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Sunday, September 20, 2015

autumn berry tincture

Berry Tincture! This one is SO easy, SO yummy, I don't know why I haven't made this post sooner.

It doesn't matter if you know virtually nothing about herbs -- you can make this.
I will talk you through the steps nice and simply, providing variations for fresh, frozen, or dried fruits, and different menstruums (liquid bases).

You will need
  • a large pot with a lid and a low heat source OR a slow cooker/crock pot 
  • 2 glass pints jars and sealing lids 
  • stainless steel or wooden spoon 
  • clean hands 
  • cheese cloth for straining 
  • cling film 
  • your selection of berries 
You will also need (of fresh, frozen, or dehydrated -- the choice is yours)
  • hawthorn berries
  • red rose hips 
  • blackberries 
  • raspberries 
  • elderberries  
  • vegetable glycerine 
  • apple cider vinegar 
  • water
You are going to be making two tinctures and then mixing them together. This is because different properties come out of herbs and foods at different applications of pressure or heat, so a cooked tincture mixed with a cold tincture I feel has a more well rounded and potent result than one alone.

For the cooked tincture,
take your large pot and add 1 1/2 cups vegetable glycerine. Add one handful (approximately 1/4 cup) each of dried berries, or twice as much (1/2 cup) if you are using fresh or frozen whole berries. You will also need to add a small amount of water. If you are using mostly or all fresh/frozen berries, you only need a little water, about 1/4 cup. If you are using all dried berries, use 2/3rds of a cup water. For a blend, settle somewhere in the middle. 

Place the pot -- with lid on -- over a medium-high heat and begin to cook the berries. Bring the liquids to a light simmer. Now reduce the heat to low and leave to cook for 2 days, or 48 hours. Approximately. Right now, I use the warming oven of the Aga, the gorgeous old fashioned giant stove we have. You can also use a crock pot, or place your lidded pot on a counter top electric warming plate. Just something with a steady heat to keep it ticking over. The berries will gradually soften, burst, mush, and turn the liquid to a dark reddish purple color with a strong berry fragrance and flavor. That's good. If you reach this point sooner than 2 days, great. Take it off the heat and proceed with straining. If you have to turn your heat source off overnight, you might need to go for 3 days instead of 2. Just smell it, taste it (with a clean spoon each time), and see what you think.

Once the berries are fully macerated, allow them to cool enough that you could comfortably immerse your hand in the pot. (I say "could". But don't. Unless you have very, very clean hands...which you really should anyway!) Place a cloth over a bowl and pour the maceration into it, catching all the goop in the cloth. Lift the cloth, twist the ends and sides up out of your way, let the juice all run down into the bowl and then give the pulpy cloth a good squeeze to get as much good liquid out of it as you can.

Reserve the liquid. There's your first tincture done! You can stop here if you really want. Glycerine tinctures are excellent for children and little ones as they do not alter blood sugar levels the way honey does, and the natural sweetness is appealing. I do find that my own little boy (turning 4 tomorrow! yelp!!) really loves glycerine tinctures cut 50-50 with vinegar tinctures. The sweet and sour taste of them seems to hit the spot, curb those cravings he gets during growth spurts especially, and I do find I like the sweet-tart blends better myself, too.

So, on with the apple cider vinegar tincture. Using the same berries, stuff roughly equal parts of each, again, into a glass pint jar. Pour apple cider vinegar (ACV) over the top, almost to the very top of the jar. I like to leave about 1/4 inch head space. Place a double layer of cling film over the top of this, just to protect the lid from premature rusting due to the vinegar, and then cap the lid on top as well. Give it a good hard shake.

Store the ACV berry tincture in a dark, cool place for the next 2 weeks. A kitchen cabinet works well. Pop it next to your coffee or tea mug and you can give it a shake every morning before you get your mug down.

Again, once the two weeks are up, you should have a darkly colored, fragrant, flavorful liquid with a lot of goopy berry pulp. To strain this off, do the same as with the cooked tincture. Place a cloth over a bowl and pour the maceration into it, catching all the goop in the cloth. Lift the cloth, twist the ends and sides up out of your way, let the juice all run down into the bowl and then give the pulpy cloth a good squeeze to get as much good liquid out of it as you can. Reserve the liquid. This is your tincture.

Now, the part I like best! Mixing and tasting! As I mentioned, we prefer 1:1 blends of glycerine:ACV tinctures. This autumn berry tincture is no exception. You use your discretion and blend up what suits you best.

Autumn berry tincture is fabulous for supplementing your diet with vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as the many other vitamins and minerals naturally found in these berries. In addition, hawthorn berries help to stabilize the collagen in the heart muscle and veins, providing cardio vascular support. Elderberries provide immune support against viruses. All together, this tincture is considered safe for regular, even daily use. We use it consistently through the winter and spring months as a dietary supplement, typically 15-30 drops a day. As usual, please exercise your own discretion and do some backup research into the berries before using them.

Some alternatives to consider. Of course. Because there is never just one right way of doing these things.

  1. Use a different menstruum. Instead of glycerine, you can use honey. Instead of vinegar, you can use vodka or brandy. What suits you the best? In what form are you most likely to take your medicine?
  2. Change up the berries. All kinds of edible berries can be used.
    Blackberries. Raspberries. Hawthorn berries. Red rose hips. Elderberries.
    Blueberries. Cranberries. Goji berries, also known as wolf berries. Strawberries.
    Gooseberries. Bilberries. Black and red currants. Mulberries. Raisins (dried grapes).
    Cherries. Huckleberries.
    Yeah, I know. Some of these "berries" are not actually berries by botanical definition. But you get the idea, right?
  3. Add some different spices or herbs. You don't have to stick only to berry fruits. You can add other flavorings as well.
    Citrus peels. Cinnamon sticks or chips. Ginger root. Cloves. Allspice chips. Vanilla bean.
    Or focus on immune building properties and add eleuthero root, astragalus root.
    Pregnant or postpartum mamas can add red raspberry leaf, alfalfa, and nettles, and the berries will remain the most predominant flavor.
Make this autumn berry tincture yours. Make it yummy. Make taking your vitamins a happy experience, not a pinch-your-nose part of the day.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

post-operative recovery

Earlier this week I had surgery. Abdominal laparoscopy, admitted and discharged the same day. Now, I have had many friends and family undergo surgery before, from planned operations to emergency C-sections, and this was my first time. My second time with anaesthesia, due to a fractured coccyx when I was 15, but my first surgery.

Whilst spending a lot of time in bed, I have been thinking about the different tips and tricks for making hospital experiences better, for speeding recovery, for coping with post-op nausea, and so on. I'd love to hear your responses, especially if you have any more tips to add, so please comment below.

When you first go into hospital, a tip I was told early on is to wear the gown. I was told I could bring in my own pjs, robe, slippers, to wear in bed and around the ward before and after surgery, though I did have to wear the proper hospital attire during the op. But I was told, wear the gown when in hospital. Why? Well, funny thing about medics -- they're human. If a patient (or client) is dressed like a patient, a human tendency is to treat them with more kindness. If a patient looks more independent because they are dressed in their own gear, some nursing staff and doctors may hold a subconscious prejudice and treat the patient with less respect. I'm not saying this applies to everybody. I have met some outstanding nursing staff, especially during my recent stay, but there it is. Humans are human. We're all sinners, we all mess up, so don't get up tight about it but work the knowledge to your advantage and wear the gown. At the very least, if you puke or pee or bleed on yourself, there's less laundry to take home!

