Michael Tierra in the Sierra, August 2012 "I'm gathering pulsatilla which is all around me. There are also stands of mule's ears (Wyethia species) at my feet and scattered around is California osha (Oschala), green gentian, sitka valerian, monardella (coyote mint) and arnica."
“Michael, you want to go with us tomorrow morning to the Sierras?”
“Gee, Ben, sounds awfully tempting,” says I. “Let me check my schedule… Hey, I’m free!”
It didn’t take me long to emphatically say, “Yes, I think I would like – ah, er – no, I’m going!” Thus, with an unexpected clear August weekend, I finally acceded after 20 years’ worth of invitations from my outstanding former student (and now master) herbalist-acupuncturist Ben Zappin to join him for an herb class and wildcrafting expedition to the pristine California Sierra mountains. Two other herbalists, Darren Huckle and Brian Weissbuch, would also be there. I met up with Darren in Santa Cruz and we picked up Los Gatos herbalist and acupuncturist Abby Rappaport, stuffed our respective gear along with ourselves in Darren’s already crowded car, and rode into the sunrise to meet Ben, whose Sylvan Institute of Botanical Medicine in Berkeley sponsored the excursion.
The drive to the Mokelumne wilderness seemed to breeze by as we enthusiastically chatted and entertained ourselves to near exhaustion for the entire 5½-hour journey. In that car was a pretty high level, seminar-worthy discussion. And just think, we could look forward to even more on our return drive the following Sunday evening.
Weather temperatures hovered around 90 degrees in my Santa Cruz County mountain town of Ben Lomond, but the forecast for the Sierras was between 40 and 70 degrees and a promise of overcast skies and sudden showers. This was exactly what we got when we arrived on Friday afternoon and most of the day on Saturday.
Despite the threat of showers, we obeyed the need to stretch our legs and let the excitement of discovering what medicinal herbs were nearby pull us jauntily up the alpine slopes. The hills approaching the tree line indeed were alive with a wealth of botanical treasures. I think the others shared my feeling that it was like meeting beloved friends and relatives.
Then the heavens opened up. As Abby and I futilely tried to scramble back down for shelter, heavy raindrops soon turned into huge pellets from which our feeble raingear was no match. We were pretty well drenched, but probably not as much as Ben and Darren who elected to keep climbing in spite of the rain.
By nightfall we were pretty well set up with tents, sleeping bags and such, and the others slated to arrive began trickling in from around 5 pm. Personally, I thought it was a minor miracle that everyone found the spot. I guess Ben’s directions were pretty good. In any case I think he already had the money, so it was on them to find the location.
The first to arrive was the third of the three instructors, Brian Weissbuch, an herbalist, acupuncturist, wildcrafter and medicine-maker extraordinaire. I was a tag-along guest and despite my near constant teaching during the weekend I really enjoyed being a student of these three who apparently know these Sierra alpine herbs well. With Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by the great late herbalist, Michael Moore, Jepson Manual of Vascular Plants of California and Thomas Avery Garran’s Western Herbs according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (Thomas is the co-owner along with Ben Zappin of Sylvan Institute, both former students of mine) – well, you really don’t need any other texts to seriously identify and learn some uses for the plants of the Sierras.
Brian Weissbuch(far left) and Michael Tierra (far right) with students
The next day, because of a rainy night and morning, we had a late start, around 11 am. That was when we instructors took charge and shared our knowledge, wisdom and insight with the group of about 15 students, mostly acupuncturists who liked the idea of combining their need for CEU credits for license renewal with a short wilderness adventure.
I must say that an added feature whenever Ben Zappin is in charge of an event is his spectacular cooking. He is one of the highlights of our annual week-long East West Herb School seminar that happens each spring and he showed some of his culinary magic with a spinach egg scramble and in the evening with a delicious lamb tagine. Part of Ben’s unique talent is to integrate some of the local herbs and other medicinal herbs in his cuisine. One could hardly imagine that leaves of oschala, osmorhiza or Angelica brewerii were even present in the food, but I’m assured they were and it was delicious as only a good camp-out meal can be.
Sunday we had a review of the plants we learned the day before with attendees finding the plants instead of the instructors. We also picked up some others including the potent hemostat, potentilla (probably Potentilla diversifolia better known as cinquefoil) and solidago (possibly S. californica better known as goldenrod).
These were the primary herbs we found on our two-day Sierra herbal wildcrafter herb adventure. Of course the entire event was accompanied by light-hearted banter, good food, campfire, and some medicine singing on Sunday morning. In short, the place was spectacular, the people were great and the instruction was deep and profound.
One thing the students repeatedly said they appreciated was the sharing of different ideas, experiences and knowledge about plants and healing. Somehow, rather than being confusing, most found this to be personally empowering.
Following are some highlights from the discussion of the different plants:
Gentian is a digestive used in bitters and detoxifies damp heat. The picric acid in gentian is more explosive than actual explosives! It selectively destroys viruses and bacteria. Gentian root and calamus extract with other herbs in formula is good for wasting associated with cancer.
