18th century apothecary still completely intact.

 

This article is based on a visit of an apothecary in the ‘Hotel-Dieu’ at Bourg-en-Bresse in south-eastern France. The impressive building still holds a hospital and the apothecary is tucked away in the basement, no longer in use it is open to visitors on reservation.

The first question that comes to mind is why the name ‘Hotel-Dieu’/’God’s Hotel’ and what exactly does it signify. According to the French encyclopaedia “Universalis”, Hotel-Dieu entered into current use in the middle ages and was the name given to the principal hospital of many large towns. Its name linked it to the church and the charitable role that the former had in the organisation of these ‘hospitals’ that originally housed the poor who when ill and needy had nowhere else to turn to and were in most cases situated near the cathedral. Overtime specialized structures developed for the needs ofthe poor and weary and the Hotel-Dieu became a hospital for the ill. However due
to the link with God and the church, healing did not only involve physical care but a healing of the soul and importance was put on confession, prayer and communion. It wasn’t until the 14th century that doctors and surgeons appeared in these establishments, patients, except the most diseased were often three or four to a bed meaning that infection spread at a great rate. In the 12th century Bourg-en Bresse’s original hospital, ‘Saint Mairie’ was built next to the church of Notre Dame, run by a local rector and his wife it housed ‘Gods poor’ in a communal room containing 15 beds and was more a hospitable house than a hospital.

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It became a ‘Hotel-Dieu’ in the middle of the 16th Century. It was moved to another placement in 1652 and shortly after three nuns were posted from Beziers to run the hospital , it was indeed these three nuns that little by little developed the apothecary, they obtained the right to create a laboratory in 1708. The buildings however were not big enough for the demands put on them and by the end of the 18th century it was decided that the ‘Hotel-Dieu’ would be moved to a purposefully built building next to the cathedral, which is its present day situation. The architect ‘Pierre-Adrien Paris’ was chosen to design the building and as he had travelled in Italy, this influence rubbed off and he deigned a huge edifice regrouping a closed convent and a hospital in the form of a cross. To cut a long and ‘not really interesting to us’ story short, the first stones were laid in 1783 and the hospital was opened in 1790, in the middle of France’s famous revolution period. What really interests us is the apothecary, as I said above it is housed in the building’s basement and consists of three rooms. What is most interesting is the fact that everything has remained intact since its closure in 1963, in order to retain this feeling of ‘a still working’ apothecary rather than a museum, there are no information panels and no touristy blurb. Visits are by reservation and a specialist guide takes you around, we felt especially privileged coming from the herbal school and we were allowed to touch, take photos, poke our noses into containers and participate fully in the discovery of this amazing historic place.

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The first room known as the laboratory doesn’t look anything like a modern day laboratory, it is exceptionally conserved in its original state and houses in the middle a huge wood burning stove, similar to the ones that were used in the kitchens of Medieval castles except this one has been specially built for housing two copper stills and various other copper instruments used for heating herbal, teas, decoctions, syrups, macerations, elixirs etc. None of the water pipes are visible, as they have been designed to be evacuated under the floor. The red copper stills have had their middle section removed by official orders so that they could no longer be used for distilling, this is due to governmental rules and paranoia about people making their own alcohol, the fact that these stills were used for distilling plants and would be great used for demonstrations is beyond our narrow minded authorities. In this same room the walls are decked with recipients used in the daily life of an apothecary, boiling pots, copper bowls, brass syrup pourers with pouring beaks, brass bowls for ears, measuring jugs. As much of what existed in the original hospital was moved to the new building, the oldest object dates back to the 17th century.

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The collection of pestle and mortars was very impressive, a size for every need, they were used to crush into powders not only the plant material that was used but the animal and mineral material as well, such as deer horns, precious stones, resins etc. This large apothecary did use a large amount of plants that grew locally and there was even a medicinal plant garden in the grounds where the nuns cultivated some of these, however they also used and mixed plants both local and exotic with other materials to make what they called ‘composed’ or ‘magisterial’ remedies. Getting back to the pestle and mortars, they had ceramic, glass and bronze ones to choose from, the bronze ones told an interesting story, being the oldest they were embellished with various medallions. The one on the photo that seems to be damaged was in fact made before the French revolution and embellished with ‘Fleur de Lis’, and someone had tried to get rid of them obviously after the revolution. This large brass pestle and mortar was used for making powders, it’s wooden lid prevented losing bits of what was the pestle itself weighs 4 kilograms.

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Also in the laboratory is housed a lovely, big wooden press for pressing the last drops of alcohol or oil from macerated plant material, a great tool and a wonderful object in its own right. It wasn’t until 1901 that Laboratory/dispensaries had to by law have a qualified chemist on site to oversee the fabrication and dispensing.

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The second room, situated in between the laboratory and dispensing room is what in French they call the ‘arrière boutique’, which literally translated means behind the scenes or back room. It was used to organize and stock the raw materials as well as housing the library with its numerous reference books, medical and pharmaceutical dictionaries were an important support for the making and dispensing of remedies.

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As this apothecary is large compared to most, it has over 1,000 ceramic and glass jars and some of them which were stored in specially designed wooden shelving systems in this room too. The care and attention given to the choice of materials and their details is astounding,

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the group of ceramic jars in this room were used uniquely for external preparations such salves, lotions and electuaries (a mix of honey and powers) the jars themselves were called canons and very slightly thinner in the middle in order to make them easier to hold, with a foot called a ‘piédouch’ meaning shower foot as it looks a bit like a shower head and its wide base is designed with the intention of catching any straying drops so that they do not damage the wood work.

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It was wonderful opening some of the rectangular, wooden boxes and discovering the packets of different plant material still in tact after all these years. There were both red and green boxes, the red ones were destined to contain exotic plants from far away places such as cinchona and spices such as nutmeg, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, the green ones local plants such as borage, comfrey, angelica, …

The final room was of course the largest and most impressive, once again beautifully, made to measure wooden shelving lined the room, with nooks and crannies of different sizes depending on the containers needing housing. Here the bulk of the containers containing plant material were held and each type of container held a specific type of remedy. The vessels were in wood, pewter, pottery or glass, in this final room are to be found a great number of each variety of vessel, the ‘chevrettes’ seen in the photo were the containers that symbolised the apothecary and only an official herbalist/chemist could use them, there were incidences here in France where grocers had been condemned for having them in their stores. These pots were used specifically for syrups, honeys and oils and had a handle and a spout for pouring these liquids.

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The names of plants on the pots or boxes were often inconsistent, in the same room one plant name could be written in several different ways, the Latin names were rarely in evidence so sometimes it is not obvious exactly which plant is being referred to. Some of the names on the boxes containing dry material are things I had never heard of before, for example ‘Sang de Bouc de Dragon’ , which literally translated means ‘blood of billy goat and of dragon’, it is apparently neither goat, blood or dragon but a resin usedmedicinally and originally described by Dioscorides, it is probable that it would have come from the Dracaena cinnabari, a tree from the Ruscaseae family, a monocotyledon endemic to the Island of Socotra, this all sounds very exotic and somewhat unrealistic. Later the resin was harvested from a Moroccan tree, the Dracaena draco, same family and very similar visually and then even later yet another source has been noted and that is a Dragon blood palm called Daemonorops draco from the Arecaceae family and this time the only resemblance seems to be in the name. Obviously complicated to be sure of exactly the origin and usage of this substance and no time for this type of research at the moment. In a second box was kept ‘Burnt and powdered stags horns’, wow what a remedy, apparently used for giving new life energy and living a long time as the stag was seen as a symbol of rebirth and long life.

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These small pewter pill boxes were obviously used for keeping handmade pills, the one we opened had the original angelica pills in, over fifty years old, the dose for purging was apparently a drachm (an old form of measure, equivalent now to about 3, 40gms) The bottles in glass on the highest shelves were empty, which is logical as they were home to the distilled waters or hydrosols and a fifty year old or so hydrosol is not really possible. Interesting though as the labels on the bottles were all local plants and were obviously made on site, angelica water, lettuce water, violet water, hyssop water etc. At a period when distilled waters were still very much in use medicinally, something that is slowly starting to come back now. In the wonderful woodwork, special niches had been carved to hold the huge ceramic pots containing highly honored panaceas, which were complicated herbal recipes made by famous herbal chemists of the time residing and working in France’s large cities; Paris, Montpellier, Lyon etc.

