Helping Others Connect with Nature

My Blog

My thoughts and Commentary on Plants and Herbs


Black WillowSap is Rising – May 7, 2019

In the spring, when the trees begin sending out new growth, nutrients from the roots are being transported to the leaves and branches via the sap. This is the tim to harvest branches for the inner bark which contains their nutrients.

Peeling the bark of black willow (Salix nigra) and prickly ash (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) has been my primary focus for the past several weeks. The bark easily slips off the branches in long strips and is then dried for a few days. Cutting it into small pieces and then decocting it as a tea is the first step in the medicine-making process.

(Zanthoxylum clava-herculis)

Citrus Family – Rutaceae

Prickly ash is an aromatic, small tree with spreading branches and stout spines on the trunk. Also known as the toothache tree, the toothed projections on the trunk fits with the “Doctrine of Signatures” which states that herbs that have parts that resemble parts of the body can be used to treat those parts. In this case, the bark has a numbing effect on the gums and stimulates the salivary glands. The leaves are compound with 5-13 leaflets, often with paired spines at the base. When crushed they emit a citrus smell. Small, yellow-green flowers develop in branched clusters at the ends of twigs in the spring. Biting into the flower buds is similar to biting into the peel of an orange.

Parts Used

inner bark, fruit follicles


The taste is pungent and warming. It is stimulating and diffusive (Wood, 2011).


Prickly ash bark contains the alkaloid chelerythyrine with antibacterial and and anti-inflammatory activity (Foster and Duke, 2000). It also contains coumarins, resins, and tannins (Hoffman, 2003).

Traditional Uses

Prickly ash has traditionally been used to treat toothache, as well as rheumatic conditions, Raynaud’s disease and to stimulate the circulatory system (Foster and Duke, 2000).

Wildlife Uses

Host plant for the giant swallowtail butterfly.


Foster, S. and Duke, J. (2000). A field guide to medicinal plants and herbs. Houghton Mifflin Company:New York, NY.

Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.

Wood, M. (2011). The earthwise herbal: A complete guide to old world medicinal plants. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA.

Black Willow Bark DryingHERBAL SEASONING


a spicy blend of black pepper, turmeric, and prickly ash

1 oz. black peppercorns

1⁄2 oz. turmeric

1⁄8 oz. prickly ash seed follicles

Grind herbs to a powder using a coffee grinder, blender, or food chopper. Sprinkle on eggs, vegetables, meat, and fish for a spicy, tingling flavor.

Black Willow Bark Drying

Download This Blog (PDF)


Wild Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) - January 29, 2019

Birthwort Family – Aristolochiaceae

Heartleaf GingerGrowing close to the ground with leaves that are evergreen, wild ginger is easy to spot during the winter months in mature, hardwood forests. The heart-shaped leaves are pale, whitish-green with dark green veins and margins. At the base of the plant, the flower bud is forming that will open early in the spring into a small, maroon to brown cup-shaped flower with three petals, coming together at the base. The flowers are often described as resembling little brown jugs, another common name. To see the flowers, lift the leaves carefully from around the plant. Because the flowers are on the ground, they rely on ants or beetles to pollinate them.

The plants spread underground by horizontal stems just beneath the surface, and are fairly easy to dig. Use kitchen scissors to snip off small sections of the root and then replant. This way it continues to spread and you haven’t hurt the plant.


Heartleaf Ginger FlowerLeaves and roots have an aromatic smell similar to sassafras due to the safrole contained in them. An extract from the leaves and roots has been used as a flavoring. The roots can be made into a syrup. Traditionally, root and leaf infusions were used to treat heart and lung conditions (Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center).

Wild ginger is in the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) and has been associated with childbirth by mountain women who used the root during pregnancy to ease the aches and pains (Martin, 1984). It has also been used medicinally to treat coughs, asthma and other ailments and by women during childbirth to ease the aches and pains. The Menominee and Chippewa would eat the roots or boil them to make a tea to help digestion (Moerman, 1981). The tea was also used to treat coughs, colds, sore throats, promote sweating and as an expectorant (Foster and Duke, 2000). The Catawbas used Hexastylis arifolia for heart pains (Vogel, 1970). The Canadian Indians drank an infusion of Asarum canadense for heart palpitations (Weiner, 1972). Edgar Cayce recommended ginger for intestinal disorders, poor digestion and lymph circulation, often in a formula with other herbs, including wild ginseng (The Cayce Herbal, Meridian Institute).