Ligusticum greyii or oschala, along with its near relative L. porteri (osha) is antiviral and so is used for upper respiratory infections, colds, and flu. It was used effectively for prevention and treatment during the 1918 flu epidemic. It also relieves menstrual irregularity. One of us (not me) said they used it in formula for Bell’s palsy. Ligusticum species, including the local ‘oschala’ (L. greyii) is comparable in properties and use to Chinese lovage (gao ben). This and all angelicas should not be taken during pregnancy.
Angelica brewerii is regarded by some as the Western counterpart of the popular Chinese blood tonic, dang qui(Angelica sinensis). The four of us did not all agree with this assessment, finding that it was a little too bitter to serve as an alternative to Chinese dang gui. However, it definitely shares dang gui’s blood moving properties. Brian warned against the use of the more common Pacific coast Angelica hendersonii, which is toxic.
Solidago or goldenrod, along with the herb ambrosia (ragweed) are two of the most effective herbal remedies for upper respiratory allergies. Ragweed together with yerba santa as a liquid extract will stop allergy attacks within minutes and is more effective than the popular OTC drug, Claritin. Contrary to popular belief, the pollen of goldenrod does not cause allergies. Brian told the most astounding stories of using goldenrod extract (the aerial portions) to get a number of patients off of dialysis, rescuing them from certain death.
Gooseberry leaves are antiviral.
The bright chartreuse lichen called “wolf lichen” (Letharia vulpina) is a deadly poison and was used by the Achomawi natives as arrow poison. This was presented by Brian at the beginning of our trek as a warning against ingesting wild plants indiscriminately.
Not seen on the trip was a species of the common honey mushroom, Armillaria melea, sold as tian ma mi huan su, found in stretches not in the Sierras but in Marin and other specific coastal areas. Brian said this mushroom is used as a direct and ecologically sounder substitute for the endangered orchid Gastrodia elata, both having powerful antispasmodic properties.
Monardella aerial portions are used for stomach headaches probably caused by digestive problems.
Anemone, mostly the root but the aerial portions as well, is one of the most effective anti-anxiety herbs on the planet. Ben extolled at length on its virtues and one need only take two or three drops of the liquid extract to immediately feel its effects. I was particularly excited by this herb. In TCM it is used for diarrhea and dysentery and is called bai tou weng. Brian and Ben generally regard a fresh preparation of the herb to be more effective than the dried herb of most species. Supposedly dried anemone loses its anxiolytic properties.
Pedicularis or Indian warrior was not abundant where we were, but we found one live plant. This plant is one of the most powerful smooth muscle relaxants known. The average dose is 10 to 15 drops or more but one should adjust dosage according to the degree of muscle relaxation required. It was compared to kava, but unlike kava is cooling rather than heating. Its effects are nearly instant. This herb can be applied to many of the uses of medical marijuana, but without the disorienting mental state. I took about 30 drops and found myself very quiet and laid back with nothing that I wanted to say for the last couple of hours of the final herb walk.
Sitka valerian has similar sedative properties but perhaps less dulling than Valerian officinalis. Brian, who is a wealth of information on the biochemistry and uses of plants, said that the valepotriates in dried valerian are stimulant rather than sedative, which accounts for the paradoxical opposite effect of valerian on some people. I’d never heard this before. He also said that both black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) and Viburnum opulis (snowball plant or cramp bark) contain similar sedative valepotriates as valerian. Brian also described an unusual use for sitka valerian: gout.
These were only some of the highlights from what was one of the most wonderful wilderness herb classes I’ve ever attended.
The East West Herb School is going to feature at our 2013 herbal seminar (as we do each year to critical acclaim) Ben Zappin manifesting his culinary magic always with a hint of wild, medicinal herbs.
I also strongly encourage those of you who are interested to visit Sylvan Botanical Institute’s website. Don't miss the fine classes and especially field trips they offer for herbalists, practitioners and throughout the year to the Mokelumne wilderness that borders the northern, southern and eastern parts of the California Sierra mountains. They also do similar botanical excursions earlier in the year to the dessert region of Southern California and to areas near the Big Sur mountain areas.
Driving on Highway 50, the only highway on the island of Kauai, during morning traffic, a sign advertising fresh Longan berries next to an improvised roadside fruit stand (Euphoria longana) caught my eye. I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to stop and see if these were the very same as the dried long yan rou I stock and use in my clinical prescriptions and formulas for decades. Happily, they were.
Many wonder about the discovery of the medicinal properties of herbs: "How did they figure out that such-and-such herb has medicinal value?" In the case of Longan berries, and many other herbs, their first use was as a food, and the road of discovery began there.
Having only known this as a botanical medicine that I would frequently nibble on in my clinic and offer to patients as a pleasant introduction to Chinese herb tonics, I was excited about the prospect of eating Longan berries in their fresh, unadulterated form.
Eyes of the Dragon
Commonly known in Chinese as long yan rou, literally meaning "dragon eyes," the Longan berry is the fruit of a tropical tree found throughout Southeast Asia, including southern China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. For the first time, I was able see and taste the syrupy sweet opalescent fruit which is like an iris with the hard lacquered black dark pit faintly showing in the center. When fully ripened, the freshly harvested outer shell is rough and bark-like and is easily cracked allowing one to squeeze out the inner fruit. The Chinese woman minding the fruit stand described how if the fruit is too ripe, the shell is soft and dark and the flavor is not so appealing.
