Wise women and the plants they love with Susun Weed, Julie McIntyre & Kristine Brown

Photo: Skullcap, Scutellaria Latiflora, courtesy of 7Song.

If you’re going to come with me to hunt for skullcap, may I suggest you take off your shoes. Skullcap grows in wet places and the mud feels nice between your toes.

– Susun S Weed –

This blog post was originally going to be ‘Ten Wise Women and the plants they love’ – my tribute to some of the wise women I admire and the plants that inspire them. However when I got the responses back from these amazing women, they were so warm, generous and full of knowledge, I knew I would have to spread them out over several editions.

So it’s my honour to present the first edition of ‘Wise Women and the plants they love’ – full to the brim with plant wisdom, preparation tips and other goodness!

Susun S Weed, Skullcap (Scutellaria Lateriflora)

Susun S Weed is a self-trained herbalist, an internationally-renowned author and teacher, and the voice of the Wise Womem’s tradition. You can stay in touch with her by signing-up to the Wise Women Ezine.

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Skullcap, Scutellaria Latiflora, photo coutresy of Mountain Rose Herbs

I promised to meet you deep in the woods during a summer thunderstorm. That’s my favorite time to pick one of my favorite mints: mad dog weed, also known as skullcap. I always keep a bottle in my first-aid kit, just in case. You take the basket and scissors, I have the vodka; let’s make some skullcap tincture.

If you’re going to come with me to hunt for skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), may I suggest you take off your shoes. Skullcap grows in wet places and the mud feels nice between your toes. No sense in searching for her until the nights are warm. I usually harvest skullcap in August here in the Catskills, when she is at the peak of her growth and flowering.

I’m blessed to have skullcap in my wet woods. She is somewhat rare, and difficult to find. She’s very shy. And likes to hide. Most people who look for skullcap come away empty-handed. But if you don’t find her, you will very likely find Lycopus, wolf mint, sometimes called mountain mint.

Where skullcap is sprawling and lanky, hardly trying to stand up, wolf mint is erect and short. Skullcap has blue-purple flowers, while wolf mint has little ruffs (whorls) of white flowers around the stem. Despite these differences, Lycopus is considered an excellent substitute for skullcap.

These mints need to be tinctured fresh. Drying skullcap or wolf mint evaporates most of the delicate components that make these plants so gently effective. So I use only the very freshest plant material. That’s why we’re taking the vodka to the skullcap. We’re going to make our tincture in the woods. Even a short delay between harvesting and tincturing weakens the final product.

If you can’t find skullcap, you may want to try growing her. She is fussy, and very demanding. Unlike most mints, she likes rich earth, but not too rich. She wants wet soil, but not too wet. And she likes dappled sunlight but not too shady, and not too sunny either, please.

Let’s sing as we walk to the skullcap “swamp.” Singing is my favorite form of prayer. And I want skullcap to hear us coming and welcome us. Aha! Here we are–feel the squishy warm mud underfoot?

See if you can find the skullcap among the life root (Senecio aureus) and forget-me-nots. Look not only for her blue-violet flowers but also for her strangely shaped seed pods. They are said to look like skulls, but you will have to use your imagination to see the resemblance. Perhaps she got her name from her ability to relieve headaches. Or because, if you take enough skullcap, your head droops like her flowers and you sleep.

Because there is so little skullcap, even where there seems to be a lot of it, and because drying it makes it nearly worthless as a medicinal plant in my estimation, I don’t make tea or infusion with it. Remember that even if we harvested a pound of fresh skullcap, it would dry down to a mere four ounces. Instead, I preserve and maximize skullcap’s properties by tincturing her. And since I use skullcap primarily for pain relief, it’s great to have a fast-acting tincture.

I find a small dose (3-5 drops of fresh skullcap tincture) takes the edge off a simple tension headache in a few minutes. A larger dose (10-15 drops), taken three or four times at the beginning of a major headache, can often stop it from coming on or moderate its pain and length. A really large dose (a dropperful or 15-25 drops) will make you very sleepy.

