medicinal

Foraging Fun: Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as the maidenhair tree or just plain ginkgo, has got to be one of the most distinctive, and in my mind interesting and captivating, plants in the world. Believed to be truly indigenous to only a single province in China , this 270 million year old species belongs to an ancient lineage of species that have since disappeared for one reason or another over the past few millennia, making Ginkgo biloba (known as a ‘living fossil’) the sole extant representative of what was once a vast and diverse group of organisms. In fact, the ginkgo tree is so unlike any other living plant species that this tree has it’s own genus, family, order, class and division. To put this into terms that may be easier to conceptualize: the only thing that ginkgo trees have in common with other plants is they are also plants. This means that pretty much everything about their genetic make-up, physiology, general behavior, reproductive strategies (including their mobile sperm; a trait particular to ferns, cycads and algae) and even their ability to photosynthesize is anywhere between slightly-off to fundamentally different from any other living plant. Oh, and you can eat it’s seeds. (more…)

Achilles’ Heal Gruit Ale

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is probably one of my favorite native perennial medicinal herbs. It was one of the first plants that I learned to identify with confidence, and it is a common sight in many parts of the northern hemisphere, found virtually right across the top of our world. One of the chief medicinal applications of yarrow has been to both as a topical disinfectant and to stop profuse bleeding when wounded. It’s these compounded characteristics of the plant which earned it its genus name Achillea. Achilles is a warrior in Greek mythology who was believed to have treated the injuries his soldiers sustained in battle by applying a poultice of crushed yarrow leaves.

Indigenous peoples, where ever they have access to this plant, developed surprisingly similar medicinal and therapeutic traditions for yarrow, many of which have been proven by modern science including it’s ability to increase perspiration and thin the blood. Folk medicinal proclaims yarrow to be almost something of a cure-all, and many of this proposed medicinal attributes I can personally vouch for either directly or indirectly including it’s effectiveness for soothing sore throats, relieving nasal congestion, easing headaches and discouraging/relieving symptoms of indigestion and nausea. (more…)

Trametes discolor Double Extraction

I already touched upon some of the details regarding the process of double extraction in my first post on foraging for wild medicinal mushrooms which you can check out right here. I decided to write a piece exclusively outlining this process because I find it to be particularly deserving of one. My original post focused on the anatomical features and other interesting facts surrounding the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) species but double extractions can be made using many medicinal mushrooms or plant species. Here I am strictly going to limit myself to discussing the process of double extraction and why this method works so well for extracting the medicinal compounds found in the mushrooms and making them available for your body to metabolize and utilize.

I also mentioned in my previous post that I was not going to go into the medicinal compounds found in Trametes versicolor (that are also likely found in other medicinal mushrooms) but feel that it may be beneficial to at least lightly graze the surface of this subject matter because I find it quite interesting and I am hoping that you will as well. It gives you more of an appreciation for the complexity of medicinal mushrooms and how much they have to offer. Regardless, I still encourage you to explore outside the confines of this website and check out the two links that I posted earlier in the year about various studies that have been conducted by different institutions around the world exploring the immense potential of medicinal mushrooms.

Turkey tail mushrooms are one of the most thoroughly studied medicinal mushroom species in modern medicine, especially in Asia where the raw, dried form of the mushroom has been used for generations as an immune system stimulator and preventative cancer remedy. The fruiting bodies and even more so the mycelium itself have powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, discouraging countless pathogens and abnormalities which may result in the development of hepatitis C, liver cancer and cervical cancer among others. Tramates versicolor was also found to produce a powerful immune response, a property that was verified by various subsequent studies, which has the potential to assist cancer patients recover from chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

mushroomtinctur
The double extraction method involves steeping your medicinal mushrooms in alcohol for several weeks and then boiling those same mushrooms in an equal amount of water. Processing the mushrooms in alcohol and water allows for both the alcohol soluble and water soluble compounds to be extracted, for if you only boil the mushrooms in water or steep them in alcohol, you are only accessing the beneficial compounds that can be extracted from the mushrooms in that particular solvent. By soaking the mushrooms in alcohol for several weeks, then boiling those same mushroom pieces in equal parts water and mixing the two solutions together, you get an end product that contains the full range of accessible nutrients and medicinal compounds that also stores for very long periods of time. This allows you to have a ready made supply of medicine which can be taken on a daily basis for preventative measures or when ill.