The Vietnamese riddle aptly describes the experience of Longan fruit: Da cóc mà bọc bột lọc, bột lọc mà bọc hòn than (literally: Toad's skin covers tapioca flour, tapioca flour covers coal stone). Toad's skin is the skin, tapioca flour is the clear white flesh and coal stone is the black seed.
As a botanical, Longan berries are sold pitted and dried and they have a golden brown iridescent color. In order to more easily extract the seed from the rough outer skin and the pit from the fruit, they are lightly heated and smoked.
The Medicinal Properties of Longan
Longan berries are one of the three or more "super fruits" used as tonics in Chinese medicine. Two others would be jujube date (Zizyphus jujube) and goji berries (Lycium chinensis). Sometimes in my clinic I"d make a kind of Chinese herbal trail mix with Longan berries, lycii berries, fennel seeds, almonds and hemp seed. (Scroll down this page for another recipe for Chinese trail mix from Lesley.) Apart from being a tasty snack, this works beautifully for diabetics and individuals suffering from chronic constipation.
The third generation Chinese woman tending the fruit stand was surprised that I apparently knew so much about the fruit she was selling. She confessed how she had even forgotten the Chinese name for Longan berries; I couldn't resist reminding her. I also told her and a woman deliberating whether to buy some or not about their use in traditional Chinese medicine as a blood tonic and as a tonic for Spleen and Heart, for low energy and with special benefit for the mind and improving memory. The Chinese fruit seller, who apparently had suppressed most of this to the general public out of embarrassment because of fear that they would not believe her, simply chimed in at the end something that most Chinese will revert to as a description for non-Chinese customers about a Chinese food herb: that they clean the blood.
While my fellow customer purchased her small bag of longans, I was given several samples to eat on the spot which I consumed with relish. These fruit are closely related to the more common lychee fruit and like that fruit, they are canned in syrup, made into a liqueur, confection, desserts and added as a natural sweetening ingredient in soups. I could easily imagine making a jelly or jam with them.
My personal sense of this herb is that it is indeed a powerful brain-nourishing food. It is high in glucose, and the brain relies on a steady supply of glucose for thought energy. The skull and brain usually contain about a third of the blood of the entire body. So it is easy to understand how glucose-rich Longan berries are used to counteract brain fatigue, anxiety, insomnia and poor memory. It is an essential herb to give to anyone but especially the aged who are prone to memory lapses, dementia and possibly Alzheimer's as well. In this regard it is useful for anyone who thinks a lot and may experience occasional brain fog. Despite their high sugar content I have prescribed both Longan berries and lycii berries to diabetics who found that they both actually helped regulate blood sugar.
However it is not only the glucose of Longan berries that make them a superior blood tonic. Apparently, they are high in blood-enriching iron content, reportedly 20 times that of grapes and 15 times that of spinach! Iron is an important blood nutrient which carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. This is obviously important for maintaining youthfulness and vitality (both being therapeutic claims for Longan berries). However they have a special benefit for women in that they add luster and beauty to the skin and their iron-rich "red-blooded" properties enhance female attractiveness and serve as a special tonic for sexual vitality. Those individuals who have iron sensitivity need not worry because the iron is organically present and the body will be better able to regulate its usage.
Longan berries have a generally calming effect, which apart from relieving symptoms of anxiety and sleeplessness, contributes to an overall feeling of calm.
Finally, Longan berries are very beneficial for the skin, hair and eyes.
Longan berries are a longevity power food and one needn"t wait until developing symptoms of anemia, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia and memory problems before having them prescribed by a medical herbalist. You can purchase them in bulk (they are reasonably priced) and keep, them on hand as occasion demands. You can even look into growing them if you live in an area where the temperature does not drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or purchase them fresh from various online sources or Chinese markets.
It was a good moment encountering a beloved Chinese herb there on the highway in Kauai. I bought a $10 bag of fresh longan berries and managed to experience the one contraindication from eating too many of them, described as a "damp Spleen" which in Chinese diagnostics means a swollen and bloated fruit belly. (I also got to experience how taking a couple tablets of Planetary's Digestive Comfort, which I always have on hand when I travel, relieved this condition within 15 minutes!)
I recently stated using a macro lens on my camera and it has changed my world -- not just in getting greater close-up shots, but also in bringing the "micro" universe better into view (for a similar experience try looking at nature through strong reading glasses).
Yesterday on a photo outing I focused on flowers and was amazed to find insects I hadn't seen. In fact, without the lens I would have completely missed them. Here's one:
I also saw "landing strips" for bees:
a threatening face on a spider's back:
and water drops on the intricate texturing of leaves:
The possibilities seemed endless!
Just as swimming under water opens up another world to me (especially snorkeling and diving), so does the miniature view. It is truly another "cosmos" co-existing within ours. These little things in life so often go unseen -- and unappreciated. The more I relax into the micro-view, the more I am thankful for the small gifts in life -- the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, sun on my face. As well, I give thanks for belly-deep laughter, purring cats in my lap, a knowing smile and oh, so much more.
