Podcast 179: Herbs A-Z: Betula & Calendula
This week’s herbs are fluid-movers, with drying and tonifying effects. They’re both excellent topical remedies which can also be helpful when taken internally. We prefer water or alcohol extracts of them in most cases, but birch makes a decent infused oil and calendula is excellent in oil.
Betula spp. are birch trees – all the different kinds are similar. Their bark is famous for its salicylate content – mostly in the form of methylsalicylate, which gives the bark its ‘wintergreen’ scent and exerts substantial anti-inflammatory effects. Birch and wintergreen are our favorites for topical remedies because they have this active, volatile form of salicylate. Birch is also rich in betulin, a constituent with its own anti-inflammatory actions along with antimicrobial and cancer-fighting actions. (Betulin is also found in chaga, because the fungus absorbs it from the birch trees it grows on.)
Calendula officinalis is one of the brightest, sunniest flowers around. Its capacity to move lymphatic fluids is fantastic medicine for fluid bloating in the belly, congested lymph nodes, and to help with “clean-up” work after an illness. It’s a great antifungal herb which does not irritate the underlying tissue. And it’s a hepatoprotective – an herb which protects the liver and helps it function optimally – as well!
These quick plant profiles were done off-the-cuff & on-the-spot. If you enjoyed them, we have more! Our organized & comprehensive presentation of our herbal allies is in the Holistic Herbalism Materia Medica course. We have detailed profiles of 90 medicinal herbs! Plus you get everything that comes with enrollment in our courses: twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, discussion threads integrated in each lesson, guides & quizzes, and more.
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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. And the power of consistency, and of a regular release schedule, and of predictable appearance of podcasts in your feed.
We have these powers.
When it gets to be the end of the year, we get really tired.
We exercise them with discretion.
We get really tired. And also I have been cranking out children’s health videos. I have been just uploading almost every day.
The whole nose is on the grindstone, y’all.
Yeah. Like every part. Both nostrils. Yes. So, anyway, as a result, sorry.
We missed a couple weeks, but we’re here now. And you’re here, and this is the right time for us to be together. So…
It’s like harvesting plants. When is the right time to harvest a plant? I mean, there are ideal times. But also when you are there, and the plant is there, and the need is there. That is the right time.
Yeah. Well, we are going to continue on with our herbs A to Z series. This week we’re going to be talking about Betula species and about Calendula.
This is exciting because we have left the As.
We do. We only have the one jar on our shelf at present of herbs whose Latin name begins with a B. We’re going to move through an entire letter today.
Now I need to think about…
And then there are several C plants up there. There’s actually quite a few. So, that’ll take a minute.
I need to think about herbs whose Latin name start with B that we don’t work with.
Mm-Hmm, yeah. There are some in the world.
There are some in the world.
So, we will think about that. But yes, that will be our topic today. Birch, Calendula, plants of fluid movement in different ways.
Plus a mini rant.
And a mini rant.
Which I’m excited about.
All right. But before we leap in, let’s remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalist and holistic health educators.
The idea is discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalist in the United States. And 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 a 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 is 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.
Hey, we also want to tell you that we are super grateful to Mountain Rose Herbs for sponsoring this episode of the podcast. And speaking of mountainroseherbs.com, tomorrow morning – that’s Monday – I am going to be sending out the first of a series of DIY holiday herbal recipes.
It’s the time.
It is the time… in the newsletter. So, if you’re not signed up for our newsletter, go sign up. You can sign up on any page of our website, commonwealths.com. But this is actually about Mountain Rose. Because for all those recipes, they’re all going to be super easy, fun things that you can give as gifts or make for yourself. Because self-care, at all times of the year, but especially this time of year, is very important. You might think well, this recipe looks really easy and also really tasty, and I really want to try it. And I have none of these ingredients. I don’t know where to get them. Mountainroseherbs.com is where you can get them. And they have literally everything you could possibly need.
Yeah. You know, you want to get some herbs. You want to get some oils, perhaps. You might need some containers to put things in. You might need some bees wax when you make some salve. They have it all. It’s super handy.
They have some herbs for tea. They have fancy salts. They even have like premade spice blends. So, if you want to like branch out into herbs as food, but you are not really confident yet about blending your own spices. They have even like culinary spice blends. Which by the way, completely count as herbalism. Like that is absolutely herbalism, even if it is just in your dinner, 100% legit application of herbs.
Yeah, for sure. So, check them all out at mountainroseherbs.com. One last note, our podcast is also sponsored by us, by Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism.
Yes. It’s December. And that means it’s time for our 20% off sale, which is 20% off everything, anything you want. And it’s unlimited.
Anything, any of our course materials that you want. We can’t give you 20% off that really cool hat you saw in that store in Taos.
That’s true. Yeah. No, we can’t do that. No, but anything, any of our online courses that you would like is 20% off. So, go grab it now at online.commonwealthherbs.com.
There’s a code you’re going to want to use at checkout. And the code is whitepine, all one word, whitepine.
And I’m going to suggest that if you haven’t already done so, you just go and get yourself a copy of the phytochemistry, the basic phytochemistry course. And here’s why. Remember the rant that I promised? This is the baby version of the rant. A much larger version of this rant is coming, so stay tuned. But I was reading the internet this week, and I found a blog post that reportedly was going to tell me the truth about elderberry. And in this blog post it said all those people for all those hundreds of years who have been boiling their elderberries into syrup have been wrong. Let me tell you wrong, wrong, because it destroys 100% of the flavonoid content, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it was written like, you know, look at what a reasonable knowledgeable person I am. And look at how everybody’s been doing this wrong for so long. And I’m reading this, and I’m like this person has never studied photochemistry. Because if they had, they would know that actually flavonoids are fairly phenomenally heat stable.
