One of my favorite things about elderberries (Sambucus spp.) is the colorful rainbow of possibilities they provide! I love to showcase this ‘magic trick’ for my students during the elderberry harvest. This year my apprentice caught it all on camera, so we decided to share this magic with you! Scroll down for a fascinating chemistry experiment.
Elderberries contain Anthocyanins, a collection of antioxidants that protect the berry from environmental damage due to sun, weather & disease. These powerful protective ingredients are part of the medicine of elderberries, providing anti-inflammatory and cell-protective properties to humans, animals and birds.
Anthocyanins have the amazing ability to change their color! Depending on a number of factors, anthocyanins can appear medium blue, indigo, purple, bright pink or ruby red. Anthocyanins can even be used to create a lovely green shade! This makes elderberry a unique natural dye for coloring fabrics, cordage and tissue paper craft projects.
Why the color changes? Anthocyanins react heavily to the pH of their environment – acidic solutions will be on the red end of the spectrum, and basic solutions tend towards green/blue. These antioxidants also darken in appearance to produce lovely purple, green, or brown colors when oxidized. Oxidation occurs naturally in response to exposure to light, heat, repeated freezing, fermentation and drying. This is one of the reasons that fresh elderberry syrup is a much brighter color than syrup made from dried berries.
This video was filmed by my apprentice Carmen, at our Traditional Elderberry Syrup workshop. The preparation and preservation methods are typical of a traditional Metis recipe. The berries are fresh and locally harvested! The syrup turned out lovely. Thank you for the video, Carmen!
I went out to the harvest grounds today to take advantage of the break in freezing weather. Glorious sunshine sparkling on 2-foot high snowfall, and the relative balminess of -8 degree air were not my primary motivations – I was Poplar Scouting!
Boil water; add holy basil and ginger root. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes, keeping the lid on the pot. Remove the tea and strain out the herbs. Add honey and stir until dissolved. Tea can be taken by the spoonful or in larger doses, to coat the throat, dispel mucus and soothe the lungs.
I ran a survey at the end of last year to see what my students were interested in learning in 2016. One of the questions was about the Free Student Clinic. A survey respondent posed a question that I remember asking myself, back in the day when I was a broke student with no extra cash to spare:
Why would a student, who has already paid to study Herbology for 1-3 years, want to pay someone to work in a clinic for free?
(A little background on the Student Clinic: The Student Clinic is a practice clinic where students can build their confidence, while practicing on clients who are aware that they are being practiced on by students. It’s a low pressure environment, and students are free to take their time, and apply their knowledge and skills to the best of their ability. A supervising instructor is always on duty.)
How You Benefit from Attending a Student Clinic
Experience. You have a lot of training under your belt, you have read a lot of textbooks and swallowed a ton of theory about herbs and the human body. So, do you have any personal experiences about how those herbs interact in a variety of human bodies? Have you had a chance to try out a herb/extract/dose and get feedback from a client?Wouldn’t it be interesting and relevant to hear from other clinical students and instructors how their clients react to the herb you want to use, and what their experience with doses and extraction methods have been? If the answer to any of those questions is Yes, then you can probably learn something from the student clinic, the instructor and the students who have more experience than you.
Practice. As Herbalists we absorb and attempt to memorize an exquisite amount of information. Flashcards are awesome (one of my favorite tools!) but nothing quite solidifies a knowledge base in your brain like applying that information to the real world. Also, the opportunity to test that knowledge out and decide for yourself if you like how it works. The Dalai Lama quotes the Buddha, “Respect the teacher, but question the teachings.” That means if you haven’t tried it out for yourself yet, you just really don’t know!