Dealing with nausea is the next big thing. I've now had two experiences with anaesthesia. Both produced extreme nausea. I had to have an anti-sickness injected into my bum after the first two IV treatments wore off, because I had such trouble keeping even the smallest amount of fluids in my stomach. I recommend some essential oils in this case. Now, what you can get away with may depend on a few variables -- shared ward versus private room, the area of your operation, meds you've been given and all. If you are at all in doubt, leave off the oils or ask medical staff. With other people around, it is best to stick to the most benign of essential oils, avoiding potential airborne allergic response.

Lemon and peppermint essential oils
are my top recommendations. Both are astringent, and very common scents with which most people are fine. A little bottle of oils under the nose can help greatly with nausea and headaches. Peppermint is cooling, too, and one drop on a disposable wet wipe rubbed over the back, inner arms, or feet can help significantly with the sudden feelings of heat that can suddenly rush over the body during post-anaesthesia sickness.

Operations that require the abdomen to be inflated with gas can result in wind. Lemon and peppermint dropped onto a disposable wet wipe will help with the bodily odors in the room, from you or from other people in a shared ward. A small amount of diluted peppermint applied gently to the lower abdomen or back (provided this is not near the site of incision) can help dispel trapped wind. Catnip, spearmint, and fennel seed oils are also good for this.

If and when fluids can be taken by mouth, sips of peppermint or Digestivi-tea, aka Tummy Tea, are a good idea. When I woke from anesthesia, my mouth tasted foul. It tasted like plastic, like metal, like the worst morning breath. Sips of water merely took on that same flavor. Even swirling a little mint tea around my mouth and spitting it back out helped greatly to dispel that nauseating flavor while wetting my mouth, even when I couldn't swallow the tea for fear of vomiting again. A fellow patient the next bed over was grateful to be given some Digestivi-tea by my mum who was with me in hospital.

I brought my herbal tea as loose leaf, in little zippy bags, and brought a basket mug strainer with me. Various herbal stores sell such strainers. These are brilliant as you simply pop one over a mug, add the tea to the basket, pour in hot water, and then remove the basket once the tea is infused. Very little fuss or mess for a single mug of tea. You can also buy empty disposable tea bags to fill with your own blends. I find, however, that small coffee filters are cheaper than boxes of press'n'fill tea bags. If you want the ease of disposable bags, add a couple of teaspoons of your herbal tea to the center of a small coffee filter circle, bunch together at the top, and tie closed with a small length of thread. Very easy to make and take in to hospital all ready to use.

Get yourself an IV bag of fluids, too. This was a tip from my mum, who is an operation veteran now. The more fluids you can get passing through your body, the more quickly you will flush out the strongest after effects of the anaethesia. You'll feel better for it, too, plus your skin will be craving all the moisture it can get from inside and outside to facilitate healing. The cannula was left in but I was taken off the IV whilst still in recovery, before even being returned to the ward. I later requested a new bag of IV fluids when I started vomiting. Even if you are not losing fluids by mouth as I did, you will likely find that you feel stronger, less headachey, and better all round if you manage to convince your carers to get you some IV fluids.

Hospitals can be dry places, and the oxygen mask I was given during surgery felt very drying. My throat has been extremely sore and my nose has been blowing out red in the mornings. A few simple things will help with this. A little Rapha salve or Sunshine salve applied up the nose will feel a bit slimy at first but really helps soothe dry mucous membranes. Saline nasal irrigation is very good, too. If you have not tried it, I highly recommend that you do. NeilMed brand makes handy sachets of saline mix to add to water, as well as selling a few different styles of irrigation tools. I prefer the squeezy bottle best. It is a soft bottle with a straw, and the water pressure is fully controlled by the squeeze of my own hand. Nothing is as soothing to a dry nose as saline irrigation. Take along some hard sweets or lozenges to suck on after the operation, too, for your throat. Anything that sounds good and doesn't irritate your stomach will do. Once you can drink, marshmallow root tea is mucilagenic and wonderfully soothing to a sore throat. It doesn't have much flavor to it and so blends well with peppermint or Digestivi-tea, or even other herbs and black tea.

Compression knee socks are brilliant. In the UK, the NHS provides toeless compression socks that go up to the knee for wearing in bed. These are much like flight socks that you can purchase for wearing on airplanes. They help to improve circulation and decrease the risk of blood clots. To my mind, it doesn't really matter what the hospital visit was for or why you're in bed -- you want these compression socks. Even if you've just had a baby in the comfort of your own home, merely not moving around as much as usual means your circulation is reduced. Exercises in bed, when possible, are great to do. Wiggle and flap the feet around, massage the calves, do whatever leg moves you are able and comfortable to perform, and get thee some compression socks! Seriously brilliant things. I've been a few days in bed at home now and I'm still wearing mine off and on. I'm not able to walk much so these socks are really helping to prevent the restless legs that I've had in the past when on bed rest.

Following on the same thread of thought, when you are on bed rest and not moving around much, it's not just blood that slows down. Digestion slows down, too. Drink your Digestivi-tea. Consume acidophilus daily, if possible. (If you are on antibiotics, it may be best to avoid acidophilus so that you don't diminish the efficacy of the meds. Depending on your meds and dose, talk to your care team about having acidophilus if you are at all uncertain.) If I have a tender tummy I like to break open a capsule of acidophilus and mix it into yogurt or apple sauce so that I can eat it slowly. Also, focus on soft foods. Banana, apple sauce, avocado, jelly/jello, cooked oatmeal, rice, scrambled egg, custard, lentil and vegetable dahl, soft cooked vegetable soups, bone stocks. Consume healthy fats. Keep the gut moving gently. After having a baby or experiencing surgery of any kind near the abdominal area, it is awful to find oneself a bit backed up, either constipated or merely with heavy, large stools. Take it gently. Use the bathroom when you feel the urge to void, don't hold it in. And drink fluids steadily throughout the day.

Now, chances are you have some bruising in places and some wounds in others. How you care for these wounds will vary, so I cannot advise you much. Talk to your doctors and nurses. They are there to help. That said, I can tell you what I am doing right now for my own bruises and wounds, and why.

The back of my left hand is where the cannula was put in. Normally I bruise like a peach. Other times I've had a cannula inserted, the entire back of my hand became purpled with bruising. It is a testament to my fabulous nurses this go around that I have no discoloration at all! However, it is still a little sore, and slightly more swollen than my other hand. I am applying an Arnica-plus salve, containing arnica with comfrey and St John's wort herb, to the back of my left hand.

The laparoscopy was done with two incisions, one into my belly button and one in the left side of my lower abdomen. Dissolving stitches hold the small wounds closed and I was allowed to rinse in the shower and remove the dressings only 24 hours later. Nothing compared to a C-section wound, for example. I am applying Rapha herbal antiseptic salve to the areas. I am not applying salve directly over the incision wound at this early stage, please note, as the wounds travel deep into my abdomen. I am smearing the Rapha salve all around the wounds, near but not directly on them, and all over the bruising around the wound site. Whilst arnica is fabulous for healing bruised soreness and for breaking up discoloration, I am aware that it does this in part by increasing the movement of the blood. Even on such narrow wounds, I do not want to increase the chance of reopening a flow of fresh bleeding by using too much arnica. I am trusting the comfrey in the Rapha salve to help heal the bruising in this early stage. Once the stitches have fully dissolved, I will begin applying Rapha salve directly over the wounds, and will feel more comfortable about applying arnica to any remaining bruised color on my belly.

