Sunday, May 7, 2017

Drying Lemon Balm

  This herb is one of my favorites for a number of reasons. Not necessarily in this order, but I love its aroma, its sedative and antiviral properties and its very pleasing taste. I love its versatility, and that it readily self seeds so is a cinch to grow, is easily the main ingredient or supportive ingredient in anything from teas and skin creams to tinctures and ice cream. And I'm not the only fan. Pepper, my roommate who also happens to be a rabbit, also loves lemon balm.

However, there has been one persistent issue I've had with Melissa officinalis: Its elusive aromatics are not easy to capture and even if you are successful, they are fleeting. Generally speaking, I use a dehydrator to dry herbs for teas and long-term storage. But with lemon balm, finding the precise moment at which to stop the drying process has been challenging, to say the least. If you stop the process too soon, you may end up with some aroma, but the leaves will also likely contain too much moisture and will mold inside the storage container. On the other hand, drying them to a crisp has often left me with a bowl of grassy smelling leaves, with nearly none of its namesake's lemony scent. On occasion, I have gotten a good balance, but it has not been a reliable method as the results have not been consistent. What I've been recently reminded of in my quest to achieve good, dry and aromatic lemon balm, is that using the same means to achieve different ends is neither a holistic approach to herbalism, nor a natural one.

I decided one day to hang dry lemon balm. I've done this on occasion with various other herbs. Usually it was either because I was too lazy to meticulously place each sprig or leaf on the dehydrator trays, or, the dehydrator was busy drying other herbs. Apparently, those two exceptions had never presented themselves when I was harvesting and processing lemon balm. …Until now.

The dehydrator was full of dandelion and plantain leaves, so I decided to hang dry the lemon balm I had harvested. I have a big closet in my living room, which has a west-facing window, and so gets lots of sun from the afternoon. It heats up nicely inside, especially if I keep the closet door shut. So, I wrapped wire twists around the stems of bunches of lemon balm and hung them from the clothing pole, and basically forgot about them, for about a week and a half. When I took them down, they weren't extremely crispy, but they were thoroughly dry and could crumble nicely with a little friction.

 I decided to make a tea with the freshly dried leaves. I took several sprigs, put them in a sealable teabag and crushed the teabag containing the dried herb between my fingers. That's when the magic happened! The aroma was hands down the best I'd gotten out of lemon balm, ever. It was literally like rubbing the leaves of the fresh herb, but maybe even a little more concentrated! I made the tea - I tend to steep the herb for 20 minutes in just-off-the-fire boiling water, with a lid on it - and was again elated, this time with the taste. It was lemon balm, which is delicious in and of itself, but perhaps for the first time, I could also really taste the menthol component that is characteristic of the mint family. You know, that cool, clean sensation that mint leaves in the mouth? Mmmm.... So, no more harsh dehydrator blues for Melissa!

I still have to wait and test the longevity of the dried herb's quality. But something tells me it's going to be better than previous batches, which I rarely got a single good cup of tea out of. That is why I tended to only make a tea of the fresh herb. Hopefully this will prove to be a nice viable option.

Moral of the story, if at first you don't succeed, try try again, ...but also switch it up a little!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Coffee-Cup Seed-Starter/Greenhouse

I’m so psyched because I made a cool discovery! I mean, there may be other people out there already doing this, but I didn’t know it. So, it’s my discovery! …Right? Isn’t that how it works? Ok, probably not.

Anyway, I started opening up used little coffee cups from my beloved coffee maker, of German origins, so that I could collect the coffee grounds for the compost. As I was doing this, it dawned on me what a perfect little seed-starter these things would make. I emptied out the coffee, and pulled out the miniature filter inside of it. It even has a little perforated raised plastic screen at the bottom, which I believe is designed to keep the filter from sagging and covering up the hole at the bottom of the cup from which the coffee drips into your coffee mug. Basically, it helps to create drainage! It’s like it was made for starting seeds.

Then I realized that I don’t even have to rip out the filter. I can just leave it in and rinse out the cup to remove the excess coffee. Speaking of which, coffee grounds are generally considered a good thing for plants. Even though it will not be used in a way that will allow the seedlings to extract any nutrients from the coffee (because it will not be broken down enough for the seedlings to absorb it), it won’t hurt them either as long as you rinse it out a few times to reduce the level of acidity from the coffee. Then, all that’s left to do is fill the cups up with soil, plant the seeds, water and wait.

