Monday, July 9, 2012

Making Medicine, Part 1 of 5: Wild Harvesting Blue Vervain

This is the first of a series of five posts in which I am going to use the process of wild harvesting and making a fresh herb tincture of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) as an example to explain in detail the process of making medicine. You'll have to excuse me for having changed the title a few times. As I've been writing these posts, they've become longer and more detailed and less about blue vervain and more about making medicine in general. There are a lot of aspects of this process that I realized needed to be explained in detail. So this has been an evolving process.

A week ago, Monika (Monika Ghent, my partner and the Living Earth online course supervisor) and I went harvesting blue vervain. I decided that this would be a good herb to feature in in this series because the process is pretty typical for an herb for which we harvest the aerial parts. Also, being a wetland species, it allows me to address a couple of issues that are particular to harvesting in wetlands.

The home of blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Back in the early 80s when I first started exploring wild spaces and eventually herbs in the rural areas beyond the boarders of Toronto where I lived, I used to look at detailed maps of the surrounding area to look for wild spaces where there weren't any roads and hopefully no development (that was before the Internet and Google Maps). When I found something that looked promising, my friends and I would drive around the area to get a sense of the landscape and determine if there were any trails accessing the area. In the winter I used to hike along the course of a creek near where I lived by walking on the ice. One winter day when we were exploring a new area I suggested that it would be easier and more interesting to access the area by walking on the ice along a river that flowed through. We didn't get as far following the meandering course of the river, but we didn't care. I have always preferred quality over quantity. After that day doing this became a regular activity for me. Sadly, for the last decade or more the winters in my area have been much warmer and the rivers rarely freeze. Occasionally when they do the ice is usually too thin to walk on.

The summer following our first river ice excursion we were heading out to explore a provincial park not too far away. We wanted to avoid most of the people and explore areas that weren't easily accessible by trails. I suggested that we walk up the river. So we put on old running shoes without socks and walked up through the river. We called it "water walking" and I've done it ever since. In the early days the only drag about it was the water sloshing around for awhile in our running shoes when we left the river. For a couple of years in the early 90s I took a bunch of workshops in New Jersey with Tom Brown. The first time I was down there a few people were wearing these really cool sandals that had adjustable Velcro straps. They were Tevas of course! They weren't very common yet and I had never seen them before. I realized at once that these were the perfect all-terrain footwear for use in warmer weather, and in particular for water walking. They were the one piece that was missing from water walking. I bought my first pair 20 years ago. I'm still on my second pair. That's pretty amazing considering they are about the only footwear I use (when I'm not barefoot) during the warmer months of the year. I wear them through just about everything when I'm harvesting, hiking, canoeing or camping.

So now let's get back to wild harvesting. Wetland plants often live in areas that are not easily accessible. The plant growth can be very thick and difficult to get through. There can also be deep muck that is hard to walk in. There is also a particular kind of grass that grows in wetlands that we call "sticky grass". I don't know what species it is. Grasses can be difficult to identify and I haven't devoted any energy to learning the many grasses because I don't use any of them. What is particular about sticky grass is that it has a row of tiny barbs along the mid vein of the blade that slices your flesh. If you walk through it with exposed skin you will get numerous cuts that are like paper cuts. It's not very pleasant. With these challenges in mind, in the early years when I first started wild harvesting the medicines I realized that the best way to access wetland plants is by water walking along the course of a creek or river, or along the shore of a lake. Of course it only works when the water isn't too deep. Another concern is that we have to be very careful not to step on any flat rocks because there are often fish, crayfish or other aquatic animals living underneath them.

Monika water walking while we were harvesting blue vervain.

So on July 1st Monika and I headed off water walking down a river that is not too far from where I live. Monika needed to harvest blue vervain and yarrow (Achillea millefolium), both of which are common along the banks of the river. That day I only needed blue vervain.

Whenever I pass through wild spaces I am always keeping track of lots of information: How healthy is the ecosystem? Which plants are growing there? At what stage are they in their life cycle on that particular date of that particular year? Do any of the medicines I use grow there and, if so, what is the maximum sustainable amount that can be harvested? What mammal, bird and other animal species live there? When I get home I record all of this information in a data base and update it every time I'm in the area. In this way whenever I need to harvest a particular herb, I have a quick reference to locations where it grows and approximately how much I can harvest at each location.