One more tip, and this is something you never have to worry about forgetting to pack -- instant serotonin boosting. Simply raise your arms over your head in a victorious V for a few minutes. Studies have shown that even when the emotions are not feeling great, perhaps even downright depressive, the levels of serotonin in the brain are still increased in response to power poses made in the body. You may be feeling utterly vile, but if you can arrange your body in a power pose for just 2 minutes you can powerfully impact your overall well-being. Serotonin is a neuromediator that plays a key role in regulating mood, appetite, pain perception, GI function, and healthy sleep -- all of which are pretty important to your recovery. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, constipation, inability to sleep, and so on. Keep those serotonin levels at a healthy high! You can't overdo it with a power pose. There is no overload you can give your brain by thrusting your arms up in a V, by sitting with wide legs and a confident stance, by standing with hands on hips and shoulders relaxed and squared. But if your stress levels are reduced and your recovery aided by such a simple trick, why the heck not?! Get those arms up. Boost your serotonin.

Do you have any tips for post-operative recovery? What different things might you suggest doing or bringing into hospital? How would you go about treating surgical wounds with natural remedies?

Monday, August 3, 2015


I did a silly thing yesterday. I let myself get sunburnt. OW. I'm paying for it today. Usually, I'm quite good about keeping lathered up and all, but this is the first summer I've been on venlafaxine (medication I currently need) and I totally forget that it heightens my sensitivity to the sun triple-fold. And I'm a white lily to begin with.

Yesterday we went to the beach. Beautiful, beautiful day. Nope, we enjoyed it all so much that no pics were taken, but much fun was had by all, including mama falling asleep face down on the beach. I wore my hat faithfully all day, even keeping it over my head while I slept, but the back of my legs and a patch in the middle of my back where I didn't apply sunscreen well enough got...rather toasty. I haven't been sunburnt in years. Years, I tell you!

Get out of the sun.
Once your skin is burned, it is damaged and extra sensitive. Cover up. Get in the shade. Wear your hat. Stay indoors or in the shade as much as possible until the burn has healed. Wear long, loose clothing that won't chafe or stick to the burned skin, and keep cool for a few days.

Cool it down.
Run yourself a herbal bath. Tie up a bath tea bag containing a handful each of lavender, chamomile, calendula, comfrey, and two handfuls of black tea leaves. The herbs will help cool and heal the burn and the tannins in the black tea will help your skin color brown a little as it heals instead of merely peeling off back to pale white.

Keep the bath cool, as cool as you can stand it, and immerse yourself for as long as you can manage. 45 minutes to an hour is best for bad sunburns, at least once a day for the next several days. If you have access to fresh aloe vera plant or a bottle of dye-free aloe gel, add that to the bath, too. As the burn begins to heal, once it is cool to the touch at normal room temperature (out of the bath) like the rest of your skin, also add a cup of apple cider vinegar (ACV) to help restore the pH of your skin.

If the burn is in such a place as you cannot immerse it easily in a bath or large bowl, such as your face, neck and shoulders, brew a tea from the same herbs as above. Let the tea cool, soak a soft cloth in it, and apply as a damp poultice to the burn. Do not cover with cling film as you might do with other poultices, however. Keep the area cooling, allow the skin to breathe, and rewet the cloth every 10 or so minutes.

If you must keep moving, maybe travelling or working and can't soak in a tub as often as you might like, keep a spray bottle of water handy. Add a few drops of lavender, geranium and rose hip seed essential oils for healing and soothing, and some shelf-stable aloe vera juice or gel. Shake it up and spray over the burned skin regularly. The evaporation will help to cool the surface of the skin. Follow up with moisturizing.

Moisturize. You can use cocoa butter, whipped body lotion or blender lotion, salve, infused oils, or whatever your preference, but keep that skin moisturized. Reapply throughout the day. Burned skin is extra dry and your chances of a peeling sunburn increase greatly if you allow it to fully dry off like the rest of your healthy skin. Don't cover the burn with anything that prevents airflow (clingfilm, as I heard someone suggest once for sunburn!) as your natural body heat won't do the burn any favors with that trapped heat. But do keep moisturized, lubed, oiled. Today I am loving Sunshine Salve (what we call calendula + lavender salve) and a comfrey-infused olive oil for my sunburned legs.

Hydrate. Lastly, drink water. I know it's obvious but we tend to forget these things at times. Within the first 24 hours after experiencing a sunburn, increase your daily 2 quarts (8 cups) of pure water to 3 or even 4 quarts. You'll pee lots but just do it. Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it must have moisture from within as well as from without in order to heal best. You are less likely to peel and more likely to tan if you plump up your skin with moisture in all ways. Plus, most of us don't really drink enough water when we've been playing in the sun, anyway, so a little extra is probably needed even without the burn.

If in the sun you begin to feel cool, get up and move around. Don't put on a cover -- move around. Your body temperature ought to return to normal, providing a change in weather isn't the obvious cause. An early sign of burning skin on a sunny day is the irregularity of body temperature. Get moving, get cooled in water, drink fluids, and reapply sun screen.

(If the body does not quickly return to feeling normal temperatures but still feels chilled in warm weather, seek treatment for heat stroke. Bundle yourself into a cool bath, as much as you might feel too cold already, and make the appropriate calls to a professional for further advice.)

ways to use lavender flowers

If you were to ask me what is my favorite herb, I would have a really, really difficult time choosing just one. Lavender does come high up on the list, though. While we use lavender essential oil in our home for many things, here are a few ideas focused only on using dried lavender flowers. You can wildcraft or grow and harvest the flowers yourself, or purchase from a reliable company. Be sure that the flowers are a lovely purple color when dried -- or if white lavender, then a proper white color. Greying flowers will be old, and so not nearly as beneficial to use. They should be strongly fragrant, too.

Lavender and Oatstraw Tea is a surprisingly delightful drink. I prefer this hot, before bed as an alternative to chamomile. The tea is strongly fragrant, a strong floral scent with a small pungent bite that other flowers generally do not offer. Lavender is a nervine relaxant, helping to soothe the nervous system thereby holding the potential to calm headaches and muscle soreness. However, lavender is best used in smaller quantities. Large amounts of lavender can result in a stimulating effect, which might run entirely opposite to the desired result! Oatstraw pairs well with lavender as a nervine tonic, one which helps to rebuild and maintain the healthy pathways of the nervous system, and also because it has a very mild taste, faintly grassy and not much else. Oatstraw is also high in calcium which when consumed at bed time can help promote sound sleep.

Mix together 1 part each lavender flowers and cut oatstraw and toss together. Add a squeeze of lime and a spoonful of honey if desired. Alternatively, 1/2 a part of spearmint added to the blend makes a fresh tasting bed time tea. Pour a cup of boiling water over 1 Tb mixed herbs and steep for 5 minutes before drinking.

Lavender is also a diaphoretic herb, meaning that it promotes sweating. When ill and running a damp fever, promoting sweating can often help the body to flush out the problems with that high heat and the fever can come to a breaking point more quickly. Lavender and oastraw tea is wonderful for this. Avoid the cooling peppermint when treating a sweating fever this way, but add 1 part yarrow leaves and flowers to the blend for extra diaphoretic action. Wrap up warmly, keep the feet covered in several pairs of socks, and sip the tea regularly for a few hours. I have been able to "break" a fever in myself and others quite successfully this way.

(However, common sense does apply, so if the fever persists or runs extra high, breathing or pulse are compromised in any way, or if the individual displays signs of unresponsiveness, please pursue professional medical help. Also, be careful when using lavender to treat illness in small children, and be aware that high fevers in little ones can more quickly cause brain damage. Pursue outside help if you are at all uncertain or symptoms get worse or do not improve.)

Bathing in lavender is...mmm. If you haven't tried it, do it now! You can mix up the lavender flowers as you like. Here are my favorite bath tricks.

Soothing bath: One handful lavender flowers + one of chamomile flowers + several rose heads or a handful of dried rose petals. Add a cupful of epsom salts for good measure.