I once spilled my skullcap tincture while teaching at a college. Without thinking much, I scooped the spilled liquid into my mouth. Several hours later, driving home, I literally could not keep my eyes open. I had to pull off the road and take a nap!

But you don’t need to take skullcap tincture by the handful to get to sleep. As little as ten drops in a cup of warm milk (or hot chocolate) is quite effective. Lighting a candle, cuddle up in bed, drink your skullcap nightcap, and get ready for pleasant dreams.

People addicted to sleeping pills (and other addictive substances) find skullcap tincture an ally when they are ready to get off drugs. Make sure there’s a glass of water with another dose of skullcap already in it next to your bed, in case you need it. Then blow out the candle, say your prayers, and good night.

Skullcap tincture relieves almost any pain, especially when the nerves are involved. Try skullcap when bothered by sciatica pain, neuralgia, toothache, eye twitches, or ringing in the ears.

Skullcap was a powerful ally for me when I sprained my wrist far from home on a camping trip. The pain was so intense I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But a dropperful of skullcap put me out. Every time the pain woke me–probably a dozen times that first night–I took another dropperful and went back to sleep almost instantly.

Skullcap works well with St. Joan’s wort (discussed in a previous SageWoman). These friends, taken together, ease migraines, relax stiff muscles, and relieve pain throughout the body.

If I’m in a stressful situation, I take 1-2 drops of skullcap in the morning, right after I get up. It seems to strengthen my nervous system, and doesn’t make me at all sleepy.

If you buy skullcap tincture, and it is made from dried plants, multiply my doses by ten to get the same effects.

Listen to that thunder roll across the mountains. They say it’s Rip Van Winkle playing at nine pins with the wee folk. Time to head back to the house, where we can pull out the last two remedies in my first-aid kit. And we’d better move fast or more than our feet will be wet.

From Herbals Adventures with Susun S Weed, by Susun S. Weed ©

Julie McIntyre, Elder (Sambucus)

Julie McIntyre is a herbalist, Earth ceremonialist and metis of Norwegian and Mohawk/Blackfoot decent. She is the author of Sex and the Intelligence of the Heart and the director for the Center for Earth Relations.

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Watching closely, with the unworn sides of the eyes, it is possible to see the spirit of Elder fill the room and touch each of us present.

– Julie McIntyre –

Plants have an uncanny ability to reach out to people in different ways and for various reasons. Maybe because I was beginning middle age this one reached out and caught me, pulled me in to her world. Plants have personalities and this one has the type of charismatic, mature strength that I am attracted to regardless of the species. Still, I need the deep, mature wisdom of Elder.

I mark the seasons by the appearance of leaves, flowers and then berries. In my mind I have a file of Elder notes; damp winter; early flowers, wet spring, early and profuse berries. I’m in competition with the birds for harvesting berries. They are faster and more efficient than I. Still, I get my share to tincture up; elixir up, dry and store for the next year, until the next season of growth.

The flowers, fresh or dried make a divine calming tea and fever breaker. Magnificent for children with colic and anyone with jittery nerves, fear, anxiety, stomach upset. It’s an elegant, gentle “chill pill.” Each year with my students we make a tea ceremony of the flowers. We put a handful of fresh flowers in a quart jar, pour hot water over filling the jar, cap and let it steep for 30 minutes or longer. The water turns a magical pale green as the medicine is slowly extracted.

As the tea begins to be ready, the students are already moving into the medicine of Elder flowers. A calm, deep, serene hush fills the room as the cap is removed from the jar. Watching closely, with the unworn sides of the eyes, it is possible to see the spirit of Elder fill the room and touch each of us present. We pour the green liquid into small cups – you don’t need much. And, this is a ceremony of sacred proportions. We sip in silence, with reverence. We each hold in our hearts and mind our experience of “sitting” with this Elder and the teachings it bestowed upon us, each person receiving a teaching we uniquely need.