It’s a big category. There’s going to be variations between individual members, but like by and large, pretty stable.
Pretty stable. And some of them actually become even more antioxidant in action when they are exposed to heat. And I’m just reading this. And I’m like, there’s so much crap on the internet, holy cow. There’s so much crap on the internet. This person could have saved themselves from writing this article, if only they had learned a little bit of phytochemistry. And listen, I know that phytochemistry sounds intimidating. Just the word itself sounds intimidating, right? And a lot of people had bad experiences with like chemistry class in high school or whatever. But this course breaks it down. It is only the stuff that you really need, so that you can think critically about information that you’re finding out in the world. So that you can read that article that supposedly is the truth about elderberry. And think for yourself, hold on a second. I think this person is maybe not quite accurate.
Taking certain claims in the wrong direction.
Right. Maybe not accurate in their claims here, because I know that actually flavonoid content is not destroyed by heat. So, this kind of information, it isn’t just like oh, you should learn this hard thing, because it’s hard. It really is a tool to help you both in terms of knowing how to properly extract a particular type of constituent. What will it come out best in. But also to help do you think critically when you’re seeing these kinds of claims made.
Regardless of where they come from.
Right, right, right.
I mean it’s also helpful when you’re like I would like to be able to read some of these scientific studies, that apparently have been done about an herb I’m really interested in. But I don’t know what it says, because it’s telling me about these chemicals. And I don’t know what they’re up to, so yeah. It’s a good way to learn about that. If I could recommend a course to you all – well, some of you, anyway – it might be Katja’s herbal business program. Because that’s available now where Commonwealth herbs are sold.
And it’s really fantastic. And you know, I think that there is, you know, just like there’s bad advice or misleading information about herbalism and about science all over the internet. There’s misleading advice about starting your own holistic business, and what’s going to be involved in that. And you know, we’ve talked about this before. But it’s a rampant problem in the U.S. right now. That there are lots of people who are super interested in herbs and herbalism and getting trained, and in a lot of cases getting trained really well. But then trying to go and start a business herbalist alone in the world, and not getting too far. And then getting frustrated. And the saddest stories are the ones where people just give up entirely, because they can’t figure out how to set up online booking for client appointments, or because they don’t know how to build a website or something like that.
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Just a Few B Herbs & Birch: Betula sp.
Okay. So, let’s get to some herbs. Then let’s talk about birch. Let’s talk about calendula. We were mentioning a moment ago about how, you know, Betula is our only botanical Latin herb name on our shelf today that has a B at the beginning of it. You know, we could have had Berberis up there, Barberry.
We do, just not with the dry herbs. We have barberries, themselves in the kitchen. Dried barberries in the kitchen. Those are really, really good by the way. And they’re so good that I save them. So, I have this thing where if I have something fancy, I save it for an unreasonable amount of time. Until Ryn finally…
For a long time.
Until Ryn finally gets it out and says listen. If we don’t eat these, I’m going to eat them.
Today is the day of fancy. It has arrived. We’re going to eat the barberries, and it’s going to be great.
So, we do have some barberry. And also we have lots of barberry tincture, and other different Berberis species things, but just not on the dry herbs shelf.
Right. Yeah. And I think we’ve got some Bargo, some borage in a box somewhere.
We do. We don’t drink that very often.
Yeah. It’s not in our like tea rotation palate. Just as a happenstance, not as a statement of our approval or disapproval of borage.
Kind of a little bit actually.
I’ve never really appreciated borage.
Wasn’t your favorite?
No. And I really think that the reason why this was my assessment in the very beginning. Because in the very beginning, when I was first learning herbalism, everybody was into borage. It will calm you down. It will make you relaxed. But listen, I don’t really like to be relaxed. And borage kind of falls into that category of kava for me. It relaxes me in a way that’s uncomfortable. Chamomile relaxes me in a way that is so effective. But kava and borage both relax me in a way that’s uncomfortable.
A little too much.
yeah. A little too much.
But what we’re really here to talk about today is Betula. And we’re going to be talking about a bunch of different species of birch as if they were…not the same. We don’t really believe in that. But similar, similar enough that you can work with all of them in the same ways. Yeah.
Yeah. And I want to specify that really we’re kind of not talking about paper birch, or like the white birch trees with the peely bark. I mean if that’s all you have around, all right. But…
Yeah, yeah. I did look into it, you know. And there are lots of different ways to look into an herb. But one that I was just checking on a little earlier today was about the salicylate content in various different species of birches. And they say there’s variation, you know. But there could be just as much variation within one species as between different ones. So I think that even the paper birch, if you get to the right layer of the bark.
Right. It’s not the white papery part. You’ve got to go in some. But I bring that to attention, because paper birch is often the one that people feel most comfortable identifying. Because it is a very unique looking tree.
Yeah. Most of the trees don’t have their bark just sort of peeling off in these curls and scrolls and everything.