Mentally restoring bath: great for mamas who can't just go to bed yet, and are putting off a few evening chores now that the kids are in bed! One handful lavender flowers + 1/2 handful rosemary + one orange sliced into rounds. Add 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar, too.

Tie up the herbs into a large tea bag. You can use old cheesecloth, thin cotton, muslin washable tea bags. Or, as I do, you can visit the local paint shop and buy some nylon mesh bags made for the filter part of a spray paint gun! Really. These bags are wonderful! They are reusable over and over and over, and a little elastic band tied at the top makes a huge bath tea bag that steeps well and cleans easily. I don't like to let the herbs all float around in my baths. I know it looks pretty, but I'm far too pragmatic for that sort of thing. It all gets in my way and then there's cleaning it out afterwards before the tub can be drained... I like to relax in my tub, pull the plug, and walk away without further chores waiting in there once I'm clean.

Sunshine Salve

My son and I recently made up a large batch of this for his teachers at the end of the school year. So easy, so lovely, smells gorgeous, and is good for everything summer related, pretty much. Make up a herbal oil using equal parts of lavender and calendula flowers, and then set it into a salve with beeswax. We put ours into plastic deodorant tubes for hands-free application. Sunshine Salve is buttery yellow from the calendula, with just the right amount of lavender fragrance not to be overpowering. Apply it to chapped skin, sunburn or sun rash, bug bites, and bumps and scrapes that happen during summer play.

Lavender and Rice or Wheat Bag

Muscle aches and pains are all fixed with a rice bag. Oh, what would I do without mine? If you are handy with a machine, you can sew a pocket of any size you like, providing the fabric is purely fabric (no metal or elastic), and then fill with dry rice. Or, upcycle an old muslin or cotton swaddling blanket. Fill the middle of the blanket square with several cups of dry rice, and then tie a secure knot in the gathered corners to keep the rice inside.

Wheat can be used instead of rice. Be sure to use only dry, uncooked whole grains. Mix in several handfuls of lavender flowers for sweet scent each time the bag is warmed.

To use your bag, pop it in the microwave for a minute or two. The time will depend on the size of your bag. My favorite long rice bag that I use each month during period cramps takes 2 1/2 minutes on high in the microwave. So long as you keep the bag dry, you can reuse it over and over for months, even years.

Lavender Clothes Sachets

No new trick, this habit goes back generations. But good ideas last. Use any little cloth bag you like -- muslin tea bags, pretty cloth gift bags, a pair of old tights or stockings with knots tied in the open ends -- and fill with lavender flowers. Stuff these little sachets into your drawers of clothes, especially the ones that are not in frequent use, such as winter sweaters, to keep moths and bugs away. The sweet fragrance when you lift the lid on your sweater box in autumn is merely a side benefit.

Other insect-repellant herbs can be used in the same way. Consider rosemary, cedar, pine, cinnamon, wormwood, cloves. These sachets will last quite a while but can also be freshened up with a few drops of essential oils.

Lavender Vanilla Sugar

Pop several tablespoons of lavender flowers + a vanilla bean scored in half lengthwise into a pint jar not quite full of sugar, white or brown, powdered or granulated. Shake daily for 4 weeks. The fragrance you will get from the sugar when you finally lift the lid will blow your top off! Amazing! Wow your friends at the next tea party you host with this breath of summer life.

Alternatively, make yourself an infused honey with the same ingredients. Heat the honey and herbs in a crock pot on low for 24 hours, strain, and store.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

stevia sweet, sugar-free coffee, chocolate, or mocha

Are you intrigued by that title? Pictured here, I am holding a mug of stevia sweet, milky coffee. Love it. I'm avoiding sugar right now. Actually, I'm avoiding processed stuff in general, where possible, and I don't drink coffee every day.

But I have a confession. I love coffee. I also love sugar. I love sweet, milky, creamy coffee. It's kisses in a cup.

Another confession. I drink decaf sometimes. There really is a jar of that processed, dehydrated decaffeinated granulated coffee flavored love in my kitchen. Really, really.

You don't have to do all or nothing, I believe. It is possible to choose some natural remedies, some clean eating, some healthy habits, and still enjoy stuff like caffeine, even decapitated caffeine-flavored stuff, and not wreck the whole project. If you can't give up the shampoo, you can still make herbal hair mask treatments. If you don't want to give up all sugar, you can still bake delicious muffins and take pride in home made breakfasts. There is no standard for how crunchy you "should" be!

Okay. Grin. Little bunny trail ended.

Yes, I am avoiding sugar. I need to lose a few extra pounds and I'd rather take out the sugar from my diet than count calories -- which I hate -- so this is my way. (If you are interested, check out the Harcombe way of eating for more info. It's worth it.)

BUT. I still like the occasional sweet mug of coffee. Even decaf. It's almost 9 pm as I type and yes, I had a craving for the flavor of sweet coffee! Decaf it is. And with stevia.

Now, I've tried stevia powders. Different brands. I tried making stevia syrup and tinctures to use from a dropper bottle. Mostly, I don't add sweetness to my tea or coffee, and if I'm off sugary stuff then I seldom try to make it taste sweet without sugar. Even a natural source of sweetness does something in the brain, I think, and I like my brain to know that it doesn't need sugar so often as it might sometimes think. But occasionally... You know. A bit of sweetness. But to fall off the wagon? Nuh-uh.

Stevia herb is really easy to use. I keep a jar of cut, dried stevia herb on the shelf next to all the herbs and teas in the kitchen, and every so often if I'm really wanting something sweet in the evening I'll add a bit to a drink to take the edge off the craving. Want to know how I made my coffee? You can even make hot chocolate the same way!

1 mug milk
1 level tsp cut stevia herb

Heat on the stove, stirring to prevent scalding, until the milk is good and hot.

Strain milk of herbs. Pour into mug.

Add 2 tsp coffee powder, decaf powder, plain cocoa powder, or carob powder. Stir smooth.

That really is it. I'm sure you can sass it up a bit with some more imagination. Add a bit of cinnamon, pumpkin spice, vanilla bean extract, whatever. But for basic need-sweet fix? It only takes 2 minutes and you really do have something delicious and healthy that won't derail your blood sugar levels while you're being so good!

cradle cap oil

My son never had cradle cap as an infant. Lucky me. Many babies do. My Little Pickle is almost 4 years old now, and we just recently experienced cradle cap for the first time. And now, of course, he has a whole head of hair in the way!

I was surprised to see the scaly looking yellow flakes on his scalp after I noticed him scratching the top of his head an unusual amount. Isn't cradle cap for babies? But this was unmistakable. After looking it up in a few books, my hunch proved right.

What is cradle cap?

Cradle cap is yellow or orange colored scaly, flaky skin on the scalp, usually on the top of the head rather than the sides or back. It sometimes falls off in large peelings of skin. Cradle cap is caused by an overproduction of sebum, or natural oils, in response to a change of environment.

Typically we see this in infants, as the total change of climate from cosy mama belly to big outside world can be rather shocking on the skin. Baby acne, cradle cap, sensitivity, all these are pretty normal in infants. Adults tend not to suffer from the same scaly appearance on the scalp. Head hair and far greater maturity and immunity in the body all help to prevent that, besides which, most western adults tend to treat over-production of scalp sebum by over-washing their hair, which doesn't really help the situation but does help to exfoliate and remove the flaking skin regularly.

