Let me walk you through my Calamus harvest. I am standing in about a foot of mud and 6 inches of muddy water. I can’t see my feet, though I have faith they still exist. I plunge my bare hands into the depths of this muck and wrestle up a rhizome of Calamus which is about the length of my forearm and looks like something straight of a sci-fi horror movie….it’s a creature. I am covered in mud, bitten by insects and slightly nervous about slimy fanged amphibians. I toss the precious root into the bucket and do it again….100 times. It is the best F-ing moment of my life.
I am soaked to the point of dripping and when I finally get my feet free they make a rude slurping sound. Red-winged blackbirds are flitting around the swamp and I manage to get into the creek to wash off a tiny bit-mud is heavy, you know, and I have to carry about 100 Calamus (Acorus calamus) roots 1/4 mile home, uphill.
It takes a whole afternoon to wash, separate, cut, otherwise process and lay out to dry my whole harvest, and then I take all the plantable pieces out to tuck into my own muddy swamp to join my existing Calamus community. This is a great time to think about stuff, reflect, daydream, observe the rhizomes or just rock out to Beyonce.
This kind of work can be physically exhausting, but it is the type of exhaustion that speaks to who we are as humans, deep down, way back, before we learned not to let our hands disappear into the muck, trusting, and use nothing but their power to discern prized rhizomes from an alligator’s tail….the exhaustion of a successful forage or hunt. It is invigorating to the spirit, and this invigoration may be the main driving force that keeps me deep into medicine making, excited every day to do it again. It is this drive that makes me think of the hunt as a spa-type mud treatment rather than some scary “dirty” mess to avoid. I see the harvest as a workout and a therapy session.
I train for it, squatting and pressing so I can manage to get the Calamus rhizomes, whose many roots can easily be a foot long, up from the deep, by hand, while maintaining my balance on the wildly uneven surface of a swamp. I train so I can squat for an hour with my gluteus in 6 inches of muddy water and not fall in. I train so I can schlep the heavy buckets home.
And I can’t overstate how much the harvest is part of the medicine. The harvest is the teacher, and what demonstrates our oneness with nature better than being right there in it, in every way? The mud is a part of us all.
So maybe you’d like to know more about Calamus? This is the Calamus guy:
And for true Calamus-lovers–watch for my upcoming Calamus lovers’ gift set. It will be one award-winning Calamus Bitters, one jar of Calamus chewing roots (coins or larger pieces) and some Calamus rub for external use–all in a Calamus-themed gift bag. In case you REALLY want to get into it. Yeah, obsessions sometimes bear fruit.
Notes: Yes, I am harvesting responsibly, Calamus is “to-watch” due to habitat loss. The Calamus set will be ready in 2 weeks. It is a limited edition. No I am not positive that it is American Calamus. It is unsprayed.
I am a medicine maker. I grow plants on a tiny farm, forage and gather plants on land (which shall not be identified) and I process my harvest into herbal medicines. I also distribute these medicines and talk about them to everyone who can’t outrun me.
Sometimes I overhear people talk about going back to the land, farming or foraging and living a more “natural” life. I feel like it is nearly impossible to grasp what this “feels” like until you do it.
It is so easy to disparage land-lovers as dirty hippies–and I am indeed soiled– or romanticize the relationship plant folks have with their land. The truth is, as usual, somewhere in between.
I can imagine nothing more authentic for myself than my relationship with the plants I love. I am deeply grateful that hunting for a root or mixing up an elixir is my JOB. It is not always easy–folks on the receiving end don’t always grasp that I am a tiny business or the variables within that paradigm. I run out of bubble wrap and my Blessed Thistle seeds all float away. It pours rain and I fall over and the TSA confiscates my darn Felcos. But mainly I am very very lucky to be able to serve.
But more than serving the plants, which I love, and serving the humans, also interesting, I am thankful to be an example of what a medicine maker looks like. I am saying, with my being, that we can do this! I am healing our idea of WHAT medicine IS. And I do not mean to discount standard Western medicine. Not at all. I mean to expand it. Expand our vision of what is possible. Expand our vision of WHO makes medicine, and where, and how. Expand our feeling about medicines, our connections to medicines and our medicinal lineages, rivers that have ebbed and merged but still DO flow.
There is still value in a medicine that has my hands in it, my heart in it and perhaps a memory of the soil it grew in. I accept the responsibility of making medicine with nothing less than joy, I go out to dig and snip and gather with a mission dammit a purpose and thank you, friends, for helping me to heal myself too. I am feeling grateful for the community support and the opportunity to contribute. Heck I even go to the post office with joy because life is just too darn short to lose sight of my mission. I love how there are multiple ways to BE and various ways to heal!
So thank you, friends and community, thank you for listening, for your support and sharing.
First, a disclaimer. Maintain your critical thinking at all times. I make no claim for the safety or positive ID of these or any other plant on my blog, Do not trust the internet, and do not trust me. QUESTION EVERYTHING!!!!!!! please be aware of the dangers of overharvesting all plants and fungi, most especially those which are difficult to cultivate. Never take more than you need/will use, respect and appreciate these plants, and commit to helping their community and protecting their home.
I have been harvesting Ghost Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora) and Black Trumpets(Craterellus cornucopioides) lately. The two don’t have any relation that I know of yet they grow near each other, both in the shady forest on rocky hilly ground, as if they were a diorama of darkness and light telling us something about the world. I enjoy foraging, wandering about, looking for patterns in the leaf litter that indicates a fruiting, nibbling wild berries and listening to the collective birdsong. I love the deep shade, the canine company, the steep foothills.
