The woodlands bloom in spring, too.



There are many spring “weeds” that thrive in the first rays of the returning sun, but in the woods plants are blooming as well.  Many are tiny, delicate and short-lived flowers (like wood anemones) that are often overlooked.  Others have been hybridized and cultivated from their wild cousins to join the garden (like lenten rose), and still others are invasives that have escaped from the garden trade to displace native life (like Oregon Grape).

The woods right now are more alive than you’d think, particularly in moist bottomlands.  If you have a chance, get out for a slow stroll or vigorous hike — whichever suits your style — and enjoy these treats while they last.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Hepatica sp.

Hepatica sp.

Bear's Foot (Helleborus foetidus) - non-native

Bear’s Foot (Helleborus foetidus) – non-native

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia sp.)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia sp.)

Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)

Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.)



Spring weeds, and the homestretch to gardening season

yellow crocus

Yellow crocus

This is the reality of spring in Alabama: she’s a fickle tease or else just can’t make up her mind, and woe to the gardener that is lulled by the charms of a warm week into thinking winter is done.  It was sunny and in the 70’s a couple of days ago, but tonight it will probably snow.  Tomorrow night, the wind chill will drop near zero and actual temps will be in the teens.   But the march toward warm weather is relentless.  The sunlight falls differently and lasts noticeably longer each day, and the birds are singing their mating calls as loudly and often as they can.  The trees are tinged with pink and orange, their buds nearly ready to burst open.  Some of the precocious shrubs like forsythia and witchhazel are in full bloom.

Fields and lawns are filled with color as the early spring weeds begin their cycle of reproduction, giving bees a bit of early forage and us humans a bit of color among the dormant, brown summer grasses.  One person’s lovely bloom is a lawn aficionado’s enemy, but I like the shades of purple, blue, pink, white and yellow that my lawn runs through in spring.  Soon enough the bermuda and St. Augustine grass will take over, but right now belongs to the “weeds.”

Weeds like henbit, an edible member of the mint family.  Notwithstanding the timeless allure of blowing dandelion seed heads into the wind (to the silent dismay of my lawn-loving father), the fragile purple blossoms of henbit were my favorite, and I carefully gathered them into spring bouquets for my Mom.


Bittercress was harder to find, but I would pick that, too.  It’s a member of the mustard family and has a pleasant spicy bite to it, not too hot to eat by itself but gives a bit of a zing in salads.  It is not bitter at all, despite the name.



Speedwell, aka Veronica, is also blooming now.  Its tiny blue flowers are easily overlooked by themselves, but in mass they are a pleasing delicate blue.  Also edible and very nutritious, it tastes a bit like watercress although it can be quite bitter.  My local variety is probably Veronica persica, or Persian Speedwell.  It’s a European import that has spread throughout the United States, and historically was used as a tea to help reduce excess mucus from colds.  Scientific research on this plant is, unfortunately, very slim — but it’s still a cheerful blue.

speedwell, veronica

More lovely spring “weed” flowers are coming, from the cousin to henbit, Dead Nettle, to buttercup, dandelions and clover and the very useful chickweed.  Those are waiting for the soil to warm up just a little bit more, but I will be enjoying the terrible, pretty lawn weeds for their ephemeral spring lifespan.

Huntsville, AL Urban Agriculture amendment

For those in and near Huntsville, AL:

The Planning Commission of the City of Huntsville, Alabama will hold a public hearing on Zoning Ordinance Amendment:  Urban Agriculture.

Tuesday, February 25th, 5:00 pm, Council Chambers on the first floor of the Administration Building at 308 Fountain Circle SW in Huntsville.

You can read the text of the amendment here (PDF link).


UPDATE: The Farmer’s Market stakeholders are going to ask for a continuance to discuss some terminology issues that came up.  If accepted, the amendment won’t get discussed tonight.

When herbal medicine use becomes herbal medicine misuse

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – topical astringent available OTC in any pharmacy as an extract

The sales of herbal medicine products have climbed steadily over the past 30 years in the United States, most of those sales in just a few trendy herbs that come into fashion and then fade back.  But herbal medicine is far from new — it is the original medicine, and 40% of the US Pharmacopeia today consists of botanical products.  Many modern widely prescribed drugs are botanically derived, including Tamiflu, codeine, Pseudoephedrine, reserpine, Teniposide, Taxol and Topotecan.

