We prefer to come out of a cold, snowy Winter at the end of March warming into the forties, but here we are end of January and the energy of Spring is in the air. It is time to purchase seed. Of course Potatoes may be sold out already. I want a thirty foot Potato bed, but where? Potatoes are quite the journey - once planted, needing a couple of layers of mulch. My crop has not been worth the effort my last couple of attempts. Sweet Potatoes were in the mix also a couple of seasons, but not a good crop either.
My Plant Family (those herbs that support my health), my Plant Allies, are now in the ground. I looked up last year and realized I have been at Hiddenbrooke three years already, the same length of time I was at Obercreek before I was displaced in 2017. I think the wound has healed and now Groundwork is at Hiddenbrooke. I will try out the name Groundwork at Hiddenbrooke in 2020, see if it fits. Perhaps Hiddenbrooke is enough. Groundwork can live on in my heart and mind.
I move on to experimental herbs, those I have an interest in, but have never used. My work is with native plants and restorative planting. What did Turtle Island look like when these beautiful native plants thrived? I am stunned by their beauty. Cultural bias and trade have brought foreign plants and invasives to these shores. Plants like Cattail (Typhus latifolia, Typhaceae) easily an indigenous staple worldwide are now overrun by Phragmites (Phragmites australis, Poaceae). I’ve watched a stand of Cattails become engulfed by Phragmites. I have yet to find an accessible stand to engage with Cattail. I have found Nettle (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae) so often I carry a square foot to every garden I design. Nettle was used for fiber in Mexico 8,000 years ago. She struggles at Groundwork right now. She may have too much sun. I transplanted a patch into the shade last Autumn. We’ll see...
Burdock, Mugwort and Poke are my first Plant Allies showing up in Riverside Park in Manhattan when I worked there. Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca, Asclepiadaceae) was also there. There was and may still be an aggressive campaign to eradicate her. What!? Monarch Butterfly food? My tender feelings toward these plants would not allow me to remove them. Ultimately, I was followed and those I left behind were removed. Burdock has a Turtle Island species Arctium minus (Asteraceae) and a European species Arctium lappa. The minus is used for the hollow stalk of the leaf. The European species stalk is fused. I’d like to spend 2020 figuring out the species I have. I transplanted Burdock at Hiddenbrooke in 2017, but she has not spread yet. I did find the seed head on the plant so we’ll see where she decides to land.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, Asteraceae) is an Asian invasive, though a sacred plant here and in Asia. Asian invasives are particularly aggressive on Turtle Island. Every try to remove Japanese Knotweed? Mugwort and Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica, Polygonaceae) have an intricate network of roots underground. Erosion control I imagine.
Poke (Phytollaca americana, Phytollacaceae) is on the USDA poisonous plant list even though there may only be seven deaths in the history of the plant. There are Poke Salad recipes online. A student of mine recalled her Grandmother kicking her out of the car to harvest Poke leaves on the side of the road. Don’t get me wrong, there are Plant Allies like Mugwort that I would never live without - Comfrey (Symphytum officinale, Boraginaceae), Elecampane (Inula helenium, Asteraceae) and Motherwort (Leonarus cardiaca, Labiatae) to name a few. All European.
My experiments begin with the Asclepiadaceae Family with Pleurisy Root and Swamp Milkweed. In the Asteraceae Family, we have Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Marigold (Tagetes sp.) and Milke Thistle (Silybum marianum).
Pleurisy Root, Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepiadaceae, Perennial, Eastern Turtle Island. I propagated two thirty foot beds in 2015. I planted them in the Autumn of 2015 and mulched them in 2016. I was displaced in the beginning of 2017 and they were mowed down by the Summer when I returned to transplant. Roots, shoots and young seed pods are cooked as a vegetable and the orange flowers can be used as a sweetener. The root is used for cold, flu, pleurisy, bronchitis and uterine problems. Tests on the root have found estrogenic activity. The enzyme asclepian is found in the sap and is good for removing warts. A. syriaca has been used for temporary sterility. A. speciosa is used for weak kidneys. All Milkweeds are possibly toxic. One of the most important medicines for the Menominee tribe.
