Podcast 208: Herbs A-Z: Rhodiola & Rhus

Today we’ve got two astringent herbs to discuss, though their similarities pretty much end with that quality. Rhodiola and staghorn sumac are our topic!

Rhodiola rosea has been commercialized and popularized as an adaptogen and “antidepressant” herb. It’s quite warming, drying, and tonifying – really great if you need to row a viking ship across the North Atlantic… or if your day-to-day work life feels like that kind of marathon. It is an herb of extremes, and it can have adverse effects if you take too much. Working with corrigent herbs, taking breaks, and formulating thoughtfully can make this herb more appropriate for your system.

Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina = R. hirta, is extremely abundant – some even call it ‘invasive’! Cooling, drying, and quite tonifying (especially the leaves), sumac is a good friend. The berries make a nice sour red drink, and we like to make ‘red tea’ with sumac, hibiscus, rose hip, goji, and sometimes schisandra or elderberry. This is a great antioxidant-rich preparation which tastes great with a little honey; even kids like it! Sumac leaf is astringent enough to resolve diarrhea, serve in wound care, or help shrink swollen varicosities.

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:14):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:20):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. Yes. We’re continuing on our herbs A to Z series. Remember, this isn’t every herb in the entire alphabet. This is just a selection of herbs that we keep on our shelves and that we work with really frequently.

Katja (00:36):
We want to have them close to us.

Ryn (00:38):
Yeah. So, today we’re talking about rhodiola and staghorn sumac. Yeah.

Katja (00:46):
Pretty exciting.

Ryn (00:47):
Are they two of our favorite herbs?

Katja (00:49):
They are, but they do not go good together.

Ryn (00:52):
They’re not quite as favorite as some of the other favorites we’ve been talking about recently, but…

Katja (00:57):
Well, you know what? That isn’t actually accurate. They are favorite, but they have really specific application. It’s like Cookie Monster. You know, when we were kids, Cookie Monster just ate all the cookies and got crumbs everywhere. But they updated Cookie Monster lately. And now Cookie Monster sings this song about how cookies are a sometimes food. And I feel like both rhodiola and sumac are kind of like that. Cookie Monster still loves cookies. Don’t get it wrong. He loves them. But they’re a sometimes food. And like I love rhodiola and sumac, but they’re sometimes.

Ryn (01:39):
Sometimes herbs.

Katja (01:41):
Yeah, they’re sometimes herbs.

Ryn (01:44):
All right. So, that’s our topic today. I wanted to take a quick minute and point out that if you…

Katja (01:50):
Dear listener, you.

Ryn (01:51):
If you, dear listener, are tired of just having us as a voice in your head. And perhaps you want to converse with us and ask us questions. Then you can do that. If you want to ask us questions, you need to enroll yourself in one of our courses.

Katja (02:06):
You are invited to.

Ryn (02:08):
Yeah. Any course or program that we offer – yes, including the free ones – will give you access to Q&A sessions. You’ll get access to twice a week live question and answer sessions with us, and occasionally with a couple of our other faculty members as well. And you also get access to the entire archive of our past Q&A sessions. And there’s a lot.

Katja (02:34):
There’s like 200 hours. Or, I don’t know, it might be 250 hours of past sessions. It’s a lot is what we’re saying. You’ll be busy.

Ryn (02:45):
And you say wow, that’s amazing. And you’re very excited. Yeah. So, if that sounds good to you, then you can find everything we offer at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Katja (02:57):

Ryn (03:00):
That’s the place. All right. Before we jump into the herbs, we’re going to remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalist and holistic health educators.

Katja (03:09):
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.

Ryn (03:21):
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, keep in mind that we’re not attempting to present a single dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (03:38):
Everyone’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 new information to think about and some ideas to research further.

Rhodiola Will Keep You Going, But at a Cost

Ryn (03:49):
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, and it doesn’t mean you’re to blame for your current state of health. But it does mean that the final decision when you’re considering any course of action, whether discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, that’s always your choice to make. All right. So, let’s talk about rhodiola, Rhodiola rosea.

Katja (04:15):
Rhodiola actually came up in Q&A this past week. And it was really funny. Because a student was asking about rhodiola as an adaptogen. And it’s a fairly stimulating adaptogen, and we’re going to talk a lot about that. But this student was asking her question. And she was saying well, I know, I know. Row, row, rhodiola your boat. But I just still have this question. And on the edge of my memory, I remembered oh, right. I sang that once in Q&A.

Ryn (04:56):
It was a call back to like a month ago.