Yeah. But also because that tree is a real temptation for lots of people to just go up and peel off a piece of paper. And that’s actually damaging to the tree. So, I wanted to point out that whatever species of birch you’re going to work with, you don’t have to cut down a tree. And this is actually true for all tree medicine, right? You do not have to cut the tree down to work with this plant. And in fact you don’t even usually have to cut anything. All you need is a windstorm. And if you go out after a storm and just gather the branches that have fallen down, that is a really effective way to work with tree medicine in general, but birch in particular. And so what that means is that there’s a little planning ahead that’s going to happen. Basically anytime that you have a big, heavy windstorm, or like, you know, it doesn’t have to only be wind. It can be rain and all the other things too. But the next day always try to go out for a walk, and to gather up the trees that you work with as medicine. Because then you’ll have them when you need them. And barks last for a real long time. So, you don’t have to worry about, you know… As long as you dry it well, you don’t have to worry about them like losing their potency or their efficacy or whatever. But if you plan ahead that way, then you never have to cut things off of the tree. And that’s better.
Yeah. Pretty great. Yeah, the bark is the primary part of birch that we work with, although you can you can make infusions of the leaves. I suppose you could tincture them as well. They’re going to have a similar, you know, type of flavor and set of qualities and everything. Like all of the birch parts are going to be cooling and drying and tonifying in nature. In part because of the salicylate content, in part because of the tannins, other chemistries that are there in the plant. But those are the impressions you would get, if you make birch leaf tea, or if you take a piece of bark, and peel it off, and chew on that. You’re going to feel an astringency in the mouth for sure. There’s a substantial amount of tannins in birch bark. And you know, we’re big cheerleaders for tannins at this particular herb school.
Yeah. I’m really into them. I’m really kind of obsessed with tannins. I mean, you know, most humans have been obsessed with tannins throughout history, you know?
Right. And with birch, like including to actually doing tanning, tanning of leather. I was reading something – I think it was actually in Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal from the 1930s but – writing about birch there. And talking about the way that the Russians were in the habit of working with birch and with birch oil when they would tan the leather on their books. And that was why they would last a really long time and not end up getting moldy. Because of the virtues of the birch oil that were infused into the leather of the books.
Birch actually has a really long history in the far north. Not just in Russia, but in the Scandinavian countries as well. That is a plant that is still, even to people who don’t practice traditional medicine practices anymore, but birch remains an important part of like cultural practices and sauna practices and stuff like that. So it really, it is. It’s a really important plant. Tree.
Yeah. Trees are plants.
Really big plants.
Working with Birch & Sponginess
All trees are plants. Cool. Yeah. So, what else to say about birch? I like it as decoctions primarily. It does make a good tincture as well. A lot of the, you know, characterized chemistry of the plant, the stuff that people say is active ingredients in here, are things that are going to be very water soluble, and also soluble in alcohol very easily, a bit less so in oil. Birch is one where I can see a case for infusing it into oil.
Like alder. I feel like these are going to be more active as an oil than willow. I know that there are herbalists out there who swear by their willow infused oil for arthritic applications and other problems like that. But I think if it was me and I had the choice, I would be like yeah, let’s put the birch in there instead. That’s going to extract better. I’m going to expect more activity from it in an oil extraction. But again, water extracts are fantastic, both to drink and also to apply topically. And you know, in these cases we’re going to be getting the tannin activity. We’re going to be getting the salicylate activity. We’re going to be getting those drying effects, those cooling effects, where we’re squeezing fluids out of tissue, where we’re dialing down inflammatory fire. Where we’re tonifying things, including like lax tissues or like layers of tissue that are a little like spongy, you know. Or like when the gums get spongy and your teeth get loose, you know, that kind thing. Dental applications for birch are pretty great here too.
You know I think I really can’t credit tannins enough for dental health in my world, because I really don’t like to go to the dentist. Which might be funny if you have taken any of the courses in which I had braces, or if you were listening to the podcast when I had braces. Because I did. I went from I hate going to the dentist, and I will put it off as long as I possibly can. To yeah, braces sound like a good idea I guess. I don’t know.
No, but you’re… like there are so many dental problems that end up with sponginess and like laxity in the gum tissues.
Right. And I have had a lot of that. And my brother also, he had to have skin grafts and stuff like that in his gums. And I have not had to do that. And I really think that it’s… well, it’s not me. My dentist also thinks that it’s the tannins. But yeah, so I look at, you know, applications. The way that people worked with birch before dentistry was something that was commonly available.
I mean a birch twig is a pretty good tooths stick, you know. Like there are lots of plants that you can kind of chew on the end and make a sort of a brushy bit out of it. And, you know, scrape that on the teeth and kind of poke in between and everything. Birch is really good for that.
I wanted to also draw the parallel between the sponginess in the gums and other sponginess you were talking about, and think a little bit about rheumatoid arthritis or any kind of joint swelling, right? Like joint pain that comes along with swelling, even if it hasn’t been diagnosed, rheumatoid arthritis. Like there’s lots of reasons that you can get that. Even just maybe you had Lyme. And now most of the time you’re fine, but every so often you get like a flare up in the joints, and there’s a bunch of fluid hanging around there. That kind of a situation too. And this is exactly what we’re looking for. We’re looking for that astringing action, that squeezing out of extra fluid action. And we are grateful for the bonus added action of the pain relief as well. And in this regard we could put it in a liniment. Especially if… so, you know, with birch you’re going to get that cooling effect. And on one hand that’s actually great, because when you get a bunch of fluid hanging around, you also have inflammation that is caused by that fluid, right? Just by the congestion that the fluid brings. And we normally think about inflammation as like a very hot thing. And we think about collecting fluids as a cold thing. And that’s true. But ultimately it’s like a traffic jam. When the trash truck is stuck in a traffic jam, then stuff is going to start to stink up. And that’s inflammation, right? So, there is that inflammation present. We do want to cool off the inflammation, and squeeze out the fluids so that we are removing the source of the inflammation. But if you put this in a nice liniment, and you had the birch. And you had, since we’re talking about joints maybe some Solomon’s seal. And then you had like some ginger or some cayenne or something nice like that. So, maybe the Solomon’s seal, maybe you had fresh roots, and you infused that in oil. Maybe you put the birch into alcohol. And then maybe you just added some ginger essential oil, for example. It’s a very simple liniment, but it would be lovely. The ginger would warm it up and also still be providing anti-inflammatory action as well. That’s great.
