Most herbalists know of the nutritive value of nettles (Urtica species). We harvest them in spring and early summer, cook them in soup, or dry them to make dark, rich overnight infusions that replenish and revitalize. I was first introduced to nettles when I was young, at my grandmother’s house where they grew wild. Since then I’ve found them growing almost everywhere: on the rocky slopesides of Vermont’s Smuggler’s Notch, in the lowlands by the lakeside, all across Europe and North America. But nowhere have I seen nettles like Urtica massaica, the species that grows near water in the highlands of Tanzania
We are working at a local hospital, on the edge of the Serengeti just west of the Rift Valley. This is the land of the Maasai, who herd cattle all day, generally eat meat and some grains (no vegetables), and live in far-flung bomas far from modern healthcare. This is generally fine – but in some cases, such as after protracted childbirth or long-standing illness, members of the community arrive at the hospital with profound anemia. We have routinely seen hemoglobin levels of 4, 5, and 6 – normal being 12 or 13 – and while some are lucky enough to receive blood transfusions, this is the exception, rather than the rule. Their tongues are quite pale but we also see characteristic dark purple splotching in the more severe cases – often along the edges. In these situations, we really see that stinging nettles aren’t just a nutritive tonic: they deserve to be considered alongside all the “superfoods” […]
Founder Jovial King in her garden (photo from DIY Bitters)
We have all heard that our moods (and even our thoughts) don’t live in our heads. For example, we’ve known for a while that serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is found in abundance in the GI tract. Its role there includes managing mucus production and acid production, as well as – possibly – helping to regulate mood. Serotonin-producing cells in the GI tract, furthermore, seem to need the right signals from our gut flora (the beneficial bacteria that live in our intestines) to function properly, which lends additional credence to the notion that our moods are intimately connected to our internal ecologies.
But what of our external ecologies? Is there any evidence that being outside might positively impact our moods? We are, in fact, exploring this connection more and more: from “forest-bathing”, which consistently seems to reduce stress and anxiety, to Dr. Andrea Taylor’s work on relieving symptoms of attention deficit by walking in nature
Every spring, I dig up dandelions. When I started my first garden, this was an act of fear: “If I don’t get them out now,” I used to think, “they’ll dump seed everywhere!” These days, I still pull dandelions from our small garden in the spring. But I don’t discard them anymore – every part gets used. The roots, bitter and sour, get finely chopped and roasted in a cast iron pan until they set loose an enticing, nutty aroma. After they cool, they’re ready to mix with coffee in the French press (recipe below.) The greens, juicy and salty, go right into a big salad. And we make fritters from any early flowers we find.
If you’re gathering dandelion, either from your garden or on a foraging trip, take the root too, and bring it into your kitchen. Don’t clean that root off too much: a gentle rinse before use will spare the bitter root bark, a reminder of where our medicine comes from. Isn’t it incredible to get back outside after winter, dig into the soil, and interact with raw, living herbs again? The intimacy of working with plants is a tonic in its own right, but it also reveals how close and connected our medicine can be: we need not seek it out in wild, remote places, nor trust only that which is expensive, refined, and manufactured. The dandelion is right there, waiting. It is a safe, simple and powerful way to bring herbalism into the lives of those […]
Malaria is a deadly disease. Because of its reliance on tropical mosquitos for transmission, it disproportionately affects people living in the developing world: of the more than 600,000 deaths from malaria every year, over 90% occur in sub-Saharan Africa where resources are few and transportation to care facilities is difficult. What’s more, over the last fifty years the malaria parasite has evolved considerable resistance to tried-and-true treatments (such as chloroquine, quinine and its derivatives, along with other drugs such as sulfadoxine) in most areas where the disease is widespread. That’s why most physicians in the developing world are now using a class of drugs derived from a molecule called artemisinin. This compound is very effective against the malaria parasite, and is derived from Artemisia annua (Sweet Annie, or quing hao as it is known in the Chinese materia medica). It forms the cornerstone of current antimalarial therapy in the developing world. Unfortunately, isolating artemisinin from the whole plant has led to the development of drug resistance – still localized mostly to Southeast Asia, and not very widespread. Nevertheless, as combination artemisinin therapies […]