Winter Is Coming

Isn’t it interesting that it’s still technically autumn, and that winter doesn’t start for another few days? I always think of winter as showing up at some unspecified moment in November when all of the leaves have fallen and the first tentative snowflakes have flown. Also, colds. And dry skin, and darkness-induced depression. It’s hard to feel rested and happy when one rises in darkness, and darkness falls again before the afternoon passes by. In the month of December, the only waking hours I spend outside are in the dark (it makes me sad just typing that).

So with winter (colloquially speaking) comes winter maladies. What to do, what to do? Over-the-counter medications for colds and such make me feel loopy and weird, which most of the time makes the cold worse. Same thing with happy pills for the winter blues. And dry skin? I’d rather not be greased up in petroleum byproducts three months of every year.

The answer, as it so often does, lies in the kitchen. Home remedies have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance of late, and with good reason. Efficacy, affordability, sustainability, self-sufficiency, and quality control are all reasons why people are interested in learning about and making their own remedies to treat everyday complaints and issues. Not to mention the fact that DIY culture has a lot more cachet these days.

While the internet has a wealth of info about DIY herbal treatments, I prefer to keep a couple of reliable reference books on the shelf. What can I say; I’ll always inherently be a book person. Also handy if the interwebs is, you know – off. Weird concept in this day and age, but it happens. Hm, our children will likely never know an age without computers and the internet – we were the last ones. But I digress. Lack of daylight makes me a bit weird. Back to the reference books. A well-thumbed copy of The Green Pharmacy has been on my shelf for years. Husband picked it up for me as a Christmas gift – oh goodness – at least nine years ago. It’s basically an encyclopedia of common ailments and complaints, and which herbs/plants can be used to treat them, and why. Knowing the properties that plants have is key! Even nine years later, with much of the sections committed to memory, I still pick it up at least once a month. For example, last week I read the section on anxiety (yep, because I have that job – makes me all crazy-like). It has pointed me to the right bottle of supplements more times than I can count.

But I’ve come to a point where I don’t want to just buy the bottle, natural though it may be. I want to grow the plants, brew the tea, make the poultice, craft the salves. I have been, over the last few years, on this ever-broadening quest to have my life be more tactile; more visceral. So the logical next step for me is to start to understand how to be an herbalist. I needed recipes. And (as I come to believe more ardently every year) if you need something essential, the universe will provide to it to you if you are open enough to seek it out.

Over the last few months I’ve been in touch with the fine folks at Robert Rose Inc., a book publisher of all kinds of great titles, many of which are DIY-oriented. And that is how I came to land a review copy of The Essential Guide to Home Herbal Remedies by Melanie Wenzel. I don’t like, or find useful, every single review copy of books that land on my desk. But I usually get pretty lucky, because I’ll only take the time to review titles that speak to a specific need or interest I (and by extension, you, dear readers) have. This one is changing the way I approach my own health, and the health of my family in a very real, and very positive way.

First off all, the book is well-organized. There are individual chapters for distinctive groups of illnesses/complaints (women’s issues, common childhood illnesses, etc.), as well as an entire section on plant characteristics and identification – including a full color photograph of each plant that is profiled. So not only does the book outline which plants can speak to which complaints, but it also outlines specific recipes for crafting the treatments, and provides plant identification information – especially important knowledge to have if you’re foraging plant material instead of cultivating it (though it’s pretty important to be able to identify a plant in a garden setting as well). It’s one stop shopping for how to evaluate an ailment, collect the herbs needed (safely!) and whip up the remedy. It’s a book that’s absolutely aimed at the beginner, so it spells things out clearly with thorough explanations and a comprehensive view.

Being still relatively new to the actual process of creating and using my own herbal remedies, starting with the basics that use common ingredients is what I’m starting with. I’ve bookmarked three recipes from the book to try – Elderberry & Honey Syrup, Lemon Balm Spirit, and Roll-On Lavender.

I’ve been reading about elderberries for a while – they are very highly touted as being to alleviate the nasty symptoms of colds and flu, so I’m excited to try the Elderberry & Honey Syrup the next time I’m under the weather. And the nice thing about this syrup is it can store for about six months in the fridge, so you can whip up a jar at the beginning of the cold season and have it on hand for whenever you might need a tablespoon or two.

Lemon balm is an herb that has a calming effect, so it can be a supporting player to other cold and flu remedies. It’s also great as a mild sleep aid, and when used externally (just applied directly to the skin) can also help ease the pain from sore muscles or headaches. Lemon Balm Spirit is a simple infusion of the lemon balm in vodka, and also has a long storage life when refrigerated. I’ve got a packet of lemon balm seeds for the garden that I can hardly wait to plant so I can put this remedy in my arsenal. Though I may have to do a little mail order shopping – spring is a long way off, after all!

Roll-On Lavender I’ve tried already and am really loving. Lavender is also really calming (notice a theme here?) and is good for headache relief as well. The roll-on applicator makes using the oil (simply lavender essential oil diluted in almond oil) easy and mess-free. You simply apply it to your temples (or other pulse points if you don’t want it on your face) as needed. It’s definitely helped ease a free stressful moments for me in the workday, so I highly recommend lavender. And it just smells so good.

If you’re not in a position to grow your own herb garden (though really – most can be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill) you can certainly order them. Mountain Rose Herbs is one off the largest and most respected outfits.

I’m looking forward to actually being able to make more of the treatments and remedies my family needs in order to see winter through healthy and happy. Having Wenzel’s book in my toolkit will make it possible for me to really do that now – and I encourage you all to pick up a copy and give it a try!