Clinical Skills. Before you jump into starting your own business as a healer, you may wish to learn about the fine art of Bedside Manner (a healer’s attitude and approach towards the person undergoing the healing). If you have never worked in a clinic before, you can be surprised at the number of healing elements that have little to do with your textbook knowledge of herbs and bodies. From creating a comfortable atmosphere, to inspiring the trust of your clients, you can learn so much from watching a practitioner who has experience. How to explain healing and health expectations to my clients and discussing their personal issues in a compassionate manner, are two of the greatest lessons I received from the herbalists I studied under. Skill sets like these are part of what make me an effective healer with happy clients who come away with that cared-for feeling you get after a good listening-to.
Feedback. Clients, the instructor, and other students will (and should) give you feedback on all aspects of your practice. This includes your choice of herbs/doses and combinations thereof, assessment and interview techniques, and even your mannerisms and attitude towards clients. I encourage bold but kind, constructive feedback in my clinic as a valuable learning tool. Other students who sit in as your ‘practice client’ will be especially useful in telling you how they felt during and after the interview, and can provide the kind of feedback you want to receive from a fellow, not a client.
Confidence. Confidence comes of knowledge combined with experience, and enough practice to trust that you know what you know, as well as an appreciation of what you don’t know yet (and knowing that that is okay!). Confidence is a priceless characteristic that cannot be learned in a textbook but just comes with doing something for a long time until you are good at it. It’s easier to build confidence in a supportive environment, such as a student clinic. And when you are less than confident in your formula or advice, there is always someone there to look it over with you!
Connection. There is very little room for getting to know your fellow students in modern correspondence or online classes. This is so unfortunate! Making a connection with people who are passionate about your passions is one of the luxuries of attending workshops, clinics and gatherings. Not only can you learn from each other, you may end up with business partners, role models, and network connections that land you a job interview or refer clients your way in the future. Getting excited about herbs together is powerful energy. Sense of Community is a big and beautiful part to take in at least a few student clinic nights; but be warned – getting together with other herbalists is addictive!
Why Student Clinics Cost Money
Well, there are a couple reasons why we ask students to pay for their learning at student clinic.
Hosting a clinic involves a few fees and expenses. Rent for the location, insurance for the clinic and honorariums for the instructors and clinic director are the most prominent. Office supplies and printing costs are a minor but real expense.
Free clinics often serve a low-income demographic, people who can’t afford to pay the $60-100 to see a professional herbalist. To look at it from another angle, you are volunteering your time to help members of your community.
You may not realize that students who are new to the clinic won’t be seeing clients directly for their first few clinics. Depending on their experience and abilities, they could spend the first 20-30 hours sitting in on the work of advanced students, learning from the instructor or operating the dispensary at the clinic.
The instruction and guidance you receive during all of this, is what you are paying for. Students gain fresh perspectives from the living examples of humans who are experiencing the diseases or conditions we read about in our textbooks. Along with these novel exhibits of human condition, you have access to the collective experiences of advanced students and instructors in the clinic, who take the time to help you understand and apply all that you have learned.
I hope this helped to illustrate some of the reasons student clinics cost money, and also that that money is not wasted but directly benefits you as a herbalist. As usual, I am open to (bold but kind) constructive feedback about this article, and discussion of its contents.
I had the extreme pleasure of working alongside Dr. Terry Willard of Wild Rose College between 2012 and 2014 as a Herbalist in his clinic, a student coordinator, Iridology instructor and as his personal assistant and editor.
Working with Terry, whether we were shooting videos for online courses, managing his store of herbs and flower essences or uploading herbal monographs, was a learning experience in all of the branches a herbalist might choose to follow in his/her career. I learned about the running of a clinic and a college, the making and marketing of tinctures, formulas and cleanse-friendly foods. I learned by sitting in with Terry how to question a client efficiently but compassionately, addressing the root of the problem while caring for the symptoms. I followed his queue by creating my own blog, and took part in the larger herbal community by representing the college at events and tradeshows.
My beginnings in herbal medicine are humble. Casting about for that big something I was going to do with my life, I was plagued by the nagging feeling that there was an important task to accomplish and I was needed somewhere – and if I didn’t get moving I was going to live in the limbo of early-twenties uncertainty forever.