Unfortunately, herbal medicine misuse is also increasing: on the side of suppliers who extend their profits with adulterated products or simply are not trained to recognize raw herbs properly, a growing pack of “herbalists” with no medical training and most frequently of all, misuse on the part of consumers armed only with the internet and an herbal encyclopedia, but no understanding of chemical interactions, contraindications or diagnostic skills.  Consumer misuse generally rises from one of two states:

  • An innate belief that herbal medicine doesn’t actually have power, which manifests as assumptions that herbal remedies are safe because they are “natural.”
  • An innate belief that herbal medicine is all-powerful, which often manifests as fear of taking a therapeutic level dose and/or persisting in taking an herbal remedy which is not working.

Herbal medicines do not work because they are magic natural pixie dust, they work because plants contain specific chemicals and chemical cocktails that cause changes in the body.  One person may have high blood pressure and another low blood pressure, but neither should blindly take an herbal product because it says “heart health” on the label: they may get the opposite effect they need.

This post was inspired by a story I heard recently.  The story is second-hand and may not contain all the exact details, but I’ll treat is as-is for the purposes of the example.  A mother has a young infant who has been agitated, crying and having difficulty breathing due to congestion for two weeks.  The mother posts in a forum online that she has been rubbing the infant’s throat and chest with rosemary essential oil, but is looking for other suggestions of essential oils with which to treat the child.

In this example, we see a) an innate belief that the herbal treatment must be safe, b) the belief that a particular treatment must be effective despite all evidence to the contrary, c) the application of the wrong treatment d) the wrong method of dosing anyway, and e) very likely an overdose given the dangerous concentration of chemicals in essential oils applied to an infant, causing stomach, intestinal and kidney irritation.

This is a thorough case of herbal medicine misuse although the mother has the best of intentions.  The child is being treated with a concentrated transdermal and inhalant application of a nervous and circulatory stimulant, which will not help with the pain and congestion but will make it difficult for the infant to rest.  It may be making the situation worse by increasing the child’s distress.  In this case, the consumer is misreading the “uses” of rosemary listed because she doesn’t understand what the chemicals do, and how and in what situations it would have the desired effect.  At two weeks it is long past time to seek professional help when dealing with an infant.

Don’t be an herbal misuser.  If you wish to make herbal remedies part of your health care practices, seek out a qualified practitioner or a training class.  If this is beyond your means, some science-based or reputable links are given below to get you started.

University of Maryland Medical Center
NYU Langone Medical Center
Henriette’s Herbal
PDR for Herbal Medicine
Google Scholar (in lieu of regular web searching, but still use care and judgement evaluating sources)
Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians
The Practice of Pharmacy (1886)

Future of the City: Huntsville, AL


Thursday morning, I attended the 28th Annual Future of the City Symposium, hosted by Alabama A&M University.  Citizen attendance was exceptionally low — so low, that I am not sure if I was actually the only private citizen there.  A variety of presenters from city governance and private entities discussed their points of view on the topic “Planning Healthy, Livable, Sustainable Communities.”

“Healthy” and “Sustainable” are loaded terms which mean very different things to different parties, so the subject matter was not well focused, and lacking the presence of major stakeholders in the audience like private developers, investors and citizens, the entire morning most resembled a lecture to the urban planning students that made up the majority of the audience.  I was also disappointed that questions regarding food systems (from myself and others) were not ever directly answered.

For many years now, I have been attending events for the City of Huntsville where there has been a lot of talk regarding sustainability, but thus far I have seen very little positive action in that direction.  Meanwhile permits for exceptionally unsustainable projects like productive farmland being converted to monstrous housing developments miles from shopping and work continue unabated.

Very soon, the City of Huntsville will be holding citizen input sessions as a prerequisite to developing a new long range city plan.  If you care about resilient local food systems, preserving open space, economic diversity, sustainable living and quality of life issues, and either live, work, shop in or routinely visit Huntsville, I hope you will take part in these planning sessions.  A few years ago I attended the sessions for the City of Madison’s plan, and they were very organized and productive.  Huntsville’s new Manager of Urban and Long Range Planning, Dennis Madsen, was a part of the firm Urban Collage that worked on those planning sessions, so I am optimistic that they will be equally productive for Huntsville.

Starting seeds the lazy way

seed starting, seedlings

Practically every store has ramped up their gardening section by now with brightly colored plastic pots and gaudy yard art, cheap imported tools in adult and child sizes, racks of seeds and of course the ubiquitous flimsy plastic seed starting kits with peat pellets.

There are three main problems with these kits.  One, they aren’t a good value.  They are more expensive than other methods, and they rarely last past 2 or 3 seasons while you buy refill pellets, at which point you have to buy another kit.  Two, peat is not a sustainable resource: peat bogs develop much, much more slowly than we harvest them.

And three: they are a lot more work than people think.  Those peat pellets, ranging from small to painfully tiny are just not enough root space, so you will have to re-pot them rather rapidly.  That’s not only extra work, but each time fragile seedlings are handled, there is the potential to damage them.

