Not even two weeks ago I walked with a bucket of fermenting apples in each hand down the dirt road with my friend to feed the pigs. The snow came down in fat soft constellations, the sounds of our boots muffled in the snowpack, the spooning hills curling around each other in contented receding sighs, dotted with tiny lit windows and plumes of blue woodsmoke.
The pigs, to my comfort, are shaggy and brindled beasts who watched our approach with inquisitive gazes and did not wait for their food to freeze but politely snarffled through the snow where the glut of apples had lodged themselves in the drifts. The swine were at least belly-deep in the snow, which on me stopped at my knees.
We fed the chickens as the snow persisted, and my friend, a rose-cheeked example of many generations of Vermont hardiness, explained to me that the more snow we get, the less likely we are to experience the likes of last year’s drought. Of course. Which engendered in me a further tenderness toward the damp crystals encrusting our hoods and weighing in our escaped wisps of hair.
So at home I contentedly re-stuffed the woodstove and hung the wet woolens and made as spicy a curry as I could palate and we plotted an outdoor skating adventure for the following frozen frozen day.
As you might be able to tell: I was finally learning hygge, that intuitive coping with winter which eventually reveals itself as learning to not simply take refuge in but cherish the small snow caves we carve out and curl up in. No small feat for a femme raised in the deep South.
Alas, or perhaps not, this morning I left the house with only one wool sweater, a scarf, and hat. Okay, sure, I had pants on too. But the point is: The air felt kind on my face. Gloves were not a necessity. My toes didn’t go numb from the porch to the car. Now I sit in the studio with the sun shining through the tall windows. The river outside beyond the brace of tall bare maples is still frozen and covered with snow, but the sap lines are running, the pumps buzzing and coaxing the sweetness into the downhill tanks, the roads are wet and muddy and already the human faces look sparkly in ways that I don’t feel ready for yet.
Change, I’m noticing, even when the transition is from a less comfortable situation to a more hopeful one, can be a struggle. Once we’ve gotten used to a sour-faced boss, the cranky teenage offspring, the lonely confines of our daily routines, the brisk about-face of an apology from an unexpected source, a vulnerable moment that explains all of a day in high school, or the friend stopping by the office when we our faces have become one with the computer screen can feel strangely unwelcome. The small dragon inside me that finally succumbed to the lull of hibernation is maybe not ready to peel back layers, expose tender skin, dip a toe in the possibility that warmth is a distinct probability.
At least, I’m not starting seeds in the greenhouse yet.
But I am calling out my own reluctance toward hope, towards joy, both of which have been severely challenged in this political moment. I am taking my Daily Resilience Tonic, bathing in rose petals and chamomile flowers, keeping the Boundaries Potion in my pocket, and writing all the feelings down so I can have a little extra space as I go about my day. I am learning to be mindful when the stubborn little bull inside me wants to keep everything exactly how it is.
Oh yes, and I’m keeping Octavia Butler in one hand and a bit of garnet in the other. You too?
In the last year I’ve enjoyed sampling any number of variations on a chaga chai recipe, and nearly every Vermont abode I’m invited into boasts a good size chunk sitting on the mantle or on a kitchen shelf. No matter how strongly my dad instilled in me a resistance to following the crowd, I can’t help it — chaga is pretty great, no bones about it. I don’t even have to make contorted mushroomy faces when I drink the decoction (I’ll make sure to take a photo next time I send Reishi tea down the hatch).
What I like about this herb is: it’s not delicate or lithe or sexy. My teacher 7song, of the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine, used to tell us he thought it looked like the birch was growing a nose. Chaga is a humble-looking thing, barely revealing itself inside the bark tissues it manages to reinvent, a re-maker, a remodeler, collaborating sinuously with the bark it inhabits. The thick sooty black-brown of its craggy outer layers protects a golden corky crumble laced with cream-colored veins, like someone’s gluten-free caramel brownie attempt gone wrong and then burnt. While the latter is a fairly common occurrence, the former is not.
You have to acquire your chaga eye when walking in the birch woods. Inonotus obliquus is magical in the way that woodland creatures are: I can only find it when the mushroom decides to be seen, and its anyone’s guess whether I’ll be able to take it home with me for medicine. Some mushrooms I’ve encountered at head-height or at least within arm’s reach, but most grow between 10 and 30 feet off of the ground. I’ve enacted many a Buster Keaton-goes-camping scene at the bottom end of a long stick, swiping inelegantly at the extrusion as if exerting myself in a blindfolded pinata attempt on stilettos. Or else I’m with someone who is inevitably the larger of the two of us, and I find myself balancing on shoulders with a hatchet in one hand and the chaga crumbling piecemeal on my pal’s head.
