This month in the newsletter I wrote about putting summer’s bounty by for colder months, and I also wrote a brief piece on how to use herbal preparations safely. Herbs, herbal tinctures, flower essences and other botanicals can be wonderful allies for healing, but like any medicinal substance, different preparations are of varying quality and composition and can cause unexpected side effects. Here are a few thoughts, and suggestions for staying safe as you explore.
The Wise Herbalist: please be safe
After last month’s newsletter on making flower essences, I had a thoughtful exchange with a reader concerned about the toxicity of buttercup. Flower essences don’t contain any of the plant matter (they operate like homeopathy), so not to worry. But, since I have been writing more about the use of herbs and interest is certainly growing, I thought I’d give you a little overview of herbal preparations and how they operate so as to keep you nice & safe as you venture into this newly revived mode of healing.
You can think of herbal healing as ranging from gross physical (food, pharmaceuticals and infusions like teas operate on this level) to more subtle mind-body like tinctures, where plant matter is placed in alcohol for a number of weeks, and plant oils, where plant matter is placed into an oil for a number of weeks and the oil then carries some plant matter. Then there are those that operate on the subtle energetic level (homeopathic preparations and flower essences, for example).
For preparations that work on the physical level, it’s important that you stick with things that are edible and medicinal. So, in the case of buttercup, you don’t want to make an infusion tea with it nor eat it, because it is not edible – it contains compounds that can be toxic. Same with tinctures – stick with medicinal and culinary herbs for these. Flower essences don’t contain actual plant matter – they are energetic preparations – you can make an essence out of any plant and you won’t have a toxicity reaction to it unless you have a reaction to the carrier (often brandy, but you can also use vinegar).
Now, let’s talk about essential oils. These are wonderful but very condensed and strong extractions of the oils of plants. I have an essential oil diffuser in my office with a stress ease mixture and it works like a charm. Essential oils can damage your skin if you apply them directly and many people are sensitive. They can also react with your skin when exposed to the sun – I’ve had an instance of this and it wasn’t pretty!
I’ve been giving herb walks at Kripalu and interest in wild edibles and herbs is really growing. If you have an interest in wild edibles, take your time and stick to things like dandelion, plantain and garlic mustard that are common and safe, then slowly and safely expand your knowledge from there. Like anything, there are things to be aware of, but if you approach nature with respect and curiosity (and a few of the many good references), it will be a wonderful exploration.
Enjoy the season in fun and deliciousness,
Annie B. Kay MS, RDN, E-RYT500
Updated May 17, 2023
Rituals add meaning to life. Over the past several years I have been participating in plant initiation rituals. They connect me more deeply and more coherently with nature than I have ever been.
As I write this, the wheel of the year approaches the summer solstice. This day is truly filled with light. I am preparing for a shamanic plant initiation that will unfold next weekend, a gathering of plant people led by my teacher and St. John’s Wort.
What is Plant Initiation?
Plant spirit healing is a shamanic plant medicine practice that works energetically with and through plants for health and healing. In that tradition, a plant initiation is a coming together in a ritual to honor, connect deeply with, hear and receive the healing gift of a plant. It tends to involve experiencing the plant in a variety of ways; through breath, dieting (ingesting) wonderful things prepared by the facilitator. It is done in a ceremony; with singing, fires, shamanic guided imagery journeys and the like.
My Experience With Plant Initiations
I have undergone several plant initiations so far and treasure this ritual experience in my life. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing, filled with ritual. I was initiated by Tulsi (the green goddess!) and left with a spirit soul sister, someone to go mystery-shopping within the cosmos. From Tulsi I learned ageless beauty and that all of the Shakti goddesses are within me – I can learn to draw upon them when needed. I was initiated by Dandelion (the indestructible grandfather guide!) at Damanhur, the eco-spirit community in Italy, and learned steadfast resiliency and impenetrability of spirit. Now it is St. John’s, and I already have a close relationship with the bestower-of-light. I hope to burn off a bit of dross and am open to an enlightening experience!
Bless you and may you have your own nature encounter today. Tell us about it!
When I was young I worked on Bentley’s Farm in my bucolic hometown of Lyndonville, NY. Like many kids in my town, I walked down to Bentley’s to pick apples and raspberries, hoe tomatoes and plant Brussel sprouts. I sat on a contraption with seven other women (a combination of middle school girls and migrant farmers) which was dragged behind a tractor, with a tray of seedlings in front of me. A metal arm circled up between two of us, and every other one, we set the seedlings to be planted. What I remember most clearly is the exhaust and the dirt – dirt deep in my ears, in my teeth, way up my nose – you get the picture. Too, it’s one of those heavy-equipment jobs that we didn’t really think about but modern moms would probably not allow their kids to do…too dangerous. Things did get caught in those metal arms, and it was unnerving.
