Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa
) is a shade-seeking, moisture-loving plant with palm-shaped, fernlike leaves, a long, succulent root, and delicate stems that bear rows of distinctive ¾ inch, inflated, heart-shaped flowers. There are several species of Dicentra
, but many of them possess corms or tubers that aren't as readily accessible as the shallow rhizome produced by D. formosa
. This rhizome contains an array of isoquinolone alkaloids – dicentrine, protopine, bulbocapnine, corydine, and isocorydine – several of which exhibit narcotic properties.
Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest have used bleeding heart for generations as a remedy for toothache and other types of pain. In years past, bleeding heart was widely employed for treating syphilis. Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West,
reports that a tincture of bleeding heart’s leaves or rhizome, when taken internally, helps calm frazzled nerves. When applied externally and covered with a moist, warm compress, it eases the pain of sprains, strains, and contusions. A few drops of the tincture on a cotton ball might just tide you over to the dental appointment you put off until that abscessed tusk finally erupted in your jaw.
Bleeding heart tincture
can be prepared from the fresh or dried rhizome or from dried aerial parts. For internal use, take 10 to 20 drops of fresh root tincture, 15 to 30 drops of dried root tincture, or 30 to 50 drops of dried herb tincture up to three times daily. For external uses, apply as needed.
Pregnant or nursing mothers and individuals with liver disease should not take bleeding heart internally. If you use prescription medications, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking bleeding heart.
If you have to donate a urine sample to your employer from time to time, keep in mind that bleeding heart’s alkaloids can trigger a false positive opioid drug screen.Happy New Year!
Lewis WH, Elvin-Lewis MPF. Medical botany: plants affecting human health. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2003:429
Moerman DE. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc.; 1998
Moore M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books; 1993:81-82
You’ll probably have a hard time finding this one on the shelves of your favorite herbal apothecary, but you might serendipitously discover it in a shady corner of your yard or a hidden thicket somewhere close to home.
So. You've collected an armful of fresh herbs, shaken out the spiders, twigs and dead leaves, and hung them in the kitchen to dry. What comes next? Aside from the pleasant smell emanating from that suspended bundle, you won't reap much benefit if you can't convert your herbs into some usable form.
But don’t fret. Remember, herbalism is a simple art. You don’t need complex paraphernalia to make herbal medicines. Before you get started, though, you should collect a few basic supplies:
- Measuring cups
- Porcelain, glass, or stainless steel teapot and saucepans
- Electric blender (handy for mixing and emulsifying fresh plant preparations)
- Coffee bean grinder (good for powdering dried herbs)
- Glass jars with tight-fitting lids
- Fine-mesh sieve and either undyed cotton muslin cloth, fresh cheesecloth, or unbleached coffee filters
- Spatulas and spoons (stainless steel or plastic are best)
- Kitchen scale
As you become more adept at your craft, you may find additional equipment or supplies helpful. Make an Infusion
An infusion is simply a tea. Unlike the insipid teas you buy in the store, however, herbal infusions that are intended for medicinal use require substantial portions of raw material. For dried herbs, place two tablespoonfuls of cut, powdered or crushed leaves or flowers in a cup, add boiling water, cover, and let brew for 10 minutes. Double the amount – four tablespoonfuls – if you’re using fresh herbs. Strain through a coffee filter. (Alternatively, you can pack the herbs into a tea-strainer and pour boiling water over it, but a firmly-packed strainer sometimes doesn’t allow sufficient circulation around the herbs.) You have just made a simple herbal infusion, with all of its attendant medicinal properties. Infusions have a very short shelf life and must be used the same day they are made. Standard dose for an infusion is one cupful 2 to 5 times daily.
Some plants, such as slippery elm, become mucilaginous in hot water. They are best prepared in fresh, cold water, and they should be allowed to steep for 6 to 12 hours before being used. Make a Decoction
A decoction is simply a strong infusion. Decoctions can be made from the aerial parts of herbs, but they are often made from roots and seeds, where volatile oils and other active ingredients are more highly concentrated and/or more difficult to extract. Place two tablespoonfuls of dried – four tablespoonfuls of fresh – root, seeds, or bark into a saucepan with 1 ½ cups fresh, cold water. Bring to a boil on medium heat; lower heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and use as you would an infusion. Decoctions will keep up to two days if refrigerated, but they should be discarded if not used within that time. Make A Syrup from a Decoction
If you continue to simmer a decoction over low heat until it has boiled down to about ½ or even ¼ of its original volume, you have made an herbal concentrate. Herbal concentrates are then used to make syrups. To each pint of concentrate, add 3 – 4 tablespoons each of honey and vegetable glycerin. Syrups, which are good for coughs, sore throats and laryngitis will store in the refrigerator for up to a year. Take one teaspoonful every one to four hours as needed. Make a Tincture
There are a couple of methods for making herbal tinctures, both of which require alcohol (that’s the definition of a tincture, after all). For the first method, pour one ounce of dried, powdered herb (powder your herbs in a coffee blender that you don’t
use for your coffee) and one pint of 80 to 100 proof alcohol – vodka, gin, brandy, etc. – into a glass jar, cap tightly and shake. For the second method, combine two cups of fresh herb and a pint of alcohol in a blender, blend until the herb is completely pulped, and then pour into a glass jar. Cap tightly.
