Podcast 170: Herbs A-Z: Achillea & Acorus
Hi everyone! We’re back from a brief hiatus, and kicking off a new series on our podcast feed. We’re going to be profiling every one of the herbs on the shelves in our home apothecary. Why? Because we definitely have our favorites, herbs we work with really frequently – and these also tend to be the herbs we talk about most on the show. So we want to make sure everyone gets a bit of attention!
We begin this week with Achillea & Acorus. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an herb with complex energetic qualities, particularly along the warming/cooling axis. It’s what we call a “polycrest” herb, one with impacts on several different body systems and the capacity to help out with a wide variety of health issues.
Calamus (Acorus calamus) could perhaps be reductively described as “a digestive herb”, but it’s much more than that. Calamus acts notably on the vagus nerve – and so, on all the many internal organs which are connected to it. It eases transition into the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state, and opens the senses into wide-angle perception.
Mentioned in this episode:
- The 2021 AHG Symposium is coming up soon -October 15th-17th – and tickets are still available! Katja will be presenting on Recovering Health in the Context of Chronic Illness, and Ryn is presenting on Oneirogenic Herbs & Dreaming.
- Herbstalk, Boston’s local herb conference, will this year will be one day only, September 25th. We’re presenting a class on herbal management of chronic pain.
- Achillea millefolium profile at GoBotany, an excellent plant ID site, especially for the New England area.
- Acorus calamus profile at GoBotany.
- M Grieve attributes “sell your coat and buy betony” to “an old Italian proverb”. She also cites a similar Spanish saying, and a number of other places (including Wikipedia) repeat the two in tandem without further citation… which makes us think she popularized, if not originated, these sayings! You’ll sometimes find it attributed to the Romans, too, and in fact we found a couple places claiming it for Wiltshire or Sussex, England. The thing Ryn was thinking of is the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum, 12th-13th century; it doesn’t look like the quote comes from there.
- Thetis is Achilles’ mother.
- jim mcdonald’s profile on calamus has an excellent explanation of the asarone hepatotoxicity question, and also good clarifications on the botanical varieties of the plant.
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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.
Hi, I’m Katja.
And I’m Ryn.
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. So, hi everybody. We had a little impromptu podcast vacation there. We were getting ourselves all geared up for the upcoming AHG symposium happening October 15th and 16th and 17th, I think.
And actually it’s online. So you have like, I don’t know, some number of months to watch all the presentations. But both of us are speaking at that conference. And so we set up our presentations. We wrote them and we recorded them and everything. Ryn is going to talk about oneirogenic herbs.
Those are herbs that can help you to dream or can change the texture and the tone of your dream experience.
And I am talking about recovering health in the context of chronic illness. And really looking at how we can be very client led when we are working with clients or ourselves or our friends or whatever. And that every person gets to define what recovery means for them. And not only that, but even your definition of recovery and resilience changes over time. So, there’s case studies and clinical skills and stuff like that.
Yeah. So you can find out more about the symposium, and get your access to it at Americanherbalistsguild.com.
That’s not all we were doing. We also were gearing up for our local herb conference, which is called Herbstalk. And that is going to have some outdoor COVID safe teaching things. And we’re going to be teaching about holistic pain management.
That’s right. And that’s just coming up next Saturday.
This coming Saturday.
This coming Saturday, a week from right now. So, yes the 25th of September. If you’re in the Boston area, and if you can get yourself over to the armory in Somerville, then bring your mask and come check it out. It’s going to be cool.
Yeah. And if you are far away or you don’t want to be around people, don’t worry. Because there is a much longer version of holistic pain management that we made an online course for. And it’s one of those mini courses. And it’s funny to call them mini courses, because it’s like 10 or 12 hours long. But it’s only $25 on our website. So, don’t worry if you can’t get to Herbstalk. You can still get all of the holistic pain management information right there on our website.
Online.CommonwealthHerbs.com. Yes. Okay. We also had another thing going on. I started a collaboration project with a local group that is basically helping people with recovery from addiction. And there was like a local fair, and we had a table to give people some tea and give them some information and encourage people that herbs can be a helpful part of this process. And we had some really great conversations with folks. It was a nice day, and I’m feeling good to be hooked in with a local group that’s doing this kind of work. I really encourage all of you herbalists out there in the internet to try to find groups like this, and to lend your support.
Yeah. Like whatever you’re interested in, whether it is recovery or whether it is like literally anything, any kind of community health type thing but also environmental type things. Even just groups of master gardeners, you know, or garden clubs or whatever. There’s so many ways to get hooked into local communities of plant people. And you might be thinking that you are the only herby person where you live. But you might not actually be. You might be surprised that people around you might be more interested in herbs than you realized. So, these kinds of groups are really good to hook into both to offer your skills and services, and also to learn a lot from other people who are doing cool work.
Yeah. So, that’s what we’ve been up to lately. We’re excited to be back on the podcast though, happy to be talking to you all again. And this week we’re going to begin a new series, a new thread in our podcast feed here, kind of an herbs A to Z sort of situation.
Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it. And I think that when I start talking about how excited about it I am, I’m going to get on a roll. So, we better do our reclaimer real quick first. And then we’ll tell you more.
Sure. So this is where we remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So these discussions are for educational purposes only.
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, we’re not trying to present one dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about, and some ideas to research further.
Finding your way to better health has both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. But it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make.
The birds were really into it. Those are birds outside. I just really love birds, y’all. And I always put bird seed down in front of the window that is beside my desk so I can watch the birds all the time. And then sometimes they’re squawky.
Yeah. So, if that was coming through on the record there, then that’s what’s up. All right. So, let’s get going with… I don’t know. Are we calling this herbs A to Z? Are we calling it the apothecary at present?