At that time I worked in a trendy cafe and every morning I passed by the Wild Rose College brochure of classes that occupied advertising space in the cafe’s entrance along with ads for yoga studios and babysitters.
One day on my break I picked that brochure up – and encountered the word “Herbalist” for the very first time.
“An herbalist uses plants and other natural substances to improve health, promote healing, and prevent and treat illness.”
quote courtesy of www.healthcommunities.com
Helping people is something that excites me; indeed at the time I was deeply involved in helping people in my life and, for a while, tended to make friends solely with people who needed my help to heal (I hope to write more about this habit of healers and how to make it work for you it later).
I began taking courses at Wild Rose in 2007. On my first day of Botany & Plant Identification I knew Herbalism was the something I had been asked to do, and I never looked back.
Words From My Mentor
Terry was probably my most influential herbal mentor, and his words of wisdom are ever present in my head, whether I am creating a new formula or working with a client. Some of the points that stick with me the most over the years are included below, some paraphrased due to the very general nature of my memory.
“The Whole Herb and Nothing But the Herb, So Help You Herbalist.”
I don’t know when Terry started using this expression but I will never forget it. It was a tongue in cheek endorsement of the use of a whole plant in lieu of an extract. Because nature is perfect without our interference, a plant can be relied upon to provide all of the components (including its’ unique energetic imprint) better than any extract ever could. Terry liked to tell us there are thousands of chemicals in a plant that we don’t know about, and the combination and amounts of those chemicals interact in just the right way to give us the needed action of a herb.
“Those are festival foods.”
Referring to breads, desserts, candy and other less than wholesome foods, this was Terry’s way of saying that a particular food is best consumed only during celebrations and not as a part of everyday life. We expect to eat like kings and queens at a feast everyday in the Western world, and reframing that expectation for a client can help them accept that eating healthy foods most days is best.
“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
This one is related to the quote about festival foods; I’m sure it is not his own quote but it is one he used often. Terry held that on average most cultures had a festival or celebration about once per month. So, once per month is a good time to cut loose and eat your favorite festival foods.
“Those are software problems, not hardware problems.”
This is a brilliant metaphor for the influence one’s mind has over the health and well being of one’s body. Some people with the strongest minds don’t know how to use and release their mental energy. In short, they think too much, and that thinking increases their stress to the point of having a physical impact on their nerves, organs and tissues. The problem isn’t with the tissues (hardware) themselves but with the overthinking and enervation (software) that caused them to become stressed.
“Watch what you ask for. We are more powerful than we think.”
By putting a thought or desire strongly out into the Noosphere we are making a request that can alter physical reality. This effect is especially strong when compounded by the thoughts or desires of many people.
“Earth, Gaia, Pachimama, Puchimama . . .”
The planet we live on, by whatever name you call Her. Terry would say all four of these names together (usually in this exact order) as if to remind that She is known to and venerated by many cultures. His love of cultures and the wisdom they hold for us has inspired me to research medicinal and spiritual lessons from other parts of the globe.
These expressions hold memories for me that complement the learning I received directly from Terry and from other instructors and herbalists at the Wild Rose College. They keep attitudes and theories that I find helpful in my work close to the forefront of my brain. They have become a part of my culture.
Herbalists have the honor and responsibility of reacquainting the people of our time with traditional lifestyles, a healing education that improves the quality and meaning of life for the people who lack a culture of their own to guide them.
Though he has since moved away from Calgary to the Rainy Coast of Southern BC, Terry Willard has left a legacy of connection and knowledge behind for the little community of herbalists who choose to make Alberta their home.
You can read Dr. Terry Willard’s blog to learn more about his philosophies and thoughts of healing, life, the universe and everything. It is located at www.drterrywillard.com.
