If they wad drink Nettles in March and eat muggins in May…

Nettle textile dyed with woad.

Nettle textile dyed with woad.

I do know that March is over but Spring is coming slowly to my part of the world. Also, Scotland, being the equivalent to planting zone 8 or 9, sees nettles much earlier than we Iowans do- even on a good year. So sometimes, I have to make minor adjustments to the old ways. The nettles are just beginning to pop up to the point that I feel okay about harvesting them.

The Middle English name nettle descends from the Old English netele and which derives from a PIE root meaning “spin or sew” which is likely due to the fact that its fibers can be used for making fabric.  The fact that using nettles for fabric was replaced by flax was simply one of many instances in which a plant that ruggedly grew in abundance was replaced by a plant, in this case flax, which needed specialized care and tending. The usefulness of nettles was not limited to its use in weaving. The sap was used to curdle milk in cheese making and it was also used to seal leaks in pottery.

Medicinal uses for the plant abound although care must be taken when researching old herbals to be very careful not to use stinging nettles in the place of red nettle known today as purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) which does not have stinging trichomes.

The Old English Herbarium mentions many uses including mixing nettle seeds with hemp to cool a burn. The Physicians of Myddvai used a poultice of crushed nettles wrapped in cloth to staunch a bleeding nose and although it seems as though perhaps that would be a job best left to red nettles, later in the text there are formulas which call specifically for red nettles. I think I shall still opt for yarrow for this purpose. The Myddvai herbal also recommends using nettle seeds as a peripheral circulatory agent as follows:

FOR A COLD IN THE LIMBS. § 427. Take the seed of nettles and boil in honey, anoint your feet and arms or other parts requiring it with the same, and it will remove the cold.

According to Allen and Hatfield, the most frequent use of nettle was as a spring tonic followed by using it to sooth rheumatic complaints and measles rash. As a spring tonic, infusions were made of the fresh leaves in the early spring in Ireland, Scotland and East Anglia to “cleanse the blood of impurities” and it is to this use which the proverb refers.

Modernly, nettle root is approved in the Commission E Reports and in Germany physicians prescribe nettles for rheumatic diseases due to the presence of both caffeic and malic acids which have demonstrated anti-inflammatory action. The roots contain a peculiar lectin–Urtica Dioca Aglutinate (UDA). It is theorized that UDA may have an inhibitory effect on white blood cells involved involved in autoimmune issues.

It should be mentioned that mugwort spread prolifically.

Muggins in May

Liath-lus, known in English as Mugwort is an herb that has long been associated with the night. Even the scientific name Artemisia vulgaris, speaks of its asso­ciation with the moon and the dark being named for the Greek lunar deity. Due to its nocturnal nuances, the herb has also been as­sociated with dreaming and divination.\r\n\r\nThe herb was more likely associated with Artemis in her role as patron of mater­nity and childbirth as it was commonly used by mid­wives to “restore menstru­al flow, ease delivery and cleanse the womb.”

The herb has been attribut­ed to many ancient uses. Pliny wrote that the way­farer who has this herb tied about him will never grow weary and another folk tale insists that with mugwort under his feet, a man can walk 40 miles. The herb is frequently associated with mermaids. A mermaid in a different Scottish tale asks the young man lamenting the coming demise of his love:

“Wad ye let the bonnie May die i’ your hand, And the Mugwort flowering i’ the land?”

 confirms that the herb was consid­ered a medicinal. It was mentioned as a specific for consumption- an old-fashioned time term referring to pulmonary tuberculosis.

The chemical constituent of mugwort that is probably most studied thujone. Chemically thujone is classed as a mono­terpene with neuroactive properties, and was used historically for hysterical fits. It also has “antimicrobial, anthelmintic and in­secticidal properties.” Extremely large doses of this chemical constituent of the plant’s essential oil can cause mammalian convulsion.

Thujone occurs in many plants in­cluding the Artemesias, sage and yarrow but it does not occur uniformly. Concen­tration of the chemical varies among spe­cies and individuals of a species. I speculate that this is a result of a variety of factors including growing con­dition. As a secondary plant metabolite most likely produced as a protective mea­sure, it makes sense that its concentration would vary in response to environmental factors.

Thujone was once considered to contribute to the toxicity of absinthe but research has proved otherwise. I will delve into that more when I cover Arte­misia absinthium.  My own experience with mugwort has been that of using it in many home­made incense blends and as a part of my full moon ritual blend. I don’t find it to be as bitter as its cousin wormwood, so I don’t use it as a part of a bitters blend. I do enjoy a vinegar made out of mugwort tops early in the spring, the acetic acid base draws out the many minerals in the plant and the acetum makes a nice digestive tonic.