Katja (04:58):
Yeah. But I had forgotten about it. And it totally cracked me up. And then I was like my past self is cracking my present self up, because I forgot. Anyway, so I think that we should start with that. Because it cracked me up once, and maybe it will crack you up too. But starting off, now listen, if you’ve studied herbs for a while, you probably know what adaptogens are. If you’ve never studied herbs, then adaptogen might be the only word you know about herbalism, because they’re a very 2023 kind of capitalist late-stage consumer society kind of herb, right? Adaptogens are herbs that help you handle stress better. Now, it’s a really broad category of plants. And so some herbs help you handle stress better. And the definition of that is they restore endocrine nutrition. They build up endocrine function in your body. They’re not going to really give you a ton of energy. They just replace what has been depleted by capitalist society, whatever. Working too much, over production, whatever. So, that’s one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is just shy of a five-hour energy drink. And I mean, five-hour energy drinks typically do have at least ginseng in them and also a ton of caffeine. But my point here is that some of them are really stimulating. And you definitely should not take them right before bed. Unless you’re trying to stay up all night, in which case you should definitely take them right before bed. But it’s not that they have caffeine in them. Five-hour energy drink does, but adaptogen don’t. It’s that they have a very strong stimulating effect on the body in a different mechanism than caffeine, but still in a way that will really be zingy for you and will interfere with sleep and stuff like that. Now, you can see where those are probably the most popular ones. Because most people are like I’m really stressed, because I’m working way too hard. And there’s no time to rest, and I can’t take a nap. And I just have to keep working. So, I need an herb that’s going to help me keep working. Coffee’s not doing it anymore. And so they grab for something like rhodiola, and that will keep them going. But there’s a cost, because you can’t just keep going forever.

Katja (07:52):
And I think if I say late-stage capitalism one more time in the first however many minutes of this podcast, then I don’t know. But we can’t go on this way forever. You cannot infinitely produce. You cannot grow forever. You’ve got to take a rest eventually. And so just like caffeine stops working at some point, those strong simulating adaptogens also will push you off a cliff at some point. And they were enabling you for a little while to keep going, even though you were really depleted. And so when you get to the end of their ability to keep doing that for you, now you’re like many times more depleted. Because you were already depleted, and you kept going. Now listen, sometimes people don’t have a choice. Sometimes people have to keep going, and it’s terrible. But you know, for reasons from working more than one job to support your family, all the way to war, and everything in between. People have to keep going beyond what they can keep going. So, I’m not knocking anyone for needing to do that, except late stage capitalism. I’ll knock that. But if that’s the life that you’re in, then you may not have a lot of options. And that’s not okay. As a society we need to fix that. But sometimes we’re not really in that situation. We just want to go, go, go all the time. And that’s the place where it’s not maybe the best choice.

A Viking’s Herb of Extremes

Ryn (09:33):
Yeah. Right. So rhodiola. A stimulating adaptogen certainly on that side of that scale. And that can be helpful if that’s what you need in that moment, right, because you don’t have other options. One of your favorite metaphors or images for when rhodiola is appropriate is the Vikings in their long ship rowing across the North Atlantic to get from Iceland to Greenland.

Katja (10:02):
Or from Greenland to North America even, right? Ah, just imagine it. Now, like if we were a really swanky podcast, we’d have…

Ryn (10:13):
The sound effects.

Katja (10:14):
The sound of waves slapping against the side of a wooden ship. And like the sound of oars.

Ryn (10:20):
The creaking and the…

Katja (10:21):
Yes. Oh, the creaking. Yeah, okay, so you just have to imagine that you’re hearing all that.

Ryn (10:26):
Flapping sails.

Katja (10:27):
Yeah. So, imagine you’re a Viking. Why are we imagining that we’re Vikings? Because rhodiola grows in the Arctic circle. It grows in the far, far, far, far north, and that’s where Vikings grow. So, that’s what we’re imagining. And also because we have all these stories about them rowing across in these open ships, these long ships. It’s not like it was the, QE 2. It wasn’t even the Titanic. It was just a big boat with maybe one sail and some oars, and they were getting wet. They didn’t have hot meals or an insulated hydroflask filled with delicious hot tea that they could just sip in between rowing, right? That’s not what was going on. It was gray. It was damp. It was cold. It was foggy all day, and they were rowing. And tomorrow the menu looks exactly the same. And so just imagine this. Day after day after day just believing that you’re going to get to land at some point. And you’re probably going to do this for like a month. Okay. Doesn’t that kind of also sound like the daily grind?

Ryn (11:44):
Yeah. So, you know, if you were this Viking in that situation, you would be really, really happy to have rhodiola, right? Have a little root tucked into your pouch. You can pull that out and chew on it as you go through your day.

Katja (11:59):
Of rowing.

Ryn (12:00):
Help you to feel a little more energetic, right? Help you to get there. Yeah. So, this is the image we get with row, row, rhodiola your boat.

Katja (12:09):
You kind of have to sing it with some sort of Viking rowing song chant thing.

Ryn (12:17):
Rimur chant, yeah.

Katja (12:17):
Yeah. In the background while you’re singing, you know? I’m not going to sing it for you. You just have to imagine it.

Ryn (12:25):
Okay. We’re all imagining it.

Katja (12:27):
So, also though, this little imaginary story can help you remember a lot of things about rhodiola. So, rhodiola only grows in the super cold. It grows in extreme conditions. Extreme dark all winter, extreme sun all summer, and cold all the time. So first off, okay, this is a plant who knows how to handle extreme situations and extreme either end of the spectrum. No middle ground. It’s either all one or all the other kind of thing. This plant knows how to handle that. And then if we’re thinking about what would a Viking need rowing across the ocean in the cold and in the damp? Something drying, right?