Good thing I’m in the circus. But we were talking about chaga.
BOTANY, PHYTOCHEMISTRY, & PHARMOCOLOGY
Most of what we know about chaga as medicine comes from Russian folk medicine and the last 40 years of research, which has demonstrated through studies numbering in the thousands that these mushrooms exert measurable pharmacological effects on the immune, hormonal, and nervous systems. Chaga, scientifically referred to as Innonotus obliquus, are polypores that hardly look like their kin; the common name “clinker polypore” helps describe the tumor-like appearance which bears little resemblance to the other polypores, which are shelf-like and porous on their undersides. Chaga are classified as Basidiomycetes mushrooms, of which 200 species appear to be used medicinally, and are found growing parasitically on white birch, alder, and beech — plentiful in the northeastern United States, Canada, Japan, northern Scandinavia, and Russia — although only the fruiting bodies of those growing birch are used medicinally. The most prized chaga specimens seem to grow on black birch trees in Siberia, which some researchers and enthusiasts say is 40,000 times more densely packed with antioxidants than any foods or supplements found in a natural food store. Unlike many other mushrooms, chaga grow on living substrates, so mind the adage: dead tree, dead chaga.
Nearly 500 years of documentation show that this gnarly polypore has been used in the folk medicine traditions of Russia and Eastern Europe. In 1955, pharmacies in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Japan began selling a refined extract of chaga specifically for stomach and intestinal disorders. The current resurgence of interest in this medicine has resulted in research that suggests its use for many aspects of immune function, including chronic fatigue, tuberculosis, influenza, autoimmune digestive disorders, HIV, diabetes, and a variety of cancers.
One way that herbs are view through allopathic practices is which conditions, symptoms, or diseases they seem to effect. Constitutional herbalism also looks at herbs via their particular energetics (heat, movement, moistness, stimulation — what i think of as an herb’s personality) and its actions (antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-mutagenic, anti-hyperproliferative, anti-hyperglycemic properties). Chinese medicine calls this herb sweet, cooling, balancing, grounding — that is, the flavor, the temperature, the pulling in of extremes, the sending of energy down through a center. I particularly prize chaga for its reasonable nature, which benefits folks struggling with autoimmune conditions. In its modulating and balancing capacities, chaga can help stimulate an ailing or underactive immune system but soothe an overactive misfiring immune system. That’s a nice friend to have.
Superoxide Dismutase is an enzymatic ally that combats free radical damage through protective and reparative cellular mechanisms. Research tells us that chaga contains the highest concentration of Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) known to planet Earth. For those of us at risk for DNA mutation created by excess free radicals due to radiation and pesticides and other pollutant — oh wait, that’s all of us — we might do ourselves some good by sitting down with a cup of chaga tea on the daily. The mutagenic activity evident in compounds isolated from chaga shows promise in preventing gene-mutation-related conditions such as sickle cell anemia and Downs Syndrome.
While herbalists worth their salt will tell you that isolating a single “active” compound is not the best way to take medicine, such research does yield some information about a medicine’s constituents. Like many other medicinal mushrooms, chaga contains polusaccharides known for their immuno-stimulating actions. At the University of Helsinki, Finnish researchers have found several active lanosterol-type triterpenes, known for their antitumor properties, and most vigorous of which is called inotodiol. The anti-cancer compound betulin is produced in birch trees and absorbed by the chaga fungus, which concentrated the betulin and transformed it into a compound that can be taken orally by human beings.
Which, folks, is really pretty awesome.
There are so many idiosyncratic and quirky facts about chaga that I felt compelled to compile them outside of fluent prose.
+ Russian mushrooms hunters may scale trees with ropes and harnesses for the best booty.
+ Folks say that certain old chaga hunters use a shotgun to blast the higher specimens loose from their moonings.
+ High altitude Siberian prizes have been known to weight over 10 lbs.
+ Only one birch in 15,000 bears chaga, and the ideal age for a good fruiting body is 25 years old.
+ The DNA of Siberian chaga is 30% per cent closer to humans DNA than that of plants.
+ Literary Nobelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn is said to have brewed a variety of medicinal mushroom teas, describing chaga in detail in his writing.
