Saturday, January 28, 2012


When I used to take walks in the woods as a child, I always loved this plant. Lycopodium was more commonly known to me as ground pine or ground cedar, though it is neither. It is in the clubmoss family and more closely related to ferns. One or more species can be found growing in most places in the world, usually in moist woods or boggy places. Lycopodium is low growing, not much more than 6-8 inches tall and is evergreen. It is the fruiting heads (you can see them in the picture) that bear the spores that are the lycopodium powder of medicine.

The powder has actually had many uses over the years, from a dusting powder for abraded surfaces, in microscopy as a standard for measuring the comparative sizes of substances (it would take 750 of then laid side by side to cover an inch), and even due to the extremely explosive nature of the spores, to produce lightning effects in the theater and in early flash photography. The spores are extremely water repellent, and if you were to dip your hand into the spore powder and then into water, you hand would not become wet.

The powder has been used both to kill lice and to improve bad wine and as a stabilizer in ice cream. One writer in an old herbal recommended it for 'female disorders', and another valued it as an aphrodisiac.

Of all of the uses, it was probably used most often as a dusting powder for eczema, and to prevent chafing in infants.

Not many of the plants I've written about have had such varied uses, both medicinal and practical - and this one you can buy on eBay for less than $12 for 25 grams, should you feel the need to experiment.
Next time - Malva rotundifolia, which here is more of a weed than a wildflower, but pretty just the same.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Iris versicolor

We grow several different Iris versicolor cultivars here, the one above being 'Mint Fresh'. It is a rather small plant, as irises go, probably no more than 15 inches tall with a smallish bloom. The plain species is often taller than this cultivar. Size, though doesn't matter all that much, as this is such a lovely blossom.

Iris versicolor is commonly called Blue Flag, at least that's what I knew it as growing up. This one has variegated leaves, but the blossom is the same as the straight species. It is native to wet swampy places from Canada to Florida and west to Arkansas. We grow ours at the edges of ponds, or in low spots that tend to collect water, or even in mini-bogs that are just kiddie wading pools sunk in the ground and filled with a soil/peat moss mix to create a small swampy place to keep swamp loving plants happy. I know the people at K-Mart wondered what we might be going to do with 10 kiddie pools when we bought them.

One of my favorite versicolors is the photo above - 'John Wood'. We have a couple of clumps of this one growing under various conditions and all are doing well. The foliage (below) is also quite pretty in the spring when it first emerges.

As far a medicinal uses for the plant, it is the root or rhizome that is collected in the autumn and dried. Much care should be used if you consider using this plant for medicinal purposes since all parts of it are poisonous when fresh if taken internally. Still, it was considered useful as it was listed as an official drug for over a hundred years. It was used by the Native Americans who passed the knowledge of its usefulness on the the Colonists.

In addition to its uses as a diuretic, emetic, purgative and cathartic, the flowers yield an infusion that may be used to test for acids and alkalies in place of litmus paper. Some people have used the powdered roots in tooth powders.

So, a useful plant, though probably not one I'm going to use personally. Just being pretty in the garden is all that I require of my irises.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Impatiens capensis

Impatiens capensis - aka Jewelweed, Balsam, touch-me-not, snap weed. It grows wild here along creeks and in woods, usually in a quite shady spot. Along the creeks it can be 3 feet tall, in the woods, a little smaller. This is an annual that self seeds generously (I weed a good bit of it out, just leaving a nice clump here and there) and whose seeds are spread as the fruits explode, shooting the seeds for quite a distance. We loved making them explode when we were kids.

Jewelweed is listed as a medicinal plant because of its ability to releive the itch of poison ivy. Strange as it may seem, it often grows right alongside the plant for which it is an antidote. You pretty much just boil the plants in water to make a concentrated 'tea' that you then apply to the rash. I can vouch for the fact that this works. I haven't boiled down any myself, but our family doctor used to give it to patients as his 'secret poison ivy cure' back when my kids were very little. It is also reported to work as just the juice of the plant without boiling it down - you inadvertantly get into some poison ivy and you just crush some Jewelweed and rub it on the spot. Potter's Cyclopaedia says that it can also be boiled with lard to make a salve to relieve hemorrhoids, and that the raw juice of the plant will remove warts and corns and cure ringworm. In New England Rarities Discovered, and American herbal written in 1672, it was written that the colonists considered it a remedy for bruises.

It's a pretty plant that I've loved since I was a child, and despite its propensity to spread a bit too enthusiastically, I'll always allow it to grow here, especially as long as we still haven't managed to get rid of all of our poison ivy.

Impatiens pallida, the yellow flowered form, is also effective. At least around here, though, it seems less common. It is a larger plant and seems to have no problem growing in the sun, as we have several patches along the road that seem to do just fine.

This has to be one of the easiest medicinal plants there is since it grows often right next to the plant for which it is an antidote and requires no preparation for use, unless you want to have a supply on hand for winter, which is when I often get in trouble with poison ivy when I come in contact with the roots while clearing a new space for a garden. And yes, I'm ready for spring; enough winter already. And I've been planning several new garden beds and renovation for as soon as I can get out there and start working. The days are getting longer so it can't be too long yet, can it?