While I'm moving through the landscape I keep my mind quiet and tend to use my peripheral vision most of the time so that I can be aware of as much of what is going on around me as possible. Fairly soon after we started down the river last week I noticed a flash of red way off to my right in a clearing between some cedars. To my surprise I noticed some Oswego tea (Monarda didyma) that was just starting to bloom. It was early for these parts, but most species are blooming two to three weeks early this year because of the heat and the drought we have been experiencing. Oswego tea isn't very common in southern Ontario. It is much more common south of the Great Lakes. It only grows in a couple of the areas that I frequent and this was only the second time that I had seen it in bloom. Luckily I had my camera with me that day. In our area wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is fairly common and that is the species that I use. When I first started using wild bergamot there was almost no information on it in the literature. There was a bit of information on Oswego tea and the few references to wild bergamot usually just said that it was very similar to Oswego tea. It is not uncommon for plants in the same genus to have very similar properties. Because several sources had made this comparison, I had assumed that they probably taste very similar. Then one day a few years ago Monika and I were walking along a deer trail on the bank of the same river further upstream from where we were last weekend. As we were walking I picked up a strong scent of wild mint (Mentha arvensis). I looked around where we had been walking and all I saw were some baby wild bergamot plants. I tasted a leaf and sure enough that was where the smell was coming from. I then realized that they weren't wild bergamot (although at that stage they looked almost identical) but rather Oswego tea. So it turns out that although Oswego tea is very closely related to wild bergamot, it tastes almost identical to wild mint. That means that the components of its essential oil are more similar to wild mint and therefore its medicinal properties are also probably closer to wild mint than wild bergamot. It seems that the information I had read was based on an assumption, not on experience.

Oswego tea (Monarda didyma), one of the friends I met that day.

Blue vervain grows along the edges of wetlands, rivers and lakes. In my area it rarely grows in large groups. It tends to grow singly or in groups of a few plants along the edge of the water or a bit further back in areas where it is wet in the spring and the soil remains fairly moist through the summer. As a result, it is necessary to travel some distance along the edge of the water to get a decent amount, especially since we don't harvest all of the plants.

A group of blue vervain plants growing along the bank of the river.

Blue vervain can tolerate a wide range of light conditions. It prefers to grow in locations where it will get direct sunlight 20-100% of the day, although 40-80% is ideal. In very hot dry years when the water level where the plant is growing is very low, it is best to harvest it in areas where it gets direct sunlight 20-40% of the day. On the other hand, in cool wet years it is best to harvest this herb in areas where it gets direct sunlight 80-100% of the day.

On this trip we were able to harvest a larger percentage of the plants that were ready because it hadn't been flowering for very long and only about a third of the plants were blooming. This year I only needed to harvest enough to make 2 litres of tincture because I made extra last year. I had already prepared 1 litre a couple of days earlier from a different location. Monika needed to make 2 litres as well. We had to water walk about 2 km along the river to get enough for both of us. In years when I need a fair bit I usually have to harvest at two or three locations to get what I need.

A closer look at the flowering spikes.

Blue vervain is harvested at the beginning of it's flowering period. The best time is from a few days to a week after it goes into flower. However, since all of the plants don't go into flower at the same time, generally the best time is one to two weeks after the first plants go into flower. In the area where I live, that is usually the second week of July. It was earlier this year because of the very hot, dry weather. It can be harvested a bit later, but like most plants the internodes (the sections of stalk between the nodes, the points where the leaves are attached to the stalk) get longer. This results in a higher stalk to leaf and flowering spike ratio and therefore a greater amount of stalk that needs to be discarded when we separate the usable from unusable portions of the herb. Also, the later we harvest it, the less time the plant has to produce more flowering stalks and reproduce. Typically we harvest the terminal 30-40% of the herb because this is the most potent part and it minimizes the amount of stress on each plant to regrow.

Me demonstrating how much of the plant to harvest. I am standing in shallow water in the river
and the plant is on the bank, so it looks about 6-8 inches taller than it actually is.

We had a great time water walking that day. It was quite warm, but a few degrees cooler than it had been. The sun was very strong, but travelling through the river there was a fair bit of shade. Water walking is great on hot days because walking through the water helps to cool us down. We also enjoyed the songs of many bird species and met a few friends along the way, both in and out of the water.

Some of the other visitors to the river on that day were
Canadian tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio canadensis) and...

...white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). We didn't see any deer but we heard them
bounding off as we approached. I usually only see them when I'm harvesting alone.

This is the end of Part 1 of this series. Later this week I'll post Part 2, in which I will be discussing preparing the blue vervain that I harvested in order to make a fresh herb tincture. In the third post I will discuss making the maceration; in the fourth, different kinds of equipment that are available for pressing and filtering tinctures; and in the fifth, the actual process of pressing and filtering the maceration to make the tincture. In the last post I will also provide information on the properties and uses of blue vervain.

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