Making herbal medicines

I thought I would enjoy the herbal medicine-making class at the Garden for the Environment today, but I guess I wasn't in the mood for what was offered. I'm trying to figure out why I didn't like it.

What can I say without sounding like a jerk. As a scientist you learn to put up with, or accept, a certain amount of pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy from the general world. Sometimes letting things go is a compromise you make in order to get by and get along. I admit to making that compromise from time to time, but I don't think it's a virtue.

Sometimes you want to reach out and enlighten. That works best one on one. Much harder to do in front of a group of people you don't know, especially when the teachable subjects are many and various. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Moreover, when you're paying to take a class, you don't want to teach it too, right? That's only reasonable.

In all honesty, I do not regard herbal "medicine" as medicine. Simply having, or allegedly having, medicinal properties does not make something a medicine. Medicine is contingent on the current state of knowledge. A miracle drug in one age is a dangerous, antiquated therapy in another. We never have perfect knowledge, we never will.

I will gladly take any benefit from the quinine in my gin and tonic. If my blueberries have cancer-fighting antioxidants, so much the better. I can hardly function in the morning without a cup of coffee. But am I going to call those things medicine? Not with any seriousness. You can if you want to, but why would you? I guess you would if it's part of your tradition, or worldview. So it is that "herbal medicine" is about more than just botanical extracts and plant preparations.

Above all else, the instructor wanted us to think of herbal medicine-making as a way to learn more about plants. Well, what gardener doesn't want to learn more about plants. If she had stopped there I would be fine. But she and the class made and exchanged several scientific-sounding claims that seemed to have little if any basis in fact. If you're going to talk about qi and chakras, why mess it up with pH and cancer?

I think herbal medicine is not for me. I thought about responding to a few points that I found particularly irksome, but I'm just going to do the blog post now.

We prepared two herbal remedies--a vinegar for colds and a honey for sore throats. This is the set-up for the vinegar.


To make it, add chopped garlic and onion and pepper flakes to raw apple vinegar. Cover and let steep several weeks in a cool, dark place. The instructor brought in some already-made material to try. It was hot and tingly. I thought it would be great on a cold cabbage salad.

For the honey:


Add equal amounts of thyme, sage, and mint to honey, steep for several weeks, then filter (heat it in double boiler until it runs, and pour it through a strainer). Also quite tasty, but cool and smooth as opposed to the hot, pungent vinegar.

If this subject excites you, here are some books you might be interested in:


I'm just going to leave it at that.


Are you tweeting?

I'm testing the tweets on Twitter. I'm not sure if Twitter is really for me or not, but one has to try these things to find out.

If you follow me, I'll follow you!


I intended to take a walk around Russian Hill today, but I bogged down in Chinatown. Here are some pictures. Despite being very touristy, Chinatown is a functioning community for the people who live here. There are churches, schools, banks and a Chinese hospital in addition to all the restaurants, bars, and myriad of discount importers.










Loose tea for sale:




San Francisco has some great vintage signery.


Unfortunately, I'm never here at night to photograph them turned on.





Certain citrus fruits have symbolic associations with the Chinese New Year:
"Tangerines, Oranges, Pomelos: Tangerines and oranges are frequently displayed in homes and stores. Tangerines are symbolic of good luck, and oranges are symbolic of wealth. These symbols have developed through a language pun, the word for tangerine having the same sound as 'luck' in Chinese, and the word for orange having the same sound as 'wealth'. Pomelos are large pear-shaped grapefruits."
Kung hei fat choi




Tea bar:


Regular bar. Li Po is something of an institution.


Don't worry--Chinatown has souvenirs for gardeners too. The best kind.



I did not buy any, but I was tempted.



What do you think these are?


Meanwhile, California is on sale for only $3.99. Still too much?



Cemeteries in parking lots

From Roadside Resort:
While I was researching the "Cemetery Safari" chapter for my upcoming book Weird Oklahoma, I came across an unusual burial site west of Tulsa that was entirely enclosed within a strip-mall parking lot. Once sacred ground, it's now a conspicuous patch of grass in a sea of asphalt, a quirky spectacle to the shoppers forced to drive around it on their way to Radio Shack.