Ryn (13:23):
Yeah, you can’t forget the fog.

Katja (13:24):
Right, the fog.

Ryn (13:26):
When you imagine this, you have to really imagine lots of fog.

Katja (13:28):
Yeah. I mean, I said gray, but that wasn’t enough. Lots of fog.

Ryn (13:32):
Lots of fog. Yeah.

Katja (13:33):
Fog. A lot of fog. And so you need something that’s going to sort of tighten you up, hold you together, keep all of that moisture from leaking away. And then again, you know, you’re rowing day after day after day. And if you are like an octopus, just sort of all, you wiggly and limp and not really… I’m trying to imagine.

Ryn (14:04):

Katja (14:06):
Yes. There’s not a lot of tension in an octopus, is what I’m saying. And so if you just sort of imagine that. I’m thinking about sea creatures here, you know. But that’s not going to row your boat for you. An octopus is not who you call to row the boat. You need to have all your muscles, and really have them tight, and have them going. And so, okay. So, I guess we’ve explored every last corner of this metaphor. But you will never forget about rhodiola.

Ryn (14:33):
Yeah. And that’s good because like you said, you are going to find rhodiola in a lot of places in contemporary commercial herbalism. You’re going to see it in blends that are marketed for fatigue, for stress in a very general sense, for stamina, for athletic performance. And also, we saw a few years ago a big turn in rhodiola marketing towards antidepressant effects. And we don’t usually like to use that word antidepressant when we’re talking about herbs, because it’s a word that most people have met through the medical context. And there it has a whole set of meanings, usually revolving around serotonin or related neurotransmitters or whatever. And rarely is it the case that an herb is acting in a way like that. With rhodiola we don’t really think that that’s a big part of what it does. It’s more that it heats you up. It dries you out. It tightens up your edges. It helps you to hold yourself together. It gives you a boost of energy. You’re like all right, I can face the world.

Katja (15:35):
It helps you to hold the fog at bay.

Ryn (15:37):
Yeah, right? And you can see where that would be very helpful for what usually gets diagnosed or labeled as depression, right? We like to emphasize that depression can manifest in lots of different ways according to a person’s constitution and their individuality and so on. And not all depression looks the same. But the kind of stereotypical melancholic phlegmatic-type depression. A lot of cold, maybe some dampness going on, heaviness, those kind of feelings in your body, in your emotional self. Then yeah, rhodiola is going to help there. But again, it’s a stimulant. And you can use it like a credit card. You can use any stimulant like a credit card. And I do mean the word use here. You know how usually when we talk about herbs, we say we’re going to work with them. We’re going to have a relationship with the plant.

Katja (16:26):
Yeah. We try to avoid the word use, because it’s kind of like exploitation.

Drying Effects & Avoiding Overuse

Ryn (16:30):
Yeah. But a lot of people are using their stimulants. Truly. And so there’s always a limit to that. There’s a point at which, regardless of how much stimulus you throw into the body, it can’t sustain that forever. And so there can be a crash, or there can be a manifestation of the problem somewhere else, right? If you’re going to rhodiola yourself out of your fatigue feelings, maybe it’s going to turn up as anxiety. Maybe it’s going to turn up as a gut problem that won’t go away, or some kind of nervous tremor, or something like that. And this herb is strong enough that you can generate adverse effects from it. You can heat somebody up too much. You can give somebody insomnia. You can give somebody anxiety, right?

Katja (17:17):
You can dry them up too much.

Ryn (17:19):
Yeah. Absolutely. You know, this herb, we think about it with the Vikings. We think about it in the context of Iceland, because that’s where we’ve hung out with it in person on the cliffs and at the rocks and everything.

Katja (17:33):
If you prefer though, you could have some Siberian examples. North,

Ryn (17:38):
Northern Canada.

Katja (17:39):
Northern Canada examples, right. You can have those too.

Ryn (17:42):
Yeah. Absolutely. But many of those are watery places, damp places, especially Iceland. It’s kind of surrounded by water obviously, but also just the air itself is really, really damp. And it rains most days. And there’s fog and everything. So, there, as long as you actually go outside. And you’re not only being breathed on by air conditioners all day.

Katja (18:10):
Well, heaters.

Ryn (18:11):
Heaters, yeah. You can take rhodiola, and it’s going to be pretty easy to sustain as far as the dryness goes.

Katja (18:19):
Right. It’s funny, because I was talking to Anna Rosa, who is an Icelandic herbalist who’s a friend of ours. And I was talking about rhodiola being really drying. And she was like no one has ever said that ever. Well, her context was Iceland, where it is really damp all the time. So, that made perfect sense. Even people who run dry, when they’re in Iceland, you’re sort of like it’s pretty damp here.

Ryn (18:49):
Yeah, totally. But you know, if you live in Taos, New Mexico or most places that aren’t like Seattle or Iceland. If you live in places that aren’t that, then you do need to contend with the drying effects of this herb and that includes even in formats where it’s not as obvious. If you take tincture of rhodiola, you feel the dryness. You feel the tonification, the astringency on your tongue. Your saliva dries up for a minute after you squirt it in there. Okay. But if you swallow a capsule of rhodiola, you might not perceive that drying effect.

