Friday, December 12, 2014

Flower Power: Helianthus annuus / Sunflower

Sunflowers, lifting our spirits towards the sunlight when lost in shadows.

Sunflowers are heliotropic, which means, during their early growth stage their flower heads follow the sun. Their genus, Helianthus, comes from the greek word Hēlios, which means sun. Talk about some golden energy! As they mature they will not follow the sun but they almost always face east throughout the rest of their lifespan.

Because they are so easy to grow from 'seed to harvest' they're great for beginning gardeners. Sunflowers happily host several pollinators, from loads of bees enjoying pollen to birds enjoying seeds, thus making them great for your garden's ecosystem.

Seeds almost ready for harvest. 
Sunflowers have been used for food, medicine and dye by indigenous folk for thousands of years and were held sacred by the Aztecs.

The seeds alone contain a wealth of nourishment and can provide one with sustained energy when feeling sluggish. I always make sure to have some sunflower seeds in my purse or backpack when out and about. They contain disease prevention vitamins, essential fats, minerals and one of the things to be noted is that sunflower seeds contain arginine, an important amino acid. Arginine helps blood vessels expand more because of the increase of nitric oxide they provide. Sunflower seeds also have expectorant and diuretic properties making them great for coughs and colds. You can make a cough syrup out of them by roasting them a bit, boiling them in water with sugar or honey, strain and then add a little bit of brandy.

The flower stalk is also great for soil. Save them for a fire and then save the ash for your soil. The ash contains high levels of potash. 

Seed harvest with my niece. 
Sunflowers are also bioremediators! They were planted in Chernobyl to pull up radioactive soil contaminants. I think this is one of the most important things to remember when growing and working with sunflowers. In past composting classes I've taken it's been suggested to be sure that you are growing sunflowers, tomatoes, and certain squashes (bioremediators) in healthy soil even when composting them. So, I would consider the soil health before consuming seeds and using any other parts of the plant as medicine as well.

Sources: Herbs to Know: Sunflowers,
 A Modern Herbal: Sunflower,

Friday, November 28, 2014

Flower Power: Eschscholzia Californica / CA Poppy

Eschscholzia californica, painting the west coast golden! California’s state flower was the first to be named in the Eschscholzia genus and was given that name by Adelbert von Chamisso, a German botanist, in the mid 1810s after finding it in San Francisco while on a scientific expedition aboard Rurik, a Russion ship. He named it after his friend Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a Baltic botanist, who was also on the expedition. But of course Native Americans used this plant long before any visitors came exploring. They used every part of the plant, for medicine and food.  

There are so many reasons why this flower holds so much power. From healing properties to ecosystem health, it’s a great plant to have in any California or Southwestern garden.

After spreading CA poppy seeds in our yard years ago from a wildflower mix they proved to be the most resilient variety and have kept coming back year after year with larger populations.

Fresh CA poppy harvest from our home garden. 

They are one of the best plants to scatter over sheet mulch to get your landscaping canvass to the next phase. It’s best to scatter seeds before a long rain to get them well established. They will grow in slightly compacted and well-drained soil as well as sun and shade. I’ve found that the roots help aerate compacted soil. She is happier in the sun and well-drained soil though. If you let them go to seed, year after year, you’re seed bank will grow and you’ll have more and more poppies growing in your yard. They require no watering once established.

One of her characteristics that I love so much is coolness. I’ve been known to lie down amongst them to feel and enjoy their cool, peaceful and moistening environment. Sometimes that’s all you need to receive the healing qualities of plants, simply spend some time with them.

Speaking of healing, this past year, I intentionally grew CA poppies to tincture. I scattered seeds within one of our garden beds, which has richer and more well drained soil so the poppy’s roots could get nice and big and I tended to them by watering a bit more than usual.

Poppy roots, leaves, buds and flowers in high-proof vodka.

CA poppy is a relaxant nervine and antispasmodic amongst other things. The tincture has helped me with many sleepless nights from quieting a busy mind, aiding in acute nerve pain, and dulling PMS cramps. It doesn’t ‘knock me out’ but after I take 2-3 droppers full, about an hour before bedtime, once I finally fall asleep, my sleep will be undisturbed and quite comfy. I never wake up drowsy from it, which is the first question I always get. I’ve found it acts as a great bitter too stimulating the digestive system. I really like it cause it’s a rather gentle medicine that is even safe to use with children.

Learn more about the healing properties of CA poppies by checking out this article by Kiva Rose, Aztec Gold: The Medicine of the Mexican Poppy
And here’s another great piece on CA poppy’s healing qualities by Rebecca Altman, California poppy: Eschscholzia californica

CA Poppy tincture on left and macerated poppies on right. This was after about 3 weeks. 

