Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cedar: Some Practical Uses

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, or many other places in the world, cedar is everywhere. Sometimes I forget about it, and I go months without using it. As the bright green spring growth bursts forth from the tips of the cedar fronds, I am here to tell you a little about why it's a great ally.

Wester red cedar (Thuja plicata) is our local cedar, but there are many other kinds that have similar properties. The other ones I know are yellow cedar, incense cedar, atlas cedar, but there are yet others. The whole tree is antifungal, which is why you won't see mushrooms growing in the dead wood, as you would with alder or doug fir logs. This anti-fungal property is the main reason why it is so useful to us. There is indeed a lot of fungus that we need to get rid of in all sorts of places.

The last thing you should know about cedar is that you shouldn't take large amounts internally. Some people find it helpful in small amounts for certain conditions, but I personally have never experimented with that. I never use it internally, but find it useful for many other things. You will notice that none of the following uses that I outline involve ingesting cedar.

Cedar for your Foot Fungus and Athlete's Foot

Somehow, your feet are a hotbed for fungus of all different kinds. It's disgusting, but so are all the drug store remedies. It's a good thing cedar can help us with that. There a few different ways to use it for this purpose. You can make a tincture, make a footbath, or you can use the essential oil. The secret for this remedy is being consistent (2-3 times a day) for a long person of time (2-4 weeks). This remedy should be effective for foot fungus, athletes foot and nail fungus. Recipes and instructions follow...

Cedar tincture (alcohol extraction)
You will need...
a clean jar
40-50% concentration alcohol (vodka will do)
cedar leaves, chopped or cut into small pieces

TO MAKE: Shove the jar as full of cedar leaves as possible. It will be best if they are small pieces, so you can fit more. When you have filled the jar, leave a little more than a finger's width of space on the top of the jar. Then, fill the jar with alcohol so that it completely covers the cedar, and surpasses it by one finger width. You do not want cedar peeking above the alcohol, because it may mold. Let this sit for 2-4 weeks, shaking occasionally. When the 2-4 weeks are up, you will pour the whole thing through a cheese cloth, squeezing the leaves to get all the juice out, and discard the leaves. There should be no more plant pieces in the alcohol, and the alcohol should be a reddish brown color. I reccomend a "double maceration" for this, which means taking your newly prepared cedar tincture, and putting even MORE fresh cedar leaves in it, and letting it sit for 2-4 more weeks, and then straining it again. This makes for a stronger brew, which is good if you're using this for foot fungus.

TO USE: Put a few drops and rub around on affected areas of feet. Give it a moment to dry. For nail fungus, put a drop on each nail and let sit for a moment. For best results, repeat this twice daily for at least 2 weeks. For serious situations, continue use for 10 days after fungus appears to have gone.

Cedar Foot Bath
dried cedar leaves
hot water
a large basin

Foot baths are awesome, if you haven't tried one before. It is incredibly relaxing, and it feels great. To dry the cedar, simply leave it out for a week or two in a dry place (inside in the winter, outside in the summer). Dry more than you need, so that you can have it to use. You can store it in a large paper bag. When it starts to get moderately dry, grab a few handfuls and put it in the bottom of your basin. Boil the water, pour it over the cedar into the basin, cover and let sit for 15-30 mins. At the end of 30 mins, test the water to see if it's still too hot for your feet. If so, add a little more water to cool it down. Then, sit down on a chair or couch and plunge your feet in there. Let them soak for 15-20 minutes, or until the water is cold again.

Clean your house with cedar

One of the best cleaning supplies that I've used is white vinegar infused with fresh cedar leaves. All we did was buy one gallon of white vinegar ($5), and stuff it full of cedar leaves. You can just leave the cedar inside of the container. We put this in a spray bottle to use for surfaces, showers, and floors. The anti-fungal/ anti-microbial action of the cedar is a good addition to the already strong actions of the vinegar.

Cedar Cordage (picture on left)

Cedar was used for textiles and baskets by the native people of this area. The inner bark has long, string fibers that resist mold. You can make beautiful cedar cordage. You tube and the internet are rife with instructions on how to do this, so I will not elaborate on it here.