Katja (19:22):
Not in the moment of swallowing the capsule. But over time it will accumulate your body, and you will begin to feel.

Ryn (19:29):
Why am I more itchy? What’s going on?

Katja (19:31):
Why are my cuticles peeling?

Ryn (19:32):
Why do I have dandruff again, you know? That kind of thing. So, be aware of that. And that’s a good general idea. If you’re going to work with rhodiola even as a capsule, find a place in the rest of your day to insert some demulcent. Get some fennel in your tea. Get some marshmallow leaf into your drink. Find some way to get a demulcent mix into you. Or just eat a lot of asparagus, I guess. Maybe that would do it.

Katja (19:58):
Like okra.

Ryn (19:59):
Asparagus, okra, seaweed. Yeah, okay.

Katja (20:02):
Yeah, broth. I mean, but on the other hand, if you look at places, at least European places where rhodiola is found, seaweed broth was an integral part of the diet, because it was a food that was available. Yeah. So, that balancing was kind of already happening both in the environment and also in the cuisine.

Ryn (20:28):
Now, we don’t say any of this to say rhodiola is a bad herb, or that it’s wrong to take this plant. That’s not really what we believe either. It really has a very palpable effect. And it can be really wonderful to have this herb when you want it or when you need it. When you need a little bit of extra help to get through a difficult time. Or I just plain didn’t sleep well last night because whatever. I don’t know. There was an explosion down the block, and that kind of distracted me a little. These kinds of things happen.

Katja (20:59):
I mean, hopefully it wasn’t that.

Ryn (21:02):
Whatever. But okay, so sometimes you’re just like look. I just need a little boost to get through my day. And that’s fine. Do be cautious that it’s not every day all the time forever. But sure. Sometimes that’s really very helpful.

Katja (21:15):
You know, you’ve just got to think about, okay. I’m going to go through this stressful time, which is sort of the equivalent of rowing across the ocean. And when I get to the end of it – And it needs to have a finite end. You can’t do it forever – then I’m going to take a huge rest. I like to use the example of an accountant in April. Well, not actual April, because tax season for accountants starts a lot earlier than that. But it’s like, say, January through April 15th, right? And so if you’re an accountant, those months are super unfun for you. But then April 16th, hopefully, you get to lay on the couch for a month. Okay, probably not an actual month, but boy, that would be nice. And so if that is your kind of situation, and you’re just really pushing to get through. But then you’re going to take a vacation, and you’re going to rest on that vacation. You’re not going to like go climb Kilimanjaro. You’re going to rest. That’s the best way to do it. Or if it’s shorter term than that. Like ugh, this week is just really rough, but I’m going to sleep through the entire weekend. Yeah. That’s great. That’s fantastic.

Sourcing Rhodiola & Formulating with Friends

Ryn (22:29):
One last thought on rhodiola. Be picky about sourcing. And that is going to mean that you must be prepared to pay what it’s worth.

Katja (22:39):

Ryn (22:41):
So, the issues with sourcing here are the same as they are for any medicinal plants. There can be habitat issues, habitat loss problems. And there can also be over harvesting issues, especially for wild populations. Because this is an herb that does grow wild, and that can be very valuable. It can be cultivated. It’s not the easiest plant to cultivate, but it’s not impossible.

Katja (23:03):
It’s difficult, and it tastes a long time to get set up. So, it requires a lot of upfront investment.

Ryn (23:10):
Right. You’re going to start growing rhodiola now. And five years from now we’re going to dig and sell the first harvest. What are we going to do in the meantime?

Katja (23:19):
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. In the wild, rhodiola has a very small range where it can grow. And laterally that range is broad. But vertically, like in terms of from north to south, that range is very small. It really can only exist in the Arctic where it is cold most of the time, but also where it’s getting those extreme sun changes. And of course that is habitat that is super threatened right now across the world.

Ryn (23:55):
Right. The equator and the poles are experiencing greater changes in the course of global climate change compared to a temperate zone like where we live.

Katja (24:07):
Although our changes are pretty big too.

Ryn (24:09):
Yeah. We’ve got plenty, right? So, yeah.

Katja (24:13):
But if where you are, you’re thinking oh no. I’m definitely seeing changes in the climate, in the weather. It’s much worse at the poles and at the equator. So, that is one reason that it is really important. I mean, this plant, I’m not certain if it is labeled at risk yet, but it is at risk. It’s one of the most popular herbs. And wild harvesting it you take the roots, so you’re killing that. That plant can’t continue to grow. It’s not like – I don’t know – wood betony where you take the flowers. And then it’s going to grow back next year, because it’s a perennial. So, that is important.

Ryn (25:01):
Yeah, right. There are some great projects out there where people are encouraging lots of kind of distributed small farmers or small backyard gardeners to grow rhodiola according to good organic practices and all of that. And then collect it or have a centralized place to bring it together and then send it to the market. Mountain Rose Herbs has been sponsoring some projects of that nature. That’s really great.

Katja (25:30):
Those projects are mostly through Alaska, and I believe also in Canada there is a similar project of collectives of rhodiola growers.