My son recently had a 5-day fever. Poor kiddo. He ended up requiring antibiotics for a bacterial infection and is now doing very well, but fevers are drying. We have been applying Rapha Salve to his chapped cheeks and lips, and adding coconut oil to his baths to help moisturize his skin and also his hair. But since he does actually have hair, I suspect his scalp did not receive quite so much nourishing oily TLC as it would have preferred, and certainly not as much oil from splashing in a bath as a more bald child would have had. (You see, he doesn't like his hair being cut, and since he has lovely golden curls, we keep it trimmed around his eyes so that he can see without bother, and the rest of it is growing long. At the moment, it is all right about collar length but he's asked to grow it longer. I don't mind at all.)

How can I treat cradle cap?

I did some reading up in several different books, as well as cross checking with online sources provided by certified herbalists. Lavender is cited in several places, but even more sources suggest that lavender essential oil is too strongly stimulating for infants and young children, although for older children and adults it can be very helpful in correct dilutions. Geranium and eucalyptus herb and essential oil are both a repeated theme. Based on that, I have two massage oil suggestions for you to try. We used the first and it worked very well.

One. This recipe comes from Valerie Ann Worwood's book:
  • 2 Tbs (6 tsp) gentle base oil, such as almond or apricot kernel, but avoid heavy olive oil for infants
  •  1 drop eucalyptus essential oil 
  • 1 drop geranium essential oil 
For my son, I increased the base oil to 3 Tbs and the essential oils to 3 drops each. This increased the potency of essential oils to base oil to a ratio of 1.5:1 instead of 1:1. Just a little stronger, but since it's impossible to get half a drop at a time I had to increase the base oil accordingly.

Two. An alternative is to infuse dried lavender flowers into a mild base oil. Not essential oil, as again that can prove too strong, but to make an infused herbal oil. You can find directions for herbal oils in the above Rapha Salve link.

Infants. Massage the scalp gently with your oil of choice. Be very careful not to massage the fontanelle, the soft spot where the skull is not fully closed on the very top of the head. You can carefully smooth a little oil over it with a cotton ball but do not apply any pressure. Allow the oil to penetrate the skin for 30 minutes or so. Use a damp washcloth to stroke dead skin cells from the scalp. Rinse head with body temperature water. Avoid using shampoo or soap as this can aggravate the problem further, causing the body to think it still needs more sebum secreted onto the scalp. Apply the cradle cap oil twice daily until the flaking skin settles down. Apply as needed for maintenance thereafter.

Young children. Massage the scalp gently with your oil of choice. Allow the oil to penetrate the skin for 30 minutes or so. Use a comb to part the hair, working in small sections over the top of the head, and gently stroke brush the scalp and hair with a soft boar-bristle hairbrush. Do not press, just stroke. Keep working in sections until the whole affected area has been covered. Rinse well with running water to remove loose skin flakes from the length of the hair. Again, avoid using shampoo or soap too often with children. Once or twice monthly sudsing of the scalp is usually sufficient for children under the age of 12, although a finger massage with conditioner and/or running water is perfectly fine daily or every other day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

quick allergy testing for herbs and essential oils

A question I have been asked recently is, "How do you know what herbs and oils are right for your child?" My little person is almost 4 now, and he's been given herbs in one form or another from only weeks old. I do love my herbs. In this house we have salves and lotions, infused oils, tinctures and honeys, essential oil products, daddy's aftershave... My son is exposed to a lot of variety. It didn't all come at once, though. Little people do not have fully developed systems and organs and sensitivity when giving them homemade medicines and remedies is very important.

First, some common sense. I don't call it common sense to sound insulting. I'm guessing you will read these few points and say, "oh, is that all?" Nope, I have no magic formula for automatically knowing this stuff. I glean knowledge from countless others who have gone before me and I merely use it all for my benefit.
  1. Give nothing to your child anything to which you yourself or the child's other family members are allergic.
  2. Give nothing to your child anything to which you yourself or the child's other family members are intolerant without first testing and being sure they have no reaction.
  3.  Buy some books. There are many reliable guidelines written for the use of herbs and essential oils particularly for children. I do not want to take responsibility for telling you how to dose here, as there are many, many variables that affect those numbers -- how you made your medicine, where the herbs are from, how old it is, tea versus tincture, the age and health and history of the child in question. You know all the variables that I cannot account for in one article. If you feel flummoxed by the variety and really don't know where to start, I highly recommend these two books: Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, and The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, by Valerie Ann Worwood.
  4. Do a skin patch test.

    • Brew a small amount of tea with the herb in question, and "paint" a bit of it onto the inner part of your child's forearm. Wait for 24 hours. If there is no reaction, the herb is likely fine. Proceed with the usual caution, dose with care, and if there is still no adverse reaction it is likely that the herb poses no allergic threat to your child. If a rash or skin irritation forms on the arm, make a note to avoid that herb with your child.
    • For essential oils, dilute one drop of the oil in question into 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of any base oil you already know is not reactive with your child. Apply to the inner part of your child's forearm. Again, wait and watch for 24 hours. Given that no adverse reaction appears, increase the dose to 5 drops essential per 1 tsp base oil and perform the patch test again. If there is still no reaction it is likely that the oil in question poses no allergic threat to your child. Again, if a rash or skin irritation forms on the arm, make a note to avoid that oil with your child.
IF your child has a negative reaction to any herbal or naturopathic medicine, stop use immediately. If you deem the reaction to be treatable by home care, use your discretion.

IF your child has any of the following warning signs, whether due to the inefficacy of a home remedy or in negative reaction to a home remedy, seek allopathic medical attention immediately, and bring with you a list of all medication and herbs the child is on or has used. 

Warning signs can include:
  • shallow breathing
  • high fever
  • low grade fever persisting for more than 4 days 
  • sensitivity to light 
  • vomiting 
  • difficulty or pain with urination or moving bowels 
  • blood in urine or stool
  • rash
I have said many times, I love herbs. I really do. But am not at all adverse to allopathic medicine. After all, today's allopathic medicine evolved from herb medicine. It doesn't mean that naturopathic remedies are now outdated -- not at all. But where a more advanced treatment is necessary and available, by all means, use it!

I would never advise a person to wrap their broken arm in a comfrey leaf for two weeks and expect them to heal properly. I would send them to a doctor for a proper setting and a cast, and whatever pain relief they might need. And then I would make them up a cal-mag tea to increase healthy minerals their body needs to heal the broken bone, maybe a salve to apply to sore shoulders when the sling gets irritating, and probably a salve to help heal up any discoloration and bruising they might have sustained elsewhere during their fall. Similarly, I would never advise you to just use herbs as you please, nor to avoid allopathic help in favor of home cures. Herbs are medicine. Use responsibly.

how to powder herbs & herbal hair mask

I gave myself a herbal hair mask today! Oh, it works wonders, that stuff. For the last few years, I have bought Beautiful Hair Blonde (henna-free) from The Bulk Herb Store, and it was trying out their mix that got me hooked on herbal hair masks in the first place. They also sell mixes for darker shades that contain natural henna, by the way, but as a blonde -- both naturally a dirty dark blonde and currently chemically lightened to a paler blonde -- I like to stick to the plain ol' herbs that don't interfere with color. If you have dyed hair, greying hair, fragile hair, or pretty much any kind of hair, this regular no-henna herbal hair mask will be wonderfully suited for you.

However. I highly recommend buying the powdered mix from The Bulk Herb Store, or if you favor a different company you can buy pre-powdered herbs and mix them yourself. But I didn't have that option today. I was all out of my Beautiful Hair mix! Gasp! Since I currently live in England, I could buy from The BHS and they do ship to the UK, but I'm likely to be tagged with an importation tax upon the delivery of a package with a business marking. Sigh. That usually makes it just not worth it.

