Winter: In Search of Balance

Linda Shanahan from Barefoot Botanicals harvesting calendula

–Photo of Linda Shanahan by Peter Hewitt

“Dammit!” I grunted to myself as I awkwardly tried to hack at my houseplant’s dead leaves and stems with a pocket knife. As usual, my husband noticed what I had not and pointed out to me that my finger was bleeding profusely. Sure, I knew that I nicked myself. But I certainly didn’t think it was enough to really bleed. Needless to say, the look of concern on his face told me that it wasn’t OK.

Luckily, Eric is well-trained. He excitedly exclaimed, “You need yarrow!” There have been enough farm accidents over the last decade that I have responded to with plant remedies that basic herbal first aid is now something that he has internalized. At the farmer’s market, customers often have questions about the various herbs that we have for sale. Sometimes I hear him repeating, with a low level of confidence, something that he may have heard me say at some point to someone else. He usually follows this with “but my wife is the one who knows about herbs.” But with increasing frequency, I can hear him recite a story from his personal experience in which he personally witnessed the magic. Plantain, chamomile, hops, calendula and holy basil are now his great and personal friends. For years I wanted to be able to share my love for herbalism with him and farming has opened that door most profoundly.

With great purpose, my husband (and reluctant herbalist) ran to the kitchen cabinet to grab some leaves and flowers out of the yarrow jar. He returned with a pre-moistened poultice to place on my finger (translation: he pulled a big green wad of chewed up plant material out of his mouth and placed the wet messy slop on my fingertip). What seconds earlier was a faucet of blood that was destined to stain my roommate’s white and blue striped chairs became a clean, dry, sliver of a wound ready for a band-aid. Most of the time, I am happy to wait and see what the body will do on its own. But when I have work to do and plants willing to work their magic, why wait?

This is one of many examples of why I have chosen to spend my daily life thinking and learning about plants. First aid is often the way that people first learn of the possibilities of the plant/human relationship. But this only scratches at the surface of the ways in which humans can benefit from plant medicine. In our heroic culture of instant gratification, it is easy to search for “magic” cures for this condition or that. Yarrow and plantain often fit that bill. But as one of my teachers, David Winston, has so often said, “Herbalists treat people, not diseases.” Another of my teachers, Heather Thompson, taught me many years ago that nourishing gentle herbs such as nettle leaf or dandelion root tweak our cellular chemistry in a positive way, enhancing metabolic function and removal of waste products. If they can do this on a cellular level, imagine how much better plants can help us to feel in our daily lives.

wild yarrow

In our conventional medical system, physicians train in different areas of specialty and eventually settle into an area of focus toward which they will spend the rest of their lives. Cardiologists, nephrologists and orthopedists are all excellent in diagnosing and treating the symptoms of disease within their area of expertise. If I have broken my femur, I certainly am not headed over to my nearest herbalist for some comfrey leaf. If I am having pressing chest pain I am definitely headed to the nearest emergency room.

But, if I want to experience the best function that I possibly can from each and every system of my body, every day of every year, in light of any fixed genetic, environmental or physical limitations, then plant medicine is an excellent way to achieve this. We have evolved in relationship with plants.

One way humans can benefit from the gifts plants offer is in adjusting to seasonal change. As of this writing, my part of the world is experiencing the depths of winter. While not as cold and dark as it may have been in the earliest part of January, we are still dependent on supplemental heat and experience the kinds of symptoms that most anyone in the northern hemisphere can relate to during winter: dry skin, chapped lips, fatigue, in some cases malaise and, in more severe cases, depression.

It is during these times—when my body struggles to maintain balance in the midst of environmental changes—that I have come to depend on herbs for support.

That brings me back to our tendency to find “this herb for that issue.” I suppose that if I were trying to directly impact my cracked dry lips by applying a moisturizing and healing calendula lip balm, then yes, I would fall into this category. But if I were to do that while also choosing to eat more oatmeal, take in healthy fats, and maintain hydration with plenty of water, herbal infusions and nourishing soups then I would be treating my whole body and not just symptoms. Not only would my lips feel better, but my blood vessels would have more volume to carry nutrients, my cells would be hydrated and better prepared to handle metabolism and waste processes, and my skin and mucus membranes would exhibit healthier function. This is the basis of herbal medicine.

grated ginger root

In winter, I have a few favorites that I have come to rely on for this kind of whole body support: Astragalus, Ginger and Lemon Balm.

  • Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is a root that offers deep immune-building support that is slightly warming, mildly sweet and moistening. It’s considered a tonic to the cardiovascular system, and when combined with the blood moving properties of my second favorite herb for winter, ginger, it helps keep the body warm by keeping blood flow moving to the extremities rather than retreating from the cold toward the core of the body. A great way to take it in is to add the dried root to vegetable or chicken stock to strain and eat throughout the week in various recipes.
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale) warms and improves digestion, assists with overall metabolism of waste products and decreases inflammatory processes throughout the body. When digestion is improved, symptoms of arthritis and other forms of musculoskeletal pain that may worsen this time of year improve. In addition to these qualities, ginger helps to prevent onset of viral or bacterial infection by stimulation of an immune response. Ginger can be used fresh or dried in teas, grated fresh into vegetable or meat dishes and is an excellent addition to vinaigrette for winter salads.
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) tea provides electrolyte replacement for magnesium, phosphorous and potassium as evidenced by the nice green color that a strong infusion takes on. High in rosmarinic acid, which is a potent antiviral and antioxidant constituent, lemon balm offers excellent protection from colds and flu. But it also offers seasonally appropriate support for the nervous system. Winter is a time of shorter days, longer nights, and need for rest and recovery from a year of activity. Most of us do not allow our bodies this time to slow down out of necessity. The result can be overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and sometimes even insomnia. Perpetuation of these patterns can lead to deeper imbalance over time. Lemon balm can help to turn this trajectory around, calming us down enough to rest more deeply and wake more fully. While lemon balm makes a nice—albeit mild-flavored—tea, I prefer the cleaner lemon taste that melissa hydrosol or fresh lemon balm tincture provides. When you thirst for sunshine, this just might help to bring you out of the darkness.

 . . . 

Linda Shanahan is an organic farmer, herbalist and nurse. She believes that to achieve health, we need to find ways to re-establish our broken connections with our wild and beautiful planet.

Interested in learning more? Linda offers a once monthly on-farm class in Southeastern Pennsylvania, easily accessible by train from Philadelphia and by bus from New York.  

Class starts in April! Learn more here.

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