Burdock & Rose

wildly-crafted plant tales from herbalist, forager & author lisa rose

Tag: gardening

Wild Gardens in the Windy City

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During a weekend of work and play in Chicago, I made my way down the stairs on Wacker to the riverfront for a morning walk. Musing about the layers of the city and metal beams my partner commented, “Chicago is a city built of steel with 3 dimensions.”

I thought more about that statement in relation to the environment- the three dimensions. The stark contrast of metal and concrete to the blues of the harbor and green of the gardens and uncultivated weeds. The intersection of plants and human development. How the plants are persistent, and how humans are affected – or affect – this presence. How nature expresses itself. How we express humanity toward nature in the city.

As we walked, I took note of the blooming lindens along the Chicago riverfront, the lambs-quarters popping up in newly sown grasses. The plantain edging the sidewalk and the succulent chickweed encroaching on the roses in a private garden bed.

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Through Millennium Park I walked and stopped, walked and stopped. In part for my own rest and to just watch other visitors around me fall into a comfortable relaxation among the plants. I appreciated the park staff’s integration of my favorite wild plants like elderberry in the formal gardens of Millennium Park.

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For a city of its size, Chicago has a refreshing abundance and intentional focus on green space and greening initiatives- from the new garden spaces (including edibles!!) in many of the municipal parks to the secret gardens and spaces across the city maintained by city residents. Green space is valued by Chicagoans.

Finishing the walk, I left the manicured gardens of Millennium Park and turned back toward the riverfront to climb the metal stairway to back up to the hotel.  I looked down at my feet, paying attention to the weedy plants along the alley and intersection. But then I stopped.

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Among the weedy plants, I noticed a small sign that said “Look Out For Plants.”

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Then another sign, “Please don’t walk here.”

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And another, “Fire Department Garden.”

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Sure enough, alongside my favorite wild weeds of burdock, dandelions, lambs-quarters and wild carrot were squashes and cucumbers planted in the spaces between a vacant lot and a sidewalk.

Beneath the cacophony of the steel overpass structure there was the human effort to cultivate nourishment in a small space of vacant land. The paper garden signs were a small request for people to be mindful and pay attention to these efforts. All offered quietly planted with loving tenderness.

I don’t know the front or backstory behind these plants – though I am curious. But less important than the story was that this small, cultivated space contrasted among the persistent wild, weedy plants and vacant lot did make me stop and take pause in appreciation for the humanity of the gesture.

It’s the simple things. Take notice. Care for what’s around us. Plant seeds. Even in places where you think no one will notice. Perhaps those are the best places to root your efforts.

Poison Ivy & Favorite Herbal Remedies

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Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a common invasive plant across the Midwest, found in damp riverbeds, woodlands, trailsides, sand dunes, and open fields. The poison ivy is abundant this year – finally leafing out and growing in large stands in backyards, along trails and carpeting the woods, keeping the morel mushroom hunters at bay and irritating gardeners who want it eliminated from their cultivated garden beds.

“Leaves of three, let them be” may be a good start to identifying poison ivy, but the plant takes many shapes and if you only look for leaves of three, then you will also be avoiding plants like the raspberries and the roses. Poison ivy has compound leaves in sets of 3-5, with outside asymmetrical leaves and a middle leaf that is symmetrical that alternate along a woody stalk.

When the leaves first appear in the spring, they can be a soft or shiny purple leaf than changes to green over the season. It can be a small creeping plant, or the stalk can also be a thick, hairy vine that winds up and along tree trunks and buildings.  Poison ivy produces inedible berries in the fall, and its hairy vine can be identifiable in winter. It can be easily confused with box elder, whose leaves are also compound but are opposite along the stem.

Poison Ivy & The Gardener

To the surprise of many, I actually admire poison ivy for it’s ability to mark territory and protect lands from trespassing or overuse. It was once told to me that poison ivy was given to us humans when we started to forget to say “Thank You” for the abundance of the earth’s blessings. This makes sense – poison ivy doesn’t pull down vegetation like the bittersweet vine, rather it creates a blockade causing humans to step back. Poison ivy protects the land while allowing it to regenerate.