The ratio of dried mushrooms to alcohol and water is not consistent with the resources that I have been able to access on the subject, so a great deal of experimentation is likely going to be required to determine how strong you would like the final product to be. I came across one mushroom tea recipe that suggested boiling 10 grams of dried mushrooms in 16 ounces of water. Deciding that 16 ounces didn’t appear to be enough water, I double that to 32 ounces. After bringing the water to a boil and gently simmering the mushrooms for 2 hours, I removed the tea from the heat and allowed it to cool before straining it. It had a caramel color and a damp, mossy aroma. I would describe the taste as something worth acquiring: mildly bitter and earthy. Tastes exactly like good medicine should.

Since the amount of mushrooms to solvents is quite variable, the yields of medicinal compounds in the resulting extraction will fluctuate a little bit between batches. As far as daily dosage goes, I have heard 2 tsp. 2 or 3 times a day as a tonic and immune system stimulant. I’m sure you could probably handle more, especially if you were sick and needed an extra boost, although drinking a wineglass full or more might be pushing it. Here is what I believe to be the most consistent and straight forward recipe.

Double Extraction Recipe Recipe

1. Fill an air-tight resealable container (preferably glass) with pieces of dried mushrooms. (crumbled into the smallest possible pieces)
2. Pour in high proof alcohol such as brandy or vodka (I prefer vodka because it doesn’t impart any flavor. 30-40% is recommended)
3. Put container in a cool, dark place where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate. Disturb and shake the container daily for 3-4 weeks.
4. After 3-4 weeks, strain out the mushrooms while pouring the alcohol extract into a separate container. The alcohol by then should have taken on a dark brown color.
4. Fill a saucepan with slightly more water than you have alcohol extract (to compensate for some evaporation)
5. Bring water to a boil and add mushrooms. Simmer for 2 hours.
6. Allow decoction to cool before mixing with the alcohol extract. Stir to combine and store in a dark colored bottle in a cool, dark place. This extract will last for years, but should be consumed within the first year to maximize on potency and quality.

Pro Tip: By facing the gills of the mushrooms upwards while they are drying, the concentrations of vitamin D in the mushroom tissue exponentially increases and remains high even after thorough drying. So if you want an extra vitamin boost from your mushroom extract, drying the mushrooms in bright but indirect sunlight with the gills of the caps facing upward is the way to go.

Wermuth Wormwood Ale

Wormwood is an herb famous for it’s wickedly bitter bite. There are few things, even in my experience sampling different wild and cultivated medicinal plants, that quite reach this level of bitterness. It’s a good one to turn your face inside out if that is the sort of weird experience that you’re after. Although not the most delightful flavor to brew up as a tea or for straightforward eating (although wormwood was apparently used in small amounts to season meats much like culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which also has a somewhat bitter flavor but is more aromatic and interesting I feel) when added to malt deepens the flavor and cuts out the molasses-like sweetness. Consequently, wormwood’s history in brewing traditions is almost as old as records of the herb itself, going back well into the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe and even older in the case of Chinese herbal literature.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a pungent-aromatic, stoutly branching wispy perennial herb with finely divided fern-like foliage that is covered in soft white hairs and bears inconspicuous yellow flowers. The species was originally found throughout Europe and Asia but was spread to North America and other places by early herbal missionaries. Since then, it has escaped cultivation and can be found in a variety of open, sunny positions in moist, rich or dry impoverished soils alike. In the Greater Toronto Area, wormwood does not seem to be as common as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which grows in the gravely shoulders of highways and on steep rocky embankments, looks similar although it’s leaves are green on the upper surface and divided in a different fashion.  The bitterness is more modest (although still wicked compared with many other herbs) in mugwort but the majoriy of the medicinal properties between the two species are shared.

