Posts Tagged ‘mugwort’

Taking up smoking

March 25, 2013

I’ve been toying with the idea of smoking herbs for a while, having seen experiments reported by fellow bloggers and thinking that it might make for another interesting (or pleasurable) way to take the qualities of wild plants into my person for medicinal purposes or simply to add the much-needed feral spark to my oftentimes dull, civilised character. I already do this with a myriad varieties of plant teas made from the dried or fresh leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots of the many species I’ve come across and experimented with over the years in my locality. So I asked myself: What’s the difference between herbal tea and herbal tobacco? It’s all dried plants (tea and tobacco are herbs just the same) – why not try smoking them instead of drinking them? That way, for one thing, the compounds go straight into the bloodstream via the lungs rather than having to slowly seep out of the digestive system. Plus it does look cool when all the other kids are doing it…

I first tried it a couple of summers ago in Italy. I’d heard that Mugwort was a good candidate for a smoking herb, and had found some pretty lush specimens growing in the sunny pastures of the mountain village where my uncle is fortunate enough to own a house:

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I let it dry in my room for about a week then brought it downstairs late one night when a few of us were getting ‘merry’, and we smoked small, torn pieces of the herb in roll-up cigarettes. The strong aroma of the growing plant came through in the taste and smell of the smoke, with one wild enthusiast comparing it to smoking incense(!), and there followed a very relaxed and pleasant light-headed feeling and the promised vivid dreams which a at least two of us reported the following morning*. We hoped there wouldn’t be any awkward questions at baggage control after one of our number had made a harvest to take with him on the plane back to Spain!

What tipped the balance for me, though, was seeing fellow herbal apprentice Charlie give a talk on ‘Herbal Fumigants’ at the Springfield Sanctuary ‘Celebrating Herbs‘ festival last September. She brought a bong and various smudge sticks and incense balls she had prepared in the preceeding months along with many plants to sample and hear associated stories, science and folklore about. It was a feast for the senses, especially when we got to try some of the herbs at the end. I tried Mugwort, Sage, Coltsfoot and Mullein.

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She writes:

Many people believe that burning herbs and smoking are something brought to us from the New World with tobacco, but tobacco is just one plant.  It’s true that a huge amount of the herbal lore that is current in the UK today has been imported or reimported from America but burning herbs to release their properties has been Old World practice for as long as recorded history has existed, whether we are referencing the Oracle at Delphi or Bald’s Leechbook which tells us in Anglo Saxon, “geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum“. (Translation: smoke that man with herbs).

Apparently Coltsfoot is the big one to check out here in Britain, with many smoking it during WW2 when tobacco became too expensive or impossible to import. Funnily enough it was a well known remedy for coughs and bronchial troubles, as indicated in the Latin name, Tussilago Farfara (‘tousser’ = French for ‘to cough’), making it potentially very interesting to people trying to quit ‘regular’ tobacco smoking. I’m told some continued to smoke it even after the war was over. As Maude Grieve wrote in her 1931 classic ‘Modern Herbal’:

[…] Coltsfoot has justly been termed ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic.’ The smoking of the leaves for a cough has the recommendation of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities, both ancient and modern, Linnaeus stating that the Swedes of his time smoked it for that purpose. Pliny recommended the use of both roots and leaves. The leaves are the basis of the British Herb Tobacco, in which Coltsfoot predominates, the other ingredients being Buckbean, Eyebright, Betony, Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, and Chamomile flowers. This relieves asthma and also the difficult breathing of old bronchitis. Those suffering from asthma, catarrh and other lung troubles derive much benefit from smoking this Herbal Tobacco, the use of which does not entail any of the injurious effects of ordinary tobacco. (link)

Tussilago farfara ColtsfootNow’s the time to be on the lookout for the flowers, which perplexingly come out before the leaves. I’ve spied a few of the yellow beauties, whose location I will be doing my best to remember for when the leaves come out later in the season.

All this inspired me for a winter project: making my own pipe. Brief e-research told me to use a hard, non-resinous wood for the bowl and (obviously) something hollow for the stem. I heard good things about cherry wood and happened to know where a few trees were growing nearby. I couldn’t find any handily seasoned, non-rotting wood of the right kind of size around the base of my chosen tree so I climbed way up and selected a green-wood branch that it looked like the tree didn’t need too badly, carefully sawing it off close to the trunk with my pruning saw and carrying it back down with me. The next step, a few days later was to choose a section of the branch that looked most suitable and saw it off:

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I attempted to carve out the bowl with my pocket knife but it turned out the wood was too hard so I had to use a hammer & chisel instead, tilting the piece of wood and using the angled edge of the chisel on the inside of the bowl so it didn’t cut too deep:

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Then I used a drill to make a small hole downwards and then, measuring the likely position, from the side (it took a few attempts before they lined up, as proved by my being able to blow through the piece):

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Finally, selecting a larger drill bit, I drilled a small distance into the side and whittled the piece of bamboo I was intending to use as a stem to the right size to wedge inside:

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Et voila, my fully functional pipe (I’ll need to find a better stem once it dries out and gets too thin, and maybe the bowl will get de-barked or some further carving to show off the red cherry finish. Also there’s some research needed on filters to intercept as many of the bigger ash particles as possible, which might otherwise result in health issues if I become a regular smoker…):

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…which I proceeded to load up from my Mugwort tea stash and have my first enjoyable (albeit rather chilly) back-garden smoke of the year:

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Well, there you have it. I thought I’d share 🙂 Further onwards I’m looking to try Lemon Balm, Angelica, Sage, Coltsfoot, Mullein, Yarrow, Rosemary, Lavender… There’s what looks like a great online resource of ‘Herbal Smoking Mixtures’ by Howie Brounstein over here, if you’re interested to find out more. It includes handy tips on how to prepare your herbs, which plants combine well together and recommended mixes depending on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Puff away, kids!

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* – I’d had similar experiences previously after drinking a tea of the plant before bed, but strangely the most powerful experience was a prolonged sequence of crazy, tricksterish dreams I had while drying a couple of long stems above my head where I was sleeping:

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Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡

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* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.