While I always liked cabbage, these sort of experiences in early life tend to put one off certain foods, and Brussel sprouts were one of those for me. Not until just the last couple years have I allowed myself this particular appreciation. Perhaps the smells and the relentlessness of planting who knows how many thousands of Brussel sprout plants has faded. Happy to say I now I love ’em. One of my favorite ways of serving these little lovelies is with a seasoning of local honey and a good seeded Dijon-style mustard.
Honey Mustard Brussels Sprouts
- 1/2 pound Brussel sprouts, about a dozen
- 2 Tbsp grape seed oil or ghee
- 3 Tbsp Dijon-style mustard
- 1 Tbsp local honey
- First, clean the sprouts by pulling off any yellowed leaves, and trimming the base. Rinse if needed then slice into quarters.
- Heat a large heavy skillet on medium-high, and add the oil or ghee.
- Pop the Brussel sprouts into the oil and sauté for 10-15 minutes until they reach the desired texture and done-ness (I like them al dente – with some life left in them!).
- Spoon honey and mustard into the dish and toss. Heat until the well coated and yummy.
- Serve warm, and saves well for a day or two.
Here’s the incomparable George Mateljan Foundation on Brussels Sprout Nutrition.
What’s your favorite way to eat Brussels sprouts?
May you stay warm and dry and eat well this week.
New year blessings – Annie
A Materia Medica is a library of medicine, usually botanicals. Herbal books and websites often have an area where the health and medicinal qualities of particular plants are gathered. Likewise, many cookbooks have a section that focuses on the use and perhaps benefits of particular ingredients. Herbalists and cooks have great respect for the qualities of each plant.
My recipes use whole food plant based ingredients which are naturally healthful. Certain foods and plants carry specific health and healing gifts, and by knowing who you are, and who your ingredients are, you can surround yourself with delicious foods that keep you in balance.
Over the next year, I’ll be building my materia medica of botanicals and plants with particular healing gifts. I will include a roundup of Western literature, as well as herbal and folk wisdom, and the plant-spirit energy template of the plant. Plants have so much to teach us, and we can heal so deeply from getting to know them as individuals and arranging them in choruses as recipes.
For your pleasure! Enjoy the journey!
OK folks, it’s that time again. The Scientific Report for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is out, and it’s time for all nutritionists and foodie/activitists to dive in and weigh in. You have until early April to submit your comments.
While there is always the plus – minus of what each of us thinks the panel got right and wrong, I want to give a plug for the improvements in the process that have happened over the past decade. It’s much easier now to look behind the curtain of the recommendations and read and review the data upon which they are based. I like it! Every five years, this exercise helps me do an overview review of what the mainstream science says about food and nutrition. I encourage you, if you are interested, to check it out – at the very least, you will learn more about what the mainstream research actually says.
One of the issues in diet debates today is that many of those with an opinion don’t actually know how to evaluate evidence or don’t take the time to. There is a whole lot of junk science, tiny studies and early data out there being used as consensus and the basis for diets. That’s part of the outrage over the DGA every time they come out – a misunderstanding of what the data actually says (and what the data actually is). The committee really does need to rely on the current state of high quality literature as the basis of their recommendations, and there have been some disasters in the past when they made recommendations that seemed to be true that were later proved false or incomplete. The betacarotene story is an example (the Institute of Medicine of the NIH set the recs high, then that level was found to increase cancer risk in smokers – oops).
The problem is that well-designed studies in major scientific centers are often funded by the food industries that benefit. And we all see that the whole truth of nutrition (and life) is that the fewer packages you buy, the better off you’ll be. So, the only science taking a good look at whole nutrition available to integrative dietitian nutritionists and other foodies is often in smaller studies sometimes not as well designed. Eventually, the whole truth will come out. Unfortunately, it will come out much more slowly than if we had a free unbiased system of scientific inquiry around food and nutrition. The full true story of human nutrition is not yet told by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In an imperfect world, it’s a start.
Weaving science & wisdom
Here’s how the DGA process influences my own food and eating philosophy.
I begin by knowing what the DGAs say and understanding the research basis for them. From there, I draw from scientific integrative models like functional nutrition, traditional wisdom systems like Western herbalism and Ayurveda, a healthy respect for human intuition (mine and my client’s) and an understanding that how and what we each eat has implications not only for our own bodies but for everything around us and the earth itself.
In the end, plants are the healers, eating clean whole high quality food made with love that honors who we are and the lives we lead will take most of us through our nutritional lives in balance. If you’re not in nutritional balance, a skilled integrative dietitian nutritionist can help you get there.
So much to talk about with the DGAs. Have you reviewed the data and recommendations? What do you think?