How to powder herbs

So I made my own. Let me point out now, fellow and aspiring home herbalists: this really only works for soft herbs. Hard herbs, ie. roots and seeds and bark and dried berries, are usually too tough for a regular kitchen appliance. You'd best scout out a reliable herb company and buy powdered hard herbs through them. But lucky you, this hair mask recipe only requires soft herbs. Easy peasy.

For about 1 cup of powdered herbs mix, you will need:
  • 1/2 cup dried nettles 
  • 1/2 cup dried shavegrass 
  • 1/2 cup oatstraw 
  • 1/2 cup dried chamomile flowers 
  • a Magic Bullet blender OR an immersion wand blender plus container with high sides 
  • a kitchen sieve OR a tea strainer that is not too fine a mesh
pre-sifted ground herbs

Start blending. Powder up the herbs until they don't seem to be powderable anymore. It only take a few minutes. Keep shaking up the herbs, let them cool every 60 seconds or so, and blast them again until you get as good a powder as your appliance allows.

Then, sift. You don't absolutely have to do this, but if you're going to be using your powdered herbs for a herbal hair mask that washes down the shower drain...well, powdered drains better than even small bits. Plus, it will stay put on your hair better.

Reserve your finely powdered herbs. The above recipe will yield about 2-3 treatments, which you can perform on your head as often as every 2-4 weeks or whenever you like. Use the powder within 6 months, preferably, or max a year. Powdered herbs have a much shorter shelf life than whole or crushed herbs. The other stuff? That makes a lovely cup of nourishing tea. Why not treat your hair well from the inside as well as the out?

Here's what these herbs do. Chamomile soothes the scalp, increases blood flow to the scalp which in turn can help with healthy hair growth, can help give subtle highlights to paler hair, and just all around smells good. Shavegrass is extremely high in silica, which is necessary for healthy skin, nails, and hair. The silica in a shavegrass hair mask can actually help to fill in damaged areas of the hair cuticle, strengthening and preventing split ends. Oatstraw contains a much lesser amount than shavegrass but still a decent quantity of silica, plus it is also good for calcium and magnesium which help with healthy hair growth. Nettle is great all-round as a nutritionally dense herb, also contains calcium, magnesium, and silica (noticing a trend yet?), and is reported in various traditional medicine sources as being good for hair, both from the inside and the outside.

Herbal Hair Mask

Here's what you do. To make up the Herbal Hair Mask, you need the following:

(this recipe is for medium length hair -- for shorter than shoulders, halve the recipe, and for mid-back length or longer add 50% or 100% of the quantities again)
  • 1/2 cup beautiful hair powdered herbs (for silica and minerals)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup lemon juice or apple cider vinegar -- lemon is better for paler blondes 
  • 2 eggs, beaten (for protein)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil or warmed coconut oil (for conditioning)
  • stainless steel or non-reactive pot 
  • wooden spoon 
  • plastic disposable bag, such as a grocery bag, or use cling film/saran wrap
  • optional shower cap as well 
 Begin by mixing together the herb powder and the lemon juice in a pot. It shouldn't be a paste, it should be fairly runny. Over a LOW heat (don't fry the herbs!), gently warm and "cook" the herb mixture for 3-5 minutes. It will thicken a little as the herbs absorb the liquid.

Remove from the heat. While still warm, add the eggs and oil. Immediately mix in well. Now, the idea is not to apply scrambled egg to your head, so do take me seriously about that low heat.

Somewhere you don't mind cleaning up later, change into an old shirt and start applying the paste to your hair. Concentrate on ends and lengths, and any parts of the scalp which are thinning or fragile. The very top of the crown of my head seems to always produce the most splits, who knows why, so I make sure to soak the scalp as well as length in that area. Use all the messy mixture that your head will possibly absorb. This is good stuff.

Keep your head warm. After piling your goopy, saturated hair on top of your head, wrap it all up with plastic. I use old cheapie plastic shopping bags that would otherwise be recycled or used as bathroom trash liners. I press all the air out against my head and tie the handles together. I also like to pop my stylin' animal print Mother Hubbard shower cap over the top of this as well. It helps to keep my hair warm. You need to keep your hair warm as much as possible while the mask is on to help with penetration into the hair cuticle. An extra cap over my head also help with the inevitable drips that make their way down my neck and ears after a while.

Oh yes, I should warn you. This herbal hair mask needs to be kept on your head for at least 45 minutes, and you can leave it on up to 2 hours. The longer, the better. Trust me. While it's on, you will probably start leaking slime from under your plastic cap that will look as if you sweat green like an alien. It's hilarious if you have kids. Or a husband. Or brothers. Or roommates. Ha! It's just hilarious. And the last thing you should know is you can't wash your hair until tomorrow.

Yep, you heard me. Keep this mask on for an hour or two. And then, yes, you can shower. Rinse it out most thoroughly. If you need to, you can very gently smooth out matting from long hair with a wide tooth comb directly under running water. Usual advice is not to brush hair much when wet because it wet hair can stretch and break more easily, just like a cashmere sweater is more fragile when we, but the running water will help greatly in pulling the strands smooth without requiring so much pulling. After your shower, towel dry but do not apply heat for at least 12 hours. Shampoo and condition your hair tomorrow, but not today. It won't be super greasy but you might like to throw up your hair into a messy bun or a cute braid until you wash it, as it won't feel quite like its usual texture.

What's that? Of course! This herbal hair mask will not stain your bathroom and will not color your hair or skin. It shouldn't stain your clothes, either, but do wear an old shirt during the process because the mask is messy.

Yes, this is absolutely safe on children. Now, I can't think of any 8 year old kids who would endure this whole procedure, but if your preteen is showing more interest in caring for his or her hair, they absolutely can use this treatment. One caution: perform the allergy test if you are not certain you or your child is fine with all the herbs used.


Blondes: use chamomile flowers and lemon juice

Strawberry blondes: use chamomile flowers or calendula flowers, and apple cider vinegar

Brunettes: replace chamomile flowers with more of the other herbs if desired, and use apple cider vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a shot of espresso

Greying: either replace chamomile flowers with sage or just add sage to the herbs

Fragrance: I think the hair mask has a lovely, herbal, clean scent, like a meadow. But if you want, you can add lavender, rose petals, or a few drops of your favorite essential oil to the mask.

red currant (or any other basic) jam in the Aga

I love making jam. It's delicious, yes, but there is something very satisfying in a pot of homemade jam. Made by me. For you. Yum. If you can find fruit for a good price to buy in quantities, or if you grow fruit or wild harvest berries (free!), you can make up decent amounts of jam quite easily for a fairly low cost.

Here is the easiest way I have yet found to can jam. The Aga. Okay, I will have to explain that for you. I will also include alternate directions for those of you who do not own such a wonderful thing.

An Aga is a huge cast iron oven. It is on all the time. I'm in England, now, remember? The Aga both heats and dries the house, which is a very good thing here. There are different models you can buy. This one is a four door oven. Top left is simmering, bottom left is warming, top right is roasting, and bottom right is baking. There are also two stone plates on the top of the Aga oven, the left for boiling and the right for simmering. For jam, I use the simmering oven, which is approximately 225-250 F, or 110-130 C. I don't bother with a shelf and just place the jam on the floor. (The top of each oven is hotter than the bottom of each oven. Bread, for example, bakes for 10 minutes on the floor of the roasting oven and then 25 minutes in the middle of the baking oven.)