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Next time you see a large plant of poison ivy with runners all along a piece of land, take a step back and consider what is going on with the area’s ecology. Is it trying to heal itself from overuse? Is it an area that gets a lot of human traffic that needs to be limited? Something to consider, and perhaps help shift your perspective on the role of poison ivy in our environments.

Frequently I am asked how to manage the plant in gardens and in landscaping. And my answer is that I usually don’t feel a need to remove poison ivy, rather learn to identify and avoid it (those that are highly allergic never like this response, but nonetheless, I feel it’s a more realistic strategy than trying to aggressively remove the plant from the yard).

A Few Favorite Remedies for Poison Ivy

Invariably, folks that enjoy the outdoors – especially in springtime before the plant fully leafs out – will come into contact with poison ivy. There are a lot of homemade remedies to help care for the aggravating wet, weepy rash, and I list a few of mine below. Take note, that oil-based preparations should be avoided with poison ivy as it can worsen the rash.  For those with serious allergies, a visit to your MD sometimes is the most prudent course of action.

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Rose Vinegar One of my first aid kit must-haves is a rose-infused vinegar in a spray bottle – which is great for poison ivy rashes. A rose-infused vinegar is useful in the herbal apothecary for topical skin infections, abrasions, burns and rashes.

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Rose petals infusing in apple cider vinegar to make a spray to astringe the wet and weepy rash of poison ivy.

Preparations of rose – teas, liniments or soaks – are naturally astringent and antimicrobial can be used topically as a skin wash to cool and soothe inflammation. Vinegar – especially the naturally fermented apple cider vinegar – can also be used to wash and astringe the skin, especially conditions that are wet and weepy caused by rashes like poison ivy (it can also be used directly on the leaves and vines to help force it back from an area you are trying to clear).

Together – the rose petals extracted in vinegar -makes an awesome vinegar-based wash that is so very soothing on poison ivy inflicted skin. Simply infuse the vinegar with the rose petals and leaves (fresh or dry works), let steep for a week, strain and add to a spray bottle. Keep refrigerated, and mist skin as needed. Also perfect to soothe a summer sunburn.

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Echinacea is useful for topical and septic infections like poison ivy.

Echiancea Echinacea is an excellent herb to help support the immune system’s response to septic infections.  It can be used topically as a preparation of tea (strained, cooled to room temperature) to wash the wet and weepy skin infection of poison ivy. It should also be taken internally as a tea or tincture to support the immune system’s response to the plant.

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Jewelweed is a useful plant to apply topically to areas of skin that have been exposed to poison ivy.

Jewelweed  Jewelweed is a tall succulent annual plant that sometimes grows densely like ground cover. Its root system is shallow and its hollow stalk a neon translucent green, growing about 3 to 5 feet tall. The plant is very juicy when crushed, and makes a wonderful topical poultice to apply to areas that have had contact with poison ivy, but the skin hasn’t had any eruptions. Jewelweed can also be made as a tea for a skin wash. For use throughout the season the plant can be frozen into ice cube trays for later use, or even incorporated into handmade oatmeal soap recipes for a poison ivy wash.

Of course, soaking in a tub of oatmeal water still works to soothe the itch, as does Mom’s calamine lotion. It also helps to reduce the metabolic load on the system while the body fights off the reaction – this means eliminating alcohol, sugar, refined carbs and coffee. This just opens up more bandwidth to help the body clear up on its own. Lymphatics like red root or cleavers can really help with this process.

Further reading

Jim McDonald’s treatise on poison ivy can watched here.

Grow Your Herbal Apothecary from the Ground Up

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It’s that time of year again — Spring! I know I’ve been thinking about planting time since January, when the seed catalogues began to drop into our mailbox (an evil tease, I say) and this time of year I become so excited to once again get my hands into the soil. It is my therapy and peace.

It delights me with happiness that the urban farming and gardening movement continues to gain momentum and that others are joining in, tilling the soil to grow their own food and herbs. For reasons of health, economy, environment and justice, it’s now quite popular to have tilled the grass for edible plants and vegetables as outdoor landscapes instead of lawns. On the note of health, as you think about starting your garden this spring consider including herbs into the plan.