Aside from the many medicinal and esoteric uses ascribed to mugwort, our lovely mermaid friend above though seemed to think of muggins as a useful addition to the diet. I decided to research its traditional uses as a potherb. In researching about I found that it was utilized, especially by the Highlanders, who used it early in the growing season when leaves are still mild in flavor. Sir John Hill affirms that the young leaves are “aromatic to the taste with a little sharpness.” This bitter sharpness likely enhances digestion.

Artemisia princeps –very similar to Artemisia vulgaris– is often mentioned as an ingredient in Japanese cooking . Mugwort soba is available on the market. It is also an ingredient in Korean recipes which refer to it as Ssuk. I”ve searched around for a few interesting recipes for those Asian foods which call for A. princeps thinking that now might be an interesting time to try a few, but I didn”t come up with many which means I may have to experiment.

Ssukguk
Ssuk-beomul
There is this mugwort soba recipe which makes me think that I might have to give making some mugwort pasta, a try.
And I wouldn”t be true to my roots, if I didn”t link to at least one beer brewing recipe that calls for mugwort.

References

Black, Willam George. 1883. Folk-medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture. London: Folk-lore Society by Elliot Stock 62 Paternoster Row, E.C.
David Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield. 2004. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Portland: Timber Press.
Dubois B, Peumans WJ, Van Damme EJM et al (1998) Regulation of gelatinase B (MMP-9) in leukocytes by plant lectins. FEBS Lett 427:275–278
John Gerard, Thomas Johnson. 1975. The Herball or General History of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover Publications.
Pollington, Stephen. 2008. Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing. Ely, Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books.
Pughe, John. 1861. The Physicians of Myddvai; Meddygon Myddfai . London: Longman & Co

Digestive Support for the Winter Months

The winter months seem to contribute to sluggish digestion which sometimes (not always) manifests itself in constipation. There are many reasons why this happens.

First of all, it is dry. Remember that the condition of your external epithelial tissue likely resembles the internal. If your skin is dry, you need to make a point to increase your fluid intake. If you are like me and absolutely must have warm things to drink in the winter, make a peppermint latte or an herbal chai or a spiced tomato juice cocktail. The boys are fans of the almond-oat beveragethat I make. We all like spiced apple cider and hot lemonade. Make some sort of nourishing warm broth and drink it, but you get the point here, stay hydrated.

This includes adding some humidity to your environment. Like I’ve said before there is a reason Mom kept a kettle going on the woodstove all day, long.

Some people are trying to eat seasonally for environmental reasons or perhaps due to trying to follow an Ayurvedic diet. Here in Iowa, when you are following that diet you are eating lot of root vegetables and probably not getting your 8-10 servings of fruits and veggies per day. This leads to not getting enough fiber which you need for proper digestion. Even all you juice fanatics out there can get constipated,  if you are using a juicer that strains the roughage out of your food.

There is definitely not as much green leafy goodness in a local winter diet- my kale is shot after that last cold snap. A lack of leafy greens can lead to less bitter flavors in the diet during this time of year. If you haven”t read Jim McDonald”s lovely treatise on how lack of bitters may contribute to sluggish elimination, you can find it here: pdf   I still think we need our greens, even if it means buying them from afar. Next year you can think of nifty ways to preserve local fruits and veggies for the winter months. I will make it a goal to pull more of the preserving recipes off the old database and finding some new ones. One thing to think about is that fermented vegetables are a good source of probiotics which also help to promote digestive health.

Winter foods were traditionally supposed to be sweet, warming and maybe a little on the fat laden side to keep us warm when we are all working ourselves to the bone and out in the elements most of our day.

Traditionally that was okay, but I think discretion needs to be used in light of modern conveniences like heat, indoor jobs and cars. If you are slim or frequently exposed to inclement weather for extended periods of time, then a traditional winter diet is desirable. However, I maintain that those of us who don”t fit that category, given the modern concerns about insulin resistance, could focus on less starchy vegetables sources.

Winter Fare

Winter Fare can be heavy.  Be sure to add a lot of warming spices to help your digestion.

Think of ways to make these fruits and veggies warming. Soups fit the bill nicely around here because they are warming, moistening and you can stuff them with veggies and barley. Barley is what they call in nutrition circles a bulk-forming laxative.

Braising greens is a nice way to warm them up. As an aside, when you do eat the root vegetables make sure that you are adding healthy fats and lots of warming, stimulating spices. Squash with butter, or olive oil, is good. Squash drizzled with olive oil infused with nutmeg, mace, saffron, salt and long pepper is AMAZING.

Adding a healthy fat helps to lower the glycemic index of the food, too. Remember that healthy oils play a role in this, as well. I think fish oil of some sort during the winter is key. I’d like to suggest adding it to the diet rather than supplements but I know that is not realistic for everyone.

