herbs

Water + Benediction

Surrender. Our bodies feel water and surrender to it in a way that is almost archetypal: that feeling of stepping into a body of water gets us all on a cellular level, as though the amoeba that are at our ancestral root are still somewhere in there wiggling with joy at returning to state of one-ness with everything. There’s something so immensely healing about water, and how we let go and allow the greater world around us in when we’re floating in it. But, this is not something that we often do willingly or naturally. 

Most of the time in our lives, we push for things. We are in a hurry to get places, or to finish our to-do lists, and so we push ourselves forwards as quickly as possible, often with a running dialogue of everything we need to get done. There’s pressure there, and its immense, and it usually comes directly from us. What happens when we do this is that we extend outside ourselves: it’s a push forwards, a drive, an expansion. 

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Bitter + sweet (Hawthorn and orange bitters)

Bitterness (serves 1) 

1 cup of anger a heaping half-cup of powerlessness mixed with a tablespoon of regret and a big pinch of stagnation

Method: Condense, over time, squeezing it hard into a tiny little ball that looks remarkably like a gall stone, then drop into the body and carry around for a long time.


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‘Eat bitter to taste sweetness’ -Chinese proverb.

This proverb, or something like it (I remember something along the lines of ‘eat bitter to avoid a bitter life’), was thrown around a lot when I was at TCM school. Lately, when I’ve been making batches of bitters for the holiday shows I’m doing, I’ve been tossing it around like a hard candy. It's got me thinking about bitterness and sweetness, and the balance between the two, both in taste and in life. 

What is ‘bitterness’ anyway? In our bodies, as taste receptors go, that’s pretty obvious— we learn bitter from an early age: it wrinkles our faces and we learn, as we should, that a little goes a long way. We learn that bitter is strong, and unpleasant. What we don’t learn is that we actually have bitter taste receptors in our lungs. In our GI tracts. In, uh, other places.

We have these receptors for a couple of reasons— the first is that a lot of poisons are bitter, and the flavour serves as an early warning. The second is that triggering them creates a cascade of digestive reactions, from our mouths to our anuses (anii?): digestive juices are squirted out and enzymes are triggered and peristalsis is kicked into gear; stomach acid starts churning; the pancreas releases more pancreatic juices; bile is released; the liver processes more; food is broken down quicker. As a result we absorb more nutrients from our food; bitter is the great digestive efficiency-maker. Every single thing that works along the digestive tract works better with bitters, which isn’t that big a deal if you’re one of those anabolic people who can digest everything, but for the rest of us who have slightly weaker digestion (Food sits in our guts a little longer. We get gassy after meals. Transit time is slow. We feel tired after eating.), bitters are usually a quick and easy fix that make a world of difference.

But, we have a societal aversion to bitter. As an instant gratification society, somewhere along the way we started rejecting the bitter, and everything that comes along with it, and picking out the sweet. Sweet is light, it’s fresh, it makes us feel good. When we eat sweet our eyes get wide and we smile and say ‘more please’ and people indulge us. Sweet is wide-eyed innocent youthfulness: it’s Bambi with its big eyes, or little pig-tailed people or fluffy kittens. Bitter is old and wrinkled, its gnarled and hardened and when we eat it our faces wrinkle and we say things like ‘yeugh’ and spit it out. To be liked in society, we must be sweet, be soft (Winnie the Pooh wanted honey, not dandelion greens). And sweet is nourishing, building, reinforcing. Sweet things (traditionally, pre-processed food I guess) are full of nutrients and trigger insulin which is like a key that unlocks the gates to our cells, allowing the cells to store the nutrients— in that sense, sweetness opens us up, lets us take things in, nourishes us with glucose or fluffy kitten alike.

Sweetness is nourishment and nourishment is self-love. Why is is that we reach for a tub of ice cream when heartbroken? Why is it that the more unsettled and stressful life is the more people tend to crave sweet things? I can’t tell you the number of people I see exhausting themselves and punishing themselves for not being able to do more and be more, who then want a herb to stop the sugar cravings they experience on a constant basis. That sweet is like a hug that you’re allowing yourself, a tiny smidgen of self-care, because even if your brain says ‘no that’s bad’ the body is cleverer than the brain, and wants it anyway. It's self-acceptance in a jar. Removing it without tackling the other stuff takes away the nourishment and leaves you bereft— it is self punishment in the worst sense. bitters2

Maybe our desire for sweetness as a society isn’t simply because we’re all fat and lazy but because we are balancing out the societal self-punishment that is dealt out on a daily basis. And even if we don’t appear to be self-punishing on the surface, we certainly are underneath— have you ever written down the number of self-reprimanding comments your brain makes on a daily basis? Try it. It's shocking. Then consider those sweet cravings from a different light.

And if sweet is nourishment, what then is bitter? Bitter stimulates digestive juices and enzymes. If sweet builds up, then bitter breaks down— it helps with the process of breaking down foods into their molecular pieces so that they can be more easily absorbed over the gut barrier. Without bitter, digestion slows, as food takes longer to break down. With slowed digestion, you have more old crap (literally) sitting in your body fermenting, creating gas, getting hard. Maybe if you want a sweet life you should avoid being constipated because few things make people as miserable; if someone walks around looking uptight and bitter one might say ‘he looks constipated’ might one not? 

But while constipation does refer to the passage of feces through the bowels I personally think of it in situations where there is something that needs to be let out that isn’t. Applying *this* action across the human body and psyche and all of a sudden you have a few other things too: bile, emotions, creativity, sexuality, who we are in the world. And yeah, toxins and waste products. The bitter flavour helps us break things down so that we don’t hold onto them. It's an energetic action that can be applied to more than one area— feeling angry? Break it down— what angered you and why? When you understand it and break it down, you can express it and do something about it. Express it and all of a sudden you’re not holding onto things and feel lighter and more free. You can move on. Let that shit go. 