Wild Ginger SyrupWild Ginger Syrup

3 oz. (90g) wild ginger roots, chopped

1/4 c. sugar

3/4 cup water

Combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add chopped ginger roots and reduce heat Simmer 20-30 minutes.

Download This Blog (PDF)


Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) - November, 2018


Harvesting PassionvineThe last of the fall fruits have been ripening and are ready to pick. They are a common sight at the edges of forests, especially on the southern side where sunlight is plentiful, in late summer and into the fall. The vines have been growing all summer, producing large, colorful flowers followed by the green fruit, which looks like a small watermelon. When the fruits get soft and start turning yellow and wrinkly, they are ready to pick. If you squeeze them, they may pop – hence the common name, Maypop.

Passionflower is a native herbaceous vine that is common in the southern states. It is a fast growing plant that climbs over fences, trees, shrubs or anything that will support it. It has large, deeply lobed leaves with tendrils in the leaf axils. The large, whitish-purple flowers are the most distinctive characteristic and appear during the summer months. A fringe of thread-like filaments grows out from the base of the petals and rests on them. Following the flowers are the fruits that are initially green and then turn yellow as they ripen.

Parts Used and Preparation

aerial parts – leaves, stems, flowers; leaves, stems, and flowers, fresh or dried, can be used as a tea or tincture

fruits, fresh – eaten raw, including the seeds, or juiced


Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata)Traditionally, the leaves, stems, and flowers of passionvine have been used as a sedative and nervine to treat nervous tension, anxiety and insomnia (Duke, 1997). It is currently used to treat symptoms associated with stress, including sleeplessness, GI disturbance caused by stress, anxiety disorder, and to reduce menopausal anxiety (Kuhn and Winston, 2008).

The fruits are nutritive and can be eaten raw when ripe or made into juice. They, have a sweet and sour taste, almost like a sweet grapefruit.


The sedative activity may be attributed to flavonoids that have anxiolytic actions that relieve anxiety. Alkaloids, including harmine, may help in decreasing depression (Skidmore-Roth, 2010).

Wildlife Uses

Flowers are a nectar source for numerous pollinators while the plant is the host plant for the fritillary butterfly. Fruits are eaten, by raccoons, deer, and other mammals.

Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata)References

Duke, J. (1997). The Green pharmacy. Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA.

Kuhn and Winston. (2008). Herbal therapy & supplements: A scientific and traditional approach. Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Philadelphia, PA.

Skidmore- Roth, L. (2010). Herbs and natural supplements (4 th Ed.). Mosby Elsevier: St. Louis, MO. erol.


imageNut Pickin’ - October, 2018

The cooler autumn air brings with it a change in leaf color accompanied by nuts maturing and dropping to the ground. Most nuts are sweet, high in protein, and can be used as a substitute for meat in the diet. They are also rich in unsat- urated fats that give them a high caloric value but no cholesterol.

True nuts are characterized by a single seed, a hard shell, and a protective husk that can take different shapes. Common nuts in the eastern U.S. include hazelnuts, beechnuts, walnuts, hickory, and chestnuts. Hazelnuts have a leafy outer husk while chestnuts have needle-sharp spines surrounding the shell.

Acorns have a cap and a beechnut has a triangular husk with weak spines. The

outer husk of a black walnut looks like a smooth, green ball whereas the hickory nut is ribbed. The ribs split open when the hickory nut matures to release the shell. Walnuts drop to the ground with the outer husk intact.

Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra)

Nuts have been referred to as “brain food” due to their serotonin content. According to Jim Duke, the black walnut, which looks like a brain, is the best source of serotonin. This is befitting of the “Doctrine of Signatures” which is based on “like cures like” and that the shape or color of a plant indicates its use. In this case, the brain-shaped nut is the best source of brain food.

Black walnuts are found in the eastern half of the United States except for the northern border. They are large trees with compound leaves consisting of 7-19 toothed leaflets that turn yellow in autumn. The fruit is a thick-shelled nut with ridges enclosed in a green husk that does not split open at maturity.

Walnuts begin dropping to the ground in mid-September and should be gathered soon after falling. If they remain on the ground for more than a few days, they become infested with maggots and turn black. The green outer hull can be tinctured and used to treat parasites and ringworm.

Removing the husk without getting stained can be tricky. Wearing gloves is a must unless you don’t mind sporting around hands stained yellow-brown for several weeks. This stain can be used as a dye or to stain wood.