We often call unusual plants or insects “otherworldly”–as if our own world does not provide enough stunning, amazing, mysterious and bizarre miracles?! I do find that most of us could use the message to open up to the unusual, the “otherworldly”, not in the sense of “fairies”, gods or shapeshifters but merely the reality of mycelium, symbiosis, codependence, relationships, and the way that in reality there is so much more going on than most of us acknowledge.
Everything from compost to mycoremediation, beneficial bacteria to natural cycles underlying every visible and not-easily-visible living thing. It is a joy to me to know that we are living atop and amongst unknowable natural worlds.
I do eat Black Trumpets and make medicine with Ghost pipe, but there are already excellent writings about both (see links.) so I won’t waste your time with those details.
So, let’s talk about the pipe. This plant has many names, but I'm going with Ghost Pipe becasue it has a translucence that one might find "ghostly"–it's seriously weird. One of few plants with no clorophyll, it is a mycotrophic wildflower in the Heath family—yes, same family as blueberries!–and lives in intimate relationship with the forest floor.
Ghost pipe is considered a plant with medicinal properties. Great information about use can be read here:
We humans can get so easily stuck in our own patterns, loops, processes and ways of looking at the world. We can seek out, disrupt, and welcome the unusual to break us out of that stuckness. But these disruptions are just catalysts, the curiousity must be there, underlying, waiting to be activated like mycelium waiting for rain. It’s there, We must be willing to allow it in.
Hello, friends. I present here for your botanical pleasure 10 plant photos. Feel free to enjoy them with no attachment to the System of identification. However, if you’d like to try your hand at ID here is the deal: first person to id all 10 correctly will win one 1 oz. tincture from Fellow Workers Farm apothecary. Tincture is of your choice, and will be shipped to you or– if you’d prefer– you can pick it up in the apothecary.
Please post guesses in the comments. You must get all 10 to win.
One of my absolute favorite herbal medicines is Black Haw-Viburnum Prunifolium. It spent years in the Caprifoliaceae family amongst the lovely Honeysuckles and Elders but someone moved it to Adoxaceae, I’m going to need to mull about that one for a bit. The Viburnums are a pretty big bunch and also includes the more well-known Crampbark plus Nannyberry, Arrowwood Viburnum and Possumhaw. What’s a haw? It means fruit, as in “Hawthorne”. Oh, and it also means “a command to a horse, telling it to turn left”. Just in case you’re reading this on horseback.
So Blackhaw-it’s a shrub. On the large side for a shrub, with opposite branches and it flowers in late spring with tiny flowers not unlike the Elder’s flowers. I’d call it cream color, and the bark is grey and sturdy. It is a common shrub in my area of upstate NY but is native to the whole northeast and midwest area and has been, in my experience, pretty easy to grow in a moist to medium area with part to full sun. I have yet to see it decimated by critters and the haws are not super desirable because they are mostly seed-one big flat seed in each dark purple haw, sometimes called a drupe amongst botanical types.
To make medicine I harvest bark and twigs, taking just a bit from each shrub so as to not be a jerk, and tincture it fresh. I use it both internally and externally. I will make a liniment with rubbing alcohol for external use only and a tincture with grain alcohol for both internal and external use.
My most important use of Black haw tincture is to address spasms and muscular tension. Our muscles spasm for various reasons-tension, dysmenorrhea, “charlie horse”, injury, overwork, asthma. I take a high dose-1/2 to 1 dropper-internally for menstrual cramps and I’ll do so every 2-4 hours if needed. But all types of so-called uterine colic responds to Black haw including the pain of endometriosis, fibroids, threatened miscarriage, afterbirth pains, ovulation pains, and -I haven’t tried this-but Winston says testicular pains.
“As a uterine tonic it is unquestionably of great utility”-King’s American Dispensatory. Yup.
The urinary tract also responds to Black haw and I’ve started to add it to my standard UTI formula of Alder/Monarda tincture if there is pain of a spasmodic nature.
I also use it in tension headaches. I will use it straight up or mixed with Crampbark and Lobelia-a little bit internally, and a lot externally. In my first aid kit this blend is in a spray bottle-it is a great way to get tincture on places you can’t reach that well or-when you are in the throes of a debilitating tension headache or spasm- to just push the sprayer and avoid messing around with a dropper. I strongly recommend addressing tension and other headaches BEFORE they get bad, thus the joy of carrying such a blend about. Of course, no tincture will deal with all tension, and I recommend combining herbal treatment with deep breaths, tree time and whatever therapeutic practice works for you. My favorite meditation to use with Black haw is “let go”.
For neck pain I blend it with Goldenrod tincture-fresh flowering tops. Aviva Romm recommends adding Jamaican Dogwood bark for headache, which I love for menstrual headaches but is a bit more relaxing than some folks may want. Experimentation is always called for when formulating!
The Eclectics call it a specific for leg cramps and I have used it externally on very intense calf cramps to near-miraculous effect. It is indicated for restless legs, pregnancy induced leg spasm, pain from overwork or over exercise in all parts of legs, feet, and it has a place in back pain formulas.
Matthew Wood calls it a nutritive tonic which improves the powers of digestion and nutrition and Margi Flint indicated it for high blood pressure, these are 2 areas I have yet to explore but seem to make sense to me.
Black haw is an ally which has been used for a long time and has no reported negative qualities that I’ve found. It is a special plant which I love in every way and which deserves a place in our forest gardens, in our first aid kits and medicine chests.
people, i’d like to introduce you to my friend, white birch. you may have seen birch before, but have you ever looked very very closely? have you seen the scars, the mycelium, the underside of the polypores, the chaga, the bark?