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Among these panaceas, some of the pots were still full of blackish syrupy liquids, included ‘La Thériaque’ (sorry can not find English translation), which was used against all diseases, apparently the main ingredients were snake flesh and opium, although I believe the recipes changed greatly from one apothecary to another and were often kept secret as well. The history of the “Théraique” according to our guide ; was that it was formulated by Andromaque’s father, who was the emperor Neron’s doctor around about 60 years AD and it got as far as Europe thanks to monks who handed it down and eventually made copies of the formula. Certain French towns were known for making it and the first traces of it in Bourg-en-Bresse date back to 1681. It was used up to the French Revolution in 1789. Another wonderful concoction and well known at this period was the “Confection d’ Hyacinth”, which contained several minerals, hyacinth is apparently another name for zircon, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, pearls, ivory, gold and silver, coral, musk and grey amber- and that is just the mineral part, added to which there were stony formations found on the underside of crayfish, cinnamon, sandalwood, myrrh and all this was supposed to be ‘stomachic” .

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The 80 or so books that accompanied the apothecary in must be a hive of information, the oldest of these is ‘The Pharmacopeia of Moyse Charas” and dates back to 1619. I would love to spend a week alone exploring and discovering this wonderful time capsule and learning from all this history packed into these three tucked away rooms.

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Hydrosols—The Quiet Revolution in Herbal Medicine

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Distillation and hydrosols: connecting herbalists to aromatherapy.

For a while now, I have been wondering why hydrosols do not play a more important role in both aromatic and herbal medicine. The more I work with them, the more I realize their potential and the more I see them playing a major role in plant healing across the board. One of the most important aspects of hydrosols is that we can make them ourselves and thereby deepen our relationship with the healing plants around us and be more sustainable.

Hydrosols are also known as aromatic waters. They are the main product of steam and hydro-distillation, which also yield much smaller amounts of essential oils.

The French pharmacist’s book entitled ‘Le precis de pharmacie galenique’ from 1900 describes hydrosols as: “Distilled waters containing volatile principles that are normally contained in the plant or that are likely to form under the influence of water.”1

Hydrosols can be made from almost any part of the plant: fruit, flowers or flowering tops, leaves, occasionally branches, bark and roots. They can also be made from more unusual substances, such as beeswax and clay. The plant matter is usually distilled fresh in order to preserve the most volatile molecules, prevent degradation due to light and oxygen and to enable the ‘cellular water’ from the plant to be extracted.

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To me, the best and most important aspect of hydrosols is that you can easily make them yourself, e.g. on your stovetop. This is important, in my opinion, because it gives us autonomy with regards to using and making plant medicine–the more we can do ourselves, and the more autonomously, the better. By making our own plant medicines, we learn to identify the plants we are using. This can also motivate us to grow or wild-craft them, which in itself means that we are building a deeper relationship with the plants and our local environment. Also we connect with the plants in an ongoing pattern, long before we make medicine with them. When making our own hydrosols, we can choose the quality of the plants that we use, either organically grown by ourselves or other people in our community or sustainably wild-crafted in non-polluted areas. We are not reliant on shop-bought products that can be of low quality, degraded, and harvested in an unsustainable manner and in polluted areas. Also, the range of plant products available via stores is generally more limited and generic. Instead, by learning to make our own hydrosols, we can work with and deepen our relationship to our local flora. We can experiment with both aromatic and non-aromatic plants. We can choose the water we use mindfully. With regards to the water for distillation, make sure it’s from a pure source, such as a spring or well, or even rainwater. We can also offer the respect to the plants that feels right to us and make offerings when we harvest, for a more proper exchange of energy, which influences the potency and energy of the medicines.

Also, gathering our own plants gives us the opportunity to take care of the local habitats that we wildcraft from and this mindful attention makes the plants happy.

Basically, we are in charge of the process from A to Z, which means that we respect the plant and concentrate on the quality of the medicine we are making from before harvest to using the hydrosol.

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Hydrosols were used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, they were the predominant form of plant medicine. Due to a number of factors, including that they are less profitable than essential oils, their popularity diminished in the 20th century. With the emphasis on maximizing essential oil yield, hydrosols became a mere by-product of essential oil production, which meant the quality suffered. Distillations were geared towards producing oils and only several highly valued hydrosols such as rose, orange blossom and lavender were available commercially. Centuries of plant medicine wisdom appeared to be headed to extinction. In the past twenty years however, hydrosols have been having a slow but steady renaissance. At-home, stove-top distilling and artisanal hydrosol production are becoming more wide-spread—a quiet revolution in sustainable herbal medicine.

For most of us, home-distilling limits the size of the still, which is usually made from copper, with sizes ranging from 5 to 35 liters (approximately 1.5 to 10 gallons), which is too small for the production of meaningful quantities of essential oils. Yet stills in this size range are ideal for hydrosol distilling, right in your own home, or even in the field. When focusing the distillation on the hydrosol, you can pay much more attention to factors such as temperature, pressure, duration, yield, pH, etc. Therefore you can achieve quality hydrosols easily with your still at home.

Still, why hydrosols? I have already discussed the benefits of being able to make them yourself. Even if making medicine isn’t your ‘thing’, hydrosols are nevertheless a very safe, interesting and effective form of plant medicine, that has a long history but has also long been overlooked and undervalued. I highly recommend you become familiar with hydrosols and their healing powers. If you decide to explore hydrosols more, my first advice is to buy them from small-batch artisan distillers or distributors known for the quality of their products. I have always made my own hydrosols. However, last year I was working on my online hydrosol class (see below for more info) and decided to buy a range of commercially available hydrosols to get a sense for their quality. I bought them in a health-food shop in France, choosing a well-known brand and I was really disappointed. Basically, they had no flavor, aroma or energetic resonance. They were flat and lifeless. I could think of at least three reasons for this: First, a hydrosol that is produced during an essential oil distillation is considered a by-product and when aiming for maximum essential oil yield, little attention is given to the hydrosol’s needs and the quality suffers.

Second, only the initial fraction of the distilled hydrosol contains enough aromatic molecules to make it aromatically and medicinally potent, but a distiller may keep collecting hydrosol in the distillation to maximize yield, which results in over-dilution of the aromatic constituents. Third, the producer has probably not paid enough attention to the care of and respect for the plant, habitat and harvesting process to retain the intelligence of the plant and its soulful resonance.

Unlike essential oils that are highly concentrated, hydrosols are much more dilute, which makes them much easier and safer to use and more sustainable, while still offering healing potency and a wide range of uses. Nowadays most of us are aware of the huge amounts of plant material required to make one liter (approximately one quart) of essential oil. For example, it takes approximately 1300 lbs of Lavandula angustifolia to get a liter of lavender essential oil and it takes the flowers of 2 acres of Damask roses for a liter of rose essential oil. Just think about the environmental impact, especially as more and more people are using essential oils in larger quantities than ever before. The yield of hydrosols is much higher per amount of starting plant material, which makes hydrosols much more sustainable and allows you to make useful quantities in a small home still.

Also, hydrosols are much safer, gentler and easier to use than essential oils. They don’t need to be diluted or mixed with a carrier oil. You don’t have to educate people about the dangers of unsafe practices, which has become a growing concern about essential oils. People often think that because hydrosols are much more dilute, they are less potent, but that is not true. Just think of how potent flower essences and homeopathic remedies can be, even though they are even more dilute.

The versatility and wide range of actions and uses of hydrosols may seem incredible. Hydrosols are effective and safe home remedies for children. They are also an excellent water-based ingredient for natural cosmetics, adding both aesthetic and healing qualities. They can be added to foods and especially drinks as an interesting and safe ‘magic touch.’ They make great and easy-to-use healing additives to a bath. They can even be added to tinctures and herbal teas to contribute an aromatic element to the medicine. Being more dilute than other forms of aromatic medicines, they also make very powerful tools in vibrational medicine, acting in a similar way to flower essences.

In France, my training as a herbalist involved an in-depth training in aromatherapy and aromatic medicine is considered an important aspect of herbalism. I know that many herbalists in English-speaking countries are hesitant to incorporate essential oils into their practice, for several reasons. One reason is an ethical concern about the amount of plant matter needed to make them, as discussed earlier. Another reason is the opinion that without a huge still, you can’t make sufficient amounts of essential oils for your practice yourself and are dependent on having to purchase essential oils. As we have discussed, this is not the case for hydrosols—sufficient quantities can be easily made at home and need very little plant matter. Although yields change with each plant, the general rule is approximately a liter of hydrosol per kilo of plant matter (approximately 1 pint of hydrosol per pound of plant matter).