Breaking Out of Herbal Ruts
Don’t get stuck in a rut? So here’s the thing, right? Just like anything else, people can kind of get attached to their favorite herbs, and we are no exception to that. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a long time, you probably can rattle off all of our favorite herbs. And you can even probably personalize them.
Ginger and chamomile and catnip and betony and calamus and nettle. Yeah. Uh-huh.
Yeah. You probably know the ones that we like the best, and the ones that we tend to lean on more heavily than others, or certainly at any rate the ones that we tend to talk about more than others. And that’s normal. It’s common and it’s normal, right? It is human nature. We all have friends, herbal and otherwise, that we tend to lean on a little more than others.
Yeah, for sure. But we don’t want to imply that that’s the end of the story, right? And we don’t want to leave some herbs out of the story, right? There are so many amazing herbs in this world. And even though we have some of those herbal friends that we do choose or, or lean on most often, we have like nearly a hundred jars of herbs in our home apothecary right here, right on the wall, right there with us. And honestly, there are even more than that downstairs. And we have kind of a dark storage area down there. But these are just the ones that we like to have around all the time, and that we turn over with pretty good frequency. Because we drink them or we work with them or we steam with them or we do something with them on a daily basis or a weekly basis, or at least often enough that they have a spot up here in our room with us. So, we can see them every day.
If you take our online courses, then you have seen the wall of shelves. Right now this wall is six feet in one direction and six feet in the other direction and three shelves high. And yeah, there’s like, I don’t know, 96 jars up there of herbs that we kind of can’t live without. And I want to be clear. You do not have to have a hundred different herbs in your apothecary to do some really great herbalism. But maybe you will hear some of these herbs that we’re going to talk about that really tickle your fancy, and get some good ideas of some new friends that you’d like to try.
Yeah. So let’s be not stuck in an herbal rut together. For the next little while, for some series of our podcast feed here, we’re going to tell you about these herbs that we’ve got, these herbs on our wall, A to Z. We’re going to go A to Z by Latin name by the way. So, if you’re like how does yarrow start at the beginning of this, then that’s what’s going on. And if you’re really looking forward to hearing about Ziziphus or Zingiber, then stick around. We’ll get there. All right. So, we’re going to be talking about these herbs, about the way that we work with them, the reasons they’re so important to us. And then for some of these we’ll have some fun facts that you might not have heard before.
Yeah, hopefully. Hopefully you will learn fun, exciting, new things about herbs that you already know, and fun, exciting, new herbs that maybe you haven’t considered working with before. And maybe this will inspire you to give them a try.
Yeah. So, let’s get going. Today we’re going to be talking about Achillea millefolium – that’s yarrow. And Acorus calamus – that’s called calamus. Or it has other names. I mean, people call it a sweet flag and they call it oh, I don’t know, a few different things. But we just call it Calamus.
And this is a good time to have a little forward about Latin names. There are some sort of kind of agreed upon ways of pronouncing Latin names, like kuh-LEND-yuh-luh as opposed to KAL-en-DO-la. And sometimes if you’ve never heard people say the Latin names for a plant, if you’ve only ever read it, then you might have a way to say it that works for you, but isn’t the commonly accepted way that it’s pronounced. But listen. First off, nobody really knows how Latin was pronounced. So, you can say it any way you want. And secondly, sometimes there is variation. So, you say uh-KOR-us. I say AK-or-us. And that’s totally fine. Sometimes there is some sort of standard variation where some people say one way and some people say another. But mostly it’s super important to learn your Latin names, because then you are certain about the plant that you’re working with. But if you’ve never heard the Latin said out loud, and then we say one and you’re like oops. I’ve been saying it wrong this whole time. I mean, how does anybody know if you’ve been saying it wrong? Right?
Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Say the herb names the way you like to.
Yeah. Maybe you’re the one who’s been right this whole time. We’ll just have to ask ancient Rome the next time we see them.
Achillea millefolium: Yarrow & its Polychrest Powers
Right. Yeah. Keep working on those time machines, everybody. So, yeah. Let’s go ahead and get started with yarrow, right? Achillea millefolium. When I talk about this herb, I often do like to start with the name honestly, because there’s a lot of interesting information in there. You know botanical names, they work by genus and species. So, the first part Achillea, that’s the genus. And then the millefolium, that part, that’s the species. And that means basically that there can be other Achillea plants out there. I can’t remember any off the top of my head.
Could there be Achillea centifolium? It wouldn’t have quite as many feathery bits.
That’d be extremely funny. Yeah.
Actually, we wanted to make a podcast of just herbal jokes, because you know, the world is kind of heavy. And we were like everybody could use some real good herbal jokes. But we were like, ah, we don’t have a list of herbal jokes., But okay, Achillea centifolium. And then you could have a cartoon that went with it that was like half the little leaf bits are missing.
Yeah, one tenth, right. Yeah. Okay. So…
Wow, we’re such nerds.
So, why do I like to start with the name? Well, that genus name Achillea, it has a call back in it to Greek myth or Demi history and the warrior Achilles. So, you know, this was a figure in the Iliad, somebody who was supposed to be like a nearly invincible warrior in battle and played a big role in the way that the siege of Troy played out and so on. You can check out Brad Pitt doing his best Achilles in the movie Troy. Really good spear fight in that movie. You don’t get that too often. So, yeah. But why is it relevant to a plant, though? Like why would people connect a warrior to an herb? Well, this actually happens some times, and it’s usually because the herb can help when you get yourself cut open.
Like you do.
Yeah. you know, one of the older names for yarrow that we’ll hear is Herba militaris. And it’s sort of like the military herb, you know. Again with this idea that hey, if you do happen to get chopped open, then you might be really happy if you look around and see yarrow, because it can help to stop bleeding. And it can.