But a very different kind of anti-inflammatory activity than what you’re getting from your birch, or for that matter from your Solomon’s seal. Yeah.
You could work with the birch all by itself. You absolutely could. But you would get like… you know, that’s like a solo. You know, a nice oboe solo or something like that. And then you bring in the other instruments, and you have like an ensemble, and yeah.
Salicylates & Inflammation
Yeah. That’s pretty great. You know, we’ve said a few times in this podcast so far words like tannins and salicylates. So, if you’re following along with us for a while now, then those are going to be familiar terms. If you’re brand new, then welcome. But you know, tannins are found in a lot of different plants. They give that astringency. That feeling of like, when you taste it on your tongue, it’s like the taste buds are all drying up and slurping up next to each other like that. The salicylates are found in a lot of different herbs. And they tend to have those cooling, drying, draining qualities to them. A lot of times people make an analogy to aspirin, which is acetylsalicylic acid. The forms that occur in plants are a bit different. In birch it’s primarily a form called methyl salicylate. And there’s a number of important differences between what’s in aspirin and what’s in birch. A really big one is that the stuff in aspirin can damage your stomach line and give you ulcers if you take them too much. It also puts a lot of stress on the liver and the kidneys, in terms of where they’re going to get disposed of in the body. But the birch salicylates aren’t going to have that problem for you. Both types of chemical though, are going to have anti-inflammatory effects. And that’s a fine thing to say, but what does it really mean practically speaking, you know? Like a lot of us have sort of been trained if you have pain anywhere, that’s inflammation. Take an anti-inflammatory, like an aspirin or a Tylenol, and then your pain will go away. So, a lot of times when people are talking about herbs, and about birch or alder or willow or other related friends, they’ll be like oh. Well, these are like herbal painkillers. It’s like herbal aspirin. And sometimes people have that experience of like, I’ve got a headache. I take a squirt of birch tincture. And I feel better pretty soon. But for many other problems, it’s going to be a really different interaction. It’s not going to be that I take this once. And in 30 minutes I have pain relief, and now I can kind of like forget about it. With these you need to kind of either get them to the place where you need the activity the most, and/or you need to take them consistently for some time, so that the effect can kind of build up in your body.
New Speaker (00:26:26):
But also if you think about it, that’s completely reasonable. If we’re thinking about dealing with some kind of a boggy, spongy, too much fluid sort of situation, that also doesn’t go away overnight, you know?
I mean if it was your basement you wouldn’t get the buckets and the mops, and take all the water away, but then not find the leak.
Yeah. Right, right, right, right. Yeah. Or like just scoop one bucket of water, and be like I’m done. Everything’s dry now. It’s not dry now, you know? You should, it’s reasonable to expect a longer period of work. Wait, you were talking about getting the herb right directly to the issue.
Oh, right. So like, if it’s dental inflammation then yeah. Like take some tea. Hold it in your mouth. Swish it around for a good long while. That’ll be more effective, way more effective than being like let me go find a birch capsule on the internet. And I’m going to swallow those, right?
I don’t think you probably can
Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe not.
Probably they don’t have those.
But yeah, that wouldn’t be targeting, you know, the place that’s got the pain in it. And so if the pain that you’ve got is you sprained your ankle. Well, I think your best way to work with birch is going to be to do some topical applications. Make a soak, you know, a really strong decoction of the birch, and soak your whole ankle in there. That would be fantastic. You can drink the tea or take the tincture and get some pain relief, but again it might take a day or two. And that would be three to five doses over those days. And, you know, by that third day you’re like oh, okay. This is feeling substantially different.
Yeah. You know, we’re so trained by the way that our culture cares for health. We’re so trained that you swallow a pill to solve the problem. But with holistic interventions, that’s not how it works. You have to match the problem with the method of resolving it. And so you know, like soaking your sprained ankle in a bath, or putting a liniment right on the problem, instead of expecting to take a pill for it. You will have a lot more success that way. So, it’s sort of always thinking how do I get the herb to the problem?
Yeah. And when we’re doing that, those kind of topical applications, I really do like birch. And I also like wintergreen and other herbs that have this methyl salicylate form.
Yeah. I wanted to talk about that too.
Kind of in a bit of a contrast to willow or alder, where there’s a form there called salicin or salicortin. These are like glycosides. So, it’s like the salicylate base, but it’s got a sugar molecule attached to it. Those are not going to be volatile. They’re not going to like contribute to the smell of the plant the way that methyl salicylate does. It smells like wintergreen.
Right. And so like if you drink birch beer, or even if you think about root beer, either birch or wintergreen is an ingredient in root beer. Because it’s that similarity of flavor and similarity of aroma that gives the root beer it’s like characteristic root beer-iness.