But wait! There’s more! I realized that I could then place these coffee-cup seed-starters into old seed-starter trays. Just line them up and put the lid on. Sometimes, depending on the tray size, the cups may not fit perfectly – you may have to reduce the number of cups you can fit into a tray – but it works. Also, I’ve started saving other plastic trays that have lids, such as sandwich trays and roasted chicken trays. I particularly like the trays with a high dome, like the mixed salad container shown below. You can let plants get taller inside the tray before transplanting, which can be advantageous at times. All of these can be washed out and lined with these little coffee cup seed-starters to create tiny greenhouses.

So, give it a shot and do some incredible recycling at the same time. It’s a perfectly ecologically responsible way to have coffee and do some gardening. It could only get better if they weren't made out of plastic to begin with. But that’s for another time, in a more perfect world. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

If flowers could roar

Leonotis leonurus (Lion’s Tail / Lions’ Ear / Wild Dagga)

Lion's tail bouquet

Said to originate in Africa, home of the lion, Leonurus leonotus has since been embraced around the world. Its 5-star ornamental appeal has led to its increasing popularity in home gardens, and its medicinal value makes it an attractive addition to the herbalist’s repertoire. Although its aromatics are not instantly obvious, it is a member of the mint family. On the other hand, the habit of its flowers, which consist of whorls of brightly colored (the brightest orange you can imagine) tubular petals, may remind you of bee balm (Monarda didyma), which is also a mint family member. However, unlike lion's tail, bee balm flowers do not occur in the lattice-like fashion characteristic of most mints. 

Mature in backyard
That said, I have witnessed this herb’s instant calming effect on acute coughing fits. About four years ago, I mentioned the herb to a friend of mine who has allergies and he said he’d like to try it. One day he was visiting while in the throws of an attack, which was clearly distressing him, but more importantly, annoying the heck out of me! I had some dried branches of lion’s-tail leaves (no flowers on it), and I lit a few leaves on the branch and quickly blew out the fire. This created a smoldering effect, which released smoke. The smoke is emitted in streams, much like what you see coming off of a stick of incense. Now, note that with this herb, a little smoke packs a powerful punch for treating coughs. With the smoking wand in my hand, I went into the living room where he was, walking from one end to the other, and milling about for a second or two. In all, I was in there for no more than 15 seconds. When he smelled it. He immediately scrunched up his face and, waving his hand in front of his nose, asked "What the hell is that smell?" Already the coughing had stopped. Thirty minutes had passed without a cough. An hour passed and still no cough. After an hour and a half of peaceful cough-free serenity, I told him that it was the Lion’s tail herb that he’d said he wanted to try. This friend is a skeptic and not one to quickly sing any praises. Of course, he could not deny its efficacy on that day, and since then, he requests a quick lion's tail body smudge when his allergies act up. 

I should note here that this tiny amount is not capable of inducing any of the purported "high" effects of the herb. However, it was enough for its antispasmodic properties to quell the coughing. From the many reports I've read, its pot-like effect requires the actual smoking of a lot of the herb, and even then, it is a very subdued high. Many even say that the whole high thing is a myth. And it's just as well, since that is not my purpose for growing and using the herb anyway. Other than its euphoric effect when smoking a sufficient amount, this herb has no notable adverse effects.

Africans mainly use(d) this herb to alleviate acute respiratory afflictions, such as asthma, whooping cough and allergy-related dry coughs. It has also been taken as a treatment for type-2 diabetes. However, in the West, it is lion's tail's purported euphoria-inducing quality that accounts for its primary use, outside of its ornamental value. In fact, Wild Dagga, which alludes to its hallucinogenic properties, is one of lion’s tail’s other names. The high that can be obtained by smoking this herb has been compared to marijuana, but said to offer a much milder sensation. Although I am not a smoker, I have tried this a couple times and did not get high so much as I nearly burned my trachea off! Again, I am not a smoker and also gagged fitfully whenever I’ve tried smoking pot.
Dry on dehydrator

Although the above example did not involve the flower petals, perhaps due to its aesthetic lure, the flowers are the most commonly reported official part used for smoking and smudging. Now that I have a bunch of flowers, as these photos attest to, I will give them a try as well and see if there are any noticeable differences. Since I have an asthmatic brother who has also shown interest in trying it, I hope to give him a whiff as well!