And not only that, but it also has really excellent antiseptic action. And those are two things you really need if you’ve been cut open. In fact, when we teach herbal first aid, we always teach like an order of operations. You do it in the same order every single time, and that way you don’t like skip a step by mistake. And the first step is that, well, you’ve got to stop the bleeding. And then you’ve got to wash that wound. You’ve got to make sure that it’s clean and not getting infected in there. And then you promote the healing. And when you do it in that order every time, you don’t accidentally put salve on a wound that isn’t clean yet, for example. And so yarrow is like a big part of that order of operations. Because it is helping to stop the bleeding and helping to clear out infective agents, to fight infective agents, with its antiseptic action. So, you’re two thirds of the way there if you’ve got yarrow.
Yeah. And you know, we can be applying yarrow in those ways as like a wash. Or if you were lucky enough to have yarrow hydrosol around, boy, that would make a fantastic wound wash. So, I mean, you can be making a tea of it, and you can be putting that in the wounds or soaking wounds in that. That will really help to, like you said, disinfect the wound, fight off infection, help to really encourage the wound to knit back together. Yarrow has some astringency to it, some kind of tightening or tonifying quality. And that’s often very helpful in wound care herbs. And it really is almost literally about knitting the wounds back together, like pulling the edges back together so they can heal more easily. But yarrow, you can actually also take the leaves of the plant and apply them. And this is sort of where the second part of the name comes in, millefolium. That means something like a thousand leaves. And it’s because if you look at a leaf of yarrow, it really does look very feathery. It’s divided in at least three like fractal zoom patterns.
You know, fractal I think is the best way to describe a yarrow leaf. It does have like a center spine. But then it’s like kind of impossible to draw a fractal, because they’re like so detailed and whatever. But if you imagine if you were doing a quick sketch of a fractal to try to explain to somebody the nature of fractals, it could look very much like a yarrow leaf.
Yeah. It has this division. It’s a fun thing called tripinnate leaf shape. And it means that you have kind of like the stem that the leaf is growing from. It branches off from there once, and now you’ve got your whole leaf body. And then you kind of move in a layer, and it branches off at a right angle from there. And then zoom in again and it branches off at another right angle. So, you can kind of see these three layers of division in there. But the end result though is that you get this very feathery kind of a leaf with a lot of surface texture to it, a lot of surface area to it. And so those leaves can be helpful, if we had a bleeding situation, just to put right onto there. It’ll form a sort of a matrix and encourage the blood to clot both physically and chemically kind of at the same time. Now you will have to clean that leaf out later on. So, this isn’t always your favorite choice.
Yeah. Like if I’ve got supplies, it’s not really what I want to do. And also it’s not the first step. The first step in stopping bleeding is apply a lot of pressure. This is the well, we’re like 90% stopped, or okay, maybe 85% stopped.
Right. Yeah, bleeding has slowed down.
But it’s like it’s not thickening up. It’s not clotting up, and we want to help it along. Then yes, this will totally work. But I’ve got to tell you that the whole premise of and then you’ve got to clean it out afterwards. For me that part is wicked annoying. And so typically I tend not to work with the leaf itself, and instead to work with the hydrosol or with a very, very strong tea of yarrow, like an infusion of yarrow. But if I were in an austere environment for a long period of time and I was low on supplies, I might feel differently.
Yeah, for sure.
I definitely would not want to put powdered yarrow into a wound though, because that can be super irritating. That would be my last choice. I mean, okay, I suppose I can imagine some really super emergency sort of situation where I might do that. But that would really be my last choice.
Yeah, or maybe not even a more serious emergency, and maybe just like a different kind of wound or a different kind of application. Maybe the issue is that you’ve got some sores you know, some boils on the skin. And they’re kind of oozy, and there’s a lot of fluid coming out. I could see putting some yarrow powder onto there to kind of like soak up some of that moisture, to draw some of that stuff out of it. And then rinse it away later on.
Yeah. Almost like you were making a poultice, except it was intentionally dry so that it was…
Pulling more fluid right out of the wound site.
Yeah. I could see that. I could definitely see that.
The Energetics of Yarrow
Yeah. That’s kind of speaking to, you know, yarrow has that tonifying and drying quality. Those are two of its primary energetic factors. You know, when we look at herbs we break them down. Are they hot or cool, or warming or cooling? Are they moistening or drying? Are they tonifying/tightening or relaxant? And with yarrow, definitely you’ve got that tonifying quality, you’ve got that drying effect, both topically and also systemically. If you drink a bunch of yarrow tea, you’re going to get some diuretic effect. You might see some dryness on the skin if you’re prone to that. Or you might see some correction of damp boggy states in the body by working with this kind of a drying agent, when we think about the moist… sorry, about the hot/cold axis for yarrow, this is one where there’s some debate amongst herbalists. There’s some, well, I think it’s cooling because of these reasons. And I think it’s warming because of these other reasons. And for me this one, I don’t settle too hard on one side or the other. I really have to respect the capacity of the plant to contain multitudes.
Sometimes that’s a thing. It is drying. On that side, we can all agree.
Yeah. That one’s easy, right?
We can agree on that one.
Yeah. And it’s not really a relaxant herb. Sometimes it can fortify you mentally and emotionally. And people might sort of confuse that with a relaxant effect, because a lot of us sort of confuse any I feel better in my emotions and in my mind with I feel more relaxed. They’re not exactly the same thing.
Yeah. I would call it stabilizing in that regard.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But you know, yarrow, again, it has some heating qualities to it. It has some stimulation. It can move blood. If you apply it, say, as a poultice to a bruise, you can see the blood disperse and circulate and move around. And you can see it go from black to purple to green to yellow and fading away through that transition.