I have noticed in my own work that I have been able to add to my knowledge of a plant by making a hydrosol from it. In that way, I can really discover and work with the aromatic aspect of the plant as well as all its other aspects. When discovering Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), the roots of which are traditionally used in herbal teas and tinctures, I decided to make a hydrosol with it. The yerba mansa hydrosol, which I had to make since it’s not commercially available, revealed a profound, hidden aspect of its character, that I would never have discovered otherwise.

 

To learn more about using and making hydrosols here is a link to my certified online class :courses.aromaticstudies.com/…/hydrosols-certification-program-with-cathy-skipper

 

Distill my heart: Milkweed in three acts

This article was put together by Dr. M. Leona Godin, Cathy Skipper, & Florian Birkmayer MD

 

Distill My Heart: Milkweed in Three Acts

Act One by Dr. ML Godin about her encounter with milkweed hydrosol in a class taught by Cathy Skipper & Florian Birkmayer MD.

Act Two is a poem written by Cathy Skipper, who created the online hydrosols certification program through The School for Aromatic Studies.

Act Three details the collection and distillation of milkweed in the beautiful Taos region of New Mexico by Cathy Skipper & Florian Birkmayer MD.

Act One: Drinking Monarch Nectar, AKA Milkweed (Asclepias)
By Dr. ML Godin

On the day of the hydrosols tasting with Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer, my daily hallucinations were painted blue, an electric blue that did not want to let go its hold on my visionscape. In recent years, I’ve found that strong scents can change my visual palette almost immediately, but somehow that blue day would not give way except for the neon orange of the orange blossom and then the glorious yellow orange of the milkweed that burst through towards the end of the evening.

The way it worked was that each new hydrosol was spritzed into our wine glasses and mixed with a little filtered water. Then we all smelled and sipped and free-associated, allowing the mystery hydrosol to elicit thoughts, feelings, images and yes colors too.

To be honest, it was hard for me not to feel a little competitive. As a blind person, I want my nose to be best, but, as a person new to aromatic aesthetics, I realize this is ridiculous. For several of the hydrosols, I was sure what they were and I was correct, for a bunch, I had ideas of what they were, but having been derived from plants I’d never met before—black copal and palo santo for example—I was nowhere close, and I hate to be wrong!

After the first three I finally relaxed and allowed my mind to wander a bit and not get too hung up about being right. One cool moment was guessing #8 Beeswax correctly, but I had an advantage since, being enrolled in Skipper’s Hydrosols program at The School for Aromatic Studies, I knew that such a thing was possible. That was certainly one of my favorites, as it exhibited a strong distinction between its taste and aroma—the smell reminded me of the spirit of the plants that sustain the hive, while the flavor tasted of the building material itself, a glossy waxy sensation that was almost chewable.

Birkmayer encouraged us to think synesthetically, which in the case of #9 penetrated and offered a joyous blast of yellow orange. I did not know what it was, but I liked it. I was so entranced that I neglected my notes, so unfortunately I cannot refer back to words from the moment to explain the flavor, also it was number nine, so Alabaster—who was gracious enough to accompany me on this odd little tasting adventure—and I were a bit slap happy. We’re not yet persuaded by the concept of vibrational aromatherapy, but our heads were surely buzzing by that point in the evening!

For some of the hydrosols, we were encouraged to imagine an animal. People were not guessing the correct animal for this one and so Birkmayer mentioned butterflies and then I knew and said, “Milkweed?” And I felt justified in all my orange and yellow associations.

The common name milkweed derives from its milky nectar that can trap some nonnative insects, but Linnaeus, that taxonomist of all taxonomists, apparently named the genus asclepias after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Why? I wonder. Milkweed is a new world plant, likely brought back to Sweden by one of his students flung out to all corners of the world to collect new species for Linnaeus to inspect and name. Perhaps he did so because he learned that some natives of the New World used some species for healing, but so many plants have medicinal uses, this seems too easy an answer.

Asclepias speciosa, from which our hydrosol was distilled, is also known as “showy milkweed” because of its flamboyant flowers. It is the special food of the monarch butterfly. The recognition of the monarch nectar brought me back to the Santa Cruz grove where the monarchs winter. I wrote a poem about seeing those butterflies, which I often visited during my years at UCSC.

Once, with a forgotten companion, I saw them fall from the sky mating in the warm afternoon sun. They dropped in our hands and flew apart and I believe it was all not a dream, though the memory has that quality of unreality that sometimes makes me doubt.

Act Two: My encounters with Milkweed
By Cathy Skipper   
 
Angels blowing milkweed’s message
reminding me of who I am
Head spins and heart pounds
its sweetness pulsating and pushing open
the guarded heart.
 
Spiraling and as strong as a tree
Milkweed unseals me to the sky
prompting me to breathe, anxious in its
truthful presence that gives me no choice
but to be fully alive.
 
Sweet, musky, honey, dreamy and creamy
rocking me rhythmically like a baby in the crib
Asclepius, the healer who could raise the dead
heart opens skywards, safely I become my star
 
Humming its wise song into all my bones
bringing them back into resonance with life
stagnation is broken with a shot of
authentic pulsation aligning me with the Self
 
The exquisite but momentary note of bliss
is quick to leave aromatically but does its job
perfectly…stimulating soulful remembering
feeling the warmth and safety of coming home
 
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​Act Three: Capturing Milkweed Hydrosol
By Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer MD
 
We had seen clusters of milkweed along the road between Taos and Valdez for years, easy to recognize from afar with their big pointy leaves and alien-looking, hairy seed pods. On the day of the solstice, seeing some clusters in bloom while driving home, we decided to gather milkweed for a hydrosol.

We gathered the flowering tops in some brown paper bags we happened to have. We collected more the next day—finally we had an excuse to explore all the back alleys, dirt roads and dead ends around Arroyo Seco, a very picturesque town of old adobes near Taos. That day we discovered many hidden paths and a previously invisible network of trails, older than the paved roads, revealed itself. Anywhere we saw a cluster, we pulled over and harvested the flowering tops. This time we collected them in the pot of our still, into which we had put wine.

The flowers of the genus asclepias, which are almost as complex as those of orchids, have a pollination mechanism that can trap other insects, such as flies and honey bees. We released quite a few bees and flies that afternoon from their beguiling traps! The aroma of milkweed is intoxicating. It grabs you instantly, like the flower grabs the fly.

Most if not all species of milkweed are considered toxic, due to the presence of cardiac glycosides in the milky latex. Cardiac glycosides are very large molecules, so we assumed that they would not come across in the distillation. While milkweed poisoning is a concern for livestock, a significant amount of plant material, approximately 10% of body weight, would need to be ingested to cause toxicity symptoms.

The particular species we found throughout the day was Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which has an umbel of bold five-pointed pink and white blossoms. Milkweed is the only host for the larvae of the Monarch butterfly and the butterflies get molecules from the plant that make them unpalatable to predators, according to the USDA’s Plants Database, which also mentions that the traditional indigenous uses of showy milkweed include using the stem fibers for rope as well as for food and medicine.

The day was slightly overcast and not too hot. Following along the dirt paths, we crossed several tiny acequias, ancient irrigation channels, cutting through moist pastures, along which the milkweed grew strong. It was a beautiful day spent roaming through this landscape with its intoxicating ancient beauty.

When we decided to distill milkweed, we were trying to determine how to capture its fragrance, which we were concerned would be lost in a regular hydrodistillation. We were also worried that other aromas, such as the ‘greenness’ that is common in non-aromatic plants, might predominate. Thankfully, Cathy knew of an old book on distillation of floral waters that was available online, John French’s The Art of Distillation (1651). While it had no specific information on milkweed, the chapter reproduced below guided us.

