Hibiscus, ‘The Delicate Beauty’

Hibiscus is a hot (but oh, so cold) herb these days. It’s been receiving a lot of attention after several studies confirmed its ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. I would like to offer a more holisitc perspective on this radiant plant and how to use it.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), also known as roselle, is a member of the mallow family, along with marshmallow, rose of sharon and okra. It is native to Malaysia and commonly cultivated in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. It can be grown here as a warm-season annual, or as a perennial if brought inside during cooler months.

The part used is the calyx (at the base of the flower).  It is traditionally made into a tart and magenta-colored tea, called sorrel in Jamaica, ‘aqua de jamaica’ in Mexico. Hibiscus tea is very cooling and refreshing in the heat of summer.  By cooling, I mean that this plant has a refrigerant effect. It literally reduces the body temperature. Cooling herbs are generally anti-inflammatory (cooling to inflammation), which Hibiscus certainly is. It is high in antioxidants such as anthocyanins and polyphenols that protect cells from free radical damage. This is partly how it lowers cholesterol, which forms in response to oxidative damage.

It’s important to note that using hibiscus to treat a symptom such as high cholesterol is an allopathic approach to using herbs and this is not holisitc herbalism. Using hibiscus in this way, without making any dietary or lifestyle changes is like putting a band-aid on the problem. Addressing the root cause of oxidation is the primary goal. So before you expect hibiscus to save you from heart disease all by itself, consider giving up cigarettes, removing trans fats and hydrogenated oils from your diet, reducing the amount of sugar you consume and the amount of stress you allow into your daily life. Yoga, meditation, omega-3s and an appropriate diet for your body type, along with herbs that address your unique strengths and challenges will get you much farther along the path to wellness than a single herb or supplement alone.

That said, some amount of oxidation is unavoidable. It’s a natural byproduct of metabolism. Antioxidants are important phytochemicals that everyone should be getting regularly.  And hibiscus tea is a great way to keep your body cool, hydrated and reduce oxidative damage. I’m an advocate for getting safe, tasty and healthful herbs into people’s daily lives, as prophylactics or tonics. There’s no harm in using hibiscus (see the safety considerations below for the few contraindications), as long as you don’t use it as a replacement to a pharmaceutical. Here are a few fun and delicious ways to incorporate hibiscus into your summertime routine:

Hibiscus-Blueberry jello! This recipe comes from my Ayurvedic teacher, John Immel. His website is an amazing resource for all things related to food, Ayurveda and digestion.  http://www.joyfulbelly.com/Ayurveda/recipe/Hibiscus-Blueberry-Jello/22335

Tropical Hibiscus Punch: amp up Meadowsweet Botanical’s Hibiscus-Berry Herbal Tea blend by turning it into a non-alcoholic punch or cocktail. Start by making a strong brew of the tea. I like to use 1 Tbsp per 8 oz of water and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and steep for another 30 minutes, or until it reaches room temperature. Then strain and add honey to taste, followed by a slosh of pomegranate juice, a few drops of vanilla extract and a splash of orange blossom water. Garnish with a wedge of lime.

Hibiscus Kombucha: For those of you who already make kombucha, you are probably familiar with the post-fermentation flavoring process using fruit juices and such to the brew before bottling. You may or may not have experimented with using herbal teas to flavor your kombucha as well. A strong hibiscus tea, lightly sweetened and added to your brew gives your kombucha a great color and flavor. You could try this with the Hibiscus-Berry tea blend, or on its own. Other herbs that would pair well with this are: fresh ginger, elderberry or mint. The Cultured Leaf, a local kombucha brewery, makes an awesome hibiscus-elderberry kombucha that is to die for (https://www.facebook.com/culturedleaf)

Hibiscus Enchiladas: I have not tried this recipe, but it looks intriguing. If anyone does try it, let me know!  http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/hibiscus-flower-enchiladas-368293

Energetics: Sweet, sour, bitter, cold
Properties: Diuretic (one mechanism for decreasing blood pressure); thins the blood (another mechanism for reducing blood pressure), antibacterial, antispasmodic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-parasite, sedative, astringent, alterative
Traditional uses: topically used as a wash for eye infections, rashes and wounds, bladder infection, cancer, constipation, cough, diarrhea, fever, hangover, hypertension, liver disorders.