It’s a classic place for birch, you know. You get maybe some sassafras, some sarsaparilla, maybe a little bit of ginger, and a bunch of birch bark, and you have got a root beer tea. You’ve got that going on. Or elixir, or tincture blend or various other things you might prepare. So, you know, the plants with salicylates that have that wintergreeny scent to them, right? So, the wintergreen. the birch, these ones we do prefer for topical application, and as ingredients in liniments and rubs and things like that. Either as a tincture. An infused oil would be fine, although it’s not really my preference. Or we can also work with the essential oils of these plants. Both from birch and from wintergreen, the essential oil is like almost entirely composed of this compound methyl salicylate. It’s not a hundred percent pure, because it’s nature. But it’s a very high percentage. You know, 80, 90% or more of the finished essential oil itself is that one compound. And so those are powerful, which does mean you have to be careful with them. You can harm somebody with, you know, isolated wintergreen oil or birch oil. But if you’re diluting it effectively and appropriately in a topical product or something, then it’s great stuff. And I find that birch and wintergreen both, because of the methyl salicylate they have that anti-inflammatory effect. But they also kind of like dig into the tissue. They drive the whole formula deeper.
And I mean it isn’t just us. That’s why sports rubs, like over the counter sports rubs like Bengay smell like wintergreen, because that’s what’s in there.
Yeah. And because they have predecessors in botanical remedies that were popularized decades or centuries ago. Yeah.
It’s also really nice to know that wintergreen has a lot of the same constituents as birch. I mean not nearly the tannin content.
That is a big difference between them, yeah.
Right. But if what you really need to get your hands on is some methyl salicylate content, and there hasn’t been a windstorm. And you’re out of birch, and you’re like I don’t really want to cut a birch branch down for this. But in the same place that you have birch, you are very, very likely to also have wintergreen. And so you could maybe just grab a couple of leaves of wintergreen and go with that.
Betulin & Chaga
Yeah. But today we talk about salicylates a lot. We had an episode featuring alder not too long ago. We talked about them there again. Today I want to add another constituent to our discussion. This one’s called betulin. And it makes sense to talk about it in the context of Betula species, because that’s what it’s named for. So, this is what’s called a triterpene. This is going to be another relatively small kind of a molecule. Triterpenoids don’t usually tend to be volatile in nature. But they do often have really interesting physiological activity in well, mammals, I guess I’d say.
And so wait. I want to just break that sentence down. If something is not volatile in nature, what that means is it will not be present in the essential oil. And so essential oils are great, but they are just a tiny fraction of what the plant has to offer. So, this would be, you know, if we had an essential oil of birch, we would get those methyl salicylates. But the triterpenes that we’re looking at, this betulin that we’re looking at, would not be present in the essential oil.
Right. But these would be well extracted in tinctures, in water extracts, you know and methods like that. So…
Phytochemistry. Phytochemistry. You’ve got to learn it.
So betulin is actually one of the things that makes white birches and other species of birch have whiteish bark. You know, white is a color too in a way. And this is a colorant in the bark. It’s also found in some other places. Betulin is found in red alder. So, you can refer back to our previous discussion about alder. And at least some of the alders have betulin in a substantial amount. Betulin is also one of the things that moves from the birch tree into the chaga fungus. And if you’ve heard a lot about the anti-cancer powers of chaga, part of them are because of what chaga lives in and on and through and beneath and around in the way that fungal entities do.
What chaga’s been eating lately.
Yeah, right. So, the betulin produced by the birch gets concentrated in the body of the chaga. Yeah. And you know, when we look at some of the known actions of this chemical, we find that they fight cancer by inducing what’s called apoptosis. The usual phrase is programmed cell death, or normal, like scheduled you could say, scheduled cell death. You know, you have a lot of cells. You don’t actually want them all to live forever. You definitely don’t want them to decide that they’re going to live forever, and also eat more than all of their neighbors. Because that’s what we call cancer. And betulin, among many other plant constituents, turns the clock back on in a cancer cell. And so it will say oh wait, I’m supposed to actually not live forever and be a vampire cell. It’s time to die. All right. I’m done.
And listen, the best time to do this is before anything is diagnosable Because once you have a whole colony of these cells, we call that a tumor. At that point, it’s really hard for an herb to say all of you should go ahead and die like you were supposed to. Move along to be recycled, and no. This process happens best like before any kind of cancer is in the picture at all. Because there are always cells that are like nah, one more day. It’s going to be fine. And your body’s like come on, move along. You’re done with your job. Go on home now. And that’s really where these herbs that are these like anti-cancer herbs are most effective. So, I want to be really clear about that. And especially because chaga is really at risk, because of over harvesting. And right now it has been so popularized as like an everyday kind of thing. And people really don’t have a lot of… It isn’t being talked about. About harvesting practices, and that this mushroom is at risk. It takes like 30 to 40 years for chaga mushroom to mature enough to be like a reproducible body. So, this is really a fungus that we need to be super, super careful about not extincting.
Yeah. I think there’s a way that we can say all right. I can appreciate the uniqueness of chaga, and the things that it brings together in itself. But we could also say recognizing it’s ecological status and the threats that exist to it, we could say, all right. Well, from one perspective, chaga is a medicinal mushroom. So we’re going to have some cool immunomodulatory, polysaccharides going on. We see these anti-cancer activities from things like betulin coming from plants like birch. If I don’t want to eat up all the chaga in my forest, what if we get some birch bark, and we get some shiitake or maitake mushrooms.