So why not be lazy and start them in their final sized pots before transplanting in the garden?

If you go this route, you can’t use a seed starting mix, because it won’t contain the nutrition the plants need once they are past the seedling stage.  I use regular potting soil with the big chunks screened out.  Potting soil without fertilizer is preferred, but it’s also acceptable to use it with a mild timed release fertilizer — you risk burning your seedlings if the growing media contains fertilizer before they are ready for it.  Any old pot will do.  Re-purposed cottage cheese containers.  Mayonnaise jars with the lip cut off.  Old nursery pots.  Any vessel where the plant can come out safely and is big enough to hold a healthy root system until transplant time will work.  Since many of my old nursery pots were cracked beyond repair this year, I supplemented with old paper cups that I can compost later.

Otherwise, I follow regular protocol.  The pots go in a warm (75-80F), humid place.  For me that’s in an old aquarium in my boiler room.  An old fish tank light is turned on for the seeds that require light to germinate.  Once the seedlings have sprouted, they get moved to a cooler place (65-70F) under a bright light.  I use a cheap shop light with 6500k florescent tubes.  On those warmer days of spring, they spend the warmest part of the day outdoors in the shade with plenty of indirect light, bringing them indoors if nighttime temps will drop below 50F.  Finally, when the soil is warm enough and danger of frost is past, they get hardened off and then go out into the garden.

I have heard it said that seedlings do better if they are kept in small pots and slowly upgraded, but I cannot find any factual foundation for that claim.  In my personal experience, I have never encountered any difficulty NOT starting them in tiny containers, and the inevitable volunteer seedlings in my garden and compost pile don’t seem to feel the lack.

So I stick with my lazy way.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) tea

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is an evergreen vine native to the southeastern United States which grows in sunny woodland edges and in clearings where it can get enough sun.  It climbs pretty much anything except a solid surface using twining tendrils with holdfasts like suction cups on the ends.  It is sometimes grown as an ornamental since it has showy orange trumpet-shaped flowers for a brief period in the summer that are attractive to hummingbirds.

Crossvine blooming

Crossvine blooming

In the summer, the leaves and stems are mostly green, however in the winter the undersides of the leaves and stems turn purple.  It is a very common plant and really stands out when the woods are brown and barren in the winter.  If foraging for this plant, it is very important not to confuse it with the red-flowered Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) or Carolina Jasmine.  Trumpet Creeper is called Cow Itch because it causes rashes and skin irritation in many people.  Cow Itch fortunately looks quite different once you know what to look for, and is deciduous instead of evergreen.  Carolina Jasmine is evergreen and highly toxic, but looks quite different.  The key to identifying Crossvine with certainty is the cross-like stem arrangement.  It has compound leaves with only two leaflets plus a modified leaflet that is a tendril, which are opposite each other.

Crossvine detail

Crossvine detail

The leaves themselves are what we are after for tea.  Some of the Native American tribes of the southeast used crossvine for a number of medical uses.  Knowledge about the plant was passed to African slaves but largely fell out of use.  Tommie Bass learned of the plant and used it to get overworked, exhausted mules and horses back on their feet, then on similarly exhausted women, and among a few herbalists in the southeast it continues to be used as an adaptogen and to boost energy.  (Yes, it works for men, too.)  Given the uncommon use of this plant, it is unlikely any pharmaceutical trials will be performed on the plant, but we do know the plant contains reserpine.  Reserpine reduces blood pressure and may reduce heart rate, and is used as an anti-pyschotic.  From the International Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemical Research 2012; 4(3); 89-91:

Subjective accounts of the effects of ingesting an infusion of three dried leaves of B. capreolata daily over three days describe it as energizing (this dose represents about 0.35g of dried leaf containing approximately 85 μg reserpine).  While this is not necessarily a reported effect of reserpine administration, it is possible that alterations in sympathetic tone caused by reserpine could promote restfulness and feelings of rejuvenation. Still, it seems more likely that the unique effects of B. capreolata are due to a synergistic effect of reserpine and other, unidentified constituents.

So in a nutshell, it works, but we don’t really know why.  Modest intake is suggested due to the potential side effects of reserpine.  All the contraindications of reserpine apply: do not take if pregnant or nursing, if you have low blood pressure, or if you are on any blood pressure or anti-psychotic drugs.

To make Crossvine tea, bring water to a gentle boil, reduce heat and then add about 2 or 3 leaves.  (Don’t boil the leaves.)  Infuse for several minutes.  The tea is mild tasting.  It can be drunk hot or cold,and if you make a larger batch it can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and consumed as iced tea.