Try turning your "macro lens" on your life right now. What little things do you appreciate?
Corfu Bay: Practically every square yard of arable land is covered with olive trees or grapevines
As someone who's worked in the health field for most of my life, I get to hear about all sorts of fad diets. Many of these come and go and have little basis in the long view history of the dietary habits of humans. One recent contender in the healthful diet arena is the so-called "Mediterranean Diet," based on the culinary traditions of countries around the Mediterranean Sea.
On a recent visit to the Aegean Greek island of Corfu, I was able to learn firsthand about the much-hyped Mediterranean diet regarded by many as the most healthful dietary regime.
Driving around Corfu with Spiros
The way I learned about the local customs was to hire a driver whose cab was parked ready and waiting near the dock where our boat was moored for the day's shore excursion. My driver's name was Spiros, a name that is ubiquitous on Corfu because the island's patron saint is St. Spiros. I learned that every family had to have at least one son named Spiros.
In Greece, Spiros told me, no one ever celebrates birthdays; instead, they celebrate their saint's day. This means that December 12, the feast day of St. Spiros, is an occasion throughout all the villages of Corfu for feasting and celebration.
So far as health and longevity is concerned, aside from the health benefits of the climate, air and wonderfully wholesome diet in Greece, not keeping track of one's birthdays at least has the potential of adding years to one's lifespan without one even knowing it.
As Spiros drove me around to the various villages, monasteries and high vantage points of the island, the first thing to deeply impress me was the importance of the olive in the lives of Mediterranean peoples. Considered the oldest cultivated tree, it spread from Syrian and Palestinian origins throughout the Mediterranean Basin approximately 5000 years ago. The olive (Olea europaea) tree has served as the life blood of the people for millennia.
On Corfu, practically every square yard of arable land is taken up with olive trees or grapevines (the two major crops of Italy and Greece). Spiros first pointed out how the black olives are the ones that are tree ripened and are allowed to fall to the ground. These are either picked by hand but most commonly there is a plastic net spread under each tree to pick them up after they fall which is usually in late fall. Green olives are picked green off the tree. These are soaked and cured in brine for several weeks leach out their bitterness.
As we drove around I saw some extraordinarily, large, gnarled trees interspersed with young ones. Spiros mentioned how it takes at least 10 years for a tree to bear fruit and that some of the oldest trees on the island date back over 700 years. Considering how plants that seem to take longest to mature usually are the richest in nutrients, the olive tree and the oil extracted from its fruits are a highly nutritious food. According to Spiros, after the oil is extracted, it sits in vats with the clearest oil being at the top. It is this clear oil from the first pressing which is sold as virgin or pure.
Olives contains many known vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants. According to Olive Oil Source, olives contain "55.5% oleic acid, 0.9% linoleic acid, a polyunsaturate that lowers cholesterol and reduces platelet aggregation and linoleic acid at 0-1.5%."
Linoleic and linolenic essential fatty acids and the antioxidants found in olives have special qualities that promote energy, health, brain function and generally retard the aging process. All of this makes a good case for the use of olives and olive oil being a key nutrient for the longevity and vigor of Mediterranean people.
I also learned that apart from its use as food, the mash (shown above), which is the residue left after the olives have been crushed, is saved and burned as fuel for cooking and to heat the home during cold winter evenings. Still another fine use is in the making of soap.
Retsina: Wine for breakfast?
According to Spiros, a typical Greek breakfast consists of bread (fresh, home-baked by his mother being the best), olive oil and olives. Fresh eggs are included occasionally. He said that those performing heavy manual labor requiring extra endurance and strength consume an entire liter of retsina wine in the morning as well. Now I know that anyone looking into the Mediterranean diet might never consider beginning the day with a quart of wine, especially the Greek retsina with its strong resinous flavor from pine pitch, which is at best an acquired taste.
However, realizing that in Greece making of retsina wine dates back 2,000 years I thought about the many other traditional cultures that integrate various pitch and resins as medicine such as the use of myrrh in the Middle East and traditional Chinese medicine, guggul in East Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and pine pitch by Appalachian people. In all of these traditions, indigestible resins are refined and taken internally in small measured amounts for detoxification, anti-inflammation and to counteract arthritic and rheumatic conditions.
Still, I wondered how the average person would fare beginning each morning with a quart of wine? Spiros assured me that while he didn't follow that practice, those whom he knew who did do not get intoxicated. Oh well, I considered, this is just another application of the Hippocratic dictum of "making one's food one's medicine."
Spiros said that upon turning 50, he decided to slow down, take life easier and not work so hard. Usually during the 10 months of tourist season he drives a cab in the morning and fishes in the afternoon. Now I knew of the importance of olives, olive oil, fresh vegetables fruits, goat cheese and such but I wondered about protein and the important role that fish holds in a typical Mediterranean diet. Spiros said he usually nets sardines for his 'catch of the day.' It turns out that one of the ways Mediterranean people avoid the risk of heavy metal contamination is to mostly feed on the small, fast growing fish close to the surface of the ocean since these do not live long enough to have accumulated heavy metals.
