WV Folklife Apprenticeship Meeting #2

Leenie Hobbie (Master Herbalist) & Jon Falcone (Apprentice)

March 10, 2020


Since our first meeting was mainly organizational, signing contracts, familiarizing ourselves with the resource materials and tools, and planning the year ahead I did not create a document to share for that March 3, 2020 get-together.  One hands-on thing we did begin was learning to use a plant press and looking at samples of properly mounted and labeled plant specimens. Jon gathered some Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and placed it in his plant press to take home and tend to as it dried fully. Creating an herbarium, which is a collection of pressed and mounted plant specimens, will be an ongoing project throughout the year and will be included in our final public presentation at the conclusion. 

Our second meeting felt much more like we were entering the world of traditional herbalism. Since so much news currently revolves around flu and other related viruses, I have been inundated with requests for immune system supporting herbal preparations and antivirals in a variety of forms from hand sanitizers to skin creams to repair dry, cracked skin due to so much handwashing and use of alcohol based sanitizers. So Jon and I kicked off the day by simmering a batch of Spiced Elderberry Syrup (*recipe included below). This was also Jon’s first time canning so he learned to use the water bath canner and the tools and procedures to sterilize everything from lids to jars. There is always a little left over so we enjoyed a double shot each of tangy, sweet, and spicy Elderberry syrup while it was still warm with a toast to our continued good health! Although we made a larger batches of this tasty remedy, (or health supporting confection, depending upon how you look at it) here’s a recipe to try making your own 1 pint batch at home. 

These labels say Leenie’s Spiced Elderberry Syrup but this batch was made and canned by Jon!

Continuing the medicine making theme, our discussion turned to other preparations such as tinctures and powdered and encapsulated herbs. Jon has an interest in all aspects of nature, including wild mushrooms. Since we first sat down in January to talk about the possibilities of a year of apprenticeship, one particular mushroom came up again and again, one called Lion’s Mane (or scientifically Hericium erinaceus). As a matter of fact, Jon included a photo of one that he had found while hiking in our application for the WV Folklife Apprenticeship grant. 

Lion’s Mane mushroom found and photographed by Jon Falcone.

While many think of herbs specifically as dried green leaves used for flavoring foods, herbalists use all parts of plants including roots, berries, tree barks, seeds, fruits, and even mushrooms for supporting optimum health and helping to regain balance when needed. Lion’s Mane has a particular affinity for the nervous system and has been used traditionally to strengthen cognitive function. Jon and I talked about these uses and the effects attributed to various preparations of the mushroom, such as improved clarity in thinking, less mental fog, and ability to focus attention. We talked about various methods of preparation and set up our very first herbal experiment. Exciting!

We decided to prepare the dried Lion’s Mane in three different ways. The first is a conventional tincture made by macerating (soaking) Lion’s Mane in 100 proof alcohol for 4 weeks. The second preparation involves a two-stage process that macerates the mushroom in both alcohol and then simmers an equal amount in water and combines the two for the final formula. The third preparation was definitely the simplest. Jon chopped up and then freshly ground dried Lion’s Mane into a powder and then used the powder to fill empty gelatin capsules. We are each going to use the capsules for one week, recording the effects. We have set up a home experiment to track and compare the effects of the three different methods of preparation. The dried Lion’s Mane was spongy and easy to work with. By comparison we looked at some dried Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) mushroom most often found on Birch trees, which is much harder.

As part of every meeting this year we go outside just to see what is happening with the wild herbs (called ‘weeds’ by some) and later in the season we will be tending the cultivated ones. Today, we checked back on the Bitter Cress (Cardamine hirsute), which just one week ago was lush and sweet and now appears to be flowering. It’s still fairly sweet and delicious, definitely edible but the leaves are beginning to get smaller, as is common for Mustard Family plants as they begin to flower.

Bitter Cress (Cardamine hirsute) with two tiny 4-petaled flowers

The Chickweed (Stellaria media) is also beginning to grow more lush and full, the taste also growing bolder. Well, as bold as the taste of this mild, lettuce-like green ever becomes. Although we talked about its uses as both a food, tea, and soothing skin salve, it is not yet abundant enough to gather for that purpose. There is so much more to learn about this wonderful plant that pops up often in home gardens. We also found the first signs of small Cleavers (Galium aparine) plants around the bases of a number of trees. The Velcro-like fine hairs are still soft and barely perceptible to the touch but as the plants grow these will as well to the point of sticking to clothing, hair, and whatever else it finds handy. This common wild plant is only around briefly in the spring so we will be sure to gather and tincture some when it is a little bigger. It’s useful as a lymphatic and supportive of healthy kidney function. 

Once we were back inside Jon opened up his plant press and showed me not only the Purple Dead Nettle he had pressed last week but also some beautiful Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) specimens that he had collected and pressed. I was so impressed that Jon is eager to create his own herbarium and is already gathering, carefully labeling and pressing plants before there is even a big variety of herbs actively growing. Rattlesnake Plantain is neither a Plantain nor a snake (of course!) but the vivid pattern of the leaves certainly suggest snake skin, making the common name understandable. It is actually a temperate region evergreen, perennial, rhizomatous orchid…how’s that for a mouthful of botanical terms?! The cool thing is we have lots of wonderful handy resources for looking such terms up if we do forget as we explore the many local plants and learn all we can about them. 

Expect to see more photos with our future meeting updates once I replace my horrible phone camera and (*fingers crossed*) my website blog goes live. Coming up soon will be a pack basket making workshop with Eva Taylor of Ironwood Farm Basketry at which Jon will make his own backpack basket to use in the coming year and, no doubt, for many more to come. 

Jon and I are both so thankful to West Virginia Folklife, West Virginia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts for this grant and opportunity to continue the long tradition of folk herbalism.

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