“To Make The Water Of The Flowers Of Jasmine, Honeysuckle Or Woodbine, Violets, Lilies, Etc. Retain The Smell Of Their Flowers

The reason why these flowers in the common way of distillation yield a water of no fragrancy at all, although they themselves are very odoriferous, are either because if a stronger fire be made in the distilling of them the grosser and more earthy spirit comes out with the finer, and troubles it, as it is in case the flowers be crushed or bruised (where the odor upon the same account is lost) or because the odoriferous spirit thereof being thin and very subtle rises with a gentle heat, but for lack of body vapors away. The art therefore that is here required is to prevent the mixing of the grosser spirit with the finer and to give such a body to the finer that shall not embase it, and it is thus:

Take either of the aforesaid flowers gathered fresh, and at noon in a fair day, and let them not at all be bruised. Infuse a handful of them in two quarts of white wine (which must be very good or else you labor in vain) for the space of half an hour. Then take them forth and infuse in the same wine the same quantity of fresh flowers. This do eight or ten times, but still remember that they be not infused above half an hour. For according to the rule of infusion, a short stay of the body that has a fine spirit, in the liquor receives the spirit; but a longer stay confounds it, because it draws forth the earthy part withall which destroys the finer. Then distill this liquor (all the flowers being first taken out) in a glass gourd in a very gentle Balneum, or over a vapor of hot water, the joints of the glass being very well closed, and you shall have a water of a most fragrant odor. By this means the spirit of the wine which serves to body the fine odoriferous spirit of the flowers arises as soon as the fine spirit, itself, without any earthiness mixed with it. Note that in defect of wine, aqua vitae will serve; also strong beer, but not altogether so well, because there is more gross earthiness in it than in wine. The water of either of these flowers is a most fragrant perfume and may be used as a very delicate sweet water, and is no small secret.”17361883_761773433971515_6095404633174808250_n

Based on this, we infused the flowering tops we had collected on the first day in 750ml of white wine (pinot grigio) in two batches. We let each batch soak for 30min and stored the wine in the fridge overnight. Because we were wondering if any of the subtle volatiles might evaporate before we got home, we decided to bring the still pot on the second day with 1.5 liters of white wine, so that the flowering tops could infuse immediately after being harvested. We removed the flowering tops from the wine in the still, added the wine that we had infused the previous day and distilled this very slowly. We live at almost 9000 feet (3000 meters) altitude, which means that the boiling point of water is lower, approximately 96 degrees Celsius (approximately 205F). Between the very slow heating of the still and the lower boiling point, we speculate that we are able to distill more fragile and volatile aromatic molecules that would otherwise be lost.

The scent of the hydrosol has a very quick onset and also dissipates very rapidly. There is a peppery note that comes through along with the complex floral notes, which have a similar ethereal quality to lilac, without much sweetness. The scent could be described as regal and nourishing to certain parts of the soul. It also provided a deeper glimpse of the hidden aspects of the landscape that is our home.

Deepen your healing practice by deepening your relationship with plants

I believe that any form of plant work or plant medicine such as herbalism, aromatherapy, flower essences and cultivating plants can benefit from deepening our personal relationship with the plants.

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When we study academically, we learn with the left brain, we learn the plant names, their morphology, their actions, their constituents etc. all of which is human-based information. This knowledge gives us a valuable grounding and starting point but there is more to plant medicine than book learning and theory.

Learning by initiation and letting the plants teach us what they know can deepen our practice and help us widen our consultations from patient/client and practitioner to patient/client, practitioner and plant.

Learning the language of plants is learning to feel through our subtle senses and to build our own unique and personal relationship with the plants. This is nothing new, it has been the way humans throughout history have always related to plants.

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In today’s world there is a tendency to rely too heavily on language, we are continually categorizing,  placing our experience of the world around us into boxes. Our minds are full of words that reduce the world to a limited framework in which the left brain feels safe. If we are not careful we fail to see and feel the ‘aliveness’ and possibility of deep relationship that exists in this amazing world we live in.

The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’ W.B Yeats

Plants are masters in subtle communication, their survival depends on a continual relationship with their environment, they are constantly adapting their intricate chemical makeup to what is happening around them. Through intuitive plant medicine, we learn what I call, plant communication or how to communicate with plants. How to take a back seat, stop doing and become receptive, let a plant in and allow it to lead the way. When we learn to do this, transformation occurs, we change, our world view changes and the plant changes.

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I am so humbly grateful for this class Cathy, it has been completely life changing so far! I have met a large family of pines close to my home that I now feel an incredible connection with. It was wonderful beginning with the smaller plants and gradually moving to meeting the trees, a perfect flow. Working my way through this class has been completely altering for me. I feel like I am picking up on a path that I left behind as a young child. I feel like my community of friends has expanded exponentially to include the plants, animals, even minerals, sky, earth, wind, clouds etc. What an incredible opportunity this has been so far!” Piper Lacy

Thank you both for a wonderful and inspiring workshop this weekend, I can’t tell you how joyful it was to be among a group who think it’s entirely normal to communicate with plants!” Ffion S.

If you are interested in learning about intuitive plant medicine, I am offering a 200 hour online class called, ‘Plant Communication’

https://courses.aromaticstudies.com/product/plant-communication-with-cathy-skipper/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trees as spiritual teachers

 

My ‘lucky star’ was to be born with a solid connection to the plant world. My grandfather, a doctor and keen naturalist, had a garden covered in beech trees. Feeding the birds and squirrels was a daily routine and losing myself in the auburn woodiness of the place was emblematic of what it meant to be at granddad’s house. My father has always been an avid gardener. Most of my childhood memories are of him head down, old wooly jumper and jeans, entrenched in the large, many-roomed garden we had in the Wirral, in the North of England. It was a place where he felt ‘at one.’ When things were good he would go to the garden and when things were more challenging he would go to the garden. So I never questioned the connection with nature. Being an only child of two elderly parents, it became my playground, my solace and my place of nurturing.

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As a child, I remember, trees to me were a solid structure in which everything else fitted. Like aged grandparents, they were part of the fixtures and fittings—solid, experienced and somehow otherworldly. I played in my imaginary world in between the pillars of sustainability that the trees created. I never questioned them or even looked up to their crowns. They were merely the safe framework in which everything took place, rather like the obelisks of a Greek temple or the structure of a theatre set.

Their inconspicuousness continued. As I became an adult, trees filled that vital space that I only noticed when they were no longer there. Trees have been a part of me and yet, like in some parent-child relationships, they were maybe too powerful and necessary, too ‘given,’ for me to relate to in a more mature way.

When I trained in herbalism and botany, I built deep and intricate relationships with the plants I had loved as a child. Still, the trees remained aloof. One has to be ready for trees—like for spiritual masters and the path inward. C.G. Jung believed that we are really only able to start the journey of self-exploration and inner discovery, which he called ‘individuation,’ during the ‘second half of life.’ I am beginning to think that it is only then, that we really become ‘ready’ to connect spiritually with trees and recognize their role as teachers and guides on our quest to becoming a crone or wizeard (for the lack of a better word for the masculine sage).

And so it has only been in the last ten years that my relationship with these mentors have taught me–slowly like their branches, expanding year by year. This has led me to a deeper understanding of what it is to be a tree, what it is to be me and above all what it is to belong here on this beautiful earth.

Trees have so much to teach us. Our ancestors remembered this. ‘Being like a tree’ is mentioned in  the bible, “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (1)

But what is it really to be like a tree? Trees are charged with life force. They capture and transform terrestrial energy from the earth below and cosmic forces from the sky above. They are like columns penetrating the celestial and earthly realms. They bring vitality and life down into the earth where it is anchored and available to this physical dimension. If we think of ourselves as being like trees, we can work on our alignment between our spirituality and our life here on earth.

‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ (2)

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Like trees, which bring a harmonious and stabilizing energy to the planet, we occupy a place between the two worlds. These worlds meet in the area of our hearts—the doorway through which we can communicate with other humans and species.

The sky and earth analogy does not stop here, trees teach us about the two opposing parts of ourselves, light and the shadow.

No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell”. (3)

In order to be whole, it is important to recognize, accept and love all aspects of ourselves. The tree as a symbol of the Axis Mundi or ‘World Tree’ encompasses all realms of existence in the microcosm (humans) and the macrocosm (the world). Its branches reach high up into the stars and the place where Gods abide and its roots go deep into the darkness of the earth to the place where the ancestors rest. Honoring all aspects of life and ourselves is very helpful in order to step away from the continual dualities that are being played out between good and bad, science and intuitive wisdom, allopathy and alternative medicine to name but a few. It is often in the places between the extremes that a semblance of truth and balance can be found. In northern mythology, the ash tree, Yggdrasil represents the world tree and is commonly translated as ‘Odin’s horse’ drasill meaning horse and Ygg(r) being another name for Odin. Odin’s horse is the gallows from which he hung suspended upside down for nine days and nights to gain the knowledge of the world through the  runes.a

“I know that I hung on a windy tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.” (4)

Odin’s horse could also refer to the vehicle on which Odin travels between the nine worlds in the tree’s branches and the nine worlds in its roots. What is important here is the tree’s wholeness helps us find our own, by honoring the light or what is visible and the shadow in what is underground and hidden in the dark earth we take responsibility of all aspects of ourselves. Like a fractal the tree represents us and the whole world and lives in the heart of every living thing and being.