Yeah, when there’s a bruise or something. Yeah.
Yarrow can stimulate digestion. It has a bitter quality to it. And it can wake up your belly and get that moving for you. But it also has some cooling qualities to it, right? We can have someone with a lot of heat. They can work with yarrow and get that dispersant effect, get a little bit of a periphery opening effect, a bit of a diaphoretic effect from this plant, and then release some of that heat. So, there are really many plants that are like this, where like depending on when you decide about what the effect is. And if you wait a little longer, maybe it would look different.
Yeah, that’s true. You know, there’s one other thing that I really want to take some time to talk about yarrow, and that is the neurological and the emotional health aspects. But sort of as a transition point there, because you just brought in a whole bunch of new stuff, I want to say that yarrow plays a huge role in our practice. We teach about it in the digestive system. We teach about it in the urinary system. We teach about it in the cardiovascular system.
A lot, in that one.
Oh yes. We teach about it in respiratory health, cold and flu management. Like it actually probably shows up in the immune health course.
Reproductive, yeah it’s all over.
Oh, it does come up in reproductive too. So y’all, yarrow… there is an old saying – and I can’t remember who it’s attributed to – but it is sell your coat and buy betony, I believe is the original, right? It’s old. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s old.
I mean, I feel like I remember that in the context of the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum. It’s like an oh, I don’t know, 14th century Italian thing. I could be really off.
Oh, see that’s what I was thinking too. I didn’t remember the title, but I was thinking early, early Italian. Yes. Okay. So, sell your coat and buy betony. It’s a phrase that is attributed to someone and it was written down and it’s a historical thing that’s real. But I often think about the sort of category of herbs that are the sell your coat and buy herbs. And so yarrow is definitely one of those. And I mean this metaphor was sell your coat and buy betony, because betony is so much more important for your health. Like literally sell the coat off your back so that you could buy this thing, right, because it’s important for you. And so, yeah, yarrow fits into my category of coat sale herbs. Because it’s just really all over the place.
Yeah. It’s multifactorial. There’s a term, polychrest, that Paul Bergner taught us, or that I learned from him anyway. And it was the idea that you can have an herb that’s going to have multiple beneficial effects across a variety of different systems. And those are really good herbs to learn in detail, or to learn as much as you can, you know. You think of plants like dandelion or nettle or tulsi, and you’re like okay, yeah. We don’t just see you for one particular application. You have a variety of different capacities to you. And honestly, I think that the majority of herbs can be appreciated that way when you spend enough time with them.
That’s absolutely true. The majority of herbs have way more talents than we usually give them credit for.
Right. And if I was a really, really dedicated herbalist, then I would spend some time figuring out what is fantastic about senna aside from making you go potty, because there’s got to be something, right?
There’s got to be something else in there. Yes. Okay. But, so the other thing that I really wanted to talk about with yarrow, it comes back to our mythology, right? To the Achilles. And that is the emotional health aspect of yarrow. So, the story of Achilles’s superpower is that his mother dipped him into a river, with a name that is eluding me at the moment.
The river Styx.
Thank you. And dipping him into river gave him superhero powers of invincibility. And every part of his body that was touched by that water became impervious. But the thing is that in order to dip him in, she held on to his heel, like to the back of his ankle. And that’s where the phrase Achilles’ heel comes from. Because that was the only place on his body that he had any kind of weakness, because that was the only place that wasn’t touched by the water. So, what that teaches us is that if you want to dip your kid in a river to protect them from slings and arrows, then you should definitely throw them all the way in, and then fish them out again. And don’t let any part of the body be covered.
It also tells us that Achilles’ mom had pretty good grip strength, you know. I mean, like babies can weigh something.
And they wiggle.
But just like right into the river. That’s awesome.
That’s true. Go Achilles’ mom. You notice how we don’t know her name.
We do. It’s somewhere. I should… hang on.
No, but we don’t, right?
We, ourselves, here? yeah.
New Speaker (00:27:48):
And like, so my point is that she’s just nowhere near as important in the general cultural, like whatever. But hold on a second, Achilles would have been like bupkis without her. Everybody should know her name off the tops of their heads. Okay. Well, beside that. So, that like coating of protection, that imperviousness, impenetrability, that’s where yarrow comes in emotionally as well. And to be honest the longer that I study herbalism, the more that it becomes clear like a neon light flashing in the darkness, that the herbs are working on the emotional level and on the physiological level in the same way. Because our emotions are not different than our physiology, actually. It has taken us as modern humans a long time to start to get to that point. But here we are. And so yarrow is having that stabilizing effect, especially if you are in an unstable emotional environment. You are in a place of a lot of contention. You are in a place where you don’t feel emotionally safe, or you’re in a place where there is some antagonism. And that place could be an actual physical place with other people who you’re encountering, or it could also be 100% inside of your head. Because I don’t know about y’all, but sometimes the inside of my head is a pretty antagonistic place.
It’s not just you. I will… yeah. It’s not just you.
Yeah, I think it’s not just us. I think it’s a lot of people. And so, I want to be clear about that. That it isn’t just like take yarrow if you have to have a fight with somebody, you know. Take yarrow if the inside of your head is like a fight in there sometimes. And that… I don’t know. So, maybe you went through a phase when you were younger – and maybe it wasn’t a phase and maybe you still do it – of wearing a leather jacket even if it’s warm outside. And maybe you ever referred to your leather as your armor. I certainly did. And you know, it didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees. I wore my leather, because that was my armor. And that gave me a feeling of protection out in the world where I maybe didn’t feel accepted or welcome or any number of things, safe for sure. Wearing leather all of the time was a statement, right? Like it’s a statement to walk down the street in a black leather jacket with some spikes on it. And that statement is stay out of my way, you know. But there’s also a weight and a thickness to leather. And if you think about being in a contentious environment, a phrase that comes up a lot is you have to have a thick skin, right? And so I think about yarrow the same way that I think about my old leather jacket. It helps you to have a thick skin when that’s not easy to do.