Imagine this at the end of your harvest season– your own herbal apothecary filled with local herbs that are gathered from your gardens, the farmers market, and even field hedgerows and woodlands that you can turn to when you feel a cold coming on or get an upset stomach after an indulgent meal.  There is nothing more gratifying and satisfying to know you’ve stocked your pantry with herbal concoctions and medicines to keep you and your family well throughout the year. {AND you will find you will not need to take those expensive trips to the health food shop to procure your herbal remedies!}

For many, the word herbal apothecary evokes images of shelves, bottles and jars all filled with mysterious herbs, herbal formulas from exotic plants.  But to have an herbal apothecary that your family can turn to for basic ills and chills, plants need not be exotic or mysterious – in fact, as more and more people look to local plants and herbs to incorporate into their natural wellness routine, beginning your own apothecary can begin as close to home as the garden.

Grow your own.  In establishing a supply of herbs for your own herbal, consider growing a few perennial kitchen herbs like popular plants such as Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Mint, Bee Balm and Lavender. These well-known plants will not only offer you a source of fresh culinary herbs throughout the season for cooking, but can be dried for tea for winter’s warm sipping. Also keep in mind that it’s nice to have these culinary herbs close to the kitchen for easy harvesting when cooking.

I also love other perennials like Echinacea, Yarrow, Comfrey, Borage, Boneset, Roses and Milkweed. Pollinators love these plants (think BEES!) and they offer wonderful medicines for the herbal apothecary. They also work in containers.

Kitchen herbs can be easily integrated into a current garden plan if you already do have a garden or yard, or can be easily grown in containers on the patio and in the windowsill if you are an apartment dweller and lack growing space.  These basic kitchen garden herbs are widely available at local greenhouses and can often be found at the farmers market (when selecting transplants for your gardens, be sure to look for plants that have a vital energy and have been started in chemical-free, heavily composted soil).

Farmers Markets. Don’t feel left out if you aren’t a gardener. The summer farmers markets are gearing up for the growing season. And if you aren’t growing your own, the farmers market is the next best place to be procuring garden-fresh herbs that you can preserve and dry. Check out LocalHarvest.org for a market or farmer that sells herbs in your area.

Harvesting & Preservation. Throughout the growing seasons, kitchen herbs can be easily cut with scissors and can be used to make herbal honey or vinegars.  Their stalks can be bundled and hung to dry simply dried on screens to later be blended together for a soothing aromatic tea blend. An added bonus for cutting back the first round of blooms: Sometimes an early cutting of the flowers will result in a second bloom. Lavender will often do this if it’s a warm summer.

To dry the plant material for tea, individual leaves and flowers can be harvested and dried on screens in a dry space. The larger stalks can be bundled and hung to dry. Be sure to harvest the plants after the morning dew has evaporated and that the plants are fully dry before storing in glass jars.  If the plant is not thoroughly dry before storing, there is a high likelihood that the drying plant material will mold in the container — and that’s a drag. Be sure to always label and date the jars as you put up your herbal harvest.

Using your herbs in your apothecary. Tasting, smelling your freshly harvested herbs will set you on your way to better understanding how plants can be used in times of illness and as part of a regular diet.  Take note as to how they taste in tea using both dry herbs and fresh plants. Notice a difference? You will learn ways to prepare the herbs to suit your tastes, and also how they may have an action on the body. So as you continue along your herbal harvest journey, experiment with the herbs singly as a tea or try blending them together!

Over the coming season, you may find that you like working with plants so much you will want to delve into making herbal salves, herbal infused oils and tinctures.  Or become a forager of the wild, uncultivated plants. You certainly will discover that it is truly satisfying to begin to rely on the natural world for wellness and to connect to a  tradition of herbal healing and reliance on plants that is as old as time itself.

To learn more, consider signing up for one of my foraging and medicine making classes. I’d love to have you and share with you the healing wonders of the outdoors. It’s good for both mind, body and spirit (AND pocketbook!).