For both methods, place the jar in a cool, darkened area. Shake the herb-alcohol mixture vigorously twice daily for two weeks. At the end of that period, strain the mix through a clean muslin cloth, squeeze the excess liquid from the cloth, and discard the leftover herbal mass in your compost heap. Keep the tincture (the liquid portion) in a tightly-covered jar – preferably amber-colored – in a cool place. A tincture will keep for several years if it's properly stored. The usual dose is 1 to 4 milliliters (30 to 120 drops) three to five times daily. If the alcohol content in your tincture is problematic, simply trickle the dosage into ½ cup of boiling water, allow it to stand for ten minutes, and drink. The alcohol will be gone!
Other popular (and useful) herbal preparations include liniments, glycerites, salves, oil infusions, suppositories, poultices and compresses. We’ll cover those in a future post. For now, enjoy experimenting with the herbs you’ve gathered!
Herbalists face a daunting challenge. Theirs is a complex discipline, made so not only by the diversity of raw material at their disposal, but also by the vast accumulation of empirical data handed down from previous generations of herbal practitioners: Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians, native healers and shamans, Eclectic doctors, tribal priests, “witches”…all have bestowed their share of herbal lore to their successors.
Unfortunately, much of this information remains untested in any scientific sense; that is, it hasn’t been scrutinized to the same degree as the “evidence-based medicine” that supposedly buttresses modern health care. However, since most of today’s medical philosophy is molded by entities that profit from manipulating scientific evidence, it may be a good thing that herbal empiricism hasn’t yet been filtered in the same way.
For now, then, the herbalist – or anyone else who wishes to utilize herbs in a beneficial fashion – is pretty much left to his or her own devices. Yes, there are courses in herbalism that offer encouragement and enlightenment, but these are typically taught by people who have obtained their own education at the feet of other herbalists – there is no standardized certification process for aspiring herbalists.
Hence, it seems reasonable to keep the quest for herbal knowledge as simple as possible. Thankfully, herbalists have, over the millennia, developed an ideology that is not only designed to easily transfer useful data from one generation to the next; it helps to protect foraging herbalists from inadvertently gathering useless or (worse) toxic plants.
This unfettered philosophy is called, appropriately enough, “simpling.” A “simple” is any readily recognizable plant which is commonly found in one’s immediate vicinity and whose medicinal properties have been defined by prior use. A “simpler” is merely one who gathers, prepares, and employs such botanicals.
Traditionally, simplers garnered their know-how from family or tribal members, from clansmen, or from mentors and subsequently passed it on. Nowadays, this methodology is less common; a lot of people who want to learn about medicinal herbs consult books or go to the Internet...the smart ones then go to the woods or their backyards to confirm what they've learned.
Simpling forms the foundation for any herbalist’s knowledge base; for people whose interests extend only to the immediate needs of their families and who don’t wish to delve into the boundless realm of herbalism, simpling is sufficient.
A wonderful example of how simpling works can be found in the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. This ubiquitous, fragrant, wayside herb has been attributed with a variety of properties: Diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, carminative, hemostatic, astringent, antispasmodic, and stomachic, yarrow has been used for any number of common ailments, including colds, flu, fevers, hypertension, painful menstruation, hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, wounds, and stomach upset. Stripped of their leaves and flowers, the stalks have been used for centuries to key into the I Ching.
Whether dried and powdered, prepared as a tincture, infused as a tea, or ground into a poultice, yarrow is one of the most valuable herbs in the world. To avail ourselves of yarrow’s beneficence – and to take advantage of similarly overlooked herbs – we need only open our eyes, cast off some preconceived notions and prejudices, and make use of what lies at our feet.
What could be simpler?