Yeah. And I sort of feel there’s a connection to the astringent qualities or the tonifying, the tightening, the kind of closing down qualities that yarrow can bring. And here I suppose we’d be thinking about what some people call your aura, or what I might prefer to talk about as your sensorium. Your experience of the world around you, that’s mediated for you through all of your senses, and becomes like a gestalt impression you have of what’s coming in, and how much of it is demanding your immediate attention right now. Yarrow helps to make that a little less permeable, a little less easily penetrated by input from around you. So, I’m thinking about like wandering around in a downtown environment at a time when it wasn’t corona. And things were like packed, and there were tons of people moving in every direction, and big, big advertisements. Like think of, you know, Times Square, New York city, New Year’s Eve, right? Everything’s bright. It’s all flashing. There’s noise. There’s lights. There’s sound. There’s people everywhere. You’re seeing a lot of faces all at once. And your brain is trying to process what every single face is thinking and feeling.
And people are bumping into you all of the time. And yeah.
So, if I find myself faced with such a situation, whether that’s actually happening, or it just feels that way to me, then I would definitely be happy to have some yarrow in my pocket.
You were talking about astringency, and we’ve been watching some Star Trek movies. And this particular quote was not in any of the movies that we watched recently. But I just have in my head very, very strongly a scene that I cannot remember in which Bones is saying to Kirk, pull yourself together, man. And that’s what I think about with yarrow. Like when you really just need to pull yourself together. And not because someone is criticizing you for not having your stuff together. That’s not what I’m talking about. But like, when you are taking the deep breath with both hands on the side of the sink. And you’re just like, I have to go back out there. Come on, come on. Pull yourself together. You know, it’s that one.
Yeah. Well, we could go on for quite a while about yarrow, right? I mean, and it’s again, a flexible herb operating in lots of different systems simultaneously, and also an herb that you can work with in many ways, right? I mean we’ve mentioned tea, both to drink and also to apply topically. You can apply tincture and you can take tincture orally.
You can put it topically too as a liniment, either by itself or blended with other things for bruises and stuff like that.
Yeah. I mean, you can make a decent infused oil with yarrow. You could infuse it into honey if you had some fresh.
Oh, I did that last year.
Yeah. It was great.
Why didn’t I do that this year?
You can work with the powder, you know, so it’s a very flexible plant. It also doesn’t seem to be one that has been heavily commercialized yet. I don’t really see like a lot of yarrow supplements. And it’s certainly not on any of the top selling supplements lists that we get each year. So…
Yarrow, it’s my secret.
Yeah. And it’s also quite common, you know. This is a pretty common weed plant, and those are the ones that we like to spend most of our time with. So yeah, again, we could continue on about yarrow, but actually…
But we have to talk about Calamus.
Acorus calamus: Calamus & the Asarone Issue
Let’s go and talk about Calamus, yeah. So Latin Acorus calamus. There are other related species of Acorus that are better known, or a part of traditional medicine in Europe and also all the way over through Asia across into China. So, this is kind of a, I guess, Northern hemisphere full spread plant.
I mean, Acorus calamus is the one that is native to North America though. Is that correct?
In Europe and in India they have a different species.
Yeah, there are some other varieties. There’s like an Acorus gramineus that you’ll see referred to here and there. But almost all of what I’ve seen anyway of the medicinal attributes and applications for the varieties do overlap quite a lot. Usually the difference between your American and your European or Asian species tends to be drilling in on about what’s called the beta asarone content.
I mean, maybe we start with that, right? Because if we’re going to tell you how great calamus is and how much we work with it, and then you’re going to go say oh, they love calamus. Maybe I should get some. And then you’re going to see this warning that says maybe this is bad for you. Then maybe we should get that out of the way.
Yeah. Okay. So all right. You’ve got a plant. Okay. We’ve got a plant. It’s calamus, so it’s going to be growing in the water. It’s got some like long grass like leaves that grow straight up. And then it has, underneath the soil and the water and the dirt and everything, it has rhizomes. Think of like a ginger root that you buy at the store. It looks just like that. So in that rhizome, we have a variety of different chemical constituents, depending on how you count them hundreds or thousands.
LIke any other plant, you know, there are hundreds or even thousands – or who even knows how many. We have not discovered them all yet – individual types of constituents. And so that might be some, you know, if we’re thinking about rose hips, well vitamin C is one of those chemical constituents. So, you can sort of think about it that way, that breakdown.
Yeah. And, you know, in there, you’ve got some kind of like fibery stuff. you’ve got some protein structures that hold things together. And then you have what people call the active ingredients of the plant, you know. And these are usually produced by the herb to protect itself, to power its metabolism in a unique way, or to do other things that have to do not with like moment to moment survival – sugar generation and so on – but more to do with being adaptable and responsive to their environment. We could pull out various groups of constituents from any of our plants. So, if I take calamus and I soak it in hot water, then I’m going to get some of its chemistry out. If I soak it in alcohol, I’m going to get a different subset. If I soak it in oil, it will be quite different.
