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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?