MAKING A GOOD CHAGA DECOCTION
How does one sweetly solicit this tough crumbly creature to part with its medicine? Most folks agree that a stiff decoction is the thing.
Like burdock, chaga has some constituents that come out in rolling boil and others that transfer to the menstruum in cool water. Most chaga connoisseurs agree that it is best to granulate the specimen (tools of choice include coffee grinder, vita-mix, hammer, and steel mortar and pestle) and then to make an aqueous extraction by soaking the mushroom in cool water for 12-25 hours before bringing to a rolling boil (decocting) for 1-2 hours, or vice versa. If one were to make a tincture, it may be wise to combine such a decoction with a separate tincture, so that the high-proof alcohol does not destroy the polysaccharide molecules in the decoction.
I’m quite excited about the Aralia family. Of this family, I’m most acquainted with the elusive Panax quinqufolius, the five-leaved friend American ginseng (thanks to my time at the United Plant Savers Sanctuary), and the stately larger cousin Aralia racemosa, or Spikenard, although I have had brief lucky occasions to meet another even larger cousin, Aralia californica, or California Spikenard.
Since I’ve been living in the northern hardwood forests of Vermont, I’ve been so curious about the smaller and commoner creature Aralia nudicaulis, confusingly called many adorable names including wild sarsaparilla, false sarsaparilla, shot bush, small spikenard, wild liquorice, and rabbit root. How, I’ve been wondering, does the smaller Aralis nudicaulis compare in its medicine?
BOTANY & BIOGEOGRAPHY
The North American Spikenards are in the Aralia or Ginseng Family (Araliaceae) and are closely related to the Apicaeae (Umbelliferae) family of Parsley and Carrot kin. The Aralias tend to have solid sturdy stems and succulent berries, ovate or egg-shaped leaves with slight serrations and fine pointed tips, delicate umbel-like flowers, and an overall elegance to their general profile. Traditionally thought to contain the strongest medicine, the root grows down directly from the stem for several inches into the soil and sends out secondary runners horizontally, from which new plants emerge, connecting the group through the forest floor. The dark purple-black fruit needs lots of moisture to germinate the seeds, however, which makes all Aralias most abundant in wet climates and far more particular about habitat than their more adaptable Carrot family relatives.
[Aralia Nudicaulis] has roots (actually underground stems) that grow laterally. This signifies
communication that is dispersed in a web of synapse alongside the mycelial network. This transmits
information in a matrix that, instead of being concentrated up and down, is dispersed outward where
it is less centered, more continuous and evenly distributed. . . This contiguity allows for easy
networking from plant to plant providing steadily accessible nutrients, perception and expression. . .
When standing among a patch, or really it’s a sea, of Wild Sarsparilla there is always a feeling
of aliveness, awareness and alertness but without feeling over-stimulated, as if my cells are being
provided just the precise amount of energy required that can be effectively metabolized and released.
While the Aralia racemosa, which can grown to be as tall as my own five foot stature, seems to me to grow more solitarily in damp rich woods with sweeter soils, the knee-high Aralia nudicaulis seems slightly less picky, often making a thick layer in drier and more acidic soils amidst the fall of hemlock leaves. While digging Aralia racemosa is an undertaking for which I set aside at least an hour to unearth a good chunk of root and runner, Aralis nudicaulis feels like a less invasive harvest, where I can often dig from one out of every thirty plants I can see.
Michael Moore differentiates the Aralia genus into two distinct sorts of species, one with woods stems, acrid aromas, and spines (Aralia spinosa, or Devil’s Walkingstick) and the other which are the Aralia that we are presently mulling over, which are more characterized by juicier roots, herbaceous annual growth, a spicy sweet, cool and moist, and generally higher concentrations of saponins, aralosides, and ginsenosides. He loosely groups Aralia racemosa, Aralia nudicaulis, Aralia californica, and Aralia humulis, the last of which is primarily a creatures of the southwestern United States.
DIFFERENTIATING ARALIAS: ADAPTOGEN & PULMONARY MEDICINE
Aralias tend to have adaptogenic properties, which in Western herbalism most often means that this is an herbs which may have one or many of a broad array of tactics which assists the human in adapting to stress. In my experience, large Aralia racemosa is also a warming lung tonic which is helpful in the dampness of fall and winter in the southern climates. Other southern herbalists have expressed an opinion I share, which is that the larger and spicier spikenard possesses more adaptogenic properties than the smaller wild sarsaparilla. While many herbalists and researchers agree that the Spikenard Aralias overlaps in adaptogenic and respiratory actions, there is inevitable disagreement in how the specific indications for each species compare.