The handful of graves had become an absurd sight gag that punctuated the often indiscriminate momentum of American progress. And it got me thinking: were there others like it?
Link. Via.

"Sir David Attenborough gets a lot of hate mail because he doesn't give credit to God in his documentaries."

Telling the magazine that he was asked why he did not give "credit" to God, Attenborough added: "They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."



My garden has very few weeds

Hate me if you must, but it won't change anything. A tiny bit of Oxalis pes-carpae pops up now and then. Some Parietaria judaica may sprout near the fences. From my neighbor's yard, Hedera canariensis and Ligustrum lucidum sometimes volunteer in mine. In a small garden, these weeds are easy to spot and pull right away. They never get very big. So, occasionally I may have a few weeds. Weedlings. Weed control is my lowest priority.

When I volunteer at the Botanical Garden however, it's usually all about weeds. And that's what I did yesterday--weeding at the Botanical Garden. Weeding can be a pleasant enough activity. Do you agree? Depending on how you weed, or the nature of the weeds you're pulling, weeding can be very focused, detail-oriented work, or rough, fast and indiscriminate. Yesterday I did mostly the former kind--pulling bits of chickweed out of the Checkerbloom, pinching thin blades of grass out of the Douglas iris, carefully digging out whole crowns of Ehrharta trying not to damage the crown of the plant next to it.

After an hour I was in a very relaxed state, my brain humming with alpha waves. By the time I finished some hours later, I was in so deep it took me a half-hour to "wake up" again. I meandered around the place looking at small things, close up.

Romneya coulteri seed heads.


Currant buds.


Glints of red (Mahonia aquifolium).


In accordance with my mental state, I wasn't thinking about blog photography; I didn't take a lot of pictures. Before I left I did take some pictures of the areas I weeded.


My instructions were to "pick and lay", that is, lay everything I picked back down with the roots up. It's too early for in the season for grass seed, and the volume of weed seeds already banked in the Botanical Garden is far too large to overcome anyway. No need to worry about that. Too tight an area to mulch with chips, so I used the weeds as mulch to keep the soil from running off during the next rains, if there are any "next rains".






Here are some other, larger things I noticed before I left for the day.



Leptospermum laevigatum

Garrya elliptica



Who wants some bees?

It's a craigslist.org ad: "Need San Francisco locations for my beehives!"
I'm looking for a place to keep my bees! It benefits gardens and flowering trees within a four mile radius, and it also offers a tasty supply of delicious local honey made in your backyard! More than a quarter of the bee colonies in the United States were wiped out from colony collapse disorder, putting about one-third of the food we eat at risk of remaining unpollinated.
Link, via, via.

Sounds interesting... but my buckeye is poisonous to honeybees. I think they might die.

Spring? Spring! SpringSpringSpring! SPRING!!!

The first daffodil of 2009!


It smells good too.

Do you have daffs yet? I have a few different kinds. I'm not as good as Frances at cataloging the bulb inventory--link, link. All my bulb tags are piled in a garage cabinet. When all the flowers are up, I'll go through the pile o' tags and assign names to everyone.

We also have some crocus.


I remember picking these oddly colored croci out, but cannot recall the name off the top of my head.


Some of the natives are coming in to season too. Ceanothus arboreus 'Ray Hartman'.

Ceanothus arboreus 'Ray Hartman'

A few inflorescences began to bloom a month or two ago.


But now the whole thing is starting to bloom. It's a thrill.


Many plants, like the grape, will remain dormant for several more weeks.

Vitis californica

Pruning time approacheth. I want to build some nice structure into this plant while it's still young.


The V in the trunk is a fine start.


But there's a lot of mess on top that needs some careful clipping away.


In this picture I'm trying to show you larkspur roots growing out the bottom of these 2-inch pots, ready to be planted out.


I planted out 14 of these today. 2" pots are the perfect size. Anything larger is hard to find room for right now. I keep bigger plants around in pots in case inspiration strikes and I decide that something needs to go. Senecio cristobalensis is one such standby I have ready in the wings.


Its stems have a purple tomentose.


The manzanita flowers are about half gone. This Vanessa came for the sunny perch and lingered all day.


The sun was very nice in the garden today.




I feel like this year will be the best year yet in the garden.



The Hardenbergia was buzzing with bees up on the deck.