With so many properties, hibiscus can be a useful ally in many situations, from itchy rashes, to wet coughs, to high blood pressure, to UTIs. What these symptoms all have in common is some combination of heat and moisture. Hibiscus’s cool and drying energetics make it best suited for pitta and kapha disorders (these are Ayurvedic terms, which I will not explain here, but if you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out my Summer Ayurvedic Workshop at Harmony Healing Arts in July.)  The sour taste can increase digestive juices and decongest the liver, improving digestion and thus helping to build the blood (the red color is also an indication that an herb builds the blood). Specifically, signs of heat in the first and second chakras such as parasites or dysentery, bladder infections, or excessive menstruation due to heat.

Safety considerations:
People who are already chilled should not consume hibiscus due to its cooling properties (not a great idea to drink hibiscus tea in the winter if you live in a drafty house). And because it can lower your blood pressure, people on blood pressure medication should use hibiscus in moderation. If you do wish to use this tea therapeutically to lower your BP, you should work with your doctor to wean yourself off of medication and make sure you are taking your blood pressure daily. And people with Vata constitutions (cold and dry tendencies) should use hibiscus in moderation as it can aggravate vata.

If you would like to find out more about the therapeutic uses of hibiscus and whether it’s a good fit for you to add to your daily life, consult with your local herbalist. This information is intended for educational purposes only.

Upcoming Workshops:


A celebration of night, sleep, dreaming, meditation, and the divine feminine. We will discuss yin & the water element, play with intuition & ritual, and become acquainted with herbs such as kava, mugwort & poppy. The focus will be on honoring this season of darkness as a time for rest and reflection.

To view a complete listing of this year’s workshops, check out the Workshops tab to the top right.  All Workshops are on Sundays from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm and cost $45, including materials. To register, email me at ashley@meadowsweetbotanicals.com

Homemade Vermouth

I’m attempting my first-ever batch of home-made Vermouth today.  I decided to try this as part of a book club that I’m attending this weekend. The book that we’re reading is called “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” by Jennifer Reese and among her many other recipes for things to make at home from scratch, she has a recipe for Vermouth–a fortified wine infused with herbs and spices to create a bitter-sweet drink that is used to stimulate digestion.   The author does not believe that it’s worth the effort to make this yourself at home, probably because of all the ingredients that one would have to purchase for the recipe, only to use the tiniest amount of each one.  But as an herbalist, I already had most of the ingredients on hand, so I thought I should give it a go. And it’s not hard at all.  It probably took me a total of 20 minute labor (half of that was rounding up the herbs from my closet), plus 40 minutes heating and cooling time.  You just make an infusion, strain it, and mix it with wine and brandy (and sugar if you want a sweet vermouth).  It doesn’t save you any money unless you already have the herbs on hand, but it’s a fun project for a snowy day.   Here’s the recipe from the book with a few modifications:

  • 1 bottle white wine
  • 2/3 cup brandy or cognac
  • 5 pinches ground coriander
  • 1 pinch dried safe
  • 3 juniper berries
  • 2 pinches pau d’ arco (I substituted echinacea root)
  • 1 pinch dried oregano
  • 2 pinches crushed dandelion root (not sure what crushed dandelion root is, I used dried, chopped root)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 pinch cardamom pods
  • 2 pinches freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 pinch dried rosemary
  • 2 pinches dried chamomile
  • 1 pinch crumbed angelica root (I used powdered)
  • 1 tiny pinch gential root (I substituted yarrow)
  • 1 pinch dried marjoram (I used hyssop)
  • 2 pinches fennel seeds
  • 2 pinches ground ginger
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 pinch saffron threads (I used safflower)
  • 3 black peppercorns
  • 5 drops wormwood extract (I used a bit of fresh leaf)
  • 1 whole vanilla bean (oh sure, who doesn’t have these just laying around?)