I recently wrote about my new line of products inspired by my Grandma’s Grandmother, Marie Rose Delorme Smith.
Marie Rose was a writer and midwife on the prairies of Southern Alberta. She is the author of Eighty Years on the Plains, a chronicle of life in Alberta in the pioneer days. She lived a traditional Metis lifestyle, speaking French, English and Cree with her relatives and travelling in her father’s trade caravan.
When the nomadic life of the Metis became unsustainable, she moved to Alberta with her adventurer husband Charley Smith, where they set up a homestead on the Jughandle Ranch on Pincher Creek, Alberta.
Marie Rose was an industrious person, sewing clothes and making a home for 17 children, while serving as a healer and midwife to the native, metis and white communities around her. I admire her as someone who was able to move between worlds in a time when co-mingling (even among ‘half-breeds’ and ‘full-breeds’) was profoundly discouraged. Like Marie Rose, I am not content to live in one paradigm only, but am compelled to see the world from as many mountain tops as I can climb.
I made a trip to the Glenbow Museum archives to obtain images of one of her many manuscripts, quaintly entitled Old Time Home Remedies, in hopes of discovering what my Grandmother used in her own day to help the people around her feel better. I would like to share some of her writings with you.
” Old Time Home Remedies
By Marie Rose Delorme Smith
In out of the way places home remedies are invariable tried before the Doctor is called and some of the home cures do the trick admirably. In the far north most of the remedies used by the Eskimo (sic) and the indian are tried by the white people with good results.
A cure for boils, blood poison, proud flesh and the like is made from the gall bladder of the Bear, after the bear has been in hibernation all winter its bladder is much larger than at any other time. For use it is shaved like soap then to these shavings alcohol or coal oil is added, the mixture thus formed is spread over the wound or otherwise diseased tissue, then liquid balsam gum is poured over this, in a day or two this covering can be lifted off, with the proud flesh or other dead tissue adhering to it, the flesh beneath is left sterilized and in condition to heal rapidly.
The indians in alberta used to have several sweat baths on each reserve and used this substitute for the Turkish Bath of the white man as a remedy for cold and other ailment.
Herbal remedies for external and internal use are made from plants found growing wild on the reservations, Powdered toadstools were supposed to stop bleeding.
When available warm blood was often given to newborn papooses.
Beds were placed on the ground to ward off rheumatism, sciatica, etc.
The indians wore strings of beads, bracelets and necklets (sic) rings of brass. I wonder who remembers the old stocking pot filled with hot salt placed on the cheek for that aching tooth or the ear for that earache.
The early-day mother used to say that when the new baby cried often it was longing for something the mother wished for. Some women fed the child cooked rabbits brains to satisfy this longing.
A small bag filled with hops was placed under the pillow for sleeplessness. The wearing of red flannel for Rheumatism was quiet common. A string of cut coral beads around the child’s neck would (sic) it was thought to protect it from sore throat. Some of us still have the scars from the asafetida or camphor bag worn around the neck as a preventative of contagious disease.
When a child was born with a birthmark the mother was supposed to kiss the mark before breakfast each morning.
Butter rubbed over a swelling bump would reduce the swelling. Some of the pioneers carried potatoe in opposite pockets as a cure for rheumatism. Babies inflamed eyes were bathed with mother’s milk from the brest. (sic)
An idea of some grand mothers was to peerce (sic) the ears of a child for earrings to strengthen eyesight.
A piece of copper wire around the wrist and around the opposite ankle or one around each wrist was supposed to cure arthritis. To remove ring worm one was advised to rub a copper penny on the diseased spot.
Garlic was eaten to bring down high blood pressure. Parsley was used to take odor away from the breath.
The rose colored leaves of the herb called horsemint is called ‘manikapi’ by the Blackfoot indians . . . it is gathered and placed in hot water and is used as an eye wash to allay inflammation
Like many Metis families, the folk wisdom of my family was nearly lost. The link between the earth-dwelling members and our ancestors would be severed if not for the enduring voices of our women. By seeking out my Grandmothers’ writings on medicine, I am healing my own feeling of cultural disparity with voices from the past.