Sardines and other small fish, according to Spiros, are a staple, served daily in many ways for lunch and dinner.
Many years ago, the oldest man in the US (he lived in Florida) was asked about his diet and he replied that it consisted largely of sardines. One source I read described them as "little supermen" containing practically everything a body needs in terms of nutritional value with substances that are proven to benefit the skin, joints, memory and boost energy.
Sardines are naturally high in omega 3 fatty acids, which is the long chain variety of fatty acid that can only be found in seafood but not vegetables and fruit. They have high levels of Coenzyme Q10, a powerful antioxidant known to increase vitality and promote a strong immune system. In addition because the small bones are also consumed, they are high in calcium and vitamin D. On Corfu and throughout the Mediterranean, these are prepared and served in many ways.
Figs, goat cheese and vegetables
One of the most abundant fruits in the region is the fig (Ficus carica). Like practically every other food from the area near to the cradle of civilization, the fig, which is classified as both a deciduous shrub or small tree, is one of the first plants ever cultivated by humans. On Corfu, I think the fig is more of a shrub than a tree as I saw them growing wild everywhere, some spread out to cover the area of half a city block. The fig is high in calcium, fiber and powerful antioxidants. These are also prepared and eaten in many ways.
Cheese is also a supplemental part of the diet on Corfu. A wide variety of cheeses are eaten, but goat cheese is favored. The added nutritional benefit of goat cheese and other goat dairy products is well known. Goats graze more widely than cattle and the variety of weeds, herbs, shrubs and leaves that they consume adds greatly to the nutritional value of their milk. In addition, the milk of small animals such as goats and sheep is more like human milk, with smaller and more digestible fat globules than cow's milk. This makes goat milk far safer and obviously more beneficial for those who are allergic to (cow's) milk.
Last but not least, there is a healthy appreciation for vegetables throughout Mediterranean coastal regions. Spiros pointed out the small vegetable gardens adjoining almost every home we passed as we drove around Corfu. He said that every household in his village grows a wide variety of their favorite vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, assorted leafy greens and root vegetables, as well as a variety of legumes and beans. At one point, we spotted a man harvesting what looked like a common roadside weed. Spiros pulled over and asked the man for a sprig of what he was picking. It was a wonderfully fragrant sprig of wild oregano, which along with many of the other commonly used Mediterranean spices such as rosemary, thyme and marjoram, are generously incorporated into the diet both for their flavor and their well known medicinal virtues.
Greeks do not seem to consume as much pasta as Italians. However, Spiros said they do eat some occasionally.
My short visit to Corfu gave me a firsthand appreciation for the many elements, familiar and unfamiliar, that comprise the true Mediterranean diet. Occasionally adding just a few elements to one's own diet, such as olive oil, more seafood (especially the more common and abundant smaller fish), goat dairy products, vegetables of all types, modest portions of fruity red wine, and yes, even some al dente pasta, shouldn't be too hard for most of us who wish to gain the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. All we may simply have to do is change the emphasis we place on the use of some of these commonly available foods.
What about pasta?
Being myself of Southern Italian descent, I noticed that the one thing most people who recommend the Mediterranean diet never seem to mention is that Italian staple, pasta.
As a boy I watched my two Sicilian step-grandparents eat pasta literally three times a day. Yes, even for breakfast (for this it was plain and dressed only with olive oil).
Recently, Andrew Weil wrote an article entitled "Bringing the Pasta Back to the Table." In defense of pasta, Weil refers to the fact that most traditional Italians prefer eating their pasta firm, known as al dente (meaning 'to the tooth'). Prepared and eaten in this way instead of overcooked and soft, the starches convert to glucose much more slowly. This chewier pasta does not cause the heavy insulin spike that leaves one feeling heavy, lethargic and tired. Instead, it is actually more filling and less fattening.
I don't know when Italians learned to prefer refined and enriched semolina wheat flour as opposed to the grittier whole wheat pasta but many think that the whole wheat pastas currently available are much improved over those of previous decades with the added benefit of whole grain fiber.
Besides pasta, I remember my grandparents eating a lot of other things that might not exactly fit into today's well-known Mediterranean diet. For example, such things as tripe and certain organ meats were enough to make me gag. Fulfilling at least the minimum requirements for Catholics, they substituted fish for red meat on Fridays. They did eat lots of vegetables, which is aligned with the modern idea of the Mediterranean diet.
I remember that each spring, when the yellow-flowered mustard would begin to bloom in the nearby commercial orchards, my grandparents eagerly filled large paper grocery bags with verduti (meaning 'greens', specifically mustard greens). These would be boiled and taken as a soup-tea to 'purify the blood,' I was told. Years later, I would come to preach, as I do now, that this practice of tanking up on fresh spring greens in season is a wonderful health practice conforming to the age old Hippocratic dictum of "Let your medicine be your food and your food, your medicine."
Given my traditional Italian upbringing, when people refer to the Mediterranean diet assuming it to be high in vegetables and seafood (which it is), I wonder if they realize the amount of refined starches in the form of pasta, delicious bread, and incredible desserts, including gelato, that are at least also a part of the diet of southern Italians.