According to researchers Li, O’Neill, et al, in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2012), First Nations people of east Canada, including Algonquin and Iroquois people, were known to brew tea of the dried root of wild sarsaparilla for lung conditions including irritating mucous-producing coughs and tuberculosis. The researchers also noted that water extracts of the roots were show in laboratory trials to have antimycobacterial activity, which supports the use of this herb in combating the colonizing of fungus-like bacteria such as tuberculosis. Harvey and Felter, the physiomedicalists responsible for King’s American Dispensatory published in 1898, agreed that the racemosa and nudicaulis may be used similarly in cases of “pulmonary affections,” with specific indications for lax or “atonic” states of irritation and excess mucous in the respiratory tract.
Moore offers a broader usage that places Aralias in an adaptogen-like category, recommending them as long-term tonic herbs which “offer the Ginseng-like effects of modifying metabolic and emotional stresses.” He does, however, differentiate the specific indications for Aralia racemosa as more strongly pulmonary in application compared to the other three Aralias (as written in his Medicinal Plant Folios).
+ Chronic coughing with excess secretions; bronchorrhea
+ Chronic laryngitis with excess, abundant mucus
+ Chronic pharyngitis with thick tenacious mucus
+ Chronic bronchitis with profuse secretions and debility
+ Subacute cystitis with mucus in urine, no odor
+ Adaptogen similar to Panax + Adrenal cortex hypofunctions
+ Primipara, with irritability, distress in last trimester
+ Subanemic blood with hypersensitivities
BLOOD TONICS & CANCER PREVENTION
Laboratory research loves to investigate cancer-inhibiting potential in herbal medicines — cancers are, after all, devastating conditions that significantly alter a person’s existence, and of course they offer lucrative opportunity to the medical, pharmaceutical, and nutriceutical industries.
Traditional use of “blood cleansing” herbs, however, supports the use of some herbs as cancer-preventing. In his writing on herbal first aid, Matthew Wood discusses the philosophy, held in many First Nations medicine traditions as well as in Chinese herbalism, that perceives certain conditions as “stagnant blood,” indicating sluggish or inadequate circulating and poorly oxygenated blood, predisposing the body toward cancerous growth. Angelica and sassafras have both been known for their blood-moving and alterative properties in such conditions.
Perhaps more specific and particular than categorizing wild sarsaparilla as adaptogenic is to understand it as an alterative which offers tonifying support to adrenal function. Lisa Fazio notes that Iroquois peoples used the Aralia nudicaulis as “blood medicine,” particularly for rheumatic and diabetic situations in which circulation was impeded and therefore allowing buildup in the blood of compound which should otherwise have been excreted. In her writing on Aralia nudicaulis, she notes the following specific indications:
+ Excess androgens, hormone dysregulation; acnes, PCOS
+ Sluggish cellular metabolism
+ Malnourished states; depletions of calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc
+ Tissue repair, including bone, connective tissue, arthritic conditions
+ Inflammatory join conditions, particularly auto-immune conditions
+ Deficiency conditions leading to muscle wasting, weight loss, and weakness
ROOTS & HONEY: HOW TO TAKE THE MEDICINE
I think my approach this coming fall in understanding this medicine is going to be through the lens of re-patterning and balancing. Whatever the bio-chemical or physiological actions of these roots on the lungs, adrenals, immune cells, or circulation, the humble and sturdy Aralia nudicaulis gently urges me toward in a sideways reach, as if for a helpful hand or to collaborate, to steadily keep moving and re-moving obstacles from the path of resilience, so that the cells and tissues and mysterious systems can go about doing what they do best.
Roots are best dug in the fall or spring, and then chopped and dried for a decoction or fresh tinctured in high-proof alcohol. Harvey and Felter recommends dosage of 5 to 30 drops of the tincture in water, given 4 times per day. I have had great success with infusing fresh chopped Aralia racemosa roots in raw honey; the outcome is spicy, sweet, and warming. If you try adding an Aralia nudicaulis honey to your apothecary shelf this fall, do write and tell me your experiences! I’ll write you back with mine.
Li H1, O’Neill T, Webster D, Johnson JA, Gray CA. Anti-mycobacterial diynes from the Canadian medicinal plant Aralia nudicaulis.J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Mar 6;140(1):141-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2011.12.048. Epub 2012 Jan 3.
Felter, H.W., and Lloyd, J.U. King’s American Dispensatory. 1898.