But one way that people get constituents out of an herb is to do a distillation. And so you would have a heat source and probably some water to boil and make steam. And then your plant matter would be in kind of a basket or a thing above that. And so the steam and the heat is coming up through the plant, and it’s releasing a bunch of what are called aromatic constituents out of your herb. And so those are things that smell and things that evaporate. And so they can come up and we can collect them with a clever bit of alchemical equipment. And we can create what we call an essential oil. So essential oils are not a full representation of the plant, because there’s a lot of chemistry that gets left behind in that process.
A really good, easy to understand example is that the stuff that’s in the essential oil is the smelly part. It is the stuff that is light enough to be carried on the air like scent. But the mineral content of a plant is too heavy. You can’t distill that out, because it weighs too much. When we go through this distillation process, the only things that get pulled out are the things that are lightweight enough to be carried on the air. So, just like some types of pollen fly through the air and then give us hay fever, and other types of pollen are too heavy to do that, and so they require bees or other pollinator species. The same when we’re talking about these constituents. The constituents that are lightweight enough to go through the air are the essential oils. The other constituents are still important. I mean the whole… okay. Not the whole reason that we work with nettles, but one of the most important reasons that we work with nettles is to get that mineral content. It’s critically important. So, it’s important to recognize that the stuff that’s not in the essential oil is really important stuff that we still need.
Yeah. So, you know, in that essential oil you do have a mix of chemicals, right? It’s not all one thing. And in some plants it’s very heavily dominated by one or another, right? Like with mint you have maybe 70 or 80% or even more of your essential oil is made up of menthol. Or for thyme I think it’s somewhere in like 70, 80, or more percent range of it is thymol, one individual constituent. But other essential oils are a lot more diverse. And in any case with all of them you’re going to have some constituents that are making up a large portion of the essential oil, and others that are making a very small fraction of it. In the case of calamus, there’s a variety of different, you know, volatile elements that are present in that essential oil. And there’s one that occurs in a relatively low concentration, especially if you have American Calamus species. It could be 1% of the essential oil. It could be a little more, a little less, but it’s just not very much by comparison. And this is a substance called asarone, or particularly beta asarone. Okay.
Okay. So wait, let me do a little math here. So, of the whole plant, the part of the plant that is the essential oil – the part that you can smell, because it can be carried in the air – is a fraction of the plant, and it may be a fairly small fraction. It could be a single digit fraction. As a matter of fact, it’s almost always…
It’s more likely to be. Yeah. I mean, essentially oils just don’t weigh very much, especially if we’re looking at like of the herb by weight. I mean, most of it is going to be like, you know, cellulose and stuff that we’ve regarded as inert. But it isn’t really inert, because it kind of has an influence on your gut flora or just the size of your bowel movements. And like, yeah, that matters.
You know, but that’s important, because if we’re talking about elecampane, it’s those fibers that we actually… okay. There are lots of parts of elecampane that we need, but those fibers are the inulin. That is the stuff that really helps us, that prebiotic for the gut flora just like pectin in apples. So, anytime that we’re like oh, well that part’s not important. Well, wait, hold on. It might be super important. But so the point here is the essential oil percentage, it will vary from plant to plant and even within the same species. Like even if we’re just talking about peppermint, individual peppermint plants, depending on the micro climate they were growing in, depending on the weather that year in the larger scale, will have a different percentage of volatile oils. Even just sometimes depending on when you harvested it. Like if it’s been raining for a week, and then the first sunny day you harvest it, it’s going to have a lower essential oil content. So, it’s not like there’s a standardized percentage across all of them, but it is very small. Okay. So, the essential oil percentage we’re going to say is a single digit percentage of the plant. And then of the essential oil in calamus, this beta asarone is 1%. So 1% of… let’s just estimate… 4%. That’s very, very, very small.
Yeah. So, the thing is that that you’ll see warnings. You’ll see, you know, references to asarone causing liver damage. And because of that you’ll see statements – even if you go to buy the herb from an online retailer – they might have to have a statement there that says we’re selling this. And we want to give you a warning that it’s not intended for internal consumption. The FDA regards this as potentially hepatotoxic. Hepato means liver, right? Toxic to the liver. The thing is that this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Because the amounts that have been given to poor little lab rats to generate tumors are extremely large. You know, I have some references I can put in the show notes about this, and you can chase it down. But basically when they do studies on toxicity of individual herbal constituents, they usually start by trying to figure out well, how much does it take to make an animal die? And then they’ll say, all right. Well, how much does it take to make an animal get cancer? And they’ll do other, various tests like this that are really kind of tragic when you think of the lives that go into it. But what they come away with is to say like oh, this has the capacity to cause tumors, right? And if you just equate in your mind this one constituent with that whole essential oil, with that entire herb, then okay. You can see where you would say this thing causes cancer, therefore the entire thing causes cancer. But that’s not really born out in reality. Because a fundamental law of toxicity is that the dose makes the poison. And what that means is that there are many, many things that you can take in a small dose, or what we’d consider a normal dose, and you’re going to be fine. Or it might even be healthy for you. But if you take it in enormous or highly concentrated doses, then that’s the point at which it can make you sick
Or isolated doses, too, right? So, here what we’re talking about is they isolated one chemical, that is a fraction of a percent of the whole plant. They concentrated it so that they had a whole thing to inject that was only this one chemical. And then they injected it intravenously into these animals. And yeah, that made them sick.
Yeah. Into the veins or into the belly, you know. But like this is not the way that you take it. And it matters, because your digestive metabolism can alter this kind of chemistry. Your digestive apparatus, it has the job of assessing things that you introduce from the outside world, and identifying the ones that could be damaging, and coping with them. So, there are many things actually that if we eat them our body can handle it fine. But if we were to concentrate it, put it into a syringe, and inject it straight into our veins or into our intraperitoneal cavity or whatever, then it would make us quite sick, because it’s not going through the normal process of like introduction and break down.