Sacred trees are woven throughout the history of humankind. There’s the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) under which Buddha was said to have gained enlightenment. There are the five sacred trees mentioned in Irish poetic writings, which include the trees of Ross, Mugna, Dathi, Usnac and Tortu (5) and my favorite, the famous Glastonbury thorn. The hawthorn known as the Glastonbury thorn was thought to have been brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea who arrived there with the Holy Grail and thrust his staff into Wearyall hill, a long narrow ridge to the south west of the town. It was at this point that the thorn of Glastonbury grew. This legendary hawthorn tree blooms not once but twice, at Easter and Christmas and the Royal household has had a sprig of it adorning their Christmas table since the 17th century.

The stories around trees are bountiful and cross all cultures. One of the things I have noticed in my own life since trees have nudged their way into my psyche is that, wherever I go, I notice them—be it town or country—they draw my attention and teach me about the place. I no longer notice the buildings, only the trees. This gives me a sense of grounding and belonging, even in places I have never been to before. They provide a continuity in my semi-nomadic existence. I advise you to set out, if you haven’t already, on a quest to find the oldest, the biggest and the wisest trees in your area. Then visit them, spend time with them, commune with them, make wands from them, and listen to them, for they have a lot to teach us.

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One of the ways I like to look at trees was revealed to me while researching a class I was teaching about gemmotherapy, which is making medicine from tree buds and rootlets. It was at this point in my life, spending time in early spring making medicines out of buds, that trees and I began to dance. Our brains are sealed off from the surroundings by a thick skull and ego, only receiving through filtered senses. Plant intelligence on the other hand, is situated in what are called meristem cells. These cells hold all the information needed to make any part of the tree or grow a whole new tree. They are found principally at the apical points of the tree, such as the tips of buds, shoots and rootlets, i.e. on the surface, in direct contact with the surroundings. These structures are at the origin of the way a tree constructs itself. They will become leaves, twigs, flowers, etc. They contain different zones or tiny control centers, that each have a specific function and communicate with each other. Think about this when looking at a large tree in spring. Notice the aliveness of the furthers points stretching outwards towards the sky. Underground the same thing is happening with the tips of the roots that make their way through the earth like snakes. These meristem cells contain the tree’s intelligence, i.e. they are its brain. The tree’s brain, unlike ours, is on the exterior of its being, constantly communicating with itself and its environment. It constantly adapts, depending on circumstances, climate, other trees. It is through this function that two genetically identical trees will evolve differently depending on the decisions made according to differing conditions. These cells even take into consideration neighboring plants. They communicate and making collective decisions. When I look at at tree, I remember this and then instantly see its total aliveness at every tip of every branch, bud or leaflet resulting in one huge, multi-faceted antenna constantly reacting to its environment. Taken a step further, it helps me recognize the whole, beautiful, living organism that is the forest with its fractal like consciousness creating an enormous body of plant intelligence–more than we can even imagine.

When I am walking at night and I connect with the trees, it is even easier to perceive their aliveness. They seem to have a celestial connection, as if a tiny star had settled on each tip of the tree. The Gond tribe from central Africa believe that trees are connected to earthly matters during the day and it is only at night that their real spirit emerges. They say ‘Trees contain the cosmos; when night falls, the spirits they nurture glimmer into life.’ (6)

Ancient forests and sacred groves have been used as places of worship in most cultures since time immemorial. Trees were considered the first temple of the gods. For example, the Celtic name for these tree groves was nemeton, meaning shrine or temple. (7) The root of this word nem might mean ‘to bow’, or ‘reverence’ (8). Sacred groves were seen as having a cosmological function, in contrast to the axis mundi aspect of the single tree. They often had a source or stream within them. They were thought of as representing the universe and being the home of Gods and spirits. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘Cathedral forests.’ For me, our spiritual teachers live here, in what feels like the most coherent church we could wish for. We only need to spend time in the forest to learn about each other. We can learn to live together, to accept our differences, to adapt to our environments, and to create a nourishing environment, incorporating what has passed away.  We can learn cross species communication through complex invisible bonds, being part of the whole and needing the whole. We can become aware of the synergy of all life, the unavoidable and necessary seasons of life, and how diversity creates stability. The list of potential benefits is endless. Even the structure of the forest can be likened to a church. Bron Taylor looks at this architectural link in detail in his book “Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.” The way the light comes though the forest canopy and is filtered by the leaves resembles stained glass windows of cathedrals. The solid trunks of the trees are akin to Gothic and Roman pillars. Chartres Cathedral was built in 1194 on top of an ancient Druidic sacred grove. How ironic to cut down life and put up a structure meant to echo the very organism that was destroyed. The cathedral’s ribbed vaults represented the interwoven branches of the trees and they even named the ceiling ‘the Forest’. We need to continue to honor our forests and groves rather cut them down. They are beautiful and powerful places. They contain a myriad of biodiversity. They are the best place to make offerings and perform ceremony or have celebrations. I have been lucky to have spent time in a very special sacred tree grove on friend’s land in France. This grove indeed demanded a sense of reverence when I wanted to enter, due to its sanctuary-like atmosphere, where the trees held counsel. A tragedy had beholden their family–their eldest son had been killed in an accident. After holding onto his ashes for nine years, they scattered them in their grove. It was the perfect place to hold and integrate the last material part of their son. The trees resonated with his spirit and provided a feeling of sacred home. We went on to perform tree calendar rituals and celebrations in this powerful oak grove. Luckily it should be around for generations, because the family bought the nine hectares of land surrounding their cottage to prevent intensive farming or construction. Hopefully that particular tree sanctuary is safe.

Trees are our ancestors. Not only have they inhabited the earth for millions of years before us—yes. we are the new kids on the block, but also we also share many genes with them, due to our common ancestry. I feel that now more then ever, they are calling out to us. They are telling us to wake up, see them for who they are, work with them spiritually, learn from them and, more than anything, protect them.

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To end these rather rambling musings, I would like to share the lesson that trees are teaching me at the moment. One of the unconscious habits that I have been left with from childhood trauma is a feeling of panic that anything and everything has to be done immediately, urgently and very quickly. Its a horrible feeling as it leaves me no time to enjoy life and be in the moment. It is something I have been battling with for a long time and it’s deeply engrained. Now, thanks to the trees and their supreme knowledge of taking things slowly, a shift is happening. It began with the oak. Although now a trusted ally, it took me a long time to get to know oak. Maybe because my preconceived ideas about what I thought oak was about got in the way and maybe because oak medicine is that it does not need to rush and can and must take its time. Oak taught me a lot about ‘strength.’ It taught me that true, authentic strength is soft and loving, expansive and gentle. Oak’s energy fills space with a tender, mellow, all-expansive, very reassuring resonance. I call on oak when I need to feel safe. I ask for the presence of oak to keep things within secure boundaries. Oak is like an age-old teacher, whose mere presence is enough. Dr. Bach used oak for very strong people who fight against illness and adversity but never seem to get beyond their difficulties. This makes sense to me, because of oak’s message about what strength really is. The ‘fighter’ often has this unrealistic, unsustainable view of strength as rigidity and ‘pressure.’ Oak teaches a calm gentleness of authentic strength, coupled with a sense of timelessness. Ah yes, it is the lesson of timelessness that is helping me on my healing journey at the moment. Oaks grow slowly and surely to become a majestic keeper of the surrounding lands. One day whilst sitting with a huge, favorite oak in England–connecting as with an old friend–it gently lead me into its world, a world where it is the master of time. It took me into a place where time slows down and is no longer linear but simultaneously spans all worlds. At the same time, a sudden understanding of the tree’s incredibly high tannin content sprang into another, more analytical part of myself. I suddenly understood the link between the physical aspects of the tree and what it knows. Tannins help the tree endure the tests of time on a physical level. Oaks have incredible longevity. Few other trees can equal it or surpass it. Their wood is also incredibly hard, heavy and strong, due to the tannins. The etymology of the word ‘tannin’ even comes from the Latin word ‘tannun’ meaning ‘oak bark’. ‘The teacher appears when the student is ready’ and so it did! Now, every day, I feel the calm slowness of taking my time  as it replaces the traumatized panic that dominated my life. I thank oak for teaching me that which it masters so well both on a physical and spiritual level.

Listening to oneself beyond the boundaries of what we call reality. Inner listening aligned with one’s true self, the natural one who is part of all and where all resides. Trees are our masters, don’t look any further you have found the guides you have been looking for all your life. They do not come in human form but are all embracing shadows of the truth. They will lead you at all times to your inner being, they will shine the light so that you see more clearly – they are part of you, yes, hazelnut, ash, oak, beech, pine, birch, hawthorn they are all part of you and they come from where you come from.”