The Noble Olive
In ancient Greece, the olive tree was regarded as sacred to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, skill and warfare. Athena was worshipped at Olympia, the site of the first Olympic games (around 776 B.C.). The only thing bestowed on the victorious champions during the early games was an olive-leafed wreath.
During the period of the games, which occurred every four years, there was an agreed upon truce and suspension of all warfare throughout the Greek empire to allow the participants safe passage to and from the site of the games. Thus, the olive leaf has become the universal symbol of peace with numerous citations from both biblical and Islamic sources regarding its practical and symbolic significance:
And the dove came back to him in the evening and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. (Genesis 8:11)
The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us'. But the olive tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my fatness, by which gods and men are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' (Judges 9:8-9)
Allah is the Light of the heavens, and the earth; a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern or western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not - light upon light... (Surat ul Nur 24:35).
I'm in Fort Worth right now, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. As a classical pianist, the opportunity to attend the Van Cliburn is akin to being able to attend a Super Bowl playoff. It's especially a kick for me, because one of the contenders happened to be my son, Chetan Tierra, who was specially selected and auditioned from a worldwide pool of over 1,000 very talented young men and women. Despite being a favorite of the Dallas Star's classical music critic and many of the audience, Chetan did not advance to the semifinals. The fact is, at such a prestigious, well funded and expertly organized event, all the contenders were among the best and most talented young pianists in the world today, and it's a significant accomplishment to just be one of the competitors.
At the time of this writing, the Van Cliburn is in its final rounds with playoffs by the six finalists consisting of a 50-minute solo recital and two major concerto performances with orchestra. At least from my perspective, having met many of the avid Cliburn patrons, this is one of the most anticipated cultural events of this wonderful city. Many have assiduously followed the event, which has taken place every four years since its inception in 1962.
The competition is held in honor of Fort Worth's very own esteemed resident Van Cliburn, who, at the age of 23, played the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 -- and won. Unintentionally, this put a chink of human warmth in the midst of the Cold War deadlock between Russia and the United States, which portended mutual annihilation at that time. Van Cliburn, then a tall, lanky red-headed boy from Texas, instantly became the beloved of both the American and Russian people. His win was no mean feat in the eyes of the Russians, who could not imagine that anyone who was not Russian could give a more powerfully passionate performance of Tchaikovsky's iconic piece than one of their own.
Allow me to heartily recommend that you tune into the Van Cliburn website where you can watch incredible performances by Chetan and the other competitors.
As much as I am a musician, I am also an herbalist, so plants can never be too far from my range of experience, wherever I may be. To wit: I visited Fort Worth's Botanical Research Institute of Texas (also known as "The BRIT"), which I learned was the country's 10th-largest herbarium and the repository of over a million dried plant specimens in special storage cabinets dating as far back as 1741.
Few people who may have enjoyed pressing a favorite flower in a book or with guidance using a plant press in childhood, may ever have imagined that there exist multifloor herbaria dedicated to collecting and maintaining such fragments, along with information about the collector, the date and time of collection, and so forth.
The obvious question is: What purpose do these herbaria serve, especially in the 21st century age of information? Our guide, botanist Triana Franklin, said that such institutions as the BRIT serve many research-related functions, including charting the changing ecology of different regions and having an actual dried specimen of a plant that can be referred to in various botanical research projects involved with plant taxonomy, geographic distribution, and the standardizing of plant nomenclature.
The herbarium at the BRIT has particular strengths in the plants of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and all of the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States. However, its collections are also worldwide in scope, and most of the Earth's plant families are represented here with special collections of plants from the Phillipines and New Guinea.
One of the distinctions of the BRIT herbarium is that it has one of the largest collections of plants in the Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family. In common parlance, these are plants with ray-like flowers. From daisies to sunflowers to dandelions, this is one of the most ubiquitous plant families and is responsible for a certain percentage of allergic reactions. According to the curators of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, the Asteraceae family comprises more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 species, enough to fill a modest herbarium, but not enough to fill the mighty BRIT.
We visited the room where new plant specimens are sent in daily and are handled and catalogued by volunteers specially trained by the national Master Gardener Program or the Texas Master Naturalist Program. Individuals participating in these programs volunteer their services a the BRIT Herbarium for credit, making it particularly useful when weather does not permit them to be exploring outside.
Plants are pressed, dried and catalogued by volunteers, ideally following what the herbarium hopes might one day be a standardized catalogue methodology. However, with the recent taxonomic reclassification that is going on as a result of DNA typing, the task of not only renaming but recataloguing bits and pieces of dried and pressed plant material dating back over 400 years is bound to remain an herbarium's distant dream for many years to come. Displaying all their respective parts (leaves, stalk, flowers and root), plants are laid out and pressed on non-acidic paper or fastened by special glue strips that will not degrade the plant material. Also recorded and preserved with the plant specimen are the standard Latin binomial genus and species names, plus the name, names or initials of those individuals who assigned the name to the plant.