Wermuth means ‘preserver of the mind’ and can be traced in it’s origins to the belief that wormwood had a stimulating and rejuvenating effect on the nervous system and improved memory. I think this also makes a good name for the beer: I love to resurrect ancient terms which conjure up relationships of language long passed. Our way of describing things and understanding our own personal definitions of reality have been changing at almost the same rate as our architecture, politics and technology. With each leap in innovation or theology, a new way of existing emerges which dispels the acceptance of an early method of understanding. Information may become outdated, but it most definitely does not stop being useful or intriguing, for what do we truly have other than the foundation of our history in the form of accumulated knowledge?

Wormwood possesses a wealth of medicinally active components that have a wide range of influences in our bodies. For the longest duration of it’s relationship with humans, wormwood has been prescribed as a vermifuge; a plant which kills internal parasites such as ring or roundworms; hence the origin of this species (most) common English name. The other area in which wormwood has a particularly powerful affect on is the digestive system. Chewing on or drinking an infusion of the extremely bitter leaves, flower buds and stems of wormwood stimulates the action of the saliva glands, liver, gallbladder and stomach. The production of saliva in the mouth, the flooding of digestive enzymes and bile from the liver and gallbladder and the production of stomach acid all help to prepare the body for digestion.

By initiating this behavior prior to food consumption, fat, complex carbohydrates, protein, and many other nutrients are more thoroughly broken down which allows for better nutrient absorption when your food moves on into the small intestine. Consuming wormwood after a meal can likewise help ease indigestion, wind, diarrhea and constipation; the herb has a wonderfully restorative and nourishing effect on sluggish digestive systems and may be helpful for those who suffer low stomach acidity, irritable bowel syndrome or other such chronic diseases.* For more information on the specific medicinal uses of wormwood, consult Plants for A Future, one of my personal favorite online sources for reputable and scientifically sound plant based medicines.

Wormwood was not added to fermenting wort simply as a bitter substitute for hops when it was in short supply, but was introduced to the tradition of brewing for many different reasons. The entire herb is strongly insecticidal, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-septic, which not only helps the beer to keep for long periods of time but transfers those same virtues into the body through consumption, scrubbing clean the digestive and urinary systems of toxins, parasites and viruses as it passes through. The inebriating effects of wormwood were also thoroughly acknowledges centuries ago, as it was one of the main ingredients in the legendary drink absinthe, which also included hyssop, coriander, sweet flag, nutmeg, cinnamon, marjoram, mint, anise, fennel, juniper and parsley among others.

Not only was absinthe notoriously strong (traditionally 120 – 160 proof) but many of the herbal ingredients contained psychoactive compounds, thujone and wormwood included.* This gave absinthe a powerfully intoxicating effect on the human body which inspired heaps of anecdotal encounters with the ‘green fairy’ that many poetics and philosophers who apparently abused absinthe experienced centuries past in Western Europe. All of this considered, beers brewed with wormwood are not nearly as potent as 120+ liquors or invite the joyful possibilities of momentary insanity, hallucinations and other such disturbing side effects. However, wormwood beer was certainly well known to have a ‘competitive edge’ so to speak, which I am quite interested to experiment with. It makes me wonder, that as long as the appropriate doses of wormwood are thoroughly understood, why has interest in it has an ingredient in beer disappeared? Likely with prohibition of it as a feature of Absinthe, me thinks. It’s a shame, because there is lots of fun to be had here.

INGREDIENTS:

– 4 pounds liquid malt extract
– 1 pound raw wildflower honey
– 1/2 ounce dried wormwood herb
– 4 gallons water
– 10 grams brewer’s yeast.

I might substitute some fresh grain for the liquid malt extract if the opportunity presents itself, but I have never done sparging or any of the other necessary techniques of doing whole grain batches. If you are someone that happens to know quite a bit about that whole process, I would appreciate some pointers. I would like to move in the direction of doing whole grain batches, but there is quite a few things holding me back from that at this moment and so I can’t see myself doing it all the time until further notice, even though I would like to.

