It’s been warming up a bit here in Maine, and yesterday, I partook in two important activities. One, I stared suspiciously at a spot of ceiling in my kitchen that was blooming water similar to the way a wound would fester. Two, I shoveled and broomed at a steady stream of melty slush and water for a good forty minutes, in a feeble attempt to keep it from pooling up near the house, and hence flooding the basement (again).
Because although it has been warming up, there’s still enough snow in the yard for me to sink my knees into – – and I have long legs.
So while I love snow more than just about anyone, I’ve lately found myself dreaming of all the cavortable canoeing and camping that I’ll be able to enjoy once the snow and water puddles are gone.
I like to horde nature’s bounteous gifts whenever possible, be it wild blueberries and spring water, or edible flowers and fungi. The latter two are of especial interest to me, as I have much to learn regarding herbalism and folk medicine. There is so much health (for lack of a better word) abounding in the forest, and I know that it is my privilege and duty to take advantage of it.
While a bit off the beaten track I find myself shuffling along on this blog (chocolate, baking, travel, repeat), I would like to shed some light on two homemade herbal remedies that I enjoyed creating last summer. These ‘treatments,’ if you will, are simple and cost-effective ways to do your body some good. And if anything, this is an excuse to look at sunny pictures of flowers, lakes and insects.
Chaga [Inonotus obliquus] is a malformed black hardened fungus found on birch trees across the globe, general in more northern climates. It has long been recognized as a cure-all, seeming to remedy everything from ulcers and hypertension to diabetes and psoriasis. And perhaps most importantly, it is thought to be a remedy for cancer.
While chaga is sold as an expensive tincture at hippie gatherings across the land, there is an easier and cheaper way to get your cure-all fix.
First, find yourself some chaga. You will find it growing on a birch tree, and you will know it when you see it. See this site for more information on its appearance. Hack off the chaga. Note: Since chaga is a fungus, its appearance indicates that the birch tree is already getting old and beginning to decay. Don’t feel bad about chopping of the fungus, and opening the tree up for infection. The chaga will just grow back.
There are two schools of thought on how to make chaga tea. Either way, cut up the interior of the conk (where there appears to be more color and life) into smallish pieces. This is a bit tough to do and will require brute force and a sharp stabbing object such as a hatchet. I also like to cut up chaga inside of a box, to keep pieces from flying every which way.
At this point, either steep the pieces in water for a few hours, or let sit until dried out – this can be dictated by whether you want chaga now or later. You can even let larger chunks dry, and then grate or chop off small pieces bit by bit.
Boil the finely chopped/ground chaga in water for up to several hours, with additional time helping the tea’s flavor to build. Drink warm or chilled – both are excellent. I find chaga tea to taste more nutty than mushroomy, and it is really a pleasant taste; good enough on its own, it can be ameliorated by black tea, if desired. Chaga tea (without the black tea inclusion, which causes it to ferment) keeps well in the fridge.
St. John’s Wort Tincture
St. John’s wort [Hypericum perforatum] is a lovely yellow-flowered plant that, while often found in cultivated gardens, is commonly found growing wild as well. I don’t have a picture of the whole plant here (the above un-bottled plants are fireweed and pearly everlasting), but see examples here and here. Like chaga, it’s hard to mistake St. John’s wort for any other plant.
In the medicinal world, St. John’s wort is an herbal remedy for depression. At this time of year, when dreams of summer have become so cruelly near-tangible, a little depressive anti-dote is nothing but welcome.
Native to Europe, this plant is found growing in open areas, often near roadsides. It is considered a noxious weed in many western U.S. states and in nineteen other countries, so picking it before it can spread its seed is beneficial to both you and the environment. Depending on location, St. John’s wort will bloom between June and September – last year, it bloomed in late July in northern Maine.
Pick flowers that are in full bloom – pick as many as you can, since it takes many to fill one jar when compacted. Stuff flowers into a sterilized pint glass jar. Fill jar with high-quality 80 to 100 proof vodka – I used Maine-made Twenty 2 vodka. Cover tightly. Shake the mixture – you will notice that the active ingredient, hypericin, will begin to turn the mixture red.
Let sit for a few weeks, occasionally shaking it. Or, if you’re a lazybones like me, let it sit for nearly six months. Strain the liquid, and put into a fresh glass jar. Store in fridge.
I like to add a spoonful or two of this tincture to my morning tea. The vodka flavor is mostly unnoticed in a cup of strong black tea, with the St. John’s wort contributing a nutty floral taste.
St. John’s wort relaxes the nervous system, helps alleviate premenstrual syndrome symptoms, and may even aid in the treatment of alcoholism. I needn’t mention, but I will, that if alcoholism treatment is your target, making a large jar of flowery vodka may not be your route to success.
I hope to provide more simple homemade tinctures and remedies, as soon as the growing season resumes and I can again forage in the woods. In the meantime, à votre santé – here’s to your health!