Ryn (25:42):
So, right now this is at the place where in general you want to be thoughtful about sourcing. You want to be curious about sourcing when we’re looking at a product. Say okay, well I see my capsule, but where did it start? And where did it go along the way? And how many hands did it pass through? And did all of the people and the earth and the plants and everybody get treated respectfully along that supply chain.

Katja (26:09):
Okay. I wanted to say one other thing that just occurred to me, which is formulate your rhodiola, right? So, this is both a way to make your rhodiola last longer. Because really it runs about a hundred dollars a pound, and that’s a fair price. But it’s a wicked expensive price, right? So, when you have it, you want that one pound of rhodiola to last you a really long time. But also when you formulate – unless what you’re formulating is the herbal tea version of a five-hour energy drink – you can also be mitigating some of the super stimulation by adding in more supportive herbs. So, I really love to put rhodiola in my not coffee in the morning, but then I also put in codonopsis and whatever mushroom. Always reishi but maybe also some maitake, or maybe some lion’s mane, or a supportive mushroom. Not shiitake. That ruins the flavor. But the others are less. Even some turkey tail sometimes. And then I often put in some astragalus. And I’ve got other stuff that goes in there too, sort of depending on my mood. Almost always angelica goes in there. But you see how balancing the stimulating effects with some of the more gentle adaptogens that are replenishing, like the astragalus and the codonopsis. That sort of still gives you the stamina and the pushing the fog out of the way kind of actions of rhodiola, but a little less of the buzzy kind of action, because that’s being balanced out by the support. So, formulating, it helps your supply last longer. And it helps you get a better, well-rounded, fully balanced action from the plant.

Ryn (28:27):
Yeah. Tincture-wise, I feel like this would be an interesting one to combine with Solomon’s seal.

Katja (28:33):
Ooh, yeah.

Ryn (28:33):
Try the two of them together. Yeah, that sounds good.

Katja (28:37):
Yeah, that does sound good actually.

Ryn (28:39):
Complimentary energetics, right? Rhodiola is heating, drying, tonifying. Solomon’s seal is cooling, moistening, relaxant. But just enough to shave off those sharp edges.

Katja (28:50):
Yeah. I mean, you could put Solomon’s seal in a decoction too, if you had access to that much Solomon seal. That would be an expensive decoction, but it would probably be really fantastic. Yeah.

Sumac Spice Blends & Red Tea

Ryn (29:02):
Okay. Nice. Well, let’s talk about sumac now. So, we’re talking here about Rhus typhina, also known as the equivalent term is Rhus hirta, H I R T A. And these two species are both really, really similar – or as far as the herbalist is concerned, identical – to the European or West Asian species Rhus coriaria. Which is the one that’s kind of most often used when people make a za’atar mix. Where you have sumac berry powder. And you have sesame seeds. And you have wild thyme, or oregano, or marjoram, or other related…

Katja (29:44):
Or a blend of those.

Ryn (29:45):
Related warming, aromatic herbs. Yeah. Great spice blend. One of our absolute favorites. We have it all the time, all the time.

Katja (29:53):
Really that is a frequent flyer in our cuisine here in the house.

Ryn (29:58):
Absolutely, yeah. But that is not the only way that you can work with sumac berry powder as a spice. It’s a great thing for when you want to add a little bit of sourness and some pinky-red coloration to your meal or your concoction or whatever it is.

Katja (30:16):
Which I have to say goes well in many contexts. So, if you are not a super adventurous cook, but you would like to try. Let’s say that you frequently make some sort of sauteed dish. It’s got meat. It’s got onions. It’s got vegetables, whatever. And let’s say you put in some garlic or a lot of garlic, some salt and pepper, maybe a little bit of mustard powder can be nice. Maybe just a smidge of red chili pepper flakes. And then put some sumac in there. When you put za’atar you might be feeling like it’s going in an Italian direction, because that’s what the context that many folks in the United States have for flavors like oregano and thyme. Although there’s many other contexts that they are delicious in. And so when you taste those flavors, you might be like well, this isn’t spaghetti. But you know, just the sumac by itself. But then with the garlic, and a little mustard, and a little cayenne, and the salt and pepper. That could make a really nice blend. And if you’re just sort of branching out into spicing, that could be lovely.

Ryn (31:43):
Yeah. It’s a different sour compared to like citrus or even the sour you get from like hibiscus or rose hips. It’s closer to those. They’re all red sour herbs together.

Katja (31:56):
Red sour, yeah.

Ryn (31:57):
And we do like to make red tea sometimes where we’ll take… Okay, so it would be rose hips, sumac berry, goji berry, schisandra berry. Maybe some elderberry as well could go in there.

Katja (32:12):
Even though it’s not really red, that’s okay.

Ryn (32:14):
The hibiscus can go in.

Katja (32:16):
And hibiscus. Yeah.

Ryn (32:17):
All these red things. And, you know, it is pretty. It is like an appealing color. You could add a touch of honey to it, and now you’re going to get like a sweet-sour situation. This could be appealing to people who are a little skeptical about herbal tea. This is a good thing for if you have a room full of kids, and you want to give them something a little better than Kool-Aid.