For both edification and fun, check out the following page on the taxonomy of echinacea to find out just how complex plant taxonomy can be.
(Pictures above from http://www.brit.org/herbarium/.)
For what it's worth, particularly to my fellow herbalist colleagues and students, I finally got to identify one of the most common insect pests that have been a nuisance at my herb pharmacy for years. Unsurprisingly, it also plagues herbaria and is aptly named the "herbarium beetle" or "cigarette beetle" (Lasioderma serricorne; Coleoptera, Anobiidae). I think we can also safely call it the "herbal pharmacy beetle."
I also found out that the herbaria practice the same method of extermination as I do. Not wanting to discard plant specimens that are hundreds of years old, herbarium staff simply place them into a -40 degrees F freezer for four days, shake off and discard the dead beetles, and return the plant to its proper shelf location. For a more up close and personal description of this little harmless critter which may actually be one of the best natural sources of B12 and other nutrients (I know you avid vegetarians and vegans will love that!) go here.
Fort Worth also has several wonderful museums including the Modern Art Museum, Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum, all very worth a visit. Fort Worth also has a beautiful botanical garden. Triana and the staff of the BRIT Herbarium are anxiously awaiting with a mixture of anticipation and some dread (at the work involved), a move away from the busy financial district to a location appropriately adjoining the botanical garden. Visit the BRIT's website here or drop by for a visit the next time you're in Fort Worth.
Lesley and I recently returned from a relaxing vacation on Kauai. Granted, it's not a large island, but by pure coincidence we often seemed to find ourselves situated in places that were especially suited to our interests. Along the south shore, just a mile down the street from our timeshare, happen to be what are arguably the most beautiful tropical botanical gardens in the world.
For an herbalist, hanging out at any one of these is akin to a being a Catholic bishop spending time at the Vatican in Rome. We are regular annual donors at the family level of $150. This entitles us to free tours and entrance to these gardens throughout the year. I think of it as the opportunity to enjoy them as my Hawaiian backyard without having to deal with the work of pulling weeds, watering and maintenance that every home garden requires.
The gardens nearest our timeshare are the famous Allerton and McBryde gardens, named after their founders. These gardens are strictly funded by private contributors. I strongly recommend checking them out and becoming a yearly member, especially if you regularly visit Kauai.
The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote land mass on earth with an important natural eco-system. Tragically, only 1% of all the plants found on Hawaii are native to the islands. This means that as breathtakingly beautiful as this vacation mecca is, most of the islands' native plants have become extinct or are endangered by introduced species.
Botanic gardens like the Allerton and McBryde serve as safe havens for these imperiled plants. Sure, I'd like to see more herbalists included as part of the staff and advisory board for these organizations, but I recognize that at least for the present, these gardens are important living laboratories for scientists who strive to better understand the evolution, structure, relationships, and qualities of the species of plants within their boundaries. Further, they can be used as classrooms where students of all ages can learn about environmental stewardship.
A HUMAN LOVE AFFAIR WITH PLANTS
Certainly as herbalists and plant lovers, we have unique perspectives on the importance of plants. I would say that every plant has a use and medicinal property of some sort; in some cases it's just a matter of discovering what these properties may be and then learning the appropriate applications and dosage. This is part of the meaning of Planetary Herbology -- respecting and discerning the potential healing properties of what plants grow around you, wherever you may be.
As an herbalist, I believe that as far as plants go, you either "use it or lose it," meaning that while using and over-harvesting plants may for the short term endanger them, over the long term, if they are useful and humans know their real value, people will learn to cultivate them to assure a continued supply. Thus, gardens like the ones I mention above play an important intermediate role in that process.
However, I think that any human infatuation with plants for their practical uses is equal to, if not eclipsed by, our aesthetic appreciation of them and the various natural places and gardens where they grow.
I might even conjecture that our forebears' fascination with plants takes an equal place alongside their fascination with the heavens to form the very root of our sense of what is wondrous and beautiful. As important as our ability to create beautiful music, painting, sculpture, or poetry, is our ability to recognize beauty in nature and particularly in plants, which, with all their diversity of form and appearance, represent the purest expression of the creative impulse of nature.
So even if one may not think one has much personal creative talent, one participates in the arts just as well by nurturing one's innate ability to recognize and appreciate beauty in all forms. This is an expression of the divine within us. Wherever you are, may you never be without the healing powers of plants -- be they the powers of their medicine or the powers of their astounding loveliness.
In 2008, Planetary Formulas (now renamed "Planetary Herbals" to account for many of the single herbs that have been incorporated into the line) turned 25 years old. In honor of this occasion, Lesley and I were sponsored by the company to attend the country's largest natural products exposition shows, Natural Products Expo West and and Natural Products Expo East. Planetary's owner, Ira Goldberg, generously arranged to send us out to both shows with all expenses paid. All we had to do was spend time at the Planetary Herbals booth; I autographed and gave away copies of my book Planetary Herbology and Lesley did the same with her outstanding book, Healing with the Herbs of Life.
The Expo West is always held in March in Anaheim, California, and Expo East is held in Boston in October. While I've been to many of the ones held on the West coast, last weekend was the first time I've ever attended the one in Boston.