England sells jam sugar. Brilliant! The sugar is already measured and mixed with the right amount of pectin for making jam. Of course, this doesn't allow for specific needs on finicky recipes, but it does take another step out of making most regular household jams. Jamming is pretty darn easy! Here's what you will need.
  • washed red currants (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, apples, rhubarb, peaches...)
  • jam sugar 
  • a leetle bit of unsalted butter 
  • glass canning/jam jars with lids etc. 
  • a large pot with tall sides to catch popping and splashing jam 
  • a long handled spoon
  • a potato masher 
  • a ladle 
  • a clean dry cloth 
  • kitchen scales 
Begin by preparing the jars. I find it easiest to start with this because then I know I'm not out of time. Wash the jars and lids spotlessly clean in hot, soapy water, and make sure they are clean of all residue. Keep them warm. When you fill a glass container with hot jam, the glass will break if it is cold. So keep them warm! A regular baking oven set 240 F or 120 C will do just fine. I just pop my wet jars straight into the simmering oven and leave the lids to dry on the side of the sink.

Weigh out the fruit. Dump into the large pot. Weigh out the jam sugar to the same weight as the fruit. Dump that in the pot, too.

Put the pot on the simmering plate, ie. over a low-medium heat. Stir occasionally. Let the fruit cook and the sugar dissolve. This only takes a few minutes so don't go walkabouts.

Once the sugar is fully dissolved, move the pot over to the boiling plate, ie. over a high heat. Bring the jam to a proper boil, and then move back over to the simmering plate where it will keep simmering steadily. For those of you not using an Aga, just keep an eye on the stuff. The goal is to dissolve the sugar, then properly boil, then keep at a steady rolling simmer for a little bit.

Now, use the potato masher. You don't have to. It's totally up to your discretion. Most berries don't need to be mashed but currants and gooseberries have a slightly tougher skin. Use the potato masher to smash up and burst the red currants a bit further so the texture of the jam is a bit nicer. I still leave a few lumps in, though. I don't like my jam perfectly smooth.

Here is where you add your butter. It's approximately 1 tsp unsalted butter per 4 cups of jam. I eyeball it. A little variation doesn't matter much and you can make 15 cups of jam in a batch this way, so just add what you think is about right. The butter helps to reduce the foaming that appears on top of the jam. If you go dairy-free, replacing the butter with a little coconut oil is fine. (Not vegetable ghee, though.)

Now, time the jam at this steady, low-rolling simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Stir it occasionally. You want the jam to start jelling up a bit now. You need to look for what they call "sheeting" off the back of a spoon. Basically, when it looks like warmed jam? a bit thick and goopy on the back of a spoon? or you can take a spoonful of the hot jam, drop it onto a cool plate, and watch it firm up into a normal jam-like texture? That's when it's ready. Told you. Not that hard.

Take the jam off the heat. Carefully, ladle hot jam into your prepped and ready hot glass jars. Put the lids on right away.

Here you have some options.

Do you have a lot of jam that you want to be shelf stable? Use self-sealing lids, the kind sold with jam jars or canning jars for this purpose.

Do you want to finish up the jam in the oven? Pop the filled jars back into the Aga simmering oven, or into a regular baking oven at the same temperature, for about 45 minutes. Then remove, set jars onto a wooden or cloth-covered surface (so the bottoms don't cool too quickly and crack), and leave until fully cool.

Do you want to finish up the jam in a standard canning water bath? Go for it. Process 5 minutes at full boil submerged in a pot of water, the usual way. Then remove, set jars onto a wooden or cloth-covered surface (so the bottoms don't cool too quickly and crack), and leave until fully cool.

Did you make a small batch, perhaps just a jar or two, of jam, as a first-time experiment or because you didn't have much fruit to use up? There is no need to specially seal the lids. Just pop the lids on to a firm finger-touch, leave to fully cool, and then store in the fridge.

Finally, do label your jars. These aren't cool yet so they've not been labelled. I confess that, as usual, I am not bothered enough to print out proper labels that look really good (and cost more). Unless the jar is a gift and deserves a bit of swanking up, I do my usual duct tape and permanent marker labels. Include on your label the type of jam and the date made.

What flavor of jam will you make next?

Monday, June 29, 2015

painted bottle preschool art

Painted bottle preschool art. Actually pretty dratted easy! This is my 3 year old's "rocket" we made together yesterday. He wanted to make a rocket, but he did not want to wait for anything to dry. Play right now, Mama! I tried suggesting paper wrapped around the bottle but that was met with actual tears in his eyes. Little people have very precise ideas at times and can get frustrated when we don't understand.

Enter, this. I did something right! Yay, me!

You will need:
  • a clean empty clear-plastic bottle or jar (as you can see, our bottle is a recycled brandy bottle that was recently emptied for tinctures I'm setting up -- he did not want the label removed!)
  • the proper lid that screws onto the container 
  • poster paint
  • white liquid poster glue 
  • super glue or duct tape for sealing the lid 
  • optional glitter 
  • optional decorations for the outside

With some steadying adult hands, the child can squirt in a glug or two each of paint and glue. There is no exact measurement, just roughly the same of each and enough goop altogether to coat the inside of the bottle. Add glitter if desired.

The adult will need to super glue the lid in place. Or, together screw on the lid and tape it tightly closed with duct tape.

Now go maraca banana crazy! Shake that thing up! Coat the inside of the container with the goop. Decorate on the outside if you desire, or go right away and start playing with it.

Ours is a pretty basic rocket. You could also make colorful skittles, spaceships, a table center piece... ummmm.... I'm sure there are more things to make out of these! Let yourself be inspired by the child in front of you and the bottles or jars you find. What can you make?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

drying or dehydrating herbs

Lemon balm

Drying or dehydrating herbs is not so tricky as you might think. But why bother, you ask?
  • dried herbs have a longer shelf life than fresh herbs
  • infused oils are more reliably made from dried herbs than fresh, due to the lack of water
  • many fresh herbs are not available at all or in sufficient quantity year round
As you know, I buy dried herbs from reliable companies. My dried apothecary is quite substantial. But in the spring and summer, many herbs are available for fresh use and for collecting and drying to last as winter stock. I take advantage of this growing season as much as my time allows. 

There are some basic rules to follow when wildcrafting, harvesting or collecting, and drying herbs for storage. They're mostly common sense, but let's go over them anyway.
  1. Wildcraft or harvest from a clean place. When wildcrafting (collecting from the wild) or harvesting from a home cultivated crop, be sure to collect herbs that are not at all likely to have been peed or pooped on by a dog or cat. So don't collect red clover tops from the grassy patch next to the path through the village. Chances are, it's not the cleanest.
  2. Wildcraft or harvest in the morning. The cool of the morning is best, before summer (or desert) sun hits and evaporates some of that goodness out of the plant. Of course, now that I live in England instead of Arizona, cloudy days are sometimes reliable for afternoon harvesting, too. Use your discretion.
  3. Wash your herbs. The above picture shows a little egg sac attached to the underside of a lemon balm leaf. I often find egg sacs or rows, baby slugs, spiders, caterpillars, in the plants from which I'm collecting. Some can be shaken off, or relocated or disposed of if you don't want slugs in your crop, but the plant still needs washing. I don't stick with the "mm, extra protein" idea when it comes to homemade herbal medicines and remedies!
  4. Dry your herbs. Before storing in an airtight container -- ziplock plastic freezer bag, plastic tupperware with sealing lid, glass canning jar -- dried herbs will only stay fresh and good if they are properly dried. Sounds obvious, right? Well, I have "dried" herbs before that I thought were properly dehydrated, only to be met with a musty smell of leaf mould when I reopened that jar. One leaf that is not properly dry can lend enough moisture to ruin a batch. Ick.