Katja (32:38):
Yes. A lot better than Kool-Aid. Yeah.

Ryn (32:41):
Yeah. That can be nice. You know, pharmacologically speaking here, the red is coming from pigments. And the pigments are in our body going to act as antioxidants and protective agents. And they’re going to also support the integrity of your blood vessels. And that’s something we’re really into, especially in the decade of covid. Is this going to be a decade? Anyway. Covid is not just a respiratory problem. Covid also attacks and damages vascular tissue. And it can cause leakiness or breakdown of the blood vessels. Especially little, tiny ones where there’s going to be exchange of nutrients and oxygen and all of that. So, we want to support them. We want to keep those structures healthy. And red tea is a great way to do that.

Katja (33:31):
Yeah. I really appreciate that all of those different reds have different flavors. It’s kind of like bitter. All the different bitters have a little bit different flavor profile. All the different sours have a little bit different flavor profile. And so I don’t really like rose hips. I don’t know. They have something in the flavor that isn’t quite sour enough. It is kind of weirdly a little bit sweet. I don’t know. They’re kind of a weird flavor. And I find sumac to be like the ideal sour, but everybody has different tastes. And so it can be really fun to just experiment with all the red sours, because the red pigments are going to give you many of the same actions across those plants. And so if you’re like well, rose hips aren’t my favorite. You’re not stuck with just rose hips. There are so many other reds. Or if you’re like well, goji berries or schisandra. Katja, I know you love it, but it’s just not for me. Whatever. Just try a bunch of them. Try them together or try them individually. See which ones you like best. Even just sumac all by itself, just the berries. And just a little bit of sweet, whatever your particular favorite sweet is. It’s like lemonade. It’s like bright pink lemonade. It’s really delicious.

Ryn (35:07):
Yeah. You don’t need a ton of sweet, honestly.

Katja (35:10):
No, just like lemonade. I find commercial lemonade lemonades are usually over sweetened.

Ryn (35:15):
It’s too much. Yeah.

Katja (35:16):
Yeah. Just a little bit of sweet. Yeah. Really nice.

Astringency of the Sour Red Berries & Leaves

Ryn (35:20):
So, those berries are antioxidant. They’re protective. They’re supportive. They’re anti-inflammatory. All the stuff we would expect from any berry that we happen to work with, probably also including some improvement in blood sugar regulation. And that is not just a red berry. It’s also a sour red berry. And so that makes it closer to something like schisandra, which is maybe a little better known or has a little longer reputation for helping with blood sugar dysregulation. But if you ask Kat Meier, she argues that sumac berry is almost as good as schisandra for those purposes.

Katja (36:00):
You can equate it to cranberry too. If you live in a part of the country that cranberry doesn’t live, staghorn sumac grows in most parts of the country. And so this might be something that to have access to that is easier to get than cranberry. Oh, I had it, and then I lost it. Oh, right. That’s what it was. About access to berries. You don’t have to have the secret berry from the top of the mountain of the place that’s far away from you with the exotic name and whatever else. Red berries are red berries. They all have very similar anti-inflammatory profiles, very similar antioxidant profiles. And so you can get the red berry that grows in your backyard. It’s okay. Like it is just as good as the red berry that grows someplace really far away. And it’s carbon neutral.

Ryn (37:06):
Yeah. You know, we’re primarily working with the berries here. So, if you’re concerned about pollutants in the area, remember that when it comes to heavy things like lead and heavy metals and that kind of stuff, those are most a problem for the root of the plant. And then less so as you go kind of up through stem and leaf and flower and fruit, which is what these berries are going to be. So, although we are always going to find the cleanest ground around to gather our plants from, with the berry you have a little more leeway. And you don’t need to feel super stressed about finding something perfectly pristine.

Katja (37:44):
Yeah. It has the least amount of uptake of soil pollutants. Hey, but it’s not just the berry.

Ryn (37:54):
It’s not just the berry.

Katja (37:56):
You can work with the leaf of sumac as well.

Ryn (37:58):
Yes, you can. So, the berry is astringent, right? You do get a sour feeling. You do get a little bit of that tightening up on the tongue.

Katja (38:08):
A little. It’s not like an underripe banana, don’t worry.

Ryn (38:10):
Yeah. It’s not intense with the berry. It is pretty intense with the leaf though. This is a pretty strong astringent, you know?

Katja (38:18):
Yeah. This is like put it in your diarrhea first aid kit kind of astringency.

Ryn (38:24):
Yeah. And that, I mean, it’s not the most glamorous herbalism.

Katja (38:29):
But it’s important.

