, come on! Were we going to put this on Craig’s List?

I know it might sound nuts, but it’s going pretty well. The allergies seem to have peaked and declined. I had a couple of bad days, with a constantly running nose and weals all over my chest from the kitty’s claws, but that’s over. Now I sneeze once in a while. I have one weal on my chest. It’s been ten days of close co-habitation with the kitten. I’m its primary caretaker, and it likes to sleep under my chin.

One thing that may be helping is that I’m drinking lots of extra strong nettle tea, sometimes adding licorice to the brew. Both herbs are supposed to be good for allergies. Andrew Weil recommends taking capsules of freeze dried nettle extract instead of antihistamines for seasonal allergies (See his Natural Health, Natural Medicine. Here’s a Google Books link.)

Do nettles really work for allergies? I don’t know. It may be all in my head–but you know what? I’m all for the placebo effect. That’s not a negative term in my book at all. Self-healing is the best healing.

Nettles are also really good for you, being full of minerals and green goodness–so there’s no reason not to try. They’re also free for the gathering in most places.

I make nettle tea the Susun Weed way. We cover this in Making It, actually:

  • Put one ounce of dried herb in a quart jar. That’s a lot, really, about a cup.
  • If you have fresh nettles, just stuff a jar full (the stingers will vanish in the hot water)
  • If you have it, you can add a piece of licorice root or a bit of ground root. This sweetens the tea, albeit in a weird, licorice sort of way, and the licorice itself may help
  • Fill the jar with boiling water
  • Let it sit 4-8 hours to get incredibly strong
  • Strain to a new jar
  • Drink it iced, room temp or gently reheated. Try to drink that quart over the course of the day.
  • Don’t keep it around, because it will lose its potency after a day. Pour it on your plants and make a fresh batch.

Kitten facts for those interested:

Kitten is genderless for now. We took he/she to the vet, and the vet was genuinely puzzled. Tricky kitty! We have to wait for more certainty.

Kitten is about 5 weeks old. He/she was more in the 3 week old range when we took the above pics.

Kitten’s name might be Nyx. Or Woad. Or Woadnyx.

Kitten came off the street but miraculously arrived with no fleas, eye or ear infections, nothing. He/she is healthy and well adjusted, and likes all people.

Kitten is entirely black, and of solid alley cat stock. The eyes have faded to grey from blue this week, but there’s no telling final color. I suspect he/she is always going to look like a scruffy Halloween cat.

Kitten was half blind and sleepy at the start of this, but now is gaining mad skilz by the day and is a holy terror, but still pretty darn cute. He/she has been threatening this post as I write, showing a cat’s instinctive affinity for computer keyboards.

The cute thing is all an act. Hail to our feline overlord! Photo credit: Anne Hars

California poppy tea

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Where we live, this is the poppy time of year. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are blooming all over our neighborhood, and most especially in our yard. I have to admit I have a mercenary attitude toward plants, my main thought on meeting one being, “What can you do for me?” California poppies, lovely as they are, have become more interesting to me since I’ve started consuming them. Now, don’t get concerned (or intrigued): the Root Simple compound has not turned into an opium den. California poppies are not part of the famous Papaver somniferum species, and they can’t get you high, nor are they addictive. However, they can help you relax.

I’m all for using plants that grow readily in your yard or general area, rather than trying to coax more exotic species along. There are many herbs that can be used to make relaxing teas (valerian, catnip, linden, chamomile, etc.), but this one intrigues me because it’s essentially a weed where I live. If it doesn’t grow readily where you live, I’d encourage you to investigate other herbs which grow more easily in your area. 

But for those of you who can grow California poppies easily, I’ll just say that I’ve been making tea with fresh California poppy foliage this year and must report that I really like it. I like it so much that I’m drying plants so I have a store to last me through the summer and fall, and may make a tincture of it, too. 

It makes a soothing tea. I find it useful in two types of situations: first, when I have a nagging tension headache–the kind that comes about when you’re cranky, and can’t find any way to de-crankify, because your head hurts so damned much. I find that this tea de-tangles my brain enough that the headache goes away. The second situation I take it in is when I’m really tired but am resisting going to bed for whatever reason.