I’m thankful to have the words of my Grandmother’s Grandmother, and I am grateful to my own Grandma Helene for speaking so fondly of Marie Rose, and fostering a pride in me for my Metis heritage and the strong women who held traditions for their communities and families. May I one day hold the honor of being a tradition-keeper in my own turn!
I had the pleasure of roaming the foothills of West Central Montana in a golf cart in late July – the beginning of Berry Season. With a good dog and keeping a sharp eye out for bears, we scoured the hills for some of the tastiest natural treats, as well as the lesser known goodies of the dry back country. Many of these berries are available all over the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, including right here in Alberta! Here’s what we found.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
S. Canadensis and S. cerulea are both found in the Rockies.
Elderberries are used in wines, preserves, and pastries. The bark and leaves are used in healing washes for skin conditions (eczema), while the flowers are used medicinally in tea. The berries are high in calcium, potassium, and iron, and vitamins C and A. Berries show antiviral activity and are used in teas for colds and flu. Cooking is said to make them edible, although some Nations may also have eaten them raw. The concern in eating the raw berries is the cyanide-producing glycosides in the seeds and the rest of the plant, a common feature of the Rosaceae (Rose) family of fruits and flowers.
Black and Red Currants (Ribes spp.)
The flowers of currants have 5 petals and 5 sepals. The currant family shares a distinctive lobed leaf, alternate on the branch. Not all currant bushes have prickly stems (unlike the gooseberry which has prickles).
Currants are high in pectin, and can be added to other fruits and berries to make excellent jellies.
Wax currants have a pinkish to greenish flower. They are bright orange berries when ripe with the dried flower remnant protruding from the berry. Look for erect bushes 2-6 feet tall with typical Ribes leaf shapes. Harvest time for currants is mid July to mid August. Currants quickly fall off the bush once over-ripe.
Currants are said to be a strengthening tonic, and useful against arthritis. They are used as a culinary berry, making their way into wines, syrups, pastries, and preserves. The leaves and inner bark make a minty flavored tisane that is sometimes used for diarrhea or symptoms of a cold. Tea or jelly from the berries is soothing to a sore throat. The seeds of black currants contains GLA (Gamma-linolenic Acid).
Gooseberries (Ribes spp.)
A member of the currant genus, gooseberries are round with a protruding dried calyx from the flower still attached. The berries often have ‘beach ball’ stripes or spikes. The Spiny-branched shrubs have alternate, typical Ribes-shaped leaves. Tubular flowers white or faintly green, 5 petals, 5 sepals. Gooseberry harvest occurs in mid-July to mid-August depending on region and microclimate.
These yummy berries are juicy and edible raw or cooked. They can be picked green as they will ripen off the plant. Some varieties are sweet and others are sour. Wild gooseberries tend to be smaller than the cultivated varieties.
A source of vitamin C, gooseberries are useful in colds and sore throats, with good antiseptic properties. Some texts caution against eating too many berries if the currant family is not a routine part of your diet, as stomach upset may occur.
Unnamed currant – because we caught this currant bush in between the flower and berry stages, a positive identification is difficult for a non-local herbalist. We’ll be staking out this bush, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of berry forms later in the year. My guess is bristly black currant (ribes lacustre). If you can identify this ribes species, please enlighten us with a comment below!
Saskatoon Berry – (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Serviceberry, as they are sometimes called in Montana and Alberta, are a sweet and tasty berry that is ready to eat straight off the bush. They are useful in the kitchen in pastries, jams, puddings, sauces, syrups and wines. The boiled berries were used for ear drops while the green berries were used to make eye drops. The juice of saskatoons is said to relieve upset stomach. The branches of Saskatoon bushes are said to have been used for a variety of tools, including arrows, tipi pins and stakes, and medicinal lances (1). Saskatoons are said to be another source of potential cyanide-like substances by some guides, while others report the free eating of them by first nations. They come to full ripeness between early July and early August, depending on the minute location of each bush. Saskatoon berries were mixed with the sour white berry of the red-osier dogwood to make a desert known as ‘sweet and sour’.