What is bitterness emotionally? It's not quite anger; it's more like an unexpressed anger caused by feelings of powerlessness (see above recipe). Bitterness doesn’t usually just spring upon us, we don’t suffer from ‘acute bitterness’; it's something that builds over time, starting as anger and transforming, hardening, becoming like a little nut of bile stuck in the body. In its own way, this bitterness is a form of self-protection: we get disappointed enough, feel powerless enough, unable to say ‘YOU HURT ME’ and ‘I’M ANGRY WITH YOU’ enough and we need to form some kind of hard wall that protects us from this happening again. Not only that but that hard wall of bitterness is like a scaffold, strengthening us, making us feel justified in our feelings. It stops us from getting hurt and it makes us feel empowered. Bitterness holds the world at bay, it says ‘don’t eat me because I am poisonous, and don’t get any closer or I will cut you’.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting: In Chinese medicine, the liver is where anger goes— it is responsible for the free-flow of energy around the body and this also relates to emotions. Emotions need to flow freely; they are not constructed to be contained within our bodies but felt, expressed, dealt with, and sent back to neutral. They are notifications systems telling us things about our environment and interactions— the first niggling sense that something is wrong. Or right. Fear and anger both warn us of danger— we feel fear if the situation is something we don’t feel equipped to deal with, and anger if it's something we can.

Liver function, as with anger expression, can be under or over-active. A liver that operates at a healthy capacity processes a crap-load of blood each day, removing toxins and sending that healthy blood off to the rest of the body. Sometimes the liver under-functions, and sometimes we don’t process enough, and end up with a bunch o’ crap accumulating in the body that gets stuck. A healthy emotional-processing situation does the same: processing the ‘toxic’ stuff and sending it to a place where it can be expressed. Sometimes we feel something and don’t understand it, but instead of breaking it down and looking at it, we just shove it out the way and pretend it's not there. Bitter foods stimulate this function, the secretion of bile and digestive juices, breaking things down into manageable pieces. An under-functioning liver cannot process, and as a result stagnation happens, be it physical or emotional.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this emotional stagnation is known commonly as ‘liver qi stagnation’ and that there are herbs for it (rose, citrus peels, black cohosh, ocotillo, redroot, bupleurum,  etc) and that in itself is a whole other series of posts...)

Bitter, in this sense, treats the bitterness, stimulating the functioning of the liver. An ability to healthily break down, process and express emotions and feel like we have power in our lives means we can move forward and not create that hard nugget of bitterness. And think of this: bitter stimulating secretions, breaking food down, the eating of ‘sweet’ afterwards means that you'll absorb the nutrients from the food. Not only that but bitters help with insulin response so post-bitter blood sugar levels are much more stable when eating sweet things. You eat the bitter, and then the sweet can nourish you even better as a result. 

Or, metaphorically speaking, lets say that bitter is hard work and sweet is relaxation; or bitter is abject misery and sweet is a really good day; or bitter is the process of breaking down the emotional crap allowing us to deal with it, and sweet is experiencing life without pushing that Sisyphean rock. Eat bitter physically and you avoid the bitterness of constipation; eat bitter metaphorically and you avoid a bitter life. 

Which brings me to a bitters recipe. I’m going through a hawthorn phase (it's that time of year), and these are easy to make, delicious, and a nice thing to take a few drops of before meals to help with the digestion factor. Interestingly I find hawthorn to be one of the best herbs for helping a person strengthen their innards and sense of self-worth so that they feel more safe expressing emotions out into the world, so it's a double whammy. Bitter, slightly sweet, nourishing to the core of who you are and the citrus peel gets that stagnant liver energy moving too. Plus, they’re just plain delicious. Give it a go. hawthorn1

Hawthorn-orange bitters Makes just under a quart

2 oranges 1 tsp dried ginger 4 dried cardamom pods 1 cup dried hawthorn berries pinch gentian root 1 tsp cinnamon vodka (any kind, but there’s no point in investing in a super expensive one)

Second part: 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 orange

With a potato peeler, peel the rind off the orange. Place that and the rest of the ingredients in a quart size jar, and fill to the brim with vodka. Cover and leave for 4 weeks.

After 4 weeks, strain off the vodka and set aside. Put the strained out ingredients into a pot, add 1 1/2 cup of water and 1 1/2 cup of sugar, the juice and peel of one orange, and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered for around an hour, then strain. At this point you can throw away the herbs. Combine the syrup and the infused vodka. You can either bottle it individually and give as gifts or keep a big bottle for yourself and take a little before meals or add to cocktails.


MANY THANKS to the lovely people on Facebook for indulging my whims and discussing bitterness with me all morning.

Hawthorn ketchup

(Things to do with hawthorn: on death, time, funny light, and change)

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Paying attention to the seasons and to what I eat is a way of connecting to the cycles of life. The more connections there are in meaning, the richer life feels: there’s a history, a weight, a gravity that only deepens with each layer. These layers can be different things— they can come from your garden, or from the wild; they can be something you connect to your childhood, or maybe your ancestry. In the case of my obsession with hawthorn in the autumn, the layers of connection aren’t local or from my garden or even from the mountains where I gather the majority of my herbs; the connections stretch across a different sort of plane— one of dreams and magic and rings in the grass and mists that sweep in from far away in a matter of seconds, obscuring the path, making things look… different. 