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, Asclepiadaceae, Perennial, Turtle Island. I propagated many of these plants also in 2015, then realized she needed damp conditions. I have a wetland at Sargent-Downing (SDG) so I planted them there, but they did not return the following season. There may be a wet area at Hiddenbrooke to plant them this season. I have not found an herbal use for Swamp Milkweed, but she does have pretty pink flowers and is food for Monarch Butterfly caterpillars and attracts pollinators.
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, Asteraceae, Perennial, Eastern and Central Turtle Island. Very difficult to propagate. It says so right on the seed packet. I tried without success. I have transplanted her from SDG to Flora Jones and she chose a second spot there. I have transplanted two plants in pots from Flora and they are at Hiddenbrooke. A tea of the root and leaves is diuretic and is also good for the heart.
Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium purpureum, Asteraceae, Perennial, Turtle Island. I got three plants when I propagated Joe Pye Weedin 2015, but needed moist conditions so did not comb back in 2016. Sweet Joe Pye is the Native American who cured New Englanders of Typhus. The rhizome is till used to induce sweating to break fever. Joe Pye Weed is tonifying for the reproductive system, soothes menstrual cramps, is good for gout, rheumatism, kidney and urinary problems. The seeds are used by natives to make a pink dye. Can we say staple herb? Other species E. perfoliatum, E. cannabinum and E. purpureum may have anti-tumor uses. E. odoratum is used in China for parasitic worms and to stop bleeding.
Marigold, African, Tagetes erecta, French Brocade T. patula, T. minuta, T. lucida. Culturally appropriated and well known as African and French Marigold, Marigold is actually from Turtle Island. Turtle Island refers to the world for our indigenous, but we use it here to refer to what is now the Americas. T. erecta is Mexican or Aztec Marigold, T. patula is from Mexico and Guatemala (Mayan), T. minuta is from South America (Inca) and T. lucida is from Mexico. We had clay pots on our stoop when I grew up in Queens and every Summer we had T. patula in them. I recall a spicy, musky scent as we would play around the house. I assumed it was my Mum that placed them there, but now I know Dad is the gardener as he continues to putz around in his garden at eighty-two. I had a few good years with Marigold back in 2011 - 2013. Now that I think of it, I may have bought seedlings and planted them. In recent years, I have propagated them, but they can become too leggy so I propagate her on my living room table. Last year my whole crop rot when I transplanted them. I probably should have placed them on my deck to dry out. We live and learn, don’t we? Sister to the well know Calendula, through cultural bias we are hard pressed to find Marigold in our herb books. One of my books even calls Calendula Marigold. Marigold may have similar properties to Calendula and therefore good for cosmetics, also antiseptic and antifungal. May be used for stomachache, swollen lymph nodes and as a stimulant for the liver. The uses that we commonly find for Marigold are protecting plants from insects and certain weeds. Flowers of T. lucida can be used as a spice. The leaf was used by the Aztecs to dull the senses of those facing human sacrifice.
Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum, Asteraceae, Annual, Southwest Europe. Another European herb I will not live without. The loveliest leaf, Milk Thistle leaf looks as though silver paint was splashed on it. Dare I say, a sexy plant with a character all her own. Standing erect with her prickly fancy leaves and then producing beautiful purple thistle-like flowers. Prickly and unruly when harvesting the seed which is where the medicine lies. Hurts sooo good! Again a few good years (2011 - 2013), but haven’t had the chance to get her in the ground the last few years. I still have seed from 2012, but I have been buying seed lately. I seeded the 2012 seed in 2017 and got germination. Might have been the end of her viability. Milk Thistle is liver support. I’m taking the tincture right now through menopause because I have an issue called formication (incessant itching of the skin). And the key to protecting the liver when out drinking, is to take a dropperful of Milk Thistle tincture before one starts drinking, but who can remember? Of course, Milk Thistle is in my herbal medicine chest that I carry with me always.
The adventure never ends in the natural world. It is said that even if we could learn all the plants in the world, by the time we did, they would have morphed into something else. Perfect for my short attention span self. I will never be bored or ever stop learning. And if I ever feel down, I only need remember all the gifts of Spirit I have received on my herbal journey. Let’s go!