So to make it, you put all of the above into a saucepan with 1 cup of white wine plus 2 tsp. sugar and let simmer for 10 minutes.  Cool to room temperature, then strain the herbs through a coffee filter, saving the liquid.  In an empty glass bottle (750 ml or bigger), add 2/3 cup brandy and the rest of the wine.  Add the infused liquid to this and shake.  If you want a sweet vermouth, add 1/2 cup melted sugar to the bottle.  And voila! A hand-crafted aperitif with just the right amount of je ne sais quoi.  I opted for the dry version and I think it’s quite delicious on its own with a squeeze of lemon juice.  I’m having a glass as I write, getting my digestive juices flowing for the roast chicken in the oven.

Autumn Equinox Open House

Autumn Equinox Open House
Sunday, September 22nd

Open house tour of the botanical sanctuary and gardens. This is a very informal event and people can feel free to flow in and out throughout the day. There will be cider-pressing, a bonfire and some kind of seasonally-appropriate herbal demonstration… maybe how to make old-school fermented root beer (or kombucha or burdock pickles).  Bring a dish if you plan to hang out for a while.

While this is a free and open event, I would appreciate an RSVP no later than September 15th so I can plan for parking and materials.  You can RSVP to me via email at ashley@meadowsweetbotanicals.com, or through facebook at this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/649857171691551/

Recipes for Spring Weeds

Dandelion Flower Wine:  the following recipe was taken from Susun Weed’s Healing Wise
  • 2 gallon crock
  • cheesecloth
  • clean bottles and corks.
  • 3-5 quarts freshly picked dandelion blossoms. When picking the flowers, leave the green sepals on, but remove the stalks.
  • 5 quarts water
  • 3 pounds sugar
  • 1 organic orange
  • 1 organic lemon
  • 1 package of live yeast
  • 1 slice whole wheat bread, toasted

Instructions:   Place the blossoms into a large ceramic or glass vessel (a large kitchen canisters or     several 1/2 gal. sized mason jars work well). Boil water and pour the hot water over the flowers.  Cover your crock with cheesecloth and let sit for 3 days.  Stir it once a day with a wooden spoon.  On the fourth day, strain the blossoms, reserving the liquid.  Bring the liquid to a boil and add the sugar and the rind of the lemon & orange.  Turn heat down and let simmer for 30-60 minutes.  When the liquid has cooled to 80 degrees, pour it back into the crock.  Soften the yeast and spread it on the toast. Then float the toast on top of the crock (you may have to cut the toast in a smaller piece to fit it into a mason jar).  Cover again with the cheesecloth and let sit for 2 days.  Strain again, reserving liquid and return the liquid to the crock to settle for one more day.  Then filter into very clean bottles and cork lightly.  Store the bottles in the refrigerator and let them sit for at least six months before drinking.  Here is another resource with several variations of dandelion wine: http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelion.asp

Chickweed & Garlic Mustard Pesto
1 cup fresh chickweed
1 cup garlic mustard leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
3 oz grated parmasean (optional)
3 oz pine nuts or walnuts (optional)
If using nuts, add those to the food processor first and pulse until they become fine crumbles.  Then add the rest and blend until smooth.  Add salt to taste and blend some more.
Violet Flower Syrup: (from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Healthful Weeds)

Fill any size glass mason jar to the top with violet blossoms.  Cover with boiling water and lightly screw on the top.  The next day, open the jar, strain out the flowers, reserving the liquid, and pour the liquid into a pot.  For each cup of violet-water, add the juice of 1/2 a lemon and 2 cups of sugar.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Pour into sterilized bottles or jar and seal.  You can make a violet jelly in a similar fashion by adding 1 package of powdered pectin for every 2 cups of violet infusion.  Process as you would any other jelly.

Other sources for herbal recipes

Bone Broth as Medicine

To round out this month’s newsletter on the kidney system, I have to include a piece on bone broths, because they are such a great restorative tonic for the whole body.  Properly prepared broths are rich in minerals, marrow, and electrolytes in a form that is easy for the body to assimilate.  This is why they are traditionally used for convalescence to build up weak and depleted bodies.  Bone broth specifically targets the kidney system through its salty and mineral-dense nutrition: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons–stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.  It is literally food for our bones.