There was a partial eclipse yesterday and the air took on an underwater quality for an hour. I stared at the shadows, transfixed, and thought about how fitting this eclipse was to the fall light. And I remembered a time when the light changing caused me great discomfort. The gloaming, now my favourite time of day, at one time made me feel rudderless and cast out to sea. Fall light used to do the same. Maybe because it exemplifies change. You can’t catch it or keep up with it. Fall is a transition time, where that which was reaching its zenith is now curling into itself, conserving, settling down. Its the turning time, the movement of time, the passing of moments so fleeting that we can’t even touch them let along grab on indefinitely. And isn’t that what we generally try to do? Grab on indefinitely, pretend its not changing, pretend that the flicker just outside our field of vision didn’t happen— that the world is as we see it and we don’t age and nothing changes and things (especially us) certainly don’t… die. 

Yes, I said it. The big D. How can one not, in the face of all this downward momentum, change, transformation, with the bare bones of tree skeletons emerging with every falling leaf that turns to rot on the ground. How can we not think of dying? And how can it not scare the crap out of us at the same time? hawthorn3

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I notice in places where there’s a rich and old cultural history, people tend to have more of an understanding that we aren’t the centre of the universe. All souls day, dia de los muertos, Samhain, these aren’t just times to get dressed up like slutty nurses and drink ourselves into a stupor, but times when the connections are strongest. The height of that falling time, the middle-point, where the light is oddest and we feel the most unsettled. In other cultures you deal with this by diving into it— honouring the ancestors, getting a deep sense of your place in history as one in a long line of humans that stretches out behind you like a series of stream beds panning out over the desert, and in front of you like a gossamer path that shape-shifts with each action we choose. Time. Age. Change. There is something beautiful about being rooted in history. Walking around old cities, sometimes you get a feel for the age of it and it provides a sense of gravity, of rootedness. Where old gnarled trees and old stone meet and your timescale is suddenly switched from the immediate to the archaological. Earth time. Slow time. Old time. 

Hawthorn is an archetypal plant for this: otherworldly, connecting the rational world with the dreaming— the gateway plant. It does this because its stable and comfortable on this journey. It too lives between two worlds, and straddles them. It is the plant to face change with, a strong hand behind your upper back between your shoulder blades saying ‘its cool, we’ve got this’*.

Its 11am. The light outside is orange. There are birds in the tree outside and a breeze coming in through the window. The birdsong and the breeze act as a hypnotic, pulling me into the light until its just a series of pixels, orange and dancing on the green of the tree out front. All of a sudden, I am simultaneously in my living room and in the branch of the tree, dappled light hitting my eyelids as I turn my face to the sun. And then in a heartbeat I am in my childhood garden, with the fall light reaching through the oak trees, moving over my face and then, as now, I am transfixed by it all. Time is loose like that. Simultaneous, happening everywhere at once. Unsettling, but now is the time to dive in. Grab your hawthorn and turn towards that changing light and see it in its place— as a part of a huge cycle, of birth, and growth, and withering, and death, and how we fit into that huge cycle with our brief lives. 

Its not scary to me anymore, the gloaming. It is beautiful in its honesty, in the flickers of things I see and hear in the shadows, in that which it shows and doesn’t show. In the connection to that which is bigger, uncontrollable, unfathomable, sometimes its reassuring to just be a tiny speck of light in a vast moving sea, not of something important or special, but of something that simply is.

I received a big box of hawthorn berries in the mail last week, and after tincturing and elixir-ing most of them, I was left with enough to play around with. This is a recipe for hawthorn ketchup, adapted from the River Cottage preserve book. Its delicious on roasted meats, like a combination between brown sauce (HP Sauce!) and something fruitier. Definitely worth a try. 

*My favourite hawthorn formula for all of this is hawthorn, rose and devil’s club, to work with these connections to the past, to ancestry and diving into that which is unseen. 

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Hawthorn ketchup Adapted from The River Cottage Preserves book

1/2 onion 1 tsp grated ginger 2 cloves 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 2 allspice berries 1/2 tsp ground mustard 1/4 tsp black pepper 1/2 tsp salt 1 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar 3/4 cup brown sugar

If using fresh hawthorn berries: 2 pounds fresh hawthorn berries 1 3/4 cups water

If using dried hawthorn berries: 1 lb dried hawthorn berries 3 cups water

1. Put everything in a big pot, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for approximately an hour. It'll take slightly less time with fresh berries, and with dried you may need to simmer for up to 2 hours. They're ready when the berries have gone light in colour and everything has turned to mush.

2. Run it all through a food mill or sieve. The hawthorn pits will get stuck and you'll curse ever starting this recipe but persevere because its worth it. The resulting mush should be the consistency of ketchup. If its too liquidy, simmer it down to a ketchup consistency, if too thick, add a bit of water.

3. Allow to cool, then spoon into jars. It'll keep in the fridge for 6 months.

On ocotillo

The following is a monograph I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine, on one of my all time favourite herbs, ocotillo. Its one of the four herbs I'll be focusing on in my class next week at the Herbfolk Gathering. I use it so frequently, for such a multitude of issues, and find that the changes it affects in a person are both long-term and profound. These are some of my thoughts on it, organised into monograph format.

If you're interested in formulas containing ocotillo, check out this antimicrobial gut healing formula and this waterways elixir.

ocotillo1Ocotillo: Fouquieria splendens.

Energetics: warming, drying, moving.

Actions: Liver stimulant, portal stimulant, circulatory stimulant, lymphagogue.