We all slow down…. Here in the frozen cornfields, people are a little more housebound and so moving even less than normal, which also impacts your elimination processes. Get moving.

A lot of folks are on the SAD American diet.  All I can really say about this is eat some damn vegetables and fruits, people… I wonder how many more times I will say that in my lifetime?

There are all sorts of other issues that could contribute to the problem. Chronic stress has a nasty impact on the digestive system, so an adaptogen might help. Licorice root certainly has a history of being used for the complaint. Some medications lead to problems, also. Holding it when you have to eliminate can result in impaction due to the fact that it stretches the colon which in turn means that more waste has to enter your colon in order to trigger the next bowel movement.

The issue of constipation in little ones came up in a conversation the other day which made me realize I’ve never really addressed that here on the blog-probably due to the fact that I keep the previously mentioned issues in mind and prefer to talk about proactive self-care than waiting for sick people to call me.

In the days when self-care was household knowledge, all such issues were approached proactively rather than retroactively. Cod Liver oil was often administered daily. Folks who grew up in the UK may remember lining up for their Brimstone and Treacle on a weekly basis, if they are old enough or grew up with a grandparent who told tales.  This licorice root preparation was so ubiquitous that the phrase was used as a title for a disturbing play in the seventies. If things did get backed up, slippery elm gruel was often fed to children or an infusion of senna pods.

Senna is a stimulating laxative, which I tend to avoid due the to the fact that the bowels can become habituated to stimulation. The same goes for aloe and cascara. Demulcents are great, but today I think that you”d have a difficult time getting slippery elm gruel into a child.

So if the issue comes up for your child, or you, first consider the previously mentioned issues and address any issues of diet and exercise. For immediate relief an adult might try 200 mg of magnesium citrate and 1 tbsp of yellow dock syrup three times a day and a nightly Epsom Salt bath. I might not be able to resist adding a bit of licorice root to the syrup. I originally made this recommendation based on the fact that yellow dock syrup had had a stool loosening effect on several of my clients who were taking it for iron related issues and anyone who has ever taken too much magnesium knows what that does. It has served me pretty well.

For a child you might consider a teaspoon of yellow dock syrup 3 times a day, a few cups of the almond-oat beverage I mentioned above and a nightly Epsom salt bath. I also racked my brain to come best way to successfully disguise herb powders so that children will eat them and I thought of my immune boosting truffles. Just a few tweaks and I came up with something a lot more edible than slippery elm gruel. I hope that some of you out there might give these a try and give me some feedback. I don”t have anyone around here to experiment on. After a kind of giggly survey of the household today, we have determined that we all eliminate once (sometimes twice) daily.

Digestive Support Snacks
Dry Ingredients
1/4 cup slippery elm powder
1/4 cup milk thistle seeds finely ground and sifted
1/4 cup licorice root powder
1/4 cup ground flax seeds (another one of those bulk-forming laxatives)
2 tbsp raw cacao powder
½ cup ground oats or almond meal. I probably prefer oats for this recipe.
I also think I would add 1/2 teaspoon of spice here- fenugreek (another bitter) for sure and maybe cinnamon.

Liquids
1/2 cup tahini
Fruit Puree* or Honey

Mix dry ingredients first and add ½ cup or tahini to the mix.If you can’t afford or can’t find the herbal powders: Just use 1 cup of ingredients you can purchase as food such as flax seed, ground oats and don’t worry about the herbal powders. Substitute ground sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds for the milk thistle seeds and add 1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek powder as a bitter and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.
Now mix in your fruit puree, honey or a combination of both until it forms a dough you can work with.Roll this mixture in balls and roll in a coating of your choice.
oasted coconut ground with a little nutmeg
Raw Cacao powder

Finely ground nuts or seeds- sesame seeds are good here.I would be completely comfortable offering these to a child who was prone to constipation on a daily basis if they were made with flax seed or maybe plantain seeds. Adults too, could eat these as a daily snack.

Dried Fruit Puree
I’ve shared this recipe before but for these particular truffles, I would make sure that some prunes are part of the dried ingredients. It is important to save the liquid you’ve used to rehydrate the fruits because a lot of your nutrients leech out during the re-hydration process. Soak 1 cup of dried fruit in 2 cups of warm water overnight. Strain; reserving the liquid.Place re hydrated fruit in food processor or blender. Whip adding reserved liquid until a creamy paste like consistency is formed.

Pudding Evoked Stream of Consciousness

Today, I taught Trapolin to make a steamed pudding. He was a great help doing the holiday baking, he”s been bugging me to learn and well we could use some comfort food around here, this week.