Depending on what your purpose is, lion's tail can be taken as a tea or decoction, or smoked or inhaled as an incense. There are also tinctures available. A wash or oil can be made for external application.


                high blood pressure
Dried and stored
                asthma, dry cough 
                hepatitis (viral)
Leaf, flower, resin:
                painful menstruation
                type 2 diabetes
Leaves & root:
                antidote for snakebite, insect stings, etc.
                a decoction for eczema, itchy skin

I started out with one plant, which I obtained from seed that I collected from a neighborhood plant. Now I have a total of two mature plants and one young one, all of which are in bloom as I write this. There are so many good reasons to grow this plant, and the cherry on top is its level of draught tolerance. With the severe draught we are facing in California, this plant is truly a gift for those who love to garden, but are concerned about water usage. I almost never water this plant, yet it gives and gives, to all who walk, or fly, by. Maybe we can call Leonotis King of the Mints. If you take one flower and set the whole disc up 90° so that you're looking at the "lion" face-to-face, perhaps we can add to its many names, Lion's Mane.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I published a story

It's called Life Begins The Day You Start A Garden. It’s just under 60 pages, so you’ll be done with it in one sitting. If you feel the inkling, pick up a copy at Amazon: Link to my book at Amazon

It is also available from Amazon UK, Italy, Spain, France and Germany, though only in English.

I wrote this story back in 2006, copyrighted it in 2007, designed the cover, and then left the files in an old computer to collect e-dust.

Earlier this year, however, my younger sister, La Ronda Johnson, wrote and self published her first novel, Anticipation of the Penitent: Link to book my sister's book at Amazon

I guess there’s nothing like a little healthy sibling rivalry to get an otherwise stagnant ass to spring into action, because I finally dusted off the digital file, fine tuned the grammar, finalized the cover and began the self-publishing process.

I got the idea for the story through a series of unplanned events, starting with the epiphany to garden that struck me back in 2000. Or, now that I think about it, maybe it started around 1991 when I began studying Chinese. Whatever the case, I’d come across on a number of occasions while searching and researching various topics related to herbalism and gardening, the expression “Life begins the day you start a garden.” It was always followed up with the claim, “A Chinese proverb.” Having studied Chinese characters over the years, I became very interested in finding the original proverb in Chinese. My intention was to have the Hanzi (Chinese characters) engraved on a placard that I could hang in my garden. After spending considerable time searching for it on the internet and looking in online dictionaries and character references as well as inquiring with some Chinese acquaintances with no success, I pretty much gave up on my plan.

I told a friend of mine about the unsuccessful search, to which he replied ever so nonchalantly, “Why don’t you make it up yourself?” Being a semi-aficionado on Hanzi, I was thoroughly intrigued with the challenge, and immediately started strategizing my approach. The Chinese version that I came up with is:


It’s pronounced “wren jong hua, ming choo ya” in Mandarin Chinese. Direct translating it yields something along the lines of “human gardens, life sprouts.”

For all I know, the original proverb is out there somewhere, and if anyone knows it or comes across it, please let me know. I’d be very interested in finally seeing it and comparing the two.

The best part of coming up with this proverb is the fact that traditionally, proverbs originated in fables. Someone would write a story intended to teach lessons on morality, principles and how to live life more righteously. The proverbs were short expressions used to convey main philosophies within the story. In my case, it really was a matter of putting the cart before the horse, since I came up with the proverb in Chinese first, then began working on a fable to go along with it.

The story begins with a middle-aged man who has lived his life quite cautiously – never taking risks in work or relationships. The result is that while he personally has suffered no major losses, he has also foregone any truly satisfying life experiences. The story is about how all that changes for the man as he is forced to reassess the validity of his beliefs and wants.

Anyway, I’m in the process of making a YouTube video to serve as a commercial of sorts for the book – nothing too extravagant, given my limited funds and talents in regards to marketing & advertising. I’m also working on other stories, with the hopes that this might become a regular thing for me.

The book trailer: 

Monday, December 2, 2013


Yuzu on twig

It’s yuzu season. Yuzu is a citrus that originated in Asia, China, specifically, it is said. It is often incorporated into Japanese, Korean and Chinese dishes, but is now used around the world, though still largely unknown in the West. It is believed to be a cross between two different citrus species, but there is no definitive proof to date. Whether it’s a pure species or a naturally hybridized combo of sorts, the aroma is unlike any other citrus you’ll come across. Late fall and winter is the best time for yuzu. In fact, it’s quite common to see yuzu infused yuburo (hot baths) at homes and hot springs during the winter in Japan. Well, I could go on, but with Wiki just a click away, I’ve provided a convenient link instead.

About 7 years ago, I purchased one yuzu tree and planted it in the front yard. With the exception of two consecutive years, 2011 and 2012, when it mysteriously just stopped fruiting, it has done quite well. This year is a bumper crop. Yesterday I picked about 60 of them, which is about ½ of what was on the small tree, and used most of it to make a yuzu marmalade. It consists of yuzu fruit, a bit of the zest, organic sugar, yuzu juice, cinnamon and a few secret ingredients. I made 8 jars last night, and will likely give only half away, this time. Last time I gave away so many that my own stock ran out within a couple of months and I was left with nothing until this new batch. Never again!!