I was hiking with a friend in the desert. It was night time, there was a full moon high in the sky, and we were making our way to a favourite spot of ours to sit and look out over the desert and chat. The wash we were in became a canyon, the cool grey walls climbing higher on either side. The scent of desert lavender and creosote filled the crisp night air. Silence reigned, punctuated by the crunch of desert floor under our feet and the occasional coyote yip in the distance.

Stillness. One of the things that always strikes me about the desert is how still it is. I don’t mean devoid of life, as once you learn to pay attention to small details you notice the life everywhere: a lizard here, a snake camouflaged under a bush there, small pieces of green shooting out between rocks. But deserts are still because they are masters of efficiency. Why move so much when it’s hot? Why waste water when it is scarce? Movement in the desert (as with most things in the desert) is subtle, and interestingly, in such a dry place, this subtle movement is about water. Water conservation, water movement, water storage. Water strikes the surface of the desert in a monsoon and within days the hillsides and washes are ablaze with colour as life springs up from every crack, every crevice. Fluid dynamics, when observed in a dry place, take on an entirely different meaning, as desert plants seize the opportunity to grow as soon as it presents itself.

There’s a narrow path that makes its way up the canyon wall, and at the top, barrel cactus sentinels stand as lookouts. We passed them, carefully, and came out onto a field of ocotillo. We walked in silence, the moon so big and bright that it cast shadows around us, and at one point, when we came into view of one of the biggest and oldest ocotillos in the area, she stopped, grabbed my arm and, staring directly at the big old plant with its bright red blooms ablaze in the night sky, she whispered ‘what. IS. that?’.

But in order to explain why this was such a big deal, I need to explain a little bit about ocotillo itself, and then about my friend’s health history…

Ocotillo, at the core of its action, moves stagnation: specifically the lymph and the blood and indirectly, the interstitial fluids. It affects all the deep fluids of the body. Much like its branches come together and concentrate at its base, ocotillo’s effect tends to go to the root of the problem, and spread out from there. As a result ocotillo’s effects are incredibly broad-reaching.

My friend had been experiencing a multitude of health issues in recent years that had culminated in her having a complete hysterectomy a few weeks previously: dry, flaky skin issues, fibroids, liver deficiency, constipation, varicose veins. At one point she got her period and it never stopped. She bled for 9 months straight, with dull aching pain that progressively got worse and worse. She was seeing a naturopath who had her on about 20 different supplements. She’d had an interesting emotional history, having been raised on a farm in an environment where there wasn’t time to get emotional about things. She learned early on that there was no room for feelings, and so she just started ignoring them. This was especially notable in a tractor accident at age 14 when she severed 2 ligaments in her knee, and lay waiting to be found for hours without crying— she distanced herself from the pain and managed to do so for years afterwards. In discussing it, and other traumatic events as an adult, she sorta shrugs and says ‘there was work to do’. I’ve seen this pattern a lot— people who ignore or shove aside feelings either because they’re not welcome, or because its not safe to express them, and, in the women at least, it often results in some pretty complex combinations of stagnation and excessive bleeding: of holding on and letting go. In my friend’s case, it had been so long, there was so much stagnation, that when she finally did go to a doctor, they diagnosed her with severe endometriosis and couldn’t believe that she was able to function because the pain would’ve levelled most people. My friend, in true form, shrugged and said ‘I had work to do’. The entire time this was happening, I was desperate to give her ocotillo, simply because the underlying pattern was, as far as I was concerned, based on stagnation. She was seeing her naturopath, however, and while I helped her with little things like controlling the bleeding, as far as addressing the underlying patterns went, she wasn’t ready or willing to go there. The doctor recommended a hysterectomy, and after discussing it with her naturopath she decided to go ahead. It was after this, while she was still recovering but able to finally get up and about, that we were on our night hike in the ocotillo field, and it was then that she was completely transfixed by it.

Under the full moon that night, we [carefully] clipped off a single branch of the plant that had called so strongly to her, and carried it back [carefully] to her house to make her a tincture. While the most debilitating surface symptom of the pattern had been removed, the underlying pattern still existed in her body. She’s been taking ocotillo in small doses for a few years now, dealing with the arising emotional issues (and lots of memories she’d forgotten about!). Her digestion has improved significantly, the dry skin is gone, and she has been able to let go of a lot of deep-seated resentments that she didn’t even know were there before. As a result of all this she’s much happier, more fulfilled and moves forward with a purpose in life. Its beautiful to watch, and even more beautiful to see the relationship she’s formed with ocotillo in the process. Where before she was hesitant to make changes in her life, its as if the bond she’s formed with a plant that sends out its spring green leaves the second the opportunity presents itself, she, too has learned to grasp life’s opportunities with a similar ferocity.

Ocotillo was pretty much specific for my friend’s situation: deep stagnation in the pelvis, liver deficiency, and lymphatic stagnation. All of these separate things are affected by ocotillo’s energetic action of gently moving, shifting and dredging stagnation, especially in the fluids of the body. This action can be applied in many areas. Let’s take a look at some of them:

ocotillo3Pelvic qi blood and lymphatic congestion in men Pelvic energy, lymphatic and blood stagnation in men often manifests as prostate issues, notably prostatitis, pain, trouble maintaining erections and ejaculation issues (ie. Lack thereof upon orgasm and not as the result of Taoist sexual practices). As with all Western medical diagnoses, there are different causes for prostatitis and I wouldn’t say that ocotillo treats all of them, but if the inflammation is due to stagnation then ocotillo will work quickly and efficiently. I’ve used ocotillo as the primary herb in formulas for prostatitis quite a few times, my most notable case being a man in his early 30’s who had put himself on a self-imposed abstinence and masturbation ban for a year. About six months in, the pain started and by the time I saw him, he’d been on antibiotics and alpha-blockers for 2 years. He’d stopped being able to maintain erections, urinating was hard, and he’d barely slept for months because of the pain. He was convinced that it was a deep-seated infection because the antibiotics helped a tiny bit, but there was no other sign of infection and it looked to me as though the cause of the whole problem was stagnation in his pelvic area due to the stagnation caused by not ejaculating for so long. A combination of ocotillo, alder, bidens and ceanothus resolved the problem entirely within 9 months, though the majority of the pain and inflammation was gone within 6. He still takes gentle lymphatics on a daily basis but is pain free and (last I heard) had an active sex life again.