Yeah. Toss some turkey tail or some reishi in there too.
They don’t have to be in the same drink, right? Although you can actually make a really nice mushroom infused root beer flavored substance. And that’s pretty great. But we could say, you know, one way to look at these plants would be to say what are some of their major bioactive constituents? And then what I think would be better than saying let’s just isolate those and take them, would be to say let’s look at other plants that share them, and also have a thousand other chemistries within themselves. Because that going to be more like having the target fungus or the target plant, because of the complexity with it, right? So, this is like a way to use some chemistry and some like key famous or well studied constituents as a way to begin. But not to get captured in reductionism, and to say that those ones that we’ve known and named are the only ones that matter.
That’s why I love him, y’all. Did you hear what he just said? Wasn’t that kind of sexy actually. Like, I’m sorry, but that was so cool. You could say it again.
Okay. Well, so those are some fun thoughts around birch and betulin. There were some other cool things that are known about this constituent by the way. Like it can help to improve insulin sensitivity. It seems to reduce cholesterol production in the body. I interpret that as meaning that it reduces the requirement for your body to put cholesterol plaques onto your artery walls.
Right. So, instead of reducing cholesterol, we can think about that in terms of reducing inflammation throughout the vasculature. Which therefore reduces the need for cholesterol production. Because, as you can learn more about in the cardiovascular health course, cholesterol in the arteries, it’s function is actually like a scab. It’s actually trying to heal wounds on the inside of the arteries. And that’s why it sticks to the arterial walls.
Yeah. There’s another cool thing, a reference around betulin helping to stabilize atherosclerotic plaques. Which, you know, maybe you’re like well, I don’t want them to be there. Yeah. But if they are there, you want them to be stable. Because it’s the unstable ones that are going to proliferate the inflammation, and make it worse, and risk more serious damage.
Right. That clotty stuff inside your arteries. Yeah.
So, these are some cool effects. You know, like always when we’re looking at statements made about a single constituent, it’s good to say, okay. So, was this based on like a petri dish trial. That we had some cancer cells, and we dropped betulin powder onto them. And, you know, we saw them die earlier. That’s where most of this information comes from. But it can still be relevant in a living human, but maybe not in exactly the same way, right? So, don’t hear us talking about pro apoptotic effects of betulin. And say if I drink birch tea, it will kill my tumors, right? That’s not exactly the same thing. There are connections to be made. But I just want to be clear about what kind of statements we’re making.
I mean also we can think about that apoptosis action. That is a function. Like monitoring apoptosis throughout the body, that programmed cell death, or the date stamped on your cell. You know, like the…
Expiration date, yeah.
expiration date. Monitoring that all cells who are past their expiration date are in fact making their way to the liver to be broken down and recycled and excreted, is a function of the immune system. And so when we look at a particular constituent and say oh, this encourages apoptosis. We are also actually saying oh, this is helping a function of the immune system.
Yeah. And we also have to recognize that it doesn’t stay. That it doesn’t like just float around as that one chemical in your body until it does its job. It’s going to get changed. And with betulin it can get metabolized, both in plants and also in your body, to another compound called betulinic acid. Which is also a pretty widely distributed constituent, maybe even more than betulin itself. This one is found in rosemary and in self heal. And both of those plants are also pretty well known for their anti-cancer effects. To reduce the proliferation of cancer cells. To set up apoptosis again. And betulinic acid is also known as another anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial substance, you know? So, you know, again, chemistry is complicated. Things are going to keep changing and moving as we try to watch them. But I did with birch today just want to break us beyond salicylate content. And recognize that there’s a lot of crossover, right? So, we talk about anti-inflammatory effects, even the antimicrobial effect of these. Both of them are present in birch. Both of them matter. And I’m sure that there are many others that we could appreciate just as much, if we had more published papers about them, that kind thing to look at. Yeah. Okay. So, those are some birch-y thoughts for you. Shall we move on to Calendula?
Calendula & Its Antifungal Superpower
We should. I’m very excited to talk about calendula. Which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t excited about birch. I do really love birch. But calendula is super on my mind lately. Because like I said, I’ve been uploading a couple hours of new content to the children’s health course almost every day for the last few weeks. And calendula comes up in almost every context of children’s health.
Not just for diaper rash.
Not just for diaper rash. And also, you know, I think that when we talk about oh, it’s safe for babies. Then the next thought that happens without you having to expend any effort on it is it must be weak.
Sort of, yeah. That’s one issue that phrase. The other one is that it sort of sets up mental categories of like safe for and not safe for babies. And like puts your herbs like firmly into one or the other, right? So like if it’s not calendula or chamomile, I don’t know. It might not be safe for the baby.
Yeah. but calendula is really very, very helpful for… Listen, babies especially. But when you’re born, you’re not fully cooked, right? Like you’re still developing. You’re still finalizing your product really all the way through puberty. So, I love to remind parents of that. Especially if, you know, maybe like… Well, we can actually use you as an example, because you were born preemie.
Yeah. Like two months early.
And so that had real implications for your lungs and other parts of your health.
Yeah, it basically took like 15 years for my lungs to really work well. I like quote-unquote had asthma as a kid. And then quote-unquote grew out of it. But you know, your lungs are some of the last structures in the body to like completely develop in utero. And if you come out a little early, then…
Or a lot early in your case.