Monday, January 16, 2012

Hypericum perforatum (and some others)

Not the showy St. John's Wort, or the shrub ones, but a rather unassuming wildflower that grows here. It's a European native, but was brought to this country early and now can be found in many places, along roadsides and in fields. It even seems to grow in light shade. It's only a foot or so tall in my gardens and for years I didn't know what it was. I finally took the time to find out and was pleasantly surprised. It was too pretty to be classified as a weed and so it got to stay. It didn't spread around or get in the way. I'm glad I left it since it has turned out to be a pretty little thing growing in a daylily bed where it is a little out of place, buy lovely just the same.

It was used as an infusion for coughs and colds, or made into an ointment to be put on bruises, scratches or insect bites.

The plant has been historically associated with John the Baptist, hence it's common name. John the Baptist's birthday was at the summer solstice, an important day even in pre-Christian times, and some think that the bright yellow flowers were associated with that day. In addition to the medicinal uses, plants of this herb were hung over doorways and used in exorcisms.

Since I've started on Hypericums, I might as well show you some of the others that we grow.

Hypericum 'Blue Velvet is a small shrub with blue green leaves and the bright yellow flowers that are typical of the Hypericums. Ours grows in light shade where it gets a half day of sun and seems quite happy.

This one is 'Hidcoat Variegated', about which I know nothing, I hate to admit. Hank bought it (I think he'd buy anything as long as it was variegated) and it seems happy here so far.

And last, this is 'Tricolor', though in sun, there are surely more that 3 colors, the pink, white and several shades of green. This, I think, is a zone 7 plant, but because we like it so much, we go to great pains to keep several of them alive. Without a wrap or cover of burlap over the winter, they wouldn't make it until spring. It has been very slow growing and took many years to finally flower. Still, it seems worth the extra fussing we need to do for it in the fall to prepare it for winter. We've had it in the gardens for at least 15 years, so we must be doing something right.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hydrangea arborescens

Such a lovely flower, Hydrangea 'Annabelle'. I just love these. The blooms last almost forever on the plant, and then if you cut them, they do last indoors all winter, and if you don't mind the increasingly brown, then very dark brown color, they will last in the house until they are just too dusty to deal with any more. Luckily, there is an abundant new crop of blossoms every year. I think the new pink flowered one will be just as lovely - if the deer will please stop eating the buds so I can enjoy its flowers.
I guess I was a bit surprised to find this hydrangea in a book on medicinal herbs. The species, as opposed to 'Annabelle', has smaller blooms but still is lovely. In its native range, from New York south to Florida and west to Missouri, it can be found growing in moist, rich woodlands, and I find that here in our zone 6ish garden it grows best in light shade where it gets sufficient moisture. I also have one growing at the base of a large mulberry tree where it gets much less moisture unless I remember to throw a 5 gallon bucket of water on it, and though it grows well, it is not nearly as large, nor are the flowers as large, as the one in better, moister soil.
The part of the plant that is used medicinally is the root, which has variously colored layers of root bark that can be peeled back, one layer at a time, and which gives it the sometimes used name of seven-bark. When a fresh root is dug, it is cut or crushed to be used in an unfusion, 1 teaspoon of root to a cup of boiling water, taken a mouthful at a time throughout the day. Although the book says that it was known that it wouldn't get rid of gall stones, it was taken to get rid of 'gravelly deposits'. It was also know to the Cherokee tribe for that purpose. It was thought that it would assist in removing brick dust deposits from the bladder and so was a popular remedy in areas with brick factories.

Even if you have no need or desire to use this shrub medicinally, it is still well worth growing for its beauth and ease of cultivation. It doesn't seem to have pest problems, doesn't mind a little drought, though in very dry spells it would like a drink every couple of days. Expect it to get about 4 feet tall and maybe 6 feet wide in time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What do you mean it's blooming in January???

Though I often tell people that there's something of interest in the gardens 12 months out of the years, that something isn't always a plant with flowers. We're still a bit away from even the snowdrops (Galanthus) and though the Hellebores have buds, none are what you could call open flowers yet at this point. This year, howeve, is different in many ways. We haven't had the horrible cold, and until today when we got about an inch, we hadn't had snow either. We've had more than enough rain, 2011 being one of the wettest years I can remember. And, we have blooms on Hamamelis (Witchhazel) and Lonicera (Honeysuckle). The one above is Hamamelis 'Rochester'. It is always one of the first to bloom, mostly owing to its position on a sunny, protected bank above a pond. It has become quite a large bush, allowing me to cut a generous quantity to bring into the house so that I can enjoy the wonderful fragrance without freezing my buns off sitting on a bench outside.

This Hamamelis is 'Girard's Purple'. It is also a large bush, but for some reason the scent isn't nearly as stong as that of 'Rochester', but I cut some anyway for the contrast in colors. There are years when the Witchhazels don't bloom until March, and then their bloom season is quite short because the flowers fade with the first warm/hot sunny day. With blooms starting in January, we should be able to enjoy them for a couple of months this year. Only a few are out so far, but all are quite well budded and so we should have lots of bloom soon.