A couple of weeks ago, I used about 8 yuzu to make yuzu-cha, which is also mentioned on the Wiki link. I colelcted the zest from about 35 of the fruit I picked yesterday to make “yuzucello,” a variation of the Italian alcoholic beverage called “limoncello.” It should be ready just in time for Christmas – which I will be having at my house this year. Yes, I say that with not a little trepidation. But that’s when the sweet yuzu infused shochu (Japanese vodka) that I made comes in handy.

The more daring creation is what I like to boldly call Yuzu Liontail. It is both medicine and a sippable cordial-like drink of leisure. I put 4 whole, unpeeled yuzu, which I had punctured with a chopstick, into a tall, wide-mouth container. Next, I added the following:

750ml                 Takara Jun Shochu (35% alc./vol.)
125g                   Rock sugar
10 sprigs            Lion's-Tail (Leonurus leonotus), flowering tops, fresh
10 sprigs            Mint, leaves, soft stem, fresh, whole
5 sprigs              Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) flowering tops, dried
3 sprigs              Mexican tarragon, fresh leaves, whole
21 leaves           Gotu kola (Centella hydrocotyl), fresh, whole leaves
12 leaves           Kefir lime leaves, fresh, chopped
2 cloves             Garlic, crushed, not diced.
2 tsp                  Turmeric, powdered

I let this infuse on a windowsill in the sun for about 1.75 weeks. I strained that out last night so I could use the tall, slender container for the yuzucello. I also drank a full shot of the Lion’s-tail elixir and I must say, the flavor is good and profoundly complex.  It starts out with an herbal and citrus sweetness, giving way to spicy citrus, before ending with a pleasantly bitter herbal tail. The progression of flavors is so pronounced and expressive that it literally teases the emotions. Lion’s-tail itself originates in the southern parts of Africa. There, it has traditionally been used as an anti-asthmatic and to quell coughs, as well as to get a decent pot-like buzz – though that is debatable. In a drink like this, the controversy persists, since you never know if it’s just the shochu or the lions’-tail or a combo of all of the ingredients that is making you feel so good!

. . . Ok, so, what’s left to do with the remaining 60 or so yuzu still on the tree? Give some to coworkers and a couple of friends, I suppose. Or make more of the above to give away. Oh, but wait a minute! EEEERRRRTTT!!! I still haven’t dried any of the zest so I could powder it and use straight to aromatize seafood or desserts, or blend into a 5-spice seasoning, like the popular, and delectable, Shichimi powder in Japan. The zest of 60 yuzu might get me 3 small bottles of powder! B-but wait! I forgot about the seeds, which some scientific tests have shown strengthen collagen in the skin, taking years off of not-so-gracefully-aging faces the world ‘round. I could get about 500 grams of powder from the seeds of 60 yuzu to add to scrubs and skin creams!!

Oh well, sorry friends and colleagues. Maybe next year . . . 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A new old herbal hutch

Wow, can't believe it's been 9 months since I posted here. For shame! But as always, it's not that I haven't been doing lots of herbal things. I have. Always am. All the time. Just haven't been taking the extra steps of pausing to pull out the camera, edit photos, write it all out and upload. I think part of the problem is I have this notion that each entry has to be some grand or semi-grand divulgence and exhibition, when it really doesn't have to be. 

So with the aim of keeping it simple, I'll just briefly talk about a recent project. I just brought home an antique wooden hutch from a sake brewery. The height just fit in my basement, where I cleaned and polished it up and started loading tinctures, dried herbs and oils on its shelves. It's starting to look quite professional in an old school sort of way.

I took the opportunity to press out some tinctures that had been macerating for far longer than they needed to, but which only makes them better tinctures. In all, the first tinctures to be placed in the new hutch were seven in number. They are:

* Ephedra, from fresh plant that I harvested on top of a desert mountain in Palm Springs, California.
* Wild morning glory, which has been growing in my yard since before I moved in.
* Usnea, which is probably a combination of Oak moss and beard lichen. I harvested them from tree branches in Strawberry Canyon in the hills of Berkeley, California.
* Valerian root from the garden.
* Echinacea root from the garden.
* Elderflower from Lake Chabot in Castro Valley, Califronia.
* Mexican Tarragon from the garden.