 

References

1) Jeremiah 17:8, New International Version

2) Teilhard de Chardin, “The Phenomenon of Man”

3) Carl Jung, “Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self”, chapter 5

4) Stanza 137 of the ‘Hávamál.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A1vam%C3%A1l

6)Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, Ram Singh Urveti  “The nightlife of trees”, Tara publishing

7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemeton

8) Carol M Cusak, “The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations”

9) Cathy Skipper,  ‘Listening to Trees’, Plant Communication Online Class https://courses.aromaticstudies.com/product/plant-communication-with-cathy-skipper/

 

 

Interested in deepening your relationship with nature? I have a new 200 hour online class on Plant Communication: https://courses.aromaticstudies.com/product/plant-communication-with-cathy-skipper/

 

Distilling Rabbitbrush in New Mexico

Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp) distillation

pH 5.00

Grey clouds brushed across white skies as we made our way up the sandy, narrow track from the small hot spring tucked into the rocks beside the Rio Grande in Taos. We had thought that we would harvest some of the soft, bushy, bluish spring shoots of one of the Artemisia that grow so abundantly in this part of the world on our way but another plant called to us. Bright green tufts of fresh looking young plants drew us in. Our idea was to distil the local, aromatic plants at several times of the year, during their first spring flush, mid summer and then the during the early autumn flowering. I picked one of the young shoots, rubbed it between my fingers and smelt it, rabbitbrush. We looked around ourselves and as if popping up from nowhere as we scanned the rocky hillside, we saw more and more chlorophyll-rich tufts calling us. We scrambled across the dark black and red volcanic rocks and joyfully harvested our new friend, taking care not to take too much, listening to the plant as we went. It felt like the plant was pleased that we had listened to its call and the fact that we will recognise its spirit, is a gift not just to us but to the plant as well, a two-way relationship of connection.

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Without effort or calculation, we stopped when we felt the moment was right. I joined Florian, feeling his joy at doing what made us both so happy and we filled our bag. We paused and listened to the eaglets, squawking from high up in their rocky hideout blessing our activities from up high. As we walked up the path again, we stopped at the last rabbit-brush, stilled ourselves and thanked it, leaving our offering and listening to the magical, secret name of the hydrosol that we will be making.

 

The first thing we did when we got home to our earthship was to sit and enjoy the sacred rabbitbrush some more as we had to go through it, taking out any errant grasses that made their way in during harvesting and cutting off any roots that had come away with the plant. I love this process as it gives us a chance to feel and caress the plants before they are distilled and changed forever. When all was done, we weighed them, 2kg total that we put in the large 35 litre copper boiler, covered with collected rain water and left next to the warm earthship wall to soak overnight. This maceration period allows the water to fill up the plant cells and soften the cellulose plant cell walls making extraction of the aromatic molecules easier during the distillation.

The following afternoon, storms covered the mountain and rains fell, cosily installed in the earthship we set up the still and slowly heated the boiler.

My problem now was correct botanical identification of the plant, rabbit brush when put into Google gives at least two Latin names; Ericameria nauseosa and Chrysothamnus species. I looked up the USDA database and they give many species of Chrysothamnus but Wikipedia state that this is the former name and Ericameria is the up to date name. I will wait until the plant flowers in early fall and with my new New Mexicana flora, I will identify it.

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As we are at a high altitude here in the Taos mountains (close to 8500 ft./ 2800m), water boils at slightly lower temperatures, our sacred hydrosol was born when the still got to 95 degrees. The top notes smelt like New Mexico, a subtle blend of sagebrush, pinion and fresh desert rains, as the distillation continued the aromatics evolved and the smell of freshly cut grass and slightly minty notes revealed themselves. The next morning, I spent time with the hydrosol and made the following notes; Soapy, fresh, minty and lemony, clean, clearing, high fine resonance, suddenly it reminds me of Salvia officinalis (sage) hydrosol that I distilled in France. I decide to try and find out if the constituents may be similar, which was to proove more difficult than expected. There is very little information about the chemical composition of rabbit brush essential oil. As stated earlier I am not sure of the exact species we have harvested yet but ignoring that fact there is still virtually nothing on any of the possible species except for one research paper about the constituents of Chryothamnus pulchellus, a rabbitbrush species found in the area we are in. The main constituents being monoterpenes, which logically as they are non polar, do not dissolve in water well and are therefore not found in hydrosols, in comparison to sage that has a majority of ketones that can be found more easily in the hydrosol. I did find a paper written about the leaf surface flavonoids of Chryothamnus species (4), which showed through mass spectometry that flavonoids where represented mainly in the form of methyl-ethers of flavones, flavanones and dihydroflavanols. Methyl ethers are too light and volatile to be contained in a hydrosol and according to Len and Shirley Price are rarely if never found in essential oils. They are however slightly polar and could eventually bind to the hydrogen of water molecules and be found in hydrosols.

Precursors of these molecules act to form compounds that include a six carbon benzene ring, attached to a short (3 carbon) chain. Even though this type of molecule occurs far less frequently than terpenes in essential oils, they can have a great impact on the aroma, flavor and therapeutic effect. These molecules have powerful effects on the body and essential oils containing them should be used with great care. Several of them are amphetamine-like and can be neurotoxic in high quantities; thus such oils should be used only in the short term and in low concentrations. They are as a class strong antispasmodics….” (5)

I continued my olfactory meeting with the young hydrosol; the first and most prominent note remains that of soap, heady, circular clearing, it slowly has a descending movement that seems to clear blocked energy as it goes, powerful, anchoring and heady at the same time, energizing.

The following day, I came back once again to the hydrosol, remembering it can take up to three weeks to stabilize and find its place in this world. It had changed once again, a milky aspect that I noticed slightly to begin with has now developed and covered the whole of its surface. The base notes are coming through strongly now and are partnered by a powerful alcohol-like effect, that Florian describes as being like mescal or tequila and which is floating on the air above the watery hydrosol. I wonder to myself if the gas-like, alcoholic aspect maybe the methyl-ethers that are light and form a gas above the hydrosol?

Chrysothamnusvicidiflorus

What do I know about rabbitbrush, I ask myself? My first intuition was to go and find out how the native Indians of the region used this plant as it is one of the area’s major plants and as the region is so arid, few of these plants were allowed to go unused. I was lucky enough to come across a paper written about ‘The ethnobotany of the Navaho’ (1). The first and foremost usage by the Navahos was as a yellow dye from the yellow blossoms, followed by a tooth remedy as well as removing evil spells. Following this I then decided to see what the late Michael Moore had to say about this genus as he lived in New Mexico and knew the herbal medicines from here like no-one else. He has pages of references for the genus Chrysothamnus, all having origin in papers citing native Indian uses. These include; gynecological aid, dermatology – in chicken pox and measles, decoction of twigs for toothache, infusion of flowers for colds and coughs, leaves and stems in diffusion for smallpox, burning leaf and branches to drive away the cause of nightmares, infusion of flowers for tuberculosis and chest pain, poultice of smashed herbs applied to blisters, , decoction of plant for stomach cramps and diarrhea, plant used as a medicine for drinking and bathing,  decoction of plant for venereal disease, roots used as chewing gum and the list continues. Different tribes used different names for the plant such as; rabbitbrush, little rabbitbrush, snakeweed, chamiza.

A few companies are selling rabbitbrush hydrosol but without giving any real information about its use, so I suppose it is up to us to carry on spending time with it, working with it and using it to see how it reacts to us and how we react to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workshop Aromatherapy and Souls Healing

AROMATHERAPY & MEDICINE OF THE SOUL: “THE WOUNDED HEALER, THE ALCHEMICAL JOURNEY AND THE SACRED UNION”

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So what is all this about, you may well ask. Well first to fill you in on a little bit of background:

Dr. Florian Birkmayer is a psychiatrist who has spent the past years offering holistic person-centered psychiatry and addiction medicine to patients from his private practice in New Mexico. Steering away from conventional drugs, he works with essential oils and other plant based medicines as well as equine therapy. He also holds seminars and workshops on a wide range of holistic topics to facilitate self transformation and continued self development. His approach has been inspired by C.G Jung’s ideas about Individuation, which is the journey of the limited ego to the higher self.

Cathy Skipper is a French-trained herbalist and aromatherapist and practicing member of the Association of Master Herbalists in the UK. She spent the last ten years teaching a wide range of plant related classes such as field botany and wild crafting, healing plants with plants, practical herbalism, aromatherapy and healing the healer in both France, the UK and the States. All her work stems from the importance of reconnecting with the natural world, the healer healing themselves and reestablishing balance and vitality through alignment with the self.