As you can imagine it's a delight but still somewhat intimidating to have a man walk up to the booth and say how 30 years ago (by the way, check out the photo at left of a much younger me -- probably closer in appearance to how this man remembered me), when I was still using iridology as my diagnostic modality, I read his eyes and gave him an herbal and dietary program that changed his life, ultimately leading him to work in the industry ever since.
(While today I decry such ambiguous healing methods as iridology and kinesiology especially for my own students, I also believe that somehow if we are doing our work with the right intention to assist others on their path, whatever methods that are or were available seem to be just perfect and right for that moment.)
Then there was a woman who said she met me when she was 17 and I was teaching herbology at Heartwood College (now closed) in Santa Cruz. She told me that I somehow motivated her to pursue natural healing and nutrition as a career ... and she is now 55!
It's like a vague dream, that parade of people, faces and personalities that have passed by and through my sphere and claim to have been influenced by me. I act delighted and astonished, but the reality for me is that I was only me then, since, and now, nothing more nor less. Certainly I feel blessed to be told periodically how I have been the instrument for another's advancement and well-being, but from my point of view, there really was nothing else for me to do. I was always only doing my thing, and part of my thing is learning and sharing whatever I have gleaned with others.
Then lo and behold, there was the macrobiotic guru Michio Kushi, walking along with his wife and another Japanese friend, perusing the circus of natural products at the expo. Counting macrobiotics as one of the major past influences of my career, steeped in the teachings of George Ohsawa, Michio Kushi and a few others whom I consider as heroes, I found myself like one of my own admirers mentioned above, walking up to the gaunt, mid-80s Kushi, shaking his hand and thanking him for the powerful influence he has had on my life.
I remembered how many questions I had always wanted to ask him, such as "Why did Ohsawa reverse the definition of Yin and Yang, making macrobiotics obsolete for Chinese acupuncturists?" But realizing that I had already answered those questions satisfactorily for myself, I let it pass, just grateful for shaking his warm hand and thanking him for his brilliant teachings.
In the old days when I was a beatnik and later living as a hippie in Haight Ashbury, we had a name for people who frequented the places where we congregated and lived on the weekends or evenings after a "straight" job: we called them "weekend warriors." At the Natural Food Expos it seems the reverse; the liberals and ex-hippies who attend the events donning suits and ties, fancy and straight garb, are like weekend warriors in reverse, so to speak. They really are a dizzying array of contenders in the industry who are vying for greater credibility and respectability as they try to make a buck for what are essentially the simplest things: good quality, wholesome, organic foods and products.
But like any other commercial enterprise, it is nothing short of astounding to see what some people are willing and trying to do to make money - better paper, better water, better whole grains, better bags to carry the stuff around in, questionable overpriced homeopathic products -- the emperor parading in the booths up and down the isle indeed wearing no clothes, but no one dares to say so (after all, they paid their several thousand dollars to be there, and they have as much a right as anyone to their B.S.).
So the shows are actually fun for two to a maximum of four hours ... and then, as your gut feels a little queasy from the mixture of who knows what you ate as you were grazing from the thousands of free samples, which you begin to realize that like other such things were there may be inevitably more sham than virtue, it becomes tiresome and you'd really like to leave.
As one booth operator said as I walked past his flavored water booth, "I've got another three days to put up with this bullshit!"
Thankfully, I missed the usual bellyache described above because I decided not to sample everything or anything that struck my fancy, realizing that some of this stuff alone or in combination is probably not without some minor health risk. So, while it may not be the most glamorous fare, I managed to be sure to have whatever fermented foods I could find. This turned out to be some prepackaged miso soup and macrobiotic sauerkraut. That really helped.
I couldn't help feeling some pity for the few vendors who scraped their last few thousand together to purchase a booth space and didn't have enough to even have a real display, and only managed a lone person. It's a matter of too little too late and you're out.
But back to herbs and therapies that work. I'm teaching a class on herbal baths and soaks at the American Herbalists Guild Annual Symposium this weekend, so allow me to tip my hat to Michio Kushi by providing you the recipe for the following wonderful bath from the Japanese macrobiotic tradition, of which Kushi has been the leading exponent for at least 40 or more years.
Ginger Hip Bath: This bath is very helpful in case of serious dysentery. For less severe diarrhea, you can make the ginger water less concentrated: use about 1/2 pound of ginger for 8 quarts of water.
Grate 1 pound of fresh ginger and put it in a cotton bag.
Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil.
Prepare ginger water by squeezing out the ginger juice into the pot of boiling water.
Pour the ginger water in a tub, add more water and take the bath as hot as you can stand it.
To take a hip bath, ideally only have the sex organs and the lower abdomen immersed in the water. If you cannot find a small tub for this purpose, use an ordinary tub and sit in it with your knees pulled up and the feet resting on the bottom of the tub.
Ginger bath taken as a whole bath: Add ordinary ginger water to a whole body bath. This is very stimulating and yet relaxing.
Ginger bath taken as a footbath and/or hand bath: Use ordinary ginger water. This bath is good in cases of rheumatism, arthritis or gout.