The other shrubs that are blooming are a couple of the bush honeysuckles. The one above is Lonicera fragrantissima. It's probably about 6 feet tall and as wide. The blooms, though different in appearance, have that wonderful honeysuckle smell that reminds me of warm nights in early summer, when the fragrance wafts in the open windows on a light breeze. This can start blooming here any time between January and March. It will sucker a bit and can also tip root, so unless I need some extra plants, I try to prune it a bit after bloom, and dig any babies so that it doesn't crowd out its neighbors.

The other bush honeysuckle that is blooming right now is Lonicera purpusii. I originally bought this one because the catalog copy said that it bloomed in January, and anything that will bloom here in Ohio in January can have a place in my garden. This is the first year that it has ever done so. It is always nicely budded and looking like it will open those buds in January, but until this year, the buds never opened before the middle of March. Maybe it has finally adapted to our climate, or maybe it's just this weird weather year. Either way, I'm very happy that it's blooming right now.

Tomorrow I'll get back to the medicinal herb series, but I just had to share these wonderful plants today.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Helianthus annuus - Sunflowers

Common sunflowers, nothing fancy; the ones that come up in odd places in the garden where the chipmunks have buried seeds or the birds have dropped one. I have much more luck with critter planted sunflowers than with ones I plant myself. I think that the critters like to plant them, but also like to dig up ones that other people plant. Just my theory, but it would explain why theirs come up and mine don't often do so.
The common sunflower is a native plant almost everywhere in the United States.
In Jacobs' Index of Plants he writes "the leaves are astringent; the seeds are diuretic and yield a fixed oil ... The roots were used for snakebite and as a dye. The sunflower is used for coughs, pulmonary affections, dysentery, inflammation of the bladder and kidneys, and as an antimalarial."
An old recipe using sunflower seeds as a cough remedy: Boil 2 ounces of the seed in a quart of water (doesn't say if they are hulled or not). Boil down to a little less than a pint and strain. Add 6 ounces of gin and 6 ounces of sugar. To be taken three or four times daily in a dose of one to two teaspoonfuls for pulmonary affections and coughs. In the same way, seeds browned in the oven and then used to make the unfusion were said to provide relief for whooping cough.
The Journal of Lewis and Clark had an entry in July 1805 noting the use of sunflower seed to make bread and thicken soup.
After writing about a lot of medicinal plants where I felt the need to warn about these being old and questionable recipes, this is one that seems quite simple and probably safe. I have no idea, however, if it actually works, though I might be willing to give it a try.
As far as gardening here in the hollow - it's been a strange garden time. After one of the wettest years on record, we seem to be having a winter without horrible cold and, at least so far, no snow. Some is predicted in the next day or so, 2-6 inches, so it may actually start to look more like January here. We have witchhazels and winter honeysuckles blooming; daffodil foliage is up a couple of inches in many places. Luckily things bloom in the greenhouse this time of year so we don't get too crazy. Right now there is a lovely tiny gardenia covered with blooms that is making the whole place smell wonderful. In any event, in 2 months or so spring will be here with crocus and other early spring blooms starting. I'm not sure if I'm quite ready for the daily grind of weeding, but I'm sure ready for warmer weather and the outside being green instead of brown.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Nice vacation; time to get back to writing. I'm going to pick up in my herbal medicine book where I left off last time. The photo is of the variegated version of our ever-present pest, ground ivy, known also as gill-over-the-ground and creeping charlie.
I don't remember this growing at our house when I was growing up, but heck, there were parents and grandparents and kids, all gardening on a city lot, I don't remember weeds much at all. They wouldn't have had a chance. Where I do remember it is at my Aunt Nancy's farm, out in the country the other side of West Chester PA. She had a wonderful spring house, always so dark and cool, where they would chill the milk. Ground ivy grew around and in it (I'm sure she thought it was a nuisance) and for some reason I loved the smell of it when you walked on it and crushed the leaves. I still love the smell, even as I pull mountains of it out of my flower beds.
Although this seems to be everywhere, it is not native to North America, but was introduced by the early settlers. If it weren't such a weed, you might almost expect to find it sold in garden centers as a ground cover. This variegated version is sold by a number of nurseries and though sometimes a bit tricky to get started, I think it can be just as much of a nuisance as it's plainer cousin once established.
One of the original uses for the plant was to impart the desired bitter flavor to beer, to prevent it from turning sour, and to clear it. This use for the plant ended about 400 years ago when they discovered that hops would do the same thing, and I assume would do it better since that has been used ever since.
Other uses for the plant are for coughs accompanied by phlegm. It is used either fresh or dried, a teaspoonful of leaves to a cup of boiling water, a cupful of more a day. It has also been suggested that sniffing the crushed leaves will cure a headache.
Grieve's Herbal suggests that because of its astringent properties, it is useful for bruises and black eyes.
So next time you're weeding the garden and get the urge to pull out all of the ground ivy, maybe you might think twice about leaving a little patch . . . just in case . . . for medicinal purposes.

Tomorrow - hamamelis (witchhazel)