The easiest way to remove the husks is to place the walnuts in the driveway and run over them in your car. Break away the hulls and rinse the nuts in a bucket of water, removing any that float. Spread in a single layer on mats to dry. Once dry, they can be stored in a cool, dry place until needed.

The shells of black walnuts are thick and hard with deep ridges. The best way to remove the nutmeat is with a hammer or a hard rock and a concrete block. Position the walnut on its side and give it a good firm whack. You may have to practice a bit to develop the right technique for removing the nutmeat in large pieces.

A pound of walnuts will yield about a cup of shelled nutmeats. Place the nutmeats in a food chopper or blender for use in cookies or cakes. Due to their high caloric value and the strong flavor, they should be used in small quantities.


USDA Forest Service. Retrieved from


imageNut-Berry Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup butter

1 cup flour

1 cup organic cane sugar

2 cups rolled oats

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

2 eggs

1/2 cup wild blueberries

Cream together butter and cane sugar until fluffy. Stir in vanilla and add eggs, beating after adding.

Add flour, stir in oats, nuts, and blueberries.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on greased baking sheet and bake at 350 for 10- 15 minutes.

Download This Blog (PDF)

Sumac - September, 2018

Sumac – Rhus copallinum, R. glabra, R. typhina

Sumac Family – Anacardiaceae

Description and Habitat:

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)Sumac is a deciduous shrub that grows on the sides of roads, interstates, fields, anyplace where there is an opening of light or disturbed soil. It sends out horizontal underground stems that sprout and form colonies. Although it is a native, it can sometimes be invasive, especially in a yard or garden.

Sumacs can be divided into two groups: poison sumac and non-poison sumac. The poison sumac (Toxidendron vernix) has white berries that hang in loose clusters while the non-poison sumac (Rhus spp.) has red, tightly clustered berries. The poison sumac, which fortunately is a lot less common than the others, can cause a contact dermatitis reaction, similar to poison ivy, in some people. Large, compound leaves that turn flaming red in the fall, are characteristic of both groups.

Botanical Uses

Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum)All species that bear red fruits can be used to make a tart, lemonade-like beverage. Fruits are covered with bright red hairs that are tart with malic acid. They also contain ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tannic acid. They can be dried and ground into a reddish powder by placing them in a blender or coffee grinder. Strain out the seed and keep the powder. The dried berries are a traditional Middle Eastern seasoning used primarily on chicken and fish. The powder can also be used to add a tart flavor to any recipe.

The secret to a good tasting sumac drink, or sumac ade as some call it, is in the fruit. Quality fruits produce quality results. With sumac, it’s watching for the right moment, when the fruits turn glowing, bright red, ideally, before a rain. After a few days, they will lose that glow and start dulling in color. Breaking open a cluster will reveal hundreds of tiny insect eggs around the stems, maybe even a few caterpillars. It’s best to get the fruits before they reach this stage. When ripe, the end branches snap off easily.

Sumac ade can be made by infusing the berries in either hot or cold water. A cold water infusion has a fruitier taste but has to steep for a longer period of time. It has a lemonade-like flavor and is a refreshing drink to have on a hot, summer afternoon. The juice can also be used to make jelly, pies or as a substitute for lemon juice.

Traditional Uses

Sumac was known and used by the American Indians before the settlers arrived. Roots, bark, leaves and berries were all used by various tribes for a multitude of purposes. Berries were soaked in water to make a beverage, and the dried berries were ground into flour for a mush or to add to soup. Among the Delaware, sumac was mixed with tobacco and smoked. The Iroquois peeled the young shoots and ate them raw. Among the Potawatomi, the leaves were steeped to make a tea that was used as a gargle for sore throats. Berries were also used by other tribes to make a tea for sore throats and colds (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).

Sumac is also a source for dyes. Black, brown, green and yellow can be obtained from the roots, leaves, bark and berries. Ink was made from the bark and berries.

Wildlife Uses

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)The fruits of sumac remain on the plants well into the winter, offering a source of food for wildlife when other foods are scarce. Several gamebirds rely on sumac as a winter food source as do some of the songbirds which winter in the north. Dense thickets provide cover for small mammals, deer, and birds. Deer and rabbits browse on the bark and twigs.


Erichsen-Brown, C. (1979). Medicinal and other uses of North American plants. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foster, S. and Duke, J. A. (2000). Medicinal plants and herbs of eastern and central North America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Martin, A.m Zim, H. S., Nelson, A. L. (1951). American wildlife and plants: A guide to wildlife food habits. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Download This Blog (PDF)

Vickie Shufer