It takes a while for your lungs to catch up. Yeah.
Right. And so I just think it’s important for parents to recognize that if something isn’t quite right at the time of birth, you’re not doomed. There’s so much development that still is going to happen. And as all the different parts of the body come online, they don’t necessarily do that smoothly. You know, like the digestive system comes online. And you know, if you’ve raised babies, you know there’s like a bunch of diarrhea and a bunch of constipation and a bunch of like things just don’t quite work right. And you know, sometimes random puking, and you’ll never really know what happened. And eh, it’s just because, you know, going from all your food being predigested to like having to digest your own food. And then different stages of digesting different types of food. And every time it’s like a whole new learning curve for your intestines. Like yeah, it’s just normal for things to not quite work right. And the same with skin. You know, like actually regulating your pores and the oil level and the amount of moisture and the amount of not moisture on your skin. It takes a while. So anyway, calendula helps with all of these things. But my favorite calendula superpower is thrush. Thrush can be really uncomfortable, downright painful especially if you’re breastfeeding.
So this is a fungal infection in the mouth of the baby.
In the mouth of the baby and usually the nipples of the mom. And so they say that it isn’t painful for the baby. And I think I believe that, because babies don’t act like they’re in pain when there’s thrush. But let me tell you how painful it is if you are breastfeeding: tremendously, tremendously painful. And you know, there’s so many things out there that are really strong, and kind of egregiously strong to try to deal with thrush.
We’ll make a neem and chapparal liniment in rubbing alcohol. Put that right on there.
Yeah. That also would be tremendously painful if you’re breastfeeding.
That sounds bad.
Yeah. And the thing that I find just like one of the most hysterical things about nature – It’s always like this – is that like, nope, calendula. Calendula is hands down the single most effective intervention for thrush that I’ve ever seen. It’s astounding how well it works. And it’s completely gentle and safe. And if you put some calendula salve on the nipples after breastfeeding – and then obviously you’re going to like wipe that off before you breastfeed again, but you might not get all of it off – yeah. That’s fine. It’s not going to hurt baby. It’s going to be great. Like that’s actually fantastic. And so yeah, calendula.
So that’s, I mean, it has a topical, antifungal, possibly broader antimicrobial….
It’s really strong, really strong. I just… That’s the thing that gets me is that it’s this plant that’s like safe for baby’s diaper rash, you know, like all that stuff. And it’s just like but no. It is so powerful against this thing that is so painful.
Right. Like effective, but it’s not going to have – I don’t know – collateral damage. Like you could say you could take thyme or oregano. And you could make a very strong preparation of those. And that will kill off some fungi, but it will also like really irritate your tissue, especially if it’s already irritated to begin with. Whereas calendula is going to be for your own cells just like soothing and stabilizing, and helping them hold together, or to regenerate faster. And yet at the same time it’s disrupting the life of your fungal infection.
Right. Plus let me tell you there that, you know, thyme or oregano or monarda on the nipples is a really fast way to turn your baby off of breastfeeding. Like oh, that tastes terrible.
Garlic oil. You could rub that on there. Yeah.
No, no, no. Baby’s not going to like that. So, yeah. Anyway, the other place where I really am just wildly impressed with calendulas antifungal action is in sinus infections. And you might not know, but sinus infections almost always have a fungal component. Sometimes they’re entirely fungal. And we don’t, you know, when we think about respiratory or upper respiratory crud or even sinus crud – I don’t know – we’re just sort of very programmed to think about viruses or bacteria.
Yeah. One or the other. Right. That’s like that’s a nuanced view. It’s like oh, well maybe it’s actually not a bacteria. Maybe it’s a virus.
A virus. Right, right, right. But you can have an upper respiratory infection that’s fungal. And you commonly do, especially when like the sinus infection is really the key aspect of your upper respiratory crud. And I really love calendula in this case as well. Now, calendula doesn’t steam well. So, you might be thinking ah, I bet she puts that in a steam. Nah, I put thyme and oregano and monarda in a steam. That’s what I put in. But calendula, I like to take in a good, strong tincture. And I’ll take like a big dropper full, two dropper fulls, whatever. And hold it in my mouth, and kind of use my tongue to push it up against the roof of my mouth. And the idea here is that I want it to absorb up through the roof of my mouth into my sinuses. And so I just hold it there as long as I possibly can stand it. You know, it gets uncomfortable after a while because it’s like alcohol on your tongue and whatever. But I’m telling you it’s super, super effective, and makes a huge difference in sinus infections, especially if you catch it early. If you are a person who gets sinus infections really frequently. And you have learned like me to notice when the roof of your mouth is starting to get itchy. And you’re like ah, in a day or two I’m going to have a full blown sinus infection. If you start right then you may not get the sinus infection. And that’s always really exciting.
Yeah, you could do a calendula nasal spray. Not with a tincture there, but you could do a water extraction of it, and spritz it up there. You could do the neti pot if you’re into that. And that works quite well for these kind of fungal sinus infections.
Yeah, I’m not into that.
I, you know. Yeah.
Liver Protection & Vulnerary Skills
But some people love it. And if you love it, calendula is going to be super effective there. When you talk about calendula you love to talk about liver stuff.