Pelvic qi, blood and lymphatic congestion in women For women, congestion in the pelvic area usually causes pain and lack of adequate ‘flow’, so it can manifest as things like fibroids, endometriosis, spotting, cramping, and slow-to start or slow-to-finish menses. I’ve used ocotillo in cases ranging from menstrual cramps to severe endometriosis and have seen it effective to some degree or another in all of them. Just like in men with prostate issues, the key here is the stagnation and lack of movement in the blood or energy of the pelvic area, and where movement will help resolve the situation. It combines really well with leonurus cardiaca if there’s slow-to-start menses; with oenothera + leonurus for cramping; and with paeonia in endometriosis. Ginger is also really useful here if there is also cold.

ocotillo2 ‘Liver qi’ stagnation I see the above patterns a lot in people who have what’s known in Chinese medicine as ‘liver qi stagnation’. Liver qi stagnation, among other things, is tied in with that feeling of frustration mixed with anger mixed with teariness— the closest thing I can liken it to in real life is the feeling you get when stuck in traffic on a hot day when you have somewhere you really want to be. Its stuck-ness, not still-ness, and it causes things like a combination of emotions boiling to the surface all at once, emotional outbursts (crying or anger usually), headaches, an inability to deal with stress, and feeling overwhelmed. If the liver in Chinese medicine is responsible for the free-flowing of energy around the body, then stagnation of that will cause the opposite— the lack of free-flowing energy. It can be caused by repression of emotions, for example, if a person learns early on that expressing their emotions is not allowed or accepted then they will find places to put them that aren’t on the surface, simply because emotions need to go somewhere. Emotions buried deep fester because emotions by nature are fluid, moving, and built to be expressed. They’re a reaction to the environment around us, a filter based on our perceptions, and a way to connect with and communicate with others. An emotion expressed is usually an emotion released. Emotional pile-up = emotions not free flowing, thus, stagnation. Ocotillo dredges up long buried stuff in an incredibly gentle way simply by moving stagnation and stirring up those things that are tucked away for safekeeping. Favourite combinations for the emotionally stuck include ocotillo flower + rosa (especially for stuck frustration), and ocotillo + actaea racemosa (especially for crying fits that happen for no reason).

 Lymphatic sluggishness/ stagnation Another situation in which liver ‘qi’ stagnates is with stress. Stress causes tension, tension causes restriction of movement of fluids, electrical impulses and such. In more physical terms, when stressed, we breathe more shallowly, and when breathing shallowly the diaphragm doesn’t get nearly enough movement. The movement of the diaphragm actually physically presses on the liver when moving down into the belly upon inhaling; taking a deep breath or two (or five) is really useful in intensely stressful situations.

As energy stagnates, fluids start to stagnate and thus the lymph, being the slowest moving of the body’s fluids, stagnates most easily. For liver qi stagnation/ emotional stagnation combined with lymphatic congestion and signs of liver heat (headaches, red irritated eyes, quick to anger), ocotillo combined with prunella is quite an elegant and effective pairing.

The major lymphatic ducts in the body also lie behind the diaphragm, and the main areas of lymph nodes lie in our soft places— our bellies, breast tissue, inner thighs, under-arms. Lymph stagnation can cause random swellings, bloating, breast tenderness, achy ‘fat’ areas (especially in overweight people, after bingeing on fatty foods I’ve heard people say that their ‘fat aches’ and its often in places where lymph nodes congregate.). Lymphatic stagnation can also be the cause of poor wound healing, frequent low-grade infections, skin and mucosa irritations and infections, food allergies, intestinal bacterial or fungal issues such as ‘candidiasis’ and such. Ocotillo makes a useful and strongly moving addition to a formula that supports lymphatic and liver function, in transporting waste products and fighting infection.

I’ve found the ‘dredging’ effect of ocotillo to sometimes be quite strong and this can cause a rash and sometimes big emotional upheavals too; lowering dosage and adding liver support and (sometimes) supporting elimination functions fixes this quickly. Ocotillo is very useful for any acute situation in which there’s congested lymph glands. For inflamed tonsils, or swollen glands in general, it works well in combination with violet, or red root. I especially like it with salvia apiana for inflamed glands where there’s infection and pain or redness, such as tonsillitis.

Portal venous congestion The portal blood supply that carries blood from the intestines to the liver has a lot of work to do. When the lymphatic system is either overburdened or sluggish as a result not doing its job correctly, the portal veinous system gets overloaded, and starts to back up, much like paperwork on a desk piles up if not dealt with regularly. The back-up of blood in the venous system then moves down in the body causing things like varicose veins, pelvic blood stagnation, and hemorrhoids. The liver ends up so backed up that toxins it’s meant to be processing don’t get processed and they end up circulating in the body’s interstitial fluid. According to Michael Moore, ocotillo helps the lymphatic system take up more dietary fat, leaving the blood supply to the liver less burdened and easing the pressure on the body overall as a result.