Ryn (38:31):
It is important herbalism. It is the kind of thing that will get someone to feel gratitude for you and maybe feel a little more interested in herbs after that experience of relief, you know? Yeah. So, don’t knock it. That kind of thinking really helps. With sumac it could be a tincture of the leaf. It could be a tea you make out of the leaf. I feel like both of those are going to be effective for a diarrhea problem. And why, right? Because again, they’re tightening. They’re tonifying. They have tannins in them, which the fancy term is that they crosslink proteins, right? So, you’ve got a bunch of proteins on the surfaces of your intestinal lining and all of that. And so the tannin is sort of like half of it grabs on to this piece, and half of it grabs onto the other piece and pulls them together. It’s literally a tightening effect, yeah. And so when you have diarrhea, there’s inflammation in the intestinal lining. There’s laxity, right? It’s too open. And now the water is not being absorbed up and staying in you. It’s flowing back through and out and down. And so, you know, once we’ve gotten past the point where it’s like this diarrhea is serving a purpose. Maybe I had some food poisoning. Maybe I encountered a pathogen. We want to flush it out and empty it out. Okay, that’s fine. But pretty soon after your first or second bout, now it’s time to tighten things up again and kind of make sure we don’t lose too much water. Because that is the biggest risk with diarrhea or any disease that causes that. And I mean, that’s still one of the leading causes of death in the world today, is people dehydrating to death because of a diarrhea causing illness. So, again, it doesn’t seem super glamorous. But this kind of thing in the right context, it could literally save a life.

Katja (40:26):
Yeah. And listen, as there are more and more climate events, more and more hurricanes or floods or whatever that are impacting the water systems, it is important to recognize that things like dysentery are becoming a part of life for some people. Again, like that’s not usually a word that’s in the privilege of so many people in the United States. Dysentery is a word you read in a book about history times. It’s not usually a word that applies to your community. But that’s not true everywhere in the world. And it’s not true all of the time even in the United States. Well, it’s not true everywhere in the United States, because not everywhere in the United States has good water. But even in places where you’re like oh no, I never think about it, because my water is fine. In a disaster situation water gets disrupted very easily. And now you have contaminated water, you have a lack of water. Or pipes from the sewage system that are broken going into pipes from the water system that are broken. Or even just in the case of flooding, where there’s just water everywhere. And nobody really knows what’s in the water, but it’s all really gross. All of these situations are situations where diarrhea is a genuine life-threatening concern. And it goes from oh, I had some food that was weird. I had diarrhea for a day. To people having long-term diarrhea, because there’s all kinds of pathogens in the water that normally would be contained by sanitation and septic systems. So, if you look back at the medicine of the 1800s, they valued plants with tannins. I mean, they prized them. They were really like standout herbs in their materia medica. And one of the reasons was that a lot of people didn’t have access to clean water. And so dealing with diarrhea came up a lot in that period of time. So, there you go. Not a fun topic. But a genuinely life-threatening topic in many situations that you might not have thought of, but you might have to think of at some point in your life.

Ryn (43:06):
Yeah. But that’s not all though. That astringency can also be helpful for wound care, especially if you have a wound that’s oozy, swollen, boggy. Whatever adjective you want to use to say the same kind of thing, a damp situation. Then an astringent is going to help squeeze the excess fluid out, tighten up the tissue, pull things back together, help with the healing process. And even to maybe not fight bacteria, but at least stabilize them so they don’t continue to grow or get even more aggressive. Yeah.

Katja (43:40):
Kind of freeze them so that your immune system can do the cleanup.

Ryn (43:42):
Yeah, totally. And then, you know, other kinds of swellings and fluid stagnation issues. So, sumac would make sense as a topical remedy for varicose veins, where they’re kind of swollen and boggy too.

Sumac Identification & Sustainability

Katja (43:58):
Now how much would you pay? You don’t have to actually, because like I said, sumac grows in so many places, and it’s a very distinctive plant. We are looking for the one that has the unicorn horn, right? Like the berries that grow on the staghorn. It is the berries that grow on… or rhinoceros, you could think of it in terms of rhinoceros too if you want. But just that big bright red horn of berries. And the leaves are also very distinctive. They’re almost like an enormous fern, like a really, really big fern in terms of their arrangement.

Ryn (44:38):
Yeah. It’s a really big compound leaf. It does have a terminal leaflet, but yeah. Well, like 17 to 21 leaflets on there.

Katja (44:46):
They’re big. They’re really big. And so you might not feel a lot of confidence identifying it just by the leaf. But the thing is that there’s almost always leftover from last year horns. So, even if it’s spring, and you don’t have the flowers or berries to look at. You probably have some of last year’s still on the tree somewhere to help you confirm that yes. In fact, this is what you’re looking for. And although sumac trees can grow quite tall, they typically are fairly shrubby. So, you can also usually reach the leaves, and that’s handy.

Ryn (45:29):
Right, yeah. It’s not always that the flower clusters or the berries are up there like taunting you, because they’re so far out of reach.

Katja (45:36):
Yeah, like with linden.

Ryn (45:38):
Yeah. It’s funny to me that this plant is sometimes considered invasive even here in New England, despite the fact that it is a native plant here. And it’s really just, I think, an indicator of the way that that term is really similar to weed. And it’s pretty much just I don’t want you here right now. There’s usually like pretensions to more nuance than that. But in actual practice, like on the ground and in the dirt, a lot of the people carrying the invasive dogma there are really just saying I don’t want that there right now.

New Speaker (46:14):
It doesn’t look pretty to me. It doesn’t fit my fantasy idea of what this piece of land should look like.

Ryn (46:20):
Right. So, it is an abundant plant, I’ll say that much.