Yeah. Well calendula is cool, because it’s a very nicely balanced herb for the liver. One way to look at problems in the liver is that they tend to involve stagnation or inflammation, sometimes both. But with a stagnant liver you’re like all right, we want to stimulate, we want to move, we want to activate thing. With an inflamed liver sometimes you need that. But sometimes you need something that’s just like soothing and cooling and yes, directly anti-inflammatory, or helps to increase the liver’s production of its own antioxidant compounds and things like that. Calendula seems to be able to cover all of these bases. It’s got a little bit of a stimulation to it. There is a mild bitterness to calendula, especially if you taste it just by itself. You can detect that. Although it fades pretty quickly if you combine it with any other herbs, you know? It’s not like oh, calendula. I better watch out how much I put in there. No, you can have like half your jar full of calendula. Put a little ginger and some chamomile or some peppermint or something in there. And it won’t taste bitter to you. But there’s a little hint of that. And this is one of the reasons it’s good to taste your herbs individually by themselves to try to help you get a sense of what they do, and what their flavor profile tells you about their activity. But yeah, calendula is also a really nice liver protective plant. It’s a hepatoprotective. Something that we would work with in cases where the liver has been really irritated and inflamed, and does not need any more stimulation. Thank you, very much. But it does need to kind of cool down, release a little heat, that kind of thing. So, yeah. So, I think calendula is a really excellent liver herb, and maybe not often, maybe not always discussed that way. I always think about like the way that I first learned calendula was strictly topical. It was like part wound care, more really if you have like swollen lymph nodes. And I was like okay, that sounds fine. But you know, whatever. And then it was later, and it was like no. It’s like really a general purpose vulnerary. So, all kinds of wounds, skin issues, and burns, and scrapes, and cuts, and this and that. And then it was like well, also antimicrobial activity. Oh yeah. And then if you drink it, it has some of that lymph moving capacity in your guts and in your inner body.
Plus all the vulnerary actions, all along the digestive tract.
Happening along the whole digestive tract. I feel like calendula was… like learning about calendula was one of the plants that really helped me to understand that. Like, if you heal wounds on your arm, you can heal wounds in your intestine.
Yeah. It’s the same kind of cell. Yeah.
And calendula’s just awesome for all of those activities.
Oh, thank you, calendula. You’re fantastic. Plus easy to grow.
Yeah. You know, that was something I did want us to talk about here today too, was our calendula experiments. Because now we’ve had a couple of years of really going at it. And one year was amazing. It was a super dry year for us here. And then the next year it rained a ton, and the calendula did not love it.
Yeah. And the stuff, I will say, the stuff that self seeded was much stronger than the stuff that I planted from seed.
Even though the years were so different from each other, and it didn’t have like five years to get settled and adapt to slight changes before a big shift.
Right, no, calendula has always been, you know, even before when I used to have a lot more time to grow my own herbs back when I lived in Vermont. Calendula is just one of those that it’s so prolific and it’s so easy to grow, unless it’s like a monsoon year. That it’s really worth growing your own. When there are plants that are easy to grow, grow your own. And that way you save your herb budget for plants that don’t grow in your ecosystem or that are very difficult to grow. So, growing your own calendula, it’s easy. And it is like the herb that keeps on giving. This year even though it had been such a bad year, the few plants that did thrive this year were still blooming like at the beginning of November/.
Pretty late, yeah. It’s one of these plants where if you haven’t done a lot of gardening, you’re going to have to like steel yourself a little bit. Because you have to cut those heads off. You’re going to be like oh, it’s a beautiful flower. I should probably let it be alone for a while. No. When the flower is there, and it’s beautiful, just cut it right off. And the thing is the plant will make a new one like tomorrow or the next day. Don’t worry. The plant is fine. It can handle this.
Don’t cut them, pop them off with your fingers. Because when you do that, you will experience the resin, because your fingers will get very sticky. And that resin is such a key component in the functions of calendula. And so, you know, when we talk about energetics, and we talk about that you can taste the actions. And the reason is because the flavors of the plant, that is the phytochemical content, right? Each different type of chemical constituent in the plant has a flavor, or a smell, or a this or that. And you can train yourself to taste them and to smell them. And just like wintergreen to say oh, there’s that characteristic methyl salicylate flavor. Or in the berberine family, you can taste berberine. And you know for sure the flavor of berberine once you get used to it. And it isn’t just what you taste on your tongue, though. All of your senses are part of this organoleptic assessment system. And so feeling that resin, that stickiness on your fingers, that’s telling you about the chemical makeup of the plant. Yeah. Anyway.
Yeah. Pretty cool. You’ve got to use all your senses in herbalism.
All your senses.
That’s how this works. Great. Well, this has been fun. We’re going to continue on next week. And I think our next couple of herbs are going to include Calluna vulgaris and Centaurium erythraea.
Oh my goodness. That’s going to be excellent.
This is going to be a fun episode.
Two of our very favorite plants.
That’s heather and centaury. So, stick around for that one. Yes, we’ll be back with that. Until then don’t forget that we have a sale going on right now. Through the end of December you can use the code whitepine during checkout for any of our online herbalism courses.
Don’t forget if you’re not on our mailing list to get on the mailing list, so that tomorrow you will get the first of a series of DIY gift guide newsletters. You can get on our mailing list at commonwealthherbs.com. And you’ll be able to find all of the ingredients for all of the cool recipes at mountainroseherbs.com, who so graciously sponsored this episode for us and for you.
Cool. All right, so we’ll talk to you again next time. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.
Drink some tea.
Appreciate the birch and calendula in your life. And yeah, we’ll see you soon.
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