Dry skin, acne, eczema, constipation, cold extremities all issues that are potentially caused by this pattern of lymphatic/ portal congestion and greatly aided by the addition of ocotillo to a formula. I also associate cystic acne with this pattern (especially if there are butt zits at the same time), and I often use ocotillo with alder and mahonia or myrica in these instances.

Immune system Because of its usefulness in moving lymph, as an adjunct to other immune-stimulant herbs, ocotillo balances the overall formula in helping the lymphatic system remove the waste as a product of increased immune activity. This is broadly applicable— from fighting a flu virus to dealing with stomach issues after eating food of questionable origins. The immune system does its thing, and the lymphatic system moves away the waste. One of the first signs of the immune system overworking is swollen lymph nodes, be it in the throat, groin, stomach. People with food intolerances often have swollen lymph nodes over the small intestine (which makes sense as they are working very hard there). Ocotillo isn’t a substitute for removing the source of the problem (be it lack of sleep or food intolerance) but it does help with the body’s management of the problem.

Other notable things: Externally ocotillo can be really useful in salve or oil format for bruising and cramping (or just tincture applied on the skin). Its also very useful for coughs where there’s lymphatic congestion around the lungs and pain as a result.

Due to its small growing range, that ocotillo isn’t well known commercially is understandable (and its population couldn’t supply the demand were it to become popular in commerce). However for those of us who live within its growing range, or have friends who live within its growing range, it is an unbelievably useful plant, one that I personally would never want to be without, not for its medicinal properties (which as we’ve discussed, are broad-reaching indeed), nor the way its torch-like flowers light up the hillsides in the spring, or for what it has to teach us all about seizing the moment— something one can only really do if one has let go of the past.

ocotillo1Where to find it: Ocotillo grows in the Sonoran deserts, from California to New Mexico, and is usually pretty prolific within its growing range.

Parts used: Bark, flowers, and traditionally, according to various ethnobotanical texts, the root, though I personally have no experience with using the root.

While the bark is the most commonly used part, I find the flowers very nice indeed in tincture or elixir, and while much gentler than the bark they are still very effective especially when addressing emotional issues.

How to gather it: Usually around the outside of the plant there will be some branches that have been cut off somewhat. I find one of those that is bright green with leaf, wearing heavy gloves, with a pair of proper clippers, clip it down towards the base.

Things to take into consideration: While ocotillo might be quite prolific in the areas it does grow, its growing range is small— limited to areas of the Southwest deserts. Not only is its growing range small, but with the droughts in recent years that are only getting worse, its growing areas are becoming dryer with every year.

Processing: Pounding the cut branch between two rocks is the easiest and most effective way to remove the outer parts. The bark is quite thick, and if taken in the spring it usually separates from the hard woody center quite easily.

Dosage: Bark tincture- 10-30 drops, 4x a day. Flower tincture- drop doses work nicely.

Cautions and contraindications: Due to the heavy movement in the pelvis, its contraindicated in pregnancy. It’s also contraindicated with thrombosis and lymph-immune pathologies.

Sources: Kiva Rose’s most excellent monograph in Spring 2013 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, and private conversations Darcey Blue’s monograph Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Michael Moore ’Tinctures in Clinical Practice’ by Michael Moore Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California by Jan Timbrook

On water.

I’ll be teaching at the Herbfolk Gathering in Mormon Lake, AZ next month. My recent obsession with scarcity, excess and stagnation of water has led me to thinking about the lymphatic system, its relationship to the fluids of the body, and our relationship to water, as humans who are simultaneously drawn to, and terrified of it. Here’s a little snippet of what I’ll be talking about (water, the waters of the body, the darkness under the surface, stagnation, and herbs for it all), then a veer off into a direction I will not be talking about as much (emotions, oy!). A preview, of sorts. I hope to see you there!  (if you don’t know about the Herbfolk Gathering, you can learn more HERE) herbfolk

“The river has taught me to listen, from it you will learn it as well. It knows everything, the river, everything can be learned from it. See, you've already learned this from the water too, that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depth.” -Hermann Hesse

1.

As with most things, it starts with the sea: that giant mysterious amorphous mass of saline and minerals with things hidden in its depths and its unexplored territory. It starts with the sea, and with the interplay of elements, water evaporates and moves in cloud form towards land where it condenses and crashes down to earth, or floats down frozen, depending. And from land, with more elemental interplay, it finds a course, melts, moves, meanders and swishes downhill with ever increasing speed, collecting together, joining branches until it is trickle, brook, stream then river. River moves towards sea, and the cycle begins again.

Water is like that: never fully one thing or another, always in transition, being and becoming at the same time. Water can be deceptive: when its still, its hard to tell how deep it is. Water can look calm on the surface but hide a rip tide. Water can destroy a structure in seconds, or work away at a rock for millennia before breaking it down.

Picture that movement, that transition from one thing to another, from steam to condensation, to brook to river. Picture the minerals and waste products picked up along the way downstream, to be deposited in the sea, to be filtered out by evaporation, and that never-ending cycle. And picture how at its core, through all these changes, the water is actually the same. H-two-oh. An elemental structure that doesn’t change despite picking up various hangers-on. An elemental structure that can be teased out through various purification rituals. An elemental structure that is constant, despite surface appearances. An O and two Hs that transcend time and form.

This water out there isn’t that dissimilar to the water in our bodies. Plasma becomes interstitial fluid, interstitial fluid becomes lymph, lymph becomes plasma, repeat. And through this process, there’s the never-ending filtration, delivery of nutrients, removal of cellular waste, as a part of this never-ending cycle. The waters of our body flow from stream to sea and back again, just as the waters of the planet do the same thing. Our capillary beds look suspiciously similar in configuration to stream beds in a delta. But is it really suspicious or is it just the nature of water in general, and the form it takes when acting on its environment, regardless of what that environment is?seathings2

2.