In addition to these freshly squeezed tinctures, I moved other bottled products from the smaller cramped cabinet to the new old hutch. Included so far are:

* Hawthorn berry tincture
* Milk thistle tincture
* Evening primrose tincture
* Horehound tincture
* Gotu kola tincture
* Cotton thistle tincture
* Henbane tincture
* Mullein flower tincture
* Dried evening primrose flowers
* Bermuda grass tincture
* Stinging nettle tinture
* Comfrey root tincture
* Bacopa monieri tincture
* Wild lettuce tincture
* Yarrow tincture
* Hyssop tincture

I think that about covers it. There are more products to be moved to the hutch from various places around the house, but I will spare you that list.

The next task is to to devise a way to prevent everything from crashing to the cement basement floor and breaking in the event of an earthquake. I'm considering some straps or screens fastened with velcro at each end….? Any ideas from others who dance with earthquakes? 

That should do it for this one. I promise (Oh, no. The P word! Hopefully the tech dept will edit that out!). I'll be back with news of my first self-published book (easy, quick read),  a fascinating herbal oil, and my recent pride & joy: herbal wines!!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Long live the liver….

  I have recently tried my hand at capsule making. Or, rather, capsule filling, I should say, since I’m not actually making the cellulose capsules, but stuffing them with herbal powders. I must say, holding up a container of herbal capsules that you filled with herbs you grew, formulated and processed yourself makes you feel like a real herbal pharmacist.

This liver tonic is the third time I’ve made capsules. The first time was a fig leaf and dried green fig combination. I took some just for the heck of it for about a week, and found I no longer woke up in the middle of the night with acid indigestion. Turns out, one of the known benefits of fig is its support for the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. The second capsule was an anti-inflammatory formula, consisting of stinging nettle leaf, burdock leaf and feverfew flowering tops. I haven’t tried this yet, but theoretically, it should be good for troubles like migraines and joint pain, as well as some allergies.

My reasons for doing a liver tonic are several. For one, I’m a drinker. And while I do not drink much compared to the generally accepted definition of excessive drinking, each person’s body is different, and recently I’ve been getting the feeling that my body might be trying to tell me that excessive drinking is what I’ve been doing. Secondly, the liver fulfills one of the most important roles in the maintenance of our bodies: blood cleansing. A liver that does not filter properly can lead to “dirty blood." This can in turn create a host of scary conditions ranging from acne, rashes, arthritis and headaches, to lethargy, depression, obesity and diabetes. Not to mention the damage that can happen to the liver itself, i.e., cirrhosis, jaundice, hepatitis, fatty liver, etc.

For this tonic, I have harvested from my yard milk thistle seeds, burdock seeds, yellow dock root and dandelion root (Yes, I actually have a patch of dandelion that I’ve planted and cultivated. …Intentionally!!). Here’s a breakdown:

  • Milk Thistle Seeds (Silybum marianum)
    • Contains constituent silymarin which is said to literally provide a protective coating around liver cells, sparing them the oxidizing effects of alcohol, viral toxins and other toxic substances.
    • Used to treat jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis, gallbladder disease
    • Used in liver cancer to promote liver cell rejuvenation
    • Component silybin is said to counter mushroom poisoning
  • Burdock Seeds (Arctium lappa)
    • Said to be a blood cleanser. Roots are most commonly used, however, I’ve found that, gram for gram, the seeds are much more potent.
    • For “toxin overload.” Effectively removes various toxins, including bacterial, fungal, heavy metals, etc.
    • Used to treat eczema, acne, herpes, ringworm, cancer (part of legendary essiac anti-cancer formula)
    • Lowers blood-sugar levels
  • Yellow Dock Root (Rumex crispus)
    • Has tonic effect on liver and gallbladder
    • Mild laxative
    • Long history of remedy for various chronic blood and skin problems
    • Used internally for diarrhea, hemorrhaging lungs, constipation
    • Used externally for sores, ulcers, wounds
    • Said to block internal spread of cancer
  • Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinalis)
    • Common “weed” that is effective diuretic, which, unlike most pharmaceutical diuretics, does not deplete the body of potassium since it is rich in potassium and so replenishes potassium lost through diuretic action. 
    • Long history of use for liver toning. Used internally for jaundice, cirrhosis, gallbladder & urinary diseases, eczema, gout, joint complaints, weak heart.
    • Antibacterial for staph, pneumonia, meningitis, dysentery
    • Latex from stems used externally to remove warts and internally for gallbladder inflammation and liver stones

My plan is to take the capsules, which are estimated to be an average of 800mg each, twice a day for one month. At the same time, I am cutting back significantly on the sauce!