The berries, leaves and stem bark have significant antiviral properties, which is what Elder, Sambucus, is primarily known for.

The flowers, leaves and berries dry and store very well. The berries make a wonderful elixir as a fall and winter tonic and antiviral. I cook the berries to remove the sambucine, an irritating alkaloid that is present in the seeds. It can cause some stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and bowel catharsis for some people. Straining out the seeds or cooking them will take care of it. I mash or blend them, add brandy and honey to preserve it and a little cinnamon for flavor and added medicinal properties.

We all need an Elder in our lives to help us find our way.

Kristine Brown, Nettles (Urtica diotica)

Kristine Brown is a practicing community herbalist, weed wife and homeschooling mother of four children and two step children. She writes the popular monthly children’s herbal publication  Herbal Roots Zine.

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My love affair with Nettles started years ago when I learned about his sting’s ability to heal arthritis. Since then, there has always been a place in my garden for Nettles and my fingers no longer ache.

-Kristine Brown –

Trying to pick a favorite plant is like trying to pick your favorite child; each has its own unique traits and is special in its own way. For me, one of my top plants that I come back to again and again, both for myself and family and for my clients, is Nettles.

My love affair with Nettles started years ago when I learned about his sting’s ability to heal arthritis. Since then, there has always been a place in my garden for Nettles and my fingers no longer ache, having taken every opportunity to sting them during achy episodes. Nettles is such a wonderful, nutritive plant and versatile in his uses.

My favorite way to use Nettles is in an infusion, 2 cups of dried Nettles added to 1/2 gallon boiling water, steeped for 8 hours. This can be drank in the next 36 – 48 hours (refrigerated). Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, Nettles infusion is great for those who are depleted and need nourishing energy.

Over time, the consumption of Nettles infusion can increase energy levels. Nettles is also wonderful for those with low blood pressure, bringing it to a more normal range over time. However, he does not have the same effect on high blood pressure, though some studies indicate Nettles may actually lower high blood pressure, making him safe for anyone to consume.

Nettles is also stimulating to the kidneys and can be quite diuretic in action. For those who suffer from allergies, Nettles’ antihistamine actions can reduce the need for inhalers and allergy medication when consumed over time. During an acute allergy attack, I often rely on tinctured Nettle leaf to bring quick relief.

Nettles can be cooked and eaten similar to kale, he is delicious sautéed in butter or bacon grease and a bit of fresh garlic, adding a pinch of sea salt at the end. Cooking Nettles renders the sting harmless, something you don’t want in your mouth obviously, but if you want to take advantage of Nettle’s arthritis healing qualities, you do want that sting on your arthritic joints. Nettles has often been used in sting therapy to heal achy joints, arthritis, tendonitis and sore muscles. Nettles leaf is not the only useful part of Nettles. The seed is great eaten raw as an energy boost, or tinctured as well.

David Winston has used Nettle seed successfully for folks with kidney disease. The roots are also used for early stages of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and work especially well in combination with Saw Palmetto for problems related to BPH such as the constant urge to urinate, incomplete emptying of the bladder, reduced urinary flow during urination and post urination dripping. Because of his versatility and gentle (though sometimes intensely jolting) power, Nettles will always have a place in my heart, a patch in my garden and a large space in my apothecary.

Thank you so much to our wise women for sharing with us today and to 7Song and Mountain Rose Herbs for sharing images.

Next up we’ll be hearing from more wise women such as Henriette Kress, Darcy Blue, Dawn Combs and Katja Swift so be sure to sign-up to the blog (on the right-hand side) so you don’t miss out!

Trying to track down the herbs?

While I always recommend growing or wildcrafting your own herbs and this post contains many a tip for doing so, if you’re out luck or out of season, you can find dried herbs, syrups and tinctures at Mountain Rose Herbs.

Do you have a favourite plant? I’d love to hear about it the comments below.

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