Water and emotion: they’re always associated. I think its something to do with the way water is changeable; the way a person’s emotional state can change from one moment to the next. And if you drop a stone in an emotion the ripples can reach for miles, just as dropping an emotional bomb into a still lake will cause those ripples to hit the other shore. Oh stone-dropper, you are responsible for that stone, even if you have walked away by the time it hits the water.

Water moves in waves, and anybody who has experienced a wave of grief can tell you that grief most certainly moves in waves too, crashing over a person relentlessly, until a mouth agape can no longer cry, until the throat emits a croaking sound, until eyelids feel like they’ve been turned inside out for swelling so much, and there are no possible tears left as the inner sea has been drained. And still those relentless waves come until the tide turns.

A flood of anger can overwhelm one until one can see nothing but that anger, the world can become tainted by it, like a flooded landscape, there is anger for miles, with barely recognisable structures sticking up on occasion, and still the anger seeps into the ground, into the walls, into the furniture, onto the tip of your tongue, until every word you utter is bitter and bilious.

Have you ever swum out into the ocean and realised that you can’t see what’s under the water? Is fear of monsters under there really so unrealistic or do we all have monsters hiding under water, under beds, behind the curtains in the dark, and deep in our psyches. Is the function of this fear to reduce us to snivelling wreckages or is it a protective mechanism to prevent us from being burned by impulsive action. Does fear grasp our chests and surround our hearts like big blocks of ice. And do our teeth not chatter the same with both frozen water and fear alike?

And love. How can love not burst out of your chest like a meteor has hit the ocean? Does love not blast into the beloved like a tsunami? Does love not hit you like a wave on the beach, knocking you down, rolling you around until you don’t know which way is up anymore? Love, like all emotions, seeps into the world around us.

Emotion is also associated with water because its meant to be fluid. To be felt, expressed, released, changed into something else. Its meant to nurture seedlings of inspiration, or to damage structures and remind you not to go there again.

Anger when left to ferment dries up into hatred and bitterness. It causes permanently clenched fists and grinding teeth. It dries up into hatred that is directed first at the object of anger and then at everything. Those floodwaters fester, they rot the furniture, until all you can see and smell is the rot. Fear is one thing when confronted by a bear but what if it is your life? What if like piglet you spend your life locked in a state of fear? Holding on to grief, allowing that to become the filter through which you see the world, the thing that holds you at arms length from others and from life, is this healthy?

And love. Live in love? Love and light? Avoid ‘negative’ emotions? Emotions aren’t negative, they’re a feedback mechanism, a way to interpret the world around us. Love and happiness are as much as response to the world around us as any other emotion. We’re not, for the most part, driving this emotional boat. If you feel anger, you can force a happy smile on your face and say “I’m not feeling any negative emotions today” or whatever affirmation is on your fridge regarding such matters, but the fact is that if you feel it, your body feels it. Your brain can shove the thoughts aside but your body needs somewhere to put it. Where do these emotions go if not expressed and let go? If not released, dealt with, faced, expressed and moved on from, where does it go? It settles in the body, becomes a part of the unconscious, it becomes stagnant.

3.

Similar to our emotions, the waters in our body are constantly moving and changing: our blood vessels circulate plasma which then moves into the interstitial fluid (from high pressure to low pressure, just like weather systems), which then moves into the lymph, where its transported around the body and dumped back into the blood, where the whole cycle starts over again. In the course of this process, nutrients are transported, fats are taken from the guts to the liver, foreign matter and debris is attacked and swallowed. Its a constantly moving process, one that is dependent on the movement of our muscles, deep breathing, adequate mineral balance, and our hearts pumping. If something in this process isn’t performing as it should, you get stagnation.sailing post 1-1

4.

Water exemplifies change and movement, and yet paradoxically its natural tendency when left to its own devices is to settle, to sink and to be still. What’s the difference between stagnation and stillness? Something that is still is intentionally not moving. Stagnation is when something that is meant to be moving is held in place. Think of how it feels when you’re stuck in traffic: heat rises up from the asphalt, horns honk around you, the people in the cars around you get angrier and angrier. Everyone has somewhere to be and its not here, and so they’re frustrated. Think of that feeling, and how when it builds you’re not sure if you want to laugh, cry, punch something, or run as hard and as fast as you possibly can. That is stagnation: kinetic energy unable to express itself. Its a universally crappy feeling because, while some of us tend towards heat or cold or damp or dry, and thus, will argue until the next big bang about whether heat or cold or wet or dry places are the best, stagnation is not something any of us like (though some of us do prefer to be still).

That feeling of pent up energy not moving can happen anywhere in our bodies, be it in the lymph, in the blood, in the interstitial fluids, with our emotions, with our creative expression. And in all cases, it creates that same result:

Stagnant water festers. It also collects bugs, debris and dirt. Stagnant water in our bodies does the same thing, festering, collecting debris and dirt, swelling over the edges of its banks. Tissues that contain stagnant waters will stretch, expand, and lose their tone. Bodies that contain stagnant waters will be sluggish, slow, tired. There’ll be debris, there’ll be skin conditions or aches and pains. There’ll be membranes that are no longer tight, that let all kinds of little bits of matter through, and that don’t hold their water in properly. There’ll be ‘bad blood’, if you use terms like ‘bad blood’ and there’ll be lymphatic stagnation.