Puddings in their simplest form were a peasant food. Not everyone could afford an oven, but most people could come up with a fire and a pot. A black pudding was a medieval delicacy enjoyed when an animal had been recently slaughtered. The blood of the animal was mixed with cereal and spices and then stuffed in the intestines and boiled until it thickened, because the poor didn”t waste food. Technically haggis was a pudding, and probably prepared long before it was first published in MacIvers Cookery in 1773.

By the 17th century, these puddings had evolved to include a few more ingredients. Special bags were used for boiling the puddings and they might be main dishes or deserts. Pease porridge was a pudding according to food historian, Alan Davidson which “consisted only of pease, and a little flavouring: sugar and pepper, and sometimes mint, were commonly used.” The mixture was then put in a pudding bag and boiled in some water with the bacon it was to be served with. Eventually, the recipes evolved into the lovely desert I spent my afternoon making but for a good long time they were sustenance food. And here is where I will digress for a moment…

There is a comparison to be made between herbalism and steamed puddings. In its peasant form the practice of using healing herbs was simple self-care. Terribly poor people likely gathered their herbs, while people with a cottage garden might have grown wormwood along side some “caboges.” The cures were employed by people who could neither read nor write and didn’t have enough money to pay the village healer. It was these simple methods passed down through the generations which kept the poorest classes alive, not herbalists. Like pudding recipes, that concept evolved over the years.

The modern practice of herbalism, which finds its roots in the diagnostic methods utilized by Greek medicine, Chinese medicine or Ayurveda, belonged to the upper classes and learned people who could read the ancient texts and write new information down. Even the still-room books and the receipt books of the past were kept by the wealthy families and as such are not representative of the simple cures the peasants likely used, however they do illustrate the fact that every person had some common sense notion of how to deal with injuries and disease. The occasional entry credited as having come from the country folk, give us a bit of insight as to what their cures looked like, but for the most part many of the ingredients used in receipt books were beyond the financial means of the poor.

Today we have an unprecedented situation in which more people have access to the written word than ever before in history, yet we are more wildly dependent on “learned” experts than ever before. Few people have even given a thought to self-care, even though the means to do so in an almost “kingly” manner (by medieval standards) is less financially prohibitive than at any time in history-kind of like the ingredients for my pudding.

As I alluded to the other day, I started to learn herbalism because I have this deeply ingrained independent streak that will never be content to accept the limitations of the situation above. Of course I had to, as is customary for me as well, take it to extremes. It is also why teaching appeals to me, not because I want to be the “learned” expert imparting my wisdom, but because I want to make sure that every person who wants to learn has the chance to do so. If I pursue my masters, it will be with that goal in mind.   And yes, these are the thoughts racing through my head today while I taught Trapolin to make a steamed pudding, so I will now return to that train of thought.

If you’ve never steamed a pudding, take a look a this video. Now you do needa small pan to use as a basin. I found mine at a thrift store likely because someone had no idea what they are. The only ones I could find on amazon were fancy things with lids and were quite expensive, you don”t need one of those. Any small baking pan or ceramic bowl will do. The capacity should be about four and one-half cups. Even a one pound coffee can will work.

Pecan Maple Pudding with Custard Sauce

Pecan Maple Pudding with Custard Sauce

Pecan-Maple Pudding with Custard Sauce

175 grams of softened butter
3 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp ground pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
175 grams golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
150 grams self-rising flour*
25 grams ground pecans
2 tbsp milk
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, mace or allspice whichever you prefer

Grease your mold with some butter. Now whisk together the maple syrup, tbsp of pecans and the vanilla. Pour them in the basin and tilt the pan around until the mixture coats the inside of the bowl.  Mix together the butter and the sugar. Then beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the flour and pecans. Then beat in the milk. I have heard that this flour is a decent gluten-free self rising flour, or you can make your own. Spoon this batter into the mold and then wrap it up according to the video, I posted above. Put a large soup pot on with water in it and a smaller glass bowl inverted for the mold to sit on. (Alternately if you have a canner and a rack, you can flip the rack upside down in the canner.) Fill the pot until the water is half-way up your mold and turn on the heat. Bring to a bowl and steam for about an hour and a half. Insert a cake tester in the middle and it should come out clean. Invert the pudding on a serving plate, spoon a bit of custard over it and sprinkle it with nuts.

Custard Sauce

2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
5 egg yolks
vanilla

Heat the milk in the saucepan until it steams and mix 1/2 cup into your egg yolks. Stir this mixture back into the saucepan and stir briskly until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove it from the heat and stir in the vanilla. If clumps form, don’t worry on it just strain the sauce through a fine sieve. Eventually you will get the hang of it.

*Self-Rising Flour
2 cups flour
3 tsp teaspoons baking powder
teaspoon salt

References:

Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999