INSTRUCTIONS:

– Bring 1 gallon of water to a boil and add wormwood herb. Boil for 30 minutes.- Strain tea through malt extract and stir until completely dissolved.
– Allow wort to cool until approximately 100-110 °F.
– Strain wort once more into fermenter and add remaining 3 gallons cold water, stirring to combine. add yeast.
– Insert airlock and ferment for 7-10 days.
– Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle and cap. Ready in 10-14 days.

*Wormwood, like many powerful medicinal herbs, should be respected and used with caution, only to be used on a regular basis under the supervision of a health care professional or herbalist. Wormwood contains thujone, a controlled substance in Canada, the United States, and many other countries around the world. Taken internally, high doses of thujone or the essential oil of wormwood can cause nausea, loss of coordination, insomnia or in more unfortunate circumstances, seizures, hallucinations and trigger epileptic fits. The sale of wormwood as a medicinal herb is not regulated, as the level of thujone in the herb is relatively low although poisonings throughout the world do still occur.

Thuja occidentalis, the eastern white-cedar tree, also contains thujone in it’s foliage and this plant also has a rich history of medicinal used among the first peoples on North America. Despite thT thujone received it’s chemical name for the genus name Thuja, the eastern white-cedar as a species is not controlled. It is common in the wild where suitable habitat exists and is a commonly cultivated evergreen hedge. Any reasonable dose of wormwood will not be enough to cause the negative side effects listed above, but wormwood is discouraged from being used on children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women or if the individual has a history of seizures. As long as you are smart about it, then there is little risk. A little wormwood goes a long way.

Foraging Fun: Trametes versicolor

Trametes versicolor, more commonly known as the turkey tail mushroom (named for the concentric bands of brown, beige, gray, green and rusty hues which resemble the tail plumage of a turkey) is a very common mushroom in temperate woodlands, but can be found all around the world where suitable habitat exists. It is encountered regularly here in southern Ontario, growing out of a variety of downed hardwood trees, stumps and branches. The fungi fruit in mid to late summer with slightly tilted, congested waves of 1-3mm thick stemless caps with a velvety, leathery texture. The mushrooms are very durable and survive in good condition straight through the winter and into the following spring. Dry, crispy looking turkey tail mushrooms in autumn miraculously revive themselves by absorbing moisture after a rainfall and usually remain plump and pliable during the winter months.

The photo below was taken on Tuesday, March 11th along the Bruce Trail, which follows the bottom talus of the Niagara Escarpment in Stoney Creek where I currently live. That day was a particularly balmy 11°C, resulting in the previously frozen and snow covered trails to become either slick with mud, covered in a wet sheet of ice or an unimaginably sloppy combination of the two. It was a good thing that I decided to take advantage of that warm spell to investigate what the temporarily melting snow would reveal because not only only would I not be writing about this encounter, but the next day saw an afternoon high of well below freezing, viciously bitter winds and 10cm of snow accumulation. A meander through the woods and wild places is never a waste of time, as I was lucky enough to strike a medicinal mushroom gold mine. For a wealth of information on the medicinal properties of turkey tail mushrooms, check out this and this. I was going to write my own interpretation of their findings but figured that I might as well not reinvent the wheel as these writers and researchers communicate their results more effectively then I would be able to anyways.

turkeytailog
So now that you are well versed in why you ought to get your hands on some Trametes versicolor, how might one go about doing that? Well like a lot of resources, nature provides quite a bountiful and long-lasting crop of turkey tail mushrooms every single year, and if you are reading this from somewhere in Ontario, they are likely quite close to you somewhere right now. However, given the fact that there are an awful lot of people on Earth the last time I checked, the natural production of these mushrooms is most certainly less than the demand would be if everyone was as open minded as you or I, especially if more people become acquainted with the benefits that these fungi can provide us with considering the growing instances of diet and stress related diseases. Luckily, these mushrooms can be grown quite easily using kits that can be purchased from mushroom growing companies such as Fungi Perfecti (based on the American west coast) or The Mushroom Patch, based out of Chatham/Kent county in Ontario, for you locavores.