You can purchase CA poppies from Native Seed Search, here. Or wait till Spring when I’ll have some for trade or sale. If interested, please fill out my contact form on my About Me page and I’ll put you on my poppy seed wishlist.

Here's a video that shows you how to harvest CA poppies with some great educational commentary courtesy of Herb Mentor.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Flower Power - Nigella Damascena / Love-in-a-mist

I met Love-in-a-mist, Nigella damascena, an annual flowering plant in the Ranunculaceae family that originates from Southern Europe, North Africa and Southeast Asia, a few years ago. It was the 'free pack' of seeds I received with a larger seed order from Baker Creek Heirloom. I scattered the seeds in one of our raised beds and forgot about them until the following year when they decided to sprout on their own. The flower itself is gorgeous and once established it didn’t need much water. Which seemed to be the case for many after reading the reviews on Baker Creek's website. When found in its native habit it grows in neglected soil. I've seen folks go back and forth on whether or not the seeds of this particular variety are edible, but Nigella sativa, damascena's cousin in the one that has edible healing seeds known as black cumin. 

Nigella damascena seed pod. 
Nigella damascena's cousin Nigella sativa, I discovered when trying to ID the two, has great healing properties found in its seed that date back centuries! First recorded use dates back to the Egyptians and it's known as the 'Seed of Blessing' in Arabic cultures.  

"There is healing in black seed (al-habbah al-sawdā) for all diseases except death" - Arab Proverb

Black cumin which is Nigella Sativa's seeds, produces secretion of insulin from the pancreas and helps balance out the sensitivity of insulin in skeletal muscles, liver cells and also increases glucose uptake by muscular tissues. The phytonutrient, thymoquinone is the key factor in black cumin’s glucose-lowering effect. This is just one of many healing actions. 
          Wikipedia Image

Black cumin has a much more subtle flavor than brown cumin. It carries a fennel aroma and sweeter caraway flavor. Black cumin is used in Northern Indian, North African and the Middle Eastern dishes. It's often added to chutneys, curries, meat dishes, rice dishes, breads, and yogurt to give you an idea of how to incorporate it into your diet. 

And now back to Nigella damascena. She was slow to start but proved to be resilient with little to no water. Her flowers will stop you in your tracks but pollinators don't seem to care much for her. I have seen a few parasitic wasps hanging around her petals. The dried flower pods are so very pretty and look darling in bouquets are as decor. I used some of mine as gift-wrapping decor. Of course I would decorate with plants! 

You can purchase Nigella damascena seeds through Baker Creek, here

You can purchase Nigella sativa seeds through Horizon Herbs, here


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mesophilic vs. Thermophilic Composting

This spring I had the pleasure of attending several Nance Klehm workshops hosted by The Ranch at The Huntington Library and Gardens. The first series was on two different methods of composting and the second series was on bioremediation. I'll try my best at covering some of the basics she went over when discussing and involving us in creating mesophilic and thermophilic compost piles. 

Fellow class member checking the temp a week after.  
The mesophilic compost approach, pictured above, is basically a low-maintenance in-ground composting method. We used this approach in our garden and its worked out the best for us, just need to make some minor adjustments by digging a little deeper and wider. You can always tend to it more to get it hotter sooner, but the idea is for it to also be low-maintenance. This in-ground pile's temperature will range from 68-113 F. 

Now, time for thermophilic compost building with Nance Klehm. We started by layering carbon and nitrogen in an eye-pleasing circular design, see below. Like a compost cake! This is a more common composting method. 

Layering carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) and watering whilst doing so.
The thermophilic compost cake we created the previous week, pictured below, was at about 120 F degrees and sections went anaerobic due to too much greens in ratio to carbon, will be aided by adding in more carbon. The mesophilic compost pile (in ground) we created smelled better, see second photo above. I think mesophilic was around 110-113 F degrees outside to center. 

One week in. 

How hot is too hot before you should start worrying about sterile compost? Nance says around 145 F.

Ask any and all composting questions below and I'll try my best at answering.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Today is International Day of Biological Diversity!

To celebrate International Day of Biological Diversity Slow Food International released this video about the Slow Food Ark of Taste - "an online catalogue collecting endangered food flavors, knowledge and traditions from around the world". Learn how big agriculture is changing our nation's diets and how you can help save precious varieties. I could totally picture students utilizing the online catalogue as a service learning project in several ways. Don't let the recipes and flavors of our ancestors be lost forever! Support this great effort by researching varieties important to you, visiting your local farmers market, grow and/or support local heirloom growers and by simply sharing the message. Learn more on how you can contribute to this important mission by clicking, here