Literally you could do that with almost any food actually, because foods need to be broken down. And a food that contains protein – which almost all foods contain some protein, even if it’s just a little bit – our bodies, our immune systems, react to proteins. And if you inject something that’s not broken down, that’s not fully digested, right into the bloodstream, yeah, you’re going to have an immune response to that. And now we’re talking about leaky gut. Okay, whatever. Oh, go ahead.
Yeah. So look. This was a really long way of saying that the amounts of asarone content that you’re going to get if you make yourself a decoction of calamus, or if you make a tincture of it, or if you dry slices of the root and chew on them as you go about your day, the amount of that potentially toxic chemical that you’re exposing yourself to is very small. And at the same time, you’re also getting beneficial chemistry from the same plant, right? Things that improve liver function, things that protect the stomach lining, things that enhance your capacity to break down and to absorb both nutrients and toxins that you get exposed to in the course of living in the world. So, taking whole calamus preparations, I have no real concern that it’s ever going to cause damage or cause cancer.
Do not, however, isolate a bunch of asarone, and then inject that into your belly. Don’t do that.
For that matter don’t go and buy calamus essential oil and drink it. Extremely bad idea. Very, very bad idea.
Don’t do it. So listen, there’s one thing I do want to say here, because all of this does not mean that no plants can hurt you. There are plants that can hurt you. There are plants that can hurt you just by touching them. You don’t even have to ingest them. So, I don’t want to say like oh, don’t ever listen to when the FDA says something isn’t safe. Okay, that’s not where I’m going with this. But in this case, what isn’t safe is the asarone content. And that is not safe at large quantities. And so we have data there. But what the data says is don’t take a lot of asarone. So don’t do that.
The Virtues of Calamus
Cool. But let’s take some calamus. All right. So, this was all sort of like in defense of calamus, and then now is the part where we just get to sing its praises and its virtues.
Wow, it’s so amazing.
So, calamus is one of our bitter herbs that has a warming quality to it. You know, if we look at the energetics of this plant, I consider it to be warming, drying, and relaxant, in a sort of intriguing and particular way. But that warmth to it and the bitterness occurring together is always worth paying attention to. You find that with calamus, you find it with angelica, you find it with elecampane. There’s a few others around there in our materia medica. But they’re really excellent, because often, especially in our sort of modern populations that we’re working with, we find it very helpful to both get a bitter and a warming carminative into that person. So, you could formulate ginger with artichoke leaf. But when you just have calamus, it’s like it’s already done the work for you.
And it’s wow. But it’s so much more, too. And I mean, okay, you mentioned ginger and artichoke leaf. So, that is a warming thing with a bitter thing. And one funny bit of historical trivia is that when settlers were moving, colonizing from Europe to North America, times in cooking when they would have worked with ginger in Europe, and ginger wasn’t available here, in many cases they substituted calamus. And they don’t have the same flavor, but they do have a lot of the same flavor profile. There’s more bitterness in the calamus, but a lot of the same qualities are there. That like sort of spicy heat is there.
I mean, I suppose it’s similar to turmeric in some ways in that regard.
Oh, but so much warmer, so much warmer, yeah. And I think one other factor is that so much of that warmth is antispasmodic in nature.
And that is a very shared thing between ginger and Calamus. And honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of calamus is the antispasmodic action, because I need that in my life so much. I need it in my digestive system. I need it in my nervous system. And those are two things that calamus really… If you just imagine your self, like imagine one of those chakra pictures where the person is sitting there, and there’s the line up the center of the person. I’m don’t want to make any statements about chakras and calamus. I mean, I’m sure that somebody could make those statements, but I’m not the person who can make those. But I do want just the image of that line through the body, because that’s where calamus is super active. In my body that’s where I’m really feeling it. I’m feeling it in my head, in like a calming and kind of downward moving. And downward in the sense of stabilizing, like in the sense of I got to get out of my head. Not downward in like a depressant kind of way, but just downward in like my wheels in my head are spinning, and I have got to get off of this hamster wheel. So, there’s that movement. And then there is that soothing effect in the throat. You’ll often see it written, or if you just watch Ryn in his daily life, you’ll see it happen all the time. When he has been teaching for a long period of time, he’s always got calamus going, because it’s just so soothing to the throat.
Yeah. Yeah. I really love to have, you know, slices of calamus root that are dried. You can work with the cut and sifted like chips this way as well. But it’s nice, I find, to have a slightly larger piece to chew on. But regardless I’ll just take a little bit, put it in the cheek and chew on it. And it does, you know, it exudes this… not juice, but like between your saliva and the herb you kind of create this juice that’s warming, soothing. It soothes irritations. It soothes that feeling of like a tickle or an itch in the back of the throat when you’ve been speaking a lot or when it feels dry back in there. So, it has that warmth and that movement that generates a soothing kind of a feeling. It’s different though from the soothing effect you’d get from like a marshmallow infusion, where it’s all like cold and damp and coating and covering. This is kind of more like increasing your own fluid generation and movement in those areas. And that’s something that a bitter herb is going to do, right? Like they trigger all of our secretions, like all of our digestive secretions anyway. So, the bitterness of calamus triggers that salivation. It will get your other digestive juices flowing as well. But in the throat it just has this nice soothing feeling.
Okay, but that also makes a lot… I was going to say it’s like a hot water bottle for your sore throat, right? But it makes a lot of sense, because specifically the kind of sore throat that is always referenced is like opera singers, lecturers. It’s always when you’ve been talking too much, right? It is soreness in the vocal chords. It’s soreness in all the muscles through the throat that we use to make all of the complex vocalizations that make up language. And yeah.