Here is a recipe for chicken broth, taken from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions:

Chicken Stock

1 whole free-range chicken or 2 to 3 pounds of bony chicken parts, such as necks, backs, breastbones and wings*
gizzards from one chicken (optional)
2-4 chicken feet (optional)
4 quarts cold filtered water
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
1 bunch parsley

*Note: Free-range chickens give the best results. Many battery-raised chickens will not produce stock that gels.

** Personally, I like to roast the chicken first, pick off most of the meat, and use what is left over for the stock.  Roasting the bones beforehand creates a better flavor.

If you are using a whole chicken, cut off the wings and remove the neck, fat glands and the gizzards from the cavity. Cut chicken parts into several pieces. (If you are using a whole chicken, remove the neck and wings and cut them into several pieces.) Place chicken or chicken pieces in a large stainless steel pot with water, vinegar and all vegetables except parsley. Let stand 30 minutes to 1 hour. Bring to a boil, and remove scum that rises to the top. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 6 to 8 hours. The longer you cook the stock, the richer and more flavorful it will be. About 10 minutes before finishing the stock, add parsley. This will impart additional mineral ions to the broth.

Remove whole chicken or pieces with a slotted spoon. If you are using a whole chicken, let cool and remove chicken meat from the carcass. Reserve for other uses, such as chicken salads, enchiladas, sandwiches or curries. Strain the stock into a large bowl and reserve in your refrigerator until the fat rises to the top and congeals. Skim off this fat and reserve the stock in covered containers in your refrigerator or freezer.

If you want to boost the kidney nourishing power of this stock (it already nourishes the kidneys through the mineral salts and gelatin), you can add a handful of dried nettle leaf, 8-12 dried shiitake mushrooms.  I like to freeze my extra stock in ice-cube trays so that I can thaw a few at a time for an instant nutrient-dense snack when I am feeling low.

New Workshop: Herbs for Gentle Detoxification

Date: March 10th
Time: 1:00pm – 3:00pm
Location: Harmony Healing Arts Center
Cost: $15
What is detoxification and when is it appropriate?  How can herbs be used to support eliminative processes and help the body to remove the build-up of winter?  In this workshop we will learn how traditional spring tonics such as nettles, chickweed, sassafras, and dandelion can be used to clear toxins and invigorate the blood.  Get ready for Springtime with increased energy, improved mental clarity, and strengthen your resistance to Springtime allergies.
or give me a call at 304-870-7234.  For directions to Harmony, visit their website: www.harmonyhealingarts.org

Pay at the door, or pay ahead with Paypal:

Forest Dreaming

I’ve been spending hours this morning going through native plant catalogs and drooling over the shady greens and blues of ferns and spring ephemerals.  Forests epitomize abundance, resilience and vitality–the matra here at Meadowsweet Botanicals.  They possess a therapeutic quality unlike that of any other environment that I know and I desperately want to reinstate a forest habitat on my property.  My vision is that of a small arboretum containing specimens of at-risk medicinal plants. It will begin as a 20′ x 30′ area with mature maples providing hte canopy.  Beneath the canopy layers are a few dogwoods and redbuds.  I hope to fill in the other layers with spikenard, ginseng, goldenseal, bloodroot, wild geranium, black cohosh, blue cohosh, solomon’s seal and loads of ferns and bulbs. You may have a hard time picturing it as I do, unless you are familiar with these plants and with my property, but I can assure you that it will be a magical place and provide an important environment from which to teach.  With this forest garden, I could demonstrate the permaculture concept of forest gardening and I would grow dozens of at-risk medicinal plants and teach others how to grow, care for, harvest and use these valuable traditional medicines.  We cannot afford to loose these plants due to over-harvesting and habitat-destruction. We cannot afford to forget their value as medicine for humans and for the forest itself!  I encourage anyone who reads this to do two things: 1.  Go to the United Plant Savers website (www.unitedplantsavers.org) to read about some of the at-risk plants that I have been alluding to, and 2. Treat yourself this spring with a trip to the Carrier Arboretum at James Madison University.  It is incredible in April-early May.  

One final word of encouragement: if you do have an interest in learning about and preserving these plants, consider signing up for my workshop series this year.  I plan to spend 100% of the money generated from these workshops to complete this vision of forest-sanctuary, so you can feel good knowing that you are supporting habitat restoration and species conservation.  AND you’ll learn a ton about herbal medicine, gardening and nutrition!  More information is on the Workshops tab under Seasonal Living Series.