Chokecherries – (Prunus virginiana)
In the foothills we have a few varieties of chokecherry, all used in a similar fashion. Chokecherries are often found as a small tree, but can also be a tall and leafy bush. The leaves are shiny, deep green or purple, and ovate. The berries hang alternately on a raceme, making them easy to pick by sliding your fingers down the end of the branch and allowing them to fall into your basket. The dark purple fruit becomes ripe in mid to late July, but is best collected after the first frost for sweeter berries.
These were an important food berry for many first nations. Dried into cakes in old days, they are now cooked into jams, syrups or made into wine. The astringent taste of the raw berries dries out the mouth and throat, giving them their name: ‘choke’ cherry.
These sour berries improve appetite and dry up loose or bleeding bowels with their astringency. The stone inside the chokecherries is removed in most modern day use due to the presence of hydrocyanic acid in all parts of the plant except the flesh of the fruit. However some first nations report pounding and drying the berries whole, consuming the entire fruit in moderate quantities.
Chokecherry bark and unripe berries have traditionally been used to bring relief from stomach upsets and diarrhea. Chokecherry inner bark is used in heart and lung problems, as a diaphoretic, as a steam or smoke in asthma and bronchial congestion, and occasionally in small amounts in cough medicines.
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
These pretty blue berries may grow in large grape-like clusters, or in small groupings of only 3-10 berries, depending on the year, and the size and location of each plant. Both prostrate barberry (M. repens) and the bushy variety (M. aquifolium) grow in the dry foothills. The berries are very sour. The leathery, spikey-toothed leaves are most easily recognizable at a distance by their second-year leaflets, which turn yellow, orange or even bright red in the winter and may remain so all year.
Oregon grape was not popular as a food berry with first nations until sugar was introduced, making the berries more palatable. A desert was made by mixing Oregon grape berries with sugar and milk. The roots of Oregon grape are famous for their yellow alkaloid berberine, a blessing for those suffering from dysentery, kidney troubles, and as an antiseptic for other infections.
Finally, the elusive, exclusive celebrity of the Western Montana tourist country:
The Huckleberry (Vaccinium spp.)
Shrubs can be 1-5 feet tall, with shiny leaves and pinkish urn-shaped flowers. The stems are red with a longitudinal groove. The berries are gathered in late July to early September, and are deep blue to black, about ½ inch in size.
Similar to his cousin the blueberry, huckleberries are not so easily cultivated and so prized as an exotic, wild treat. The location of huckleberry hunting grounds are a closely guarded secret in the rocky mountains, even among neighbors, and the ripe berries are featured in tourist traps and farmers markets at wonderful prices ($10 per half pound this summer in Missoula Montana!).
Eaten fresh or dried, huckleberries can be treated like a blueberry for all culinary uses. A tea of the leaves is used by some to stabilize blood glucose levels, reducing the need for insulin in some and treating hypoglycemia in others, as per the need. The leaves are also said to be useful in urinary tract infections. A tea of the roots and stems was used by the Flathead Indians as a medicine for rheumatism, arthritis, and heart issues.
Didn’t see the berry you were looking for?There are so many wonderful edible treats in the foothills I couldn’t fit them all in one blog, and plan to write about some of them later. Look out for Part II of Berries of the Foothills, featuring Buffalo berry / “Indian Ice cream”, Red Willow berry, Juniper, Thimbleberry, Bearberry, Snowberry, Mountain Ash and others!
Herbal Medicine and Wellness Services. Traditional Metis Culture.