What do experts say?

There’s lots of somewhat conflicting information about the California poppy on the Internets, and even my herb books at home say different things about its properties. Overall I think all sources do agree that it does have sedative quantities and that it won’t hurt you. In fact, in Europe, it’s often used as a component in sedatives for children. Taking that as a starting point, I’m trusting my own evaluation of its effect in regard to me. Everyone reacts a little differently to herbs, and everyone has different needs, so I’d encourage you to try it and see what you think.

In Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Michael Moore says its a “…surprisingly effective herb for use with anxiety” and “When used as a sedative, it promotes relaxation and genial lethargy.”  He notes it has some mild analgesic effects in higher doses.

One thing he does address is the question as to whether drinking this tea would make you test positive on a drug test. His answer is that though the plant does not contain the same alkaloids found in opiates, it contains alkaloids that are similar enough that they might create a false positive on an urine test. I’ve also heard firm opinions from other sources that it absolutely will or will not show up.

California Native Americans use Eschscholzia in their own way. According to Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, the Chumash made a poultice of the pods to stop breast milk. For them, this was (is) the plant’s primary use. Secondary uses include using the root for toothache and a decoction of the flowers to kill lice.

How to use:
You can make tea with any of the above-ground parts of the plant: leaves, stems and flowers. You can use these parts fresh or dried. I’ve been using fresh so far. I just stuff my tea basket with fresh leaves, pour hot water over them and let it steep a good long time–maybe 10 minutes. I put a saucer over the top of the cup to help keep the tea warm. The long soak ensures a stronger, more potent brew, obviously.

All the sources I’ve read note that this tea is unpleasantly bitter. I’ve not found that to be so, but my palette may be affected by Erik’s ongoing fascination with bitter Italian greens. Sometimes I throw some mint in with it just to liven up the flavor, but I honestly don’t find it unpleasant straight.

(ETA: Coming back in September to add to this post. Now that summer is almost over, I can say that the plants get more bitter as they get older and the weather gets hotter. It’s the first flush of growth that’s most palatable.)

In terms of dosage, all I can say is that the more of the tea you drink, and the stronger you brew it, the more pronounced will be the effects. If I just want a bedtime brew, analogous to chamomile, I’d just make a cup of tea as I’d make any cup of tea. If I have a headache, I’ll make a small pot of tea (2-3 cups) and brew it strong and sip it until I feel better.

You can also tincture the plant, fresh or dry, in alcohol, and take it in that form. This isn’t the place for a tincture how-to, but if you already know how, Moore says: Dried plant tincture: 1:5,  50% alcohol; Fresh 1: 2; Both 30-60 drops, up to 4x a day, for anxiety. 

I’ve heard that the root can be held against a sore tooth–in places other than the Chumash source–but I don’t know if it works. Some sources I’ve read use the root as well as the above ground parts for tea, but I’ve not tried it. I’ve decided that the root must have slightly different properties than the foliage and haven’t stirred myself to investigate those yet. 

Growing California poppy: 

If you live where this plant is native, all you have to do is throw some seed around your yard in the fall, and the plants will magically appear after the winter rains. There is no special care or soil prep to be done. You don’t even have to bury the seed. The plants will thrive on their own until the summer heat and dryness kills them. Before they go, though, they will spread seed and more plants will appear the next year on their own. I’m not so sure how you’d grow it in other climates, but I assume you’d toss the seed around after the last chance of frost. If anyone has experience growing California poppy in other climes, please let us know what you do.

Nanny state precautions:

You should maybe not drink a lot of this and then drive, or operate drill presses, table saws, curling irons, etc. You probably should not mix this with prescription drugs without consulting your physician, especially if you’re on sedative drugs. If you’re pregnant or breast feeding, you know the usual drill–consult your practitioner. And anyway, that part about drying up milk might be of concern. Finally, California poppies are protected by state law. It’s illegal to pick them except in your own yard.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”