There are a few different ways you can handle the washing and drying of your herbal ingredients. Largely, this will depend on your climate and humidity, but it will also vary as to the hardness or softness of the herb in question. Basically, what you need to achieve is a fully dry, hard root or berry, or a fully dry, snappable or crushable leaf. You do not have to powder your herbs once dried for storage, and the medicinal values of dried herbs generally last longer if the material is left in a more whole state, but a way I check most leaves and soft herbs for proper dehydration is by powdering a bit in my hand. If I can powder a leaf in my fingers and it isn't at all sticky, it it properly dry.

I like to rinse and spin my herbs in a salad spinner. The centrifugal force pulls a lot of the surface dampness off the plants and helps to reduce drying time. You can pat your plants dry the old fashioned way on a towel if you prefer.

Then, I prefer an electric dehydrating unit. This is my new one, in England. I had a black and white square one in the states that is pictured in my fruit leather post. This one has a heat source on the bottom; the old one had a heat source on the top. It doesn't greatly matter, so long as you can control the temperature for drying. I prefer to dry my herbs between 95 and 115 F, or 40 and 50 C. This temperature and the fan in the electric unit provides a consistent and dry atmosphere for even dehydrating. I did have success in countertop air drying herbs when we were in Arizona, but in England that doesn't work so well. Much more moisture in the air here, and I was disgruntled to ruin an entire bowl of rosehips last autumn before my blessed husband gave me this new electric dehydrator.

Oh, and this ought to go without saying, but sometimes these things don't! One forgets, you know? And by one, I mean me. I learn more by doing than anything else. When you go wildcrafting, take a few essentials along: a basket (for decent air flow and not crushing your harvest), a stout pair of scissors or sharp clippers, and a pair of leather gloves. Reaching through stinging nettles to harvest dock, or through brambles to reach elderflowers, can be a bit tricky barefingered.

Happy harvesting! Do share a pic of your own harvested herbs in the comment section below.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

one size fits all feel-good essential oil blend

Hello, my lovelies. I have been far more absent this year than I would generally prefer, and I would like to share why with you at another time. For now, suffice to say there is stress in my life.

Who doesn't have stress??! There is good stress, bad stress, middling muddled stress, blah blah blah, but all stress is still stress. It alters brain chemistry, and if you are not perfectly superb at managing your stress levels at all times, chances are you will find some days your brain is producing too much cortisol. The stress hormone.


One Size Fits All Feel-good Essential Oil Blend

As the pic above so usefully says, this blend contains

15 drops basil

60 drops rosemary
60 drops lavender
25 drops Roman chamomile
15 drops peppermint

I would like to point out here that I currently do not have a neat Roman chamomile essential oil. Mine is a 10% dilution in jojoba oil, as it was quite a bit cheaper and I hardly ever use it neat anyway. If you do have pure chamomile, Roman or German, go with 3-5 drops instead of 25 and test it out a few times. Chamomile can be quite overwhelming at times so best not to overdo it.

Mix up the number of drops of essential oil together in a clean glass bottle with reduction dropper. Label it. Always label it! I use unpretty but oh-so-easy masking tape and permanent marker, as it doesn't bleed or run, stays put, and peels off without a gigantic gluey mess if I need to wash and re-purpose the glass bottle.

Let your new blend sit and synergize for an hour or so before use -- this is not so much about energy levels or some mystical essential oil magic, but just allowing the densities of the oils to properly blend together so that they distribute evenly. You can shake the bottle hard to mix the oils, I suppose, but a gentle swirl and rest is less oxidizing, at the very least. Anyway. Do make sure your oils are properly melded together before use.

Use your One Size Fits All Feel-good Essential Oil Blend in a humidifier, vaporizing diffuser, candle lit diffuser, or diluted for pulse point application in a roller ball or reduction dropper. I don't promise that this essential oil blend will magically reduce the cortisol levels in your brain, but the formula is composed of oils traditionally turned to for supporting brain and emotional stability. Test it out a bit and change it up if this particular blend doesn't quite work for you. And let me know how it goes! I love to hear from you.

Monday, April 27, 2015

leek and potato spring greens soup

Leek and Potato Soup.
Spring Greens Soup.
Hippocrates (sort-of/tomato-less) Soup.

Doesn't matter what you call it, this is easy. This is delicious. This is really good for you.

You will need an approximate quantity of chopped vegetables and herbs.
You will need a large pot.
You will need a source of heat.
You will need some butter, some olive oil, or both.
You will need hot water, or chicken stock, or vegetable stock.
You will need an immersion wand blender, if you like smooth soup.

You will need a bowl and spoon, some delicious chunky bread with garlic butter, and an appetite.

Start by chopping up your veg.

I prefer 1 part onions : 1 part potatoes : 3 parts mixed greens. But the great thing about this soup is you can really mix that up however you like, according to your taste or your available kitchen and garden vegetables.

The greens I'm using today are leeks, cabbage, onions, garden spinach that needed harvesting, a few stalks of garden lovage (like a cross between celery and fennel in flavor and aroma, much like celery when cooked), some dandelion leaves that were in a convenient location near the herbs, and a handful of mixed herbs, including parsley, sage, thyme, and oregano.

Start with the sliced or diced onion in a pan with butter and olive oil. The butter adds delicious flavor, and a glug of olive oil helps to ensure the butter does not burn. Simmer the onions over a low-medium heat until they start to clarify and smell delicious.

This is the Aga. Living in England now, instead of Arizona, I am using Mum's amazing oven and adjusting certain cooking methods to suit this old fashioned stove. An Aga is a giant piece of metal, basically. It is solid cast iron. This is a refurbished one that was once fueled by coal or wood fire, but now is heated by a gas flame. It is on day and night, year round, except for about 2 weeks in the very hottest part of an English summer when it is turned off to cool and be maintenanced. On the top are two plates. The left side is the boiling plate, the right side where my onions are cooking is the simmering plate. The top right oven is for roasting, the one below it for baking, the top left is for simmering, and the bottom left is the warming oven. Temperatures are not as specific in Aga ovens as with more modern ovens, and the top of each oven is hotter than the bottom. So some cooking, and particularly baking, must be adjusted accordingly. Since most of the heat in an Aga is retained in the oven, the hot plates on the top are only used for about 25% of all cooking and the rest is done in the oven. I'll show you how this soup is managed.

Now, the onions are cooking nicely. Add the rest of the veg. Potatoes, greens, herbs and spices. Also add some warmed or hot water, or stock. You can use chicken stock or vegetable stock, or just plain water, depending on your preference and health needs. Today, I'm using veg stock. Fill up to just underneath the veg in your soup pot, not quite covering it. The greens will lose volume and bulk as they cook. You can always add more liquid later if you want a thinner soup, but start by prepping for thicker soup.

If you have a conventional oven or stove top, pop a lid on your soup and leave it to cook on a low simmer for an hour. If you have an Aga, pop a lid on your soup and move the pot to the simmering oven, or the bottom of the baking oven, again for about an hour.

See how easy? The hardest work thus far was chopping.

Once all the veg is fully soft, take your pot off or out of the the heat, and bring out your trusty old immersion wand blender. Blend up the soup as you like, leaving some chunks for texture if you prefer or buzzing the whole thing smooth.

I love smooth Spring Greens Soup with a swirl of crème fraiche stirred through the center. DE-licous! Serve for lunch with that trusty crusty garlic bread, or a ham and brie sandwich, or even make this soup a pleasant, easy, nutrient rich first course in your next dinner party. When I am faced with an unexpected extra few bodies for dinner, adding a soup course to the menu helps to stretch the main course quite a bit further without making anyone step away deprived or feeling as though they've inconvenienced me.

Serve right away, or cool and store for later. This keeps well in the fridge or freezer for convenient future reheating and slurping so long as you keep it dairy-free. Cream-of-___ soups don't tend to defrost well without curdling or getting a funky texture.