Katja (46:27):

Ryn (46:28):
But again, that’s nice when we have a plant with a lot of medicinal value to it, that can also be a food. That we can work with different parts of it. It’s a very sustainable plant. How about that?

Katja (46:40):
Yes, yes, yes. And even if you think about historically living through the winter in New England. And thinking about okay, well yeah, you preserve vegetables and preserve some fruits like apples maybe in the cellar or jam or whatever. And obviously I have 1800 or 1700 on the brain. But even further back native people were preserving food for the winter too. And so if you think about though, always one of the things you have to think a lot about is how am I going to get vitamin C in the wintertime? And of course, in history times they weren’t thinking in terms of vitamin C, but they were thinking in terms of where am I going to get some fruits and vegetables in the winter?

Ryn (47:24):
Or even something with a sour taste. Because we recognize that if you have that taste regularly, then you don’t have your teeth fall out.

Katja (47:30):
Right, exactly. Exactly. And so even if you think about a really low-tech sort of situation, where there isn’t a big freezer. And you can just have frozen raspberries all year round or whatever. Things like sumac berries are super sustainable. They’re really easy to carry through the whole winter. In fact you don’t even have to harvest them. They will last on the tree through the whole winter. And usually there’s so many of them that the birds don’t eat them all. And of course also pine falls into this category. There are actually way more plants in the winter than you think.

Ryn (48:07):
Yeah. Barberries, rose hips. I mean, there’s lots of ways to do it. But you can’t fail to do it, or you run into a problem. And like look, that was a thing that afflicted many of the European settlers who came over here, and weren’t familiar with the wild foods, and were a little skeptical about eating this unfamiliar berry or whatever, and…

Katja (48:26):
Oh, scurvy.

Ryn (48:27):
lose some teeth. Yeah okay, well that’s the cost I suppose. But it doesn’t have to be. And there is that knowledge in the indigenous herbalism of any place, of anywhere, not just either America or whatever. But any old enough tradition or long enough practice is going to involve make sure to get some of this in the wintertime. Yes. Make sure to get some of this on a regular basis. Make sure to preserve some of this, so you’ve got it through the lean seasons.

Katja (48:57):
Whatever climate it is, there’s always a season that you have to be prepared for. And there are always cultural traditions in how to do that.

Ryn (49:10):
Okay. Before we go, I wanted to just put in a little plug for our Neurological and Emotional Health course. And to try to make a connection to today’s topic, I would say that sometimes we do work with astringent or tonifying herbs for that emotional echo of that effect. And that would look like squeezing the watery emotions out of you or helping you do that. Because sometimes you’re like I just need to cry and wring myself out real good.

Katja (49:41):
Ugh. But sometimes you just don’t want to.

Ryn (49:44):
Yeah. And if you don’t want to, then maybe you can take some sumac or some rhodiola and kind of have that happening internally. And get a little of that excess watery nature out of you.

Katja (49:58):
I find that rhodiola does that for sure. I don’t like to cry. And I am a person who cries really easily. And I hate it. I hate it as much as I do it easily. And yeah, rhodiola does help me just keep it together, keep moving forward. Yeah, for sure.

Ryn (50:21):
So, if you feel like you’re melting into a puddle, then these herbs can kind of tighten you up and hold you together. So, that’s great. But what if you don’t have watery emotions? What if you have fiery ones, or airy ones, or like heavy, thick, earthy, emotional patterns going on? Well, then you need this course. You need our neurological and emotional health course. It’s a user’s guide to your nerves and your emotions, including the difficult ones, and the dark ones, and the bright ones as well. We talk about happiness.

Katja (50:53):
You’re allowed to be happy. It’s okay.

Ryn (50:55):
Yeah. It’s good. It’s good. But you know, this course is where we share our herbal strategies for addressing both neurological – like the physical nerves – and also psychological health issues. And of course, there’s a ton of overlap, and fuzzy boundaries, and back and forth movement between those. But herbs are not bound by these categories. And so they work on your body, your nerve, your emotion, your mood, your spirit, all at the same time. And so they’re really well suited to that kind of need. That course also includes a long section about pain management strategies as well. And everybody’s going to deal with that at some point. So, it’s good to have that in your herbal toolkit.

Katja (51:37):
It’s good to have it there. And of course, like all of our courses, you get lifetime access. Our courses don’t ever expire. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get through them. It doesn’t matter if you go through it really fast, but then you want to review it 16,000 times. You can. It never expires. You will never lose access ever. So, that’s cool.

Ryn (51:59):
As long as there’s an internet, we will be there for you.

Katja (52:01):
Yes, exactly. Exactly. And then of course live Q&A. All the discussion threads where you can ask your questions immediately, and you get an answer within the day. Our student community. There are study guides. There are quizzes. There are capstone assignments, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you’re not, don’t get stressed. It’s totally fine.

Ryn (52:21):
Yeah, all that good stuff. All that good stuff for you. So, check that course out and check out all of our courses at online.commonwealthherbs.com. Okay. Well, we’ll be back next time with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then, take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (52:42):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (52:43):
And remember to row, row, rhodiola your boat gently down the street. Okay. All right everyone. Bye.

Katja (52:53):


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