Alfalfa: “The Father of All Foods”

Alfalfa, Medicago sativa, is a wonderful, safe, and I think tasty, digestive & nutritive tonic.  Here is a description of the virtues of alfalfa taken from a Materia Medica I wrote for school…  

Description & Cultivation: Alfalfa’s roots grow 68 feet deep or more. These roots break up heavy clay & bring up valuable nutrients from the subsoil.  A member of the legume family, it also fixes nitrogen, making it a fertility booster for the land. Mixed with clover it creates a soil-replenishing ground cover.
Constituents: isoflavones, coumarins (isoflavones & coumarins are estrogenic), alkaloids, proteins, sugars, chlorophyll and porphyrins, minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, silicon), betacarotene, vitamins B, C, E, K and P (rutin); mucilage (coats & moistens; penetrates tissues to bring out toxins), mineral salts (allow water to penetrate tissues and break up hard swelling)
Properties: anti-anaemic, anti-haemorrhagic, diuretic, tonic, alterative (helps with metabolism & elimination), anti-cholesterol, highly alkalinizing (alkalization sedates muscles & nerves & removes acids from the digestive tract), laxative, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherosclerotic
Indications  For busy, on-the-go, impatient people with irritable nervous systems, poor protein digestion, poor appetite, bad breath, tooth decay (over-acidic environment), peptic ulcers, sluggish bowels, colitis, constipation (anything indicating a weakened digestion)
Nutritional: Excellent for anemia & convalescence (to buffer the blood from nitrogenic acids caused by tissue break-down)
Digestive System: Can stimulate or sedate stomach secretions; stimulates appetite; benefits peptic ulcers, bloating, distention, flatulence, diverticulosis, sluggish bowels, colitis, constipation.
Musculo-skeletal: Arthritis & rheumatism, back pain, fibromyalgia (these conditions are often the result of digestive inflammation/overly-acidic environment)
Skin: itchy, irritated, boils, skin ulcers
Nervous system: for busy, nervous, irritable people; insomnia.
Respiratory system: hay fever, allergies, infections in the upper R.T. (lungs and digestion are linked), nutritive tonic for people getting over pertussis and TB
Cardiovascular System: encourages blood clotting, lowers blood cholesterol, helps with heart disease, hypertension, & excess fluid retention.
Reproductive System   Pregnancy—A safe and appropriate tea for pregnancy, along with raspberry leaves to increase the available amount of vitamin K and hemoglobin (hemorrhage prevention); Lactation—“to encourage a plentiful supply of breast milk and a relaxed and healthy mother.” Will also prevent mineral loss during  nursing. 

Preparations: To get the most nutritional value out of your alfalfa infusion, let it steep for 4-8 hours before straining.  Sprouting the seeds also opens the doors to added nutrition.

Cautions: Never eat the unsprouted seeds; they contain a toxic amino acid. Consumption of alfalfa has been known to trigger attacks in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).  May cause bloating, gas & diarrhea when it begins to work (mild healing crisis).

*This information is for educational purposes

Virtues of Sheet-Mulching

Sheet Mulching vs. Tilling

To the left is an area that I sheet-mulched and hand-seeded in the fall with meadow-dwelling medicinals.  To the right is the area that I tilled first before seeding in the spring.  I did this because I ran out of cardboard, compost, and energy in the fall before I could finish sheet-mulching the 3,000 sq. ft. meadow garden, and rather than wait for autumn to come around again to finish this section, I became impatient and used a tiller.  Lesson learned!  Tilling the soil just brought all of the weed seeds to the surface and invited them to germinate.  I still have a lot of wanted plants that are growing strong, but now I have to hand-weed all of the crab grass and pigsweed–not a fun job in the heat of the summer. 

For those of you who are not familiar with sheet-mulching, it is a method of garden-preparation that involves layering sheets of cardboard or newspaper with compost and other compostable materials to build topsoil while suppressing weeds and minimizing soil disturbance.  For more information on no-till gardening & sheet-mulching, you can visit the following sites: http://agroforestry.net/pubs/Sheet_Mulching.html and http://notillgardening.com/