There are plenty of reasons for this stagnation: lack of movement, blockages, missing body parts, infection, shallow breathing, fear of change*, tension**, stress, and yeah, buried emotional crud. There are constitutional tendencies towards stagnation in water people: water types will tend towards watery disorders just as fiery types will often battle with excess heat and inflammation. Each constitutional models describes water types differently, but underneath it all, there’s water, and there’s its desire to mold itself to its surroundings, to flow from high pressure to low pressure, to move, to absorb, to settle, to still. Thus, people who are ‘water types’ will tend towards stagnation, and be prone to the perils of inertia, more than others. But stagnation can be moved…

5.

Physical movement, emotional movement, life movement. Physical movement doesn’t need to be ‘working out’. I feel like, when it comes to movement, in society we have become caught up with how movement looks and have stopped thinking about how it feels. Remember what it feels like to dance without worrying about if you look good doing it? Have you ever run down a hill with your arms flailing like you did as a kid? Or climbed a tree recently? Or just taken a walk around the neighbourhood for no reason other than to delight in having a body, not to punish it for being too-something or to do penance for eating a piece of cake? We’re all different. Some of us love to do fiery movements that involve lifting heavy things and quick bursts of energy, and some of us like to flow and move slowly, and other still like to run. Or most likely we’re a combination of all of the above. It doesn’t need to look good, in fact I think that not even knowing how one looks doing something is one of the best ways to get ‘into your body’. In our Instagram culture this in itself is an act of rebellion, is it not?

Emotional movement might mean calling someone up and saying ‘Hey remember when you did X 20 years ago and I said it was fine? It wasn’t, you really hurt my feelings and I’ve been pissed about it for years. Thanks for listening and I’ll let you know when I forgive you.’ Or something to that effect. It might mean crying for 10 hours straight. It might mean finding something inanimate to punch and doing so repeatedly. It might mean writing it out. Or writing it out and setting fire to it (this method is very dramatic and I highly recommend it). It might mean letting go, which is the hardest thing in the world to do and yet the most fulfilling.

Life movement might mean finding a new job, changing up the unspoken agreements you have in your relationship, trying something new, doing something scary. Or it might mean accepting where you are and choosing to be there instead of feeling like you are forced to, turning what was stagnant into something still.

You can also take herbs to assist in the process of getting things moving.sea3

6.

The structures and elements that interact with water determine how it moves, and its the same when giving herbs for water in the body—affecting the structures that contain or filter the water affects the water itself (which is why physical activity is so important). Herbs you’d use include alteratives, astringents, lymphatics. Herbs that move, herbs that drain, herbs that tone, herbs that work on the cleansing mechanisms, be it skin, kidney, liver or intestine.

There are plenty of herbs out there that work on the lymph, the interstitial fluids and the blood, but my favourites are ocotillo (fouquieria splendens), red root (ceanothus spp.), yerba mansa (anemopsis californica) and alder (alnus spp.). Each affects the waters in a different way:

Ocotillo stirs up movement in the lymphatic system, and through this affects all the systems but especially the liver and skin and pelvic areas.

Alder dredges the lymph and interstitial fluids, , making them flow and move more efficiently.

Red root pulls fluid from swollen tissues, but it does this systemically, gently and slowly over time.

Yerba mansa tightens and strengthens the tissues that hold water in, making the water flow more efficiently as a result— this works for mucous membranes and systems alike.

This stirring up, the dredging, it dislodges things, deeply buried things, monsters of the deep and debris and dirt. All that crud that was lying there stagnant now gets pushed through the elimination channels: too much can cause reactions. Its not ‘detoxing’, nor is it ‘healing crisis’, and it shouldn’t go faster than you can handle. Rashes have been had, emotions have been stirred up, memories recovered, general feel-like-crappiness has been reported, and cutting way back on dose usually works wonders in making all of this go away. There’s no need for heroic-feeling reactions that make us feel like we’re doing something difficult; life is difficult enough as it is without adding self-punishment to the mix.

But at the same time, in the dredging, when things bubble to the surface, they’re no longer under there muddying up the waters. The crud in your body becomes less cruddy, you start seeing the world around you more clearly because you’re not looking at it through the filter of 20 year old emotional baggage, you move towards new goals with purpose.

7.

Its messy stuff, this water. Not fitting into boxes, unlike normal solid things that you can tell apart from each other based on where their cells end and the others’ cells begin. Not water, water seeps into everything, it is in the air, in our warm breath, in the blanket you left outdoors overnight, in the very laws of existence: life as we know it cannot survive without it. And in all of its incarnations it refuses to stay still: ice melts, steam condenses, rivers flow into oceans. Both solid and liquid, both still and moving, the lessons of water are those of contradictions: of holding on and letting go; of being still and moving; of being content in who you are and yet continuously striving to reach your potential; of active force and passive movement. Or, as Hermann Hesse so eloquently puts it: “the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of perpetual Becoming.” Perpetual becoming. I like that. The water in our bodies, our psyches and our lives is perpetually becoming, and whether it becomes stagnant or continues to move is up to us.

 

* On fear of change and stagnation: I see water-like resistance to change like this:

Water flows into everything around it. There's a lack of solidity, a porosity that, if let loose, can flow into the world around it. The universe at large is constantly moving and flowing and changing. That lack of separation between self and not self can be pretty damn scary when the whole world flows in at once. Resistance to change is fear of the inevitable, but I think when the world swallows you whole its actually loss of self you're fighting.

Sometimes stagnation is resistance, and it acts as a self-protective mechanism, to help one function in the world.

** Try some pedicularis and a psoas release: a tight psoas can cause some terrible lymphatic stagnation and the feeling of liberation one gets from having it let go and all that lymph moving is positively ecstatic.