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Florian and Cathy have a very strong bond and their approach to life and ‘the healing arts’ is both similar and complimentary.

Says Cathy: ‘I had always been intrigued by alchemy, although I knew absolutely nothing about it until I met Florian who inspired me to explore it within the context of my own personal path. As I began to learn, I loved the freedom from religion and doctrine that it offered and the way it helped me to understand and structure my inner world. Gradually the combination of alchemy and aromatic medicine helped me develop a stronger vessel with which to explore deeper within myself. A feeling of fully living my journey towards individuation emerged, the synergy of aromatics and alchemy provided the tools I needed. I am not saying I am anywhere near arriving at a destination but I have definitely embarked on a voyage’.

 Florian says: ‘My interests in both aromatherapy and Jungian Depth Psychology are longstanding, but I only started exploring their synergy recently. Aromatherapy has been a portal for me to explore the themes of plant intelligence and human-plant communication. Jung’s Red Book and his other works, especially his last great work ‘Mysterium Conjunctionis’ have profoundly shaped my view of reality and the metaphysical realms. To me essential oils and hydrosols are the unseen forces that communicate within and between our souls, a class of archetypes and a realm of the collective unconscious. I consider bridge-building one of the main themes of my work and life and this class is the culmination of many bridgebuldings, between aromatherapy and Jung, between me and Cathy, between the soul and the world and in this way another alchemical mystical marriage.’

We are both excited about sharing our passion for essential oils within the context of the alchemical journey. During the course we will explore the seven alchemical steps using exercises with essential oils and hydrosols to find our way. We will cover the following principal steps

  • Looking at how each alchemical stage relates to a different part of the healing cycle.
  • Identifying the different emotional/energetic states that arise in each stage and the essential oils and hydrosols that may help work through them.
  • Exercises and experiential work to deepen the understanding of each stage and the action of certain essential oils and hydrosols.
  • Looking at ways this work can be used with clients in an aromatherapy or psychotherapy practice.

 This workshop is intended to:

  • Help develop a deeper and more personal relationship to essential oils and hydrosols.
  • Offer a model that can be used to assist healers on their own journeys and those of their clients.
  • Highlight the importance of soul healing in achieving a state of ‘vitality’ and optimum health.

We are teaching this class in May 2016 in New York and Detroit, September in Ireland and October in Utah. We are happy to teach it all over the world. Please contact me for information about already scheduled classes or hosting a class.

 

 

 

Marjoram or oregano

These two plants are among those that I use often in herbal teas, as essential oils and hydrosols, grow in my garden or harvest wild. However I have noticed that there is often confusion between the two, it is not uncommon to read about Origanum majorana commonly known as Marjoram and see a photo or drawing of Origanum vulgare, commonly known as oregano, next to the text. Nor is it uncommon to go on a guided tour around a herb garden and hear the guide calling marjoram, oregano… but why and what makes it so difficult to get these two plant’s identities clearly sorted out? Well for one, they are both 
from the Origanum genus
(belonging to the Lamiaceae
family), a large genus
containing several different
sections and a huge number
of species, subspecies and
hybrids and a complicated
taxonomic history. Linnaeus
first classified it as a single
genus and then over the
years the plants were ordered
under various botanical names
including Amaracus, Origanum and Marjorana. 
For the purpose of this article I will be concentrating on the two aforementioned plants and their differences botanically, ecologically and medicinally. The genus Origanum contains plants that are rich in essential oils and have been used for thousands of years as condiments and medicines. The word origanum comes form oros in Greek, meaning mountain and perhaps ganousthai meaning ‘delight in’, which probably refers to the fact that the origanum species that have the highest essence content grow wild in the mountains.

Let us begin by looking at the botanical differences in the two plants;

Origanum vulgare is a thermophile, woody perennial, which grows to an average of between 20 to 60 cm’s high but can grow higher in certain conditions. It has a woody rhizome and quadrangular, reddy- purplish stems, the simple, oval, dark green leaves are arranged opposite each other and have short stalks, the upper leaves are sometimes sessile, the whole plant is covered with soft hairs and has a pleasant, recognizable odor. It flowers between July and September and the inflorescences are densely inserted at the extremities of the plant’s stems on small branches. The flowers (typical of this family) have an upper and lower lip, and a bell shaped calyx with more or less equally sized teeth. They are purple, pink or white, the buds being a deeper color than the flowers themselves, here where I live they are always purple, I have in fact never seen them in another color and they are also most commonly depicted in books with purple flowers. The stamens are prominent and the oval, leaf-like bracts are often tinted a reddish purple.

origanum vulgare (1)

 Origanum majorana is a perennial but often considered an annual when grown in Northern climates, as it is indigenous to Mediterranean areas and does not survive harsh winters (half hardy). It grows to a maximum height of 60cms and tends to be bushier than the Origanum vulgare. The stems are woody and greeny-brown rather than purple and not as rigid as the former meaning that rather than growing completely upright, marjoram has a tendency to grow in low mounds. Its pubescent leaves are arranged opposite each other and are grey-green, the flowers appear at the extremities as in the Origanum vulgare but are much smaller and white (sometimes slightly pinky). It is the flower buds in this genre that are very noticeable as they look like neat knots; this is where the name knotted marjoram came from. The fruit are brown, tear-shaped nutlets.
Origanum marjorana

Native to the Mediterranean Eurasia, both plants like warm, sunny environments, Origanum vulgare, which grows wild next to my home here in Southwest France, quite happily gets through the harsh sometimes snowy winters and the Origanum majorana, which is not found wild here as it prefers a warmer climate, growing wild for example in Cyprus and Turkey did actually survive as a perennial in my medicinal plant plantation.

Although Origanum vulgare prefers slightly alkaline soil, it can quite easily be found living happily along the roadsides on more acid terrains as long as they are well drained. It grows in most of Europe and to north and western Asia up to 1500 to 2000m altitude.

So as we have seen, these two plants do have similarities but are NOT in anyway the same plant, they are visually different, have different requirements in terms of where they grow and although some of their medicinal uses overlap, they have very different properties and constituents. What is for sure is that they are both great allays to the herbalist.

Some of the earliest records of origanum use date back to 1600-1200BC when images of the plants were inscribed on tablets by the Hittites of Asia Minor/Syria. (1) As the two plants in question have so often over history been called by the same name, it is necessary to view any historical descriptions in a broad sense.Origanum (probably marjoranum) was a symbol of love for the Greeks and Romans. It was woven into the floral headband that couples wore for their marriage and was also one of the ingredients in the many available love elixirs and balms. One of the warming herbs used to heal broken hearts, it was also planted on tombs to help the dead find peace. Both the plants in question were considered to be protective against magic spells and bad spirits, marjoram scattered in doorways kept the devil away from the house.

Origanum majoranum and Origanum vulgare have both been used historically and are still used in different parts of the world for cooking. In my experience both plants taste better in cooking when used young, that is to say before flowering, where I find their taste becomes a little more bitter. Oregano is known as the ‘Pizza’ herb and it does marry very well with tomatoes and Italian style dishes. I use it as one of the ingredients in my herby salt, where I find it adds a certain peppery sharpness and retains its flavor.Marjoram has a milder, sweeter flavour and is considered as the ‘meat’ herb, it is better to use fresh as being milder, it tends to loose its depth of flavour when dried.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Oregano grows wild where I live, on slightly acid, very draining soils at 600metres altitude. I have taken a few examples from the wild and replanted them in my teaching gardens and funnily enough, they grew without really prospering as if they were cross with me and trying to tell me that I could wild-craft them nearby so why was I trying to grow them – probably to do with less draining soils as well. As for marjoram, I had a few 
hundred plants in my plantation a few years ago, it grew very well on the poor, sandy soils of the Beaujolais region of south-east France, surviving winter and providing two crops per season. Probably due to the dry, harsh growing conditions, the essential oil content was lovely and high, this was made evident when distilling it for its hydrosol as it also provided enough of a lovely yellowy- orange oil on top of the hydrosol to take off with a pipette and use…exciting!

I dry both plants and use them regularly in my herbal tea mixes but not for the same reasons, although as I said they they can overlap.
I use Origanum vulgare in digestive blends, especially when digestion is slow and difficult, like thyme it has an anti-putrefying action on the digestion helping to relieve gas and abdominal swelling. I also use it in respiratory blends for its strong antiseptic qualities when there is infection.