It’s also important to note that obtaining your turkey tail mushrooms, whether by ordering them from a retailer or whether wild crafted are a) identified properly by an expert and b) do not contain any contaminates, unwanted byproducts, fillers or other such disappointing and unnecessary inclusions. Sometimes retail outlets / companies which do whole sale of medicinal plants and mushrooms are not always certain as to the origin of their product, as they may frequently change sources based on product availability, ‘perceived’ quality and -wait for it- price, all of which may influence the quality of what you are getting. Even though I already mentioned that in many places collecting the mushrooms for yourself is not an option, use your noodle. If nobody knows what these mushrooms are, where they can be found, or how to identify them with enough certainty as to go through all the trouble of brewing them and actually drinking the delicious, mossy-flavored beverage, then you are probably going to have them all to yourself or whoever you choose to share them with. As always, don’t be a jerk and harvest sustainably, if that is the direction that you choose to take.

In my humble opinion, turkey tails are best harvested by hand. Although they often appear in dense colonies. those groups are often composed of clusters of caps attached by small nubs directly to the bark which can be ripped off without too much effort. When there are this many mushrooms in one spot, it does not take long to accumulate more than you are going to need. Once returning the mushrooms home, I broke them into small ‘corn flake’ sized pieces and spread them out evenly on a plate to allow them to dry. Once they become brittle, they can be broken into smaller chips or even powdered in a coffee or spice grinder to expose even more surface area which extracts a greater concentration of the beneficial proteins, micro nutrients and other medicinal compounds.

I have searched through a number of different online sources and am continuously coming out empty handed when it comes to solidifying a dose and serving of the active medicinal components of these mushrooms. One source suggested 10 grams of dried mushroom boiled for an hour and a half to two hours in 16 liquid ounces of water to make tea, but I couldn’t find this claim backed up or duplicated by another source or recipe. So I decided to try it out and when I measured out the mushrooms and water it looked to me like the tea would be too strong and so I doubled the amount of water to 32 liquid ounces (4 cups or 1 litre). After it was brewed, the flavor was quite nice, although you shouldn’t really listen to me because I can drink and eat some pretty weird stuff. If you find the taste too strong and mushroom-y, either add more water or less dried mushrooms next time, or add a sweetener such as unpasteurized honey to balance the weirdness and also to add more health promoting enzymes and micro nutrients. You could also add this mushroom tea to soups, stews, chili or anything else like that so that you can disguise the flavor but still get the benefits that you want. I find the tea very contemplative and interesting, so I’m probably just going to keep it simple and stick to that.

Before I bring us in for a soft landing, I also want to introduce you to another method of processing medicinal mushrooms, which is also applicable for some other plant based medicines as well, and this is known as a double extraction. In order to achieve this, you create a concentrated tea like I discussed above, but you also steep the dried mushrooms in alcohol to form a tincture. There are different chemical compounds in the mushrooms that are responsible for their therapeutic properties, some of which are soluble in water but others that require prolonged steeping in alcohol to extract. In order to do this, fill a container halfway up with loosely packed dried turkey tail mushrooms and then pour in enough grain alcohol/ethanol or high quality vodka to fill the container. Put in a cool, dark place and shake every day or so to keep the mushrooms suspended. After 3-4 weeks, the tincture of done and can be mixed with a tea that you make fresh that day. This is your double extraction, and can be consumed in a variety of ways to make the best possible use of ingesting both the alcohol and water soluble compounds from the mushrooms.

As the strength of the sun continues to strengthen and the bitter nights lose their grip on the land, nature is preparing for her greatest unveiling. During this time, the ‘natural produce market’ (i.e. fields, fence rows, forests, backyards etc.) is slowly opening it’s doors with a flush of much anticipated greenery and life. As the seasons transition from one of stillness and quiet to one of vibrancy and growth, expect quite a bit from me as my regular skirmishes and explorations in nature reveal more hidden gems in the form of roots, leaves, fruits, medicine and mushrooms. The best season, the growing season, is just around the proverbial corner and I’m as excited as ever.