And you can take tincture for that, but I find that having something to chew on is more effective. It’s going to last a bit longer, you know?
All right. So, as we continue down then we can think about the vagus nerve. We’ve actually been thinking about it this whole time, but we’re going to start talking about it now. When you think about the vagus nerve, you will often see stuff written about calamus that says it helps the body shift into the parasympathetic, like into that rest and digest state. And it does. But then that’s the end of the sentence. Like, there’ll be a period after that. And you’re like great, thanks. How does it do that? Okay. So, we’re thinking about this antispasmodic action, and we’re thinking about the vagus nerve. And if you’re thinking parasympathetic nervous system, if you’re thinking rest and digest, then you’ve got to be thinking relax that vagus nerve. And okay, there’s more to it, of course. But if we start there, we’ll have all those ripple effects out to the rest of the body. And so if you’re just thinking about this line where we’re going down. All right, the vegas nerve is going to kind of meander and deviate from the line just a little bit, but that’s okay. It’s still basically in our line here. Because it’s going to go through and kind of get feedback from all your organs. It’s like if you work in an office and you have a network that is just for the office and not the outside world, or these days actually your house is that too, right? Like maybe you lose your connection to the internet, but you still have your house is all together connected. That’s your vagus nerve. It’s that connection to your own inside internal you. And calamus just has a very relaxing, very antispasmodic action here.
Yes. And it’s interesting, because if we can get more parasympathetic activation, then that does manifest for us as like feeling more calm, feeling more relaxed. But this is also probably part of how calamus helps out with heartburn. So, calamus has multiple features that contribute to helping out with heartburn. But I think that moving through the nervous system to get there is going to be relevant for this one. So, other features that matter: the warmth of it, the carminative effect to the improvement of digestive activity, the bitter quality to improve your secretions, help you to break down your food and prevent intestinal fermentation and pressure from below rising up. All of that’s going to happen here with this plant. But because calamus has this nervous system activity to, it there’s something to do with a lot of cases of heartburn that involves a piece of your anatomy called the lower esophageal sphincter. So you have your esophagus. You swallow down that tube, right? At the bottom of it there’s kind of a portal or like a doorway, and that’s where that connects to the stomach. So, in a lot of cases of heartburn, one of the issues is that that doorway, or you can think of it like a trap door, is not closed all the way. And this is connected to stress, because that particular trap door receives the signal that says stay closed when we’re in a rest and digest state, when we’re in a parasympathetic nervous system state, when we’re otherwise calm and relaxed. And so it’s a little hard for us to think of right off the bat, because it’s like we’re talking about being relaxed, but also having that relaxation allow a certain degree of activation in this particular part of our body, right? So, it’s really about the difference between having your sympathetic nervous system be what’s dominant and active right now versus your parasympathetic. So, because calamus moves us over to that parasympathetic activation, it really helps to hold your sphincter closed.
You know, it’s like when your two tense to be able to do your job well. It’s like that. And then you relax so that you can do your job well. And in this particular case, the job well is let’s keep this valve closed. Yeah. Okay. So, we’re going to keep going down. And we get to the guts, and we have still that antispasmodic action calming the guts, but also the warming action, the bitter action, improving digestion, improving motility. Like if you’re a person who tends towards constipation or just slow bowel movements, then we are helping that to stay moving. We’re stimulating better quality of digestion so that you’re assimilating more of what you ate. And then we can go all the way down, right? We can get down to your root and think about the pelvic floor. Think about… well, when I think about this I’m thinking about uterine health, and thinking about the relaxation effect on menstrual cramping, on any kind of pain tension in the reproductive system. So, whether that’s PCOS or endometriosis, calamus could play a role there. But even like maybe especially endometriosis, I don’t know, all of them, all of the ones that have the stagnation component. I kind of want to call out endometriosis as like a favorite here. But I think that’s mostly because I was just editing some videos about endometriosis for the reproductive health course. And so it’s really on my mind right now. But I don’t want actually to attach calamus just to one diagnostic here. I really want to put it in with that stagnancy, maybe holding onto a little bit too much water. Not circulating your fluids, not quite getting everything to what you need. And also that tension in there.
Yeah. You know, energetically we’d be thinking of those as like cold states, damp states, and also with kind of a mix of laxity and tension that can hopefully be rebalanced by introducing something like calamus to the area. So, yeah.
So, that’s the line, right down the middle of you.
And you know, one way that I think about calamus is sort of an embodiment remedy, to help you to live in your body and to experience your body a little more fully. I work with calamus in meditation contexts and also with reference to dreaming to help you to relax and open your sensorium a little bit. And that can really only be done from a place of feeling safety and relative comfort. So, a lot of people are experiencing tunnel vision figuratively and literally, because of high activation of stress response, and frequent activation of it. And so calamus can be really helpful to pull you out of tunnel vision and to like open into wide angle vision, wide angle hearing, like open up your perceptions that way. And that’s a nice receptive space to go and do meditation or do visualization work or to transition into the dream state. So, I like it for those applications too.
Literally I couldn’t live without calamus. I just couldn’t. I love this plant.
Yeah. Well, so those were a couple of little profiles there about our first couple of plants on the shelf, Achillea and Acorus, yarrow and calamus. So, we’re going to continue on with this theme in some future episodes. I think our next one up might be anise hyssop, maybe some lady’s mantle is coming soon. So, anyway, we’ll be back in the future.
We’ll be back next week.
We’ll be back next week. We’re guaranteeing it. Okay.
There was a minute of distraction there, but we’re back, ya’ll. We are back.
Yeah. All right. We’ll be back next week with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. And see if you can find some yarrow and calamus.
Because they’re delicious.
Because they’re wonderful. And we love them. All right. See you later.
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