I look at Origanum majoranum’s principal quality as being its ability to help bring balance and healing through its action on the nervous system by both relaxing and toning at the same time. Its antispasmodic and toning/ relaxing action helps relieve anxiety and stress without making the person sleepy. It also has an important role to play in respiratory tract problems where its calming action helps with the uncomfortable spasms linked to coughs and asthma for example and its toning qualities help strengthen the respiratory system as well as having an expectorant action on mucus. Its terrific calming capacity also helps with problems such as spasms and colitis in the digestive system and like its cousin oregano, helps eliminate putrefaction.

Both plants are high in essences and their essential oils provide valuable tools to the herbalist and aromatherapist. Although some of their virtues may cross over, they are generally used very differently. O. vulgare is great to have on hand at the first signs of flu or bacterial infection, a drop or two taken internally in a teaspoon of honey or in aromatic capsules can actually stop the bacteria in their footsteps so to speak. It has yielded one of the most potent antibacterial agents on its activity against a wide range of microorganisms including E.coli, Streptococcus and Salmonella, thanks to its high thymol and carvacrol content (2) , this coupled with an immune stimulating and antiviral action make it an excellent flu deterrent. It is also a powerful antifungal and anti-parasite useful in Candida albicans amongst other fungal infections. It is used in agriculture and gardening pulverised in a dispersant against parasites. Due to its high phenol content however, this oil is irritant to the skin and should not be used externally, dilute carefully and respect the doses for internal use as it is also irritant to mucous membranes, avoid its use in young children and pregnant women.

Marjoram’s soothing action is very evident in its essential oil, helping one release negative feelings and tension and get back into balance. Linked to these calming, re-balancing virtues is a hypotensive action making it a great oil for stressed, overworked business people with high blood pressure – ‘a wind down at the end of a busy day oil’. Use a 20% dilution when using externally and avoid its use with pregnant women.
Its calming effect can also be handy with children, who have worked themselves into a tantrum and are bordering on hysterical, in these cases Patrice’s homeopathic granules of essential oil of Marjoram are very practical combining both the safety of a homeopathic dilution with the powerfulness of an essential oil. Use a 20% dilution when using the essential oil externally and avoid its use with pregnant women.

To keep this article short and simple, I have looked at the two most commonly used Origanum species, this is however just a starting point. For anyone wishing to go further, there are many interesting species from this genus, certain endemic to specific places such as Origanum sipyleum from Turkey or Origanum dictamnus from Crete, there are also several other essential oils available such as Origanum onites, although less commonly used, none the less very interesting.

(1) Kitiki, Ayse. 1997. Status of cultivation and use of oregano in turkey. in oregano: proceedings of the iPGri international workshop on oregano 8-12 May 1996, CIHEAM, Valenzano (Bari), Italy. edited by s. Padulosi. rome: international Plant Genetic resources institute.

(2) The biological/pharmacological activity of the origanum Genus
dea bariˇceviˇc and tomaˇz bartol

 

Depression cuts the ground from under one’s feet!

 (I wrote this article originally for Herbgeek.com)

Through my work as a herbalist, I have noticed that many of my patients and especially those suffering from depression, anxiety and stress seem to lack what we call in France ‘ancrage’. Literally translated this means anchoring, which I prefer in a way to the word ‘grounding’ as anchoring conjures up more than just a connection to the earth but the feeling of being nestled deeply and securely in oneself, the solar plexus is the home to the centre of one’s being, the place of inner calm, peace and centeredness. Having one’s feet firmly on the ground and living in the physical body seems to be harder than it looks for people today, there is a general disconnection with oneself and nature…we are part of the natural world are we not? ImageThis disconnection results in a loss of self that is highlighted in many forms of depression, vital life energy, that which ‘animes’ or in English, ‘brings to life’, dwindles and the depressed person has trouble finding enough of this energy to dress and feed himself, let alone create his life.

An extreme case of this lack of ‘ancrage’, that I witnessed in one of my patients was a thirty year old woman who just wasn’t there, she was unable to take hold of anything that was said to her, I could feel her absence it was palpable, as if she was hovering above her body, when asked a question her replies were off the subject as she was so not there she wasn’t able to really hear what was being said to her. This person had lost her mother in an accident at the age of fourteen and the shock had pushed her out of her physical body, a survival technique that had its use at the moment of the shock, however sixteen years later, she was still disconnected from herself and the world in which she lived, what had been a survival technique at the time was now preventing her from ‘living’. This is a severe case, where the person was completely removed from her physical self, however many people live out their lives in their minds. I would say we are all to some extent suffering from this disconnection to ourselves as our lives move further and further away from nature and evolve more and more around virtual communication, stationary activities, sterile environments, we look for sense outside ourselves and forget to hear that inner, unique resonance that is ‘I’.

“The more we stay in our minds the more we think, the more we think the more we stay in our minds, the more we are in our minds, the less grounded we are, the less grounded we are, the less happy we are.”

The feeling of being ‘anchored’ in oneself is not as ‘subtle’ as it may appear, once grounded and reconnected there is a real and tangible feeling of being in one’s rightful place, at home in oneself and really here on earth. This feeling brings about a more positive outlook and more confidence in life. A distance appears from what is ‘oneself’ and the thoughts, actions, noises and stresses of life, a distance that helps one to let go of things and thoughts more easily and at the same time accept life, there is less resistance and as we all know ‘what resists persists’.

So, how to go about helping a depressed person to feel more grounded and centred within themselves?

There are many different techniques for ‘grounding’, such as dance, gardening, walking in nature (preferably bare footed), meditation, yoga, Tai chi, massage, swimming in rivers or the sea, to name but a few. These are things that can be slowly integrated into work on lifestyle changes with someone recovering from depression.

However the depressed patient, who hasn’t yet got to the stage where he or she is ready to take on new activities (low motivation) but may greatly need to feel that base foundation of connection with self, could benefit from plant medicines that help to ground, centre and align. Plants that stimulate and re-activate adrenal action are also recommended as adrenal exhaustion is often linked to a lack of grounding in the physical body. The adrenal gland’s contribution to our physical health and general vitality is very important, they are connected to the root chakra, a lack of grounding means that the natural energy cycle that triggers the adrenals into action lacks conviction and there is a gradual depletion and imbalance of adrenal energy.

These propositions would of course be part of a long-term treatment that addresses the different aspects that make up this complex state of imbalance, known as ‘depression’.

 Plants that ground and align

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

The name valerian comes from the Latin word ‘valère, meaningI am worth.

It took me a long time to really get to know this plant; in retrospect I think I was approaching it in the wrong way. I was surprised when I did eventually make the connection to find that it was a lot more subtle and gentle with a certain finesse to its action that I was not expecting.

I use valerian root for people who are mentally all over the place, people who cannot sleep because their mind is running or who are overly nervous or even hysterical with uncontrolled thoughts and panic. It gently brings a person back into their body, gathering up dispersed consciousness and calmly bringing it down to a safer place within (antispasmodic action on the solar plexus region), where the phase of deeper sleep is increased and an appeasement is found.

Wilhelm Pelikan in his work called ‘Man and medicinal Plants’ based on his studies with Rudolf Steiner states ‘Valerian brings the cosmic down into earth and not the earth into the cosmic’.

The roots are the part used and my experience is that they connect us very much to our own roots (both in the sense of physical grounding and our genealogical roots) enabling us to contact a deeper, more solid sense of ‘ancrage’.

Tincture of the fresh roots;

5 to 10 drops in the morning (to be repeated during the day if necessary) for depression and stress.

5 to 30 drops before bed for insomnia.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica, Angelica sylvestris)

ImageAlthough most people talk about Angelica archangelica when talking and writing about this plant, I use the latter for making tinctures and hydrosols (Angelica sylvestris)as it grows wild around my home and the former I buy as an essential oil. Angelica has similarities with valerian in that it has a long hollow stem that leads us down to the roots, the signature for plants with this structure is often considered as plants that help in ‘journeying’. I see them as plants that help align, making the connection between the lighter part of ourselves connected to our original source (essence) and our roots or material grounding. Like valerian, angelica helps those people who have difficulty coming into their physical bodies, I use the essential oil of the roots for this, a drop every morning for 21 days, rubbed into the sole of the foot and one drop rubbed between the hands. The grounding effect is more or less instant, as if suddenly the body recognises the connection (the plug has been put back into the socket) and at the same time it seems to strengthen both the physical body and the spirit, bringing vitality back to the organism!

Angelica root tincture or hydrosol can also be used internally.

*Do not use the essential oil on the skin before going out in the sun, as it can be photosensitive. Read the rest of this entry »