Cedar Smudge
Many people burn cedar leaves, saying that the smoke helps rid a space or a person of bad energy or spirits. It also just smells really good. To do this, use dried cedar leaves, or dry in a bundle and wrap with cotton thread (picture on the right). use a lighter or a candle similar to as you would use incense or sage smudge.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Stinging Nettles: The taste of spring

Now is the time when stinging nettles are emerging from their slumber, piercing the veil of leaves on the forest floor. In other words, it's time to get outside and pick the first harvest of spring.

The Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica

The stinging nettle is a invaluable plant. You can find them in damp parts of low-elevation, temperate forests (I have seen them in the UK, and in the Pacific Northwest of the USA) where the ground has been disturbed at some point. They especially like growing next to the trail, or next to roads. They always grow in groups, because they spread by underground rhizome. Be aware that they freely absorb toxins and heavy metals, which is great unless you want to eat them (which we do). This means look around before you pick: Do you see a toxic waste facility? Is there a freshly paved road? Is there a creosote-covered telephone pole? Is there a highway close by? If the answer is yes, it's time to look for a different patch.

I recommend doing a google image search before you go hunting for it, and look at a wide variety of images. If you're in doubt about the identity of the plant you've found, touch it and see if it stings you (arguably the easiest plant to identify for this reason).

When you harvest Stinging Nettles, harvest the top few sets of leaves. Avoid plants that are turning red or purple, which is a sign that they are creating a toxic compound. The spring, not the summer, is the time to harvest nettles. Once they start to seed, and even before, the leaves start to create this compound. Eating the old ones won't kill you, of course, but large amounts eaten long term could cause liver damage.

You may bring gloves, scissors and a paper bag to harvest with, though some people elect to let themselves be stung as a sort of homage to the plant. Being stung by nettles is actually therapeutic, as the reaction causes blood to rush to an area, which can speed healing and mend sore joints. This process is called Urtication, coming from the latin name for nettles Urtica dioica. If in doubt about this strange phenomenon, do some research for yourself.

If you haven't already guessed, nettles are wonderfully edible, and also medicinal. They are one of the prime wild foods of the Pacific Northwest. On top of that, they are incredibly high in protein and minerals. They are especially rich in iron and calcium. Medicinally, they can be used to remineralize, to nourish hair (infused in vinegar and applied to hair), to slow allergies and as a general strengthener. You can order dried nettles for tea on the internet, buy them in an herb store, or pick them yourself and dry them!

Amazing Nettle Tea:
1 Tbsp dried peppermint
1 Tbsp dried nettles
one pinch of green leaf stevia, or honey to sweeten
one quart of boiling water

Pour water over herbs, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Nettle-Arugula Pesto Recipe:
1 c sunflower seeds
2 T olive oil
3-5 cloves garlic
juice of 1/2 a lemon
two pinches of salt
two handfuls of arugula
three large handfuls of nettles

Step 1: Bring a large pot of water to the brink of boiling. In this pot you will par-boil the nettles.
Add half the nettles to the water (using tongs to handle them will keep you from getting stung). Let them sit for just one minute, and then remove them to a strainer in the sink, using tongs. Let them cool and drain. Keep the water and drink as tea, if you wish.

Step 2: Toast the sunflower seeds. Freshly toasted seeds are a treat. Never buy pre-roasted, as they are rarely fresh enough to be worth it. The oils go rancid quickly once you heat them. To do this, heat a dry pan on high heat. When hot (but not smoking hot), add seeds and stir consistently with a wooden spatula. Don't leave this unattended, or unwatched. I burnt a batch of these a half an hour ago- it's easy to do. Once the seeds are toasted, load them into a food processor and grind them up. They don't need to be a flour, but small and even does the trick.

Step 4: Remove nettle leaves from the stringy stems with your fingers or scissors. Add 1/2 of these to the food processor. Also add garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Pulse. Then, add the rest and pulse.

Step 5: Add the arugula little by little, pulsing as you go. Then, let the food processor run until everything is evenly chopped into a paste.

Eat this on crackers, on sandwiches, or on pasta. Beware that it might be a little spicy.`